Conferences gear up for November sweepstakes
Say what you want about the Bowl Championship Series, but the much-maligned system might give us one heck of a finish in its final season of existence.
As the calendar turns to November this week, only one of the six major conference races seems to be decided. Two big in-state rivalries -- Michigan versus Michigan State and Florida State versus Miami -- will help shake out their respective league races Saturday. Then we'll enjoy perhaps the greatest Thursday night in regular-season history on Nov. 7, when No. 10 Oklahoma plays at No. 6 Baylor and No. 2 Oregon plays at No. 5 Stanford.
Two days later, No. 1 Alabama hosts No. 13 LSU in Tuscaloosa, which might be the Crimson Tide's most difficult test of the season.
With six weeks to go in the regular season, here's a closer look at the BCS conference championship races:
Contenders: Houston: 6-1 (3-0)
UCF: 6-1 (3-0)
Louisville: 7-1 (3-1)
Cincinnati: 5-2 (2-1)
The No. 23 Knights seized control of the American race by upsetting then-No. 8 Louisville 38-35 on Oct. 18, rallying from a 28-7 deficit in the third quarter to stun the Cardinals in their first season in the newly formed league. The Knights rolled Connecticut 62-17 on Saturday and play Houston at home on Nov. 9. They don't play Cincinnati during the regular season and their remaining American games after Houston are against Temple (road), Rutgers (home), USF (home) and SMU (road).
Dark horse: Houston
Few FBS coaches have done a better job this season than Houston's Tony Levine, who bounced back after his team went 5-7 in his first season as Kevin Sumlin's replacement in 2012. The Cougars' only loss was a 47-46 defeat vs. BYU on Oct. 19. Houston plays at UCF in two weeks and at No. 20 Louisville on Nov. 16, so its remaining schedule is much more difficult than UCF's.
Games that might decide the American title: Houston at UCF, Nov. 9
Predicted champion: UCF
Contenders: Florida State: 7-0 (5-0)
Clemson: 7-1 (5-1)
Favorite: Florida State
Thanks to a 51-14 rout at then-No. 3 Clemson on Oct. 19, the No. 3 Seminoles are in the driver's seat in the Atlantic Division. If FSU beats No. 7 Miami at home on Saturday, it will all but punch its ticket to the ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C. on Dec. 7. After playing the Hurricanes, the Seminoles' remaining ACC games are against Wake Forest (road) and Syracuse (home). FSU has shown us over the first eight weeks that it's less likely to have an unexpected hiccup than it was in the past.
Dark horse: Clemson
The No. 8 Tigers essentially need FSU lose to twice in ACC competition to win the division because of their earlier head-to-head loss. But if Clemson wins out and finishes 11-1, it might be in prime position to earn an at-large bid to a BCS bowl game.
Games that might decide the Atlantic title: Miami at Florida State, Saturday
Predicted champion: Florida State
Contenders: Miami: 7-0 (3-0)
Virginia Tech 6-2 (3-1)
Georgia Tech 5-3 (4-2)
Duke 6-2 (2-2)
Even if the Hurricanes lose at Florida State on Saturday, they'll still have a chance to win the division if they can beat the Hokies at home on Nov. 9 and don't slip up in their final three ACC games: Duke (road), Virginia (home) and Pittsburgh (road). The Hokies' stunning 13-10 loss to Duke at home on Saturday gave the Hurricanes a little margin for error, as long as they win their head-to-head matchup against Virginia Tech.
Dark horse: Duke
The Blue Devils' surprising win at Virginia Tech -- their first over the Hokies since 1981 and first over an Associated Press Top 25 foe since 1994 -- gives them a sliver of hope of winning the division. At worst, the Blue Devils are poised to play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Duke hosts Miami on Nov. 16, and a victory over the Hurricanes would leave it in pretty good shape to win the division.
Games that might decide the Coastal title: Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 9
Predicted champion: Miami
Predicted ACC champion: Florida State
Contenders: Baylor: 7-0 (4-0)
Texas: 5-2 (4-0)
Oklahoma: 7-1 (4-1)
Texas Tech: 7-1 (4-1)
Oklahoma State: 6-1 (3-1)
We're about to find out how good the No. 6 Bears really are. Baylor has been absolutely dominant this season against less-than-stellar competition, scoring 70 points or more in four of seven games and 59 points or more in all but one. Even more impressive, the Bears allowed 14 points or fewer in five of seven contests. But the competition is about to get a lot more difficult, starting with a Nov. 7 home game against No. 10 Oklahoma. Then the Bears play No. 15 Texas Tech (home), No. 18 Oklahoma State (road), TCU (road) and Texas (home) to close the regular season.
Dark horse: Texas
Remember when Texas fans were ready to get rid of longtime coach Mack Brown after back-to-back losses to BYU and Ole Miss in September? Now the Longhorns have won four games in a row, including an impressive 30-7 rout at TCU on Saturday. UT's winning streak might reach six in a row if it doesn't slip up against Kansas (home) and West Virginia (road), but its final three Big 12 games -- Oklahoma State (home), Texas Tech (home) and Baylor (road) -- will probably determine whether Brown returns for a 17th season in Austin.
Games that might decide the Big 12 title: Oklahoma at Baylor, Nov. 7
Predicted champion: Baylor
Big Ten Leaders
Contenders: Ohio State: 8-0 (4-0)
Wisconsin: 5-2 (3-1)
Favorite: Ohio State
It would be absolutely stunning if the No. 4 Buckeyes didn't win the division. They probably earned a lot of respect nationally after their 63-14 rout of Penn State this past weekend, which was easily their most dominant performance of the season. The Buckeyes' next three games should be cakewalks: Purdue (road), Illinois (road) and Indiana (home), before wrapping up the regular season at No. 21 Michigan in "The Game." The Buckeyes have to hope that two of the top three teams in the BCS standings -- No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 FSU -- lose if they're going to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
Dark horse: Wisconsin
It would be an absolute shame if the No. 24 Badgers' 32-30 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 14, in which officials bungled the clock in the final seconds and prevented them from attempting a game-winning field goal, keeps them out of a BCS bowl game. The Badgers lost at Ohio State 31-24 on Sept. 28, so OSU will have to lose twice for Wisconsin to win the division. But if Wisconsin wins its final five games -- road trips to Iowa on Saturday and at Minnesota on Nov. 23 might be tricky -- it would possibly be in line for a BCS at-large berth.
Games that might decide the Leaders title: Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30
Predicted champion: Ohio State
Big Ten Legends
Contenders: Michigan State: 7-1 (4-0)
Michigan: 6-1 (2-1)
Nebraska: 5-2 (2-1)
Iowa: 5-3 (2-2)
Minnesota: 6-2 (2-2)
Favorite: Michigan State
The No. 22 Spartans have already defeated Iowa 26-14 on Oct. 5 and they play No. 21 Michigan at home on Saturday and Minnesota at home on Nov. 30. Michigan State is really good on defense, allowing only 12.3 points per game, third-fewest among FBS teams, and they're getting better on offense. The Spartans have scored 40 points or more in two of their last three games, including a 42-3 rout at Illinois on Saturday.
Dark horse: Minnesota
The Gophers' surprising 34-23 win over Nebraska on Saturday -- their first victory over the Cornhuskers since 1960 -- puts them in the thick of the Legends Division race, as improbable as it might seem. Minnesota has played the last three games without coach Jerry Kill, who has taken a leave of absence to manage his epilepsy. The Gophers play two of their three most difficult remaining Big Ten games at home: against Penn State on Nov. 9 and Wisconsin on Nov. 23, before closing the regular season at Michigan State.
Games that might decide the Legends title: Michigan at Michigan State, Saturday
Predicted champion: Michigan State
Predicted Big Ten champion: Ohio State
Contenders: Oregon: 8-0 (5-0)
Stanford: 7-1 (5-1)
Oregon State: 6-2 (4-1)
The Ducks passed a major hurdle on Saturday, when they scored 28 consecutive points in the second half to blow out then-No. 12 UCLA 42-14 at Autzen Stadium. Now Oregon will have two weeks to prepare for a Nov. 7 road game against No. 5 Stanford, which will all but decide the North Division title. The Cardinal knocked the Ducks out of the running for the BCS National Championship last season, upsetting then-No. 2 Oregon 17-14 at Autzen Stadium on Nov. 17, 2012. Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson hit a 37-yarder in overtime to end a two-game losing streak to Oregon. The Ducks close the regular season at home against Oregon State in the Civil War on Nov. 29.
Dark horse: Stanford
The Cardinal's 27-21 loss at unranked Utah on Oct. 12 will probably be remembered as the biggest head-scratcher of the 2013 season. Since losing to the Utes, Stanford beat then-No. 9 UCLA 24-10 at home and then-No. 25 Oregon State 20-12 on the road on Saturday. The Cardinal are physical enough to slow down Oregon, especially at home, where they've won 13 consecutive games and 11 of 12 games against ranked foes since 2009. After hosting the Ducks, Stanford plays at USC on Nov. 16, followed by home games against California and No. 25 Notre Dame.
Games that might decide the North title: Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7
Predicted champion: Oregon
Contenders: Arizona State: 5-2 (3-1)
Arizona: 5-2 (2-2)
UCLA: 5-2 (2-2)
USC: 5-3 (2-2)
Favorite: Arizona State
The Sun Devils already have a pair of impressive Pac-12 wins under their belts: 62-41 over USC on Sept. 28 and 53-24 over then-No. 20 Washington on Oct. 19. ASU plays three of its final five games on the road, including trips to Washington State on Thursday, at Utah on Nov. 9 and at UCLA on Nov. 23. But the Sun Devils play Oregon State at home and Arizona at home in the Nov. 30 finale. If the Pac-12 South race comes down to the final weekend of the regular season, home-field advantage might end up being huge.
Dark horse: UCLA
Sure, the Bruins have dropped consecutive games against Stanford and Oregon, but they're still a very good team. If UCLA can get some starters back on its offensive line, it will still have a chance to win the division. The Bruins play three of their final five games at home, including back-to-back contests against Washington and Arizona State.
Games that might decide the South title: Arizona at Arizona State, Nov. 30
Predicted champion: UCLA
Predicted Pac-12 champion: Oregon
Contenders: Missouri: 7-1 (3-1)
South Carolina: 6-2 (4-2)
Florida: 4-3 (3-2)
Georgia: 4-3 (3-2)
The Tigers might need a few days to recover from Saturday's stunning 27-24 loss to South Carolina in two overtimes, in which they blew a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter and lost after kicker Andrew Baggett clanked a 24-yard field goal off the left upright in the second overtime. But Missouri still has a one-game lead in the East Division standings and its remaining schedule is manageable. The Tigers host Tennessee on Saturday and play at woebegone Kentucky on Nov. 9. After a bye week, the Tigers play at Ole Miss on Nov. 23 and host No. 12 Texas A&M on Nov. 30. If the Tigers regroup, they're still the team to beat in the East.
Dark horse: South Carolina
Injured quarterback Connor Shaw saved the Gamecocks' hopes of winning the East Division by coming off the bench in the fourth quarter and leading them to a come-from-behind victory. The Gamecocks still trail the Tigers by one game in the standings, but they only have two remaining SEC games: home against Mississippi State on Saturday and Florida on Nov. 16. The Tigers have more opportunities for slip-ups down the stretch, and the Gamecocks would have the advantage in a head-to-head tiebreaker.
Games that might decide the East title: Texas A&M at Missouri, Nov. 30
Predicted champion: South Carolina
Contenders: Alabama: 8-0 (5-0)
Auburn: 7-1 (3-1)
LSU: 7-2 (3-2)
Texas A&M: 6-2 (3-2)
Sure, the two-time defending BCS national champions haven't played murderer's row this season, but has anyone been more dominant over the past two months? Since beating then-No. 6 Texas A&M 49-42 on the road on Sept. 14, Alabama has defeated its last six opponents by a combined score of 246-26, including a 45-10 rout of Tennessee on Saturday. The Tide will get their biggest test of the season when they host No. 13 LSU on Nov. 9. They close the regular season at No. 11 Auburn in the Nov. 30 Iron Bowl.
Dark horse: Auburn
As strange as it might sound after a 3-9 debacle (0-8 in the SEC) last season, the Tigers actually have as much control of the SEC West race as Alabama. Under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, the Tigers are off to a surprising 7-1 start, with their only loss coming at then-No. 6 LSU, a 35-21 defeat on Sept. 21. The Tigers have won four games in a row, and they'll have to survive road trips to Arkansas and Tennessee the next two weeks, before closing the regular season with home games against Georgia and Alabama.
Games that might decide the West title: LSU at Alabama, Nov. 9
Predicted champion: Alabama
Predicted SEC champion: Alabama
Oregon running back Byron Marshall, a sophomore from San Jose, Calif., might make it difficult for De'Anthony Thomas to regain his starting job, even after he's completely recovered from a sprained ankle. Marshall ran 19 times for 133 yards with three touchdowns in the No. 2 Ducks' 42-14 win over then-No. 12 UCLA at Autzen Stadium on Saturday night. After the score was tied at 14 at the half, Oregon's offense broke the game open in the second half. Marshall has gained more than 100 rushing yards in five consecutive games and six of eight contests overall this season.
Vote: Next week's game-changer?
On The Mark: Precision Passers
1. Garrett Gilbert, SMU
Gilbert passed for a school-record 538 yards and was responsible for six touchdowns in SMU's 59-49 win against Temple. His 635 yards of total offense were the seventh-most in FBS history and the most since Geno Smith had 687 in a win against Baylor on Sept. 29, 2012.
2. David Fales, San Jose State
Fales had careers highs in passing yards (482) and passing touchdowns (five) in San Jose State's 51-44 win against Wyoming. He scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. It was his fifth straight game with at least 300 pass yards, tied with Bryce Petty for the longest active streak in the FBS.
3. Bryce Petty, Baylor
Petty passed for a career-high 430 yards and was responsible for four touchdowns in Baylor's 59-14 win at Kansas. He had a Total QBR of 92.4. It was his sixth game with a Total QBR of at least 90 this season, tied with Oregon's Marcus Mariota for the most such games in the FBS.
4. Connor Shaw, South Carolina
Shaw passed for 201 yards and three touchdowns in South Carolina's 27-24 overtime win at Missouri. He first entered the game with 6:46 remaining in the third quarter and the Gamecocks trailing by 17 points. It was the third time this season that a team overcame a 17-point deficit in the second half. Rutgers did it against Arkansas and UCF did it against Louisville.
5. John O'Korn, Houston
O'Korn, a true freshman, passed for 364 yards and five touchdowns in Houston's 49-14 win at Rutgers. It was the second game in which he passed for at least 300 yards and four touchdowns without throwing an interception, tied for the most such games in the FBS this season with five other players.
On The Mark: Ground-Gaining RBs
1. Bishop Sankey, Washington
Sankey had 27 carries for a career-high 241 yards and two touchdowns in Washington's 41-17 win against California. He has 1,162 rush yards this season, second-most in the nation behind Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews (1,180). He is the fourth Washington player to rush for at least 1,000 yards in multiple seasons, joining Napoleon Kaufman (1992, '93, '94), Chris Polk (2009, '10, '11) and Greg Lewis (1989, '90).
2. Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State
Roland had career highs in carries (26), rushing yards (219) and rushing touchdowns (four) in Oklahoma State's 58-27 win at Iowa State. He entered the game with 36 rushes for 147 yards and two touchdowns this season. His 58-yard touchdown in the third quarter was the longest run of his three-year career.
3. Duke Johnson, Miami
Johnson had a career-high 30 carries for 168 yards and two touchdowns in Miami's 24-21 win against Wake Forest. He scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 53 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. It was his sixth career ACC game with at least 100 yards. He has one such game out of conference.
4. Branden Oliver, Buffalo
Oliver had 31 carries for 185 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in Buffalo's 41-21 win at Kent State. It was his 16th game with at least 100 rush yards, tied for the third-most by an active FBS player.
5. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford
Gaffney had 22 carries for 145 yards and a career-high three touchdowns in Stanford's 20-12 win at Oregon State. It was his fifth game with at least 100 rushing yards this season. He had one such game in his first three seasons.
On The Mark: Big-Play WRs
1. Keenan Holman, SMU
Holman had 10 receptions for a career-high 209 yards in SMU's 59-49 win against Temple. He had receiving touchdowns of 64, 50 and 19 yards. He is one of six players this season who have at least two touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more in a game.
2. Robbie Anderson, Temple
Anderson had a career-high nine receptions for a school-record 239 receiving yards in Temple's 59-49 loss at SMU. The previous school record was 214 yards held by Van Johnson against Pittsburgh in 1996. Anderson had a 42-yard touchdown and an 83-yard touchdown on back-to-back plays for the Owls in the first quarter. The junior entered the game with 10 career receptions for 134 yards and no touchdowns.
3. Odell Beckham, LSU
Beckham had six receptions for a career-high 204 yards in LSU's 48-16 win against Furman. It the most receiving yards by an LSU player since Josh Reed had 239 in the 2002 Sugar Bowl against Illinois. Beckham has 17 receptions of 25 yards or more, tied for the second-most in the FBS, including a career-high four against Furman.
4. Jordan Taylor, Rice
Taylor had four receptions for a career-high 185 yards and three touchdowns in Rice's 45-7 win against UTEP. He had receiving touchdowns of 72, 60 and 23 yards. He averaged 46.3 yards per reception, the highest for any FBS player with at least four catches in a game this season.
5. Jaydon Mickens, Washington
Mickens had six receptions for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns in Washington's 41-17 win against California. It was his second career 100-yard receiving game and his first career game with multiple touchdowns.
On The Mark
We already knew South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw was a tough SOB, but what he did against Missouri on Saturday night will cement his place among the Gamecocks' most beloved players. A week after spraining his knee in a surprising loss at Tennessee, Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter to lead South Carolina back from a 17-0 deficit. After doing nothing behind backup quarterback Dylan Thompson, the Gamecocks scored on five of six possessions with Shaw on the field, including his 2-yard touchdown pass to Nick Jones, which tied the score at 17 with 42 seconds left in regulation. After falling behind 24-17 in the first overtime, Shaw threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington on fourth down to tie the score again. The Gamecocks won after Missouri's Andrew Baggett missed a 24-yard field goal attempt off the left upright in the second overtime. Shaw completed 20 of 29 passes for 201 yards with three touchdowns, helping keep the Gamecocks alive in the SEC East race. "Connor wasn't going to let us lose that game, plain and simple," South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney told reporters after the game. "We rallied around him, and he rallied around us."
Off The Mark
Is Nebraska coach Bo Pelini back on the hot seat? The Cornhuskers lost to Minnesota for the first time since 1960 on Saturday, falling 34-23 to end their 16-game losing streak over the Gophers. Minnesota ran for 271 yards after falling behind 10-0 in the first half. It's the fifth season in a row that Nebraska has fallen to an unranked opponent. Earlier this season, Pelini's profane outburst regarding Nebraska fans was released by someone anonymously, causing the coach to pen a letter of apology. "We've got to do some soul-searching," Pelini said. "I don't know if we think we're better than we are or what it is." Former Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier, one of Pelini's biggest critics, poked the coach on Twitter again on Saturday: "Do I need to say anymore?"