The Essay Question
So much of college football’s bizarre -- sometimes endearing, but mostly bizarre -- system of ranking teams and determining a champion is based on the eye test. Style points matter, and they’ll always matter when you’re being judged. When others are also undefeated, it’s not enough to haphazardly flail your way to victory. You have to stick the landing. You have to smile proudly. You have to leave no doubt.
Notre Dame has left little doubt in its few convincing wins, a blowout of Miami and a 17-point victory at Oklahoma, but mostly the Fighting Irish have skirted by with dominant defense, suffocating opponents and taking advantage of their opportunities to edge teams in physical games, week after week.
There was 20-17 against Purdue, 20-3 against Michigan State, 13-6 against Michigan in the Big Ten phase of the season. There was 20-13 in overtime against Stanford with the help of a bad call. There was 17-14 against BYU. And, somehow, most dramatic of all, there was Saturday afternoon into Saturday night, an ugly 29-26 overtime win against Pittsburgh, the same Pitt team that opened its season by losing to Youngstown State by two touchdowns.
The Irish fell behind 10-6 at halftime. Both Everett Golson and Tommy Rees were intercepted, and ND trailed 20-6 into the fourth quarter. Pitt RB Ray Graham, charged with assault a day earlier, provided a challenge to Manti Te’o’s defense like no one else this year, running for 172 yards and a touchdown. Then the Irish magic started again, Golson successfully running QB draws, Golson finding T.J. Jones for a touchdown, Golson finding Theo Riddick for a touchdown, Golson running for the two-point conversion to tie the game after the previous extra point had been missed.
Then there was the Cierre Wood fumble in the second overtime, only to see Pitt miss a field goal that would have won the game. Then there was Golson’s one-yard QB sneak touchdown to win the game in the third overtime.
All of this is so absurdly tailor-made for the “Luck of the Irish” headlines, for “Wake Up the Echoes” narratives, for TV networks to get more mileage out of airing “Rudy.” Last week, we discussed the possibility of Notre Dame going undefeated and getting left out of the national title game, something that seems impossible at face value. The scenario is as real as ever now in November, after Kansas State won again convincingly, after Alabama and Oregon picked up their most important wins of the season.
Alabama, Oregon and even Kansas State aren’t the types to leave much doubt, especially against inferior opponents. After finally starting to eliminate doubt in Norman, Okla., Notre Dame was back at home, back to allowing those thoughts to creep into the minds of voters while Oregon and Kansas State raised their computer profiles with wins against quality opponents.
For better or worse, this is what college football is. Saturday was filled with some of the best drama of the season, and while Oregon-USC was fast-paced and LSU-Alabama was action-packed, Notre Dame-Pitt was an ugly a slog, but dramatic and gut-wrenching nonetheless. One of two things will happen: Notre Dame’s “luck,” if we can call it luck, given that great defense, will run out against Boston College (well, no), Wake Forest (probably not, but that’s what we said about Pitt) or USC (yeah, probably). Or, Notre Dame will stay unbeaten but outside the top two, making it one of the most controversial teams in BCS history. The latter would only be fitting. What’s the use of Notre Dame being “back” if it isn’t ridiculously polarizing and fit for dramatic nobody-believes-in-us narratives?
Alabama and Oregon are still the two best teams. We’ll go light here because you can go read Tommy Tomlinson on Oregon’s 62-51 win over USC and Chuck Culpepper on Alabama’s 21-17 win over LSU. But Alabama and Oregon were the two best teams at the start of the season, and not much has changed, aside from the surprising undefeated records of Kansas State and Notre Dame. Both the Crimson Tide and Ducks dominated inferior opponents over the first two months of the season, in different styles but with similar results. Finally, on the first Saturday in November, both faced their first truly big tests of the year. Alabama nearly blew its perfect season in Baton Rouge, but A.J. McCarron and a fantastic offensive line pulled it together at the end for a four-point win in arguably the most hostile environment in football. And Oregon gave up loads of yards to USC but stayed at least one step ahead all night thanks to the masterful running of Kenjon Barner, among others. Both teams have taken care of business and left no doubt against lesser opponents -- a mark of elite college football teams -- and both have successfully handled a punch in the mouth from their best foes. Yes, K-State and Notre Dame are unbeaten, but it would feel like some sort of crime if we don’t see Chip Kelly and the Oregon offense battle Nick Saban and the Alabama defense.
The Collin Klein watch is on. Bill Snyder doesn’t exactly like to share information with the media, and he was coy after Saturday night’s 44-30 win over Oklahoma State. Klein left the game in the third quarter, and Snyder refused to elaborate afterward. So for now we’re left waiting and wondering if Klein will be available when the Wildcats look to maintain their undefeated record in a fairly tough game next Saturday at TCU. Kansas State turned in another dominant performance against the Cowboys, forcing five turnovers and shutting down star running back Joseph Randle. But it’s fair to say that this team revolves around Klein, who’s a perfect match for Snyder and the centerpiece of this team. If he’s not 100 percent, the national championship picture changes.
The ACC is a two-team league. If there needs to be an ACC title game, can we please just have a Clemson-Florida State rematch? The first iteration was entertaining, and it’s painfully obvious that no one else in the league is capable of playing at a high level for multiple games. Saying this now, Florida State will probably go to Blacksburg on Thursday and lose to Virginia Tech, because that’s the kind of thing that happens in the ACC. But everything below the Seminoles and Tigers looks ugly. Virginia Tech is 4-5 after scoring 12 points in an empty Sun Life Stadium. Duke has lost by a total score of 107-27 against Florida State and Clemson despite forcing eight turnovers in those games. N.C. State lost 33-6 to a Virginia team that hadn’t won since Penn State missed four field goals in Week 2. Maryland was forced to use a linebacker at quarterback against Georgia Tech. We could be headed to a Florida State-Miami rematch in the ACC title game, which isn’t nearly as appealing as it would have been a decade ago.
West Virginia is broken. For a good portion of Saturday’s game against TCU, West Virginia’s much-maligned defense, plus special teams, kept its hopes alive. The Mountaineers forced three turnovers, and their only second-half touchdown came on a 76-yard punt return by Tavon Austin. Meanwhile, the Geno Smith-led offense that put up absurd numbers for the first half of the season sputtered, and Smith now averages 237.5 passing yards per game the last four games after averaging an absurd 432 the first four. The Air Raid has hit a snag, and West Virginia obviously can’t always rely on defense and special teams either. What happened after that Austin punt return? Josh Boyce caught a 94-yard TD pass from Trevone Boykin for TCU to send the game to overtime. Then a game-winning field goal attempt in the first overtime was blocked. Then TCU scored a touchdown and converted a two-pointer to win and leave West Virginia stunned with its third straight loss. The Mountaineers are 2-3 in their new conference and haven’t won since Oct. 6.
Yes, Louisville and Ohio State are still undefeated. It doesn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of college football this year, but the Cardinals and Buckeyes keep winning. Louisville received a scare from Temple (the great Matt Brown returned the opening kick 93 yards for a touchdown for the Owls), and the score was 17-17 early in the second quarter, but the Cardinals took control behind QB Teddy Bridgewater, who threw for 324 yards and five touchdowns. Throw in five takeaways by the Cardinals’ defense, and Louisville won 45-17 to move to 9-0. As for the Buckeyes, they played a dreadful Illinois team and cruised to victory despite a slow start. They scored 24 second-quarter points en route to a 52-22 win, and QB Braxton Miller finished with 226 passing yards, 73 rushing yards and three total touchdowns.
Grading the Rest of the Weekend
Round of applause for the Black Knights, who will play Navy in December in an attempt to win their first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since the glory days of Ronnie McAda in 1996. Army had beaten Air Force only once since then, but the Black Knights picked up their second win of the season on Saturday by rushing for 314 yards as a team and forcing five Falcons turnovers to win 41-21.
A: Texas A&M
Mississippi State’s status was inflated by its ridiculously weak first-half schedule, as it built a 7-0 record with its best win coming against Tennessee. But that takes away nothing from Texas A&M’s dominant effort in Starkville in a 38-13 win. Freshman sensation Johnny Manziel ripped a pretty good Bulldogs defense to shreds, completing 30 of 36 passes for 311 yards and rushing 21 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns. The Aggies ended the game more than doubling the Bulldogs’ offensive output, 693 to 310, setting up an intriguing matchup between Kevin Sumlin’s offense and Nick Saban’s defense in Tuscaloosa next week.
A-: San Diego State
Anyone who beats Boise State has to be in the “A” range, even if the Broncos are clearly rebuilding. The Aztecs edged the Broncos 21-19, creating a four-way tie in the loss column atop the Mountain West standings between San Diego State, Fresno State, Boise State and Air Force. Most remarkably, when the Aztecs went ahead 21-13, it marked the first time Boise State trailed by more than seven points since the 2007 Hawaii Bowl. In addition to the defense, credit goes to San Diego State’s Colin Lockett for returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
After a near-debacle at Kansas, the Longhorns discovered that they still have something left in the tank, as they went to Lubbock and came out with a solid 31-22 win over Texas Tech. David Ash recovered nicely from his brutal day in Lawrence, completing 11 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yarder to Mike Davis. Texas Tech did stage a comeback and get 329 passing yards from Seth Doege, but the Longhorns held the Red Raiders to only two touchdowns, which is a nice step forward from their other games against quality offenses.
B: Oregon State
The Beavers rebounded from their first loss of the season with a 36-26 win over Arizona State in Corvallis. Mike Riley put Cody Vaz back atop the QB depth chart, and, while he completed only 14 of 33 passes, he threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns and had two 100-yard receivers (Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton). Throw in 146 rushing yards from Terron Ward, and Oregon State has moved to 7-1 with a big trip to Stanford next.
For most of the first half, Oklahoma’s eventual 35-20 win at Iowa State appeared to be heading into SO PROUD territory. But it wasn’t to be, as Kenny Stills gave Oklahoma a 14-6 lead just before halftime, and the Sooners went on to recover from their Notre Dame loss with 405 yards and four touchdowns (plus a couple picks) from Landry Jones and 157 rushing yards and a touchdown from Brennan Clay.
Credit to the inevitable SEC East champs for at least playing one half of football on Saturday in Athens. The Bulldogs appeared on the verge of a massive letdown after their Cocktail Party victory, falling behind 10-0 in the second quarter to Ole Miss. However, the defense stepped up and shut down the Rebels, while QB Aaron Murray found a rhythm and threw for 384 yards and touchdowns of 66, 40, 42 and 23 yards, although he was frequently under pressure and sacked five times. All Georgia needs is a win at Auburn (which actually won… against 1-8 New Mexico State) next week to punch its ticket to Atlanta.
This is the Florida team we had grown used to the last couple years. After losing to Georgia last week, the Gators were sluggish against a Missouri team that has really struggled to adjust to life in the SEC. Florida managed only 276 yards in a 14-7 win, including only 106 passing yards from Jeff Driskel, but the talented Gators defense intercepted four James Franklin passes to seal a thoroughly mediocre win.
The good news: Tennessee put up 718 yards on offense, including 530 passing yards and five touchdowns from QB Tyler Bray. The bad news: Troy had more yards, putting up 721 (496 passing yards by two QBs). As if Derek Dooley’s job security wasn’t fragile enough, the Vols needed two touchdowns in the final three minutes to win 55-48 against the Sun Belt’s Trojans.
D+: Michigan State in close games
The Spartans can’t catch a break. This time they dealt with a controversial pass interference penalty that put Nebraska in position for the game-winning score. After losing 28-24 to Nebraska, Michigan State has now lost four Big Ten games by a total of 10 points, with its two wins coming by a total of seven points. Blame the refs all you want, but it doesn’t help that Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez had four total touchdowns (well, plus three interceptions) and ran for 205 yards against what has been a very good Spartans defense.
Since beating Michigan State 19-16 in double overtime, the Hawkeyes have dropped three straight, including a 24-21 loss to Indiana on Saturday. Hoosiers QBs Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld combined to throw for 406 yards. Iowa has now lost to Indiana and Central Michigan and barely escaped Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa.
Hello, basketball season. Kentucky lost 40-0 at home to Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt!). This is a pretty solid Vandy team, but nevertheless, getting shutout by the Commodores is never good for your job status. Maybe Joker Phillips is safe, though, because it’s possible nobody noticed what happened. Oh wait, they did notice.
Beating USC to move into the Top 25 was nice and all, but Arizona decided to avoid showing up against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, where it still has never played in the postseason. QB Matt Scott was shaken up for the second week in a row, and the Wildcats, who averaged 553 yards per game entering Saturday, managed only 257 against a weak UCLA defense. Plus, the Arizona defense was characteristically weak, giving up 303 passing yards and 308 rushing yards to the Bruins, who now lead the Pac-12 South.
Incomplete: Team That Played Colorado
This week’s winner? The Stanford Cardinal, who left Boulder with a 48-0 victory. The Buffaloes managed a whopping 76 yards on offense, playing three quarterbacks and rushing for -21 yards as a team. That’s right, negative. Congratulations, reader, you rushed for more yards than Colorado on Saturday. In the last three weeks against Pac-12 heavyweights USC, Oregon and Stanford, Colorado has been outscored 168 to 20.
Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon: So, this is what happens when Barner plays a full game because the score is actually close. Barner was the Ducks’ go-to back in the shootout win against USC, rushing 38 times for 321 yards and five touchdowns.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Another big week for the SEC’s leading rusher. Manziel made Mississippi State look foolish, rushing for 129 yards and a two touchdowns and completing 30 of 36 passes for 311 yards.
MAC Edition: Let’s continue to track the progress of two standout players from everyone’s favorite midweek conference. Kent State athlete Dri Archer has slowed down his scoring a little bit, but he’s still getting into the end zone every week. In a 35-24 win over Akron (to move to 8-1), Archer ran 11 times for 126 yards with a 30-yard TD on a reverse. For the season he has 10 rushing TDs, three receiving TDs, three return TDs and one passing TD. … Meanwhile, Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch continues to put up astounding numbers, especially as a runner. In a 63-0 win over UMass for the 9-1 Huskies, Lynch threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns and ran 15 times for 157 yards and one touchdown. For the season, he has 19 TD passes and 16 TD runs.
Student of the Year
If I had a Heisman ballot …
1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State: As discussed earlier, we’ll see what happens with his injury. For now, he remains the leader, with 12 passing touchdowns and 17 rushing touchdowns for the undefeated Wildcats.
2. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon: There’s just no way that Barner can’t be here now after his 321-yard, five-touchdown game against USC. In his last three games, he has averaged nine yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns.
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC: He’s too good to leave off. Despite USC’s struggles, Lee continues to shine. In the shootout against Oregon, he caught 12 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 31.4 yards on eight kick returns. Given that he had 16 catches for 345 yards and two TDs against Arizona, he’s the last person to blame for USC’s losses.
In the mix: Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o, Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Bowl Eligibility Tracker
There are 35 bowls, which means 70 bowl spots. The last thing we want is for college football to come up short, forcing it to dip into the pool of sub-.500 teams. Eligible teams (six wins) as of Oct. 27:
50*: Alabama, Arkansas State, Ball State, Boise State, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Clemson, Duke, East Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia, Kansas State, Kent State, LSU, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, Louisville, Michigan, Middle Tennessee, Mississippi State, Navy, Nebraska, Nevada, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Oregon State, Rutgers, San Diego State, San Jose State, South Carolina, Stanford, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Toledo, Tulsa, UCF, UCLA, USC, Utah State, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin
*Ohio State, North Carolina and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play.
Ranking the remaining games based on national championship implications:
1. Texas A&M at Alabama, Nov. 10
2. Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 17
3. Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 24
4. Kansas State at TCU, Nov. 10
5. Oregon at Oregon State, Nov. 24
On the Syllabus for Week 11
We take a breath. After a fast-paced night of football on Nov. 3, things settle down a bit, with Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel visiting Alabama as the headliner of the weekend, and Kansas State facing a somewhat tricky trip to TCU. Georgia will try to wrap up the SEC East at hapless Auburn, Notre Dame visits down-on-its-luck Boston College and Oregon plays at 3-7 Cal, so either the top teams will cruise to obvious wins or there will be a major, major upset. Oregon State also plays at Stanford in a good Pac-12 North consolation game, and, of course, most important of all, we have the return of MACtion, with Ball State-Toledo on Tuesday and Bowling Green-Ohio on Wednesday.