The Essay Question
Alabama met Johnny Manziel on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, and the national championship race turned upside down.
This is the scenario nobody was really prepared for, even if some put Alabama on upset alert. I fell into the "Alabama is invincible" trap, like many others, and for good reason. The Crimson Tide is coached by Nick Saban, QB A.J. McCarron hadn't thrown an interception all year, they won two of the last three national titles and they dominated every inferior opponent they faced in the first two months. Well, then Alabama was hit in the mouth by LSU and showed rare defensive vulnerability, before fighting back with perhaps the most dramatic drive of the season to pull off a win. Then came Manziel on Saturday, a 20-0 Texas A&M lead in the first quarter, two McCarron interceptions, and severely altered national championship plans thanks to a 29-24 loss to the SEC newcomers with their fast-paced spread attack, which will cause Saban to get even less sleep than usual for the next year.
While Manziel will spend the next few years making life hell for SEC defensive coordinators, Saban and Alabama are now left in rare position: waiting for somebody else to mess up. Alabama isn't dead, despite the uncharacteristic loss in which mistakes proved deadly (a McCarron interception at the goal line, a T.J. Yeldon fumble, a game-clinching offside penalty). The Tide will obliterate Western Carolina next week, then obliterate helpless Auburn in the Iron Bowl, then face Georgia's balanced offense and good defense in the SEC title game. In fact, title hopes remain alive for both Bama and Georgia (which crushed Auburn to clinch the SEC East), in the event that two of the Kansas State-Notre Dame-Oregon group somehow lose in the next three weeks. If two do lose, then a one-loss SEC champion would surely be next in line.
But that dream still seems far-fetched, and the days of the SEC owning the national championship are in jeopardy for the first time since 2005. Oregon shook off injuries to Kenjon Barner, Marcus Mariota and its entire defensive line to blow out Cal, 59-17. In doing so, the Ducks set FBS records for consecutive 30-point games (23) and 40-point games (13). They do not appear capable of slowing down any time soon, even with games against the tough Stanford and Oregon State defenses left (those two played a sloppy but tight game Saturday, with the Cardinal winning 27-23).
Kansas State just keeps being Kansas State, overcoming a middling performance from Collin Klein, post-mysterious injury, and a rough night for RB John Hubert against TCU's strong run defense. The Wildcats went to Fort Worth and won 23-10, not allowing a Horned Frogs touchdown until the final minute. Klein's been vital to their success, of course, but the Wildcats defense has been phenomenal, and as a team they're plus-20 in turnover margin. This is Bill Snyder's dream.
Then there's Notre Dame, which continues to be Notre Dame, beating Boston College 21-6 in a bland, sluggish prime-time game in Chestnut Hill. Led by their great defense, the Irish will probably survive a scare vs. Wake Forest next week. Then, all bets are off in the season finale at USC.
The SEC's championship streak was bound to end sometime, but what's amazing is that conference expansion could ultimately cost it No. 7. Many doubted Texas A&M's ability to compete in the SEC right away, but Sumlin has a track record as a brilliant offensive mind and, of course, nobody knew what was coming in Manziel. So, the newcomers have totally upturned the establishment, spreading the field, turning up the tempo and delivering the first loss of the season to the league's crown jewel. The countdown is on to the championship game, with Pac-12 and Big 12 teams leading the race and an independent still in the mix. If Alabama has to settle for the Sugar Bowl, oh well. We can just start counting down to another huge date: Sept. 14, 2013, when Alabama visits Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M at Kyle Field. Saban has probably already started to prepare.
National Championship: Oregon vs. Kansas State
Rose Bowl: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma
Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Texas A&M
Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Clemson
Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Louisville
College football rarely lacks drama, especially in November. This isn't a new point, but sometimes in college football the most entertaining stretches spring up at the most unexpected times. This Saturday featured a fairly weak slate of games on paper, and the noon TV window is often a drag filled with Indiana-Iowa and Virginia-Wake Forest games. Not true this week:
-Missouri 51, Tennessee 48. In four overtimes, the Tigers overcame a horrible first half (seven points) against a defense that has now become the first team in SEC history to allow 38-plus point in six straight games. Tyler Bray threw for 404 yards and the Vols successfully faked a field goal for a touchdown in the second overtime, but it didn't matter. Derek Dooley's clock is ticking faster and faster.
-Texas Tech 41, Kansas 34. There were many, many negatives in this game (more on that later), including the fact that Texas Tech needed double overtime to beat Charlie Weis' 1-9 Kansas team. But that doesn't mean the game wasn't entertaining. Jayhawks RB James Sims had his sixth straight 100-yard game, fellow RB Tony Pierson ran for 202 yards and Texas Tech QB Seth Doege threw for 476 yards.
-Michigan 38, Northwestern 31. With Denard Robinson sidelined again, Michigan got another encouraging performance from Devin Gardner, who threw for 286 yards and accounted for four total TDs. Most important, Gardner set up the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation with an improbable 53-yard heave to Roy Roundtree.
-Virginia 41, Miami 40. Explosive Miami freshman Duke Johnson appeared to be the story, running for 150 yards, throwing a TD pass and returning a kick 95 yards for a touchdown, but the two teams traded scores all game. With Miami ahead 40-35 in the final minute, Michael Rocco hit Jake McGee for a winning 10-yard TD in the back of the end zone.
-Georgia Tech 68, North Carolina 50. Insert complaints about a lack of defense here, but the Yellow Jackets and Tar Heels set a record for most points in an ACC game. Georgia Tech's option attack ran for 380 yards and seven touchdowns, while UNC QB Bryn Renner threw for 350 yards.
Instant replay can be baffling, which goes against its entire purpose. A few things: 1) It's entirely possible, maybe even probable, that Nebraska would have beaten Penn State anyway, given how effectively the Cornhuskers moved the ball in the second half of their 32-23 win with Taylor Martinez; 2) conspiracy theories are ridiculous. So, no, I don't think there's some kind of conspiracy at work against Penn State -- although I'm not going to blame Matt McGloin for having strong opinions on the subject. Still, certain calls are baffling. When Matt Lehman fumbled what would have/should have been the go-ahead touchdown at the goal line, it was understandable that the officials ruled it a fumble live. It's an impossible call to make. This is also a reason instant replay exists. When the call went to replay, just about everyone on Twitter, as well as Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman in the broadcast booth, believed the call should be overturned. Media rules czar Mike Pereira agreed. Here's the evidence: control of the ball over the goal line, that's a touchdown. So, who disagreed? The people whose job is to get the call right. It's an inexcusable problem, one that only fuels conspiracy theories, no matter how ridiculous. People make mistakes. Replay is supposed to correct those mistakes, not make situations worse.
The Big East is, again, what we originally thought it was. For a brief time in October, when Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati were all undefeated, the Big East actually received increased support, with many claiming it was now the fifth- or maybe even fourth-strongest conference. Well, then Cincinnati lost to Toledo and Rutgers lost to Kent State. And then on Saturday, in an upset just about everyone saw coming, Louisville lost to Syracuse. The Cardinals were destroyed 45-26. Yes, Syracuse is also in the Big East, so you could choose to look at this through the lens of "what a big win for Syracuse!" But let's be realistic. Louisville's best wins are against Cincinnati and North Carolina. It has the resume of a mid-major, which is why nobody seriously considered the Cardinals in the BCS race, despite their undefeated record in an automatic-qualifying conference. But the season finale in Piscataway between Louisville and Rutgers should decide the Big East, so that's at least exciting, even if Rutgers spent three quarters nearly losing to Army before scoring 21 straight in the final period for a 28-7 win this week.
Grading the Rest of the Weekend
A+: Texas' Darrell Royal tribute
In honor of legendary coach Darrell Royal, who died Wednesday, Mack Brown vowed to open the game in the wishbone formation. He followed through, and Texas ended up running a reverse pass for 47 yards. It's not exactly the call Royal would have made, especially with the Longhorns backed up at their own six-yard line, but it was a fitting tribute, and Texas went on to roll past Iowa State, 33-7.
In searching for storylines about the Big Ten over the past week, many people got on the "Indiana controls its own destiny for the Rose Bowl!" bandwagon. While technically true leading up to Saturday, did anyone honestly expect Indiana -- which has lost to Ball State and Navy -- to beat Wisconsin, Penn State and (likely) Nebraska? It was fun to think about and all, but Wisconsin's 62-14 drubbing quickly brought everything back to reality. In fact, the Badgers looked like the Badgers of old, rushing 64 times for 564 yards and seven touchdowns, with only seven pass attempts.
LSU's win against Mississippi State wasn't necessarily pretty. But, given what happened the week before with a heartbreaking loss at home to Alabama, responding with a 37-17 win against a decent (albeit over-ranked) Mississippi State looks pretty good. The Tigers shook off a slow start and pulled away from the Bulldogs, getting another solid effort from QB Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns.
B+: Oklahoma State
West Virginia has fallen off a cliff, losing four straight games as Geno Smith went from Heisman frontrunner in early October to national afterthought. But instead of rehashing WVU's struggles, let's give credit to Oklahoma State, which went with its third starting QB of the year, junior Clint Chelf, and won 55-34. Against WVU's porous pass defense, Chelf threw for 292 yards and four touchdowns, with much of the production going to WR Josh Stewart. The Cowboys are now bowl eligible and continue to put up points, scoring more than 30 in all but one game despite the losses of first-round picks Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon.
B: Florida State
It feels somewhat strange to give only a "B" for a close win in a hostile Thursday night environment at Virginia Tech, but that's where Virginia Tech is this year, possibly its worst season in 20 years. Florida State needed a 39-yard TD pass from E.J. Manuel to Rashad Greene with 40 seconds left to win 28-22, and overall Manuel was sacked five times, leading to a final tally of minus-15 rushing yards for the Seminoles as a team without Chris Thompson. Florida State can clinch the Atlantic Division with a win over Maryland next week.
B-: South Carolina
Two weeks after Marcus Lattimore's devastating knee injury against Tennessee, South Carolina returned to the field and pulled together a decent enough effort against Arkansas to win without the centerpiece of the offense. The teams traded points early, but the Gamecocks eventually took control and won 38-20, with a defensive TD by D.J. Swearinger and QB Connor Shaw accounting for three total TDs.
There's rarely a dull moment in the world of Lane Kiffin. After last week's defensive debacle against Oregon, the Trojans were fined because a student manager was deflating footballs that were used in the game. This is a real thing that happened. Of course, Kiffin had nothing to do with it. Of course not. Then, on Saturday, USC was about to make things easy for headline writers everywhere to work "deflated" into headlines, as, aside from Marqise Lee, the Trojans sleepwalked to a 14-14 tie with Arizona State at halftime. They woke up, though, eventually winning 38-17 despite Matt Barkley's three interceptions, getting big days from Lee (10 catches, 161 yards, one touchdown, one absurd run) and RB Curtis McNeal (31 carries, 163 yards, two touchdowns).
Yes, the Sooners won 42-34 against Baylor, but there was nothing particularly inspiring about the effort. Obviously, few games could match last year's classic Baylor upset, but the Sooners struggled to put away the Bears and their 120th-ranked defense. While they held a high-powered Baylor passing offense in check with a paltry 172 yards, the Bears actually racked up 252 yards and four TDs on the ground, led by Lache Seastrunk and QB Nick Florence.
C-: Texas Tech
Hey, any of us would be frustrated if our top-25 team was barely beating Kansas. But Tommy Tuberville decided to take things too far, slapping the hat and headset off of graduate assistant Kevin Oliver. Then, Tuberville attempted to explain the incident by claiming he was just trying to get Oliver off the field, which in no way matches up with what happened to be caught on live television.
The Gators play in the SEC, have only one loss and were recently right in the thick of the national title race. Their offense can also be horrifying. Entering the weekend, they ranked 118th in passing. Then they played Louisiana-Lafayette at home and nearly lost. It's bizarre enough that Florida's SEC schedule ended Nov. 3, meaning its last two home games are against Lafayette and Jacksonville State. To make things worse, they needed an improbable blocked punt for a touchdown in the closing seconds to win and prevent overtime against the Ragin' Cajuns. Florida and Notre Dame are basically the same team.
Kirk Ferentz makes $3.7 million. Over the last decade and a half, he has often proved to be a fine coach, leading four season with double-digit wins. But Iowa has devolved into a mess this season, steadily getting worse from 11-2 in 2009 to 8-5 in 2010 to 7-6 last year to a possible 4-8 this season. That's right, 4-8. After a 27-24 home loss to Purdue (the Boilermakers hit a game-winning field goal as time expired) in which they had 264 total yards, the Hawkeyes now sit at 4-6, losing four straight to Penn State, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue, on top of earlier losses to Iowa State and Central Michigan (a 4-6 MAC team). The last two games are against Michigan and Nebraska, making a 0-6 second-half finish likely.
F: Washington State
Everything about Mike Leach's first season in Pullman has been a disaster so far, even if Washington State made a valiant comeback effort in a 44-36 loss to UCLA in which they were out-scored 30-0 in the second quarter and once allowed the Bruins to kick off from the other 35-yard line. The Cougars are 2-8, 0-7 in the Pac-12, meaning they have the horrific honor of being the only team in the country to lose to Colorado. Based on the previous information, it's not surprising things like this are caught on camera. But, to top it all off, WR Marquess Wilson, who caught 82 passes last year, quit the team (he had already been suspended) and fired off a brutally critical statement to the media just hours before Saturday's kickoff. He includes such lines as: "the new regime of coaches has preferred to belittle, intimidate and humiliate us." How much is true? It's impossible to know right now, so it would be unfair to pass judgment on Leach and his staff. But the hits keep piling up for a program that won nine games in the previous four seasons under Paul Wulff.
Dri Archer, Everything, Kent State: The man can't be stopped. The Professor has been featuring Kent State's all-purpose star every week, and for good reason. The Golden Flashes are undefeated in the MAC, 9-1 overall with a win over Rutgers, and Archer is a big reason why. In Saturday's 48-32 win against Miami (Ohio), Archer finished with 11 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns and two catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. For the season, he has 12 rushing TDs, four receiving TDs, three return TDs and a passing TD. His shortest one Saturday was 33 yards, and this tweet even sounds plausible at this point.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Teammate James White had a big game with 161 yards and two touchdowns, but 2011 Heisman finalist Ball got the ball 27 times in the blowout win of Indiana and ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns. With those scores, he passed Ricky Williams for second on the NCAA's all-time touchdown list with 77, trailing former Miami (Ohio) great Travis Prentice by one.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Wins and stats against Colorado probably should have asterisks attached to them, but, whatever. A week after Kenjon Barner rushed for 321 yards and five touchdowns against, Carey - playing without starting QB Matt Scott - ran 25 times for a Pac-12 record 366 yards and five touchdowns in the Wildcats' 56-31 win.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech: Nobody in America could watch because the game was on the mythical Longhorn Network, but Louisiana Tech and Texas State put on an offensive show. No. 20 Louisiana Tech won 62-55, and the teams combined for 1,204 yards. Once again, one of the stars was Dixon, the running back who set an NCAA record for rushing TDs by a freshman. By the end of the night, he had 21 carries for 144 yards and four TDs, giving him 24 scores in 10 games.
Mike MacIntyre, head coach, San Jose State: The third-year San Jose State coach will surely be moving on to bigger things. The Spartans went 2-10 in 2009 and 1-12 in MacIntyre's first season as head coach in 2010 (after leaving the Duke defensive coordinator job). Last year, they improved to 5-7. This year, they're now 8-2, still with a chance to win the WAC. San Jose State pummeled a lousy New Mexico State team on Saturday, 47-7, and its only losses are to Stanford by three points and to 8-2 Utah State. The Spartans now have as many wins this season as the last three seasons combined.
Josh Stewart, WR, Oklahoma State: It's not difficult to put up numbers against West Virginia's defense, but Stewart was dominant despite playing with his third starting QB this year. Not only did he haul in 13 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns, but he also opened the game's scoring with a 46-yard TD run.
Student of the Year
If I had a Heisman ballot …
1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. Here's one of many problems with the Heisman: The criteria are very unspecific. Klein is a very, very good player, but is he the best player in America? That's debatable. And, coming off an injury, he wasn't great against a good TCU defense on Saturday. But he's perhaps more important to his team than any other player in the country, and he rushed for another two TDs to give him 12 passing TDs and 19 rushing TDs for the season. He's the signature player of the season so far, and that's really what the Heisman is.
2. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. Well, while Klein has been the signature player, Manziel (I will stubbornly refuse to use his nickname) is making his own case. Manziel has torched inferior defenses but had been contained by Florida and LSU. Well, in Saturday's upset of the year, Manziel toyed with Alabama in leading Texas A&M to a 20-0 first-quarter lead. Ultimately, in the Aggies' 29-24 win, he completed 24-of-31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns with 18 carries for 92 yards. For the season, he has 14 passing TDs and 15 rushing TDs, he leads the SEC in rushing despite playing quarterback, and, oh yeah, he's only a freshman.
3. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon. We can excuse Barner for one down week in which he was held to only 65 yards on 20 carries with three catches for 35 yards in a blowout win against Cal. He briefly left the game with a hand injury but returned, and now we'll see what he has in two crucial games against Stanford and Oregon State with the Ducks are in the driver's seat for a national title bid.
In the mix: USC WR Marqise Lee, Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o, Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
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:
57*: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas State, Ball State, Boise State, Bowling Green, BYU, Cincinnati, Clemson, Duke, East Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia, Kansas State, Kent State, LSU, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, Louisville, Michigan, Middle Tennessee, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Navy, Nebraska, Nevada, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, 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, Vanderbilt, Washington, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin
*Ohio State, North Carolina and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play.
On the Syllabus for Week 12
Once again, there are no top-10 clashes that truly jump out, so all eyes remain on the national title race. Oregon has the biggest test, hosting Stanford, while Kansas State travels to Baylor and Notre Dame hosts Wake Forest. Other games of note include undefeated Ohio State's dangerous trip to Wisconsin, and a battle for Los Angeles and the Pac-12 South title between USC and UCLA. Also, if you're into this sort of thing, Alabama will take its frustrations out on 1-9 FCS team Western Carolina, which lost 45-24 to Chattanooga last week.