The Essay Question: The National Championship Race

It's really happening. Notre Dame controls its own destiny, leaving much of America to root for Lane Kiffin.

Nobody paid much attention to Notre Dame throughout the afternoon on Saturday. The Fighting Irish quickly dispelled the notion that a home date with 5-5 Wake Forest was a trap before heading to USC. They jumped out to a big lead, and finished off a 38-0 demolition of the Demon Deacons. In five other home wins, Notre Dame had won by a total of 23 points. This time ND was up by 31 before halftime. Everything went right.

So nobody thought much of it, or watched much of it, with more entertaining games going on elsewhere. Yet here we are, the clock struck midnight, and Notre Dame was set to become the No. 1 team in the land, the nation's only eligible unbeaten, thanks to a disastrous performance by Kansas State at Baylor and a lousy offensive game by Oregon against Stanford. The Fighting Irish left Notre Dame Stadium as the nation's No. 3 team. By the end of the night of chaos, they were No. 1. For weeks, it appeared that an undefeated Notre Dame team could get left out of the championship game. Instead, Notre Dame is in full control, one game against USC for a spot in Miami and a run at all the glory.

A Notre Dame win against the floundering Trojans presents the simplest national title scenario. The Irish have been brilliant defensively, and they've already played their best game on the road against a good team, beating Oklahoma. To make the outlook even grimmer for USC -- and, thus, Oregon, Kansas State, Florida and Florida State -- QB Matt Barkley was seen in a sling after the Trojans' loss to UCLA, although he wouldn't discuss his injury. With Barkley, USC certainly presents the biggest challenge Notre Dame's defense has seen all season, with a skill group that also includes Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd, among others. But a Barkley injury combined with a demoralized four-loss USC team, a flustered Lane Kiffin and a Monte Kiffin-led defense on its heels makes the outlook appear good for Notre Dame at the Coliseum.

So, that whole rooting for Lane Kiffin thing that nobody ever wants to do … Oregon fans will be doing it. So will Kansas State. So will Florida State and Florida, depending on the outcome of their game. And so will many, many Americans who have no interest in more than a month of Notre Dame in the national championship game hype and drama in this age of 24-hour coverage.

What the losses of both Kansas State and Oregon did do was all but ensure the SEC will have a chance to extend its six-year national title streak after all. Left for dead by Alabama's loss to newcomer Texas A&M, the conference has new life, backing its way into an SEC title game between Alabama and Georgia that will essentially act as a national semifinal, with the one-loss winner heading to Miami (assuming Georgia beats Georgia Tech and Alabama beats Auburn, the latter of which is the safest assumption this column could ever make). An Alabama-Notre Dame national championship would be the biggest win for traditionalists in years, as, not only would it be historically great programs, but two teams who win with elite defenses. Want to see Chip Kelly attempt to get his Oregon offense going again vs. Nick Saban? Well, sorry, you have to root for Lane Kiffin.

It won't be easy, but it could be a whole lot of fun. Notre Dame? At USC? National title spot on the line? Teams from every other region rooting against the Fighting Irish? For all its flaws, this sport can't help but reel everyone in with some good-old-fashioned chaos and drama.

BCS Projections

National Championship: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Nebraska

Fiesta Bowl: Kansas State vs. Clemson

Sugar Bowl: Georgia vs. Oklahoma

Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Louisville

Most of this is self-explanatory. If Notre Dame loses, then things get even crazier, but for now ND-Alabama is the obvious choice. Kansas State falls to the Fiesta Bowl as Big 12 Champs, Georgia gets the edge as the replacement for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and Florida State automatically goes to the Orange, likely against the Big East champ (Louisville or Rutgers). Clemson and Oklahoma get at-large bids. Then there's the Rose Bowl, with Nebraska the favorite to win the Big Ten. Oregon's path is murkier. If Stanford beats UCLA next week, the Cardinal win the Pac-12 North, and then have a rematch with UCLA in the conference title game with a Rose Bowl bid on the line. The early bet here is that Stanford loses, sending Oregon to the title game for that Rose Bowl bid.

Lessons Learned

The monopoly is actually over. Those trust-busting UCLA Bruins finally did it, with Jim Mora doing what Rick Neuheisel failed to do despite suggesting otherwise. In a year in which USC opened the season as the AP's No. 1 team with Matt Barkley returning for what he believed would be a post-ineligibility championship season, UCLA ended up establishing itself as the best team in Los Angeles and the Pac-12 South. The Bruins jumped out to a 24-0 lead, ceded three straight TDs to the Trojans and then held on to win 38-28, getting three total TDs from QB Brett Hundley and 171 yards and two TDs from RB Johnathan Franklin. Lane Kiffin may actually need to ask his father, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, to leave, while athletic director Pat Haden insists that Lane will return to coach the Trojans in 2013. Mora and Hundley likely aren't going anywhere anytime soon either.

Touché, SEC. At the beginning of the day Saturday, I complained about the SEC's reverse scheduling. In other words, while other conferences beat up on FCS teams in September, the SEC dives right into conference play and saves many of its cupcakes for November. College football's incredibly flawed polling system results in teams getting punished for losing late in the season, so the SEC finds a way to try to avoid that. Alabama, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia all entered the week in the top 10 of the BCS, and all played FCS opponents, with varying degrees of success. Alabama and Texas A&M won in blowouts, while South Carolina was tied 7-7 with Wofford after three quarters despite the fact that Wofford completed one pass in the entire game. (Said Steve Spurrier after the game: "It's a difficult game. I think I would like to trade with Alabama and play the team they played this week, Western Carolina. They are struggling a little bit, and Wofford is a conference champion." Right.) But, here we are, and the SEC's plan works out perfectly. Oregon and Kansas State lost. Alabama and Georgia can step right up into the national title race, with Florida even still in the picture. The SEC, as always, knows exactly what it's doing.

Ohio State could win the AP national championship. The Buckeyes survived yet again, going on the road to Madison and overcoming a subpar offensive day and 191 yards from Montee Ball to win 21-14 against Wisconsin. Urban Meyer is now 11-0 in his first season, Braxton Miller remains in the Heisman discussion and all that's left for an undefeated season is a home showdown with Michigan. So how can Ohio State earn a split national title? If Notre Dame loses to USC or in the BCS National Championship, the Buckeyes can be the nation's only undefeated team. Many AP voters would surely vote an undefeated Ohio State team No. 1. The question is: Would enough of them spring for the ineligible Buckeyes over a BCS champion Alabama team?

Oklahoma-West Virginia lived up to previous expectations anyway. West Virginia's season has turned into a disaster, as Geno Smith's Heisman campaign and the team's Big 12 title hopes ran off the rails despite a 5-0 start. In the preseason, this looked like a potential Big 12 championship game, a raucous prime-time atmosphere in Morgantown welcoming one of the best programs in college football. Well, four straight WVU losses dampened the mood and made this sort of an afterthought, especially in a TV lineup featuring upset losses by undefeated Kansas State and Oregon. But those who flipped to Fox were treated to another ridiculous offensive explosion. West Virginia put up 778 yards. Wide receiver Tavon Austin rushed for 344 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Stedman Bailey caught 13 passes for 205 yards and four touchdowns. The catch? West Virginia LOST the game. Only West Virginia could put up 778 yards against what had been a good Oklahoma defense and lose. Trailing late, Landry Jones (554 yards, six touchdowns) hit Kenny Stills for a five-yard TD pass to give Oklahoma the 50-49 win. The Sooners can still win the Big 12 if they win out and Kansas State loses to Texas.

Grading the Rest of the Weekend

A+: Utah State
Louisiana Tech was the assumed favorite all year in the final season of WAC football, but it's actually a three-team league, with Utah State and San Jose State both pulling off strong seasons. Saturday night, Utah State took things a step further by withstanding a furious Bulldogs rally and winning in overtime to take hold of first place in the conference. The Aggies jumped out to a commanding 41-17 lead, only to see Louisiana Tech's high-powered offense battle back and kick a game-tying field goal as time expired. However, the Aggies held the Bulldogs off in overtime and escaped with a dramatic 48-41 win.

A: Oregon State
California has essentially given up at this point, but the Beavers still put together quite a show for the late-night Pac-12 Network crowd. In their biggest scoring output of the year, the Beavers beat the Golden Bears 62-14, with QB Sean Mannion returning to the lineup to throw for 325 yards and four touchdowns heading into next Saturday's Civil War.

A-: Florida State
While Maryland was a hot topic Saturday afternoon, it wasn't because of its play on the field. The Terps were routed by the Seminoles, who locked up the ACC Atlantic with a 41-14 win in which Maryland managed 170 total yards. Florida State has given up more than 22 points only once all season. Maryland hasn't scored more than 18 since Oct. 13. There you have it.

B+: Mississippi State
After their hot 7-0 start against inferior competition, the Bulldogs went through an SEC West gauntlet and were put in their place by Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in back-to-back-to-back crushing blowouts. But after a slow start, Mississippi State bounced back and turned the tables to blow out Arkansas, winning 45-14 to guarantee that Arkansas will not go bowling and has only one game left in the John L. Smith era.

B: Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights sure looked like a Big Ten team Saturday. They scored only 10 points, but they still won the biggest game of their season so far, going on the road to Cincinnati and escaping with a 10-3 victory. Kyle Flood's destiny appears to be coaching 9-8 games against Kirk Ferentz. Rutgers is the only unbeaten team in conference play in the Big East, and the finale against Louisville will likely be for the conference title.

B-: Clemson
Do you like offense? This a question frequently asked in the 2012 college football season, and, strangely, the ACC has provided some of the biggest offensive fireworks. Last week, Georgia Tech beat North Carolina 68-50 in the highest-scoring ACC game ever. This week, Clemson beat N.C. State 62-48 and got eight total touchdowns from QB Tajh Boyd. The Tigers had two 100-yard rushers, two 100-yard receivers and a 400-yard passer, while also giving up 597 yards to the Wolfpack.

C+: LSU
This grade was going to be no better than a "C," given that LSU trailed Ole Miss much of the way at home and needed an 89-yard Odell Beckham punt return and a one-yard Jeremy Hill TD run in the fourth quarter to win 41-35. But the Tigers get the plus for one reason: Les Miles. Seriously, if you haven't, watch Miles' post-game press conference. Watch it. If you have seen it, watch it again. The complete randomness, the absurd swing in emotions, this move. Watch it.

C: Colorado being Colorado
In the midst of another embarrassing loss, 38-3 to Washington this time, Colorado managed to at least make people laugh. The Buffaloes actually picked up a first down, then didn't realize they got the first down and ran a QB sneak with Jordan Webb. "They originally had it as third down, so we signaled him quarterback sneak," coach Jon Embree said. "Then they gave him the first down and he didn't get the signal what the play was supposed to be." We'll give Colorado an "A" for magically getting a first down and an "F" for failing to realize it. Balances out to a "C," right?

C-: Virginia Tech
The Hokies had been remarkably consistent, perhaps the most consistent program in college football since the turn of the century. They'd won at least 10 games in eight straight seasons, dominating the new-look ACC. They entered 2012 ranked 16th in the AP Top 25. Then they flopped for the worst season in 20 years. Saturday, the Hokies need a win to keep bowl hopes alive, and somehow they needed a last-minute field goal and overtime to beat a two-win Boston College team, 23-20. The Hokies now have a 19-year bowl streak on the line in the Commonwealth Cup against Virginia.

D+: Texas Tech
All looked so bright in Lubbock a month ago. The Red Raiders had lost to Oklahoma but won their other six games, including a 49-14 dismantling of then-unbeaten West Virginia. But since a 56-53 triple-overtime win over TCU, Texas Tech has lost three games to ranked opponents and needed overtime to beat lowly Kansas in a game in which Tommy Tuberville got himself in trouble. This week, the Red Raiders were blown off the field at Oklahoma State, as the Cowboys raced to a 35-7 lead, rushed for 256 yards and won 59-21 with the help of three Texas Tech turnovers.

D: Tennessee
The tough thing about handing out these grades is not giving credit to the other side. In this case, Vanderbilt absolutely deserves an "A," but, of course, we have to talk about Tennessee -- which finally pulled the plug on coach Derek Dooley. The Vols went to Nashville and lost to their rivals-only-by-geography for the first time on the road since 1982, and they did it in embarrassing fashion. Pretty much every game for the last month has seemingly gotten Dooley fired, but this time it finally happened. Tennessee lost 41-18, and it will be home for the holidays for the third time in five seasons.

F: Kansas State
We can at least rationalize the Oregon loss. The Ducks played poorly, but they did it against a pretty good team. Kansas State? There's an excuse for giving up some points to one of the most prolific offenses in the nation. But the Wildcats' offense came up extremely small against a Baylor defense that ranked in or near triple-digits nationally in just about everything. The team that made the fewest mistakes all year played a completely uncharacteristic game in Waco and likely torpedoed its national title dreams.

Honor Roll

Dri Archer, Everything, Kent State: Archer continues to justify his weekly inclusion in The Professor. For the first time ever, Kent State clinched the MAC East title, beating Bowling Green 31-24 to move to 10-1. Once again, Archer led the way. He ran 17 times for 241 yards with two touchdowns of 79 and an absurd 74 yards. For the season, he has 14 rushing TDs, four receiving TDs, three return TDs and a passing TD.

Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia: Landry Jones, Stedman Bailey and Geno Smith could all be included here from the ridiculous OU-WVU game, but the spot on the Honor Roll is reserved for Austin. Austin, who is about to notch his second straight 100-catch, 1,000-yard season, caught four passes for 82 yards against the Sooners. But that's not why he's here. No, Dana Holgorsen decided to get him the ball as a runner, and all he did was rush 21 times for 344 yards and two touchdowns. Oh, he also had 146 return yards, giving him 572 all-purpose yards. In one game.

Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: All wasn't good for Ball on Saturday. The Badgers lost in overtime, and he coughed up the ball while trying to tie the game and break the NCAA's all-time touchdown record on a fourth down near the goal line. Still, Ball did tied Travis Prentice's record, rushing 39 times for 191 yards and a touchdown against a very good run defense. He'll have a chance to break the record by scoring a 79th time at Penn State.

Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson: Statistics wise, this was an all-time great day for Boyd against N.C. State, the same Wolfpack team that somehow beat Florida State. Boyd completed 30-of-44 passes for 426 yards and five touchdowns (with two picks) and also ran 18 times for 103 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson won 62-48. It was the first 100-yard rushing and second 400-yard passing game of his career.

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: Still nursing an elbow injury, Denard Robinson couldn't play quarterback, so instead he played a bunch of snaps at running back and rushed 13 times for 98 yards with Fitzgerald Toussaint out because of a scary leg injury. With Robinson banged up, Gardner got another start at QB and did something Robinson has never done: account for six touchdowns in a game. Not only did Gardner throw for 314 yards and three touchdowns, but he also chipped in 37 yards and three touchdowns on the ground against a disinterested Iowa defense.

Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois: It's amazing that Dri Archer might not be the most impressive MAC player this year. Lynch has also been amazing in his first year replacing Chandler Harnish, and he had yet another enormous output as Northern Illinois clinched the MAC West with a 31-24 midweek win over Toledo. Lynch threw for 407 yards and three TDs and ran 30 times for 162 yards. For the season, he's thrown for 2,582 yards and 22 TDs and rushed for 1,504 yards and 16 TDs.

Miami's passing game: In a 40-3 blowout of another disappointing South Florida team, Stephen Morris re-emerged from a quiet stretch by throwing for 413 yards and three touchdowns. He had THREE receivers surpass the 100-yard mark, including TE Clive Walford and WRs Herb Waters and Phillip Dorsett.

Montel Harris, RB, Temple: After getting dismissed from Boston College, Harris had been inconsistent most of the season for the Owls. Then he faced Army (a team that beat BC). In a 63-32 rout, Harris ran 36 times for 351 yards and seven touchdowns. Temple attempted four passes in this game, and its first two touchdowns were rushing TDs scored not by Harris, but by the fantastically named Matt Brown.

Allen Robinson, WR, and Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: Trivia question: Who holds Penn State's records for most career passing TDs and most single-season passing yards? Matt McGloin! Not Kerry Collins, not Todd Blackledge, not Chuck Fusina. Records are falling everywhere due to various changes in college football, including the number of games and higher scoring, but still, McGloin's 2012 progress under Bill O'Brien is remarkable. In a 45-22 win against Indiana, McGloin threw for 395 yards and four touchdowns, while Robinson had a huge day with 10 catches for 197 yards and three touchdowns, all three of which were of the highlight-reel variety. Robinson broke Penn State's single-season record for catches.

Honorary inclusion:

Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: For how great of a Saturday in college football it was, there were also some sickening injuries, from Fitz Toussaint's leg injury at Michigan to yet another knee injury for Mauti. Mauti has been the face of the Penn State players who opted to stay in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, in addition to being one of the best linebackers in college football. But for the third time in his Penn State career, the senior was taken off the field Saturday with what's apparently a serious knee injury, prompting teammate John Urschel to compare him to Odysseus, and defensive coordinator Ted Roof to choke up while talking about him.

Student of the Year

If I had a Heisman ballot …

1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: We could be on the verge of history. It wasn't until 2007 that a sophomore won the Heisman, when Tim Tebow took home the trophy. Now Manziel could become the first freshman. Thanks to Collin Klein and Kansas State getting blown out by Baylor, Manziel clearly moves to the front of the pack. Against Sam Houston State, he threw for 267 yards and three TDs and ran 16 times for 100 yards and two TDs, giving him 17 passing TDs and 17 rushing TDs as he continues to lead the SEC in rushing. He's now broken NCAA records for freshman QB rushing yards and freshman total offense, and Kevin Sumlin even let him attempt an extra point Saturday (he missed).

2. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame: The signature player for the No. 1 team in the nation and a brilliant defense. Te'o has played great football all season, leading the team in tackles just about every week and also intercepting six passes. He'll surely draw an invite to New York.

3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC: I hate to drop Collin Klein off completely, but he's had a couple rough games and may have no chance now that K-State was embarrassed by Baylor. So let's go with Lee, who had huge numbers again this week against UCLA, catching nine passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. Despite USC's struggles, he's been unstoppable, with 107 catches for 1,605 yards and 14 TDs, plus success in the return game.

Next in line: Kansas State QB Collin Klein, Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Oregon RB Kenjon Barner, 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:

64*: Air Force, Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas State, Ball State, Boise State, Bowling Green, BYU, Cincinnati, Clemson, Duke, East Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Fresno State, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, Kent State, LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, Louisville, Miami (Fla.), 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, Syracuse, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Toledo, Tulsa, UCF, UCLA, USC, Utah State, Vanderbilt, Washington, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin

*North Carolina, Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play.

On the Syllabus for Week 13

The final full week of college football action before the conference championship games. TCU plays at Texas on Thanksgiving, and Black Friday is filled with games, but the biggest action is saved for Saturday. Of course, the biggest game is now a prime-time showdown in Los Angeles as USC tries to ruin Notre Dame's championship dreams. Also, Ohio State looks to finish undefeated against archrival Michigan; Florida, amazingly, attempts to stay in the national title hunt at Florida State; Oregon and Oregon State will play the Civil War; Stanford and UCLA meet in a possible preview of the next week's Pac-12 title game; Montee Ball goes for the touchdown record as Wisconsin plays at Penn State; South Carolina plays at Clemson with a BCS at-large big possibly on the line for the Tigers; Oklahoma and Oklahoma State meet in the Bedlam game; and Alabama, once again national title favorites, does its best to embarrass Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Clear your post-Thanksgiving schedule.