The Essay Question
Remember that time a few weeks ago when Alabama lost to Texas A&M and we thought the SEC was finished? That the run of six straight national championships would come to an end? That was a fun few days. Oregon and Kansas State blew it last week, putting Alabama right back into the top two of the BCS. And it turns out we were a Notre Dame loss away from having two SEC teams in the title game for the second straight year.
And you thought you were sick of the SEC before.
With Notre Dame safely in the BCS National Championship game in Miami, college football turns its attention to Atlanta for what will be a much-hyped SEC title game between Alabama, which blew out rival Auburn, and Georgia, which blew out rival Georgia Tech, next Saturday afternoon. It's hard to argue against Alabama's national title case if it wins, and the same goes for Georgia, despite some holes in its resume. The Crimson Tide has won two of the last three national titles, and it took a valiant effort from Johnny Manziel a week after a hard-fought win at LSU for Nick Saban's squad to actually lose. For Georgia, let's just say the schedule-makers were kind. No Texas A&M. No LSU. No Alabama, until now. In the East, Georgia was embarrassed by South Carolina, but it escaped the Cocktail Party with a win over Florida and thus has an 11-1 record. Winning the SEC with a one-loss record is enough to punch a team's ticket.
The SEC is basically impossible to judge anymore. Last year's national champion, Alabama didn't win its division, meaning it actually benefited from not having to win the SEC championship game, and rendered its regular-season matchup with LSU meaningless by getting revenge with the national title on the line. This year, some will argue that Florida has the best case, despite the fact that it lost to Georgia and failed to win its division. The Gators have still compiled more impressive wins than any team in the country, beating LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida State with a dominant defense and a strong running game behind Mike Gillislee. The Gators were certainly impressive in Tallahassee on Saturday afternoon, coming out with a 37-26 win.
The top six teams in the SEC are all top-10 caliber teams capable of beating anyone, including Notre Dame, and they spent all season beating up on each other. Despite few truly impressive nonconference wins, we trust that these are top-10 teams because of the reputation the SEC has built for itself. That's why the SEC title game is a play-in game for the national title, why the Alabama-Georgia winner gets the edge over Oregon, which rebounded by destroying Oregon State 48-24 this weekend, and Kansas State with little argument from anyone outside Eugene and Manhattan.
And that's why, if Alabama wins, we will then spend the next month attempting to find a reason why Notre Dame can even keep the championship game close, and if Georgia wins, we'll still probably find reasons to favor the SEC. It remains hard to believe, but we're at a point where undefeated Notre Dame is on the verge of being the team that doesn't get much respect in the massive buildup to Miami. So much of college football's bizarre rankings system is built on reputation and past history, which is extraordinarily foolish for a sport in which the rosters turn over annually. The SEC took full control of the national landscape with back-to-back dominant wins over Ohio State in 2006 and 2007. Shockingly, Notre Dame is now in good position to win some respect back for the rest of the country.
National Championship: Notre Dame vs. Alabama
Rose Bowl: Stanford vs. Nebraska
Fiesta Bowl: Kansas State vs. Oregon
Sugar Bowl: Florida vs. Oklahoma
Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Louisville
At this point, things look pretty clear-cut. The winner of the SEC title game goes to Miami, the loser goes to the Capital One Bowl, with Florida getting the SEC's second spot. Now out of the Rose Bowl picture, Oregon is the only logical choice for the Fiesta Bowl. The wild card here is … Boise State?
Yes, amazingly, despite two losses to San Diego State and a mediocre Michigan State with no impressive wins (the best being Fresno State and BYU), Boise State once again finds itself in position to back into an automatic bid if it finishes in the top 16 ahead of a champion from an automatic qualifying conference. Thanks to losses by EVERY TEAM ranked 15-21, Boise State is in position to move up by default from 22nd despite not even playing this week. If Boise State somehow moves up, that could leave Oklahoma as the odd team out despite its two-loss record as a Big 12 team.
Stanford isn't going away under David Shaw. What Jim Harbaugh built appears to be built to last under David Shaw. Last year, Stanford went 11-2 in its first year after Harbaugh, but much of the success was attributed to Andrew Luck and the presence of several other NFL-caliber players. This year, Stanford was still expected to be competitive, but nobody saw a Pac-12 title potentially coming. That's exactly how this team has positioned itself now, beating UCLA on the road 35-17 to force a rematch in Palo Alto for the Pac-12 title on Friday. The Cardinal is doing this despite losing Luck, despite a late-season QB switch to freshman Kevin Hogan. It's beaten USC, Oregon State and, by far the most impressive, Oregon on the road. It forced overtime at Notre Dame and could have won if not for a bad call. Pull it all together, and Stanford is a disappointing loss to Washington away from being in the national championship discussion. Harbaugh was a hot NFL coaching name. This year, the name is Oregon's Chip Kelly. Could Shaw be next?
In case anyone forgot, Urban Meyer is an unbelievable coach. OK, it's not like it was that far-fetched for Ohio State to quickly rebound from a 6-7 season, no matter who the coach is. This is Ohio State, the dominant program of the Big Ten since the turn of the century, one that's appeared in eight BCS games in the last 10 seasons. But still, to go from 7-6 to 12-0 in one season, a season in which the Buckeyes are ineligible to compete for the BCS championship, is incredible, even in a weak Big Ten. Just look at Urban Meyer's career. Seventeen wins in two seasons at Bowling Green. Twenty-four wins, including a Fiesta Bowl, in two years at Utah. Two national championships and three 13-win seasons at Florida. And now an undefeated season at Ohio State. This has all happened since 2001, and now Ohio State is prepared to dominate the Big Ten for however long he sticks around.
The Big East can't stop getting in its own way, Part 5,728. The Big East can't have nice things. The conference realignment pillaging continues, as Rutgers was plucked away by the Big Ten, and Connecticut, Louisville and Cincinnati could be on the ACC's radar. And then Saturday happened. Everything was set for Rutgers and Louisville to take center stage again on Thursday night, two top-25 teams battling for a BCS bid. That's still the case, but suddenly the game feels a lot smaller. Rutgers celebrated its Big Ten invite by losing to future ACC team Pitt 27-6. Louisville lost to Connecticut 23-20 at home in three overtimes and also saw star QB Teddy Bridgewater break his non-throwing wrist. If Louisville beats Rutgers, there could be a four-way tie atop the Big East standings between Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Syracuse. And, no, this isn't a case of great teams simply beating up on each other. The Big East has built a reputation for itself, and it's certainly warranted.
Grading the Rest of the Weekend
A+: Bill O'Brien
The job O'Brien did this season is truly incredible. After the most tumultuous offseason imaginable, O'Brien stepped in and steadied the ship, then somehow led Penn State to an 8-4 record (6-2 Big Ten) despite opening the season with losses to Ohio and Virginia. Zach Zwinak flew up the depth chart to rush for exactly 1,000 yards, easily besting Silas Redd's total at USC, a bunch of tight ends emerged to be productive and, perhaps most impressive, Matt McGloin broke Penn State records and led the Big Ten in touchdown passes. It's only a matter of time before NFL teams start knocking on his door, but for now Penn State fans can be safe knowing the perfect hire was made.
A: Washington State
It's amazing how much one win in a rivalry game can swing the momentum. Mike Leach's first season in Pullman was largely a disaster, with the offense sputtering and star WR Marquess Wilson quitting the team and accusing Leach and his coaching staff of abuse. This is also the team that lost to Colorado. But then the Apple Cup happened, and suddenly everything looks brighter. Few things can change an outlook quite like a 31-28 overtime win over an in-state enemy to end the season, a win in which the Cougars overcame a 28-10 fourth-quarter deficit.
A week after notching an emotional, rare blowout win over Tennessee, James Franklin's Commodores kept rolling, blowing out Wake Forest on the road, 55-21, to finish the regular season 8-4 (5-3 SEC). Vandy finished the season on a six-game winning streak, and while none of the opponents were particularly good, this is still Vandy we're talking about. It's only the second time since 1955 that the Commodores have won eight games, and a nine-win season would be their first since 1915 if they can win their bowl game.
Perhaps no game this weekend was entertaining as Bedlam, which lived up to its name. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State traded points for 60 minutes, with the Cowboys clinging to a seven-point lead until Blake Bell barreled into the end zone from four yards out with four seconds left in regulation. After actually holding the Cowboys to a field goal in overtime, Brennan Clay scored from 18 yards out to keep Oklahoma in the BCS hunt with a 51-48 win. The Sooners ended up running 103 plays in the game, with Landry Jones completing 46-of-71 pass attempts for 500 yards and three TDs.
After coming up with a dominant game plan against Kansas State, Baylor's defense fell back into its old ways by giving up 567 yards to Texas Tech at Jerry World, but the Bears still found a way to win 52-45 and become bowl eligible. Of course, the offense once again put up huge numbers, including 396 passing yards for Nick Florence, 175 receiving yards for Terrance Williams and 136 rushing yards for Lache Seastrunk.
B-: West Virginia
At least the Mountaineers are going bowling. What started out so promising fell off the rails in spectacular fashion, with West Virginia losing five in a row after a 5-0 start, including heartbreaking losses to TCU and Oklahoma by a point each. It wasn't pretty, but the Mountaineers finally got back in the win column on Friday, holding off Iowa State 31-24 thanks to a 75-yard TD from Tavon Austin in the fourth quarter. With Kansas left, West Virginia should finish with back-to-back wins and salvage a shred of dignity after a disastrous middle part of the season.
It wasn't the most thrilling game, but Nebraska finished off a 10-2 regular season with a 13-7 win in the Corn Bowl over Iowa on Black Friday - exactly 11 years after the most memorable of all Friday-after-Thanksgiving debacles against Colorado, one that still resulted in a Rose Bowl bid. The best news was Rex Burkhead played his first game since mid-October, giving the Cornhuskers a potent backfield alongside Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah heading into the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin.
It's difficult to judge what a 20-13 win over Arkansas even means at this point. On one hand, the Razorbacks suffered through an abysmal 4-8 season after Bobby Petrino's exit. On the other hand, this is still a talented Arkansas roster featuring Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton, among others. The Razorbacks drove into the red zone in the game's final seconds, but, as usual, LSU found a way to escape with a win.
Losing to TCU is by no means inexcusable - as always, Gary Patterson has put together a great defense - but the Longhorns were put together and incredibly sluggish effort in front of a Thanksgiving night audience. Perhaps it's good they didn't play Texas A&M this year (well, that could change in the Cotton Bowl). The Longhorns averaged 2.6 yards per carry, turned the ball over four times and ended up playing two QBs with David Ash getting hurt in the fourth quarter. Texas was held out of the end zone for nearly 57 minutes in a 20-13 loss that knocked it out of the BCS hut.
D+: The ACC
The only thing that saved the ACC this weekend was Duke and Miami putting on an entertaining game in which the Hurricanes won 52-45. The game featured 176 yards from star freshman Duke Johnson, and Duke WR Jamison Crowder caught a 99-yard TD pass from Sean Renfree, who threw for 432 yards. Most of the rest of the ACC's time was spent embarrassing itself. Florida State lost to Florida. Clemson lost to South Carolina. Wake Forest got blown out by Vanderbilt. Georgia Tech got blown out by Georgia. The most consistent team in college football, Virginia Tech, limped to a 6-6 finish by kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired to beat Virginia.
D: Mississippi State
"We're never losing to this team again," Dan Mullen said upon beating Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl in 2010. Ole Miss loved those comments so much that it played them on the video board after Saturday's game, a 41-17 Rebels win in which they dominated the middle two quarters and became bowl eligible, and Bo Wallace threw five touchdown passes against the Bulldogs' touted secondary. Remember when Mississippi State was inexplicably ranked 11th after a 7-0 start? Yeah, feels like a long time ago.
F: Southern Mississippi
While Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer have done remarkable jobs leading their programs to unexpected undefeated seasons, let's look to Hattiesburg for an example of the opposite. A consistently solid program that finished above .500 18 straight seasons under Jeff Bower and Larry Fedora, highlighted by a 12-2 record last year, the Golden Eagles tanked after Fedora's departure for North Carolina. Under new coach Ellis Johnson, they failed to win a game, capping off the season with a 42-24 loss at Memphis on Saturday. The most memorable thing they did all year was lose to Louisville in flood conditions. It was hard for a first-year coach to do worse than Tim Beckman at Illinois (2-10), but Johnson did just that.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: It's been a frustrating season in East Lansing, as the Spartans needed a 26-10 win over Minnesota just to become bowl eligible after several heartbreaking losses. To get bowl eligible, they rode their workhorse, feeding Bell more than 30 carries for the third straight game and sixth time this season. He ran 35 times for 266 yards and a touchdown, giving him his third 200-yard game of 2012.
Shane Carden, QB, East Carolina: Nobody was watching, but East Carolina and Marshall did everything they could to get people to switch to CBS Sports Network in a 65-59 double-overtime thriller won by the Pirates. Carden was the star, completing 38-of-47 passes for 439 yards with six total touchdowns, including the game-winning TD.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: A week after Clemson's Tajh Boyd accounted for eight touchdowns, he ran into Clowney, the freakishly athletic pass rusher who's destined to be a top overall pick in the NFL Draft. Clowney sacked Boyd 4 ½ times on Saturday, boosting his season total to 13.
De'Leon Eskridge, RB, San Jose State: We've previously addressed San Jose State's remarkable season, and the Spartans finished it off on another high note with a 52-43 win against Louisiana Tech to move to 10-2, with the only losses coming to Stanford by three and WAC champion Utah State. A transfer from Minnesota, Eskridge had the biggest game of his one-year Spartans career against Louisiana Tech, running 28 times for 217 yards and three touchdowns.
Robert Marve, QB, Purdue: Few college football players have ever had careers as eventful as Marve. A highly touted Miami recruit, Marve is in his sixth season of college football, one that's included a broken arm, multiple suspensions, a transfer to Purdue, accusations of improper benefits in the Nevin Shapiro scandal, and three ACL tears, one of which happened earlier this season. Amazingly, Marve's impossibly long career will be extended another game, as he completed 20-of-29 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-35 win over Indiana that makes the Boilermakers bowl eligible.
Adam Muema, RB, San Diego State: The Aztecs finished the season on a seven-game winning streak, and Muema is a big reason why, given that they lost starting QB Ryan Katz for the season in October. Muema had his biggest game of the season in a 42-28 win over Wyoming, rushing 26 times for 255 yards and four touchdowns.
Student of the Year
If I had a Heisman ballot …
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: What more can he do? While other candidates have fallen, Manziel has done nothing but build a greater case. Sure, much of the attention surrounding him has to do with one colossal win against Alabama, but his numbers are absurd for a team that's now 10-2 after a 59-29 win over Missouri. Manziel toyed with the Tigers, throwing for 372 yards and three TDs and rushing for 67 yards and two TDs. He now has 20 passing TDs and 19 rushing TDs for the season … and he's only a freshman.
2. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame: Notre Dame is undefeated, and there's no doubt that its signature player is headed to New York, even if he plays defense. Te'o has been a steady force at linebacker all year, and he finished the regular season with his seventh interception of the season in Saturday night's win over USC.
3. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State: This spot basically falls to Klein by default. It's not exactly a banner year for the Heisman, which is why a freshman and a defender somehow top this list, and most lists. Let's not totally forget about Klein's season just because K-State lost to Baylor. He still has 34 total touchdowns with a game left for a team with one loss.
Next in line: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Oregon RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, USC WR Marqise Lee, Georgia LB Jarvis Jones, South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
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. Congratulations, college football, you did it! Eligible teams (six wins):
72*: Air Force, Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas State, Ball State, Baylor, Boise State, Bowling Green, BYU, Central Michigan, 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, Michigan, Michigan State, Middle Tennessee, Minnesota, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Navy, Nebraska, Nevada, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Oregon State, Purdue, Rutgers, San Diego State, San Jose State, SMU, South Carolina, Stanford, Syracuse, TCU, Texas, Texas Rice, A&M, Texas Tech, Toledo, Tulsa, UCF, UCLA, USC, Utah State, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Washington, West Virginia, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin
*Miami (Fla.), North Carolina, Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play.
On the Syllabus for Week 14
The final week of the regular season is here, meaning conference championship games and a few other random games. Obviously, the headliner is Saturday afternoon, with Alabama and Georgia facing off for the SEC title in a play-in game for the national championship. Nothing else carries the same importance. Still, there's plenty to watch, including the Big Ten championship (Nebraska vs. Wisconsin), the Pac-12 championship (Friday, UCLA at Stanford), what's essentially the Big East championship (Thursday, Louisville at Rutgers), the ACC championship (Florida State vs. Georgia Tech) and Kansas State looking to rebound from its first loss against Texas and lock up the Fiesta Bowl.