The Essay Question
Tackling the Crimson Tide’s Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon was not an option on Saturday afternoon, not for Georgia, maybe not even for Notre Dame had the Fighting Irish been playing in Atlanta. The two running backs combined for one of the most overpowering, intimidating performances in recent memory, even in a game that was evenly matched between Alabama and Georgia teams battling for SEC supremacy and a national title shot.
Come Jan. 7 in Miami, we’ll see if Notre Dame is capable of doing what Georgia couldn’t in a case of an immovable object versus an unstoppable force. If anybody can, it’s Manti Te’o, Stephon Tuitt and a Notre Dame defense that has held opposing ground games to fewer than 100 yards in eight of 12 tries, and one that went more than a month without allowing an offensive touchdown. Notre Dame, Rust Belt location and all, can easily be mistaken for an elite SEC team, suffocating opponents with defense and attempting to control the tempo. That’s Alabama’s game too, only Notre Dame has yet to see the combination of backfield and offensive line talent that Alabama has -- partially because nobody in America can match what the Tide has to offer.
For as good as Georgia’s defense is, the Bulldogs had been vulnerable against the run, ranking 11th in the SEC by giving up 163 yards on the ground per game. But, despite Alabama’s talent on the offensive line -- a unit that was said to be a disappointment in the first half of Saturday’s game -- and despite the two-headed monster that is Lacy and Yeldon, it was still shocking to see Alabama toy with Georgia’s front seven in its 32-28 SEC championship win, a dramatic back-and-forth game that resulted in a crushing defeat for the Bulldogs. The yards looked like they were coming so easily, so much so that having A.J. McCarron -- a Heisman candidate just a few weeks ago -- throw any passes at all appeared foolish, at least until McCarron’s beautifully thrown, 45-yard, go-ahead TD pass to emerging star Amari Cooper.
But there was nothing Georgia could do. Lacy ran 20 times for 181 yards, combining power with his trademark spin move. The freshman Yeldon ran 25 times for 153 yards, somehow keeping pace with his veteran backfield mate. Over and over Alabama ran right at the Bulldogs, even if it wasn’t a vintage Nick Saban performance, given that he mixed in up-tempo, no-huddle looks to make the bruising running performances even more unbearable to handle for Georgia.
You’ll hear it often over the next 40 days, but this season’s national championship game is old-school in every way. Two of college football’s most historic programs, both lining up with superb defenses and talented, opportunistic defenses. As the game evolves, as Oregon puts up 50 points every week in its up-tempo spread, defense and power football are back on top, at least for one season.
Perhaps the hype for the clash of college football titans will grow to be too much, but there’s little doubt that this will be one of the most intriguing national title games in years -- Midwest vs. South, elite defense vs. elite defense, Brian Kelly vs. Nick Saban. The SEC’s six-year championship run is in the hands of Lacy and Yeldon, and across the line of scrimmage will be one of the few teams capable of taking the punches and hitting back.
Of course the Big Ten is sending a 7-5 team to the Rose Bowl. That’s exactly how this season, one that started with Michigan getting blown out by Alabama, should end in the Big Ten. Nothing really made sense in the league this year. The best team, far and away, was Ohio State, which finished 12-0 but has nothing to show for it because it’s ineligible for the postseason. The second-best team in the Leaders Division was Penn State, also ineligible for the postseason, meaning Wisconsin backed its way into the Big Ten title game after a disappointing 7-5 season. So how did the Badgers respond? They ran past and through every tackle Nebraska attempted to make on Saturday night in Indianapolis. Wisconsin won 70-31, steamrolling the Cornhuskers for 539 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground to advance to its third straight Rose Bowl, this time against Stanford, which beat UCLA 27-24 on Friday to win the Pac-12. In the process of getting embarrassed, Nebraska at least got this highlight-reel run from Taylor Martinez. That was about it. The Cornhuskers looked like Savannah State on defense, while Wisconsin looked like the ground-game machine we’ve seen in the past.
Collin Klein is doing just fine. The Klein everyone grew to love as the Heisman frontrunner through the season’s first two months saw his production fall off after he was knocked out of Kansas State’s win against Oklahoma State. He never missed a game, but he was mediocre against TCU and really struggled in the shocking loss to Baylor. While Klein opened the scoring in Saturday’s game against Texas, the Wildcats offense still looked lost for much of the game’s first three quarters, as they trailed 17-14. They finally woke up, though, scoring four straight touchdowns, and Klein threw a 55-yard TD pass and finished with 103 yards and two TDs on the ground to give Kansas State a 42-24 win and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl -- its first BCS appearance since the 2003 season. Klein’s unlikely to win the Heisman after the last few weeks, but he’ll surely have a seat in New York next Saturday.
Northern Illinois is the class of the MAC. The Huskies’ brilliant season got some expected bad news on Saturday when it was revealed that head coach Dave Doeren is headed for N.C. State after just two seasons. But Doeren’s short tenure was certainly something to celebrate, ending with a dramatic 44-37 double-overtime win over Kent State on Friday. The win gave Northern Illinois its second straight MAC title, and it has won 34 games over the last three seasons with a bowl game still to play. In a battle of Professor favorites, NIU QB Jordan Lynch beat Kent State athlete Dri Archer, despite Archer’s 15-yard TD run to open the scoring. Archer was held to 15 yards on 12 carries, while Lynch ran for 160 yards and three TDs and threw for 212 yards and one touchdown. The Huskies will move on without Doeren, but Lynch is only a junior.
Let’s avoid building up Florida State next year. Yes, the Seminoles are ACC champions with an 11-2 record. But they beat one Top 25 team all year (Clemson), lost to N.C. State and failed to score in the second half on Saturday against a .500 Georgia Tech team that gave up 49 points in a loss to Middle Tennessee earlier this year. E.J. Manuel threw for only 134 yards with an interception in the Seminoles’ shaky 21-15 win, one in which Georgia Tech had the ball with a chance to win at the end – only the result was different than the N.C. State loss thanks to a Karlos Williams interception. Yes, winning the ACC is a nice step considering the Seminoles hadn’t actually done it since 2005, but there was no reason for them not to win a lousy ACC this season.
The Big East season ended in perfect fashion. As the Big East falls apart, what could be more perfect than 1) an ACC team (Louisville) and a Big Ten team (Rutgers) battling in the last week for the conference’s automatic BCS bid, one day after basketball’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and 2) half the conference sharing the league title. That’s right, thanks to a messy Week 13 in which Rutgers lost to Pitt and Louisville fell to UConn, Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Syracuse technically shared the Big East title at 5-2. That’s two ACC teams, one Big Ten team and one that desperately wishes it could get invited to a better party. Credit Louisville, though, and especially QB Teddy Bridgewater, who played through a broken wrist to lead a 20-17 win in Piscataway on Thursday to send the Cardinals to the BCS for the second time.
Grading the Rest of the Weekend
A+: Arkansas State
Hello, future SEC head coach Gus Malzahn. Malzahn was responsible for ridiculous offenses at Tulsa and, along with Cam Newton, Auburn’s 2010 success. Now, he’s taken over Arkansas State and led it to its second consecutive Sun Belt championship. Hugh Freeze got the promotion to Ole Miss last year, and, if he wants it, the move to the SEC is inevitable for Malzahn too, as he’s been a hot name the last few years. In a de facto Sun Belt title game against Middle Tennessee on Saturday, Arkansas State out-gained the Blue Raiders 512-203 en route to a 45-0 shellacking.
A: Boise State
No, Boise State isn’t nearly as good as it has been the last few years. The Broncos lost a ridiculous number of starters, including QB Kellen Moore and RB Doug Martin, and this was expected to be a rebuilding year. In many ways, it was, and they did lose twice -- the first time that’s happened since 2007. But the Broncos capped off another stellar season on Saturday, beating nemesis Nevada 27-21 thanks to 130 rushing yards from D.J. Harper to claim a share of a three-way Mountain West title with Fresno State and San Diego State at 7-1.
Before Art Briles, Baylor hadn’t had a winning season since 1995. Now the Bears have had three in a row, and they had one of the nation’s most prolific offenses despite the loss of Robert Griffin III. Baylor notched three straight impressive wins to finish the season, taking down Kansas State, edging Texas Tech in overtime and beating Oklahoma State 41-34 on Saturday. Nick Florence had a mediocre game by Baylor standards, throwing for 296 yards, but he also ran for 71 yards, and Baylor got 178 yards, including a 78-yard TD, from RB Lache Seastrunk.
The Tulsa athletic program has had better weeks, considering athletic director Ross Parmley was placed on leave because of a gambling probe. But the Golden Hurricane took care of business at home in the Conference USA title game, beating UCF 33-27 in overtime thanks to a blocked punt return for a TD to tie the game in the fourth quarter and a touchdown and UCF missed field goal in the extra period.
Apparently winning in Fort Worth isn’t difficult; TCU went 0-4 at home in conference play in its first season in the Big 12. The Sooners struggled with the Horned Frogs’ stingy defense, though, as Landry Jones fell back to earth after back-to-back 500-yard games, throwing for 244 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in Oklahoma’s 24-17 win. Oklahoma doesn’t get the Big 12’s automatic BCS bid, but it shares the league title with Kansas State at 8-1.
Congratulations to the Bearcats, who get the illustrious honor of sharing the Big East title with half the conference after a 34-17 win at UConn. Cincinnati was actually out-gained, but it won the turnover battle 3-1 and out-scored the Huskies 13-0 in the fourth quarter to put the game away, while Butch Jones attempts to avoid discussing other open jobs.
C: The WAC
Goodbye, WAC. It’s been fun. Years of great offense and questionable defense in a league that dates back to 1962 are coming to an end, as Texas State beat New Mexico State 66-28 in the final football game in the conference’s history as it prepares to watch its members bolt for the Mountain West, Conference USA and Sun Belt. It’s only fitting that a 4-8 team new to FBS football scored 66 in the final conference game.
To be fair, the Jayhawks occasionally showed signs of life, losing to Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech by a total of 17 points. They also ended Charlie Weis’ first season on an 11-game losing streak after winning their opener against South Dakota State. Nobody could reasonably expect Kansas to keep up with West Virginia, but the Jayhawks managed only 10 points against the 117th-ranked scoring defense in a 59-10 loss.
F: South Florida
Stick a fork in the Skip Holtz era. In a season in which four of the Big East’s eight teams shared the conference title, South Florida was a disaster, winning one conference game while also failing, thus far, to join the realignment shuffle and get out of the horribly unstable league. In the Bulls’ final game of 2012, they were embarrassed at home by Pitt, 27-3, failing to score until the fourth quarter. Their wins this year came against Chattanooga, Nevada and Connecticut, and Holtz has gone from 8-5 to 5-7 to 3-9 in his three seasons in Tampa.
Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois: Lynch was brilliant, again, in the MAC title game against Kent State. He completed 19 of 34 passes for 212 yards, one TD and one interception and ran a season-high 36 times for 160 yards and three TDs, finishing the regular season with 43 total TDs in 13 games.
Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor: Once primarily known as part of the Willie Lyles recruiting scandal at Oregon, Seastrunk has broken out in the second half of the 2012 season for Baylor, rushing for 100 yards in four of his last five games. In Saturday’s win over Oklahoma State, Seastrunk ran for 178 yards, including a ridiculous 76-yard touchdown in which he cramped up along the way.
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: Smith’s Heisman campaign fell apart when the Mountaineers lost five straight games, but he still finished the year with phenomenal numbers in Dana Holgorsen’s offense. In a 59-10 drubbing of Kansas, Smith completed 23 of 24 passes for 407 yards, three touchdowns and a pick, giving him 40 touchdowns and five interceptions for the season.
The Alabama and Wisconsin running games: It’s worth repeating for emphasis. Behind Yeldon and Lacy, Alabama rolled up 350 yards and three TDs on the ground in the SEC title game. In the Big Ten, behind Montee Ball (202 yards), Melvin Gordon (216 yards) and James White (109 yards), Wisconsin ran for 539 and eight TDs in a thrashing of Nebraska.
On the Syllabus for Week 15
Sad times. No more college football Saturdays. Next week, we’ll have to settle for two prestigious events: One, the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, as Army attempts to win its first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 1996 after beating Air Force earlier this season. Two, Johnny Manziel attempts to become the first freshman to win the Heisman. Before then, look for Sports on Earth’s Heisman coverage and regular-season wrap-up content during the week.