Cowboys’ collapse commences countdown to BCS meltdown

Matt Hinton

Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (Double Overtime).
The concentric circles radiating outward from the Cowboys' collapse affect the college football landscape on every level, on up to the national championship game, and we will get to them all. But at the center, there is a 26.5-point underdog that just delivered the biggest win in school history, and did it out of a 17-point hole in the second half.

For Iowa State, a program that hasn't won a conference title since 1935, has never won ten games in a season and has only finished in the final polls twice, dropping the No. 2 team in every major poll on national television — to secure bowl eligibility, no less — is arguably the highest point ever for Cyclone football. Trotting out a redshirt freshman quarterback making just his third career start, the lowest-scoring offense in the Big 12 turned in a season-high 568 yards of total offense and rallied from a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter to tie the game at 24 in the fourth. The defense held an attack averaging more than 51 points per game to a season-low 24 points in regulation and forced a season-high five turnovers, the last one an interception off now-former Heisman Trophy frontrunner Brandon Weeden in the second overtime. It was Weeden's third pick of the night, overruling 476 yards and three touchdowns from his right arm to seal his team's fate.

Three plays later, tailback Jeff Woody crossed the line for the winning touchdown, and the current coursing through Jack Trice Stadium spilled onto the field to commemorate the highest-ranked victim in Iowa State history. Where the Bowl Championship Series is concerned, it was a celebration of chaos.

Behind unbeaten LSU, the queue for the second ticket to the BCS title game now consists exclusively of a gaggle of one-loss teams — Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon — from which there can be no right answer.

For Oklahoma State, a November flop against a presumptive punching bag ruins the most promising campaign in its history, and likely destroys any hope of playing for the BCS championship. With the sudden tanking of the Cowboys' stock, they're a much less valuable victim for Oklahoma, which was hoping to atone for its own embarrassing loss last month by beating its undefeated rival on Dec. 3; after tonight, even a win in Stillwater likely will not be impressive enough to vault the Sooners past No. 3 Alabama or No. 4 Oregon in the BCS standings. At the same time, the Crimson Tide and Ducks are at the mercy of voters opposed to sending either of them on to a rematch with LSU after losing to the Tigers in the regular season.

In one fell swoop, one of the most unlikely BCS spoilers the system has ever produced has sent it spiraling into a meltdown.{YSP:MORE} And if Arkansas upsets LSU on Nov. 26, all existing assumptions will be rendered immediately null and void. A system built for two teams cannot handle a reality in which only one team — and possibly none by the time the smoke clears — has separated itself from the pack.

All because the No. 2 team in the nation couldn't finish off a 5-4 outfit that opened the conference schedule with four consecutive losses by double digits. To the extent that Oklahoma State lived by the turnover en route to its 10-0 start, it died by the turnover tonight — and by a defense that ultimately was as porous as its critics suggested. A week after shutting out Texas Tech, the Cowboys yielded 24 consecutive points in the second half and overtime to an offense that came in averaging just 24 points per game, fewest in the conference. When the turnover margin finally flipped on the nation's stingiest defense, all that was left was the unit looking every bit like one allowing more than 440 yards per game.

That was never good enough to get through the season unscathed. Tonight, finish line in sight, their Achilles' heel finally caught up with them. But the Cowboys aren't the first, and they won't be the last: With three weeks still to go in the regular season, the tremors are only beginning.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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