Is Baylor, Ohio State or Stanford best suited as a title game fill-in? (Photos: Getty)
WHO'S NO. 3?
Ultimately, it may not matter. If Alabama and Florida State win out, there likely is nothing the teams behind them in the BCS standings can do to overtake them.
But funny things happen late in the year to previously invincible teams on their way to the national title game. Ask Oregon about last week, or last year. Ask Kansas State about 2012 as well – and 1998, for good measure. Ask Oklahoma State about 2011, West Virginia about 2007, Tennessee about 2001.
They were on all track to play in the BCS title game. They all blew it.
So the chase pack behind the Crimson Tide and Seminoles have ample reason beyond conference championships to keep striving. For Ohio State, Stanford and Baylor – their current order in the BCS standings – the dream lives. For the voters and fans trying to make sense of the top five, the hard part is differentiating between the three teams.
For that reason, let's take a look at all three candidates for No. 3 – in the order The Dash would put them behind Alabama and Florida State today:
Baylor (1). Best of the chase pack by the smallest of margins, and subject to change. If it weren't for preseason polling (unranked) and subsequent slot voting, the Bears would probably be No. 3 today. Best thing they have done is dominate nearly everyone. The only exception has been the 35-25 victory at Kansas State, in which Baylor trailed entering the fourth quarter and only led by three until scoring an insurance touchdown in the final 80 seconds. The schedule has been weak to this point – the "statement" whipping of Oklahoma last Thursday came against what may be the worst Sooners squad of the 21st century. But there will be a couple of relative quality opponents ahead in BCS No. 12 Oklahoma State (at Stillwater Nov. 23) and BCS No. 24 Texas (in Waco Dec. 7).
The argument for putting Baylor ahead of Ohio State: The teams have one common opponent, Buffalo. The Bears beat the Bulls at home, 70-13, on Sept. 7. The Buckeyes beat the Bulls at home, 40-20, on Aug. 31. If it seems crazy to put weight on games played that early, well, this is the sport where they say every game matters, right? Ohio State hasn't done anything nearly as impressive as beating Oklahoma by 29. And when all is said and done, the Big 12 schedule should weight in ever-so-slightly tougher than the Big Ten.
The argument for putting Baylor ahead of Stanford: Didn't lose a game to a team (Utah) with a losing record both overall (4-5) and in league play (1-5).
Ohio State (2). Buckeyes receiver Evan Spencer enlivened Monday with his mouth. Asked whether he watched the big three games of last week – Alabama-LSU, Oregon-Stanford, Baylor-Oklahoma – Spencer said, "I guess I'm a little bit biased. But I think we'd wipe the field with both of them, but that's just my bias speaking," according to Ohio State beat writer Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch. When Rabinowitz asked who the "both" was, Alabama and who else, Spencer said, "Whoever. … If we execute for a full game, there's nobody in the country that we feel can hang with us …" So there's some confidence for you. Unfortunately, Ohio State wouldn't have any idea what it's like to play quality competition because it has seen little and played in a grand total of zero hostile environments. (Check the stands at Cal, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois and there was a whole lot of scarlet in the house.) Ohio State probably deserves more credit for handling a good Wisconsin team in a game it never trailed, but the final box score shows only a seven-point victory and more total yards for the Badgers. Beyond that game, there is absolutely no meat on the bone, and there will be none until a possible Big Ten title game matchup with Michigan State.
The argument for putting Ohio State ahead of Baylor: Beating Wisconsin will ultimately trump beating Oklahoma – and, hey, that Northwestern game at least looked like a showdown at the time. Beyond that it basically boils down to squatter's rights. The Buckeyes began the year ahead of the Bears and have done nothing to lose that spot, especially to a team with an equally unimpressive schedule. And laundry. One team is Ohio State, the other is Baylor.
The argument for putting Ohio State ahead of Stanford: Didn't lose a game to a team (Utah) with a losing record both overall (4-5) and in league play (1-5).
Stanford (3). Definitely has played the most rigorous schedule of the three, with victories over five teams that were ranked at the time: No. 23 Arizona State, No. 15 Washington, No. 9 UCLA, No. 25 Oregon State and No. 2 Oregon. (Three of those teams are currently ranked.) Sagarin rates it the No. 2 schedule in America to date, and the BCS computers as a whole rank Stanford ahead of both Baylor and Ohio State. It's fair to assert that no victory should be worth more than beating the undefeated Ducks. The obvious problem is the loss to Utah in Salt Lake City, a place where both Arizona State and UCLA went and won (albeit both with difficulty).
The argument for putting Stanford ahead of both Baylor and Ohio State: If the Bears and Buckeyes had played the Cardinal schedule, instead of their collection of cadavers, they'd both have at least one loss. Maybe more.
BIGGEST ROAD WINS OF 2013
The difference in performance between home and road seems more profound than usual this year, and the Sagarin Ratings bear that out. Sagarin lists a national average home-field advantage as worth 3.91 points per game this season, the highest since 2000. Seven of the previous eight seasons, the average was less than 3, and in 2006 was less than 2.
That should be enough reason for voters to place even higher than usual value on winning away from home. And it makes these victories in particular stand out:
Florida State over Clemson (4), Oct. 19. Not only did the Seminoles go into Death Valley and win, they dominated from the opening play. The final score was 51-14 only because of a late touchdown by the home team. A completely dazzling performance.
Alabama over Texas A&M (5), Sept. 14. An extremely hostile environment became even more adverse for the Crimson Tide after the Aggies sprinted to a 14-0 lead. Alabama's regrouping was especially impressive, scoring the next 35 points to take control of the game and never relinquish it.
Auburn over Texas A&M (6), Oct. 19. The Tigers stamped their turnaround season as legitimate by coming from behind four different times at Kyle Field. They knocked around Johnny Manziel in the second half and finally scored the winning touchdown in a 45-41 shootout with 1:19 left.
South Carolina over Missouri (7), Oct. 26. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 in the fourth quarter before rallying. The hero was quarterback Connor Shaw, who came off the bench after suffering a knee sprain the previous week. Mizzou gift-wrapped the game in overtime with a blown coverage on fourth-and-15 and a doinked 24-yard field goal, but credit South Carolina for never waving the white flag.
Central Florida over Louisville (8), Oct. 18. Speaking of comebacks: The Knights were down 21 in the third quarter before the game turned on a dime. UCF scored on its final five possessions of the game to pull out a 38-35 upset victory that gives it the inside track for the American Athletic Conference title and a first-ever BCS bowl bid.
Missouri over Georgia (9), Oct. 12. The first truly big SEC victory for the Tigers came at the expense of a banged-up team, but it still was an impressive performance by the visitors. Mizzou harassed Aaron Murray in racing to a 28-10 halftime lead over the then-No. 7 Bulldogs, saw the lead whittled to 28-26, then scored the final 13 points to pull away.
UCLA over Nebraska (10), Sept. 14. The Cornhuskers are not great, but nobody knew that on Sept. 14 – and when Nebraska charged to a 21-3 lead it looked like the Bruins were in ruins. But UCLA scored a stunning 38 unanswered points to win in a rout and imperil Bo Pelini's job security in Lincoln.
Northern Illinois over Iowa (11), Aug. 31. The primary reaction when the Huskies rallied to beat the Hawkeyes in the final minutes of the season opener was to dump on Iowa. But the Hawkeyes are a respectable 6-4, and Northern Illinois deserved more credit for the victory. NIU hasn't lost since and is still in the running for a second straight BCS bowl bid.
BIGGEST ROAD FLOPS
Stanford at Utah (12), Oct. 12. The only thing keeping the Cardinal out of a compelling argument for BCS championship game inclusion are the Utes, who could be looking at a second straight non-winning season.
South Carolina at Tennessee (13), Oct. 19. The only game the Volunteers have won since September came against the then-No. 11 Gamecocks. After rallying from 10 points down for a 21-17 lead, South Carolina was shut out over the last 17:50 as Tennessee kicked two field goals to pull a major upset.
Oklahoma State at West Virginia (14), Sept. 28. The only thing keeping the Cowboys from an unbeaten record, a tie for first in the Big 12 and a spot in the Top Ten is their 30-21 meltdown in Morgantown. Three turnovers, 96 penalty yards and a 12-yard average on three punts helped Oklahoma State lose to a West Virginia team currently 4-6.
Penn State at Indiana (15), Oct. 5. This was the first glimpse of what a dreadful road team the Nittany Lions would be. Penn State gave up 23 points in the fourth quarter and lost to Indiana for the first time ever. The two road games that followed have been a 49-point loss at Ohio State and a 14-point loss at Minnesota.
BLACK COACHES: SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY
For many years, most of the college head-coaching opportunities African-Americans got tended to be bad ones. New Mexico State, San Jose State, New Mexico, Eastern Michigan, Western Kentucky, Kansas, a torn-down Colorado, Georgia State – they all have had black coaches in largely thankless jobs this century.
A few high-end schools hired black coaches with disappointing results – namely Notre Dame, Miami and UCLA.
But there is a quartet of black coaches currently tearing it up on the college level, and virtually all of them could be in play for other positions that come open in what is now starting to look like a potentially wild year on the job market. They all have taken the opportunity presented them and made it a better job very rapidly.
Kevin Sumlin (16), Texas A&M. Previous head-coaching experience: Four years at Houston. Years at A&M: Two. Record: 19-4. Current BCS ranking: 11th. How was the job when he took it: Good but risky. Strong commitment in terms of facilities and salary, excellent recruiting territory, but a traditional underachiever program heading into a killer new league. Hidden advantage: Nobody knew how good Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans were. Now what: One report says Sumlin is the top candidate for the open USC job, while plenty of other people believe his next stop is the NFL.
David Shaw (17), Stanford. Previous head-coaching experience: None. Years at Stanford: Three. Record: 31-5. Current BCS ranking: 4th. How was the job when he took it: Great – but with a possible expiration date. He inherited Andrew Luck and a lot of other star players from a 12-1 team that won the Orange Bowl. The question was whether Shaw could sustain the run after Luck left. Hidden advantage: Nobody knew how many good players Stanford had stockpiled, in part because of the recruiting by then-offensive coordinator Shaw. Now what: He's another guy who figures to get a run at pro jobs if he wants them. A Stanford alum and a great fit on The Farm, he may not be inclined to chase other college positions.
James Franklin (18), Vanderbilt. Previous head-coaching experience: None. Years at Vanderbilt: Three. Record: 20-15. Current BCS ranking: Unranked. How was the job when he took it: A graveyard. Few Vandy coaches left on their terms, and even fewer left as winners. The school's position as a hardline academic school trying to compete in the Southeastern Conference seemed like a doomed proposition. Hidden advantage: Franklin's charisma has helped give the Commodores the same national recruiting pitch used by Stanford, Notre Dame and Northwestern: if you're a smart, high-achiever kid who also plays football, we're the place for you. Now what: He was in demand last year and stayed; may be more motivated to go now after several of his recruits were charged with rape during the offseason – an upsetting allegation at any school, but particularly at one with Vanderbilt's rep.
Charlie Strong (19), Louisville. Previous head-coaching experience: None. Years at Louisville: Four. Record: 33-15. Current BCS ranking: 20th. How was the job when he took it: Troubled. The Cardinals had experienced a decade of success, but it was undone in three badly bungled years under Steve Kragthorpe. Hidden advantage: Strong's recruiting ties in Florida paid immediate dividends and started a pipeline that flows through the roster. Now what: Given a fat new contract and a place in the ACC in 2014, Strong has a much better job than the one he took. He turned down Tennessee last year, but keep an eye on Florida as the potential next suitor if athletic director Jeremy Foley decides to trap-door embattled Will Muschamp.
The secrets to success for five teams enjoying surprising seasons:
Baylor defense (20). You know all about undefeated Baylor's No. 1-ranked offense, but the breakthrough has come on the other side of the ball. Each of the previous two seasons, the Bears surrendered 37.2 points per game. To date this year the average is 15.4, which is sixth nationally. Baylor is giving up just 4.08 yards per play, second only to Michigan State. Head coach Art Briles comes with an offensive pedigree, but defensive coordinator Phil Bennett says the boss has worked relentlessly to upgrade the talent on the defensive side of the ball. "He recruits defensive players as hard as anybody," Bennett said. The Baylor D will be called upon more than ever in the final four games as the Bears go without explosive receiver Tevin Reese (dislocated wrist).
Auburn offense (21). This upgrade was inevitable the minute they hired Gus Malzahn as coach. An offensive savant, Malzahn got the quarterback he needed to jumpstart his attack in junior-college transfer Nick Marshall. With a better QB, better scheme and better play-calling, Auburn's per-game averages have jumped from 18.7 points and 305 yards in 2012 to 38.6 points and 493.3 yards in 2013. Not coincidentally, its record has jumped from 3-9 to 9-1.
Missouri turnover margin (22). While struggling through an injury-riddled, 5-7 first season in the SEC, the Tigers were plus-one in turnovers. Through 10 games this year the 9-1 SEC East leaders are plus-14, tied for fifth-best in the nation. Last year's team intercepted seven passes in 12 games; this year Mizzou has 17 already. The Tigers also have only turned it over 11 times, compared to 22 a year ago – a remarkably low total given the fact that freshman backup quarterback Maty Mauk has started the last four games.
Minnesota running game (23). The Gophers are 8-2 and have their first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973, and one of the biggest reasons has been their ground-and-pound offensive approach. Minnesota is averaging 218.5 rushing yards and 4.69 yards per carry, both of which are the best averages at the school since 2005. For a team with an inconsistent passing game, a successful run-first approach is vital.
Duke defense (24). The Blue Devils are allowing 22.2 points per game, on pace to be their lowest since 1987 when Steve Spurrier was the Head Ball Coach. The previous three seasons: 36, 31.2 and 35.4. Duke is stouter against the run and also creating more turnovers. The Devils have seven interceptions in the last two games – including a crazy pair of pick-sixes by redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards on consecutive plays Saturday against North Carolina State. Edwards also returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the game, and has 22 tackles in his last two games after recently breaking into the starting lineup as an undersized (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) safety. Talk about instant impact.
IN NEED OF IMPROVEMENT
There were some ghastly performances last Saturday. Inductees to the Offensive Hall of Shame:
Michigan (25) offensive line. For the second straight game, the Wolverines had a negative rushing total. That is unfathomable for a unit featuring a preseason All-American in tackle Taylor Lewan and several other highly recruited players. Quarterback Devin Gardner has tried to cut down turnovers by eating the football, as evidenced by his minus-80 yards the past two games – but even beyond the sacks, the Michigan line is getting zero push in the running game. The Wolverines do not have a single run of longer than nine yards since playing Indiana on Oct. 19.
Wake Forest (26) quarterbacks. Of the first 10 passes the Demon Deacons attempted against Florida State, two were completions – and six were interceptions. Surprisingly only one was returned for a touchdown, but FSU also recovered a fumble in the end zone for another score. Wake Forest played three quarterbacks in the game, in search of someone who would stop giving the ball away.
Florida (27) in general. The Gators are averaging 20.6 points per game, on pace to be their lowest season average since 1980. Injuries have been crippling, but that still doesn't adequately explain a program like Florida scoring a total of 60 points over its last four games – all losses. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease is as good as gone when the season ends – and the head coach hopes he isn't going with him.
Kansas (28) in general. Remember all the talk about how bad Turner Gill was? So bad he had to be fired after two years? Well, Gill's 5-19 record, 1-16 in Big 12 play, may end up better than Charlie Weis' two-year mark at the school. Right now Weis is 3-18 and still looking for his first Big 12 victory – he hasn't come within single digits of one in six tries this year. Mr. Schematic Advantage has gone three straight games without a first-half touchdown.
Saturday night, the Big Ten Network will debut "Tiebreaker (29)," a feature-length documentary on the 40th anniversary of the epic and controversial Ohio State-Michigan 10-10 tie of 1973. This was the height of the Bo vs. Woody battles, but the game and its aftermath went far beyond mere rivalry.
This was the Dark Ages of Big Ten football, when only the league champion was allowed to go to a bowl game. And the conference title was on the line in this game, which began with No. 1 Ohio State taking a 10-0 lead and No. 4 Michigan resolutely rallying to tie it. The Wolverines missed two long field goals late in the game. There was no overtime then, so the result stood.
Big Ten protocol at the time declared that if the defending champion finished in a tie for the title, it would not get to go to the Rose Bowl two years in a row. Which is why Michigan figured it would play in the game, because Ohio State had gone the previous year.
Heck, the Buckeyes thought that would be the case, too. But there was a vote of the league's athletic directors scheduled to determine who would go to Pasadena – and while that complicated matters, most thought it would be a mere formality.
"The expectation on my part was that we were probably not going to get the shot," said Archie Griffin, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy each of the next two seasons, on a Big Ten Network conference call Monday.
Said Dennis Franklin, the Michigan quarterback: "We felt very good for our chances. We felt like we had won the game, that our performance on the field spoke for ourselves. … We felt like we played better."
Countered Griffin: "I know Dennis felt like they had won the game. I did not feel like we had lost the game."
The votes were cast by secret ballot and the decision was revealed: Ohio State would go to the Rose Bowl. Schembechler and his players and all Michigan fans were outraged at the breach of protocol, and many suggested the vote was rigged in favor of the Buckeyes because Franklin broke his collarbone in the game and would not be able to play in the Rose Bowl.
Undefeated Michigan stayed home. The Wolverines went 30-2-1 over a three-year span in the 1970s and never played in a bowl game.
Fans of the two schools and students of college football history should enjoy the one-hour documentary, which is filled with interviews of players on both sides of the rivalry.
This week may not produce much direct alteration of the national title picture, but there are plenty of games that pack significant conference plot lines. The most important of them:
Ball State-Northern Illinois (30) Wednesday night. At stake: first place and quite likely the championship of the MAC West. The Cardinals (9-1, 6-0 in league play) are visiting the Huskies (9-0, 5-0) in hopes of handing them their first MAC loss since Oct. 1, 2011. NIU also is trying to keep its BCS bowl hopes alive.
Auburn-Georgia (31). At stake: Auburn needs to win to maintain realistic hope of capturing the SEC West and playing in a BCS bowl – and a victory would set up a fairly epic Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama on Nov. 30. Georgia needs the win to stay in the SEC East race – and that may actually be preferable for current division leader Missouri, which still must play Ole Miss on the road and host Texas A&M. A three-way tie between the Tigers, Bulldogs and South Carolina would be decided by divisional record, as opposed to head-to-head – which Mizzou would lose to South Carolina.
Stanford-USC (32). At stake: The Cardinal is trying to maintain its hold on the Pac-12 North and potential home-field advantage for the league championship game. The Trojans, resurgent under interim coach Ed Orgeron, are still in the hunt in the Pac-12 South but need help in the form of two teams knocking off divisional leader Arizona State.
Michigan State-Nebraska (33). At stake: Leadership of the Big Ten Legends Division. A Spartans victory gives them something close to a hammerlock on the division. A Cornhuskers win gives additional hope to them and Minnesota, which is 4-2 in league play but has beaten Nebraska and has yet to play Michigan State.
Oklahoma State-Texas (34). At stake: Mack Brown, all but run out of Austin on a rail in September, needs this one to go 7-0 in the Big 12 and remain in first place by half a game over Baylor. The Cowboys still control their own destiny and can win the league by closing with victories over the Longhorns, Bears and Oklahoma.
Miami-Duke (35). At stake: Both teams are among the four tied for first in the loss column in the hopeless ACC Coastal Division. If the Blue Devils win out (home against the Hurricanes, at Wake Forest, at North Carolina – not impossible) and Clemson beats Georgia Tech on Saturday, Duke will somehow win the division. Which is ludicrous.
THIS … IS A BAD LOOK
From LSU's T-Rex guy (36) during the Tigers' game at Alabama on Saturday night.
This is a much better look: Dashette Lisalla Montenegro (37).
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Jim Mora (38), UCLA. Why? Because he's been willing to go against coaching convention and play revelatory true freshman Myles Jack both ways in the same game. In the Bruins' win at Arizona Saturday, Jack had eight tackles, recovered a fumble and broke up two passes at linebacker – a nice game, but only half his story. On offense, Jack rushed for 120 yards on only six carries, including a 66-yard touchdown run. He was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts. That's just about the coolest one-game story of the year, and it's a tribute to Mora that he's flexible enough to look at players as more than just an offensive guy or a defensive guy.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Les Miles (39), LSU. He coached another boring game against Alabama, which is becoming a habit for the Mad Hatter. The lone gamble of the night came from his nemesis, Nick Saban, who dialed up a perfectly timed and executed fake punt that turned the game in the Crimson Tide's favor.
Miles played it straight all night. Pretty much as he did in the two meetings in 2011, especially the crushing BCS title game shutout loss. If we can no longer count on Les for some unpredictable big-game hijinks, we're in trouble.
When hungry and thirsty in the great football city of Birmingham, The Dash recommends a visit to Highlands Bar and Grill (40) – probably the classiest southern joint east of New Orleans and west of Atlanta. You'll need a reservation, and good luck with that since a write-up in The New York Times. But if you get in, here's the gameplan: get a locally brewed Good People IPA, order the oyster sampler platter, hit the wine list, then the stone ground baked grits, the roasted pork loin – and for dessert, the fried pumpkin pie. Thank The Dash later. Over and over.
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