After three months, 15 weeks and more than 750 games, there's this, in no particular order:
Pick two, any two.
This isn't scientific. The games in bold are blowouts, more or less, and this accounts for certain discrepancies (Texas A&M and Oklahoma State are higher on Oklahoma's lists than on Kansas' because the Sooners crushed both teams, and Kansas' wins were closer). Argue about the value of beating Wisconsin all you'd like - this is just to get an idea of each team's overall resumé. Condense, shift, swap, whatever makes sense to you. But this is the big picture.
Personally, it makes clear to me that Ohio State (a no-brainer) and LSU (maybe only a half-brainer with the lobbying in its favor) are the deserving teams if there are only two to be had, though Oklahoma makes a convincing case with the addition of another, more impressive win over Missouri at the top of its schedule. But the Sooners also have a couple of very damaging losses, and that's another big point in LSU's favor: the Tigers' losses were to quality (good, not great) teams in triple overtime, which does not make them "ties," but does mitigate the demerits assessed against them compared to say, getting blown out by Tennessee. LSU is not exactly playing "better football right now" than Georgia, however that's supposed to be measured, but this isn't a guess as to what a team might accomplish based on how it's played since mid-October. LSU is the SEC champion; Georgia is the runner-up in its division. And was blown out by Tennessee. I think this is the popular opinion after Saturday's carnage and I think it's right.
My dream scenario, because it's the most ridiculous, and most likely to lead to the BCS folding in on itself: Virginia Tech, which was ranked ahead of LSU in last week's standings and had at least as impressive a win as the Tigers Saturday, could leap idle Georgia and Kansas and falling losers Missouri and West Virginia into number two, ahead of LSU, which happened to beat the Hokies 48-7 in September while outgaining them by a mere 450 yards in what I'd jusge as the single most impressive performance of the regular season. This is lunacy, of course, but count on people like Craig James to disregard all sanity: when questioned directly by John Saunders about that head-to-head result at halftime of the Big 12 Championship, when it was clear West Virginia was in deep and serious trouble against Pitt and a train wreck was looming, James said "Doesn't count. That was seasons ago, they're entirely different teams," or something to that effect. So a boy can dream.
Most voters, though, I doubt are so foolish as to disregard the most direct possible comparison between two contenders, especially when the result is so overwhelming. LSU has the resumé and the popular sentiment and, last week's distant position notwithstanding, should jump Tech, Georgia and Kansas and sneak in behind Ohio State for the second spot in the mythical championship game. Which will prove nothing.
More on the final standings tonight.
Pittsburgh 13 • West Virginia 9
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Sometimes when a team is really bad, things snowball on them mentally, and it's easy to fall apart in a hurry. Pitt had that "well, that's why we're 4-7" moment in the third quarter last night, when LeSean McCoy broke outside, made a brilliant cut to elude a West Virginia tackler, and shot into the end zone to put the Panthers ahead 17-7 with a quarter to play and the boulder rolling in their favor. But of course: flag. A very, very late flag, and, the replay showed, a very bogus flag on receiver Oderick Turner, who'd made a good block to get McCoy into the clear. Pitt missed a field goal two plays later, still only led by three, and the WVU crowd suddenly had the momentum headed in the other direction.
The fourth quarter was filled with moments like this, when Pitt could have said "good try" and folded: when the offense was stopped at the goalline and had to settle for another field goal after recovering a fumble at the WVU 17, keeping the margin with six, and Noel Devine lit down the sideline on the ensuing kickoff to set the Mountaineers up at the Panther 33; when Pat White trotted off the bench for his bid at heroic championship legend to start the upcoming drive; when McCoy picked up a potentially icing first down on 3rd-and-4, only to have it called back on another holding call against Turner, resulting in a punt that West Virginia returned to midfield, good position to move in for the winning touchdown.
A gimpy coach with a true freshman quarterback. Who couldn't see that coming?
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The quickest explanation is the literal of virtual absence of both of the stars who were most responsible for those bludgeonings Saturday, with White missing most of the game with a bum thumb and Slaton playing like a shadow of his usual, fleet self. There is an undisclosed injury of some kind with Slaton, or something: with White out of the game and Jerrett Brown significantly struggling, he touched the ball nine times, only twice in the second half, for 11 yards. Last week, while his teammates were busy running over, through and around UConn, Slaton had only ten carries. In a blowout, that restraint makes sense; last night, with everything on the line and rapidly slipping away, no sense. What gives? Slaton remained in the game, but didn't get the ball, looked hesitant and sluggish when he did, and West Virginia's Panzer offense turned into a string of ineffective quarterback sweeps. In the second half, the Mountaineers went three-and-out, three-and-out, fumble, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, while futilely forcing one of its stars back into the lineup and completely ignoring the other. I don't see any news stories nationally or in West Virginia papers addressing Slaton's absence, but it seems impossible under the circumstances that he would be cut out unless something was really wrong. It's too dire a situation to say, "Whoops, we forgot about him."
I don't know that it would have mattered, though: Slaton didn't do anything on the chances he did get, and Pitt's defense turned in one of the performances of the year, injuries or no injuries on the other side. With an offense built around a couple touted freshmen, the school looks smart suddenly for not jumping the gun on the Wannstache.
Oklahoma • Missouri
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The drama in Morgantown distracted from the second half of the Big 12 Championship, but the arc was clear: Missouri missed opportunities in the first half and was run over in the second. The Tigers' spread betrayed them in the red zone early, when they were forced into a pair of field goals on drives that reached the Oklahoma nine-yard line in one case and inside the one on another, both instances of Oklahoma's superior phyiscality winning in the trenches and holding what could have well been a 21-point half on three long, long Tiger drives (62, 75, 84 yards) to a more managable 14 points, a world of difference with the way the second half unfolded. The Sooners successfully turned that fight up front, where they had their biggest advantages, into the trend of the game - holding Mizzou to a single field goal over the last two quarters wasn't so much a result of the Sooners stopping the Tigers (though they largely did) as it was about not letting them have those chances to begin with.
Oklahoma did this by bleeding the game dry on the ground, limiting possessions by getting physical and controlling possession for two-thirds of the second half with its deep power running game. After moving the ball very effectively before the break, Missouri only had five possessions in the third and fourth quarters, one of them spanning a solid 53 yards before a punt and another covering 65 yards and ending in a field goal. Not at all bad yields, yardage-wise, except that it only produced the three points while Oklahoma turned the only turnover of the game into a 14-point lead as the clock ticked, ticked away. Curtis Lofton's interception in the third was the biggest play of the night becuase it set up a short touchdown that broke the game wide open. Missouri's defense couldn't get Oklahoma off the field, and as long as the Sooners could hold onto the ball for long stretches - such as on back-to-back drives that covered 4:23 and 6:13 in the fourth quarter and put ten points on the board, in between which Mizzou went three-and-out in 33 seconds - Daniel had no time to lead a comeback from two touchdowns behind, no matter how efficient.
He was vastly less efficient or effective this week than last week mainly because Oklahoma is just much better on defense than Kansas: faster, tougher against the run, able to play man-to-man on receivers, cut off the horizontal "long handoff" routes and challenge Daniel to go deep and to get rushers into his face. This was all about speed and aggressiveness in coverage, and the ability of DeMarcus Granger especially to hold down the middle of the line, where Jayhawk-killer Tony Temple found two yards per carry, no one of them longer than seven yards. On both sides, Oklahoma brought the fight to Missouri, and won because it had better fighters. I suspect if the same had happened in Boulder or Lubbock, we wouldn't be on the edge of our seats about this afternoon's numbers.
LSU 21 • Tennessee 14
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I watched Tennessee in the first week of the season, when the Vols' young defense allowed 471 yards and 45 points, and the third week of the season, when the same noobs allowed 554 and 59 to Florida, and I'm pretty convinced after the second half Saturday that no part of any team has grown up more in the last two months - maybe just the last month, actually, since Alabama shredded the same secondary in late October - than the Tennessee defense. UT has played all season with a pair of freshmen (Eric Berry and Eric Vinson) and first-year junior college transfers (DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie) on its last line of defense, and with a lead in the final quarter of a low-scoring championship game, these were the guys holding up their end of the deal. It was Erik Ainge instead, he of 42 career starts over four years, the only thing his team had clearly going for it in September, who looked lost, and who literally threw away his team's chances to win down the stretch.
To be sure, the youngsters were hanging by a thread - through the midpoint of the third quarter, UT had forced one punt, and on LSU's other six drives had yielded 63, 58, 55, 77, 76 and 49 yards and allowed a 3rd-and-14 pass down the sideline to go for a go-ahead touchdown due to an angle so bad by the cover two safety that Gary Danielson actually dusted off the Pythagorean Theorem in the booth to describe it. Aside from the touchdown, though, LSU's other five drives produced two field goals, a failed run up the middle on 4th-and-1, a missed field goal, a fumble, and a subsequent one-point deficit after Tennessee cashed Trindon Holliday's generosity into a touchdown late in the third. It was lights out from there for the LSU offense: Ryan Perrilloux was picked off, setting up an ultimately failed UT field goal attempt to extend the lead, and the Tigers punted on their next three possessions after gaining -2, 18 and 9 yards, respectively. The Vols bent, but the same defense that gave up 38, 52 and 41 in its first three losses and come within a couple missed field goals of possibly getting its coach fired held LSU's balanced attack to thirteen, and arguably could have kept up the pressure on Perrilloux and hung on to win the school's first conference title in nine years.
But there's Ainge:
It wasn't only that throw, although it was the killer that will haunt his legacy as the starting quarterback as much as the underhand surrender throw from the end zone in Baton Rouge in 2005. At least was only a sophomore then, in a hostile environment - I've defended Ainge the last two years and thought he would be at the core of all of Tennessee's success, but Saturday, on a neutral field, he still looked like a bewildered underclassman reading defenses. His first touchdown pass to Chris Brown should have been picked by Karsten Pittman, who had dropped from his rush into exactly the right place in exactly the right defense to make the interception (I actually reacted to Ainge's decision as the ball arrived: "That's terrible!") but let it go through his hands and into Brown's. He wasn't so lucky on the throw to Zenon, or, in the same spot and possibly the same route as the touchdown, when he stuck the icing interception into the numbers of Derry Beckwith. On the drive before Beckwith's pick, seeking the tying touchdown and facing what could have been a do-or-die fourth down in LSU territory, Ainge put the ball behind an open receiver on a crossing route, who couldn't adjust for the catch. At one point in the third quarter, when it appeared Lucas Taylor was coming around for a reverse (or reverse action), Ainge was oblivious to him, faked a handoff up the middle, rolled the other way, had no one downfield and threw the ball away out of bounds, one of roughly a half dozen times on the night Danielson had to say something along the lines of "That's Ainge's fault" or "Ainge has to be better." Which sums up his career - one that began with an SEC Championship loss, and now ends with an SEC Championship loss - in a neat nutshell: he never really got much better.
• Obviously, I think LSU is very good, and its numbers in big games continue to back up that opinion:
|1st Dwns. +/-
The asterisks indicate fourth quarter comebacks, the first three of them very late fourth quarter comebacks, which begs the question: why? Why are the Tigers so much more effective moving the ball (and stopping opponents from moving the ball) on a consistent basis, while hanging on to it forever and not killing themselves with heaps of turnovers, yet constantly forced to gamble, scratch, claw and fake their way from behind to win games they ostensibly dominate?
I don't know. This has been a maddening problem with LSU all season - it's a grab bag, a team that's good at everything but not particularly great at anything, and mostly unable to put all the pieces together at once without high drama since the Virginia Tech game in Week Two. Maybe that win set the bar too high; maybe it's the penalties (LSU is the most penalized team in the conference and was flagged nine times Saturday to Tennessee's...zero). Maybe it's missing hyped guard Will Allen for the season, or missing Early Doucet for much of it, or playing Matt Flynn and Glenn Dorsey while gimpy. I don't know. Amid all the talent and statistics, the team has never established an identity, except as a resilient winner. Most of the time.
But if you're one of the types who believe LSU is a lithe bunch of five-star football samurai who should be pounding grossly inferior outfits to dust (which seems to be a prevailing notion despite some evidence to the contrary), the Tigers haven't had a really satisfying win that shows off their jaw-dropping potential in almost three months. They seem to relish the challenge and the clutch, and that suits them just fine; they've ridden late heroics to the conference championship and a likely mythical championship spot. If LSU does get that bid, though, I imagine that prevailing wisdom, thinking of a team at full speed, with a healthy Flynn, Doucet and Dorsey, against largely the same Buckeyes that went down in flames to a similarly skin-of-its-teeth bunch of Gators in last year's championship, will be favored to win by more than a fourth quarter comeback, identity be damned.
Virginia Tech 30 • Boston College 16
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B.C., like Missouri, is ruefully mulling its early missed opportunities this morning - the Eagles dominated the first quarter and at halftime had doubled up the Hokies in yards, first downs and possession time, yet sat at an uneasy 16-16 tie thanks to a blocked field goal, a turnover on downs at the end of a sustained drive, a blocked PAT that went for two points in the other direction and a general sense that the open window at the start of the game had been emphatically shut.
Head and shoulders improvement. Who knew?
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But say hello to Sean Glennon, Touchdown Maker, who cemented his resurrection from inadequate, benched has-been to wily veteran playmaker with an efficient, three-score effort that left little down about the Hokies' best every-down option. Tyrod Taylor is an effective change of pace, but Tech doesn't trust him to throw, and aside from one nice 31-yard run was limited to five yards on eight carries and committed a disastrous fumble that Jamie Silva returned for a B.C. touchdown in the first quarter. Glennon is the quarterback now, though, who is finally reading coverages when he has time and making accurate throws to the right receiver, simple enough but a great leap forward for him as he reestablishes his grip on the position; all this clap about the Hokies being a different team than the one that was obliterated by LSU so many weeks ago is true most of all about Glennon, who's put together four of the best games of his career in the last six weeks, beginning with his 296-yard effort at Georgia Tech on Thursday night. But it still doesn't justify even considering ranking the Hokies in front of LSU.
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• Never has any team more closely resembled a PlayStation champion than Tulsa, the high-flying, no-holds-barred outfit coordinated by Arkansas outcast Gus Malzahn that came into the C-USA Championship as the highest-scoring team in the nation opposite a bottom-dwelling defense and appeared to be drawing up big plays in the dirt. The Hurricane have a wide receiver, redshirt freshman Brennan Marion, who came in averaging an NCAA record 35 yards on 32 catches with at least one reception of 50 yards or more in eight different games; the Hurricanes' overall yards per completion as a team (15.9) is more than two yards better than the second-best YPC number, and good enough to give the `Canes the best yards per attempt in the country despite a meh completion percentage. And this is exactly what they did - I'm not sure how, but Tulsa had guys running wide open everywhere, long, short, down the middle, down the sideline, in the red zone and everywhere in between, and Paul Smith found them all in the first half, for three touchdowns in about a 12-minute span.
By the same turn, Tulsa refused to tackle Kevin Smith at any point and were made to look ridiculous in the process of said refusal, while simultaneously going down in flames offensively in a scoreless second half. Malzahn was seen throwing his controller (chill - he can afford another one). Andre Ware kept hyping Smith as "next year's Heisman candidate," but Smith is the country's leading rusher by a mile and will break Barry Sanders' single-season record if he hits his 188-yard average in the bowl game; he had 217 yards against NC State, 149 against Texas and has scored 29 touchdowns. He's not Darren McFadden, but that's worth an invitation, right?
• Oregon: when you dress like that, third-string quarterback or no, you deserve to lose.
Sweet relief is on its way, coach.
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• UCLA has no offense, again, and the watch is on: Karl Dorrell loses six for the fourth time in five seasons.
Making sense of what I didn't see.
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• Fall, fall, fall: It can't be possible for two teams to take a biger nosedive than Cal since it knocked off Oregon on the last weekend of September. The Bears moved up to number two thatweek, and have won one game in the meantime, a three-point win over Washington State, and are lucky to even be mentioned in bowl discussion after dropping a humiliating decision to Stanford - Stanford, the Stanford that is Stanford, that actually finishes the season with wins over USC and Cal and almost no one else (Arizona and San Jose State, if you must know, but with losses to Washington, Washington State and Notre Dame).
Remember when Cal had an offense? Like, a real offense, one that would never, ever, in a million years go three-and-out in six straight possessions against Stanford? Those days are long gone, friends, and with them any conception of Cal as an up-and-coming contender in the Pac Ten, or Jeff Tedford as an up-and-coming contender for the biggest jobs. His team laid down with the biggest prizes in front of it, and end it with the worst loss of his tenure.
• Fine. There's no way around it: Hawaii is going to a BCS game, probably the Sugar, and it's all Washington's fault. The Huskies barrelled out to a 21-0 and 28-7 lead, looked sharp, then got blitzed for four unanswered touchdowns en route to a devastating loss, for Tyrone Willingham and purists everywhere. The game was Hawaii's fourth win on the final play, and ended with Washington's Jake Locker, down 35-28, answering the go-ahead touchdown by Hawaii with 38 seconds to play by completing consecutive passes of 25 and 49 yards to the Warrior four-yard-line, then throwing an interception in the end zone. So whoever draws Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl (ahem, Georgia, ahem), before you head down for your week of no-win dread in the Big Easy, don't forget to send a nice "Thank You" card to Jake Locker.
Thorough BCS Bustin' tonight when the numbers drop.