The Big Four went 4-0 in Week 10, but on the perception scoreboard, almost as important as the ones at the stadiums, they finished with a 3-1 mark.
Perception is everything in a sport without a playoff. It’s especially significant in a BCS chase that features more than two serious candidates with perfect records. Oftentimes, the key is simply maintaining perception. Other times, the key is changing it. Sometimes, the key is changing it and then maintaining it.
Notre Dame changed its perception in Week 9. The Irish have been knocked for their C-plus offense and their small victory margins against the likes of Purdue, Michigan, Stanford and BYU. But then they went to Norman and crushed Oklahoma, piling up 20 fourth-quarter points to pull away. They had won in impressive fashion, a requisite to stay afloat in the BCS title push.
But then the Irish couldn’t maintain their new perception in Week 10, instead dredging up the old one in a 29-26 victory against Pitt in three overtimes. Notre Dame found a way to win -- as all great teams do -- but it needed a furious rally and a fortunate call to erase a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit. It also needed a missed field goal from just 33 yards out in the second overtime to force a third, where it prevailed. All this against a 4-4 Panthers team.
If Notre Dame was part of a two-team race, winning would be enough. But when three other perfect teams are winning -- and maintaining positive perceptions -- the Irish needed more. They paid a price in the latest BCS standings, dropping a spot to No. 4.
Oregon, meanwhile, maintained its perception better than any of the Big Four in Week 10, beating USC 62-51. The Ducks gave us speed, they gave us points, they gave us yards -- boy, did they give us yards – and, of course, they gave us new unis. Oregon provided 60 minutes of fireworks. No team has ever piled up more yards against USC than Oregon’s 730 on Saturday night. No Oregon player has ever rushed for more yards than Kenjon Barner’s 321.
It was a definitively typical performance against a talented opponent on a big stage. As a result, the Ducks were rewarded, trading places with Notre Dame in the standings. Oregon remains No. 2 in both human polls, well ahead of Kansas State in the Harris but barely ahead in the Coaches. And with No. 11 Oregon State and No. 14 Stanford left on the schedule -- plus possibly No. 18 UCLA in the Pac-12 title game -- Oregon should get a critical boost in the computers.
Alabama also maintained its perception Saturday night: best team in the best league. Like Notre Dame, the Tide needed a late rally to survive, but unlike Notre Dame, they produced it against a great opponent (LSU) in arguably the nation’s toughest setting (Tiger Stadium). Alabama rocketed to No. 1 in computer average, and as the consensus No. 1 team in the Coaches Poll and the near-consensus No. 1 in the Harris Poll, the Tide are in great shape.
Kansas State also reinforced what it is: a surprisingly great team that makes fairly easy work of ranked opponents, even without Collin Klein. As Klein watched most of the second half from the sideline, the Wildcats recorded their third straight win against a ranked opponent by 14 points or more. Although K-State takes a hit in computer average, dropping to No. 3, it clearly is giving voters some pause in the battle for the No. 2 spot.
The performances by Oregon, Alabama and Kansas State leave Notre Dame in a tough spot. It must change its perception -- back to the Week 9 version -- against a woeful Boston College team this week and against an average Wake Forest squad next week. Even a dominant performance against USC on Nov. 24 might not be enough, given the Trojans' disappointing season, although it will attract attention. There’s even some talk No. 5 Georgia could leapfrog the Irish if it wins out, beating Alabama in the SEC title game.
Each of the Big Four scored a win on the field Saturday. But when it comes to perception, Oregon sparkled in Tinseltown, while the Domers simply weren’t shiny enough.