For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
WEEK 6 WAS ABOUT moral victories, those dreaded "character builders" for underdogs that fell just short of altering their seasons and the BCS title picture.
But in Week 7, the underdogs came through early and often, posting statement wins: Stanford went down at unranked Utah, Georgia lost at home to Missouri, Oklahoma was run over by unranked Texas in Dallas, Michigan fell in four overtimes to unranked Penn State, and Northwestern was routed by unranked Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, several conference favorites were tested more than they would have liked: Washington finally pushed Oregon into the fourth quarter, Clemson struggled mightily with Boston College, and Louisville's BCS hopes took a hit with a 24-10 win over Rutgers that was much closer than the score. Even undefeated teams in the lower half of the Top 25 had to survive scares: Baylor needed a fourth-quarter comeback against Kansas State, Texas Tech outlasted Iowa State, and Northern Illinois slogged through a night of going 1-for-15 on third down to hold off Akron.
But we can all agree that the Story of the Season thus far is a toss-up between what (and who) went down in Salt Lake City and Athens.
IN THE FRANTIC moments before kickoff of Saturday night's game against then-No. 5 Stanford, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham paused and took a little emotional inventory. It might have seemed like a bit much to label the contest against the Cardinal with an "our season rides on this game” tag. But, well, it kind of did.
When the Utes joined the Pac-12 in 2011, they did so riding a reputation built on a decade of success that started with Urban Meyer, moved on to Whittingham, and had given the program the title of original "BCS Buster" with a pair of big-stage berths despite their non-AQ status. But Utah’s entry into an AQ conference had not gone as planned, beginning with a solid 8-5 inaugural year before stumbling to 5-7 in 2012. Both seasons, Utah started 0-4 in Pac-12 play.
"You could just hear people at the old established Pac-10 schools getting their 'They don't belong here' stuff started up," said Steve Smith, the former Utah wide receiver who is now with the Carolina Panthers. "Everyone knew that all it would take is one signature win and all that talking down to us would go away."
But entering Saturday night, the Utes were already 0-2 in the conference, having suffered an overtime heartbreaker to Oregon State and a 34-27 loss to UCLA in which QB Travis Wilson threw six interceptions. And oh yeah, Stanford was 5-0. Basically, the rest of the college football world had circled the Cardinal's showdown the following Saturday against UCLA, not the one at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
That's why Whittingham called a team meeting on Thursday afternoon, and why he was eyeballing his team on the sideline just before kickoff. He knew the game plan was a good one, but he needed to gauge his players’ mental well-being. After he glanced at his offensive line (led by three seniors), then at senior defensive end Trevor Reilly and finally at Wilson, his worries vanished.
A few hours later, he watched his defense stop Stanford at the goal line to preserve an improbable 27-21 victory.
"We could have fragmented and thought, ‘What is the point?’" Whittingham said. "But this senior class refused to let that happen. They are tough individuals, and they knew they were close, and we knew they were close and they persevered."
They also, finally, got that signature Pac-12 win. And oh yeah, they play at Oregon on Nov. 16. Just sayin’.
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) October 12, 2013
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel's phone started buzzing Saturday afternoon and never stopped.
It kept on buzzing during the bus ride from Georgia's Sanford Stadium to the departing airport, from the arriving airport back to the Missouri campus, from campus back to home and well into the night. It buzzed so much that Pinkel quit keeping up with the messages.
Grown Man Football!
There were 87 texts in all. That might not be a lot for your typical college student. But it's a downright deluge for a 61-year-old head coach. That's what happens when you go on the road as a barely ranked team, still new to the nation's most powerful conference, and silence 97,746 mostly red-and-black clad fans. That's what happens when you knock off the No. 7 team in the nation that also happens to be one of the most recognizable brands in college football history.
Missouri has three straight home games against No. 22 Florida, No. 11 South Carolina and Tennessee coming up, so the road to the SEC East division title runs through Columbia, Mo. Not bad for a team that finished under .500 one year ago (its inaugural SEC campaign) and were picked by most this year to finish sixth out of seven in the West.
"Tell me that ain't good enough!" Tigers wide receiver L'Damian Washington screamed to the crowd in Athens, Ga., as the scoreboard clock hit zeroes on the 41-26 victory. "Tell me that ain't good enough!"
Like Utah, though over a shorter period of time, Missouri ached for some measure of SEC respect. Heck, the Tigers weren’t even looking for a signature win -- they just wanted a win. In 2012, they won just two conference games, against lowly Kentucky and bottoming-out Tennessee. That record was made even more painful by the stunning success of fellow Big 12 defector Texas A&M.
But this year, as people publicly picked apart Mizzou's “weak” 5-0 record (with wins over Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, Arkansas State and Vanderbilt), Pinkel's seniors also used a team meeting to circle the wagons. They made the rest of the players watch video of last year's SEC opener, a 41-20 loss to these same Georgia Bulldogs. After that game in Columbia, some of the Dawgs celebrated on the Memorial Stadium turf by holding signs that read, "Grown Man Football.” As Washington, one of the players who’d called the meeting, explained it: “Sometimes you need to be knocked down to be brought back to reality."
Watching the video on Friday felt like being knocked down all over again. But on Saturday, they got up, even after QB James Franklin went down.
"We can compete in the SEC," Washington said as the team prepared to leave Athens. "Period."