- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
ATLANTA -- If you're an Oklahoma State fan, you'll wake up Sunday feeling good about your BCS championship hopes, and rightfully so.
If you're a Stanford fan, you'll wake up Sunday feeling good about beating your second-biggest rival, even though the Cardinal's 16th consecutive victory revealed some heretofore unseen flaws that won't help your team in the BCS beauty contest.
And if you're a Clemson fan, you'll wake up Sunday no longer concerned about the BCS.
Three national championship contenders that don't play in the Southeastern Conference had similar challenges Saturday. No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 5 Clemson and No. 6 Stanford all had to play good, if not quite elite, conference opponents. Baylor, Georgia Tech and USC, respectively, had combined records of 16-5.
The Cowboys, the only one of the three contenders to play at home, routed the Bears 59-24 in a game not as close as the one-sided score indicated.
The Cardinal fell behind by at least a touchdown on three occasions after halftime but outlasted the Trojans 56-48 by forcing a turnover in the third overtime.
And the Tigers? They played like the Clemson of old for nearly three quarters. That's not a compliment. The Tigers, plus-9 in turnovers coming into the game, coughed up the ball four times Saturday night. Georgia Tech rebounded from two consecutive losses to beat Clemson 31-17 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
"Turnovers get you beat, whether you play here or play at home," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. " We did not do the things that we've been doing well all year."
The number of unbeaten FBS teams has shrunk from 10 to 8 to 6 in the past two weeks. Not only did Clemson lose, but No. 9 Kansas State got embarrassed at home by No. 8 Oklahoma 58-17. That leaves No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama, Oklahoma State, No. 4 Boise State, Stanford and No. 17 Houston.
The biggest thing that Clemson failed to do was execute the second half of its weekly David Blaine special. The Tigers put themselves in a hole, as they have done in nearly every game this season. They just never got themselves out of it.
When Tigers tailback D.J. Howard, playing for injured starter Andre Ellington, got stripped by Tech corner Louis Young at the Clemson 19 and Georgia Tech quickly scored to go ahead 7-3, it could have been written off as a bad play.
When Georgia Tech drove 71 yards, mostly on the strength of quarterback Tevin Washington's 46-yard run, and kicked a 23-yard field goal to go ahead 10-3, it could have been written off because Clemson fell behind in the first half of six of its first eight games.
When the Yellow Jackets followed up with an 80-yard drive in the second quarter, attacking the edges with more success than they got from pounding inside in the first quarter, and went ahead 17-3, it could have been written off because the Tigers had come from 14 points behind to beat Auburn and 18 points behind to beat Maryland.
But when Georgia Tech -- methodical, patient, relentless Georgia Tech -- beat the halftime clock and drove 78 yards for another touchdown, scoring with 37 seconds left to go ahead 24-3, the only thing left to be written off was Clemson.
"Let's don't walk out of here thinking we're a bad football team," Swinney said. "We're an 8-1 football team that won eight in a row that got beat on the road by a good team that's battling for the Coastal Division."
That's the beauty of the 12-game schedule. There is no margin of error. And, as Stanford learned, you can't feast on junk food forever. The Cardinal came into the game ranked 92nd in schedule strength. To put it another way, if Stanford's schedule strength were a new network series, it already would be canceled.
USC used its speed to expose the Cardinal's defense and special teams. Stanford fought a losing battle on field position for most of the night. However, after quarterback Andrew Luck threw a pick-six to corner Nickell Robey with 3:08 remaining that put USC ahead 34-27, the Cardinal scored touchdowns on their final four possessions.
Clemson, faced with a similar do-or-die challenge, didn't do much at all. Part of that is because of Georgia Tech's style. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson's option game demands discipline and patience from a defense, two qualities not always available in college players.
"You just got to do your job," Tigers defensive end Malliciah Goodman said. "A lot of times, it's the same thing on every play. You do it better on some plays than others."
Georgia Tech kept the ball for 39 minutes, which exerted pressure on the Clemson offense, especially as the Tigers fell behind.
"Not early in the game," Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "You start getting to the point where you see the clock ticking down. It's almost like a pressure to score every time you get the ball."
The BCS championship race is like that, too. There's pressure to perform every week. Six unbeaten teams remain. Next week, after LSU and Alabama play, there will be no more than five.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
2dSam Khan Jr.