Commentary

Are Bears, Bucks or Cardinal next?

Originally Published: November 12, 2013
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Did you see how Nick Saban jumped in AJ McCarron's arms after Alabama's big win against LSU? He does the same thing after he reads BMOC.

PREGAME SPEECH

Who's No. 1? Well, you don't need a telestrator to figure it out -- it's either Alabama or Florida State.

But where it gets fun -- and pay attention, College Football Playoff selection committee -- is deciding who's No. 3. Because if Bama or FSU does an Oregon and gets way out over its BCS skis, then No. 3 in the standings could soon become No. 2 and find itself in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6.

[+] EnlargeStanford Cardinal
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford jumped back into the BCS title talk.

Won't happen, you say? That's what the then-third-ranked Ducks thought when they were popping off about scoring "at least" 40 points against Stanford, and "We Want Bama" T-shirts were best-sellers in Eugene.

Then Nerd Nation went Floyd Mayweather on Oregon and suddenly the Ducks were evicted from the junior executive suite they had at Chateau d'BCS. They began last Thursday night as No. 3, only a heartbeat away from a BCS National Championship berth, and ended it as a national title afterthought.

Now Ohio State is No. 3 in the latest BCS standings, though who knows how long the Buckeyes will stay there. Arkansas is on its third head coach since OSU last lost a game, but the BCS computers aren't interested in lifetime achievement awards. And the poll voters should be equally dispassionate.

I'm a huge fan of 21-game win streaks, but the simple truth is that Ohio State's nonconference schedule and the Big Ten's relative mediocrity (though Wisconsin, Michigan State, Minnesota and even Nebraska are starting to bring up the bell curve) don't help the Buckeyes' long-term chances.

Still, Ohio State will stay in the mix because: Illinois, Indiana and Michigan aren't going to beat the Buckeyes in the regular season. Or as OSU wide receiver Evan Spencer would say: they'd wipe the field with all three of them.  And … OSU plays in a conference championship game, where it will be favored against any of the Legends Division entries: Michigan State, Nebraska or Minnesota.

(For the record, BMOC has zero problem with Spencer's Monday proclamation that Ohio State would "wipe the field" with Bama or FSU if the Buckeyes got to the BCS National Championship. Yeah, it was a little over the top, but what was he supposed to say, "I just want the bowl swag?")

Meanwhile, Stanford is applying generous gobs of Proactiv to that acne that popped up the night of Oct. 12 in Salt Lake City. In other words, Utah 27, Stanford 21.

The Utes are a respectable team at home, but there's no getting around their 4-5 overall record and their 1-5 Pac-12 mark. And for the Cardinal, there's no getting around that loss.

By all other measurements, Stanford, which is No. 4 in the BCS standings, has played the toughest schedule of the top teams and has recorded the most wins against quality opponents. And it plays a resurgent USC team this Saturday at Traveler Land.

But those other top teams didn't lose to unranked Utah. Then again, those other teams didn't toss Oregon out of the BCS cargo-bay door.

Also helping Stanford's chance is the Pac-12 championship game, where the Cardinal, if they take care of business, would face Arizona State or UCLA.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesThings are looking up for Bryce Petty and the Bears.

And then there is Baylor. Crazy, wacky, what-do-we-make-of-these-guys Baylor.

Here's what I make of the Bears: They're scary good. They're also still a bit of a mystery.

Are the Bears the No. 3 team in the country? Well, they just beat the supposed No. 10 team in the nation, Oklahoma. (By the way, I'm guilty of overestimating the Sooners; I had them No. 13 in my rankings.) And they face 7-3 Texas Tech this week, followed by a season-defining game at Oklahoma State on Nov. 23, followed eventually by another possible season-defining game against Texas.

If Baylor, currently ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings, finishes the home stretch of its regular season with Ws against OU, Texas Tech, at Oklahoma State, at TCU and home against Texas, the Bears aren't going to be a mystery any longer. They might be No. 3.

Still to be determined: what effect the lack of a Big 12 Conference championship game might have on the final results.

You'll see my rankings below, but ask yourself this question: Of these three teams -- Ohio State, Stanford and Baylor -- which one of them would Bama or Florida State least want to play right now?

It's a tough call and a slightly unfair question. But to me, that's the tiebreaker way of choosing who's No. 3 at this point of the season.

And, yes, I know everyone thinks FSU is going to cruise through the remainder of its schedule (Syracuse, Idaho and at Florida, followed by the ACC championship against possibly Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech). And that the Crimson Tide is going to run the table at Mississippi State, Chattanooga and at Auburn, and then beat Missouri, South Carolina or Georgia in the SEC championship game.

And they probably will. But there are no guarantees in a season. Just ask Oregon, Notre Dame, Louisville, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, USC, Oklahoma State, Kansas State …

FIRST QUARTER

IN:

• This week's lineup: Stanford at USC, Georgia Tech at Clemson (Thursday night), Baylor and Texas Tech at JerryWorld, Georgia at Auburn, Miami at Duke, Oklahoma State at Texas, Michigan State at Nebraska, Ball State at Northern Illinois (Wednesday night), Washington at UCLA (Friday night).

• Pre-planning for the 2014 Heisman Trophy campaign for Mizzou wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.

• UCLA linebacker/running back Myles Jack. Earlier in the season, I mentioned to UCLA coach Jim Mora that Jack, a true freshman, jumped off the screen during games. He said Jack might be the best player on the team. I think we can pretty much eliminate the "might" part.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThere's no looking back for Javorius Allen and USC.

• USC running back Javorius "Buck" Allen. The Buck doesn't stop here. Or at Berkeley, where he rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns (and caught another TD pass) in the rout of Cal. Allen, who was a non-factor for much of the Trojans' season, had 133 yards and three touchdowns at Oregon State on Nov. 1. How exactly did Florida State let him leave Tallahassee?

• Texas' Mack Brown. What coaching search committee?

• Duke coach David Cutcliffe and Blue Devils safety DeVon Edwards. Cutcliffe has led the Dookies to their first winning season since 1994 and Edwards helped make it happen with 10 tackles and back-to-back pick-sixes in Saturday's win against NC State. And just for fun, he ran back a kickoff 100 yards for a score.

• Minnesota's coaching staff.

• Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. Your new SEC leader in career TD passes. Congrats.

AJ McCarron's increasing Heisman buzz.

• Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, who's first in the country in TD passes, second in passing yardage, passing yardage per game and points responsible for. "I've run out of words to describe him," says Fresno coach Tim DeRuyter.

• UCF. If ever the name of a running back fit: Storm Johnson, who had 127 yards in the win against Houston.

• Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall. He had 214 rushing yards in the win against Tennessee, the most by any SEC player this season.

OUT:

• Oregon invincibility.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesThere was plenty of hullabaloo surrounding Johnny Manziel's Nov. 9 appearance for the Aggies.

Johnny Manziel. Don't expect a Johnny Football tweet announcing his return to Texas A&M in 2014. He all but certainly played his last game at Kyle Field in the 51-41 win against Mississippi State.

• Kevin Sumlin? No way Manziel comes back to College Station, but did Sumlin just coach his last home game for A&M? Nothing against Ed Orgeron, but Sumlin has to be on or atop USC's wish list.

• Ron English, formerly of Eastern Michigan. Or to use a version of the verbal tirade that helped get him fired: "I respect football coaches … you ain't no football coach."

• Notre Dame's BCS bowl chances.

• Oklahoma's BCS bowl chances.

Marcus Mariota's Heisman Trophy chances.

• Carl Pelini's chances of winning Florida Atlantic University's Employee of the Month Award.

• Illinois' chances of ending its Big Ten losing streak at 19 games. The Illini face Ohio State this Saturday. The good news: They get to play Purdue the following week.

• Grambling State's win streak. It ended at one.

• Miami's intensity. The Hurricanes had a huge post-Florida State letdown in bumbling loss to Virginia Tech.

• The tarp at Baylor's Floyd Casey Stadium. The Bears' last game there will be Dec. 7 against Texas.

• Michigan's rushing "attack." The Wolverines were held to minus-21 rushing yards by Nebraska Saturday, and minus-48 the week before by Michigan State. Michigan's Devin Gardner has been sacked 14 times in the last two games.

SECOND QUARTER

For those people who are worried about the wussification of college football, please don't use Ron English's recent firing at Eastern Michigan as an example of what's wrong with the game.

There was nothing profound, inspiring or life lesson-y about the tirade that helped lead to his dismissal last week. There was nothing you could pull from his sewage language that held a greater meaning.

[+] EnlargeRon English
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesEastern Michigan fired coach Ron English on Nov. 8.

English had a captive audience for his vulgar tirade -- captive, in the sense, that his players had nowhere else they could go. They were stuck in a film room and had to listen to English drone on and on about their general worthlessness. Winston Churchill, he wasn't.

The language was ridiculous, of course. But if you've ever played sports -- and football, in particular -- you've probably had a coach who felt compelled to carpet-bomb you with the F-word. Most times it goes in one helmet ear hole and out the other.

But there was something especially dumb and cruel about English's speech. It was as if Eastern Michigan's 1-8 record at the time was entirely the players' fault, that English deserved better than to have to coach this bunch of supposed mopes (and I won't bore you with the silly, offensive, clichéd descriptions English used to describe his players).

But here's the thing: Eastern Michigan was 11-46 under English's watch, 7-30 in the MAC. Whatever he was doing wasn't working. None of it.

He's the guy who recruited these players. He's the guy who helped devise the game plan for these players. He's the guy who was supposed to elevate the performances of these players.

So clearly English wasn't above blame. If anything, he was eye-level with it.

His solution was to berate and belittle his players. It isn't a very original solution, but on occasion, when you appeal to a team's sense of pride, it has an effect.

But English did it so clumsily, so heavy-handedly, so predictably that it got him fired. Well, that and a recording of the speech.

Eastern Michigan athletic director Heather Lyke said that was it was time for "a change in the leadership." But the thing is, English was less a leader and more a caricature of what tough-guy coaches supposedly do. Eastern Michigan's players were so upset by English's dismissal that they beat Western Michigan in overtime Saturday.

HALFTIME SPEECH

What goes around in college football, comes around. And if you don't believe me, just ask some of the coaches and players in this video link.

Anyway, the do's and don'ts of this 2013 season so far.

THIRD QUARTER

This hurts. Really hurts. But I've got to wave goodbye to Marcus Mariota's status as Heisman leader in the clubhouse.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford flattened Marcus Mariota's Heisman shot.

His overall numbers are still impressive. His character is indisputable. His willingness to play hurt is to be respected.

But at the end of the Heisman ballot day, he didn't play particularly well when Oregon needed him most: last Thursday, at Stanford, on national television, with the Ducks' BCS future at stake.

It wasn't all Mariota's fault. In fact, it wasn't half his fault. Stanford's offensive line embarrassed the Ducks' D-line. Stanford's staff outcoached Oregon's staff. And Oregon's offense, as was the case during last year's loss to Stanford, looked like, well, a Duck out of water.

Mariota, playing on a gimpy and braced-up knee, did what he could. Problem was, he couldn't do much. Or more correctly, he couldn't do enough.

Mariota could have separated himself from the other contenders with a victory and a decent game. Instead, Oregon lost and Mariota (20-of-34 for 250 yards, one lost fumble) didn't throw his first of two touchdown passes until a little more than 10 minutes were left in the game.

It isn't fair, of course. Mariota, much like Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, is a great college player. But the Heisman doesn't provide for much margin of error, especially this late in the season.

So, if I had to vote now …

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M. I'm not married to this choice. I'm not even sure I'm lavaliered to it. But if you're asking me right now who's the most outstanding player in the country, it's Manziel.

Yes, I'm aware of the three interceptions he threw Saturday night against Cowbell U. And even with the interceptions, he still completed 30 of 39 passes for 446 yards and five touchdowns. And he rushed for 47 yards. And the Aggies won. And he's first in the country in points responsible for, and points responsible for per game.

2. Florida State's Jameis Winston. The FSU blowouts aren't helping his cause. Wake Forest mistakes denied Winston of at least two series' worth play, thanks to an FSU interception return for a TD and an FSU fumble return for a TD.

Still, the kid is a gas to watch and his talent is undeniable. And I'm not going to penalize him because he gets pulled from an FSU rout.

3. Bryce Petty, Baylor. One minute, Oklahoma led Baylor, 5-3, in the second quarter, and then it was 31-5 in the third quarter, courtesy of two Petty TD runs and two Petty TD passes. He added another one against the Sooners in the fourth quarter.

His candidacy gets a potential boost by the quality of Baylor's opponents down the stretch.

4. AJ McCarron, Alabama. I get why some folks are saying it's a two-player Heisman race between Winston and McCarron. Both are the star quarterbacks for the top two teams in the country. Both have played well and consistently for long stretches of a long season. Both are likely to meet in the BCS National Championship.

But as much as I respect McCarron's considerable accomplishments, I'm not convinced he's the most outstanding player in the country. At least, I'm not convinced just yet.

You can't judge McCarron solely by his statistics. He's not that kind of player. Plus, Bama's Nick Saban was determined to run the ball in the second half against LSU, which wasn't going to help McCarron's numbers.

But I also can't judge him by his complete Bama body of work. It's an annual award, so it wouldn't be right to factor in his championships from previous seasons.

Anyway, the margin between McCarron and the three players in front of him on my list is growing closer and closer. The guy is the ultimate winner. And he's money against the blitz.

5. Mariota, Oregon. For old time's sake.

In consideration: Louisville's Bridgewater, Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch, Fresno State's Derek Carr, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Ohio State's Braxton Miller.

FOURTH QUARTER

Two-liners:

• I'm not buying that Oregon is that dreaded four-letter word -- "soft" -- just because Stanford punched the Ducks in the beak for a second consecutive season. I prefer to think that Stanford is that five-letter word: "strong."

• Is it too early to give Mack Brown the Comeback Coach of the Year award? Yes, mostly because Texas' defense gave up 40 to West Virginia and now faces Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Baylor.

• No matter how it shakes out with Brown, you've got to give him credit for turning the middle part of the Longhorns' season around. He went from Dead Coach Walking to a coach of the year candidate.

• Courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information folks: Florida State and Baylor are the only two teams to win every game by 10 or more points this season. And can you guess which team has the second-longest streak of scoring 20-plus points in major college history? (It's Oklahoma State -- 48 games and counting. USC had 63 straight.)

POSTGAME

From the home office in Wheaton, Ill., comes this week's version of a four-team BCS playoff format.

No. 1 seed Alabama vs. No. 4 seed Ohio State.

Let's not kid ourselves: There were times during that LSU-Bama game that you wondered if the Tide was really the better team.

[+] EnlargeOhio State
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images Ohio State had plenty of reasons to celebrate the results during its bye week.

Even when Bama was up by 14 points with less than 11 minutes left in the game, there was a sense of uneasiness among the houndstooth faithful. Can you blame them?

LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. returned a kickoff 82 yards. The Tigers had the ball at the Bama 18. An LSU touchdown would cut the Tide lead in half. And then who knows what might have happened?

Instead, Bama's defense didn't give up a point, helped in part by a misread by LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger during the pivotal series. The Tide got the ball back, drove 78 yards for the score and that was that.

The point is, Bama has lots of strengths, but also a few weaknesses. LSU exposed some of them.

Now we find out how Bama handles the post-LSU fallout. Does it suffer a letdown after the big win against the Tigers? Or does it go to Starkville and silence the villagers?

I'm betting on silence.

Meanwhile, Ohio State had the week off to catch up on its soaps and get ready to score 55-plus points for a third consecutive game (63 points against Penn State, 56 against Purdue, and now ?? against poor Illinois).

No. 2 seed Florida State vs. No. 3 seed Stanford.

FSU stays put at No. 2, but Stanford -- yes, one-loss Stanford -- jumps from last week's No. 5 to this week's No. 3.

As I said earlier in the column, it's hard to get around that Cardinal loss at Utah. But it's also hard to ignore the number of good to really good teams Stanford has beaten this season (Arizona State, Washington, UCLA, Oregon State and, of course, Oregon).

Stanford has shown me it can beat up-tempo teams, which is why I'd like its chances against Baylor. And Stanford has shown it can muscle up on both sides of the ball, which is why I like its chances against Ohio State.

If you want to argue that Baylor and Ohio State both have better quarterbacks (Petty and Miller) than Stanford (Kevin Hogan), you'll get no argument from me. But you could say the same thing about Oregon State (Sean Mannion) and Oregon (Mariota). Hogan just sort of has a knack of getting the job done.

These are fluid rankings. So, Ohio State and Baylor followers, feel free to mock me if USC beats the Cardinal this Saturday.

5. Baylor:  If the Bears were a hit single, they'd have an asterisk next to their name. They're climbing fast.

6. Oregon: Just 62 rushing yards against Stanford. Sigh.

7. Auburn: The Tigers don't pass the ball much. Then again, they don't have to.

8. Clemson: Big game against Georgia Tech on Thursday night.

9. Missouri: Maty Mauk has eight TD passes in his past two games. Mizzou gets to rest up for its Nov. 23 game at Ole Miss.

10. South Carolina: The Head Ballcoach can hand his alma mater and former employer -- Florida -- its fifth loss in a row. The Gamecocks will have had two weeks to prepare for a Gators team that ranks 105th in scoring.

Close, but not quite there: Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, UCF, LSU, Fresno State.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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