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Friday, November 1, 2013
November never easy for contenders

By Chris Low
ESPN.com

Legendary Arkansas coach Frank Broyles, in his famed genteel drawl, was fond of saying, "They always remember what you do in November."

Indeed they do, and with the calendar flipping to November in this final year of the BCS, it's also worth remembering that the only sure thing going forward is that nothing's for sure.

This is when it gets good, when upsets become the norm, when the ranks of the unbeaten start to dwindle and when the players and coaches on those teams at the top of the BCS standings start to hear the "Twilight Zone" theme in their sleep.

Weird things just seem to invariably happen once we get to November and beyond in the college football season, and it would probably only be fitting if the BCS' last hurrah provided us with some of the most compelling drama yet.

So what can we expect?

For starters, the six unbeaten teams from BCS conferences aren't all going to stay unbeaten. In fact, No. 3 Florida State and No. 7 Miami square off this weekend in Tallahassee.

The fact that we have a Florida State-Miami game that carries national championship implications only adds to the intrigue. It's the first time since 2004 that the two heated rivals have met as top-10 opponents.

It's also the first time they've both entered the game unbeaten (with each having at least seven wins) since 1991. That was the famed Wide Right I game, when No. 2 Miami beat No. 1 Florida State 17-16 after the Seminoles' Gerry Thomas missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds.

Of course, the next year, the Seminoles had to deal with Wide Right II when Dan Mowrey's 39-yard attempt to tie the game was no good, preserving Miami's 19-16 win.

It's difficult to see Saturday's game coming down to a field goal. Florida State is a huge favorite at home and has won six of its seven games this season by at least 28 points, while Miami had to scratch and claw just to get past Wake Forest and North Carolina the last two weeks.

Collin Klein
Collin Klein and Kansas State were shocked by Baylor, 52-24, late last season.
But, remember, this is November. There are no gimmes.

It's like trying to get those final three outs in a tight baseball game. The ninth inning takes on a whole new life.

That's where we are right now in the college football season. Every snap, every decision, every turnover, every missed tackle and every injury are magnified.

"I think the cumulative effect of the season probably affects every team to some degree," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

The same goes for being at the top of your game each week.

"I think, psychologically, the grind of trying to get ready to play your best football every game gets more and more challenging, especially when guys are trying to overcome more and more adversity," Saban said.

Each of the last two seasons, Alabama has lost at home in November and still managed to work its way back up the BCS standings and into the national championship game.

I'm going on record right now. If Alabama loses in November for a third consecutive year (or even in the SEC championship game on Dec. 7), you're not going to see the Crimson Tide in Pasadena,Calif., playing for the national championship this season.

Yes, we all thought the Tide's run was over last season when they lost at home to two-touchdown underdog Texas A&M the second week of November. But that very next week, the two new teams at the top of the BCS standings -- Kansas State and Oregon -- both lost.

Kansas State was blown out 52-24 by unranked Baylor, and Oregon lost 17-14 in overtime at home to Stanford. It was an Oregon team that entered the game having scored 42 or more points in all of its games and more than 50 points in seven of its 10 games, but the Ducks were shut down that night by the Cardinal defense.

The celebration that night in Tuscaloosa was epic, and it had nothing to do with the Tide's 49-0 beatdown of FCS foe Western Carolina earlier in the day. The path had been cleared for Alabama to defend its title.

It's why some people curse the BCS and why November has been cursed for more than a few teams.

Even in 2011, the ball bounced just right for Alabama after it lost in overtime at home to LSU in November.

Oklahoma State was unbeaten and No. 2 in the BCS standings behind No. 1 LSU. But in the next-to-last game of the regular season, the Cowboys lost 37-31 in double overtime to unranked Iowa State. It was the only game the Cowboys lost all season, and it was an Iowa State team that finished 6-7.

In 2010, eventual national champion Auburn had to come back from the dead on the final weekend of the regular season. The Tigers rallied from a 24-0 deficit in the first half to win 28-27 at Alabama to close the regular season and snap the Tide's 20-game home winning streak. Cam Newton and the Tigers were down 21-0 before they'd even picked up a first down.

Go back and look at the finish to the 2008 regular season. Texas was No. 1 in the first BCS standings that year, but lost that first Saturday in November to Texas Tech 39-33. Texas Tech then shot up to No. 2 behind No. 1 Alabama and stayed there until losing to 65-21 to Oklahoma on Nov. 22, and the Sooners moved up to No. 3 behind No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Texas. Oklahoma wound up getting in over Texas that season despite the Longhorns beating the Sooners, but the Sooners won the Big 12 title with a 62-21 win over Missouri.

It was utter mayhem in 2007 those final few weeks of the regular season. LSU, No. 1 in the BCS standings, was stunned 50-48 in triple overtime at home by unranked Arkansas on the Friday after Thanksgiving. LSU dropped from No. 1 to No. 7 in the BCS standings, and everybody on the Bayou was in mourning. Missouri moved up to No. 1 and West Virginia to No. 2 going into the final weekend. Inexplicably, West Virginia lost 13-9 at home to unranked Pittsburgh on that final Saturday (the Panthers came into that game 4-7), and Missouri lost 38-17 to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game that same day.

Out of nowhere, LSU was back in the BCS National Championship.

In 2006, USC was No. 2 in the BCS standings going into the final weekend of the regular season, but lost 13-9 to unranked UCLA. Florida was No. 4, but jumped No. 3 Michigan to face Ohio State in the BCS National Championship after the Trojans were upset.

And in 2001, Tennessee was No. 2 in the BCS standings behind No. 1 Miami heading into the SEC championship game. But the Vols were upset by LSU 31-20 -- an LSU team that lost its starting quarterback and starting running back during the game.

Jimbo Fisher
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher wants his team to relax and just play football.

The moral of the story: It typically works itself out.

Sure, we're all sitting there right now and wondering what's going to happen if Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor all arrive at the finish line unbeaten this season.

How could you possibly pick just two teams from that pack?

Look at it from Florida State's perspective. The Seminoles were No. 2 in the first BCS standings and slipped to No. 3 this past week. Even if they win out -- and as impressive as they've been -- it's probably a stretch to think that they would unseat Alabama or Oregon in one of those top two spots in the final BCS standings if the Tide and Ducks both take care of their business.

But it was Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher who probably offered the best advice for everybody:

Let it play out.

"We just have to continue to play great football. That's our job," said Fisher, who saw it work out for LSU in 2003 while working on Saban's staff as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

"That's the end of it we have to handle, and that's all we can control. Those things all take care of themselves in time, and you've got to just keep playing."

Even then, the month of November can be cruel.

• • •

NFL scouts like Seminoles' talent

Separating Alabama, Florida State and Oregon in terms of pure talent is difficult. But the more scouts I talk to, the more I keep hearing that the Seminoles' roster from top to bottom is the most talent-laden in the country. Obviously, not everybody on Florida State's roster is draft-eligible, including redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston. If he were eligible, he'd be right there in consideration for the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. But over and above Winston, there are at least 10 players on this team who have a chance to be drafted in April.

• • •

Comparing Winston's start to Manziel's

The more we watch Winston play, the more realistic it becomes that we could have a second straight redshirt freshman winning the Heisman Trophy. It's worth comparing Winston's numbers through the first seven games of his college career to those of Johnny Manziel a year ago when Manziel captured college football's most prestigious individual award. Manziel averaged more total yards per game (379.9 yards to 329 yards), but Winston has accounted for more touchdowns to this point (26 to 24) and has committed fewer turnovers (four to seven). Winston also has a higher opponent-adjusted QBR than Manziel did through seven games a year ago. Winston's QBR is 92.6 whereas Manziel had an 84.7 QBR through his first seven games last season.

• • •

Jordan Lynch's reputation growing

It's become clichéd to refer to Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch as unheralded or even a sleeper Heisman Trophy candidate. We all know that quarterbacks from the Mid-American Conference don't win the Heisman, but Lynch's numbers certainly suggest that he should be considered.

Jordan Lynch
Jordan Lynch has impressed Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who says Lynch would be among the best QBs in the SEC.
And having talked to a few coaches who've faced him, there's no question in their minds that Lynch would measure up favorably in any conference. First-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema went up against Lynch two years ago when Bielema was coaching at Wisconsin and said Lynch would unquestionably be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC this season. That's saying something, too, because this has been one of the best years ever across the board for quarterback play in the SEC, especially when everybody was healthy. Bielema has a ton of respect for South Carolina's Connor Shaw, especially after the way Shaw carved the Hogs apart a few weeks ago, but Bielema thinks Lynch is faster than Shaw and a better passer. The 6-foot, 215-pound Lynch might not have prototypical NFL size, but he's the kind of player who will impress once he gets into camp.

He has a chance to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,500 yards for a second straight season, and if he gets there, I'm not sure we'll see anybody in the FBS ranks do that again anytime soon.

• • •

Clowney not worried about perception

Following South Carolina's 27-24 double-overtime win against Missouri last week, I had a chance to spend a few minutes with Jadeveon Clowney. He said he's still not completely healthy and that the strained muscle near his ribcage continues to plague him. Nonetheless, he's played some of his best football the last two weeks and said he's unfazed by what the perception out there nationally is of the way he's played this season. "I'm here for my team and am just going to keep grinding through," Clowney said. "Nobody's really completely healthy this time of year. All that matters is that this team finishes it off the right way. People can doubt me. They can doubt my team. But we've got a lot of fight left." South Carolina will get a week off after facing Mississippi State at home this Saturday. Clowney said that extra time will help him be a lot closer to 100 percent for the stretch drive: "We're right where we wanted to be, in position to play for the (SEC) championship."

• • •

Recruiting rule change suits Saban

Saban, weighing in on Alabama's second straight national championship this summer, was famously quoted in a GQ story as saying, "That damn game cost me a week of recruiting." For one, Saban has a better sense of humor than most people give him credit for. But it's also true that he rarely says or does anything without a purpose. He's always thinking about recruiting, which means one of the recent NCAA rules changes adopted by the Division I Board of Directors should cause Saban a lot less stress if Alabama has to weather being back in the BCS National Championship this year. There's now an extended dead period in December and January where no in-person recruiting can take place. For 2013-14, that period will run from Dec. 16 through Jan. 15. In other words, Saban can coach his team in peace and not have to worry about rival coaches getting a jump on him by visiting with recruits while he's trying to win another national title. Perhaps it's that kind of mindset that best explains why Saban has won three of the past four national titles.

• • •

David Cutcliffe
Duke coach David Cutcliffe has the Blue Devils bowl-eligible for the second straight year for the first time ever.

Cutcliffe's success at Duke
comes as no surprise

Maybe it's eye-raising for some that Duke, coming off an upset win over Virginia Tech last week, is eligible to go to a bowl game for the second straight season for the first time in school history. It's not a huge surprise for me. David Cutcliffe, in his sixth season there, is an excellent football coach. But he's a better person. He's always had a way of getting the best out of his players. They play hard for him. They play smart for him, and they know he's going to prepare them for life regardless of whether they ever play another down of football after college. At a place like Duke, that's gold. Cutcliffe has found the perfect place for him. And while you can't say this about many coaches in this day and age, he'll be there as long as he wants to.