Originally Published: October 10, 2010

A fine mess

By Pat Forde

Every once in a while, we need an entertaining, reality-straining mess of a Saturday to remind us why the college football regular season is so intriguing.

After a very formful first five weeks of the year, we got our mess Saturday.

For starters, we got an absolute free-for-all in the Southeastern Conference. The recently trampled Eastern Division earned a restorative victory over the newly muscled-up West but narrowly missed two others.

South Carolina dialed up its biggest victory in school history, dethroning defending champion and No. 1 Alabama and in the process reintroducing the Head Ball Coach to a limelight he hasn't enjoyed in a long time. Mostly, the win showcased the recruiting triumphs Steve Spurrier has had in recent years, signing big-time prospects Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore.

Their heroic plays dropped a grenade into the national championship chase, elevating hopes for Crimson Tide chasers from Eugene, Ore., to Columbus, Ohio, and several places in between. But as stunning as South Carolina's two-touchdown victory was, it only served as the table-setter for what happened Saturday night.

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Frankie Creel/US PresswireSteve Spurrier helped deliver the biggest win in South Carolina's football history.

Auburn-Kentucky went down to the wire. LSU-Florida went down to the haywire.

A Kentucky team that had been blitzed in consecutive weeks by Florida and Mississippi bowed up and tied visiting No. 8 Auburn at 34 midway through the fourth quarter. The Tigers responded by simply swallowing the ball for the rest of the game, grinding out 18 plays of 11 yards or fewer to set up a 24-yard field goal on the last play to win.

Mere minutes later, Les Miles struck again.

The Mad Hatter continues to burnish his ... mystique, for lack of a better word. After bungling the closing minutes but still beating Tennessee last week, Miles' LSU team played an inspired game at Florida but lost the lead late and needed a 53-yard field goal to tie the game in the final minute.

So Miles called a fake. Not just a fake, but an oddball fake -- holder flips ball over head to kicker. That exact kind of fake has worked before, but it requires Bolshoi-level choreography.

LSU's choreography failed. Naturally, given Miles' spooky level of luck, the play succeeded anyway.

Holder Derek Helton flipped the ball too far in front of kicker Josh Jasper. But because this was a Les Miles production, the oblong ball bounced like a basketball -- it rose perfectly for Jasper to grab it in stride and run for the first down. A replay review showed that -- again, Les Miles production here -- the ball landed mere inches short of being a forward pass, which would have been incomplete and given the ball back to the Florida.

So instead of hoping to make a long kick for the tie, LSU's largely miserable passing game suddenly hit two big plays to score the winning touchdown. And now Auburn and LSU are the last two unbeatens in the SEC, while Alabama is playing catch-up.

Meanwhile, the last two unbeatens in the Big Ten are Ohio State (expected) and Michigan State (what?). The Spartans are 6-0 even though head coach Mark Dantonio hasn't walked the sideline during a game since Sept. 18.

The shorthand on Dantonio's past four games:

Stunning fake field goal to beat Notre Dame, heart attack, hospital, watched TV at home for Northern Colorado game, comeback, blood clot, watched TV in hospital for Wisconsin game, comeback, sat in press box Saturday for victory over unbeaten rival Michigan.

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Kim Klement/US PresswireLes Miles' level of luck is now through the roof.

Yeah, it's been a bit eventful.

The fact that Michigan State and Ohio State don't play each other this year raises some interesting possibilities in the Big Ten. So does the fact that Illinois went into Beaver Stadium and beat down Penn State -- namely, can Ron Zook actually save his job, and can the Penn State brass convince ancient icon Joe Paterno that it might be time to make like Bobby Bowden and retire?

Minnesota coach Tim Brewster might not be able to save his job. But that doesn't mean he's going to take a punking with his mouth shut. When Wisconsin went for two up 41-15 with 6:39 left, Brewster had a postgame talking point other than his 15-29 career record. He went after Badgers coach Bret Bielema verbally on the field and then in his news conference. It's hard to blame him.

Speaking of coaching feuds, the Jim Harbaugh-Pete Carroll friction out West was dismantled when Carroll went pro. But that doesn't mean Harbaugh doesn't live to stick it to USC, regardless of who the coach is (currently Lane Kiffin, who continues to prove himself overemployed). Harbaugh ran his record against the Trojans to a rather remarkable 3-1 Saturday night when his kicker, who missed a key extra point, made an even more key field goal on the final play for a 37-35 win.

But that wasn't the most significant result in the Pac-10. Oregon State's road upset of unbeaten Arizona qualifies as that, not only making the Beavers 2-0 in the league but also further enhancing the résumés of Boise State and TCU. Both beat the Beavers earlier this season, and the more Oregon State wins, the harder it is for Establishment fans and voters to say the Broncos and Horned Frogs haven't beaten anyone.

And now there is room at the top for Boise and TCU. And Oregon and Ohio State. And Oklahoma and Nebraska. And maybe even Auburn and LSU. They all have a case to state for being No. 1 after the first fabulously messy Saturday of the 2010 season.

Tide down, not out

By Chris Low

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was the first loss Alabama had suffered since the Sugar Bowl at the tail end of the 2008 season.

It was the first loss Alabama's Greg McElroy had suffered as a starting quarterback since he was in the eighth grade.

So obviously, it's been a while for everybody of the crimson persuasion, and McElroy vowed in the aftermath of Alabama's 35-21 loss to South Carolina on Saturday that nobody in that locker room was going to get used to losing.

In fact, McElroy promised that he would do his part to make sure that Alabama (5-1, 2-1) gets everything out of this season that it set out to accomplish.

"I'm one of the leaders on this team and am as disappointed as anybody," said McElroy, who passed for a career-high 315 yards. "But you see what this team is capable of. We're capable of some amazing, amazing things, and we can still do everything we want to do.

"Quite frankly, we have to commit ourselves. Everybody, each individual, every coach, every member of the administration has to commit themselves to this team and believe in this team, because we are a great team."

McElroy said that everybody on Alabama's team needed to look into the mirror, but he has no doubt that the Crimson Tide will be a stronger, more focused team because of what happened Saturday in Columbia.

"For everyone that doubts what we can accomplish, just look at when we're playing well," McElroy said. "Right now, it's a learning experience, and I'm ready and willing to handle this challenge as an individual, and I promise I will do everything in my power to get this team ready to go and put this loss in the rearview mirror and learn everything we possibly can from it, because there is so much to learn.

"We're still going to be one heck of a team."

It won't get any easier for the Crimson Tide. Every SEC team they face the rest of the way will have a bye week before facing them. Several of the South Carolina players said it made a huge difference for them.

The good news for Alabama is that it still has two unbeaten teams left on its schedule at this point (LSU on Nov. 6 and Auburn on Nov. 26) and will have a chance to work its way up the BCS standings.

But it's not going to matter unless the Crimson Tide can work out some of the kinks in their secondary and get back to doing what they do best on offense, which is pound away in the running game with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. They combined for just 64 yards on 17 carries against the Gamecocks.

And with McElroy getting sacked seven times, the Crimson Tide were held to 36 rushing yards on 29 attempts after falling behind 21-3 and turning almost exclusively to the passing game.

"You can't just show up and win," Ingram said. "You have to focus, practice hard, and everybody has to be on the same page. You have to be smart, play with a lot of intensity … and play Alabama football."

Same old Arizona

By Ted Miller

TUCSON, Ariz. -- There is only one certainty from Arizona's 29-27 loss to Oregon State: The Wildcats won't go undefeated in 2010. That puts them in the same boat as Alabama. That's one way to look at things.

Another way to look at it? There they go again.

Just when it seemed as though the ninth-ranked Wildcats were ready to take a major step forward -- beating then-No. 9 Iowa, riding a high national ranking -- they took a step back.

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Chris Morrison/US PresswireNick Foles and Arizona need to rebound after suffering their first loss of the season.

"Tonight was a tough night in a lot of ways," coach Mike Stoops said. "When you look at the entire game, we just weren't there."

The feeling entering the game was that the Wildcats were on the cusp of a potentially special season. It still might turn out special, only not as special as it could have been. The first loss is often the hardest, but it's even harder when it comes at home to a two-loss team and when it feels as if a lot of football was played badly.

"I don't think it's a wake-up call," linebacker Paul Vassallo said. "It's disappointing with two weeks of prep."

Vassallo is a junior college transfer, so he hasn't been around the program long. But it's good he's not leaning on the idea of this team needing a "wake-up call." The Arizona program is awake. It's just sometimes confounding -- see Vassallo's noting of how the Wildcats played after getting two weeks to prepare for the Beavers.

It's hard to put much blame on Nick Foles and the offense, which gained 541 yards, including 311 in the second half. Foles passed for 440 yards and three touchdowns and led scoring drives of 57, 66, 66 and 80 yards.

Special teams weren't special. Kicker Alex Zendejas missed a 37-yard field goal just before halftime and had a PAT blocked. Struggling punter Keenyn Crier blasted a beautiful 47-yard punt in the fourth quarter -- only he blasted it into the end zone for a touchback instead of pinning the Beavers deep in their own territory. Oregon State then drove for the decisive touchdown.

And that was telling -- yielding a 10-play, 80-yard, nearly five-minute drive when the screws were tightening. Ultimately, the predominant blame falls on the unit that had been so dominant this season: the defense.

The Wildcats entered the game ranked among the nation's leaders in nearly every major defensive statistical category. The Beavers had been struggling on offense. But the Wildcats gave up 486 yards, including 393 yards passing to the Beavers, who were 10-of-15 on third-down plays.

"We played sloppy tonight," end Ricky Elmore said after the game.

And considering the Wildcats visit Washington State next weekend, it probably cost them a 7-0 start and all that might have brought -- such as a potential top-five ranking.

Of course, a top-five ranking eight weeks into the season isn't really all that great. It doesn't include a trophy or a bowl invitation. It's always about how you finish.

"I don't really know if we just lost our edge or took for granted what we had or what, but it's going to be a very long season," Stoops said.

That's good, because Saturday was a long and mostly unpleasant night for the Wildcats, the first time that's been the case this season.

Running a parallel race

By Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On a day when Ohio State re-established itself as a national title contender, Michigan State further validated itself as a team that will challenge for the Big Ten crown.

The Buckeyes made quick work of Indiana as quarterback Terrelle Pryor passed for a career-high 334 yards and an opportunistic defense recorded three interceptions. Meanwhile, a disciple of Buckeyes boss Jim Tressel (Mark Dantonio) returned to the coaching booth at Michigan and watched his Spartans team deliver a very Ohio State-like beating to the maize and blue.

Both Ohio State and Michigan State took a big step toward their ultimate goal.

"We are Big Ten contenders," Michigan State running back Edwin Baker said.

It looks like the case, but here's the bad news: There will be no collision course between the Buckeyes and Spartans.

Because of the Big Ten's unbalanced schedule, Ohio State and Michigan State don't meet this season. Consequently, both teams could finish tied atop the league standings on Nov. 27 and share the Little League-ish label of co-champs, which the Big Ten mercifully will eliminate in 2011 when it launches a title game.

Both Ohio State and Michigan State went 4-0 in nonconference play, so the Big Ten's automatic representative to the BCS bowls would be the higher-ranked team in the final BCS standings. Given Ohio State's loftier preseason and current ranking, it would be hard to imagine the Buckeyes not getting the nod. Michigan State entered the season unranked.

There's a long way to go for both teams. Ohio State faces the first of two major road tests this week at Wisconsin. Both the Buckeyes and Michigan State must visit Iowa City, home of a Hawkeyes team that looks every bit like a league title contender.

But if Ohio State and Michigan State are tied atop the Big Ten in late November, it'll be a shame of sorts.

Imagine Dantonio taking a program covered with his fingerprints to face his mentor and the Buckeyes. It's tantalizing. And it won't come to pass.

Big Ten fans might have to take solace in that old sporting maxim: Wait 'til next year.


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