A fine mess
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.
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.
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
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.
• It was the first time in school history South Carolina defeated The Associated Press' top-ranked team and matched the success of the school's basketball and baseball teams. In January, the basketball squad knocked off undefeated and No. 1 Kentucky, while the eventual-national-champion baseball team eliminated top-ranked Arizona State in the College World Series in June.
• In the upset, South Carolina held Alabama's vaunted rushing offense to 36 yards, the third-lowest output in the Nick Saban era. Eventual national champion LSU had held the Crimson Tide to 20 rushing yards in 2007, and Utah had held Alabama to 31 yards in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram had 246 rush yards last year versus South Carolina as the Tide rolled up 264 rushing yards. This year, Ingram had 41.
• With Alabama's loss, we will see something different at the top of the polls. Either Florida or Alabama has been No. 1 in the AP poll in each of the past 29 polls dating back to the 2008 season. The last time Florida or Alabama was not in the top spot was the Oct. 26, 2008, poll, when Texas was on top.
-- David Bearman, ESPN Stats & Information
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
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.
"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
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.
Three weekend observations
1.Think about the change in power that has occurred in college football during the past two weeks. The most dominant teams of the past decade -- Florida and USC -- have lost consecutive games. Alabama, the most dominant team of the past two seasons, got beaten by two touchdowns Saturday. Texas is reeling, too. Then there's LSU, which continues to defy all rational explanation. At any rate, the second half of the season is scripted no longer. Let the BCS speculation season begin.
2. Joe Paterno's 400th victory has been considered a fait accompli for this season. But with the one-sided loss on Saturday to Illinois, the Nittany Lions fell to 3-3, and Paterno remained stuck at 397 as 400 recedes into the distance. To reach 400 this season, Penn State will have to beat one team among Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State, which are a combined 22-2. If it doesn't, that means the Nittany Lions will go 5-7. I don't think Penn State would do to Paterno what Florida State did to Bobby Bowden. But
3. USC linebacker Chris Galippo emphatically said that the whistle didn't blow before his late hit on Stanford's final drive. The penalty, on the Cardinal's first play, all but sealed the Trojans' fate, which was to watch Andrew Luck pick them apart and drive Stanford to the winning field goal. And the USC defense did watch. Stanford receivers sat down unimpeded at first-down yardage on consecutive plays. For Galippo's sake, let's hope he doesn't watch the TV replay. I heard the whistle while sitting in a hotel room in Michigan.
Saban on Alabama's loss
'GameDay' crew final thoughts
I think in our eagerness to start talking about dynasties and all-time great teams, we forget how hard it is to win a national championship. With all the talk of USC having a dynasty with all the Heisman Trophy winners who have played there in the past 10 years, they won only one BCS title. With all the talent that Miami had during the early 2000s that went on to play in the NFL, it won only one BCS championship. Oklahoma, for all the talent that has gone through Norman under Bob Stoops, was able to win it only once. Last year, Florida found out how hard it is to repeat, and Alabama learned that Saturday. Still, the Tide have a chance if they win out.
Helmet stickers go to:
• QB Cameron Newton, Auburn
210 pass yards, 198 rush yards, 4 TDs in 37-34 win at Kentucky
• Florida State offensive line
298 rush yards, 4 rush TDs, no sacks allowed in 45-17 at Miami
You have to be impressed by all the individual performances. Alshon Jeffery had a great game against Alabama. Cameron Newton ran for almost 200 yards and four touchdowns against Kentucky and Taylor Martinez ran for more than 230 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas State. It proves that if you have a running quarterback, you have a chance to win in college football. Not a runner, but a running quarterback. There is a difference between the two.
South Carolina outplayed Alabama from top to bottom with its offense, defense and special teams. They were very impressive in the win. Alabama did not bring its A-game, but South Carolina deserves a lot of credit, as it was the better team today. Alabama still can play for the national championship if it wins out.
I finally discovered what's underneath Les Miles' hat Saturday night, and it's a rabbit's foot, because he is one of the luckiest coaches in the country. You have to admire him for sticking to his guns and principles, and he just finds a way to keep winning somehow.
Helmet stickers go to:
• QB Taylor Potts, Texas Tech
462 pass yards, 4 TDs in 45-38 win vs. Baylor
• LB Nate Bussey, Illinois
8 tackles, int return for TD in 33-13 win at Penn State
Blog Network: What we learned
Just when Miami had a chance to truly separate itself from the rest of the conference, the Canes took a nosedive.
Taylor Martinez is a Heisman candidate, and it's time to take Missouri's defense seriously.
The Orange's 3-1 start was built largely on a weak schedule. But Syracuse showed it has made real improvement by beating South Florida.
Ohio State delivered the impressive performance it needed against Indiana, and Michigan State notched its second consecutive win over a ranked opponent.
Although credit goes to Oregon State for a strong performance on the road, there was something clearly off about Arizona on Saturday night.
Forget all the talk about Alabama separating itself from the rest of the league. The landscape looks a little different thanks to South Carolina.
Boise State, TCU and, yes, Utah, are very much in the hunt for the national championship.
Notre Dame still isn't in a position where it can play a complete game and step on an opponent's throat.
Blog Network: Helmet stickers
Every week our bloggers will hand out helmet stickers to the week's top players, coaches, teams or anything else worth this honor.
• ACC: Tyrod Taylor; Tom O'Brien; Johnny White
More ACC stickers
• Big 12: Taylor Martinez; Justin Blackmon; Missouri's defense
More Big 12 stickers
• Big East: Chas Dodd; Delone Carter; Adam Froman
More Big East stickers
• Big Ten: Nathan Scheelhaase; Rob Henry; Terrelle Pryor
More Big Ten stickers
• Pac-10: Shane Vereen; Cal's defense; Ryan Katz
More Pac-10 stickers
• SEC: Tramain Thomas; Cameron Newton; Alshon Jeffery
More SEC stickers
• Non-AQ: Jonathan Warzeka; Jordan Wynn; John Potter
More Non-AQ stickers
Highlights: Michigan State-Michigan
Odds & ends
• UCLA came into Saturday ranked 10th in the nation in rushing at 262.4 yards per game. The new pistol offense yielded at least 150 rush yards in all five games. California didn't fare too well against Nevada's pistol formation last month, allowing 316 rush yards. But on Saturday, UCLA was held to 26 rushing yards.
• Syracuse beat South Florida in Tampa. Why was this significant? It's the first Big East road win for the Orange since 2007 (at Louisville). Syracuse moved to 4-1 for the first time this century (last started 4-1 in 1999).