Non-AQ title hopefuls take center stage
Roadblock Saturday provided what the last of the undefeated teams needed -- two more teams out of the national championship picture.
Now the stage has been set for the BCS busters.
Five unbeaten teams remain, but three are outside your traditional conferences. No. 4 TCU (9-0) and No. 8 Utah (8-0) take the spotlight for non-automatic-qualifying teams everywhere, as their huge Mountain West Conference showdown brims with national implications. Only one team will survive with its BCS hopes intact.
Meanwhile, No. 3 Boise State (7-0) hosts Hawaii (7-2) in a huge WAC showdown that will not be a gimme for the Broncos.
How many times can you remember non-AQ teams being involved in games as critical as these to the national championship race on the same weekend? How about never?
But the unique trajectory of this season has allowed us to get to this point, and Saturday was no different.
Although the No. 1 team in the country survived for the first time since Oct. 2, No. 5 Michigan State and No. 6 Missouri were not as fortunate. The Spartans looked listless in a 37-6 loss to No. 18 Iowa. The Hawkeyes cruised to a 30-0 halftime lead, and normally efficient Kirk Cousins had his worst game of the season, throwing three interceptions before getting benched late with the game out of hand. He'd had four total interceptions before the game.
The loss has left the Big Ten a jumbled mess. Without an undefeated team, the Big Ten will need huge help to sneak back into the national title race. But forget about that. Who will emerge as the league champion? Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa each have one conference loss. Ohio State and Iowa will play Nov. 20, and Michigan State and Wisconsin are favorites to win out, meaning a three-way tie atop the league is feasible.
If that happens, overall record, head-to-head results and possibly BCS standings will be needed to figure out who goes to the Rose Bowl.
Meanwhile, Missouri had no idea how to slow down Roy Helu Jr. The Nebraska back took the sizzle from Taylor Martinez, running for a school-record 307 yards in a 31-17 victory. Missouri trailed 24-7 at halftime, and although the Tigers tried to make a game of it, they were no match for Helu and the Huskers.
No. 1 Auburn had no such problems against Ole Miss, winning 51-31 as Cam Newton showed off his athleticism once again with a touchdown catch and two touchdown passes. Oregon, No. 2 in the BCS but No. 1 in the hearts of the voters, survived a tough test from USC 53-32. The Ducks have scored 40-plus points in all their games this season and proved no match for whatever talent USC has left on defense.
Those two teams will be the favorites to win big in Week 10 -- Auburn will host FCS foe Chattanooga, while Oregon will host spiraling Washington.
That should cede the attention to TCU, Utah and Boise State. The Horned Frogs easily beat UNLV to stay undefeated. Utah faced an expected challenge from Air Force on Saturday but survived, setting up the colossal matchup in Salt Lake City. TCU has never won at Utah, and the Utes would love nothing more than to leave the Mountain West on top of the conference.
The game pits so many intriguing matchups -- Andy Dalton against Jordan Wynn in a quarterback battle of experience versus youth. The deep Utah defensive line versus the solid TCU offensive line, featuring future NFL player Marcus Cannon. Punt returners extraordinaire -- Shaky Smithson of Utah versus Jeremy Kerley of TCU. Two top-10 defenses in the country. The list goes on.
Boise State has tough competition in the WAC, although many are loath to admit it. Hawaii has won six straight games and eight straight in conference play, and it brings the nation's top passing attack to Boise to face a secondary that has struggled at times. Meanwhile, after the Broncos beat Louisiana Tech 49-20 on Tuesday night, skeptics unleashed a barrage of criticism because they looked less than crisp.
The pressure is on to win and win big to keep those championship hopes alive. Boise State will not face anybody as good as TCU or Utah the rest of the way, so it must hold on to its top-two spot in the human polls to avoid getting passed. That means playing to near perfection, yet even that might not be enough.
Nobody knows whether TCU, Utah or Boise State will be able to become the first non-AQ team to play for a national title. One-loss teams like Alabama loom closer. But we might have a better idea after BCS-buster Saturday.
Auburn doesn't take the cheese
OXFORD, Miss. -- No. 1 Auburn wasn't about to fall into the No. 1 trap.
That goes for now or at any point this season that the Tigers happen to be sitting atop the BCS standings. They avoided the curse that had befallen the past three No. 1 teams and raced past Ole Miss for a 51-31 victory on Saturday that will almost certainly keep them No. 1 for a second straight week.
Auburn (9-0, 6-0) doesn't need to do anything but win the rest of the way to get a shot at a BCS national championship, especially with so many undefeated teams around the country going down the past two weeks.
Any lobbying for votes or hoping for other teams to go down would be wasted energy. It's all out there in front of them.
"I don't know overall what it says about our team other than our team is focused and ready to move on to the next game," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said after his club's ninth straight win, but its first as the No. 1 team in the BCS standings.
"Other than that, we're not trying to make any statements anywhere and say, 'Hey, this team fell, and we didn't.' We're not into all that. We just have to find a way to get better every week."
When the new BCS standings come out Sunday night, Auburn is likely to find its archrival, Alabama, up there with it in the top five and very much within striking distance. The Crimson Tide, who were idle, were ranked No. 7 this past week, but that's likely to change after both Michigan State (No. 5) and Missouri (No. 6) lost this weekend.
More and more, it's looking as though that Alabama-Auburn showdown on Nov. 26 won't just determine the SEC Western Division champion but also will be a play-in game of sorts to get into the BCS National Championship Game.
Granted, LSU may have something to say about that next week in Baton Rouge, and there still would be the Eastern Division champion to deal with in the SEC championship game.
But the ideal scenario for Alabama would be for Auburn to keep winning and be No. 1 when they meet in Tuscaloosa. A win over the Tigers probably would give the Tide enough juice to shoot up in the polls and grab one of those top two spots in the final BCS standings.
Of course, the good thing for Auburn is that the Tigers don't have to worry about scenarios. Their only focus is what's right in front of them.
They'll face nonconference foe Chattanooga at home next weekend, then host Georgia, have a bye week and play in the Iron Bowl.
"This team is focused on doing what we need to do," Auburn freshman running back Michael Dyer said. "The rest of that stuff is for everybody else to figure out."
London Bridge is rising
First-year Virginia coach Mike London had been hearing it all season -- how the Cavaliers would win only three games this year, how the first FBS win came against an Eastern Michigan team that wasn't very good, how the program had lost nine straight conference games
"On and on and on and on," London said after the game on Saturday, his voice still hoarse from the excitement of the day.
It all came to a screeching halt on Saturday when Virginia intercepted Miami five times en route to a 24-19 win over the No. 22-ranked Hurricanes. It was the first ACC win for London, who was hired from the FCS ranks to resurrect a program that has had three losing seasons in the past four years.
It was one of several upsets in yet another wild, unpredictable week in the ACC. On Thursday night, NC State knocked off the ACC's top-ranked team, No. 16 Florida State, 28-24. On Saturday, Boston College earned its first conference win by surprising Clemson 16-10. Duke, which hadn't won since its season opener against Elon, beat Navy on the road, and North Carolina almost lost to William & Mary on homecoming.
The biggest surprise, though, came in Charlottesville, where Virginia earned its first win over a ranked opponent in two years.
"To see those guys play hard, not give up, even when they scored their last touchdown, all those guys collectively as a team, you're overwhelmed with emotion," said London, who fell to his knees after the game. "Because no one wants to throw an interception. No one wants to miss a tackle. These guys all want to win. Sometimes you put a game together where you do better things than the other team. We were in position to make plays, get five turnovers, things like that. This was a signature win for us because it's a ranked team."
Don't tell London he won because Miami didn't have injured starting quarterback Jacory Harris for much of the game.
"Well, you know what? I'm missing Joe Torchia, Ras-I Dowling didn't play, Tim Smith, our starting receiver is out," he said. "Football is football. You've got to play the game with who you've got and at the end of the day hope your score is better than theirs."
Virginia did more than hope. It played defense. Miami was held scoreless in the opening quarter -- with Harris on the field -- and he was hit while throwing an interception. Harris' absence had nothing to do with Miami's defense getting run over, either. Keith Payne ran for two touchdowns and 81 yards, and the Cavaliers didn't allow a sack.
Virginia started the season with a 2-4 record but has never quit on London.
"That was the way it was before," London said. "That was then; this is now. I will not allow players to attach their self-worth to their record."
Nor will he allow anyone to lessen the value of this win because Harris was hurt.
"This is a big win for the community and for the fans," said junior corner Chase Minnifield, who had two interceptions. "This win helps us recruit, and it is great to get a win on the national stage. We needed the win, and we worked hard for it. One thing no one can say is that we did not work hard this week."
Instead, you can go "on and on and on" about what Virginia finally did do.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- There were 10 months of anticipation leading up to Nebraska's previous outing on this field. A summer kerfuffle that ended with Nebraska packing its bags for the Big Ten poured gasoline on a fire white-hot from a controversial end to the Big 12 title game.
Helu makes history
Mike Rozier, Tommie Frazier, Eric Crouch and all the other Nebraska greats never had a day like Roy Helu Jr. did on Saturday. The senior running back rushed for a school-record 307 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri. Since 2005, Helu is one of two players from schools in BCS automatic-qualifying conferences to rush for 300 yards and three touchdowns in the same game. He joins California's Jahvid Best, who did it on Dec. 6, 2008, versus Washington.
As good as Helu was, he barely came within 100 yards of the FBS single-game record. TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson racked up 406 yards versus UTEP on Nov. 20, 1999. Helu scored on TD runs of 66, 73, and 55 yards. He's just the third FBS player with three 50-yard TD runs in the same game in the past five seasons. The others are Ryan Mathews of Fresno State (Sept. 18, 2009 versus Boise State) and Louisiana-Lafayette's Tyrell Fenroy (Oct. 4, 2008 versus Louisiana-Monroe).
-- Jason Vida, ESPN Stats & Information
The Huskers wanted to beat Texas and wanted to do so badly. Probably more than Missouri, a rivalry that in some ways stretched the definition of the word because it was one-sided for so much of the past three decades.
Nebraska wrote the final chapter of a rivalry that's more than a century old with a flurry of long runs and a quarterback-flustering defense, beating Missouri 31-17 and taking a firm grasp of the Big 12 North.
For all the sweet satisfaction that would have come with slapping around the Longhorns on the way out the door, a win over Missouri was the parting shot Nebraska needed. For the here and now, the Tigers were the team standing between Nebraska and a substantial 2010 season.
Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr. broke through the line untouched on the Huskers' first offensive snap. His 66-yard run was only part of a 24-0 first-quarter pounding that was enough offense for the game. Nebraska hung 31 points on the board without taking a snap in Missouri's red zone.
"You're not doing anything magical," Huskers coach Bo Pelini said of his team's start. "It's just by executing -- doing what you've been coached to do."
Injuries to a pair of stars, quarterback Taylor Martinez and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (both plan to return next week), didn't change the outcome. Martinez's replacement, Zac Lee, needed to throw only three passes and run twice to secure the win in the second half. Dennard's replacement, true freshman Ciante Evans, mostly went unnoticed by everyone but Missouri's offense, which is exactly what happens when good cornerbacks play well.
Gone were the fumbles and dropped passes that ended many Nebraska drives against the Longhorns here two weeks ago.
"We've been working on it, can't you tell?" offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "It's good to see their freakin' hard work finally pay off. It means practice pays off."
Said Pelini: "The big part of the football game was no turnovers. You win the takeaway battle in a game like this, and that's big."
Helu finished with a school-record 307 yards rushing -- the best performance by a runner in college football this season -- after two more long touchdown runs and a handful of punishing runs up the middle. Helu had to be notified, along with the rest of the 85,907 in attendance, of his record by the public address announcer. After the game, teammates gave him a water bottle bath, the little brother of the 20-gallon Gatorade bath reserved for championship-winning coaches.
To read the rest of David Ubben's story, click here.
Brad Edwards' BCS projections
Three weekend observations
1. Syracuse has six wins before Halloween. The Orange haven't done that since 2001. Their 31-7 victory at Cincinnati is Syracuse's largest margin in Big East play since 2004. The Orange are 3-0 in road conference games. If your jaw hasn't hit the desk by now, you haven't paid attention to Syracuse in a long time. Pittsburgh must lose twice for the Orange to have a shot at the Big East's automatic BCS bid. Just the fact that we are discussing it makes Doug Marrone all but a lock for the league's coach of the year.
2. Seasons that Tennessee has been in the Southeastern Conference: 78. Seasons that Tennessee has been 0-5 in the SEC before 2010: one (1977). The Vols' 38-24 loss to South Carolina guaranteed one of the SEC's flagship programs its first losing record in league play since the league went to two divisions. Seasons that Tennessee has lost more than five games in the SEC: none.
3. Cal fell to 0-4 on the road with three losses by at least 21 points. The Bears are 4-0 at home. The good news is that the Pac-10 has a bowl game very close to Berkeley, just over the Bay Bridge at AT&T Park. The bad news is that the other side of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is the No. 1 pick from the WAC. That means the Bears, if they end up there, may get either No. 3 Boise State or No. 24 Nevada, which beat Cal 52-31 earlier this season.
'GameDay' crew final thoughts
We talk all the time about programs that need statement wins, and look at what Baylor and Syracuse did. For two programs trying to mature, to go out on the road and beat the defending champions of their respective conferences is huge for them. On the other hand, it's time for established programs like Michigan and Texas to find some maturity and heart. For them to play like they did Saturday and have been playing in recent weeks is unacceptable.
Helmet stickers go to:
• CB Shaun Prater, Iowa
10 tackles, INT in win vs. Michigan State
• DBs Corey Mosley, Chase Minnifield, Virginia
4 tackles, 2 INTs each in win vs. Miami
You had to be impressed by Oregon and Auburn both going out on the road and getting big wins. Those are the types of wins that prove you're a championship contender.
Helmet stickers go to:
• WR Jeff Maehl, Oregon
8 rec., 145 yards, 3 TDs in win at USC
• S Byron Landor, Baylor
15 tackles, 2 pass deflections in win at Texas
Oregon was very impressive on the road, putting up nearly 600 yards of offense and more than 50 points on USC. It's not just the totals but also the way the Ducks did it, rushing for more than 300 yards and getting another standout performance from quarterback Darron Thomas. That's what you have to do as one of the top teams in the nation -- go out and win tough games on the road. The same goes for Auburn, which did it, too. Another impressive win was Virginia beating Miami. If you look at how the remainder of the schedule shakes out, Virginia could be bowl-eligible in Mike London's first year there, which would be a big step in the right direction for that program. The Big East is still the Big Least, and that includes West Virginia, which went on the road and committed four turnovers Friday night to lose to UConn. And how about a shout-out to Art Briles and Baylor, who got a big win at Texas and now control their own destiny in the Big 12 South. If the Bears win out, they'll be playing for the Big 12 championship, and who would've thunk that? Last but not least, Iowa is the best two-loss team in the country.
Helmet stickers go to:
• RB Roy Helu Jr., Nebraska
School-record 307 rushing yards, 3 TDs in win vs. Missouri
• QB Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M
School-record 449 passing yards, 4 TDs in win vs. Texas Tech
Highlights: Auburn-Ole Miss
Blog Network: What we learned
After another crazy week in the ACC, Virginia Tech is now the runaway favorite in the league.
After dismantling Missouri, the Big 12 North now belongs to Nebraska. And you'd better start taking Baylor seriously.
Pitt and Syracuse have emerged as the league favorites, while Bill Stewart's seat at West Virginia is getting warmer.
Iowa's win over Michigan State leaves four one-loss teams in the league, making the Big Ten race much more interesting.
There's no questioning Oregon's status as the premier team in the league, and there's plenty at stake when Arizona and Stanford meet.
Auburn is proving it's not your typical SEC team, while the SEC East race is finally taking shape.
With both teams unbeaten, TCU versus Utah has lived up to its billing as the non-AQ game of the season.
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.
Highlights: Michigan State-Iowa
Odds & ends
• Kendall Hunter rumbled for 143 yards in Oklahoma State's 10-point win at Kansas State. It was the 18th time Hunter has topped the 100-yard mark in his career, moving him past 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders on the school's all-time list. Hunter is now tied with David Thompson for third on the school's all-time list. Next up is another former NFL great -- Thurman Thomas with 21.
• Marcus Lattimore continued his outstanding freshman season with 184 rushing yards and a touchdown versus Tennessee. Lattimore now has 13 combined rushing and receiving scores this season. That's three short of Harold Green's school record set in 1987. Lattimore tied fellow Gamecock Sidney Rice and Florida's Emmitt Smith for the fifth-most TDs by a freshman in SEC history. Tennessee's Reggie Cobb owns the record with 20 in 1987.