Originally Published: November 17, 2013

If you don't like it, forget it and start over

By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

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Football is, by nature and by rule, a cyclical sport. Rosters are designed to turn over 25 percent every year. Today's fifth-year senior is next year's untested sophomore. Renaissance is always one recruiting class away.

That's the design, anyway. But that isn't what's going on at No. 7 Auburn or at USC. The Tigers and the Trojans play like this is "NCAA Football 14." Don't like the way the season is going? The game turned against you? Click out of it and reboot. Get a fresh screen!

The kings of do-over live in the Loveliest Village on the Plains and in the Coliseum. On Saturday, a continent apart, Auburn and USC defied belief, credulity and the odds to beat rivals that had roughed them up in recent years. Before USC finished off No. 4 Stanford 20-17, T-shirts celebrating "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare," Auburn's 43-38 victory over No. 25 Georgia, already were being sold.

Had the Hail Mary that Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall flung as far as he could fling not been volleyed by two Georgia defensive backs into the juggling hands of Tigers wide receiver Ricardo Louis, this still would have been a memorable season. Auburn still would have reversed field from a 3-9 mark a year ago. The Tigers still can ruin No. 1 Alabama's BCS championship hope in two weeks, always a season-maker.

After blowing a 37-17 lead against its oldest rival, Auburn had fourth-and-18 on its 27-yard line with 25 seconds to play. The Tigers had come so far from last season under first-year coach Gus Malzahn that the sting of this loss still would be soothed by the success of the entire season. These Tigers had brought Auburn back from ridicule and that even worse fate: irrelevance.

Ricardo Louis
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsRicardo Louis' improbable 73-yard TD catch preserved Auburn's delicate BCS aspirations.

Only Auburn didn't lose. Its SEC championship hopes remain alive. This team knows how to come back.

The renaissance at Auburn began last December. At USC, it began last month.

When the Trojans lost at Notre Dame 14-10, their record fell to 4-3 and they had lost eight of their past 13 dating to October 2012. Interim coach Ed Orgeron did his best to repair his team's psyche, then crossed his fingers. NCAA sanctions have reduced the Trojans to 13 defensive players good enough to compete against the Stanfords of the world.

The Trojans entered Saturday's clash with Stanford at the Coliseum on a three-game winning streak. USC led early, then withstood a third quarter in which the Cardinal controlled both lines of scrimmage to tie the game at 17. But in the fourth quarter, when common sense and the rules of endurance dictated that the Trojans would fall to one of their oldest rivals for a fifth consecutive year, USC stayed strong. Stanford made the mistakes.

Look at Trojans kicker Andre Heidari. He came into the game having made only 11 of 18 field goal attempts this season. He missed his third extra point of the year in the first quarter. When the Trojans lined up for Heidari's 47-yard, game-winning attempt with 19 seconds to play, you could feel the tension of the approaching overtime.

But since the Notre Dame game, Heidari had made six of eight field goal attempts. You could have used his winning kick to paint stripes on I-105. Rebooting, indeed.

Since USC's struggles extended into this season, it doesn't have as much blue sky ahead as Auburn. The Tigers are two victories away from the SEC championship. The Trojans need help to win the Pac-12 South. But the fact that this paragraph is even being written explains the eternal optimism of a college football coach. The horizon always promises a new start. Sometimes, the horizon is closer than it appears.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

USC win over Stanford shakes up Pac-12

By Kyle Bonagura | ESPN.com

Not a minute had gone by after USC kicker Andre Heidari slayed No. 4 Stanford with a 47-yard field goal before Oregon backup quarterback Jeff Lockie took to Twitter.

"FIGHT ON!!!!!!" he wrote.

While 93,607 fans packed Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night, the Trojans' biggest fans were in Oregon.

Ed Orgeron
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsEd Orgeron has been a breath of fresh air for USC, and his latest accomplishment -- Saturday's stunning win over No. 4 Stanford -- has endeared him to the Trojans faithful even more.

A week after the Ducks' Pac-12 title hopes were seemingly dashed, Heidari's kick vaulted them right back into the driver's seat of the Pac-12 North and back on course for the Rose Bowl. Oregon needs to pull off what Washington State did Saturday -- win at Arizona -- then beat Oregon State at home to host its second conference title game in three seasons.

The Ducks played a game Saturday, too, but their eventual rout of Utah served merely as an appetizer for the day's marquee game. Especially in Eugene.

While the Ducks' payoff on Saturday is healthy bounty, it's important not to understate what it meant at USC, where the Trojans ended their longest losing streak to Stanford in the series' 88-year history (four games), kept their own conference title hopes alive and further cemented interim coach Ed Orgeron as a suitable long-term option.

The campus' love affair with Orgeron is in full bloom. When you deliver opportunities to rush the field, that tends to be the case.

Stanford would know, too. A year ago it was Stanford students rushing the field after the Cardinal's win against then-No. 2 USC. Last week, they were back on the grass at Stanford Stadium following the now-less-relevant victory against Oregon.

That jubilation was short-lived.

With the loss to USC, Stanford's run of three straight trips to BCS bowls is in serious jeopardy. A loss to Oregon and a win against USC would have left the Cardinal on track for the Rose Bowl, but flipping those results could leave them on the outside looking in now that the winner of the Pac-12 title game will head to Pasadena. The Big Game figures to be a cakewalk next week against Cal, but the regular-season finale against Notre Dame could still carry some weight as Stanford looks for a BCS at-large berth.

As Oregon cheered for USC this week, the Trojans will do the same next week for rival UCLA. The Bruins, whose only losses this year came on the road to Oregon and Stanford, are set to host Arizona State in a game that could create a three-way tie atop the Pac-12 South with a UCLA win. If that were to happen, USC would be in position to steal the division on the regular season's final day, needing a win against UCLA and an Arizona win over Arizona State.

To read Kyle Bonagura's full story, click here.

Enormous stakes for this year's Iron Bowl

By David Ching | ESPN.com

Go ahead and get ready. This will be the most anticipated Iron Bowl that we've seen in 20 years.

After Auburn's unbelievable 43-38 win against Georgia on Saturday, the Tigers will still miraculously control their destiny when Alabama visits the Plains on Nov. 30.

Everybody who predicted that in August, raise your hands. For those two or three true believers, wow, congratulations. Your team is set to play in the most impactful meeting between the nation's most heated rivals since 1994. (I was there at Legion Field that night, and if you try to convince me Frank Sanders was short on that fourth down, I'll fight you.)

Sure, 2010 was huge -- and with the way that game evolved, with Cam Newton's Auburn team rallying for a 28-27 win, it lived up to every bit of the pregame hype. But Auburn and Alabama haven't entered this game with one or no losses since that crazy matchup I mentioned in Birmingham. And I expect every bit of the same buildup and mayhem that preceded that game, in the heyday of what has been an extremely cyclical rivalry ever since.

Back then, this was a fairly common occurrence. The Iron Bowl regularly had mutual national-championship implications in the late 1980s and early '90s. But this rivalry hasn't been in that position in some time, and here we are.

Auburn is off next week. And Alabama might as well be, with FCS opponent Chattanooga visiting Tuscaloosa next weekend. The outcome is incidental, as AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley will be on the sidelines early in the third quarter, while the reserves complete a sure blowout and only add to the buildup for a winner-take-all showdown in Auburn the following Saturday.

When they meet at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30, the implications are simple. Win and play for the SEC (and maybe the BCS) title. The loser ... well who cares where they go bowling? You win or you lose in this one, and that's all anyone in Atmore and Gordo and Sylacauga will discuss for the next 364 days -- and for a long while after that.

To read David Ching's full story, click here.

Wins reveal soft sides of OSU, Spartans

By Mitch Sherman | ESPN.com

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Michigan State all but punched its ticket to the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, defeating Nebraska 41-28 in opportunistic and efficient fashion here at Memorial Stadium.

Barring chaos over the next two weeks, the Spartans are set to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. The matchup may well pit MSU at 11-1 and the Buckeyes at 12-0.

Forgive us, though, for wondering, after Saturday, about exactly what we'll see in Indianapolis -- a heavyweight battle worthy of national-title implications or a pillow fight representative of the Big Ten's overall strength?

Michigan State
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJeremy Langford and Michigan State ran past Nebraska, but are the Spartans good enough to top Ohio State?

Both of the league's title contenders showed their soft sides in Week 12.

The third-ranked Buckeyes lost focus as Ilinois, en route to a 20th straight Big Ten loss, played Urban Meyer's team nearly even over the final three quarters in a 60-35 Ohio State win.

And here in Lincoln, No. 16 Michigan State, for all the buzz over its top-ranked defense, looked ordinary against Nebraska's MASH unit of an offense. The Huskers averaged 5.7 yards per rush and outgained MSU 392-361.

Nebraska committed five turnovers, including three inside its own 25-yard line.

Credit Michigan State for taking what was there, but the Huskers were plenty generous, handing two of their four fumbles to MSU without so much as taking a hit. And Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw his lone interception straight to safety Kurtis Drummond, ending Nebraska's second possession of the afternoon just like its first -- with an unforced error on the third play.

"You're not always going to get opportunities to get the ball like we did today," Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said. "We know that, but hey, if they're there, we're going to take them.

"We're not going to apologize for it either way."

To read Mitch Sherman's full story, click here.

Cowboys prove they're ready for Baylor

By Max Olson | ESPN.com

AUSTIN, Texas -- Mike Gundy didn't own up to it, but his Oklahoma State players couldn't hide the truth.

Gundy did some dancing on Saturday night. He busted out his famous moves in the locker room after the Cowboys' 38-13 victory at No. 24 Texas.

It didn't take long for the video find its way to the Internet and not surprisingly, it looks similar to the one from after his 2011 win at Texas A&M.

"He only has one dance," linebacker Shaun Lewis said. "So, I mean, it's good to see him do it."

Gundy had plenty to celebrate. Oklahoma State went on the road and whipped a Longhorns team that was 6-0 in the Big 12 by 25 points, on a day when OSU's conference titles hopes would be dead with a loss.

And that win sets up a whale of a game in Stillwater, Okla., next weekend between the Cowboys, winners of six in a row, and a 9-0 Baylor team that routed Texas Tech 63-34 and should move to No. 4 in the BCS standings following Stanford's loss.

Clint Chelf
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsClint Chelf (10), Desmond Roland and Oklahoma State had plenty to celebrate in their win over Texas.

And even though the Bears were dominant as usual, the question must now be raised after what we witnessed Saturday: Can Oklahoma State win the Big 12?

"I certainly think we've got as good chance as anybody," Gundy said. "We're in playoff football right now. You've got to win the next one to get to the next one.

"If you'd have asked me that six weeks ago and I would've said we had as good a chance as anybody, you guys probably would've got up and walked out. And justifiably so."

Why even Gundy marvels at about his team's turnaround is the fact that, as he puts it, a college football team only gets two real, full practices each week. In the days following the Pokes' 30-21 loss at West Virginia, his staff recognized that hurdle. You can't change a season in one week.

All you can do with eight practices in one month is commit to gradual, daily improvement. OSU scraped out close wins over Kansas State and TCU. A solution to its offensive woes emerged in the duo of Clint Chelf and Desmond Roland.

And that Cowboys defense just keeps getting better. This unit, led by defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, knew the formula for attacking Texas. Put extra help in the box. Slow down a Johnathan Gray-less run game. Dare Case McCoy to beat you through the air. Get the edge early and raise the pressure.

"That's what we wanted to do when we were coming out of the locker room," cornerback Justin Gilbert said. "We said 'Let's shut them up early and let's play together.'"

The result: The Longhorns scored a season-low 13 points. McCoy threw three interceptions, two to Gilbert. Texas ran for 21 yards on seven carries in the third quarter while trying to rally.

"Coach Spencer came up with a great plan," said linebacker Caleb Lavey, who snagged McCoy's second interception.

But we knew Texas was offensively flawed. Is Oklahoma State ready for the Baylor juggernaut?

To read Max Olson's full story, click here.

Max Olson | email

Big 12 reporter

Week 12 Takeaways: Baylor's title picture

By Travis Haney | ESPN.com

The Baylor Bears fell behind by two scores early to Texas Tech. No worries. The Bears roared back to put up 63 in another rout, improving to 9-0 and setting up a de facto Big 12 title game next week at Oklahoma State.

But that's the conference picture. How does Baylor view itself in the BCS race?

That's where we start this week's Takeaways. Also: What are the best one-loss and most underrated teams in the country? How would we view Florida State without its Heisman contender? Plus, Ed Orgeron, Oregon and Duke.

1. What is Baylor's place in the BCS title picture?

With each passing season -- or maybe week in some cases -- the nation is learning about Baylor as a program. Inside the walls of the football building, though, the feel is not the one of a fairy tale.

"It's not like we're running around here wide-eyed," said coach Art Briles, whose team has now won 13 consecutive games. "We've worked toward this for six years."

Briles said that Tuesday, the day before Baylor added three years to his contract, which is designed to keep him in Waco for another decade. Stanford's loss to USC on Saturday night will almost certainly push the Bears to fourth in the new BCS standings, behind only Alabama, FSU and Ohio State. That's the company they now keep. Baylor is three wins and one wild Saturday of upheaval away from playing for a national championship.

To read Travis Haney's full story, click here Insider.

• Joined ESPN as Insider's national college football writer in April 2012
• Previously wrote for The Oklahoman and The Post and Courier

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