College football's solitary confinement
The theme song on "BCS Countdown" every week is "One is the Loneliest Number." The song, the ticking of the clock, the prose cast a melodramatic backdrop to the dwindling days of the season.
But this week, let's put aside the teams in danger of being the "one" undefeated squad left out of the title game or the team that finishes ranked No. 1. Instead, what about the one-loss teams that are lurking with big possibilities over the final three weeks of the season.
Most years, one-loss teams are squarely in title contention. In the BCS era, only nine of the 15 champions have finished undefeated. Only six times has the title game matched two undefeated teams. While it seems as if the lonely No. 1 in the loss column has eliminated all title hope this year, it's November. That's when the inexplicable happens. Besides, in the final year of the BCS system, wouldn't it be smart to anticipate chaos and controversy?
The one-loss team holding the biggest domino this week is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys' day of misfiring in Morgantown is the only thing that has kept them from perfection. Three turnovers, a missed game-tying field goal attempt in the fourth quarter and a late personal foul penalty doomed the Pokes, and the loss has largely left them overlooked since.
Mike Gundy's team has come of age over the past four games. Its tightest game in that span was an 18-point win over Texas Tech. On Saturday, the Cowboys smashed Texas in Austin, ending the Horns' six-game winning streak.
Unlike in recent years, the Pokes' defense is as big a part of the success as the offense. They're fifth in the country in turnover margin. They're tied with Florida State for the most interceptions with 19. When Justin Gilbert is the one doing the intercepting, he has a knack for scoring with it. Gilbert has two pick-sixes and has returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
The opportunistic defense and spectacular special teams lead the nation with six nonoffensive touchdowns. Josh Stewart, who has taken two punt returns to the house, is dealing with a bad ankle that kept him out of the Texas game.
The Pokes need all the firepower they can get against the prolific Baylor team on the way to Stillwater this week. The Bears are on pace to set national scoring and yardage records this season. They're also piling up injuries. The latest is to left tackle Spencer Drango, who will undergo surgery to repair a ruptured disk in his back.
Oklahoma State will explode on the BCS radar if it can upset Baylor. The Cowboys close the season at home against Oklahoma.
The Cowboys can poke their way close to the top five simply by winning their remaining games, but they would need the right combination of SEC losses and a stunning face-plant by Florida State or Ohio State to get into the title game conversation.
The aforementioned "right combination of SEC losses" obviously includes a loss by No. 1 Alabama. Two teams in the one-loss brigade could get a shot at doing that themselves.
Missouri gets starting quarterback James Franklin back for Part 1 of a two-week, make-or-break test. First, it's a road trip to No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday. Then it's back home to take on Johnny Manziel and 12th-ranked Texas A&M in the regular-season finale. The Tigers can't flunk either portion of the test to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship.
If Missouri simply takes care of business in Oxford and beyond, the Tigers can win their way to the Sugar Bowl while establishing themselves as the top team lurking should chaos ensue among the remaining unbeatens.
Their potential opponent in the conference title tilt would be either No. 1 Alabama or No. 6 Auburn.
Auburn is in virtually the same boat as Missouri but with one fewer hurdle to navigate. After a bye week, the Tigers must beat Alabama on Nov. 30 in their regular-season finale to make the SEC championship. If they win there, they would be a lock to be the highest-ranked one-loss team in the BCS.
Auburn has the SEC's best rushing attack, an explosive quarterback, a good pass rush and, perhaps most important, momentum and belief on its side.
After last week's finish against Georgia, how could the Tigers not believe? They have won close games all season. Like Mizzou, winning out guarantees at least the Sugar Bowl and opens the possibility of so much more. Auburn is already the biggest turnaround story in college football this season. Going from three wins last year to the BCS title game would get my vote as the biggest one-year turnaround in the history of the sport.
Some wonder whether a one-loss SEC team like Auburn or Missouri could slip past unbeaten Baylor and Ohio State teams in the BCS standings. Auburn is already ranked ahead of Ohio State in computer average. Missouri almost certainly would be if it won out.
I don't believe any one-loss team will garner enough support among the human voters to finish ahead of an unbeaten Buckeyes team. But among the one-loss teams, there's little question both sets of SEC Tigers are in the best positions.
Mathematically, Clemson has the best loss of the season. Don't break out your cellphone and tweet at me, "Did you even watch the Florida State game?" Among teams with only one loss, Clemson's loss came at the hands of the highest-ranked team. But it's true that the magnitude of the beatdown Florida State put on Clemson precludes any possibility of a spot in the title game.
Clemson's computer rankings are pretty strong. But it would have a hard time holding off other one-loss teams like Auburn or Missouri should either of those two finish with just a single loss. Clemson's season will be defined by whether it can beat No. 11 South Carolina next week and lock up a BCS at-large bid.
Michigan State's lone blemish came against Notre Dame. The Spartans are dominating virtually every defensive statistical category, and the offense is improving. Michigan State has two games it should win against free-falling Northwestern and much-improved Minnesota. After that, the Spartans would take a swing at the big, bad Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game.
The conference isn't as bad as many make it out to be, but it isn't a juggernaut. Even if the Spartans beat Ohio State, the fallout will be more of an indictment of the Buckeyes than a validation of Michigan State. There is not even a remote Oklahoma State-like scenario that could land the Spartans in Pasadena for the BCS title game, but Pasadena is still a possibility for the Rose Bowl. That's the Spartans' ceiling. And by any measure, it's a pretty lofty ceiling.
Oregon's BCS title hopes looked dead and buried after the loss to Stanford, but that was before Ed Orgeron's Trojans bounced Stanford out of the way. The Ducks returned to the top five after that win by USC and have Arizona and Oregon State left in the regular season.
September and October's darlings now lack a true marquee win opportunity in November and December. There are nothing but quality teams left on the Ducks' schedule, but none of them scream quality win. Should Oregon play UCLA in the Pac-12 title game, the Ducks already have blown them out once. If they meet Arizona State, the Sun Devils could come in with 10 wins but with the asterisk of the Wisconsin win that many believe was handed to them by an officiating error.
But in our instant-reaction society, let's say Marcus Mariota looks healthier. Oregon starts demolishing solid teams again. Upsets happen above it. Maybe voters will look at the Stanford loss as an aberration. I wouldn't count on it.
But this is November. The stakes are high. The pressure is intense. Sometimes it just takes one game, one unimaginable result, to make the one-loss pool not as lonely a place for championship dreams as you'd think.
Five things to watch in Week 13
Five things we'll be watching in college football Saturday:
1. Baylor gets a big stage
As impressive as Baylor has been, its schedule has been unquestionably weak. Not on Saturday, when "College GameDay" will be on hand in Stillwater to see the No. 4 Bears try to make their national championship case against 10th-ranked Oklahoma State. Both teams control their own destiny in the Big 12 race, but Baylor is trying to convince voters it merits consideration for the BCS national title game. A dominant win might do that. A least, it might help the Bears eclipse fellow unbeaten Ohio State in the BCS pecking order.
2. The Pac-12 South in the balance
No. 17 Arizona State visits No. 14 UCLA, and the stakes are the Pac-12's South Division. The Bruins need to win their two remaining games (Arizona State and at USC next week) to take the division and play in the Pac-12 championship game. Arizona State, which plays Arizona next week, can clinch the division with a win over the Bruins on Saturday. If the Sun Devils lose this weekend, they can still take the division with a victory over Arizona next week coupled with a USC win against UCLA. If UCLA beats Arizona State and Arizona State then loses to Arizona, USC could win the South with a victory in its final two games, including the finale against UCLA. It's notable that second-year UCLA coach Jim Mora is 8-0 against teams in the South.
3. The lingering cloud over Jameis Winston
Florida State should have no problems dispatching Idaho before the halftime bell, but the lackluster matchup takes on an air of controversy with the ongoing investigation into a sexual battery accusation involving freshman QB and top Heisman Trophy candidate Winston filed with the Tallahassee Police Department in December 2012. How will Winston react on the field to the scrutiny? How will Florida State fans react to Winston? The investigation has put a black mark on a previously charmed season in Tallahassee.
4. Heisman moments?
The biggest Heisman stage will belong to Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel on the road at LSU. While the game has no meaning in the SEC West race, Manziel will get a quality foe with which to boost the case that he deserves to win the bronze trophy for a second consecutive year. Meanwhile, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota will be at Arizona. While less of a glamour spot than Baton Rouge, Mariota also could make a case that he's the No Off-Field Problems alternative to Manziel and Winston.
5. Missouri the beast of the East?
Just two years removed from Big 12 mediocrity, Missouri controls its destiny in the SEC East. The Tigers need to beat No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday and No. 12 Texas A&M the following weekend to win the title, so that's no easy task, though the return of QB James Franklin from a shoulder injury should help. The Tigers can't afford to slip because South Carolina is done with SEC play, finishing 6-2 with a head-to-head win over Missouri, a dramatic 27-24 double-overtime road victory.
ESPN.com columnist Ivan Maisel, ACC report Heather Dinich and SEC reporter Chris Low join host Chantel Jennings at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this season's one-loss teams, biggest surprise teams and the biggest games of the weekend. Kickoff Live
TV GUIDE / #HASHTAGS
All times ET
9:30: Navy at San Jose State (ESPN2)
Tweet about it: #NAVYvsSJSU
Noon: Michigan St. at Northwestern (ESPN)
Tweet about it: #MSUvsNU
Noon: Duke at Wake Forest (ESPN2)
Tweet about it: #DUKEvsWAKE
Noon: Virginia at Miami (ESPNU)
Tweet about it: #UVAvsMIA
Noon: The Citadel at Clemson (ESPN3)
Tweet about it: #CITvsCLEM
Noon: Memphis at Louisville (ESPN3)
Tweet about it: #MEMvsLOU
Noon: Oklahoma at Kansas State (FS1)
Tweet about it: #OUvsKSU
Noon: Michigan at Iowa (BTN)
Tweet about it: #MICHvsIOWA
1: Coastal Carolina at S. Carolina (ESPN3)
Tweet about it: #CCARvsSC
2: Chattanooga at Alabama (ESPN3)
Tweet about it: #CHATvsBAMA
3:30: Indiana at Ohio State (ABC/ESPN2)
Tweet about it: #IUvsOSU
3:30: Oregon at Arizona (ABC/ESPN2)
Tweet about it: #UOvsAZ
3:30: Wisconsin at Minnesota (ESPN)
Tweet about it: #WISCvsMINN
3:30: Idaho at Florida State (ESPNU)
Tweet about it: #IDAHOvsFSU
3:30: Texas A&M at LSU (CBS)
Tweet about it: #TAMUvsLSU
3:30: BYU at Notre Dame (NBC)
Tweet about it: #BYUvsND
3:30: Nebraska at Penn State (BTN)
Tweet about it: #NEBvsPSU
4: New Mexico at Fresno St. (ESPNews)
Tweet about it: #UNMvsFRESNO
4: California at Stanford (FS1)
Tweet about it: #CALvsSTAN
7: Arizona State at UCLA (Fox)
Tweet about it: #ASUvsUCLA
7: Vanderbilt at Tennessee (ESPN2)
Tweet about it: #VANDYvsTENN
7:45: Missouri at Ole Miss (ESPN)
Tweet about it: #MIZZvsMISS
8: Baylor at Oklahoma State (ABC)
Tweet about it: #BAYvsOKST
9:30: USC at Colorado (Pac-12 Net.)
Tweet about it: #USCvsCOLO
10:30: Washington at Oregon St. (ESPN2)
Tweet about it: #UWvsORST
Picks of the week
What to watch in Week 13
Click below to see what our reporters think you should be watching for in each conference this weekend.
North Carolina has rebounded from a 1-5 start to the season to near bowl eligibility and has found a rhythm under a new starting QB. Tobacco Road rival Duke is also in the middle of an impressive turnaround. It is on its way to 10 wins and an ACC title game berth if it can win its last two regular-season games. ACC
This weekend is about Michigan State and Ohio State not slipping up. Both teams have to lose twice to miss the Big Ten championship, but neither wants to put itself in dire position going into the regular-season finale. Big Ten
The Big 12's hopes of a title contender have officially been handed to Baylor, but the Bears won't get there without beating Oklahoma State in Stillwater this weekend. Baylor is limping into the matchup with a lot of injuries, but as we saw in the Oklahoma game, the Bears can plug in quality backups and count on them to get things done. Big 12
All Oregon has to do is win out and it will represent the North in the Pac-12 championship. In the South, this weekend's matchup between Arizona State and UCLA will have huge implications. UCLA needs to win its last two regular-season contests, but Brett Hundley and the gang are in good position to do so. Pac-12
Missouri needs to win out to make it to the SEC title game, and the Tigers are hoping the return of quarterback James Franklin this week gives them an extra spark on the road at Ole Miss. The Rebels are on a four-game winning streak and could pose a sneaky threat to the upstart Tigers. SEC