You'd think the further we get into the college football season, the clearer the BCS title race would get. Guess again. After two more unbeatens got knocked off Saturday night -- the two teams with arguably the best quarterbacks, no less -- the national championship game picture became even messier.
At this point there are only two schools that don't need some outside help for a hope to get a BCS title game berth: LSU and Oklahoma State.
Stanford, led by star QB Andrew Luck, flubbed its big test of the season, getting blitzed by Oregon's speed at home, while Boise State was upset at home, TCU doing the honors as shaky defenses proved to be the undoing of both top-five teams.
Letdown or not, no one expected little Western Kentucky to go into Baton Rouge and take down LSU, but there was some speculation that Mike Gundy's team might get tripped up by Texas Tech. After all, the Red Raiders were the ones who went into Norman and shocked the Cowboys' arch rivals. But any thoughts of another Tech stunner were dashed in a hurry when OSU jumped to a 49-0 lead before halftime. Still, the Cowboys and the Tigers do have a couple of sizable hurdles left in front of them. In LSU's case, it's matchups against Arkansas and potentially in the SEC title game. For OSU, it's Bedlam against the Sooners.
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If forms holds -- and we seem to get reminded every week in this sport that it often doesn't -- we'll get a compelling matchup between LSU and the nation's best defense against Oklahoma State and an offense that has gone over 50 points six times.
The real snag comes if one falls from the unbeaten ranks. If Oklahoma State is the one to lose, we're staring at a rematch scenario in the BCS title game with the Tigers facing Alabama, who LSU beat in Tuscaloosa last week, or Les Miles' team gets Oregon, which it beat by double digits in the opener in Texas.
The arguments for 'Bama and Oregon quickly get unwieldy. 'Bama played LSU at home and couldn't beat the Tigers, losing in OT in a game where no one scored a touchdown. The Tide also would be potentially getting a BCS bowl spot without even winning its division in its conference. Expect to hear more of that point in the coming days.
The Ducks, meanwhile, were beaten convincingly by LSU 40-27. They also play in a weaker conference, especially in light of the SEC's eye-catching five-game BCS championship run. Beyond that, the Ducks' recent history in BCS bowl game play won't help their cause -- losses to Ohio State and to Auburn as compared to Alabama's thumping of Texas to win the title two years ago. And getting to play a 13th game in the Pac-12 title game won't do much for Oregon's stock since the South division is horrible outside of USC. Realistically, Oregon needs more help. The Ducks not only need Oklahoma State to lose, they need Auburn to beat Alabama again.
The only other teams with much BCS hope besides Alabama and Oregon are Oklahoma and Arkansas. OU would get a significant boost from the pollsters if the Sooners are the ones to take down the Cowboys. Then again, their one loss keeps looking worse and worse. Since Texas Tech, a 29-point underdog, shocked OU, the Red Raiders have lost three in a row and been outscored 159-33, and two of those losses were to teams that are now unranked and came at home. Tech might not even make it to a bowl.
Arkansas' path would trigger even more BCS chaos because that'd start with an LSU loss. And if that happened ... well, I don't know. But as we've said a few times before, the contention that the regular season in college football is a de facto playoff does not seem to apply, at least not this year.
Just like the BCS race, the Heisman picture has only become cloudier after the weekend. Going into Saturday, Andrew Luck was the clear frontrunner. I don't think he needed to beat Oregon to remain in pilot's seat, but playing his worst game of the season in his biggest showcase has jumbled things up quite a bit here too.
Luck had his first two-INT game of the season, which included a pick-six. One of those interceptions wasn't his fault. Truth be told, Luck didn't get much support. His O-line was often overmatched by the Ducks, who did a great job of mixing up line stunts and blitzes. Worse still, Stanford's receivers couldn't get open, and when they did, they dropped a bunch of passes and fell down because they couldn't keep their footing.
In all of the hype around Stanford, much was made of how this team resembled an SEC powerhouse in style in how the Cardinal would line up and try and run the ball down your throat. That part was true, but the part that was missing was on defense, where the Cardinal did not have one of those elite level SEC D-lines or the speed in the back seven. They do have a few players of that ilk (Chase Thomas comes to mind) but Oregon exposed their lack of speed in a big way in what turned out to be one of those vintage Duck performances. For the third season in a row, LaMichael James burned Stanford, and it turned into a boat race. In three games, the Cardinal have fallen from fourth to 25th nationally in scoring defense.
Kellen Moore's hopes took an even bigger hit than Luck's. The Boise State QB put up solid numbers (28 for 38, 320 passing yards for two TDs and no INTs), but he was outgunned by TCU's Casey Pachall, and the Broncos lost at home.
The players who benefitted the most this weekend were a pair of old Dana Holgorsen QBs, Houston's Case Keenum, who keeps putting up staggering numbers -- he has a 27-1 TD-INT ratio in the Cougars' past seven games -- and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, who shredded Texas Tech in Lubbock. Weeden began the game 20 for 22 as the Cowboys destroyed Tech 66-6. Weeden's numbers for the game: 31 for 37 for 423 yards and five TDs.
I've had Weeden in my Heisman top five the past few weeks, although he felt like more of a throw-in guy, the fifth player in the four-man battle. But that's changed now. He's definitely in the hunt. The Cowboys are in good shape to play for the national title, and he's sparking an offense averaging 52 points.
Weeden's an intriguing prospect. No one in college football throws the fade better. I get that Weeden's age (he's 28) will get kicked around some now that he's one of the top contenders for the Heisman. Someone tweeted me Saturday night to point out that the former minor league baseball player is actually older than Super Bowl hero Aaron Rodgers. As a Heisman voter, that doesn't bother me one bit. The wins still count. The added life experience factor didn't cost Chris Weinke the Heisman a decade or so ago and it won't stop Weeden if he has a big game against OU and leads the Cowboys to the BCS title game.
Alabama's Trent Richardson is also still very much in the picture. He ran for 123 yards and a TD at Mississippi State. Richardson's numbers aren't quite as gaudy as LaMichael James' (the Duck is averaging almost 2 yards more per carry), but the Tide star hasn't missed two games and Richardson's put up his stats against tougher competition. He's faced five top-50 run defenses, while James has only faced three.
The most underrated aspect of Richardson's game is his skill as a receiver. He's averaging 13 yards a catch, which is a pretty big number for a back. The downside is he had to work very hard just to average 4 yards a rush against Mississippi State. He also hasn't been piling up the yards down the stretch. In the past three games, he has 72 carries for 293 yards and a little over 4 yards a run. Not great for a running back in an era when QBs and their big stat lines tend to get the benefit of the doubt for the stiff-arm statue.
My current top five: Richardson, Luck, Weeden, Keenum, LaMichael James. But the top three are essentially interchangeable right now.
I gave James a slight edge for the fifth spot over Russell Wilson, who was almost perfect against Minnesota, going 16-of-17 for 178 yards and four TDs. Wilson's passing efficiency mark, by the way, is an NCAA-best 201.6. The NCAA record is 186.0 by Colt Brennan of Hawaii in 2006.
• One guy who has no shot of winning the Heisman, but deserves mention when it comes to this "Most Outstanding Player" stuff is Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. The Eagles are dreadful this year, but don't blame Kuechly, who should walk away with the Butkus. BC did beat former coach Tom O'Brien as the Eagle star had 18 tackles in a 14-10 victory, making it 32 games in a row Kuechly has reached double figures in tackles. Kuechly is leading the nation by three tackles per game, a huge differential. Since 2005, no defender has even had a two-tackle per game gap over the No. 2 guy.
• One more note on Oklahoma State: The Cowboys D doesn't get enough credit. People see that they're only 62nd in scoring defense, but they do two things that show they are a lot more formidable than 26 ppg average indicates.
One, they force turnovers, arguably the most important thing a defense can do. They lead the country in turnover margin, forcing 34 (next best is 29). OSU also does a great job early, and many of the opponents' stats end up coming in garbage time after the rout is on. Look at what the Cowboys did to Tech on Saturday. The Red Raiders may be falling apart, but they still have a potent offense (they came into the weekend 19th in scoring), yet against OSU, they didn't have a play go for more than 12 yards on their first 30 snaps as Oklahoma State jumped to a 49-0 first-half lead. That performance marked the seventh time OSU has limited its opponent to one TD or less in the first half.
|Casey Pachall lights up Boise State and Kellen Moore. (Getty Images)|
Pachall's go-to receivers also are young guys. Sophomore Josh Boyce set a career high in receiving yards with 163 to go with his three TD receptions, while true freshman Brandon Carter had four catches for 120 yards and two TDs. As I said a few weeks back on our Inside College Football show, TCU is going to be a big problem for the rest of the Big 12 right away.
Tank Carder, TCU's standout linebacker summed up the Horned Frogs effort quite well on Twitter last night:
Boise's loss also figures to open the door for Houston to get a crack at a BCS bowl game.
• Kansas State QB Collin Klein tends to get overlooked with all of the prolific Big 12 QBs, but give the guy his due. He finds a way to make plays. He ran for more than 100 yards and five TDs in K-State's 53-50 quadruple-overtime victory over Texas A&M, while also passing for a career-high 281 yards. Klein has run for 24 TDs and has five 100-yard rushing games while settling into his role as a passer. He has thrown for 512 yards in the past two games.
• I expected Georgia to beat Auburn, but I never thought they'd dominate the Tigers like that. Aaron Murray was nearly flawless, going 14 for 18 with four TD passes and finally got his first win over a ranked team. On the other side, Auburn is looking like most had expected from a team that lost so many key guys in addition to stars Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. Looking at the numbers, it's a dramatic difference from 2010 without Newton and the bulk of the offensive line. I go back to something an SEC coach told me late last season: "We're a lot more excited about the thought of Newton leaving than we are [AuburnTiger OC Gus] Malzahn." Malzahn's O has plummeted to 97th in total offense. The Tigers were sixth last year. Throw out last week's win over woeful Ole Miss and the Tigers haven't scored more than 17 since late September.
• Speaking of struggles, it's been a dismal year for Tennessee. The Vols are young and they're missing their starting QB (Tyler Bray) and their top playmaker (Justin Hunter). Still, you'd figure they'd be more competitive than they've been. UT got hammered 49-7 by Arkansas, which has had more than its share of injuries too. The Vols dropped to 0-6 in SEC play for the first time in school history. Worse still, they've lost five of those six by double-digits. They also were beaten by Vandy for a commitment from one of the top linemen in Tennessee. As I said a few weeks back, UT fans need to be more patient with Derek Dooley since it's only Year 2, but if they lose at home to Vandy, that patience will go out the window.
• After we got off the air last night around 12:30 a.m. ET, I stayed up to watch ASU-Wash State and I'm glad that I did. Washington State freshman QB Connor Halliday really wowed me with the way he lit up the ASU D, going 27 for 36 for 494 yards and four TD as the Cougars upset the Sun Devils -- and the lanky 6-4 QB also did it in snowy conditions, no less. The win snapped a five-game losing skid for WSU. I still think Paul Wulff is going to get canned at the end of the season, but if Halliday can keep it up and the Cougars beat Utah and arch rival Washington (both games are at home), that'd probably show enough growth to buy the coach one more year.
• Also on the Hot Seat front, N.C. State's loss to lowly BC cranked up even more heat on Tom O'Brien. The Pack is now 5-5 (but two of those wins came against FCS teams) so they probably need to beat both Clemson and Maryland to give the coach a hope to get another season.
• No QB has had a worse season than Maryland's Danny O'Brien. He had come off a big freshman year in 2010 where he had emerged as the best young quarterback in the ACC. But he got a new coaching staff when Ralph Friedgen was shoved out the door and Randy Edsall came in. It's been a disaster all around for the Terps, who fell to 2-8 after getting pummeled by Notre Dame. The Terps have now dropped eight in a row against BCS opponents. On top of all that, O'Brien, who has regressed under Edsall's staff, broke a bone in his upper arm and is now done for 2011, while Maryland is staring at the prospect of having its second two-win season in the past three years.
• Stat of the Day: Since 2010, Ole Miss and Miss State are a combined 0-15 against the rest of the SEC West, notes Mark Ennis.