So what now?
In case you were buried under a rock somewhere, you already know Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M went to Tuscaloosa and slapped down No. 1 Alabama’s national championship hopes like Tommy Tuberville might an unassuming assistant coach.
The Crimson Tide – as well as the entire SEC – is out of the national title picture – for now, at least, and probably for the rest of the season. For the first time since 2006, one has a crystal-clear vision of a BCS National Championship Game without a team from what many consider to be the unbearable SEC.
And, truthfully, it feels somewhat empty.
If you’re an SEC fan, you have an easy out: Your best teams are challenged week-in and week-out. Of course, to argue that is to largely overlook the fact that the Toughest Conference in the History of the World 2012 is weaker than in years past. But then again, you’re an SEC fan. You can’t see any other way.
For college football fans that have long since grown tired of the TCITHOTW, watching Alabama fall this week had to be similar to watching the villain of a horror flick die with 30 minutes left in the movie. How do we even finish this movie?
The new front-running teams are so – well – likable. That is, of course, unless you are a Jayhawk or a Beaver. Kansas State and Oregon assumed the top two spots in the BCS standings Sunday night. Unless one of them loses, they seem destined to meet in Miami to determine the national championship.
There are great stories to be told there, whether it’s offensive mastermind Chip Kelly riding off from the college football sunset with a national title or 73-year-old Bill Snyder finally finishing his ascension of bringing the hopeless, pitiful Kansas State team he inherited in 1989 to the pinnacle of college football.
Even if Oregon or Kansas State tumble – and both still face tough challenges in the final weeks – there is still an undefeated Notre Dame team standing between the SEC champion and the BCS title. That Brian Kelly has lifted the Fighting Irish to the brink of a national championship in Year 3 speaks to the nature of his underrated talent.
Some are conditioned to hold contempt for the Fighting Irish. They are, after all, the spoiled kid in the neighborhood with the sense of entitlement. While your team has to fight for all the attention it gets, Notre Dame has its own network and scores of national media members who fawn over every excuse to consider the golden program relevant again.
Even if those are your feelings, you can’t help but admire a team that has been doubted all year – that has looked defeat right in the face several times – and every time has found a way to win. The Irish have past every test – whether Michigan State, Stanford or a tough challenge at Oklahoma. There is one more real challenge – a trip to the Coliseum where Notre Dame will face a USC squad that could have as many as four losses by kickoff.
It’s hard to imagine Notre Dame going undefeated and getting left in the cold. It could happen.
No matter which teams make up the championship matchup, it seems apparent they will not be able to avoid the gargantuan shadow of the SEC.
It is hard to think whoever emerges from the conference as champion will not get a chance. Many will wonder if the BCS champion is truly superior to the SEC champ. That question will likely go unanswered.
There is some pride in the way the SEC seems poised to watch its six-year BCS stranglehold end. The league, in the end, cannibalized itself in the regular season. Fans will say the depth of the conference made it impossible to keep up the national dominance it enjoyed for so long.
Make no mistake about it: Whether Alabama or Georgia, the SEC champ will be able to look back and find blown opportunities.
The Bulldogs will have played 12 games after the SEC Championship Game. That’s because they didn’t bother showing up in Columbia when South Carolina dominated from start to finish, naming the score in a 35-7 victory.
The Crimson Tide paid lip service all last week to the ability Manziel and the Aggies. No matter, though. Nobody comes into Bryant-Denny Stadium and wins.
Well, someone did. And with the fall of that unbeatable spirit came the probable fall of the SEC Dynasty.
Then there were three.
What happens now depends on how well Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame can handle the national spotlight.
A pair of SEC coaches – Derek Dooley at Tennessee and Gene Chizik at Auburn – continue their relentless treks toward the exits of their respective schools. The Volunteers and Tigers have combined to go 0-13 in SEC games this year. Whether you have a great bloodline or won a BCS National Championship Game two years ago, going 0-8 in the SEC is the best way to get fired in a region obsessed with college football. Of the two, Chizik has the best chance of survival – though he also has the best chance of finishing 0-8 in league play. If Chizik and Dooley collectively pull in $12.5 million in buyouts this offseason, there will be four SEC openings this offseason. One must also wonder how much security California coach Jeff Tedford has while preparing for the final game of what could be his last season in Berkeley.
The race for the SEC’s seemingly obvious second BCS bowl bid has become murky all of a sudden. The winner of the Alabama-Georgia SEC Championship Game is a lock for no worse than the Sugar Bowl. If the Bulldogs win, it would be difficult to imagine another bowl – possibly the Fiesta Bowl – swooping in to claim the Crimson Tide. The same can’t be said for Georgia if Alabama wins in Atlanta. The Bulldogs would likely not be as much of a slam dunk. An Alabama win would open the door for Florida, LSU and Texas A&M to stake their claims for a BCS appearance.
Perhaps Stanford has not gotten enough respect this season. After all, the Cardinal took down then-No. 1 USC earlier this season, pushed undefeated Notre Dame to the brink in an overtime loss in South Bend and have now taken down Oregon State. Stanford is not a pretty team. It plays strong defense behind a hulking front seven and is limited by quarterback play. Honestly, if coach David Shaw had the guts to go with QB Kevin Hogan earlier in the season, this team might be the exact replica of the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had the foresight to go with freshman QB Everett Golson while Shaw stuck with Josh Nunes as long as possible. Aside from the one decision – which might have been made properly by Shaw because we will never know any different – these two teams are mirror images of each other in 2012. Notre Dame will be pulling hard for the Cardinal to topple No. 2 Oregon this week.
Florida can look back and laugh now, but it played horrible football for much of its game against Louisiana-Lafayette and was fortunate to come out with a victory. The Gators trailed late in the fourth quarter and QB1 Jeff Driskel got knocked out of the game with an injury. However, Florida tied the game when QB2 Jacoby Brissett hit WR Quinton Dunbar for a 3-yard TD pass with 1:42 remaining in regulation. The Gators then blocked a punt with fewer than 15 seconds remaining in regulation. LB Jelani Jenkins caught the deflected punt in mid-air and returned it 36 yards for the game-winning score. Even Notre Dame has to look at that finish and mutter under its breath about how lucky the Gators were.
The remarkable job James Franklin has done in his two seasons at Vanderbilt cannot be overstated. Taking the lowly Commodores to consecutive bowl games is quite a feat and will certainly draw attention from programs looking for new head coaches this offseason. Franklin might very well decide to stay in Nashville a little longer. No matter what, he seems poised to see a substantial pay raise.
So much for Indiana and its hopes at a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. Wisconsin wasted no time in dousing those dreams in its 62-14 road win. The Badgers were terrible early in the season, but have found their run game again in recent weeks behind RB Montee Ball. Can Wisconsin derail Ohio State’s aspirations of an undefeated season? The Buckeyes have struggled on defense, but the Badgers still have shown no ability to consistently pass.
Before the season started, most would have assumed the Big Ten MVP to be Michigan QB Denard Robinson. QB2 Devin Gardner has played remarkably well in Robinson’s absence, though, leading Michigan to two wins. Last week he accounted for four TDs in helping the Wolverines survive a tricky contest against underrated Northwestern.
The Cornhuskers returned from the dead in their 32-23 win over Penn State on Saturday. Nebraska trailed 20-6 at halftime, but pulled even in the third quarter and took the lead for good early in the fourth. Bo Pelini’s team seems poised for a rematch with Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
It is easy to make jokes about Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville slapping an assistant coach on the sideline during his team’s 41-34 overtime win over Kansas last week. Tuberville was smart, though, to acknowledge what happened – even if it happened after denying there was anything to see during the postgame interview. With what has happened in Lubbock recently – between Mike Leach, Bob Knight and Billy Gillispie – Tech has an image problem. Tuberville had never shown anything like what happened on Saturday, but he must be cautious considering the circumstance. The Big 12 is currently investigating the incident. Tuberville probably will not lose his job – more thanks to an 8-3 record than anything else – but could face a one-game suspension from the league.
Speaking of poor coaching behavior, Mike Leach finds himself in hot water in Year 1 at Washington State. The pirate-obsessed bad boy of college coaching has spent plenty of time in recent weeks badmouthing his new team. Star WR Marquess Wilson took offense to Leach’s belittlement and general attitude, ultimately choosing to leave the team. Leach denies any wrongdoing, but he could be in serious trouble already. Not only has his team been an on-field disappointment – even providing dreadful Colorado with its lone win this season – but Leach cannot afford any more off-field player issues. You might recall he was fired at Texas Tech for his insane treatment of a player who suffered a concussion.
With Southern Mississippi falling to 0-10 last week, this seems like a good time to talk about how good former Golden Eagles and current North Carolina coach Larry Fedora must be. Then you see that his Tar Heels surrendered 380 rushing yards in their 68-50 home loss to Georgia Tech and that urge is tempered. Fedora is, no doubt, a great coach. He will attract some interest this offseason a la Todd Graham bolting for Arizona State after one year at Pittsburgh. Games like the one Saturday against the Yellow Jackets might scare the heck out of prospective fan bases Fedora could coach in 2013, though.
The dream of the undefeated Big East champion died Saturday when Syracuse beat down No. 11 Louisville, 45-26. The Orange is now one win away from bowl eligibility, which would seemingly mean coach Doug Marrone would be safe this offseason.
The Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl will remain as “contract bowls” for the new four-team playoff format. Three more bowls will join as “host bowls.” The leading candidates, as reported by ESPN.com, are the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Chick-fil-A Bowl. Also of note, at least one team from the Big East, Conference USA, Mountain West, WAC, Sun Belt or MAC will receive an invite to one of the six bowl games each year.
This might be the best year in the history of the MAC. Ohio, Kent State, Northern Illinois, Ball State and Toledo have all proven themselves as solid teams. Furthermore, the decision to play nationally televised games on any night has allowed college football fans who would otherwise ignore the league the opportunity to watch them. That is one marketing plan that has paid great dividends and is now being mimicked to a greater extent by the Sun Belt.
– Luke Alexander