At the beginning of the 2012 college football season, I thought there were four great teams in college football: Alabama, Oregon, LSU, and USC. I was wrong about LSU and USC, and wrong about the four teams, and wrong about the greatness: there are six very good teams in college football that remain undefeated, and seven total championship contenders (Alabama, Florida, Oregon, Notre Dame, K-State, Oregon State, Oklahoma), barring something screwy.
Yesterday was Statement Saturday, and we learned plenty about all but one of them.
Of the bunch, Florida is the most surprising. Will Muschamp's Gators weren't good in 2011, going 6-6 in the regular season, getting blown out by great teams and pipped by good ones, and breaking at all the wrong times in all the wrong ways. Now the Gators are doing the blowing out and the breaking, all while never flinching.
Florida stomped South Carolina, 44-11, on Saturday, and did it without the aid of its offense, more or less. Florida forced four fumbles (three on kick/punt returns), blocked a field goal, and had 21 points on 29 yards in the first half and 44 on just 183 yards in the game. The Gators are the first team this millennium to put up 40 or more points with fewer than 200 yards, and looked very Alabama-ish on Saturday in choking out Steve Spurrier's most talented team with disciplined defense that bore fruit over time. South Carolina outgained Florida, but only just, also failing to
It could have been worse, too, given a penalty that wiped out a touchdown and two or three more dumb ones that left Muschamp ALL CAPS MAD at the
referees "adversity on the field." Florida has a big win over a ranked foe to its credit now, and hasn't allowed a touchdown at home since Bowling Green scored one in the third quarter of its home opener. Jeff Driskel threw for under 100 yards for the third straight game on Saturday, but he also threw four touchdown passes, and helped Florida turn six red zone trips into six touchdowns.
Efficiency and effectiveness are the name of the Nick Saban Home Game that Muschamp has brought to Gainesville. And though it's not the Fun 'n Gun that enchanted a generation of Florida fans when Spurrier brought it to the world, Muschamp's Sound 'n Pound has its own charms -- one of them being the scowl that the Head Ball Coach wore on Saturday throughout his second-worst loss in the stadium he nicknamed The Swamp.
Another team that looked Alabama-ish on Saturday: Alabama. The Crimson Tide rolled Tennessee, 44-13, in the renewal of the Third Saturday in October rivalry that Tennessee fans are now telling their childre "was competitive once, trust me." But while the Tide's balance is fearsome, with Alabama rolling up 1,541 passing and 1,536 rushing yards through seven games, the scariest thing about the 2012 Alabama outfit that is steaming toward a repeat national title is Amari Cooper's emergence as one of the best receivers in America.
Cooper is a freshman, and a Floridian, and was sort of forgotten in a great receiver class from that state, overshadowed by Nelson Agholor's Signing Day decision to attend USC over Florida and the taller Chris Black also opting to head to 'Bama. All he's done so far is lead the Tide in catches, yardage, and touchdowns, making plays both sensational and mundane for an offense that really only needs the mundane part.
Cooper runs routes very well, has great hands (his leaping catch over an Ole Miss defender earlier this season ranks among the year's best), and has established a chemistry with A.J. McCarron that the Tide's underrated signal-caller hasn't had with anyone. His emergence has made the season-ending injury suffered by DeAndrew White, ostensibly Alabama's most talented receiver, an afterthought, and fueled an Alabama passing attack that is as good as it has been under Saban -- including the years it had Julio Jones, then no worse than the nation's third-best receiver.
Fear Alabama for the prosaic reasons -- a stable of runners made of quicksilver and thunder, a defense that only seems to give up plays when opponents find holes on blitzes -- if you want. The cool new reason to hate 'Bama is that the Crimson Tide roster brims with Amari Coopers, players who come to Tuscaloosa to win titles and then earn millions. And there's very little chance that trend stops until Saban decides to leave.
If Kansas State's trip to Morgantown had come this week and not last, the entirety of the college football world would be abuzz about how the Wildcats are the best team in the nation. A 55-14 win over a West Virginia team previously presumed to be unstoppable on the road would have gotten at least a few columns about K-State being the true No. 1 team in the country.
Alas, Texas Tech beat Bill Snyder's bunch to the punch by thumping the 'Eers in Lubbock last week, and torching West Virginia's defense is, at this point, like blowing ashes: The Mountaineers have given up 212 points in four games. Granted, those were against teams currently ranked No. 3, No. 6, No. 10, and No. 10 in scoring offense, but all four exceeded their points per game average, despite averaging more than 40 points per game, against West Virginia's defense. Air would be offended by the comparison.
That makes the Wildcats' road exploits a little less impressive, but only in the sense that it's made K-State's road record likely the nation's best, and not incontrovertibly so. All three of the Wildcats' road games have come against ranked teams, and all three have ended with the Wildcats on top; the one over Oklahoma is maybe the single best win in college football this year, and it's going to look even better if the Sooners knock off Notre Dame in Norman next week.
Having Collin Klein, who accounted for seven touchdowns and 364 yards on Saturday, helps tremendously in that respect: Snyder doesn't have a lot of talent on his offense with sound defense and special teams, but he doesn't need it if he can use Klein as a crutch much like Urban Meyer uses every quarterback he will ever coach. Klein probably snatched pole position in the Heisman race from Geno Smith by outshining him in Morgantown, but he may have to hope that win serves as his signature moment; there's probably no primetime showcase for the Wildcats left, unless Texas finds a defense, and the best game left on K-State's schedule is next week's clash with Texas Tech, which will be the undercard in its own time slot thanks to the SEC East Championship Game happening in Jacksonville.
He won't have to worry about Smith taking back the lead. Dana Holgorsen's prize pupil threw his first pick of the season on a deflection on Saturday, then added another, erasing the zero that was his best remaining chance of a popular stats-based case for the Heisman one week after Texas Tech erased the zero under the letter L in the standings that is every Heisman hopeful's best asset. But the sad story of Smith's day wasn't punctuated by picks: it was the 116 yards West Virginia gained during the 52-7 run Kansas State opened the game with that may be the short epitaph of Smith's brilliant time at West Virginia. In his team's biggest game at home, Smith could do nothing to prevent a landslide, and lost a game, a chance at a BCS game, and the esteem necessary to win a Heisman as a result.
Klein, Snyder, and the rest have bigger things to worry about: with just two road games left, and little chance they won't be favored in every game from here on out, an undefeated season is Kansas State's for the taking.
Notre Dame's win over BYU was the least impressive of the seven recorded by the nation's seven best teams on Saturday. The Irish had to rally from a 14-7 halftime deficit and hold off the Cougars late for a 17-14 win in South Bend. But you know what? Maybe winning the close ones is Notre Dame's talent. And maybe Tommy Rees is really the key to that.
College GameDay aired a truly silly segment on Saturday exploring the notion of Rees as Notre Dame's "closer," one that compared him to Mariano Rivera, Tiger Woods, and Zenyatta -- hilarious because that's three of the greatest athletes in their sports ever compared to a backup, because all three of those athletes are in mostly individual sports, and because they're two humans and a horse. But Rees has led three fourth-quarter drives in 2012 that have won or tied games, and he's the guy Brian Kelly trusts to throw Notre Dame back into games, even if Kelly apparently doesn't think he's better than Everett Golson from the opening whistle.
If he's the guy Kelly tabs next week in Norman, he'll have an uphill battle against an Oklahoma squad that has bounced back from its loss to Kansas State by vulcanizing its foes since. (That's a rubber joke.) Since that 24-19 loss, Oklahoma's outscored its opponents, including Texas Tech and Texas, by a 156-48 count, and allowed 27 of those points in the fourth quarter with the game already decided. Landry Jones has his groove back, and Damien Williams has emerged as a threat on the ground and through the air, and all of that makes Oklahoma the nation's most dangerous one-loss team.
Logic says Notre Dame can't keep winning games by close margins for the rest of the year with a makeshift offense, especially not when Oklahoma and USC promise to test the Irish's sensational defense in ways it hasn't been tested yet. Logic, though, does not play the games on the field.
Oregon State is the nation's forgotten unbeaten team that can actually play for a national title. (With apologies to Big East "beasts" Louisville and Rutgers, it ain't happening this year.) What the Beavers did in beating Utah 21-7 was post another impressive win when no one was watching.
The Beavers had just 227 yards of total offense, but scored 21 points thanks to four turnovers. Utah's star defensive tackle Star Lotulelei didn't have a sack, but gummed up the Oregon State running game, allowing Storm Woods to run for 47 yards on 17 carries ... and three touchdowns. Oregon State held Utah to three third-down conversions on 16 tries.
That's nice in a vacuum, but it also secured Oregon State's first 6-0 start in more than a century. Mike Riley's tenure in Corvallis has been one of slow starts and fantastic finishes, but his Beavers seem to have figured out the start part in 2012. Though trips to Washington and Stanford still loom, there's a chance the biggest game of the season will take place in Reser Stadium on November 24, when their future-colored rivals from Eugene come to town.
If the Beavers win out and win that game, a booster should probably buy In-N-Out for the entire Oregon State student body. It can't be an NCAA violation if it's for everyone!
Oregon didn't play Saturday: in typical Chip Kelly fashion, the Ducks got their dominance out of the way early, then got to sit back and watch most of the rest of the action. And that's why anyone who watched Oregon's 43-21 win over Arizona State knows it was far more impressive than the score suggests.
With 11:33 remaining in the second quarter in that game, Oregon led 43-7. That's not a typo: Oregon gave up a touchdown on its first defensive drive, in just 49 seconds, and then went on a 43-0 run that was really 15 points and two defensive stops followed by a 28-0 flurry in 4:28 of game clock. That's the point when the game would have been stopped if it were a boxing match, with the Sun Devils cut and bleeding and no chance of a comeback remaining: call it the Point of No Return, because everything after that line of demarcation seems like full-speed first-team football and everything after it is a wasteland of garbage time.
This year, Oregon's also reached the Point of No Return:
- With 2:27 left in the first quarter against Arkansas State
- With 1:10 left in the second quarter against Fresno State
- With 0:07 left in the second quarter against Tennessee Tech
- With 1:01 left in the third quarter against Arkansas State
- With 4:27 left in the third quarter against Washington State
- With 8:04 left in the second quarter against Washington
The Ducks don't f--k around, basically.
Beyond those seven teams lie a few more that can still factor into the title picture, but won't be taking pictures with the title: LSU's plugged Jeremy Hill into its running game and recovered from its brownout in Gainesville, and could trouble Alabama; Georgia gets its shot at the Gators in Jacksonville this weekend, and Florida State will welcome Florida to Tallahassee in November; USC still sees Oregon before Oregon State does; Texas Tech will take its swing at Kansas State this week. And then there are Louisville and Rutgers, who may well play an Orange Bowl elimination game in Piscataway on a Thursday night, the inglorious fate for undefeated Big East teams in 2012.
It's those seven teams -- put the undefeated ones in whatever order you like, and leave Oklahoma last -- that have shots at playing for crystal in Miami in January that don't rely on a half-dozen upsets. The Super Seven get to determine their own fates, or hope for a loss here and there to boost them slightly. That's the reward for keeping the goose egg in the loss column intact for almost two months.
One more month of splatter-free football, and fans can start looking up plane tickets and hotel reservations. But that month will seem like as long as an epoch until it's over, and as quick as a blink when the teams that trip up shatter their dreams in an instant.