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To determine what the biggest, best win in college football in 2012 is, we must first understand what makes a big win. South Carolina, West Virginia, and Florida helped illustrate the differences between big wins on Saturday, while Florida State and Oregon showed that some teams win and lose in their own specific ways, and Kansas State and Notre Dame stayed undefeated.
What team has the best win in college football this year? Prior to this week, there were a few programs with arguments, but Week 6 gave us three prime candidates for the discussion: Florida's dominant defensive performance in a 14-6 win over LSU, South Carolina's 35-7 throttling of Georgia, and West Virginia's 48-45 shootout win on the road over Texas. The differences between them help illustrate the art of the big win.
A team may get the most bonus points for drilling a rival, and there's no argument that South Carolina didn't do that to Georgia. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks built a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, and stretched it to 35-0 before Georgia scored a meaningless touchdown with under two minutes to go. Take away that final drive, and the Bulldogs had fewer than 150 yards of offense on the night; on it, Aaron Murray threw two of his 20 incompletions, failing to resuscitate his disastrous stat line (11-for-31 passing for 109 yards and an interception). The 'Cocks stymied "Gurshall," the talented freshman tandem of Todd Gurley (39 rushing yards) and Keith Marshall (37), and dominated the game with their ground assault, running 51 times for 230 yards.
South Carolina and Florida look likely to meet in an SEC Championship Game play-in game in two weeks, and they look like mirror images of each other — and negatives of the Florida team Spurrier built into the throw-verlord of college football in the 1990s.
The nation's current throw-verlord pitches passes for West Virginia, which got its big win in the most impressive circumstances: on the road in the Big 12 for the first time. And the Mountaineers' big win checks the boxes for "on the road," "shootout," and "played left-handed and won." Geno Smith added 268 yards and four touchdowns to his season totals and kept his interception tally at "goose egg," but the story of the night for the 'Eers was Andrew Buie, who slashed into Texas' supposedly great defense 31 times for 207 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The last thing any West Virginia opponent needed was a new threat to worry about, but if Buie, who isn't really supposed to be the Mountaineers' rushing leader -- that would be Shawne Alston, still battling injuries -- can make defenses pay for dropping men into coverage and hoping they cover all the holes Smith and Dana Holgorsen want to find, West Virginia's offense goes from unstoppable to unstoppable.
If your team wins the big game against an established power and reverses recent history by doing it, there's a subjective multiplier for that. And there's no question Florida's flip-the-script victory over LSU did that: since Tim Tebow left Gainesville, the Gators had struggled in their last two Octobers, and against ranked teams, but yesterday's comprehensive triumph over a very good LSU team makes it feel like Will Muschamp has Florida back in the national title hunt.
Mike Gillislee ran the ball 34 times for 146 yards, the most rushing yardage LSU's given up to a player since 2010, and Florida ran its scoring margin in fourth quarters in 2012 to 41-0. Muschamp's a Nick Saban disciple, and his team is playing like it, crushing foes by wearing them down. It's no wonder he and his Gators looked overjoyed after the game in the locker room: they've figured out how to win reliably.
Whatever these big wins say about their owners, and whatever they do to the numbers next to their teams' names on the chyrons, they are only singular wins: Florida has the rest of a rugged October to navigate, South Carolina plays LSU and Florida in its next two weeks, and West Virginia meets Kansas State in a fortnight's time, so there are chances for other teams to score big wins against them. But in this moment, three teams look better than any others in America. That's what a big win does.
There are also results that fit teams utterly perfectly: Florida State's upset loss to N.C. State on Saturday was a quintessential Florida State Loss, and Oregon's win over Washington was a textbook Oregon Win.
The Florida State Loss is so predictable at this point that it's starting to come against the exact same sort of team:
Let's try that again: Since 2005, Florida State has lost 8 of its last 9 as a ranked team on the road vs. UNRANKED underdogs.— Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) October 7, 2012
The No. 3 Seminoles lost on the road to
Wake Forest Virginia N.C. State on Saturday, 17-16, and the way they did it was so modern FSU: after building a 16-0 lead in the first half should have been bigger after three red zone stallouts, the 'Noles coughed up 17 unanswered points in the second half, including 14 in the fourth quarter, and flushed their national championship dreams down the drain. Florida State had a punt get blocked in exactly the same way one was blocked against them last week, and allowed two fourth-down conversions on the Wolfpack's game-winning drive; failure to learn from mistakes and terrible play down the stretch are both hallmarks of the Florida State Loss.
Jimbo Fisher telling reporters "We still control our own destiny in the ACC" after the defeat -- and winning the ACC being a genuinely big goal for the 'Noles because they haven't since 2005 -- is maybe the tear-based frosting on top of the Florida State Loss cake of sadness: the Seminoles get "IS _____ BACK!?" hype faster than any other school in America, but constantly puncture the hype all on their own, leaving themselves looking to achieve secondary goals that only count as goals because previous underachieving left them unaccomplished.
Oregon, meanwhile, just keeps on making 20-to-30-point wins against Pac-12 teams so routine that it barely seems like the Ducks have to try to get them. If we call an Oregon Win one by at least 20 points despite the other team scoring in double digits, the Ducks have five Oregon Wins in 2012, and 17 since Chip Kelly took the helm in Eugene in 2009. There are other dimensions to the Oregon Win: slow starts are a factor, though a 35-7 blitzing in the first half of the 52-21 win against Washington on Saturday wasn't one; defensive touchdowns, like the four Oregon has gotten in the last three weeks, are part of the checklist; and the use of even third-tier weaponry (think Byron Marshall this season, or De'Anthony Thomas in 2011) to pad the lead late is certainly a component.
But the defining moment of any Oregon Win is the second the average viewer looks up at the TV screen, realizes that the Ducks are up by a margin that ensures victory, and decides to keep watching just to see what else happens. Kelly's fellows are so good that they make winning both predictable and thrilling week after week: the only thing that really differs from one Oregon Win to the next is the color of the blur left by that game's outlandish uniform.
Kansas State has one of the other prime contenders for Big Win of the Year, a 24-19 victory over Oklahoma on the road that got overshadowed when it happened (Florida State was busy trouncing Clemson), and Bill Snyder's Wildcats have quietly become about as good as they were in the late '90s and early Aughts under Snyder. A 56-16 demolition of Kansas on Saturday is just the latest data point on K-State's progress report, but it's remarkable for how expected it now is: Snyder's first year in his return to the Manhattan sidelines was 2009, and Kansas State lost to Louisiana-Lafayette and a mediocre UCLA team in back-to-back weeks that year; in 2010, the 'Cats lost at Colorado and against Syracuse in a bowl game.
Now, losses like that would be staggering, because Snyder's teams just don't lose to overmatched foes when they're at full speed; Snyder's teams hardly ever concede Florida State Losses, and the 11 K-State teams with nine or more wins under Snyder have one total loss to a team that finished with a losing record, which came way back in 1993 to a 3-8 Iowa State team. Don't expect Kansas State to get upset, ever, because it essentially doesn't happen.
Likewise, teams shouldn't expect to score points against Notre Dame, which is continuing to rack up wins that would have been big if the brand names on the Irish's schedule were anywhere near their peaks. In, say, 2004, a Notre Dame team with wins over Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan, and Miami would almost certainly have the best slate of victories in the country; now, after a 41-3 romp over Miami gave these Irish that profile with a win over Navy in Ireland tacked on, it just feels like Notre Dame has a great, untested defense.
Manti Te'o and company will get a test next week, against Stanford, and have two more coming against Oklahoma and USC, but the independent scheduling that helped Notre Dame establish itself as the go-anywhere, beat-anyone band of brothers it was for decades might well work against the Irish this year, as there's no sure final week showdown that any team in a conference with a championship game gets. USC could be a There's a very good chance that, if Notre Dame wins out, it won't have a victory over a 10-win team entering bowl season. If that happens, and the Irish are third in the final BCS standings behind an undefeated SEC school and an undefeated Oregon, expect the loud national Notre Dame fan base to wake up with screams that echo from coast to coast.