Turns out, we were only watching the prequel.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a masterpiece of a college football weekend, one that included a miracle in Auburn, a one-handed, conference title-saving touchdown grab in Philadelphia, a high-fivin' dog in DeKalb, and a Cajun man with a sword in Los Angeles. It was a nearly perfect weekend of college football. The only way you could have improved it would have been to raise the stakes a bit. And maybe stretch out the excitement for an extra day.
The F/+ picks have done pretty well of late, hitting a solid 55 percent against the spread in Weeks 11-13, correctly nailing Stanford over Oregon, warning you about USC over Stanford, etc. But they went just 24-34-1 this week. It doesn't always work out this way, but the power of Rivalry Week overcame mere "numbers" and "logic," and as we've seen so often, when the vibe begins, it seems to have the power to spread throughout the country.
It began in Starkville, where Mississippi State survived Ole Miss in a sloppy, frustrated, and ultimately exhilarating (for the home team) game. MSU saved its season and reached bowl eligibility by forcing overtime (well, it was forced upon the Bulldogs after they missed a 39-yard field goal at the end of regulation) and stripping Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace as he was about to cross the end zone for the game-tying score.
Meanwhile, in Austin, in an otherwise uninteresting affair, Texas Tech punter Ryan Erxleben pulled off the best (probably) improvised fake punt you'll ever see, escaping traffic, hitting the corner, and turning on the jets like you know he's always tried to convince his teammates he could do to mostly sarcastic, "Yeah, okay" responses.
That was the appetizer for this wild Thanksgiving weekend. The deviled eggs, if you will.
On Friday came the sides. The mac-and-cheese, the stuffing.
An underdog Marshall squad (win probability: 31 percent) blitzing favored East Carolina (17-0 after one quarter), never looking back (final: 59-28), and cruising to the Conference USA East title. Akron (win probability: 16 percent) coming out of nowhere to stop a late two-point conversion and upset Toledo, 31-29. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini nearly slapping a referee with his hat, then more-or-less daring the Huskers to fire him after the game. (They will not. Probably.) San Jose State (win probability: 23 percent) willfully entering a track meet with undefeated Fresno State, then pulling away for a 62-52 win. Oregon State (win probability: one percent) turning over Marcus Mariota a couple of times, scoring late, and falling just short against Oregon, 36-35. USF (win probability: one percent) doing the same at UCF, forcing five turnovers and taking a stunning fourth-quarter lead before faltering, 23-20.
If Friday was a day for near-misses, the masterpiece of the day, the most Friday game of Friday, took place in Baton Rouge.
Arkansas (win probability: you guessed it, one percent), hopeless, losers of eight straight, bounced back from an early 14-7 deficit to score 20 of the next 27 points and take a six-point lead into the fourth quarter. Then, as in so many upset bids, the underdog got a boost from a major injury: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger tweaked his knee midway through the final quarter and was replaced by freshman Anthony Jennings, thrower of three career passes. His fifth career pass was a lovely, accurate 16-harder to Dillon Gordon thrown out of his own end zone with under three minutes to play, down three points. Between his sixth and seventh career passes, he rolled for 21 yards into Arkansas territory. His ninth career pass was a no-gainer to Jeremy Hill that set up a third-and-10 with 1:22 remaining.
His 10th was perhaps the most surprisingly easy he will ever throw: a lovely, accurate heave to a strangely wide-open Travin Dural.
LSU 31, Arkansas 27.
"What a game. What a completely unusual game." Who sums things up better than Les Miles?— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) November 29, 2013
I just got an "Um, is he always like this?" look from @MrsBillC during Les Miles' post-game interview. Yes, dear. Yes, he is.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) November 29, 2013
Then, of course, it was time for the main course. If a given Saturday only featured the drama and oddity of Saturday's first-shift games, we would call it a reasonably successful weekend.
You had Florida threatening to make things interesting for a quarter and a half or so against Florida State (before predictably folding). You had Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews snaring a 25-yard pass on fourth-and-11 to set up the game-winning field goal and save the Commodores from a Wake Forest (win probability: 21 percent) upset bid. You had Michigan State pulling its most Michigan State win of the season; the Spartans held Minnesota to 3.3 yards per play, attempting just 51 plays themselves, and cruising to a "dominant" (in MSU fashion) 14-3 win that could have been worse if they wanted it to be worse.
You had Duke, underdogs on Saturday and forever and always, falling behind North Carolina by a point, 25-24, midway through the fourth quarter, then calmly marching 66 yards in 11 plays for the eventual game- and division-winning field goal. David Cutcliffe, the Phil Fulmer disciple fired from Ole Miss nine years ago for one misstep after five straight winning seasons (the only such streak in Oxford since John Vaught retired in 1970), just beat out Virginia Tech, Miami, and Georgia Tech for division supremacy. He just led Duke to a 10-2 record. He is about to lead the Blue Devils to their second consecutive bowl game after two in 50 years. This could have been the highlight of the weekend.
Instead, it was barely in the top 10. Instead, we were barely paying attention. Ohio State-Michigan was about to get weird.
There is no greater sudden flash of outright panic than when you realize that your opponent is going for two points and the win. In your head, you think that a seven-point lead is an appropriate cushion; you hope your team holds on, but you know if it doesn't, the worst that can probably happen is a tie game and a trip to overtime. When the opponent scores in the final seconds and decides, "To hell with it, let's win this right now," you never fully expect it. For Ohio State, which held a 14-point lead over Michigan -- sorry, "_ichigan" -- heading into the fourth quarter of The Game (one that had already featured a fight and two flying birds) and needing a win to stay alive as the top alternate (at that point) in the national title race, this feeling had to be exponentially terrifying. But in a game that did nothing to alleviate ongoing concerns about Ohio State's mediocre pass defense (Michigan's Devin Gardner: 32-for-45 for 451 yards and four touchdowns), the Buckeyes' secondary came through however briefly, intercepting Gardner's two-point pass and saving a 42-41 win.
I was tailgating at the time. We had heard that Alabama was up, 21-7, and though Auburn had fought back, the Tide were lining up for what could be a game-clinching fourth-and-1 conversion with about five and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter. As we started to stroll toward the stadium for what might have been the second-biggest game in the history of Faurot Field, we made our way past tailgaters with DirecTV. We watched Auburn's Carl Lawson (among others) stuff T.J. Yeldon and thought, "Hey, Auburn at least made it interesting." You are resigned to Alabama winning at this point. It's just what happens.
But the rumbles started as we got to our seats. Somebody a few rows back, watching the scoreboard in the south end zone, said, "Did that say Auburn tied the game?" Then someone else checked their given smartphone scores app. "Wait, Auburn won?" Then I got a message from my breathless father. Field goal runback with no time left? Are you kidding me?
In last week's preview, I said this:
If these two teams played 10 times, Alabama might win about eight of the games. But Auburn only has to win once. […]
[Auburn is] about three plays from being 7-4 right now, and while that type of record would still represent incredible progress on the Plains, Auburn's ability to survive (and benefit from some good luck) has transformed this season from a strong turnaround to a team-of-destiny situation.
I use numbers too much to believe too heavily in fate or destiny or karma. Still … I'm a fan. And each season, it's hard not to feel like certain teams just have luck on their side. That Auburn benefited from a miracle at the end of the Georgia game made sense, just as it made sense that Georgia would be on the losing end of such a play. Auburn heads into this game having both improved steadily and benefited from some luck. The Tigers will need a little more magic to survive a visit from Alabama, but it certainly feels like they could, doesn't it?
One of my five keys to an Auburn upset was "magic." In the end, it was "Stuff an unstuffable team on fourth-and-1, then block a field goal a few minutes later, then tie the game with 32 seconds left, THEN magic."
I would point out that this all but affirmed my thoughts that Alabama would win this game eight of 10 times, but Auburn indeed only had to win once. And they won once. All talk of odds and likelihoods and probabilities went out the window around the time Chris Davis reached midfield with no more Alabama defenders (okay, there were some linemen) in his way. Sports are just magic sometimes, and there's no other way to explain it.
Elsewhere, Southern Miss was pulling away for its first win of the season. Dave Christensen was coaching his final game in charge of Wyoming. Rice was clinching the Conference USA West. Georgia was charging back from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat rival Georgia Tech in overtime. Penn State was uncorking one of the season's least likely upsets, a seven-point win in Madison. But there was no remaining oxygen to feed these stories. All eyes were on southeastern Alabama, where the least conceivable outcome in perhaps the nation's most bitter football rivalry had unfolded.
And still, we were not done. In front of a paltry 33,735 in Morgantown, Iowa State scored 24 fourth-quarter points to force overtime against West Virginia and eventually win, 52-44, in triple OT. Stanford picked off Tommy Rees twice to hold off Notre Dame and lock up its fourth consecutive 10-win season. ULM stunned UL Lafayette, 31-28, on the road to nab unexpected bowl eligibility. South Carolina sacked Tajh Boyd five times and scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Clemson, 31-17. UCLA ended perhaps any hope of an Ed Orgeron Era at USC by thumping the home Trojans, 35-14. Arizona State locked up home field advantage in the Pac-12 title game by eviscerating Arizona. And of course, my boys got it done as well. I love you too much for words, Henry Josey.
So yeah. Good weekend. As always, college football games are of varying lack of quality, but while there is always drama on Rivalry Week, this was … different. Better. Special. Those of us who love college football likely love it because games like these sometimes happen. They don't typically all happen over a 48-hour span.
If Championship Week is to one-up it in some way, I don't even know what has to happen. Well, it will start with a Duke upset of Florida State. But it would require even more than that.
5 more thoughts from the weekend
1. What will Will Muschamp allow his offense to do?
In his first step to fix an awful, directionless offense, Florida head coach Will Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis yesterday. It was a no-brainer, of course.
But Brent Pease did not get stupid overnight. Granted, it's a lot easier to run a precise, deadly offense when you've got Kellen Moore, perhaps the most accurate quarterback of all time, running the plays you call at Boise State. Granted, there is no Kellen Moore in Gainesville. But we know that Pease's concepts are sound when the right pieces are in place (as they were when he was O.C. in Boise), and we know that there were just no pieces in place for Florida this year.
When you can recruit like Florida can (and always will, really), all you have to do to field a competent -- competent, not fantastic -- offense is define your identity and recruit to it. And in 2012, the Gators really did just that. They wanted a unit that could soften up defenses with the run and flip the field for the dominant defense. Rinse and repeat until the other team gave out. They moved slowly, and in tight, physical games (like the ones against Florida State and LSU), their style served them well and they pulled away with nice wins. But the pace also allowed for no pull-away opportunities. The style that led to wins over FSU, LSU, and South Carolina also led to listless near-upsets versus Missouri, UL Lafayette, and Jacksonville State.
Muschamp's no-pace and no-risks philosophy -- and it's safe to say that has come from the head man, not the offensive coordinator -- intentionally removes margin of error from the equation. And in 2013, when injuries skimmed off a layer of talent on both sides of the ball and the punting game no longer proved masterful, things fell apart very, very quickly. We don't really know where Muschamp goes from here, and perhaps the scariest thing of all is that it appears he might not know, either.
Oh, great, let's get some more pro-style bullshit: http://t.co/bF0tMZNUEC— Spencer Hall (@edsbs) December 1, 2013
2. Hey, speaking of that 2012 Missouri-Florida game...
Still recovering from a sprained MCL that cost him a few weeks and all ability to plant and throw accurately, Missouri quarterback James Franklin threw four interceptions despite finding a surprising number of open receivers downfield. He was able to still run in a straight line relatively well, but his mobility was curtailed, and his passing accuracy completely left him.
So let's just say that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's sudden bout with inaccuracy and interceptions, following a partial MCL sprain a few weeks ago, has not surprised me that much. (The rumored concussion issues probably aren't helping, either.)
3. I still think Jameis Winston wins the Heisman
Voters will be justifiably cowed by his potential upcoming legal situation (that's the most noncommittal, political way I could think to put it), but I'm pretty sure that since all of the other major Heisman contenders had pretty poor performances recently, the votes he loses will be offset by the votes others lose. This certainly sets up a potentially strange-as-hell situation in which Jordan Lynch wins the Heisman with 675 votes or something, and we've set the Crazy bar pretty high this season, but I'm still going to assume Winston wins for now.
4. Why yes...
...I am rooting for a "USC hires Chris Petersen, then Boise State hires Ed Orgeron" scenario. You? (And before you think Boise State would never do that, realize that this school did hire Houston Nutt once, albeit 17 years ago. It hired Dan Hawkins, too. Boise State is not immune to the siren song of lunatics.)
5. Why no...
...I do not advocate for betting against Auburn on Saturday. When fate announces itself, you should probably listen. Whatever the odds are of a "Michigan State beats Ohio State, Auburn beats Missouri" scenario -- and I'm guessing there's about a 15-20 percent chance of that when I set up my win probability data for Wednesday's Morning Tailgate -- it feels like it's almost pre-ordained, doesn't it? Here's to hoping that's not the case ... at least for the latter of those two outcomes, if you know what I'm saying.