Down To A Big Four?
October 28 Guest Column
College football has played down to a Big Four -- Alabama, Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon in that order in the Bowl Championship Series' latest Standings -- that would fit oh so conveniently into the sport's new four-team playoff.
Wouldn't that be a nice group if the playoff started next week?
Four still must be whittled to a couple of national championship finalists in the current format, and BCS executive director Bill Hancock pointed out Sunday that there's plenty of time for that. "What's next? Who knows?" he said. "Five more weeks of intrigue are ahead."
Recall a year ago and the shock of Oklahoma State's loss at Iowa State. Saturday came the latest reminder of the tenuousness of best-laid plans: Florida's loss to Georgia, dousing anticipation of a Southeastern Conference championship matchup of unbeatens vs. Alabama.
That opened the door for Kansas State to move to No. 2 in this week's BCS Standings and Notre Dame to No. 3, the Irish parlaying their 30-13 win at Oklahoma into greater respect across the board from the BCS' six affiliated computer services. They leapfrogged Oregon in the overall rankings.
The Ducks' opportunities to impress the computers lie ahead: Saturday at Southern California, three weeks later at Oregon State and then in the Pacific 12 championship game in a potential rematch vs. USC.
Kansas State has only a middling remaining schedule that wraps up against Texas on Dec. 1. Notre Dame's next three don't look to be threatening, then comes a trip to USC on Nov. 24.
The Big Four were collectively impressive over the weekend, outrushing opponents -- three of them ranked -- 1,012 yards to 323, committing a single turnover among them, forcing nine and winning by an average of almost 34 points.
Itemized deductions ...
Item: Notre Dame's defense might be crowding Alabama's for primacy in the NCAA's bowl subdivision. Latest evidence: Oklahoma's 15 yards rushing and single touchdown Saturday night.
Deduction: The Irish long ago established themselves on that side of the line. Where they really polished their championship credentials at OU was on offense -- more precisely at quarterback, where Everett Golson evolved from question mark to difference maker.
His bottom-line numbers weren't eye-popping. Golson ran for 64 yards, and was 13-for-25 passing for 177 yards. But note the absence of turnovers, addressing a previous concern about the first-year sophomore starter. And marvel at his performance at crunch time, once Oklahoma had pulled into a 13-13 tie with a little more than nine minutes left.
Golson completed all four of his passes on Notre Dame's ensuing possession, sticking a dagger in the Sooners with a play-action deep ball that hit freshman Chris Brown perfectly in stride and covered 50 yards to the OU 15. Golson completed two more throws of 12 and four yards, moving the Irish to the 1-yard line, then ran from there for the go-ahead touchdown.
He's still in the statistical shadows of Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Kansas State's Collin Klein and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who are responsible 18, 28 and 22 touchdowns respectively this season. Golson has run for three and passed for four.
"He had obviously been challenged to continue to grow, and it's been a process," coach Brian Kelly said. "But I thought (Saturday night) was a big step up for our quarterback and our offense elevated itself against a great competition on the road."
Item: It was a year ago Monday -- Oct. 29, 2011 -- that Joe Paterno coached his last game at Penn State.
Deduction: Recovery from the ugliest, costliest scandal in college athletics history will be long, both on and off the field for the school and its football program. Saturday's 35-23 loss to Ohio State, in which the running game produced just 32 yards, quarterback Matt McGloin threw a costly pick-six and the Nittany Lions equaled a season-high nine penalties, was a fresh reminder.
Still, there are stirrings of life. The Lions came in with a five-game winning streak and, against all odds in the wake of crippling NCAA sanctions and player defections, were playing for first place in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. Happy Valley basked anew in a big-game atmosphere, a crowd of 107,818 rocking Beaver Stadium. New coach Bill O'Brien was hard on himself -- "I need to do a much better job," he said after the loss -- but his team is 5-3 and he remains in the national coach-of-the-year conversation.
It's not impossible to envision Penn State winning three of its final four games, starting this Saturday at Purdue. After that come a dicey trip to Nebraska and closing games against Indiana and Wisconsin at home.
"Everyone is a little heartbroken right now, but we have a bunch of warriors on our team. We have a lot of guys that have been through a lot," senior defensive tackle Glenn Carson said. "There is no doubt we will bounce back from this. Once Sunday and Monday hit and we put this Ohio State film behind us, it's back to work and everyone's going to rebound in a positive way."
Item: Boise State rolls Wyoming 45-14, running the Broncos winning streak to seven games.
Deduction: They've gone one direction and Michigan State pretty much another since MSU nipped Boise 17-13 in both teams' season opener. Largely on the strength of the nation's fifth-hardest-to-score-on defense, Boise State has moved into the BCS picture -- its ranking rising from 22nd to 21st to a current 19th -- and is a decent bet to earn its third berth in one of the BCS' four undercard bowls.
The Broncos can do that by moving up to No. 12 or better in the BCS Standings or to No. 16 if that betters the ranking of the champion of an automatic-qualifying conference -- say the Big Ten, where unbeaten Ohio State is ineligible because of NCAA sanctions and the current highest-ranked team is No. 20 Nebraska. On the field, Boise's biggest and perhaps only remaining challenge is a Dec. 1 trip to Nevada.
Michigan State? Only by pulling out an overtime win over Wisconsin did the Spartans avert a three-game losing streak. They're still a disappointing 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten going into Saturday's game against Nebraska.