All Set For The National Championship Game? Probably Not
November 11 Guest Column
College football finally has The Two: Notre Dame on one side of a national championship matchup, the winner of Southeastern Conference's likely Dec. 1 title game -- Alabama or Georgia -- on the other.
What can go wrong with that?
We jest, of course. Things are, indeed, nice and mostly neat for the moment in the Bowl Championship Series, the nation's last eligible undefeated team pointed toward a Jan. 7 showdown with the champion of the sport's strongest conference. (And it will be nothing short of magic if it turns out to be Notre Dame vs. 'Bama. See below.)
The rock-steady if occasionally unspectacular Irish awakened some echoes Sunday, moving to the top of the BCS Standings for the first time ever. Alabama and Georgia are 2-3.
But drawing conclusions about Jan. 7 is one thing. Seeing them through is another. That caveat has been underscored the past two weekends.
Alabama was head and shoulders the best team in the country -- so good that the Crimson Tide invited speculation that it could hold its own on a few NFL fields -- and then it wasn't. The Tide coughed up turnovers. Its defense cracked. And it lost at home to Texas A&M.
Similarly, Kansas State and Oregon weren't themselves Saturday night. K-State quarterback Collin Klein doubled his season interception total, throwing three at Baylor, and the Wildcats drew nearly as many penalties as they had in their three previous games combined. Oregon's new-age offense put up its lowest point total in more than three years against Stanford.
Both fell hard.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had taken to politicking last week, fearing the Irish were doomed to be the odd unbeaten out of the national title game. Now, they simply need to win one more regular-season game to secure their spot ... and there lies the rub.
The opponent next Saturday is wounded Southern California, a loser of three of its last four, and Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley has been scratched by a shoulder injury. But the game is in Los Angeles. Notre Dame already has struggled against the likes of Purdue and Pittsburgh. And who in the sport still believes in sure things?
Alabama, re-ascended in the BCS race, will be heavily favored against struggling arch rival Auburn on Saturday. Georgia gets Georgia Tech at home. But, but ...
Item: A Notre Dame-Alabama matchup would be the first in a quarter-century, a Notre Dame-Georgia pairing the first since 1980.
Deduction: With all due respect to Georgia (or Florida or anybody else in the SEC with designs on the Big Game), that perceptible quiver of anticipation across the sport is for the Irish vs. the Crimson Tide. Third all-time winningest program vs. the eighth. A combined 22 or 27 national titles, depending on whom you accept as a selector. Pedigree vs. pedigree.
They've met six times on the field, the Irish winning all but one. Most recent was a No. 7-vs.-10 showdown won by Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in 1987. The most famous was the first, a 24-23 Notre Dame victory in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1973 season.
The Ara Parseghian-coached Irish were 10-0 and ranked third. Bear Bryant's Tide was 11-0 and No. 1. Six times, the lead changed. Notre Dame finally drove 79 yards to set up a decisive Bob Thomas field goal with 4:26 left. The two teams wound up splitting the national championship, the coaches staying with their prebowl No. 1 (Alabama) and most everybody else crowning Notre Dame.
Notre Dame's lone meeting with Georgia also came with a trophy. Herschel Walker and the top-ranked Bulldogs closed out a 12-0 season with a 17-10 victory in the Sugar Bowl.
Item: Ohio State, the sport's only other undefeated team, moves to 11-0 with a 21-14 win over Wisconsin in overtime.
Deduction: Speaking of split championships, the Buckeyes can dream. NCAA sanctions render them ineligible for the postseason and the USA TODAY coaches' title. They're still part of the Associated Press rankings, and moved to No. 4 this week -- but behind Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia.
Somebody's going to have to take out one of those three teams this weekend to give Ohio State an opening. Or the Buckeyes will have to close their season so impressively against Michigan on Saturday that voters are moved to nudge them ahead of Georgia, then have the Bulldogs sloppily or flukishly knock off 'Bama.
Item: Kansas State's Klein falls out of the nation's top 20 in pass efficiency.
Deduction: Baylor winneth the Heisman Trophy (Robert Griffin III a year ago). The Bears taketh it away. Klein threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns at Baylor, but completed only 27 of his 50 passes. There were those three interceptions. And he ran for just 39 yards on 17 carries.
He went from eighth in the country in passing efficiency to sixth in the Big 12.
The Heisman that first was Matt Barkley's to lose, then Geno Smith's, then Klein's, appears newly up for grabs. Notre Dame's Manti Te'o? Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel? Ohio State's Braxton Miller? Oregon's Kenjon Barner (who had his own problems Saturday, rushing for just 66 yards and no TDs against Stanford)? Going into the final two weeks of games, it's impossible to call.
Item: Southern Mississippi has one last shot at a win, closing its season Saturday at Memphis.
Deduction: The Golden Eagles fell to 0-11 with a 34-33 loss to Texas-El Paso, remaining the only oh-fer team in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision in Ellis Johnson's nightmarish first season as coach. But tip your hat to him and his players.
The Golden Eagles put together a seven-play, 86-yard touchdown drive to tie it with 2:48 left, and Johnson opted for a two-point conversion attempt to win it rather than go, in all likelihood, into overtime. "I just felt the momentum and the emotion was there," he said. "If you hit that thing, you go down, make a stop and close the door."
But Arsenio Favor's pass was intercepted in the end zone by UTEP's Demarcus Kizzie.
"I don't want to second guess," Johnson said, "but I do hate that our kids played so hard and, in this one, they really had a shot to win. I was really proud of some of the things they did ... there were some positives in it. But in the end, it's another time of frustration for them and I really feel for them."