08 Oct 2007
by Russell Levine
Nothing that happens in this college football season should shock us. Not after Appalachian State won at Michigan. Not after Syracuse and its Pop Warner offense lit up Louisville. Not South Florida in the top five. Not a weekend with five of the top-10 teams in the AP poll losing -- four of them to unranked opponents.
Yet Saturday offered up a jaw-dropper big enough to make all those moments take a distant back seat.
Stanford 24, USC 23.
Stanford was 1-11 in 2006. It had lost three previous conference games this season by a combined score of 141-51. It had a backup quarterback, Tavita Pritchard, making his first college start. The game was at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where USC hadn't lost since the first year of George W. Bush's first term. That's USC, the team of the three regular-season losses the past four seasons. The Trojans were favored by anywhere from 38 to 41 points, making this possibly the largest point-spread upset in college football history.
This was Mike Tyson losing to Buster Douglas in Tokyo. This was the Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III. If it wasn't quite the equal of the Miracle on Ice, it's only because there were no geo-political implications. Even so, in football terms, the Berlin Wall just fell.
How so? Every one-loss team just regained a legitimate shot at the national title. Heck, if half the top 10 keeps losing each weekend, a two-loss team like Florida could be in play for a spot in the BCS championship. Another surprise: South Florida and Cincinnati probably only need a loss each by Cal and Ohio State to control their own destiny for a trip to New Orleans for the title game. Yes, you read that correctly.
For now, USC's stumble means that LSU is the consensus no. 1 team in the nation after the Tigers rallied to beat Florida Saturday night. Many will caution against assuming that LSU can run the table in the SEC, and if this season has taught us anything it is that assumptions are unwise. Still, the SEC is not what it was a year ago. Only LSU has looked dominant, and the Tigers have but two games remaining against opponents that are currently ranked: contests against Kentucky and Auburn the next two weeks before they presumably would face the East Division champion in the SEC title game. As of today, the favorite to take that spot might well be Tennessee, a team with two losses (including a 39-point stinker at Florida) that nonetheless controls its own destiny to get to Atlanta.
LSU was hardly overwhelming against Florida. The Gators ran the ball over, around, and through LSU's vaunted defense for much of the contest before untimely turnovers and LSU coach Les Miles's riverboat gambling swung the game in favor of the home side. His decision-making, which included going 5-for-5 on fourth downs in the contest, was akin to hitting on and endless series of 16s in blackjack -- without ever busting. He passed up a chip-shot field goal to tie in the final two minutes in favor of yet another fourth-down run. That's the kind of call that, should it go wrong, ends up getting the coach hanged in effigy around campus.
As if just to make things a little more difficult, Miles even opted to risk his final timeout, while trailing with 10 minutes to play, to challenge a call that netted his team a whole 10 yards of field position.
Strategically, LSU hardly benefited from USC's loss. But try telling that to a fan base that is still bitter over having to share a national title with the Trojans in 2003. When the final score of the USC game was announced in Baton Rouge, the crowd celebrated wildly, as did the LSU team on the sidelines, despite the fact they were trailing Florida at the time.
Assuming it can beat Kentucky, which is coming of its first loss of the season, next week, LSU will be atop the BCS standings when they are first issued on October 14. Ohio State, on the other hand, will surely be sending Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh a Christmas card if the Buckeyes are able to make it to New Orleans. Then again, Harbaugh is a Michigan man so salutations from Columbus are unlikely, but Stanford did Ohio State a huge favor nonetheless. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, the Buckeyes are 6-0 and should be heavy favorites in each of their remaining games.
Cal, which was idle Saturday, is also in prime position to reach the title game, but the Trojans' loss may have actually hurt the Bears. Cal wasn't going to reach the championship without beating USC November 10, but a win now will be somewhat less impressive to the voters and computers that determine the BCS standings.
Boston College, which has been flying under the radar all season, also now finds itself in position to begin thinking this could be a special year. The Eagles still have considerable hurdles, to wit: four of their final six games are on the road, including a trip to Virginia Tech, and that doesn't include a potential rematch with the Hokies in the ACC title game in Jacksonville.
Despite all the chaos over the season's first six weeks, there is much to be decided. There are still two more undefeated teams (11) then at this time last year. Remaining conference games will trim that number by at least four teams and based on the way this year has gone, odds are that several others will get upset. Not even Miles would hit that particular 16.
The commenters in the SDA thread had this one pegged. This week's winner is none other than Florida coach Urban Meyer, for an inexplicable clock-management gaffe in the final minutes of his team's loss to LSU.
Once LSU converted its final fourth-down to gain a 1st-and-goal at the Florida five, Meyer should have begun calling time to preserve a chance to win in regulation should the Tigers either kick a field goal for the tie or score the go-ahead touchdown. The Gators still had all three timeouts, yet Meyer allowed 20-plus seconds to come off the clock before the first-down snap. After LSU ran the ball on second down, Meyer allowed another 29 seconds to drain away before calling timeout anyway.
If the strategy was to try and win the game in regulation right there and not take any chances with leaving time on the clock, fine. I don't agree with it, but once you've made that choice you have to stick with it. Instead, Meyer wasted nearly a full minute, before deciding, hey, maybe we'd like another shot with the ball after all.
Florida began its final possession with 1:09 to play and two timeouts. Do you think the Gators might have preferred to have two minutes-plus and one timeout?
Look, Meyer is a great coach. His results speak for themselves. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy giving him the award this week. He's smug, and at times over-tinkers in areas that don't need tinkering. And after his failed effort to call a last-second timeout and force Auburn to kick the game-wining field goal twice last week, perhaps there's karma involved in his JLS Trophy this week.
Rankings that may require further explanation: Earlier in the season, I felt the top four were a cut above the rest. Now I limit that number to one: LSU. I view teams two-four as basically interchangeable, a shade better than the Big East teams.
West Virginia is behind Cincinnati in part because of Pat White's injury. I wanted to punish USC more for losing to Stanford, but I couldn't honestly say I thought the teams I had lower than the Trojans would beat them. I'm still withholding much judgment on Arizona State until they play somebody. Their rank will move drastically after they face Cal in three weeks.
I don't like having two-loss teams in the poll, and I'm the last guy that would want to over-respect the SEC, but again, I just feel that Florida and Auburn are both pretty good teams that would beat a lot of ranked squads. And at the bottom, the new entrants are a crapshoot. I'll give A&M, Indiana, and Virginia a chance to impress me.
Games I watched at least part of: Kentucky-South Carolina, Eastern Michigan-Michigan, Wisconsin-Illinois, Northwestern-Michigan State, Texas-Oklahoma, South Florida-Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati-Rutgers, Ohio State-Purdue, Florida-LSU, Nebraska-Missouri.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
77 comments, Last at 12 Oct 2007, 11:16am by oljb