Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
09 Dec 2013
by Matt Hinton
Strictly speaking, the BCS championship game is not a destination for underdogs, upstarts or Cinderellas. On the contrary: The system is specifically designed to keep out the riffraff. Of the 30 teams that have played for the title under the BCS banner, fully half of them debuted at No. 1 or No. 2 in the initial standings at midseason, and all but four arrived at the first checkpoint ranked in the top five. Only one, LSU in 2003, has come from outside of the top ten at that stage, rising from the soggy depths of No. 12. Even the token longshots – Auburn in 2010, Notre Dame in 2012 – have played their way out of preseason obscurity and into the championship mix by mid-October. (Auburn debuted at No. 4 in the initial standings in its championship season, and Notre Dame opened at No. 5 last year after beginning the season unranked.) Upsets, controversies and eleventh-hour coups are par for the course. But no team has crashed the big one out of nowhere. It's simply not done.
Which brings us to the 2013 Auburn Tigers, preseason doormats turned clutch artists turned force of nature. Coming off a dismal, last-place collapse in 2012, Auburn was universally projected to finish at or near the bottom again in the SEC West, where progress against the likes of Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M would be measured less in the final record than in closing humiliating gaps on the scoreboard. (Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 was not exempt, tabbing the Tigers for dead last in the division.) Early on, Auburn was good enough to eke out one-score wins over Washington State, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and to put up a fight after falling behind early in an eventual 35–21 loss at LSU. Auburn didn't appear in the Associated Press poll until October 13, seven weeks into the season, debuting at No. 24.
Six days later, a come-from-behind, 45–41 upset at Texas A&M was like hitting ignition on a rocket. With that win – part of a particularly bloody weekend for the ostensible SEC elite – the Tigers vaulted from No. 24 to No. 11 in a single bound, also debuting at No. 11 in the BCS standings. From there, they've advanced at least one spot in the standings every week, rising to No. 6 after a blowout win at Tennessee, No. 4 after a Hail-Mary miracle to beat Georgia, No. 3 after an all-time stunner over Alabama, and No. 2 after Saturday's wild, 59–42 romp over Missouri. In the process, they passed Texas Tech, Clemson, Miami, Oregon, Stanford, Baylor and finally Ohio State on the way down, while emerging as such an unstoppable force on the ground that tailback Tre Mason has condensed a full-scale Heisman campaign into the past two weeks. Suddenly, Auburn is the only team in the nation with multiple wins over opponents ranked in the top five, both of them coming in a span of eight days.
And so the Tigers move on as far and away the most unlikely team that has ever played in game bearing the title of "national championship," in the BCS era or beyond. Before Gus Malzahn, the only other first-year head coach to play for the title in the past 20 years is Miami's Larry Coker, in 2001, and he inherited a readily apparent juggernaut of a team that had just finished No. 2 the previous season under Butch Davis. For Malzahn, the only remaining starter from the 2010 championship run is defensive end Nosa Eguae, who currently ranks 16th on the team in total tackles. The starting quarterback, Nick Marshall, is a junior-college transfer who began his college career as a cornerback. Four times this season, Marshall led a fourth-quarter rally to win in the final minute, three times over ranked opponents with hyped, veteran QBs – Manziel, Murray, McCarron – who spent most of the season on Heisman lists. Against Missouri, the offense answered every Mizzou score with a touchdown of its own, until Mizzou ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. Now, Auburn hits the 28-day championship layoff with the pedal on the floor.
Say what you will about FSU's strength of schedule – and SEC supremacy theorists certainly will – but you won't find a modern team that's handled any schedule with greater ease. You have to go back to the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers to find the last I-A/FBS team that beat every single opponent by at least two touchdowns, and all the way back to World War II to find an outfit that blew the doors off by 40 points per game. Auburn has proven it can run consistently against top-shelf defenses, and get after the quarterback on obvious passing downs (that's why they play the games, etc.), but as long as Jameis Winston is healthy and in good standing, an upset in this case would probably surpass Ohio State over Miami in 2002-03 and Florida over Ohio State in 2006-07 as the greatest stunner of the soon-to-be-defunct BCS era.
After the game, Meyer agonized over a failed 4th-and-2 call early in the fourth, when he sent Miller around the right end for no gain at the MSU 39-yard line. Understandably, he justified the decision as an effort to "put the ball in the hands of our best player," who had runs for well over 100 yards at that point on more than 7.0 per carry against MSU's top-ranked rushing defense. But when it came down to the irresistible force vs. the immovable object, the latter didn't give an inch.
On Saturday, starter Trevor Knight was forced out of the game at halftime, leading to second-half flip-flopping between backup Kendall Thompson and sometime-starter Blake Bell. Ultimately it was the Belldozer who led three scoring drives in the third and fourth quarters, including the game-winning touchdown pass with 19 seconds to play – a timely redemption for a former fan favorite who had fallen to third-string and was reportedly considering transfer options before the game. How coaches handle the position against Alabama is anyone's guess.
DORIAL GREEN-BECKHAM • WR, Missouri
The most celebrated recruit in the nation in 2012, Green-Beckham made good on the hype and then some against Auburn, coming down with six catches for 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns, the second offering the frightening spectacle of a 6-foot-6 übermensch outrunning everyone else on the field for 55 yards.
Not that DGB has been quiet as a sophomore – he's tied for the team lead in receptions, a dozen of them going for touchdowns – but the SEC championship game was the biggest stage of his career, by far, and the most reassuring indication yet that he is well on his way to becoming the star the scouts said he would be.
KEVIN HOGAN • QB, Stanford
This space hasn't always been complimentary of Hogan, particularly after he threw two costly interceptions in Stanford's loss at USC last month. (His unsightly throwing motion in that game came in for particular scorn.) But he was virtually flawless in the Pac-12 title game, connecting on 12 of 18 passes for 277 yards – that's 15.4 per attempt, 23.1 per completion – and a touchdown in a Rose Bowl-clinching, 38–14 win at Arizona State. With ASU preoccupied by the Cardinal ground game, Hogan made them pay by connecting on five passes that covered at least 25 yards, and added a 29-yard run for good measure.
CONNOR COOK • QB, Michigan State
Cook hasn't always been a critical darling, either, operating in an offense that often asks less of its quarterback even than Stanford's. Against Ohio State, though, he stole the show from Braxton Miller, passing 40 times for 304 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan State's biggest win since its last Rose Bowl, in 1988, if not longer. While Miller faded down the stretch, Cook rose to occasion by completing 8 of 12 passes in the fourth quarter – one good for a go-ahead touchdown pass, three others going for crucial, drive-extending first downs as the Spartans killed the clock.
JOHN REAGAN • Offensive Coordinator, Rice
Calling his last game at Rice, Reagan emptied the playbook against Marshall, balancing the final production nearly perfectly between run (248 yards, three touchdowns) and pass (239 yards, three touchdowns) in a 41–28 win that clinched the Owls' first outright conference championship since 1957. Although they were overwhelmingly run-oriented in terms of run-pass ratio, all ten of the Owls' completions went for big gains, including a pair of trick plays that resulted in touchdown passes for backup tailback Luke Turner – one courtesy of a Tebow-esque jump pass the other on a triple-option look that caught the Thundering Herd (understandably) out of sorts.
Before the game, Reagan had already agreed to join Charlie Weis' staff as the new play-caller at Kansas, which has dropped non-conference games to Rice two years in a row.
1. FLORIDA STATE (13–0). Now for the Seminoles' most formidable obstacle of the season, a 28-day layoff before kickoff in Pasadena.
2. AUBURN (12–1). Incredibly, the Tigers found time to launch three punts and lose a pair of fumbles against Missouri, while still scoring 59 points on eight touchdowns and a field goal.
3. ALABAMA (11–1). Bama has been ambushed in the Sugar Bowl by a heavy underdog before, only reducing the odds of ever seeing it happen again.
4. STANFORD (11–2). Four consecutive BCS bowls is the longest active streak, and the longest streak by any school without cracking the championship game.
5. BAYLOR (11–1). Only downside of a Fiesta Bowl berth is skeptics who have no incentive to revise their opinion of the Bears based on anything that happens against Central Florida.
6. MICHIGAN STATE (12–1). Defense carries the day here, always, but the Spartan offense has come a long, long way from the plodding "attack" that could barely find the end zone in September against South Florida and Western Michigan.
7. OHIO STATE (12–1). If missing out on the big one isn't bad enough, now Buckeye fans have to endure weeks of b-roll footage of Woody Hayes assaulting Charlie Bauman ahead of an Orange Bowl match with Clemson.
8. OREGON (10–2). Ducks ran out of gas down the stretch, but still have a chance to hit eleven wins for the fourth year in a row against Texas.
9. ARIZONA STATE (10–3). Sun Devils looked like an entirely different offense Saturday with do-it-all tailback Marion Grice, but that tends to happen a lot against Stanford's defense.
10. SOUTH CAROLINA (10–2). Gamecocks managed to record three wins over top-20 opponents (Missouri, Clemson, UCF) despite dodging the top five teams in the SEC West entirely.
11. MISSOURI (11–2).
12. OKLAHOMA (10–2). Impossible to begrudge the Sooners' BCS bid over Oregon, if only because they scored on a fake field goal against Oklahoma State with the holder throwing to the kicker.
13. OKLAHOMA STATE (10–2). Obviously, the Cowboys would trade 10–2 for 11–1 and a conference championship. But as far as the postseason goes, the Cotton Bowl matchup against Missouri is far more attractive than the alternative, a Fiesta Bowl collision with UCF, and almost as lucrative.
14. CLEMSON (10–2). Tigers' date with Ohio State may be the most relevant Orange Bowl matchup since the 2004-05 championship game between USC and Oklahoma; even if not, hopefully it will turn out to be the most entertaining: Six of the last seven Orange Bowls have been decided by double digits.
15. UCLA (9–3).
16. LSU (9–3).
17. WISCONSIN (9–3).
18. CENTRAL FLORIDA (11–1). True, the Knights have squeaked out uninspiring wins over AAC doormats Memphis, Temple, South Florida and SMU by a combined 17 points en route to the conference title. They still look better than Louisville did at this time last year, when the Cardinals were bound for the Sugar Bowl after losing two of their last three to Syracuse and UConn, and that turned out alright.
19. LOUISVILLE (11–1). Teddy Bridgewater may have been left behind in the Heisman, but this throw against Cincinnati may be the play of the year, non-Auburn division.
20. FRESNO STATE (11–1). Bulldogs are outright conference champions for the first time since 1989, as members of the Big West, but blew a golden opportunity for a bigger stage than the Las Vegas Bowl.
21. GEORGIA (8–4).
22. NOTRE DAME (8–4).
23. USC (9–4). In Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans are getting a familiar face who managed to raise Washington from the doldrums of the Ty Willingham era, and left U-Dub in vastly better shape than he found it. In the end, though, he also went 1–9 there against Pac-12 North heavies Oregon and Stanford.
24. WASHINGTON (8–4). In Chris Petersen, the Huskies are getting a sought-after coach who finished Boise State's transition into an ascendant, giant-killing power, and consistently spurned every suitor
25. TEXAS A&M (8–4). If the Chick-Fil-A Bowl is Johnny Manziel's last college game, at least Duke's defense is compatible with spectacle.
– – –
In: Fresno State, Notre Dame, Texas A&M.
Out: Northern Illinois, Duke, Texas.
Waiting: Northern Illinois, BYU, Texas, Duke, Miami.
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. DARQUEZE DENNARD • CB, Michigan State
As usual, Dennard's relatively skimpy stat line – against Ohio State, he was credited with three tackles, two passes broken up and a forced fumble – belies his impact as one of the few true shutdown corners in the nation. A better gauge for his performance on Saturday is Braxton Miller's stat line: The Buckeyes tested the "No Fly Zone" on a couple of occasions, but came up empty, leaving the most efficiency passer in the Big Ten with his worst completion percentage (38.1) and overall efficiency rating (94.2) of the season.
2. RYAN SHAZIER • LB, Ohio State
On the other side, Shazier was his usual, active self, registering 12 tackles, two TFLs, two passes broken up and a QB hurry against the Spartans in a losing effort. For the season, Shazier ranks second nationally in both solo tackles (95) and tackles for loss (23.5).
3. TRENT MURPHY • LB, Stanford
Not to be outdone, Murphy added to his All-American cred with seven solo tackles, two TFLs and a forced fumble against Arizona State, helping hold the Sun Devils 150 yards below their season average for total offense. If its seems like Murphy is here every week, he's earned it, finishing the regular season as the FBS leader in sacks (14) and ranking third in tackles for loss (21.5) with at least one TFL in all but one game. (For the record, that would be the one where he returned one pick-six for a touchdown and forced a second pick-six instead.)
4. EDDIE LACKEY • Baylor
Playing in drop-dead temperatures – especially for Waco, Texas – Lackey led Baylor with 13 total tackles, two TFLs, a pass broken up and a QB hurry against Texas, which finished with season lows for total offense (217) and points (10) in the loss. For the season, Lackey is the leading tackler for one of the most improved defenses in the nation, one that's vaulted from 79th in Defensive F/+ in 2012 to 15th in 2013, en route to an outright Big 12 title.
5. TELVIN SMITH • LB, Florida State
Smith registered eight tackles, two TFLs and an interception against Duke, leading an effort that held the Blue Devils without a point for 59 minutes. Before their final, token touchdown drive, the Devils had managed a 165 yards on 2.8 yards per play and trailed 45–0.
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