by Matt Hinton
Who better than Kirk Herbstreit to serve as the mouthpiece of a scandalized nation? Sunday night, the ex-Buckeye quarterback-turned-statuesque talking head took to the air on ESPN's weekly BCS standings show to stand as a bulwark against the Series' declining standards, savaging the selection of MAC champion Northern Illinois to the Orange Bowl as an "absolute joke." The Huskies' mere presence in a prestige game, he informed America, was an affront the grand tradition of the Orange Bowl, a slap in the face of "more deserving teams" like Oklahoma, and an indictment of a "really ... sad state for college football and where we are in the current system." It was an impressive display of get-off-my-lawn angst for a usually mild-mannered presence, one likely to strike a chord among thousands of fans frustrated by the minutiae of the system –- where the hell is Northern Illinois, anyway? -– all the more so because it had such a tenuous grasp on the system itself.
In the first place, it's not like the Orange Bowl had any say in the "invitation." Under BCS rules, Northern Illinois was guaranteed a slot in one of the big-money games by a) Finishing 15th in the final BCS standings, and b) Finishing ahead of two other BCS-bound teams, Louisville and Wisconsin, that scored automatic bids as champions of the Big East and Big Ten. The Orange Bowl was stuck with NIU because it had the last pick in this year's rotation and the Huskies' inclusion was mandatory.
Of course, NIU is hardly the first bantamweight to crash one of the heavyweight bowls, a class that includes Boise State in 2006 and 2009, Hawaii in 2007, TCU in 2009 and 2010, and Utah in 2004 and 2008. Those teams have performed well when given the opportunity, too, going 5-2 in BCS games with wins over Alabama, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. It opened the door for TCU and Utah to be promoted to major conferences. Unlike their BCS-busting predecessors, though, Northern Illinois is not undefeated, having lost its season opener to an Iowa team that went on to finish 4-8. NIU subsequently failed to garner any national attention whatsoever over the next two months, much less a groundswell of support. The Huskies didn't creep into the bottom of the polls until mid-November, and didn't face a ranked team until outlasting Kent State in double overtime during last Friday's MAC Championship Game. The next day, head coach Dave Doeren was announced as the new coach at North Carolina State, and isn't even sticking around for the trip to Miami.
But does that make them unqualified, undeserving outliers on the big stage? That depends on your point of reference. For Herbstreit and other skeptics, the basic unit of measurement is the conference: Despite a banner year at the top and a record seven teams in bowl games, the MAC is still regarded (especially by the Big Ten) mainly as a source of cheap non-conference wins and/or a feeder league for up-and-coming coaches. It's telling that Herbstreit didn't bother to rail against the corrosive effects of admitting the new Big Ten champion, Wisconsin, which –- thanks to the magic of NCAA sanctions at Ohio State and Penn State –- just became the first team since 1983 to book its seat in the Rose Bowl despite remaining unranked in the Associated Press poll, and will be the first ever to arrive in Pasadena with as many as five losses. Nor did he cast stones at the new Big East champion, Louisville, en route to a Sugar Bowl date with Florida like a lamb to the slaughter. The Cardinals were unranked going into last Thursday's winner-take-all collision with Rutgers, and will rep the Big East in the Sugar Bowl with losses to Syracuse and UConn and zero wins over a ranked opponent. By contrast, Northern Illinois is considered a better team than both Wisconsin and Louisville right now by voters in every major poll, as well as by a consensus of the six BCS computers. FO's stats do have Wisconsin (15th in F/+) ahead of NIU (31st), but Louisville is still far behind (46th).
We don't mean to suggest that the Huskies are realistic candidates for a triumphant upset. Early lines suggest they'll be about a 14-point underdog against Florida State, whose reward for claiming its first ACC crown since 2005 is a no-win scenario in which even a merciless blowout can't really improve the Seminoles' stock heading into 2013. But if we're suddenly worried about the sanctity of the BCS as a showcase for the best of the best, quality control starts at the top.
- Speaking of the top: Alabama is back in the BCS Championship Game for the second year in a row, and the third time in four years, courtesy of a dramatic 32-28 win over Georgia that came down to a bizarre final play for the Bulldogs. Like the 2009 and 2011 champs, the Crimson Tide will roll into the title game with an undeniably elite defense -– they finished the regular season ranked No. 1 nationally in total and rushing defense, and No. 2 in scoring –- complemented by a grueling ground game on the other side. (See below.) But the final month of the season also exposed a few cracks in the blue-chip facade: against the three best teams on the schedule, by far, Bama yielded 400-plus yards to both LSU and Texas A&M in November, and 394 Saturday against UGA, numbers that would have been virtually unthinkable against this defense at Halloween. Excluding sack yardage, the Tigers, Aggies, and Bulldogs all produced a 100-yard rusher -– also unthinkable just a few weeks ago –- and all pushed the Tide in skin-of-the-teeth finishes decided in the final minute. None of which, this still being the age of SEC Aquarius, is likely to stop oddsmakers from installing Alabama as at least a touchdown favorite over Notre Dame in the title game. But opposite a Fighting Irish defense that has shown no such vulnerability, there is obvious work to do during the layoff.
- The best postseason match outside of the championship game almost was the championship game: just a few weeks after being simultaneously bounced from the driver's seat in the BCS standings, 11-1 Oregon and 11-1 Kansas State will meet up in January after all, in the Fiesta Bowl. This game looks a lot like last year's Fiesta match, which was also a tortoise-and-hare affair between a strong runner-up in the Pac-12 (Stanford) and a Big 12 champion (Oklahoma State) that watched a shot at the national championship slip from its grasp in a late November upset on the road. If the Ducks and Wildcats put on a show anywhere near as good as Oklahoma State's back-and-forth, overtime win back on January 1, it should go down as an instant classic.
- Wisconsin didn't exactly arrive at the Big Ten Championship Game with the wind at its sails, having dropped three of its last four games in overtime, and only punched its ticket to Indianapolis in the first place because the first and second-place teams in the Leaders Division were both ineligible for the trip. But the 70-point, 640-yard slaughter the Badgers inflicted on Nebraska will endure among the grisliest and most inexplicable performances in B1G history. Earlier in the season, Wisconsin had managed just 295 yards (and just 56 on the ground) in a 30-27 loss to the same Cornhuskers, blowing a 17-point lead in the process. Saturday, the Badgers rushed for 539 and eight touchdowns on a comical 10.8 yards per carry, sending two backs (Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon) over 200 yards and a third (James White) over the century mark. The final totals more than doubled Nebraska's average yield for total offense and tripled its yield for scoring; on both counts, they very nearly matched Wisconsin's numbers in five previous games against ranked teams combined.
- Of the many coaching moves over the last week -– and many, many rumors surrounding them -– the most interesting may have been the not-so-abrupt resignation of longtime NFL hand Monte Kiffin from his son's staff at USC, where the elder Kiffin had served as defensive coordinator for the last three years. Despite his sterling reputation in the pros as the master of the "Tampa 2," the elder Kiffin never quite caught on to college spread attacks, which consistently left the Trojans in tatters: in just three years under Kiffin, USC allowed more 30-point games (13), 40-point games (5) and 500-yard games (8) than it did in its last eight years under former head coach Pete Carroll. Oregon's up-tempo wreaked absolute havoc on an annual basis, culminating in a 62-point, 630-yard outburst on November 3 that marked the worst defensive day in USC history.
OFI TOP 25
1. Notre Dame (12-0). Redshirt Everett Golson is the first freshman quarterback to lead his team into a national championship game since Michael Vick brought Virginia Tech to the brink in 1999, and would be the first to win it since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
2. Alabama (12-1). Three defending champions in BCS history have returned to the title game the following year (Florida State in 2000, Miami in 2002, USC in 2005), all as significant favorites to repeat. But Bama would be the first to actually pull it off.
3. Florida (11-1). Expectations in Gainesville are so high, it's easy to forget that the Gators' improvement over a 7-6 finish in 2011 ranks among the best turnarounds in the nation.
4. Oregon (11-1). All eleven Ducks wins came by at least 17 points, and all eleven could have been a lot worse.
5. Ohio State (12-0). Conflicted as ever over the borderline schedule, but Nebraska's untimely death in the B1G title game cost the Buckeyes any pretense of an "elite" win on the resumé.
6. Kansas State (11-1). Second-half surge against Texas sealed arguably the best season in school history, depending on what happens in the Fiesta Bowl.
7. Stanford (11-2). Cardinal rolled the dice on a late quarterback change down the stretch, and finished as Pac-12 champs with four consecutive wins over ranked teams behind redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan.
8. Georgia (11-2). The next four slots belong to a gaggle of two-loss SEC teams, in alphabetical order –- the least arbitrary way to distinguish them. Excluding games against one another, the top six teams in the SEC finished 54-0 against everyone else.
8. LSU (10-2). Incredibly, no tailback in Les Miles' tenure has rushed for 600 yards two years in a row. With 631 in essentially a half-season's worth of work as true freshman, here's guessing Jeremy Hill will break that streak a couple times over.
8. South Carolina (10-2). Want to give a quarterback nightmares? Remind him that predatory sophomore Jadeveon Clowney still has a lot of room for growth.
8. Texas A&M (10-2). By the way, redshirt quarterback Johnny Manziel is a couple days away from becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Just so you know.
12. Oklahoma (10-2). Sooners clinched a share of their eighth Big 12 title under Bob Stoops, but the BCS snub felt right for a team that never really hit its stride.
13. Florida State (11-2). Noles look dominant on paper, but if not for Clemson, their victim list wouldn't be much more impressive than Northern Illinois'.
14. Oregon State (9-3). Beavers completed the turn from 3-9 to 9-3 with a Hurricane Isaac-delayed rout over Nicholls State.
15. Clemson (10-2). If the Tigers are lucky, LSU will gorge itself on complementary sandwiches ahead of the most delicious bowl, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
16. Northern Illinois (12-1). At least the Huskies were excited about the Huskies going to the Orange Bowl.
17. Nebraska (10-3). Huskers' bid to the Capital One Bowl is appropriate, because the defense looks like it was just pillaged by a horde of vikings.
18. Louisville (10-2). Cardinals are in for a month of hearing they don't stand a chance against Florida, which is true, but with sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater coming back, the slightest glimmer of hope against the Gators will send their 2013 stock soaring.
19. Utah State (10-2). Aggies win this year's award for "Most Disproportionate Bowl Destination Relative to Performance," landing in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It's in Idaho, if you didn't catch that.
20. UCLA (9-4). Bruins came up short of the Pac-12 crown in Palo Alto, but have strong foundation to build on in redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley.
21. Texas (8-4). I promise you no Texas fan thinks the Longhorns deserve to be ranked anywhere, and they're probably right.
22. Kent State (11-2). On the bright side, Flashes, at least you narrowly missed hearing Kirk Herbstreit tear you a new one on national television.
23. Michigan (8-4). Three of the Wolverines' four losses came at the hands of the top three teams in the latest AP poll.
24. Northwestern (9-3). Wildcats are up against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Judging from the last time Northwestern played an SEC team on New Year's Day, it ought to be appointment viewing.
25. Penn State (8-4). After the last year, it's probably wrong to call the Lions a "feel good" story, but give them this: Most teams in their situation would have packed it in after an 0-2 start. They didn't.
- - -
In: Louisville, Penn State. Out: Oklahoma State, TCU.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
1. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama. Contrary to some of the postseason awards lists beginning to flood the market this week, Alabama's front five probably does not feature three of the best five individual offensive linemen in college football. But if there is an argument that it does, it was Saturday's stampede over a Georgia defense loaded with future draft picks, who were helpless to stop the Crimson Tide from piling up 357 yards rushing and a 15-minute edge in time of possession. After holding its ground for most of the first half, UGA gradually found itself in the position of a boulder being shoved down a hill. Beginning with 5:04 to play in the second quarter, five of Bama's final seven drives resulted in points (four touchdowns, one field goal), on which it ran a total of 25 plays for 303 yards. Of those 25 plays, 22 were carries by tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, all between the tackles, for upwards of 11 yards per carry. Most of the rest came on a 45-yard play-action bomb from A.J. McCarron to Amari Cooper for the decisive touchdown, a direct result of Georgia's desperation to stop the bleeding on the ground.
Warmack, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound guard, is one of two seniors among the front five, and has steadily pushed ahead of more-heralded line mate Barrett Jones this season as the surer bet on both All-America lists and draft boards, where he's now being projected as a top-20 pick next April.
2. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin. As the resident All-Big Ten pick up front, Wagner serves as the avatar for the group that left Nebraska's defense splattered all over Lucas Oil Stadium. If the team that showed up in Indy is the one that shows up against Stanford's first-rate run defense in Pasadena, the results will be seismic.
3. Eddie Lackey, LB, Baylor. Lackey racked up 15 tackles and returned an interception for the game's first touchdown in a 41-34 upset over Oklahoma State, making him the second Baylor defender to appear in this space in the last three weeks. (Cornerback Joe Williams took top honors a couple weeks back for picking off a pair of passes in the Bears' 52-24 ambush of top-ranked Kansas State.) In terms of yardage, the defense down the stretch has been flammable as ever, but the record has turned on takeaways: After finishing –11 in turnover margin over the course of a four-game losing streak, the Bears won four of their last five by finishing +10 over the final month.
4. Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, LBs, Georgia. Amid the larger struggles for the front seven, the Bulldogs' resident ballhawks both managed to turn in a handful of big plays. For Jones, the afternoon yielded three tackles for loss (including a pair of sacks) and a forced fumble, adding to his national leads in both categories; his counterpart, Ogletree, topped his team-high 11 tackles with a 55-yard sprint to the end zone off of a blocked field-goal attempt in the third quarter, briefly extending UGA's lead to 21-10. If only it had taken the Crimson Tide as long to score their final 22 points of the day as it had to score their first ten...
5. Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford. Reynolds has three interception returns for touchdowns this season and came up one yard shy of a fourth against UCLA, on a winding 80-yard return in the second quarter that instantly flipped the momentum of the Pac-12 Championship Game. Prior to the pick, the Bruins had put the ball in end zone on each of their first two possessions and were well on their way to extending a 14-7 lead. From that point, five of the Bruins' final eight possessions ended in punts, a sixth ended in a missed field goal from 52 yards out, and they only managed one more play that covered more than 20 yards.