by Matt Hinton
For the record, any rumors of the SEC's demise as the most fearsome, grueling conference in college football have been greatly exaggerated. At the very least, it's still the most celebrated: when the latest edition of the Bowl Championship Series standings arrived on Sunday night, it featured six SEC teams in the top ten, all six of them ranked in succession in slots four through nine. In the wake of Texas A&M's earth-shaking 29-24 upset over No. 1 Alabama, though, the conference's powerful presence in the polls at large was dwarfed by its sudden absence at the top. After six consecutive seasons defined by an SEC team hoisting the crystal ball in the BCS Championship Game -– and six consecutive offseasons of being constantly reminded of it –- the rest of the country has A&M to thank for finally slaying the beast. In their first season in the league, the Aggies are like foreign bodies that have begun cannibalizing the host.
With three weeks to go in the regular season, nothing is certain. But for the three undefeated outfits now occupying the top three spots in the BCS and the other relevant polls -– Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame -– there is a golden opportunity that has rarely existed over the course of the SEC's reign. Since the start of the 2007 season, there have been 45 editions of the BCS standings. Of that number, the most recent edition is only the sixth in five-and-a-half years that does not include an SEC team ranked No. 1 or No. 2. It's the first to exclude an SEC team from the top two spots since the initial set of rankings in 2010, a run of 19 consecutive weeks. Prior to that, the streak stood at 17 consecutive weeks since the final edition of 2007. Since the start of the 2009 season, SEC teams have occupied the first and second slots 14 times. At one point last November, the top three spots were occupied by the SEC West alone.
And yet: when Nick Saban insisted after the loss that "there's still a lot for this team to play for" down the stretch, he knows from whence he speaks. Two of the three teams Saban has led to BCS championships –- LSU in 2003, Alabama in 2011 -– won the title with a loss on their resumé. At this point last year, still sporting a fresh wound from its overtime loss in a winner-take-all "Game of the Century" showdown with LSU, the eventual champs were ranked behind both LSU and Oklahoma State in the BCS standings. They were also on the verge of being jumped by one-loss Oregon and/or Oklahoma if the Ducks or Sooners won out and claimed their respective conference championships –- an avenue closed to the Tide by virtue of the head-to-head loss with LSU. By the end of the month, Oklahoma State, Oregon, and Oklahoma had all been felled by double-digit underdogs (all on the same weekend, in fact), and Alabama was back in the driver's seat at No. 2. And we've seen the BCS standings take even stranger turns than that.
Of course, that team needed help to overcome its stumble, and this team will need help. Unlike the 2011 champs, though, the 2012 Tide will have an additional chance to help themselves in the SEC Championship Game, where they'll get the winner of the East Division, Georgia, in what could conceivably amount to a play-in for the BCS Championship Game. For the moment, the question is out of Alabama's hands –- and the SEC's -– in favor of the teams that can still claim perfection. But we don't have to look far to understand, at this time of year, just how fleeting those moments can be.
- Johnny Manziel had made enough of a name for himself before Saturday to qualify as a revelation against the Crimson Tide –- this is the same guy who broke the SEC record for total yards in a game twice in 14 days -– but if there was any lingering doubt about his place among the nation's elite quarterbacks as a redshirt freshman, consider it erased. One week after LSU gave the vaunted Bama defense all it could handle in Baton Rouge, Manziel saw the Tigers' effort and raised them, racking up 345 total yards and two touchdowns on 24-of-31 passing, without a turnover. His efficiency rating, 167.3, was the highest by any passer against Alabama since Cam Newton in 2010; the Aggies' 29 points are the most Bama has allowed since Utah scored 31 in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, at the end of Saban's second season. Go ahead and get used to this face, America.
- You may also want to acquaint yourself with the hotshot freshman quarterback at Oregon, Marcus Mariota, whose 377-yard, six-touchdown effort at Cal was a perfect example of the Ducks' tendency to let inferior opponents hang around for a few quarters before attacking in force, like a pack of sharks getting a whiff of fresh blood. On Saturday night, for example, Oregon led the Golden Bears just 24-17 midway through the third quarter, with half its starting defense sidelined by injury and the home crowd beginning to sense a little wind at their team's back following a touchdown on Cal's first possession of the second half. Then the Bears made a mistake, an interception from the arm of backup quarterback Allan Bridgford, and the Ducks swarmed: in a span of ten minutes, Oregon ripped off four consecutive touchdowns, extended the lead from seven points to thirty-five, and retired the rest of their starters to their usual seats on the bench for the bulk of the fourth quarter. In that window alone, Mariota was 8-of-9 passing for 152 yards and four touchdowns, and ended the night as the most efficient passer in the nation.
- No team has clinched a conference championship, but two teams did reserve tickets for their respective conference championship games –- Georgia in the SEC and Wisconsin in the Big Ten -– in lopsided blowouts over Auburn and Indiana. In Wisconsin's case, it was something of a foregone conclusion: given that division rivals Ohio State and Penn State are both ineligible for the B1G championship due to NCAA sanctions, the Badgers could conceivably lose to the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions in their final two games and still play for the title despite finishing in third place. After setting a school record Saturday with 564 yards rushing against the Hoosiers, though, it's safe to say they're not just going through the motions.
- Contrary to some reports after Saturday's quadruple-overtime loss to Missouri, Derek Dooley has not been fired as the head coach at Tennessee, although that hasn't stopped the locals from openly speculating about his successor. The only real question at this point is when the axe will fall: the latest disappointment was the Volunteers' 13th loss in their last 14 conference games, and their seventh in a row dating back to last year. Incredibly, UT is still alive for a .500 season and a bowl game if it finishes with back-to-back wins over traditional whipping boys Vanderbilt and Kentucky, but the fact that those games are no longer considered automatic victories in Dooley's third season is every bit as damning as the losses themselves.
- In one of the stranger stories of the season, Washington State's all-time receiving leader, Marquess Wilson, wrote an open letter to Cougar fans in which he explained his abrupt departure from the team last week as a result of "physical, emotional and verbal abuse" at the hands of first-year coach Mike Leach. (Wilson didn't go into specifics, but both the university and the Pac-12 have pledged to investigate his claim.) Leach, of course, was infamously fired from his last job, at Texas Tech, over murky claims that he had mistreated a Red Raiders player suffering from a concussion, whose father happened to be former SMU/New England Patriots running back turned broadcaster turned aspiring politician Craig James. Over time, public opinion has largely swung in Leach's favor in that case, in no small part because of the very low opinion of James, who intentionally manipulated media coverage of the incident –- especially by his then-employer, ESPN –- in a concerted effort to get Leach fired. This time, aside from the Cougars' abysmal record, there are no conclusions to draw yet from Leach's first season at Washington State. But whether or not there is a second season may hinge on the fallout from Wilson's letter.
OFI TOP 25
1. Kansas State (10-0). After three straight games over 40 points, the Wildcats turned in a humdrum, 23-10 win at TCU, which just happens to be coach Bill Snyder's favorite kind.
2. Oregon (10-0). Ducks are badly banged up on defense with the Pac-12 North on the line Saturday against Stanford.
3. Notre Dame (10-0). Irish can't jump either of the top two at this point, but they're in business if the Ducks or the Wildcats stumble.
4. Alabama (9-1). Just a few weeks ago people were so bored by Bama's week-in, week-out dominance that they were openly speculating about the Tide's chances of beating the Jacksonville Jaguars.
5. Florida (9-1). Gators looked terrible on offense (again) in an embarrassingly narrow escape against Louisiana-Lafayette, but victories over Texas A&M, LSU, and South Carolina still cannot be denied.
6. Georgia (9-1). OFI is still skeptical of a conference schedule that conveniently omits West Division heavies Alabama, A&M, and LSU, but Bulldogs have earned the opportunity to bury all doubts in Atlanta.
7. LSU (7-2). Tigers continued their offensive awakening with a convincing rout over Mississippi State.
8. Texas A&M (7-2). Welcome to the big, bad SEC, Aggies, hope you make it out in one piece.
9. Ohio State (10-0). Buckeyes took the week off to ramp up for their biggest tests of the season, Wisconsin and Michigan.
10. Florida State (9-1). Skeptical BCS computers are still standing between the Noles and a dark horse title run.
11. South Carolina (8-2). Gamecocks are well on their way to the best three-year run in school history, but still waiting on the big breakthrough.
12. Stanford (8-2). First-rate front seven is reminiscent of the few that have given Oregon trouble in the past.
13. Oklahoma (8-2). Sooners are quietly cruising toward an at-large BCS bid.
14. Clemson (9-1). Tigers are explosive on offense, sure, but the lame ACC schedule is doing them no favors.
15. Oregon State (7-2). Beavers reduced to the spoiler role against Oregon after fumbling away their shot at the division title against Stanford.
16. UCLA (8-2). After Oregon, Bruins may be the hottest team in the Pac-12.
17. Nebraska (8-2). Huskers are still on top of the B1G's Legends Division after another come-from-behind win over Penn State, but there is no margin of error over Michigan.
18. Texas (8-2). Longhorns back to looking more like their confident September selves after a dismal October.
19. Texas Tech (7-3). Red Raiders escaped an upset bid from Kansas, but coach Tommy Tuberville isn't in the clear just yet.
20. Oklahoma State (7-3). Cowboys have been forced to start three different quarterbacks due to injuries, and still rank among the top four nationally in total, scoring and passing offense.
21. Louisville (9-1). Lopsided loss at Syracuse is humbling, but changes nothing in the Cardinals' pursuit of the Big East championship or a BCS bid.
22. Arizona (6-4). Wildcats' schedule may be the toughest in the country.
23. USC (7-3). Trojans may be the most disappointing team in college football, but they can still wrap up the Pac-12 South Saturday at UCLA.
24. Michigan (7-3). Quarterback issues notwithstanding, the Wolverines are one Nebraska stumble away from the lead in the Leaders Division.
25. Rutgers (8-1). Big East title likely comes down to Louisville's visit on November 29.
- - -
In: Michigan, Rutgers. Out: TCU, West Virginia.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
1. Meshak Williams, DE, Kansas State. The Wildcats' pass-rush specialist played a full-time role in the near-shutout at TCU, tying for the team lead in tackles (seven) with a pair of sacks and a pass broken up for good measure. The Horned Frogs offense came into the weekend averaging just shy of 34 points per game, but managed to cross midfield just once in the first three quarters against K-State and did not score until the game was well out of hand in the fourth.
2. Rob Lohr, DT, and Walker May, DE, Vanderbilt. The veteran anchors of Vandy's front four combined for 11 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks in a down-to-the-wire 27-26 win over Ole Miss, securing the Commodores' sixth win of the season and likely the first back-to-back bowl bids in school history. Including sacks, the Rebels finished with just 55 yards on the ground, on a long gain of eleven.
3. Deshazor Everett, CB, Texas A&M. Everett turned in arguably the play of the season for the Aggies, picking off Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron's last-gasp, fourth-down attempt at the goal line to seal the upset. In fact, he nearly sealed it twice: just a few minutes earlier, with A&M leading 29-17 and Alabama in must-score mode, Everett came down with an apparent interception along the sideline that was (correctly) ruled incomplete when his left heel landed (barely) out of bounds. If it at first you don't succeed...
4. Jelani Jenkins, LB, Florida. Jenkins led the team with seven tackles, but more importantly saved the Gators the ignominy of going to overtime against UL-Lafayette by returning a blocked punt for the game-winning touchdown with two seconds to play.