OFI: The Virtue of Survival
by Matt Hinton
As number one teams go, the 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish are not the most inspiring frontrunners. True, they have the history, the "echoes," and the cachet that comes with waking them up after nearly two decades of irrelevance in the national polls. But of the five teams that have sat atop one of the major polls since August, the Irish are the one that doesn't exactly jump off the screen. The preseason frontrunner, USC, had an NFL-ready passing game powered by the most-hyped quarterback in the country and a pair of future first-rounders at receiver. The bellwether for most of the season, Alabama, had two national championships in the last three years and a steady pipeline of blue-chip recruiting classes backing up a succession of lopsided wins. Oregon has arguably the most relentless, prolific offense in the history of the sport. Kansas State had the Heisman frontrunner and a rags-to-riches story that easily trumped the restoration in South Bend. The Crimson Tide, Ducks, and Wildcats are all winning by upwards of 20 points per game, and all boast lopsided, start-to-finish blowouts over ranked opponents that left no doubt about their potential greatness.
Notre Dame has not been prone to such dominant displays: eleven games into the season, Alabama and Oregon are both winning games by more points on average than the Irish are scoring, period. Only three of ND's eleven wins have come by more than three touchdowns; on the other hand, five of the eleven have been decided by a touchdown or less, and two have gone to overtime. The offense ranks 73rd nationally in scoring and has failed to top 20 points five times. Almost no one who has watched the Irish on a regular basis this year –- especially those who watched them escape a triple-overtime upset bid from Pittsburgh on November 3, which required both a 14-point rally by the Irish in the fourth quarter and a conveniently missed field goal that would have won the game for Pitt in the second overtime –- has thought, "wow, this is a dominant team with a lot going for it."
After Saturday, what Notre Dame has going for it as the new standard bearer in college football is that it is the only contender that has managed to escape a spectacular, concentrated display of carnage at the top of the polls that instantly ranks among the bloodiest in the brief-but-extremely-bloody history of the Bowl Championship Series. In a span of eight days, all three frontrunners who appeared to be leaving the plodding Irish in the dust -– Alabama, Kansas State and Oregon -– have all bitten the dust themselves, all at the hands of double-digit underdogs. The scenario is exactly the same as the one that unfolded in 2011, when leading contenders Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Oregon were all upset within 24 hours of one another at the same point on the calendar, and still managed to catch everyone by surprise.
Like last year, the sudden wave of chaos opens the door for the SEC, and specifically for Alabama: The Crimson Tide only spent one week in the wilderness following their loss to Texas A&M, and will be back in the BCS Championship Game for the third time in four years with a win over Georgia for the SEC title. (At No. 3 in the latest standings, Georgia can punch its ticket with an upset over the Bama, making the SEC Championship on December 1 a de facto play-in game for the national championship.) Unlike last year, the purge has left a new, equally certain status quo in its wake: If they win their season finale Saturday at USC – against a reeling Trojan outfit that will be playing without its star quarterback – the Fighting Irish will be a sizable underdog against the SEC champion for the BCS crown on January 7. Which is no doubt how they would prefer it.
Then again, by now we should know that the only real certainty when it comes to the status quo in the BCS standings is constant un-certainty. But Notre Dame has broken every other assumption, so there is no reason standard issue chaos shouldn't succumb to Irish consistency, too.
OFI TOP 25
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1. Notre Dame (11-0). Not a better team than it was a week ago, but now with so much more at stake in the finale.
2. Alabama (10-1). By the way, you should feel free to put the next, oh, six or so teams here in any order you'd like.
3. Oregon (10-1). An overtime loss to a quality opponent isn't the end of the world, as Stanford well knows. But it might be the end of the Ducks' three-year reign over the Pac-12.
4. Florida (10-1). Gators are still wretched offensively, and still have the best trio of wins in the country over Texas A&M, LSU, and South Carolina.
5. Ohio State (11-0). Saturday's overtime escape at Wisconsin would have made colossal waves if the Buckeyes were eligible for the Big Ten or national titles, probably carrying them into No. 2 in the BCS standings. Ultimately I'm not sure the specter of NCAA sanctions hasn't forced voters to judge OSU's middling strength of schedule more accurately.
6. Georgia (10-1). This looks like a snub compared to the Bulldogs' standing in other polls, but aside from a sloppy win over Florida and a blowout loss at South Carolina -– which effectively cancel one another out -– the schedule is weak sauce. Take care of business in the SEC Championship Game, and it's an entirely different story.
7. Kansas State (10-1). Hard to imagine in August that the Wildcats would ever consider winning only the Big 12 title a disappointment, but that's not in the bag yet, either.
8. LSU (9-2). If Tigers had found their offense a little earlier, they'd be right in the mix for a return to the title game.
9. Texas A&M (9-2). Plenty of competition, but the Aggies can make a strong case for the SEC's second BCS bid if Florida goes down at Florida State.
10. Stanford (9-2). Cardinal have upsets this over teams ranked No. 1 (Oregon) and No. 2 (USC) at the time, took the current No. 1 team to overtime on the road, and control their own destiny for the Pac-12 title. But suddenly that random Thursday night loss at Washington stings more than ever.
11. Oklahoma (9-2). Not that any self-respecting Sooners fan could ever bring himself to root for Texas, but a Longhorns upset at Kansas State could deliver the Big 12 title to Norman.
12. Florida State (10-1). Noles' first ACC championship since 2005 is pretty much in the bag, but Saturday's visit from Florida is their big chance to make a national impression when it counts.
13. South Carolina (9-2). Gamecocks may win ten games for the second year in a row, a high-water mark in the history of the program, but the next step – a bid to a BCS bowl – remains just out of reach.
14. Clemson (10-1). State of the ACC: Saturday's blowout win over N.C. State was probably the Tigers' best of the season.
15. Oregon State (8-2). Beavers may be the most improved team in the country over 2011, and someone outside of the Pacific Northwest may finally notice if they upset Oregon.
16. UCLA (9-2). Whether it leads to a conference championship or not, Saturday's win was Bruins' biggest in at least 15 years.
17. Nebraska (9-2). Win over Iowa clinches a spot in the B1G title game, and Huskers fans who have seen Iowa over the past two months are already booking their rooms.
18. Texas (9-2). Win at K-State would put the exclamation point on an impressive rally out of a depressing October slump.
19. Oklahoma State (8-3). Cowboys flashed 2011 form in a 59-21 obliteration of Texas Tech.
20. Louisville (9-1). Cardinals are two wins away from completing one of the most milquetoast Orange Bowl runs in history.
21. Rutgers (9-1). Ditto the Scarlet Knights, although at least they have a verifiably rocking defense. The Big East title will come down to Louisville at Rutgers on Nov. 29.
22. Michigan (8-3). Backup quarterback Devin Gardner has breathed new life into a dormant passing game, and Ohio State still has to deal with Denard Robinson in the tailback/Wildcat role.
23. Arizona (7-4). A couple of the losses have been ugly, but on the whole Rich Rodriguez's offense has been a smash hit against arguably the toughest schedule in the country.
24. Washington (7-4). The best argument may come from the Huskies, who upset both Stanford and Oregon State and still find themselves as afterthoughts in the Pac-12 North.
25. Utah State (9-2). Aggies' overtime win at Louisiana Tech was the best game of the weekend no one saw, and put them in position this weekend to clinch their first outright conference championship since 1979.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
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1. Joe Williams, CB, Baylor. Statistically, Baylor entered the weekend as the worst defense in the nation, and proceeded to play like one of the best against the nation's No. 1 team. On the ground, Kansas State managed just 76 yards, barely a third of its season average, and Baylor's best effort against the run this season by far. With the game increasingly on his shoulders as the margin mounted, Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein was picked off three times in 50 attempts, matching his interception total over the first ten games combined. In those games, Klein was averaging just 20.8 passes, with a high of twenty-eight.
Two of the Bears' three interceptions belonged to Williams –- who also led the team with 11 tackles –- including a fourth-down pick in the end zone that slammed the door on a K-State comeback in the third quarter. Baylor's Lache Seastrunk went 80 yards for an icing touchdown on the next play, extending the lead to 52-24 and formally alerting the nation that all prevailing BCS assumptions had been rendered invalid.
2. John Simon, DE, and Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State. Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball went for 191 yards rushing and tied the NCAA record for career touchdowns, but could not stop Simon from racking up four sacks in a defensively-driven overtime win that put the Buckeyes within one victory of a 12-0 finish. With Simon wreaking havoc on the pass rush, Shazier cleaned up against the run, finishing with 12 total tackles (three for loss) and a forced fumble.
3. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford. As usual, I'm tempted to give the award to Stanford's entire defense, which held Oregon to fewer points Saturday night (14) than they'd scored in any game since the Ducks' 2009 opener at Boise State, Chip Kelly's first game as head coach. (Also remembered as the "LeGarrette Blount Punchout" game.) If anyone stood out for the Cardinal, it was Skov, who led the charge with ten total tackles, one coming behind the line of scrimmage. With that effort, Skov now leads the team in tackles for the season, one year after missing nearly all of 2011 with a season-ending knee injury.
4. Michael Clay, LB, Oregon. If not for the final score in overtime, Skov (and the Cardinal defense in general) may have been overshadowed by Clay, who was everywhere, finishing with 20 total tackles (10 solo, 10 assists) in the middle of a unit ravaged by injuries. It was the first time a Pac-10/12 player has been credited with 20 tackles in a game since 2008.
5. Khaseem Green, LB, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights held the highest-scoring offense in the Big East to a mere field goal in a 10-3 win at Cincinnati, the first time the Bearcats have been held out of the end zone since ... well, since the last time they played Rutgers, a 20-3 decision in 2011. Green led the Scarlet Knights in tackles in that game, and led them again on Saturday with eleven, adding two sacks for good measure.