by Matt Hinton
Auburn won Saturday in one of the greatest games ever staged in any sport, and you have to dig pretty deep to arrive at anything rational to say about it. What is there to add? It was a finish too astounding to be summed up by anything short of indiscriminate shouting on one side, and disbelieving silence on the other.
Boiled down, the individual ingredients of its greatness defy context. The decisive play, a coast-to-coast, 109-yard return of a missed field goal, is unprecedented in the history of college football and will almost certainly never happen again in our lifetimes. In the unfathomable case that it is, it will not be after the kicking team has successfully lobbied to have one second restored to the clock rather than concede to overtime. Nor will it be in a game with such high national stakes, between two devotedly despised rivals playing as top-five teams for the first time. Alabama, a universally acknowledged juggernaut boasting back-to-back BCS championships and overwhelming margins at the top of every major poll this season, finishes as the runner-up in its own division after blowing a lead in both the third and fourth quarters. Auburn, a team that went 0–8 in SEC play last year by an average margin of 24 points per game, will play for a conference title and (potentially) a shot at the national title. (Before the season, Football Outsiders projected the Tigers to finish dead last in the SEC West again, and we weren't alone.) Even on paper, Alabama looked like the double-digit favorite that it was, outgaining the Tigers by 102 yards of total offense without a turnover. It's kind of difficult to apply rational analysis to the kind of game in which discovering cremated human remains on the field the following day is not all that surprising.
Once you get past all that – if you get past all that, and a significant percentage of people who witnessed it never will – the final score only followed a familiar, predictable pattern in one respect: Auburn's zone-read attack ran more effectively on the Crimson Tide than any opposing offense in the Nick Saban/Death Star era. Not that the bar was set very high. Since Saban's second season at Bama, 2008, his defense has only allowed 200 yards on the ground on two other occasions, in down-to-the-wire slugfests against LSU in 2008 and 2010, the latter case involving big gains for the Tigers on a fake field goal and a tight end reverse. But no one, not even Cam Newton, has been able to run right at Alabama with anywhere near the success of quarterback Nick Marshall and workhorse Tre Mason, who combined for 263 yards and two touchdowns on 5.7 per carry, with each breaking a 40-yard gain. (Coming into the game, Alabama had only allowed two 40-yard runs in the last two seasons combined.) On the crucial, game-tying drive that preceded Alabama's ill-fated "Kick Six," Mason carried on six consecutive plays, including a pair of five-yard plunges to move the chains on 3rd-and-2; on the seventh play, Bama was so preoccupied with Mason between the tackles and Marshall on the edge that it left Sammie Coates all by himself for the easiest touchdown catch of his career on a first-down option pass. On their first three scoring drives, the Tigers racked up a run-pass ratio of 18 to five.
That's at the expense of a defense that, according to the S&P+ rankings, began the day ranked second nationally against the run, fourth on standard downs and first in both overall defense and drive efficiency. Against largely the same defense in 2012, largely the same offense committed three turnovers and crossed midfield just once in a 49–0 humiliation that marked the end for its head coach. (Gene Chizik was reduced to ashes in the Iron Bowl, too.) One year and two classic, outrageous finishes later, Gus Malzahn has turned a doormat into the most entertaining team in college football, and quite possibly the best.
- Thrilling as it was, Alabama's fall from No. 1 leaves the SEC without one of the top two teams in the BCS standings heading into the final weekend of the season, which has SEC partisans sweating the end of the conference's seven-year reign in the BCS championship game. For those who subscribe the superiority complex, the notion of excluding the SEC from the national title game is an unconscionable breach of tradition and good sense: As Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs argued on Sunday, "it would be un-American" if the winner of this weekend's SEC championship game between Auburn and Missouri fails to make the cut. For the less imperial-minded, the streak's survival depends less on what happens in Atlanta than what happens in Indianapolis, where No. 2 Ohio State aims to punch its championship ticket against Michigan State.
Given the Buckeyes' narrow escape from Ann Arbor Saturday in a one-point win over Michigan, that's hardly a foregone conclusion. (After a month-long hibernation offensively, the Wolverines awoke to rip OSU for 41 points on 603 total yards, and had a chance to go ahead on a two-point conversion in the final minute.) Where the BCS is concerned, though, Ohio State remains solidly ahead of Auburn and Missouri in both human polls and five of six computer polls. True, the margin between the Buckeyes at No. 2 and Auburn at No. 3 is close (just .027 points on a 1.000 scale), and Mizzou is certain to surge from No. 5 if it carries the day. But what incentive will voters have to move a one-loss Auburn or Mizzou ahead of undefeated OSU on Saturday night that they didn't have last Saturday night? The win at Michigan was Ohio State's most harrowing to date; meanwhile, whatever it looks like, a win over a surging Michigan State outfit for the Big Ten title will go down as the most impressive. How wide does the margin have to be in Atlanta to overcome that? Certainly wider than the oddsmakers are expecting.
- Theoretically, SEC types rooting for Michigan State to topple the Buckeyes will also be rooting for a flop by No. 1 Florida State against Duke, which would also free up a seat in Pasadena for the Auburn-Missouri winner. (If FSU and Ohio State both lose, we're back to an all-SEC championship between the triumphant set of Tigers and Alabama. Of course Alabama.) But no combination of regional pride, hubris and self-deluding optimism is enough to make a Duke upset in Charlotte seem like a remote possibility. The Blue Devils are in the midst of their best season in 50 years, having just secured a school-record tenth win Saturday at North Carolina. But none of those wins have come at the expense of a currently ranked team, and Florida State is obliterating opponents by an average of 42 points per game. (In that context, Saturday's 37–7 romp over Florida qualifies as a nail-biter.) Early lines have the Seminoles as 29-point favorites, and given the gaping chasm in talent levels, it will take Duke's best game in decades to keep the margin to half that.
- Meanwhile, in Gainesville: Florida moved quickly Sunday to announce the termination of its offensive coordinator, Brent Pease, whose offense generated fewer yards and points per game this season than any attack in the SEC. In his defense, Pease was working for most of the season without his starting quarterback (Jeff Driskel), his top tailback (Matt Jones), his most experienced receiver (Andre Debose) and his starting left tackle (Chaz Green), all victims of season-ending injuries before midseason; by the end, he was forced to start a pedestrian third-stringer at quarterback, Skyler Mornhinweg, after top backup Tyler Murphy was injured, too. At that point, though, Florida was already well into a seven-game losing streak that covered the final two months of the season, in which time the Gators failed to top 20 points in any game. As usual, a premeditated staff purge (offensive line coach Tim Davis was also given the boot) ultimately says less about the guys being let go than it does about the guy who stays – in this case, head coach Will Muschamp, who has just overseen consecutive losses to Georgia, Vanderbilt, Georgia Southern and Florida State en route to Florida's first losing season since 1979. Ritual sacrifices may buy him one year, but no more.
- The first head coach to get the axe on the heels of a disappointing finish was Wyoming's Dave Christensen, fired Sunday after five most unremarkable seasons in Casper. Despite his middling record, the indisputable low point of Casper's tenure came at the end of a 2012 loss to Air Force, when Christensen went viral for unleashing a ridiculous, profanity-laced tirade against academy head coach Troy Calhoun on "Military Appreciation Night," for reasons no one was quite able to grasp. (Lowlights included referring to Calhoun as "Mr. F-----g Howdy Doody" and "fly boy.") The Cowboys finished this season 5–7 with five losses in their last six, including lopsided routs at the hands of Colorado State, Fresno State, Boise State and Utah State.
- Coming off the worst performance of his career at LSU, Johnny Manziel struggled again Saturday at Missouri, accounting for a career-low in total offense (216 yards) for a full start and a single touchdown in a 28–21 loss for Texas A&M. Although they remain ranked in both major polls, the Aggies are sputtering to the finish line looking like a team out of gas: After putting up at least 40 points in each of the first ten games – including 42 against Alabama – the offense managed a grand total of 31 in Baton Rouge and Columbia, and finishes 0–4 against ranked opponents. If Manziel decides his campus days are over, A&M's window as a viable SEC contender may be, as well.
DAVID CUTCLIFFE, Duke. You don't have to give the Devils a prayer against Florida State to acknowledge the miracle Cutcliffe has worked at one of the hopeless, apathetic programs in the country. Not only is Duke bound for back-to-back bowl games for the first time ever: With Saturday's upset over North Carolina, it has as many wins in 2013 alone (10) as it managed in eight entire seasons prior to Cutcliffe's arrival.
TYLER GAFFNEY • RB, Stanford. Gaffney didn't play at all in 2012, taking off to play minor league baseball. When he returned last summer as a fifth-year senior, he was considered an afterthought in a rotation that could go four of five backs deep. Instead, he carried the load for the Cardinal all year, averaging 124 yards on 24 carries per game, capped by Saturday's 33-carry, 189-yard slog against Notre Dame in a 27–20 Stanford win. For the season, Gaffney accounted for nearly 60 percent of the team's 2,502 yards on the ground and 17 of 25 touchdowns, and with two games to go is well within striking distance of Toby Gerhart's single-season rushing record.
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SOUTHERN MISS and HAWAII. The Golden Eagles and Warriors both won Saturday for the first time this year, avoiding the ignominy of a winless season with victories over Alabama-Birmingham and Army, respectively. For Southern Miss, an out-of-nowhere, 62–27 blowout over UAB marked the end of a two-year, 23-game skid, sparked by a 49-point second half. In their first eleven games, the Eagles' season high was 23 points against Florida International.
ALABAMA'S KICKING GAME. According to our F/+ rankings, Bama has spent virtually all season ranked No. 1 nationally in special teams, which makes its wholesale collapse at Auburn even more inexplicable. For the game, the Crimson Tide finished 0-for-4 on field goals, including three misses in the fourth quarter alone, any one of which would have preserved the win and presumptive shot at a third consecutive BCS title. (The final miss, of course, sealed the defeat, apparently because members of the field goal team were unaware a miss could be returned.) Coaches had grown so cold on Cade Foster after his second miss that they passed up a chip shot to extend the lead to 10 points with 5:34 to play, opting to go for it instead on 4th-and-1 from the Auburn 13-yard line. The conversion failed, Foster recorded his third miss on the Tide's next possession, and when he needed a 57-yarder to win, Saban turned to seldom-used Adam Griffith. The rest is history.
FRESNO STATE'S DEFENSE. The Bulldogs lost an undefeated season and a potential BCS bid Friday in a wild, 62–52 shootout against San Jose State, a game that featured a dozen touchdown passes by quarterbacks Derek Carr and David Fales in the first half alone. Both teams combined for 1,382 yards of total offense, and Fresno forced a single punt in what may turn out to be a multimillion-dollar defeat.
BO PELINI'S BARELY CONCEALED RAGE. Pelini has never been known for his approachable demeanor, but he was unhinged in Friday's 38–17 loss to Iowa, at various points unleashing his frustration on a sideline reporter, on officials and finally on a roomful of press in his post-game press conference, where he criticized the media for making his job status a season-long distraction and concluded, "If they want to fire me, go ahead." Given his record in Lincoln – six consecutive season with exactly four losses and no championships – and his previous meltdowns, no one would have blamed his bosses if they'd taken Pelini up on his offer. Instead, they issued statements of support on Sunday, guaranteeing that their l'enfant terrible will be in charge through the bowl game and almost certainly beyond.
OFI TOP 25
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1. FLORIDA STATE (12–0).
2. OHIO STATE (12–0).
3. AUBURN (11–1).
4. ALABAMA (11–1).
5. MISSOURI (11–1).
6. OKLAHOMA STATE (10–1).
7. BAYLOR (10–1).
8. STANFORD (10–2).
9. ARIZONA STATE (10–2).
10. OREGON (10–2).
11. MICHIGAN STATE (11–1).
12. SOUTH CAROLINA (10–2).
13. CLEMSON (10–2).
14. UCLA (9–3).
15. LSU (9–3).
16. WISCONSIN (9–3).
17. OKLAHOMA (9–2).
18. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (12–0).
19. CENTRAL FLORIDA (10–1).
20. LOUISVILLE (10–1).
21. DUKE (10–2).
22. WASHINGTON (8–4).
23. USC (9–4).
24. GEORGIA (8–4).
25. TEXAS (8–3).
– – –
In: Washington, Georgia, Texas.
Out: Fresno State, Texas A&M, Notre Dame.
Waiting: Texas A&M, Notre Dame, BYU, Iowa, Miami.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
1. OHIO STATE'S OFFENSIVE LINE
Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde cemented their status as the best running backs in the Big Ten, but the success of the Buckeyes' ground game in Ann Arbor began up front, with Jack Mewhort, Darryl Baldwin, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Taylor Decker paving the way for 393 yards rushing on 8.5 per carry. Before Saturday, no opposing offense had rushed for more than 168 yards against the Wolverines, and only Notre Dame (5.1) and Indiana (4.9) had averaged four yards per carry.
2. KENDALL FULLER • CB, Virginia Tech
A blue-chip recruit, Fuller has lived up to the hype, emerging from the shadow of his older brother, Kyle, to become one of the most reliable cover corners in the nation as a true freshman. Saturday, the younger Fuller recorded eight tackles, a sack, an interception and four passes broken up in the Hokies' win over Virginia, moving him into the ACC lead for passes defended on the season. As a team, the Cavaliers managed a single reception over 20 yards and did not score a touchdown.
3. JACKSON JEFFCOAT and CEDRIC REED • DE, Texas
Manning opposite ends of the defensive line, Jeffcoat and Reed converged on Texas Tech quarterbacks for five sacks and six QB hurries between them, ultimately racking up 17 total tackles (including seven for loss) in a 41–16 win for the Longhorns. Altogether, Texas racked up nine sacks and held the Red Raiders to a season-low 16 points.
4. DAMARIOUS RANDALL • S, Arizona State
A juco transfer who didn't make his first start until midseason, Randall came into his own against Arizona, finishing with a team-high 12 tackles (one for loss), a forced fumble and a 64-yard interception returned for a touchdown in a 58–21 blowout. As a team, the Devils forced four turnovers for the fifth time this season, leaving them with a conference-best 30 takeaways.
5. KELCY QUARLES • DT, South Carolina
Although a certain hyped lineman came through with one of his best games of the year against Clemson, Quarles was the driving force in the middle of the defensive line, dropping Tiger QB Tajh Boyd three times in a 31–17 win for the Gameocks. In three starts against the Gamecocks, Boyd has been sacked 16 times and Clemson has averaged just 15.6 points in three consecutive defeats.
Honorable Mention: Tennessee DE Corey Miller had a hand in five sacks and a forced fumble in the Volunteers' win over Kentucky. … Georgia Tech LB Jeremiah Attaochu finished with eight total tackles and four sacks in the Yellow Jackets' double-overtime loss at Georgia. … Michigan State LB Denicos Allen was credited with href="http://www.msuspartans.com/sports/m-footbl/stats/2013-2014/minn-msu.html#GAME.DEF">13 total tackles, one sack and three QB hurries in the Spartans' latest defensive romp. … And UCLA LB Anthony Barr padded his All-America credentials with two sacks and a forced fumble in the Bruins' win over USC.