Auburn wins SEC shootout, Michigan State prevents BCS controversy
Say this for the BCS era: Many of the controversies that seem to be possibilities during the season play themselves out by the end of the season.
The final week of the season began with the possibility of either Auburn or Ohio State being left out of the national championship game. A month ago, we had four undefeated teams with national championship aspirations, plus two undefeated outsiders vying for one spot in the BCS.
Saturday ended with only Florida State without a blemish on the record.
An unstoppable offense in the SEC and an uncrackable defense in the Big Ten on championship Saturday wrapped up a final BCS season without controversy.
But it also hinted at what the playoff selection committee may have to decide. Florida State vs. Auburn will be the championship pick, but which teams would fill out a four-team bracket in the 2014 system?
Thankfully, that debate is a year away.
Three and Out: College Football Championship Week Recap
Three Things We Learned from Auburn 59, Missouri 42
Gus Malzahn is already one of the nation’s elite coaches. Regardless of the outcome in the Big Ten that put Auburn in the title game, Malzahn in two seasons has already put himself into the discussion of one of the nation’s elite coaches. It’s tough not to make a big deal of the one-year turnaround Malzahn has had at Auburn. The Tigers went 0-8 in the SEC and were outgained by more than 200 yards per game in league games. Auburn averaged 235 yards in SEC games last season, a mark the Tigers exceeded in the first half against Missouri. And this was not a Mizzou team accustomed to giving up chunks of points. Missouri had been allowing 3.6 yards per carry this season and hadn’t allowed 28 points in a game all season. Auburn won the most unlikely of SEC championships, but Malzahn has been a part of three conference champions in four seasons. With one season at Arkansas State and one at Auburn, Malzahn’s ability to sustain a program will be the only remaining question, but many of the players who picked up nearly 700 yards on Missouri were recruited to play for Malzahn as an offensive coordinator.
Tre Mason may find his way to New York. Jameis Winston has all but sealed the Heisman Trophy, but Mason is a perfect example of why the unofficial field shouldn’t be set in October. Not that Mason should beat out Winston, but the Auburn tailback was nowhere to be found in the conversation entering Saturday. He wasn’t even a finalist for the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s top running back. Mason should be a contender for a host of postseason awards after rushing for 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. Missouri hadn’t even allowed 200 yards rushing to any team in a game this season. Over the course of the season, perhaps Mason and Nick Marshall are equally as responsible for the success of the Auburn offense. But Marshall’s SEC Championship Game breakout gave him an average of 156.9 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns in his last eight SEC games. While voters were reaching for Andre Williams and Ka’Deem Carey in recent weeks, maybe Mason was the running back they were seeking.
Special teams were Auburn’s secret weapon. This is still worth reiterating even after Chris Davis’ miracle missed field goal return to beat Alabama. No one would have confused the SEC Championship Game as one where field position was a key, but Auburn can do that, too. Auburn punter Steven Clark pinned Missouri inside its own 10-yard line three times, including twice in the second half. Chris Davis had 22-yard punt return, and Cody Parkey split his two field goal attempts outside of 50 yards. In a game where defensive stops were at a premium these little things made major difference.
Three Things We Learned From Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24
Michigan State’s defense comes up huge yet again. The unexpected is a major part of Mark Dantonio’s playbook with a handful of fake field goals and fake punts in his arsenal. In the fourth quarter against Ohio State, it was an onside kick. Michigan State failed to gain possession, but Dantonio can afford to take risks with this defense. The nation’s top defense proved it against Ohio State, especially in the second half. Thorpe Award finalist Darqueze Dennard shut down the passing game as Braxton Miller was 8 of 21 for 101 yards and a touchdown. After Ohio State blocked a punt, linebacker Denicos Allen stopped Miller on a run toward the sideline on fourth and 2 at the Spartans’ 39. The two-headed run game of Miller and Carlos Hyde had its moments, but Ohio State overall was 1 of 9 on third down.
Michigan State doesn't need to kick itself for Notre Dame loss. Auburn is the one-loss team heading to the national championship game rather than the team that actually knocked out Ohio State. The Big Ten schedule is a big reason for Michigan State missing a chance at the national championship game, but the Spartans’ 17-13 loss to an 8-4 Notre Dame is now the only blemish on the schedule. Michigan State was called for four critical pass interference calls in the game, but the Spartans also amassed only 135 passing yards and 119 rushing against the Irish on Sept. 21. Flash forward to Saturday, and Connor Cook completed 24 of 40 passes for 304 yards with three touchdowns and an interception against Ohio State. As much as Michigan State’s defense has been dominant all season, the Spartans’ offense has improved progressively during the season, helping Michigan State outscore nine Big Ten opponents by an average of 17.8 points per game. A year from now, Michigan State might be a good candidate for one of four playoff spots. Even in the current system, an undefeated Michigan State would have to answer for facing only one ranked team all year.
This isn’t a totally awful development for the Big Ten. The Big Ten lost a chance to play for the national title, and Michigan State may have gone to the Rose Bowl win or lose. In the end, though, this may end up being a net gain for the league. Ohio State likely would have gone to the BCS Championship Game as a major underdog to Florida State. Instead, the Buckeyes could face Clemson in the Orange Bowl while Michigan State faces Stanford in the Rose Bowl. No, it’s not the stage the Big Ten craves, but both teams will be evenly matched in their bowl games. And consider this: Before the season started, one narrative was that Ohio State and Michigan were poised to take a commanding lead in the league. The Wolverines’ struggles mean that won’t happen this year, but Michigan State isn’t going away.
Three Things We Learned from Oklahoma 33, Oklahoma State 24
Blake Bell redeemed himself in a wacky season. The Belldozer may as well be the name of a roller coaster in Norman. That’s the kind of season Blake Bell had. The junior was the assumed heir to Landry Jones at quarterback until the final weeks of training camp when Trevor Knight was named the opening day starter. Knight’s injury issues put Bell back into the starting job when he led the Sooners to a win at Notre Dame before a concussion gave the job back to Knight. Bell had been struggling enough this season to be the third guy in against Oklahoma State. With Knight out in the second half, Bob Stoops went to sophomore Kendal Thompson rather than Bell. The quarterback who had been passed over, though, was brilliant on the final drive. In a game in which every quarterback struggled, Bell got made the final statement, completing 5 of 8 passes for 57 yards with a beautiful touchdown pass to Jalen Saunders to win the game. Even if he made a risky throw in the direction of Thorpe Award finalist Justin Gilbert, who dropped a potential interception, Bell can once against claim the role of fan favorite.
How did Oklahoma win this game again? Take a look at those quarterback numbers for Oklahoma. First, one of the guys who threw a touchdown pass is the holder. The other entered the game third string. Oklahoma needed three quarterbacks to beat Oklahoma State, and none of them looked that great until the final drive. With an ineffective offense, the Sooners were in a position of desperation when holder Grant Bothun completed a touchdown pass to kicker Michael Hunnicutt on a fake field goal in the third quarter. A play earlier, a potential touchdown catch was erased on when defensive back Daytawion Lowe knocked the ball out of the hands of Brannon Green in the end zone. Before the final drive, Oklahoma’s scoring included a punt return for a touchdown, a fake field goal and two extended drives ending in field goals. The Sooners were a mere 2 of 15 on third down (but 3 of 3 on fourth) and were outgained on a per play basis 6.2 yards to 4.9. The Sooners got to their 10th win of the season in the way they got to a handful of their first nine: By winning ugly. Still, the Sooners won 10 games for the 12th time under Bob Stoops despite injuries in the front seven and to fullback Trey Millard and a rotating cast at quarterback.
Oklahoma State can’t get over Oklahoma. How did Oklahoma win? Well, the Cowboys helped. The tone was set on the first play of the game when Desmond Roland’s 75-yard touchdown run was called back on a holding call on wide receiver Charlie Moore. Moore dropped two more passes, including a third down pass in OU territory in the fourth quarter. Moore wasn’t alone as a the goat, though. Even though the Cowboys could move the ball on the ground, Clint Chelf struggled with accuracy until Oklahoma State’s fourth-quarter go-ahead drive. The Cowboys also went for a touchdown on fourth down from the Oklahoma 2 in the first quarter. Oklahoma stuffed it for the Sooners’ first red zone stop since the second game of the season. This era remains the best in Oklahoma State history, but the Cowboys remain under the thumb of their in-state rival.
Moving the Chains
Baylor. Maybe Baylor never was as good as the team that started 9-0 and averaged 61 points per game into mid-November. That shouldn’t diminish the season. Baylor won an outright Big 12 and reached the Fiesta Bowl, a remarkable feat. This is a program that won more than four games only once from 1996 to 2009, a bottom feeder for most of the existence of the Big 12. Baylor didn’t heat up until the second half against Texas, thanks in part to the return of safety Ahmad Dixon, who was suspended for the first half. When Baylor returned to form, the Bears made easy work of the Texas defense for 523 yards and 27 second-half points. With Robert Griffin’s Heisman in 2011, a Big 12 title in 2013 and a new stadium in 2014, Baylor looks like a program with staying power ... especially if Art Briles hangs around.
Kevin Hogan, Stanford. The Cardinal quarterback is rarely the first person mentioned on the Stanford offense. That usually goes to the offensive line or running back Tyler Gaffney. Hogan, though, finished the season on a hot streak, going 12 of 18 for 277 yards with a touchdown against Arizona State. Hogan hadn’t completed 60 percent of his passes in three consecutive games games before completing 66.1 percent of his passes in the final three games.
David Bailiff, Rice. No one will mistake Rice for a Conference USA power, but with the way the league has thinned during conference expansion, maybe the Owls can be a consistent winner. Rice defeated Marshall 41-23 for the C-USA title, the first league title of any kind since Rice won the Southwest Conference in 1957. Bailiff rarely gets much national notoriety, but he’s led Rice to two 10-win seasons. The Owls are in bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1960-61.
Texas. If this was indeed the final regular season game for Mack Brown at Texas, it wasn’t a great sendoff beyond the loss. Quarterback play was again the undoing for the Longhorns as Case McCoy was 12 of 34 for a mere 53 yards. McCoy escaped a rush for a highlight reel two-yard touchdown pass, but he also threw two interceptions against the Bears as Texas finished 3 of 17 on third down. No single game is the reason Brown may retire earlier that he’d like, but it’s hard not to look at this Baylor loss as emblematic of Texas’ recent years.
Arizona State. Most teams have difficulty cracking Stanford, but the Cardinal have been Arizona State’s nemesis this season. The Sun Devils fell behind 29-0 to Stanford in the first matchup. Home field advantage and a season’s worth of improvement was little help as the Sun Devils fell behind 28-7 in the first half in a 38-14 loss. The Sun Devils’ defense finally broke, allowing 517 yards and a season-high 8.3 yards per play.
Fresno State on fourth down. The Bulldogs won the Mountain West with a 24-17 win over Utah State, but they didn’t mind giving the Aggies chances. Fresno State 24-7 in the third quarter before surrendering 10 fourth-quarter points, but the Bulldogs twice failed to convert fourth down attempts. The last was an inexplicable fourth and 3 from inside the Utah State 30 when a field goal would have clinched the win. Fresno State needed an interception inside its own territory to end the Utah State threat.
BCS Championship: Florida State vs. Auburn
Rose: Stanford vs. Michigan State
Orange: Clemson vs. Ohio State
Sugar: Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Fiesta: UCF vs. Baylor
Quick Heisman projections
Jameis Winston, Florida State
AJ McCarron, Alabama
Tre Mason, Auburn
Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
Jameis Winston, Florida State. Winston finished this week with his off-field issues resolved and an above-average performance in the ACC title game. Winston was 19 of 32 for 320 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions against Duke. Despite a healthy 38-point lead, Jimbo Fisher kept his starters in the game into the fourth quarter.
Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois. Lynch was never going to overtake Winston for the lead, but he had done enough to look like a finalist. That looks less likely after championship week. Auburn’s Tre Mason and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller impressed in conference championship games as Northern Illinois lost 47-27 to Bowling Green in the MAC title game. Lynch was 21 of 40 for 219 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions and rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. In a field that has no certainties beyond Winston at No. 1, Lynch will probably land on plenty of ballots, but maybe not enough to get to New York.
7-1. UCF’s record in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Knights wrapped up their season like they played most games this season, on the razor’s edge. UCF needed two third-quarter touchdowns to beat SMU 17-13 before crowd that would generously be described as sparse. UCF is heading to the Fiesta Bowl as the American Athletic Conference champions, but the season included one-score wins over Memphis (3-8), Temple (2-10), USF (2-9) and SMU (5-6).
5. Teams to be win Big 12 titles in five seasons. The Big 12 has lost a championship game and four teams in the last three years, but it’s gained a bit of unpredictability. Baylor became the fifth team to win a Big 12 title in the last three seasons, joining Kansas State and Oklahoma in 2012 (K-State earned the BCS bid), Oklahoma State in 2011, Oklahoma in 2010 and Texas in 2009.
15. SEC Championship Games outscored by Auburn alone. Auburn set a number of SEC Championship Game records, including rushing yards and total offense, but it’s tough not to be most impressed with the scoring record. Auburn’s 59 points alone outscored 15 of the 21 SEC title games before Saturday.