This is not a sentiment often noted with the BCS: Good thing the championship game is more than a month away.
Otherwise, good luck topping the game of the year in Atlanta. Every play and every decision was magnified in the SEC Championship Game. Every time a running back fought for an extra yard (and it happened a lot) a national championship seemed it was at stake.
The championship bout in Atlanta ended with Nick Saban relieved, it seemed, and Mark Richt frustrated.
The SEC title game wasn’t the only one with drama. Other than the Big Ten championship game, every conference title game was closely contested. Even non-title games with championship implications -- Louisville over Rutgers on Thursday, Oklahoma over TCU -- came down to the final minutes.
WEEK 14 RECAP: THREE AND OUT
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM ALABAMA 32, GEORGIA 28
A classic national championship game is in the making. Alabama’s Eddie Lacy (181 yards, two touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (153 yards, one touchdown) were interchangeable in their ability to slice through and punish the Georgia defense. Now, both will run into Notre Dame’s likely Heisman finalist Manti Te’o and the No. 5 rush defense. Beyond the backs vs. the linebacker, the battle will be just as fascinating in the trenches. The Alabama offensive line took control in the second half against Georgia. It will have to do the same against tackle Stephon Tuitt and the Irish front. And if Georgia proved anything, it’s that Alabama’s run defense may be vulnerable, too.
Amari Cooper may be the difference maker again on Jan. 7. It may be too much to call Alabama’s leading receiver a secret weapon, but he seemed to be that against Georgia. The first sign was a 44-yard grab on first down contested by Georgia’s star safety Bacarri Rambo in the first quarter. The second sign was the game-winning touchdown. After Alabama went almost exclusively to the run game, the Tide stunned Georgia’s defense with a play-action pass on first down for a 45-yarder to Yeldon for the game-winning touchdown. Other than Oklahoma, Miami and USC (minus Matt Barkley), Notre Dame hasn’t played many consistent passing threats.
Second guessing is easy. The most second-guessed decision in the SEC Championship Game will be Georgia’s decision to run a play from the Alabama 8-yard line in the final seconds rather than spiking the ball to stop the clock. The decision set off a series of unfortuntate events for Georgia: Alabama’s C.J. Mosley tipped Aaron Murray’s pass at the line, and a reserve receiver caught the pass in bounds as time expired. Georgia coaches will hear about that decision for years to come, but before that, Nick Saban was second-guessed, too. Alabama elected to go for a two-point conversion with 4:19 to go in the third quarter. The extra two points meant Georgia couldn’t settle for a field goal, setting in motion the costly blunder at the end of the game. Then again, the game may not have been as dramatic if not for Saban’s timeout blunder at the end of his first half, a mishap that resulted in a 22-yard field goal as time expired. The takeaway: The margin was razor-thin in Atlanta.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM STANFORD 27, UCLA 24
This is only the beginning for both teams. Stanford will head to the Rose Bowl after scoring 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against UCLA, but both programs can expect to remain among the leaders of the Pac-12 for years to come. Both lose their star running backs -- Johnathan Franklin and Stepfan Taylor -- but reached the title game with redshirt freshman quarterbacks. Stanford’s mobile and composed Kevin Hogan defeated the Oregon schools and UCLA twice in his first four career starts, and he should be behind one of the Pac-12’s best offensive lines for years to come. Stanford’s major defensive losses are huge in linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas, but the Cardinal have most of the defense intact for 2013. UCLA is in good shape, too, with Hundley’s dynamic talent reversing field on the Bruins’ quarterback woes. The Bruins had a young offensive line this season and look to return linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt on defense. USC’s doing some soul-searching after a disappointing season, and the NFL may be able to lure Chip Kelly from Oregon. That leaves the door open for UCLA and Stanford to take over.
UCLA learned something from the first meeting. Whether or not UCLA put in full effort in last week’s meeting with Stanford, the Bruins adjusted to Stanford’s defense in the rematch. The Cardinal never allowed a team to rush for 200 yards in a game all season and held eight (including UCLA the first time around) to fewer than 100. But with the Rose Bowl on the line, UCLA rushed for 284 yards against Stanford. The Bruins ran away from the aggressive Stanford defense, enabling Johnathan Franklin to rush for 194 yards and two touchdowns (he ran for 65 a week earlier). Hundley had twice as many carries as he did in the first meeting, rushing for 83 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts.
Stanford is in rare company. Making three consecutive BCS games isn’t all that uncommon. Eight teams have done so, but it’s still jarring to list Stanford in a cast of college football powers that includes USC, Ohio State, Oregon, Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami and Wisconsin considering Stanford never went to the postseason from 2002-08. With Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, however, Stanford is one of two to make its run despite a coaching change. Butch Davis and Larry Coker combined for four consecutive BCS bids at Miami.
MOVING THE CHAINS
Oklahoma in the clutch. No one can say the Sooners didn’t earn a share of the Big 12 title. The Sooners finished the season winning four consecutive one-score games, including the last three going down to the wire. Unlike the West Virginia and Oklahoma State games, though, the Sooners’ 24-17 win over TCU ended on a defensive stand. After Oklahoma missed field goal that knuckled wide left, TCU drove to the Oklahoma 12-yard line. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin had a touchdown run called back on a hold and then failed to convert on a pass into the end zone from the 15 to seal the Sooners’ win.
Wisconsin. At least if Wisconsin is going to be the first five-loss team to play in the Rose Bowl, the Badgers will take a 70-point effort to Pasadena. Montee Ball and freshman Melvin Gordon both topped 200 yards for Wisconsin’s 539 rushing yards in the 70-31 win over Nebraska. True, the Cornhuskers are one of only two teams with winning records Wisconsin defeated this season (Utah State was the other), but Wisconsin’s five losses came either by a field goal or in overtime or both. The Badgers bring an 8-5 record to the Rose Bowl, but also enough game film to concern Stanford.
Lache Seastrunk, Baylor. An Art Briles offense centered around a running back may be a strange sight, but the Baylor coach will have the personnel suited for it next season with quarterback Nick Florence gone. The Oregon transfer Seastrunk rushed for 178 yards in the 41-34 win over Oklahoma State, giving him 693 yards and five touchdowns in the final five games. The most remarkable feat, though, was his 76-yard touchdown run in which he pulled up with a quadricep injury -- more than 40 yards short of the goal line.
Nebraska’s defense. The Cornhuskers used to be renowned for their defense, right? Bo Pelini is a defensive-minded coach, right? Then explain what happened in Indianapolis. By the time Wisconsin asked running back James White to take a direct snap at the goal line, fake a run and throw to a wide open Sam Arneson in the end zone, the Badgers had no need to try to fool the hapless Nebraska defense. That Arneson touchdown catch made the score 42-10. At the end of the first half. Nebraska gave up more rushing yards (539) than any game in school history against Wisconsin. Thanks to a touchdown in the final minute, the 70-31 loss remained in a tie for third for the most lopsided championship game loss in FBS history.
Florida State’s complacency. The reason Florida State fell out of the BCS title race in early October was a loss to NC State when the Seminoles let the Wolfpack hang around to score the final 17 points The same nearly happened against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. Florida State jumped to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter but did little after that. The Seminoles needed a late interception to finally put Georgia Tech away in a 21-15 win.
Texas’ run game. The Longhorns faced the top two run defenses in the Big 12 in the final two weeks of the season, but the numbers are still are still tough to fathom. Texas rushed for 86 yards against TCU and then 99 yards against Kansas State -- both lower than the averages for the two defenses. With Malcolm Brown and stud freshman Johnathan Gray in the backfield, those totals may be tough for Texas to swallow.
Collin Klein, Kansas State. The only top Heisman contender playing this weekend, Klein kept pace. He got one cheap chance at a touchdown on a one-yard touchdown -- when defensive back Nigel Malone dropped the ball short of the goal line after an interception -- but didn’t need it to pad his stats by the end of the game. Klein didn’t have a career game, but he had his best game in the last three weeks. Klein was 8 of 14 for 184 yards with a touchdown and an interception and rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns. A solid outing, but perhaps not enough to sway voters.
Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville. The Heisman field for 2012 is pretty much set, so Bridgewater’s moment does more to build his case into next season. The sophomore turned in one of the most gutty performances of the season as he went for 20 for 28 for 263 yards with two touchdowns an an interception in the 20-17 win over Rutgers to seal a BCS bid Thursday. A broken wrist on his non-throwing hand prevented him from taking snaps under center and an ankle injury from a week earlier hobbled him all game. Yet he turned in the play of the night with a perfectly threaded 30-yard throw to Andrell Smith to set up the game-winning field goal.
Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois. The first-year Huskies quarterback entered the season with no fanfare. That will change going into 2013. In the MAC Championship Game win over Kent State on Friday, Lynch passed for 200 yards and rushed for 100 for the eighth time this season.
BCS BIDS CLINCHED
NERVOUSLY AWAITING BCS RANKINGS
SWEATING A BOWL BID
4. SEC championships for Nick Saban. Only five coaches have more SEC titles -- Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught, Vince Dooley, Steve Spurrier and Gen. Robert Neyland -- than Saban. He’s going to have a hard time catching Bryant’s record of 14, but Saban is the first SEC coach to win multiple conference titles at two schools (LSU in 2001 and ’03, Alabama in 2009 and ’12).
23 of 24. Geno Smith’s season ended where it began -- with more touchdown passes than incomplete passes. The West Virginia quarterback completed 23 of 24 passes for 407 yards with three touchdowns in a 59-10 win over Kansas. His completion percentage (95.8) matched the single-game FBS mark. Tennessee’s Tee Martin also went 23 of 24 in a game against South Carolina in 1998.
1,771. Rushing yards by Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch this season. Lynch’s total broke the record for a quarterback set by Michigan’s Denard Robinson (1,702) in 2010.
BURIED ON THE DEPTH CHART
Arkansas State’s Sun Belt title. The Red Wolves won their second consecutive Sun Belt title under a first-year coach and made it look easy. The Red Wolves defeated Middle Tennessee 45-0 in a de facto Sun Belt title game. Whether he’s been playing for Hugh Freeze or Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin continued to flourish. He completed 19 of 21 passes for 238 yards with two touchdowns against the Blue Raiders.
Oregon State’s rout. They don’t call them guarantee games for nothing. Making up for an opener (and paycheck) scheduled with Nicholls State, Oregon State defeated the 1-10 Southland team 77-3. The original kickoff was set for the first week of the season but was rescheduled due to Hurricane Isaac. The game continued, allowing Oregon State to break its record of 76 points scored against Williamette in 1931.
Close the door on the WAC. The final WAC football game went out with a whimper as Texas State defeated New Mexico State 66-28. Louisiana Tech, San Jose State and Utah State were among the success stories in the final year of football in the WAC, which was established in 1962. But the final game featured a team in its first year in the FBS (Texas State) defeating on one of the least successful teams (New Mexico State) in conference history.
THREE UNPREDICTABLE QUARTERBACKS
Landry Jones, Oklahoma. As has been a trademark for most of his career, Jones balanced a costly bad play with a few standout ones. Jones gave TCU one of its few early scoring opportunities with a poor decision throwing into coverage for an interception to set up a short touchdown in the second quarter. Jones immediately made up for it on the ensuing drive, going 6 of 7 with a 24-yard touchdown pass.
Anyone lining up for Texas. The Longhorns’ quarterback roller coaster continues. Case McCoy started against Kansas State in place of David Ash and handled himself well, completing 26 of 34 passes for 314 yards with two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions in the loss. For the second consecutive season, the Longhorns’ bowl game may be a game for a Texas quarterback to either win or lose the job.
Taylor Martinez, Nebraska. Before the Big Ten Championship Game got out of hand in the second quarter, Martinez showed the best and worst of what he has to offer. First came an interception returned 29 yards for a touchdown and then the top offensive play of the game -- yes, including Wisconsin. Martinez scrambled 90-something yards for a 76-yard touchdown on a run reminiscent of Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick or Iowa State’s Seneca Wallace.
THREE PEOPLE NOT GETTING THEIR DUE
Butch Jones, Cincinnati. The Bearcats coach may get his due in the coaching carousel soon enough, but he led Cincinnati to a share of the Big East title with a 34-17 win over Connecticut. In the last five seasons, the Bearcats have won two outright Big East titles (2008-09 under Brian Kelly) and two shared titles (2011-12 under Jones). With a rebuilding effort on offense, not much was expected of Cincinnati this season, but it may have been one of the better coaching jobs in the country.
Bill Blankenship, Tulsa. Perhaps his ascendency from a longtime high school coach in Tulsa to the Golden Hurricane’s head coach cuts into his notoriety. In any event, Blankenship deserves his due for leading Tulsa to its first Conference USA title since 2005 and a 14-2 record in the league in two seasons. A heads-up play by Tulsa’s Trey Watts, son of former Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts, sent the game to overtime when Watts picked up a rolling ball after a punt to return it 54 yards for a touchdown.
Trevone Boykin, TCU. The Horned Frogs freshman only went 3-5 as a starter, but the position is in good hands. Considering Boykin became a surprise starter only when Casey Pachall left the team after the first month of the season, that’s high praise. Boykin came within a holding penalty of sending Saturday’s game with Oklahoma to overtime, only a week after a win over Texas. Next season, Boykin will have a full season to prepare as the primary quarterback, and he’ll suddenly be one of the only returning starters in the Big 12.