— The field is narrowing (just seven unbeaten teams remaining in the Football Bowl Subdivision). The chase is on. But it’s Halloween weekend, not exactly the best time to count on stability. In any case, we’re never short of debatable topics. Here are five to chew on as we close out a memorable and tumultuous October in college football.
1. The real Cinderella teams
It has been a long, long time since the No. 5-ranked Michigan State Spartans and No. 7 Missouri Tigers last played in a Bowl Championship Series game.
So long, in fact, that the BCS didn’t even exist.
Surely, you remember Michigan State in the 1988 Rose Bowl (and maybe you still have that “Lorenzo White for Heisman’’ T-shirt still tucked in your closet). It might be more difficult to recall Missouri’s appearance in the 1972 Fiesta Bowl (just the second game in that bowl’s history), although we can’t overlook the blatant rip-off of the 2007 season, when the Big 12 runner-up Tigers (11-1 and ranked No. 1 before falling in the league title game) were bypassed from the BCS.
A generation (or two) of has grown up without ever seeing Michigan State or Missouri operate at college football’s elite level.
So you can talk about No. 2 Boise State. You can mention No. 4 TCU or No. 8 Utah.
But the non-BCS league Little Guys are relative juggernauts when compared to Michigan State (8-0) and Missouri (7-0), a pair of middle-of-the-pack big-conference schools that might just run the table. These are your against-all-odds Cinderella stories for 2010.
It’s still set up for the No. 1 Oregon Ducks and No. 3 Auburn Tigers to meet in the BCS Championship Game, provided they both win out.
Key phrase: Provided they both win out.
That’s not so easy, as the stumbles by Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma have displayed in recent weeks. And sure enough, with difficult conference road games ahead on Saturday, the non-believers are pining to dismiss Michigan State (at No. 18 Iowa) and Missouri (at No. 14 Nebraska). Actually, we can’t blame them. With the history of both programs, the Spartans and Tigers don’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence.
Well, as our old friend Marty McFly once said, history is gonna change (OK, forgive me, I’m just back from the “Back to the Future’’ 25th anniversary showing on the big screen).
Michigan State’s rise is a tremendous story. There was the head coach (Mark Dantonio) suffering a heart attack and recovering as the season unfolds. There is the devil-may-care passing of punter Aaron Bates, whose trickery has kept this dream alive.
Meanwhile, nobody is talking about Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. That’s a shame. At present, he’s completing 66 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
As for Missouri, well, the Tigers better be careful following last week’s monumental smashing of the Oklahoma Sooners. Missouri has had memorable flashes in the past few decades, but almost always, they have been followed by flat, overconfident efforts that knock the Tigers off of their perch.
Going to Nebraska certainly qualifies as a clear warning signal. It’s still extremely special for the Tigers to compete there. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is playing flawlessly and has the kind of aura that indicates an ultimate difference-maker down the stretch.
It won’t be easy.
But it’s definitely do-able. If the right chips fall, Michigan State and/or Missouri could be playing for a national championship. In recent seasons — and certainly in this preseason — that possibility would have seemed unimaginable.
2. The Desperate Bowl
At the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party’’ — the annual Florida-Georgia extravaganza in Jacksonville, Fla. — fans of both the Gators (4-2, 2-3 SEC) and Bulldogs (4-4, 3-3) have needed a stiff drink at varying points this season.
It’s the first time in 31 years that one of these teams hasn’t been nationally ranked entering the game.
Georgia began 1-4.
Florida is on its first three-game losing streak since Emmitt Smith was in the Gator backfield — and it hasn’t won since Sept. 25.
Incredibly, both teams can still win the SEC East.
Florida actually controls its destiny. Steve Spurrier’s No. 17 South Carolina Gamecocks visit Florida on Nov. 13 (there may not be another game — ever — that Spurrier has wanted to win more than than one, by the way).
There’s even a scenario where Georgia can win the SEC East by defeating Florida and losing against Auburn on Nov. 13 in its SEC finale. It would require South Carolina to go into the tank, of course, but stranger things have happened.
Anyway, it’s strange to see Florida and Georgia in these desperate straits. The Gators have won 17 of the last 20 games in the series, but Georgia is playing much better of late, now that redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray has found his sea legs.
Florida, playing its worst football in two decades, has everything to prove.
Makes for an interesting game. Florida-Georgia usually has some sort of national-championship implications, giving the game automatic urgency. Now the Gators and Bulldogs are playing for their football lives.
3. Big Least
The new-look Big East — after the ACC defections of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College — has been a particularly easy target since the 2005 season. Other leagues have decried the Big East’s presence in the BCS automatic-qualification process.
The Big East isn’t exactly helping its cause of late. There are no Big East teams — zero — in the BCS standings top 25. The league is a competitive jumble — hey, the down-the-stretch race might actually be very compelling — but that doesn’t help overall perception of the conference.
Only West Virginia and Pittsburgh have been ranked in the Associated Press or USA Today Top 25 (and Pittsburgh dropped out immediately after its opening-weekend loss against Utah). Big East schools have a 2-11 record in games against opponents from BCS leagues (including Notre Dame).
Ouch. Double ouch.
But very quietly, a positive thing has happened in the Big East.
Syracuse (5-2, 2-1) has gotten a lot better. The Orange were 10-37 in four seasons under Coach Greg Robinson. But since Doug Marrone took over last year, the Orange are 9-10 and finally playing with a direction.
Syracuse’s 19-14 victory against West Virginia last week was another dagger for the Big East’s power ratings, but should be viewed as a long-term asset.
Syracuse has championship history. Syracuse has tradition. For everyone’s good, the Big East needs Syracuse to become a powerhouse program again. Syracuse received eight votes in the AP poll, which might not seem like a huge deal, but it’s six more votes than Florida received.
Meanwhile, the Big East will keep scuffling along this season. And its champion will go to a BCS bowl, while the potential one-defeat loser of the TCU-Utah game could be relegated to a lesser fate.
4. Fight on (even with probation)
Ah, the No. 24 USC Trojans.
You can’t be blamed if USC — maybe the most dominant, glamorous program of the 21st century — has slipped from the consciousness. The Trojans, after all, are 5-2 (although the defeats, to Washington and No. 13 Stanford, were by a combined three points, both on last-second field goals). Truth be told, they became afterthoughts from the moment the NCAA handed down its major probation, which included a two-year bowl ban.
USC has its opportunity on Saturday night — indeed, its bowl game — when No. 1 Oregon visits the L.A. Coliseum.
The Trojans could join a long list of celebrated powerful teams that made a mark, despite being banned from a bowl game.
Here’s my top five bowl-less, probation-stricken teams from the modern era:
5. Best (Big 12) team in Texas
We almost called them the best team in Texas. But, oh yeah, TCU. Oops.
So let’s amend that to the best Big 12 team in Texas.
Still, it doesn’t exactly slip off the tongue.
The No. 25 Baylor Bears?
Baylor (6-2, 3-1) is bowl eligible. It has cracked the Top 25 for the first time since Sept. 5, 1993. It is leading the Big 12 South.
Saturday, Baylor travels to Texas (4-3, 2-2), trying to hand the Longhorns their third consecutive home defeat.
The Bears not only have been good, they have been quite entertaining. Last week’s 47-42 win against Kansas State, which clinched a bowl game for Baylor, featured a school-record 683 yards and a career-high 404 passing yards for quarterback Robert Griffin III.
OK, now the bad news.
Baylor closes against Texas, No. 20 Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma — the Big 12 South’s “Murderer’s Row.’’ Understandably, there are numerous non-believers.
But if Baylor can go into Texas and win, those numbers will dwindle.