— On a catch-your-breath weekend in college football, the national-title contenders are still jockeying for poll position, there are strange faces in familiar places, coaches trying to save their jobs, tiebreaker madness and a mystery guest. Curious? Read on and consider these five storylines for a busy Saturday:
1. He’s back
Since 1992, when the Southeastern Conference split into divisions, the SEC East has annually fielded the most impressive six-team subset in college football.
In 18 previous seasons, the SEC East has produced:
Then there’s this season, which will not go down in SEC East annals as an all-time effort. In fact, for the first time, the division will send a team with a 5-3 league record to the SEC championship game.
Yet, emerging from all that mediocrity, is an SEC East deciding game that probably ranks as the most intriguing contest to be staged on Saturday’s decidedly off-Broadway college-football lineup: South Carolina (6-3, 4-3) at Florida (6-3, 4-3). Yes, it’s Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier against the Gator program that he made famous.
Make no mistake, although it has been nearly nine years since he last stood on the home sideline in Gainesville, Spurrier remains the most important figure in University of Florida football history.
He was the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner. And as a coach, he single-handedly lifted the SEC from its knuckle-dragging conservatism to a wide-open, space-age era. After winning six conference titles in 12 seasons, Spurrier’s mug should be placed on the league’s Mount Rushmore, alongside Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley. Now Spurrier is poised for another closeup.
South Carolina never has won the SEC or even played in the league’s title game. The program’s only conference championship, in fact, occurred during its former life in the ACC. Spurrier has done little to reverse South Carolina’s reputation of a two-steps-forward, one-step-back operation, going 41-31 in six seasons (and 1-3 in bowl games).
So to summarize this juxtaposition:
Florida is trying to salvage what has been a massively disappointing season. South Carolina can make history.
And Spurrier, more than anyone, can appreciate such a moment. His mercurial junior quarterback, Stephen Garcia, is capable of brilliance (we saw that on Oct. 9, when South Carolina defeated then-No. 1-ranked Alabama) and he now has a reliable running back in Marcus Lattimore.
The Gators, meanwhile, have lifted themselves from the dregs of their three-game losing streak since 1988. There won’t be a national championship this season, but there’s enough incentive down the line in earning an SEC championship game appearance, probably against Auburn, perhaps unbeaten, led by Heisman Trophy favorite and ex-Gator quarterback Cameron Newton.
But that is down the line. Way down the line.
Whether it’s Coach Urban Meyer or a Gator fan seated in the nosebleeds, anyone wearing orange and blue on Saturday night will have some concern over the presence of Spurrier. In a one-game setting, who knows?
When Meyer’s Gators won the national title in 2006, they did so only after hanging on by their fingernails against South Carolina at home, 17-16, a game capped by tension-filled two-minute drive. South Carolina’s final-play field-goal attempt was partially blocked.
Last season, trailing by three points in the late going, Garcia marched the Gamecocks to Florida’s 22-yard-line. Then his pass was tipped and intercepted by defensive lineman Justin Trattou, setting up the putaway score.
“Florida seems to be peaking at this time and maybe we’re headed the other way,’’ said Spurrier, referring to South Carolina’s abysmal 41-20 home loss against Arkansas last week. “We’re just trying to play a competitive game.
“We all know the importance of the game. This is about South Carolina trying to do something, not me personally. If we could play Florida for the division every year, that would suit me. Hopefully, we could win a few of them.’’
Logic says Florida, which is using a three-QB system, should win. In fact, logic says the Gators could keep it close until South Carolina finds a way to lose. The hunch says if Spurrier has one more great moment left in his career, this could be it.
The SEC East isn’t what it used to be. A seemingly run-of-the-mill game that will produce a 5-3 division champion might not be something to celebrate.
But it will be fun. It should be dramatic. And in South Carolina’s case, it might even become historic.
2. Just Ducky
The Oregon Ducks (9-0, 5-0) travel to up-and-down California (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday before facing Arizona on Nov. 26, then closing at Oregon State on Dec. 4. Maybe it isn’t likely, but if Stanford loses at Arizona State — along with an Oregon victory — the Ducks would wrap up the Pac-10 title.
The Ducks are enjoying a rare season indeed. Just how rare?
Oregon can become only the sixth team to go through the Pac-10 season undefeated (and untied) at 8-0 since the league expanded by adding Arizona and Arizona State in 1978.
3. Hot seat
As we enter mid-November, three things, as always, are playing out.
Here’s a hot-seat update:
Mack Brown, Texas (4-5 in 2010, 132-32 career)
OK, we’re just seeing if you’re paying attention. He’s really not on the hot seat. But Texas is pulling one of the great no-shows in recent history for a program that played for the previous season’s national title.
Still remaining: Oklahoma State (8-1), Florida Atlantic (3-5), Texas A&M (6-3).
The verdict: Texas, which has lost home games against UCLA, Iowa State and Baylor, needs two victories to become bowl eligible. Yes, Mack Brown’s body of work speaks for itself. But you never want seasons such as this to creep in — uncharacteristic stumbles, doubt, no bowl practices — because there’s a fine line between efficiency and mediocrity. Programs such as USC, Oklahoma and Florida State slipped off the map for a while. Is Texas next in line?
Dennis Erickson, Arizona State (4-5 in 2010, 23-23 career)
The Sun Devils, who have half of their victories against FCS teams, must win out to be bowl eligible.
Still remaining: Stanford (8-1), UCLA (4-5), at Arizona (7-2).
The verdict: There are two one-point road losses (20-19 at Wisconsin, 34-33 at USC), but Erickson must make a bowl to salvage his tenure.
Bill Lynch, Indiana (4-5 in 2010, 18-28 career)
The four victories are window dressing (Towson, Western Kentucky, Akron, Arkansas State). The Hoosiers have dropped 10 straight Big Ten Conference games (and 15 of their last 16).
Still remaining: at Wisconsin (8-1), Penn State (6-3), at Purdue (4-5).
The verdict: Gone. Nobody expects Indiana to win the Big Ten, but it should hover somewhere near the conference’s midpoint.
Mark Richt, Georgia (5-5 in 2010, 94-32 career)
The Bulldogs are playing a redshirt freshman quarterback (Aaron Murray), but returned a boatload of offensive talent. No one expected Georgia to be lurching toward a minor bowl game (at best).
Still remaining: at Auburn (10-0), Georgia Tech (5-4).
The verdict: Georgia has won two SEC titles on Richt’s watch. Before that, the Dawgs were last SEC champions when Herschel Walker was a junior tailback. Even in a worst-case scenario (5-7 finish, no bowl), Richt stays, but he’s on notice in 2011.
Rich Rodriguez, Michigan (6-3 in 2010, 14-19 career)
There’s a huge sigh of relief after that wild 67-65 triple-overtime win against Illinois (and no hard-swinging NCAA hammer after an investigation of improprieties).
Still remaining: at Purdue (4-5), Wisconsin (8-1), Ohio State (8-1).
The verdict: Purdue is a must-win. Without that one, it’s difficult to see how a program such as Michigan can tolerate three consecutive non-winning seasons.
Bill Stewart, West Virginia (5-3 in 2010, 24-11 career)
They are grumbling in Morgantown, particularly in a season where the Big East Conference title was there to be won. Instead, the Mountaineers have floundered, losing tight ones against Syracuse and Connecticut.
Still remaining: Cincinnati (3-5), at Louisville (5-4), at Pittsburgh (5-3), Rutgers (4-4).
The verdict: Mountaineer fans want BCS bowls, not mediocrity. Stewart’s status is teetering, but a fast finish is possible.
Paul Wulff, Washington State (1-9 in 2010, 4-31 career)
The victories are against Montana State, SMU, Portland State and Washington (double overtime). That makes for a 1-22 mark in the Pac-10.
Still remaining: at Oregon State (4-4), Washington (3-6).
The verdict: Gone.
4. Tiebreaker doesn’t favor Iowa
The Iowa Hawkeyes (7-2, 4-1) are having a wonderful season. Should they sweep the final three Big Ten Conference games, which would include beating Ohio State at home on Nov. 20, that would make the Hawkeyes 10-2, 7-1 and prime candidates to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1990.
Right? Well, not exactly.
Should Iowa win out, there’s a very likely probability that it would finish in a three-way tie with Michigan State and Wisconsin (which would each project to an 11-1, 7-1 finish).
According to Big Ten tiebreaker rules, the Rose Bowl representative would be chosen based on overall winning percentage. So Iowa would be the first team thrown out, pretty much because of its 34-27 non-conference loss at Arizona on Sept. 18.
Weren’t teams supposed to be rewarded for good non-conference schedules under the BCS system? It sure looks like Iowa is being penalized.
The BCS vs. playoffs debate has been going on for years. I understand the passion on both sides. But here’s an example of where the whole BCS system is patently unfair.
Some leagues are split into divisions and play a championship game. The Pac-10 (for now) remains as one league unit, but all the teams play each other. But the Big Ten (for now), despite not having a championship game, does not require all of its teams to play each other.
Michigan State dodged Ohio State.
The Big Ten has a maddening apples-to-oranges method of picking its Rose Bowl team.
In 2002, Iowa and Ohio State were co-Big Ten champions at 8-0 in the league. Iowa had a regular-season non-conference loss (36-31 to Iowa State). Iowa and Ohio State did not play each other. Ohio State finished 14-0, beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the national title. But it was never required to play Iowa.
5. Aztec primer
Is it possible that the TCU Horned Frogs (10-0) could have a letdown following last week’s 47-7 romp at previously unbeaten Utah?
One thing is certain: It won’t be easy to defeat San Diego State (7-2), one of the nation’s major surprises, in Saturday’s Mountain West Conference game.
Don’t feel bad if you’re unfamiliar with the Aztecs. You aren’t alone. Then again, the alma mater of Marshall Faulk hasn’t had a winning season since 1998 (!) and has appeared in only five bowl games ever (the lone win: that unforgettable 28-7 victory against Boston University in the 1969 Pasadena Bowl).
Things are changing at San Diego State, though. Coach Brady Hoke, in his second season, could very easily have his Aztecs unbeaten coming into this game.
The Aztecs lost only at Missouri (27-24, when two defenders collided on a short pass play, allowing the receiver to score on a 68-yarder in the final minute) and at Brigham Young (24-21, when officials botched a replay call that allowed BYU to maintain possession and score a touchdown, after the replay clearly showed San Diego State had recovered a fumble).
TCU’s defense undoubtedly must be aware of Aztecs freshman running back Ronnie Hillman, one of the nation’s great unknown players, who has rushed for 1,044 yards and 12 touchdowns.