TCU, Cincinnati title-worthy? Welcome to the sport's new reality
Cincinnati and TCU are part of college football's new landscape
There’s an unquestioned respect level, just look how they play
Stanford's NFL-type mentality can be traced back to its coach
Football Insiders: Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
At his postgame press conference last Friday following a 24-21 win over West Virginia, Brian Kelly, coach of the 10-0 Cincinnati Bearcats, said all the things a coach should say when he's still got two games left ahead of him. "I don't sit around and think about being 10-0," said Kelly. "I never think in those terms."
Away from the podium, however, when prodded by a reporter, the coach whose team sits fifth in the BCS standings acknowledged he's not oblivious to the bigger picture.
"Look, we know about Florida, we know about Alabama, we know about Texas," said Kelly. "If I'm ever sitting down reading the paper or trying to get some information, I want to know about TCU and Boise." What do you want to know, coach? "If they're still undefeated."
A day after his team's eye-opening 55-28 rout of 16th-ranked Utah, TCU coach Gary Patterson also started out saying all the things a coach should say when his 10-0 team has another game to prepare for next weekend. "We've got to go to Laramie, Wyoming," said Patterson, "where if we don't play well, we can get beat."
Prodded further, however, Patterson acknowledged having noticed the first-place vote his team received in the latest Harris Poll. "That's pretty cool," he said. "That shows we're making strides."
These are "cool" and unusual times to be the coach at a place like TCU or Cincinnati. Never before have the top six teams in the BCS standings (No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Texas, No. 4 TCU, No. 5 Cincinnati and No. 6 Boise State) all held undefeated records with just three weeks left in the regular season. The only other year that's come close was 2004, when USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah and Boise State remained perfect through the entire regular season.
Yet this season's landscape feels entirely different than that one. Back then, the nation was busy working itself into a tizzy over the previously unthinkable possibility that an undefeated SEC champion, Auburn, might not play for the national title. Utah, which would go on to become the first non-BCS team to reach a BCS bowl, sat behind one-loss squads Cal and Texas. The Utes were a sidebar; the Broncos barely merited the agate page.
This year, we have the Big Three -- Florida, Alabama and Texas -- from which the two BCS title participants will presumably emerge. There's no Auburn-like controversy, at least not yet. But as I read through e-mails and scrolled through Twitter comments late Saturday from fans who were watching TCU -- many of them for the first time -- a common theme emerged: "Wow. ... TCU is for real ... Very impressed ... as good as the 'top three.' ... deserve to play for national title."
This is college football in 2009. In the past, any mention of TCU (or Utah, or Boise State) in the same sentence as "national title" would have immediately garnered smirks and the automatic response of "Who have they played?" Now, there's an unquestioned respect level. The Horned Frogs have Utah to thank for much of that; last year's Sugar Bowl romp over Alabama elevated both the Utes' and the Mountain West's profile. But I'm guessing a lot of it is also coming from a simple eyeball test.
In a year in which the teams at the top aren't necessarily the prettiest, viewers that tuned in Saturday night were treated to an all-around dominant TCU performance against a nationally-respected opponent. The Horned Frogs jumped to a 35-7 lead early in the second quarter. TCU's vaunted defense did its thing -- Jerry Hughes terrorized Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn; Tank Carder returned an interception for a touchdown.
But what separates the 2009 Horned Frogs from Patterson's previous teams is an equally explosive offense. Andy Dalton & Co. racked up 549 yards on a Utah defense that came in allowing less than 300 per game. They've outscored their last five opponents 233-53.
"We've always played very good defense here," said Patterson, the Frogs' head coach since 2000, "but I'll be honest -- I'm glad we don't have to face our offense right now."
Teams aren't exactly lining up to face Cincinnati's third-ranked offense, either. But here's another sign of college football's new reality: The Bearcats are the BCS-conference team, yet I'm hearing far less national-title buzz for them than I am the Horned Frogs. (Meanwhile, poor Boise State is a legit top-10 team with no buzz whatsoever.) Part of that may be due to the Bearcats' close calls the past two weeks in primetime games against Connecticut and West Virginia, though they have a huge showcase game still to come at No. 8 Pittsburgh.
After seeing Cincinnati in person, I believe the Bearcats -- while certainly fun to watch -- aren't in the same class as Florida/Alabama/Texas. There's no disputing their offensive firepower, but their defense isn't BCS-caliber. They'd also suffer in a national-title matchup due to their lack of a physical red-zone option. Relief pitcher/quarterback Tony Pike played that role against West Virginia, coming off the bench to throw a pair of touchdown darts. He'd face a lot more pressure, however, against one of those aforementioned defenses.
TCU is a different story. Take away those cool, new uniforms, and you'd never know you're not watching an SEC defense. Throw in an offense with its own share of playmakers, and you've got a complete football team.
"I have been a head coach for five years, and that is the best team I've faced," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Frogs.
Could they beat one of the Big Three? Absolutely. Would they? There's only one way to find out. Are we going to get that opportunity? Not unless someone knocks off Texas.
Patterson seemed quite content Sunday with his one first-place Harris vote, but will he be lobbying for something more if TCU wins its last two? Actually: No.
"Is all we're going to do is complain that we don't have an opportunity to play for national championship? Why turn a marvelous season into a negative?" he said. "I don't have any control, besides winning, whether I play in a national championship game or not. If we're given that opportunity, we'll be excited, but why should I turn what these kids have done for 12 games into a negative?"
He shouldn't. And he won't have to. I'm sure there will be no shortage of pundits and politicians ready to take up the cause for him.
California here we come
When I talked to Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh last week following his team's 51-42 upset of Oregon, he said the Cardinal were treating their last three Pac-10 games like the NFL playoffs. "[The Oregon game] was like the divisional playoff," he said. "Now we've got to get ready for the conference semifinal."
Personally, I prefer to use NCAA tournament analogies when discussing mythical playoff events, in which case Stanford is the torrid No. 5 seed that nobody wants to play right now. Two weeks ago, the Cardinal (7-3, 6-2 Pac-10) were still a cute little story, a rebuilding program zeroing in on their first bowl berth in eight years. But there's nothing cute about consecutive 50-point outbursts against the Pac-10's two most respected teams, the latest a 55-21 beatdown of 11th-ranked USC that shredded any remaining aura surrounding Pete Carroll's normally resilient program.
Ironically, Stanford's offense is doing exactly what the Trojans did for years: Out-physical people. With the help of a tough offensive line and bruising fullback Owen Marecic, Heisman hopeful Toby Gerhart bulldozed his way to 178 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries, which opened the field for freshman sensation Andrew Luck to take shots downfield. Luck was an efficient 12-of-22 for 144 yards and two touchdowns, including a 24-yard strike to Coby Fleener that opened the floodgates early in the fourth quarter. (The score was 28-21 at the time.)
And let's not forget the defense, which picked off Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley three times (including Richard Sherman's back-breaking 43-yard touchdown return) and forced a Barkley fumble.
"It was put-up-or-shut-up time for Stanford football," said Harbaugh. "Our guys came out focused and loose and did what we had to do to win."
In the opposite locker room was a sullen, stunned team that's basically had its entire reality shattered over the past three weeks. For seven years, USC (7-3, 4-3) was the team beating people 55-21. The Trojans rarely lost, and they never got humiliated like they have twice in the past three weeks. Saturday marked their first November loss under Carroll and the most points ever allowed by a USC team.
In Saturday's most degrading moment, Stanford scored to go up 48-21 with 6:47 left -- and went for two.
"I'm not sure I have the right words to describe being humbled like that in the Coliseum after so many years and so many good things and playing well and all that," said Carroll. "I don't really know where to put it."
Two years ago, Stanford went into the Coliseum as a 41-point underdog and pulled off an epic upset. Saturday, the Trojans were favored again, but the Cardinal proved to be in a whole other class. Wrap your head around that.
More College Football
College Football Truth & Rumors
College Football Video