New faces of sport to take center stage on Championship Saturday
No current top five team carried a comparable ranking when the season began
Boise State will remain a relevant program, but Nevada may join those ranks
Nebraska faces a very fitting Big 12 sendoff against longtime rival Oklahoma
After two epic comebacks -- one that kept a contender in the hunt, one that destroyed a contender's season -- we're down to three undefeated teams and one last set of games. As I look at both the lineup for Championship Saturday and the developing lineup for January BCS games, I'm struck by a theme that largely sums up the 2010 college football season:
Out with the old, in with the new.
None of the top five in the current BCS standings (Oregon, Auburn, TCU, Stanford, Wisconsin) started the season carrying top five rankings. Only TCU entered the season in the AP and coaches' top 10. Stanford started the year unranked.
Of the top five teams in the preseason polls, only Ohio State remains in the top 10. Preseason No. 1 Alabama finished fourth in its division. Preseason No. 5 Texas won five games.
Flash forward to Championship Saturday. For the fifth straight year, at least one SEC title game participant carries national title aspirations, but for the first time in that span, it's not Florida or LSU. For the first time ever, the game will include South Carolina.
For the first time in four years and just the second time since 2002, the Big 12 title game holds no national title implications. And this may be the last time we have a Big 12 title game.
For the first time since 2001, a Big Ten team not named Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State will likely earn the conference's automatic BCS berth. Wisconsin last reached Pasadena 11 years ago.
For the first time since 1998, a Pac-10 team not named USC is playing on the final Saturday for a spot in the BCS championship game. Oregon has never won a national championship. Saturday's Civil War in Corvallis marks the biggest game in the program's history.
Auburn won its last and only national crown in 1957. The fact that No. 2 could come just a year after rival Alabama's return to the top would make it that much sweeter. And unlike in 2004, when 13-0 somehow wasn't good enough, the Tigers control their own destiny this time.
And then there's TCU, potentially the ultimate party crasher. The Horned Frogs have two national championships to their name -- but they came in 1935 and '38. Gary Patterson's team does not play Saturday, but it can take heart in knowing No. 1 or 2 has lost on the final day in seven of the BCS' 12 seasons.
On paper, it's not likely either Oregon or Auburn will lose Saturday. The Ducks are facing a 5-6 Oregon State team that lost its punch when all-everything threat James Rodgers went down with a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 9. Chip Kelly's team, which dispatched then 20th-ranked Arizona in typical fashion (fall behind early, unleash massive onslaught in the second half) on Friday, averages twice as many points (50.4) as the Beavers (24.8).
Auburn, meanwhile, survived its biggest test of the season Saturday in remarkable fashion. Down 24-0 on the road against their bitter rivals, Cam Newton and the Tigers rallied to win 28-27 in large part because their defense -- so shoddy for much of the season, including the first half of the Iron Bowl -- limited the Crimson Tide to just 58 yards after halftime. Those who still don't believe in Auburn's championship worth are watching a different team.
Anyone who's followed this sport for any considerable length of time knows better than to assume the expected, though. Look no further than Friday night's Boise State-Nevada stunner. The Wolf Pack always figured to be the Broncos' biggest hurdle to an undefeated season, but Boise dominated every aspect early en route to a 24-7 halftime lead.
But Nevada came out in the second half and did what no other team had done this season: shut down Boise State's offense. Its powerful rushing attack held the ball for all but six minutes and wore down the Broncos' previously suffocating defensive front. As the Mackay Stadium cannon boomed with increasing frequency and a crowd of 30,000 began sounding like 70,000, even a 53-yard Kellen Moore pass with two seconds left was not enough to help Boise survive. Kyle Brotzman missed two chip-shot field goals and Anthony Martinez hit the game-winner in overtime, altering the BCS landscape overnight.
Oregon should probably handle Oregon State, just like two-touchdown favorite Boise should probably have beaten Nevada. But in a rivalry game, on the road, nothing can be written in pen. Perhaps Beavers quarterback Ryan Katz will have the game of his life. Perhaps Jacquizz Rodgers will summon some of his 2008 USC magic.
Auburn should probably handle South Carolina, the only SEC East team ever to reach Atlanta in the same season in which it lost to Kentucky. The Tigers did so once already, beating the Gamecocks 35-27 on Sept. 25. But Marcus Lattimore and Co. are coming off consecutive routs of Florida, Troy and Clemson. They wouldn't be the first three-loss team to dash an SEC team's national title hopes (see LSU over Tennessee in 2001).
If either Oregon or Auburn falls, the lucky beneficiary will be TCU, a possibility that would have seemed utterly absurd just two years ago and seemed logistically impossible as recently as halftime of the Boise State-Nevada game. Before last year's Fiesta Bowl, TCU hadn't even played in a January bowl game since 1959.
But before this year, Florida hadn't lost five regular-season games in 22 years. Prior to Texas this year, a team had never gone from the BCS championship game one year to no bowl the next. It's been the season of new blood, and Championship Saturday will be drenched in it.