Stanford handled adversity; now LSU and Alabama get their turns
We find out more about contenders when they're challenged than when they cruise
Big Ten is jumble of six teams that could conceivably reach conference title game
Plus: Oklahoma State's underrated D, Lane Kiffin's rant, Sun Belt's surprise, more
On Saturday night, No. 4 Stanford went on the road to face a ranked USC team playing its de facto Super Bowl in front of 93,607 raucous spectators. For the first time since last November, the Cardinal faced actual adversity, falling behind by 10 early in the third quarter, going back ahead, then watching the Trojans reclaim the lead twice more, including when star quarterback Andrew Luck did the unthinkable and threw a pick-six to fall behind 34-27 with 3:08 left.
The action only picked up from there. Luck led a game-tying 76-yard drive that ended with 38 seconds left, set up or threw three more touchdowns in overtime and completed his first two-point conversion of the season in the third extra period, helping the Cardinal survive 56-48. "I didn't know there was going to be this much adversity, but the kids fought through, and I love them to death for it," said Stanford coach David Shaw.
Naturally, the Cardinal lost 40 points in the latest AP poll and 29 points in the latest Harris Poll.
For better or worse, we're obsessed with style points. Each game the title contenders play is a chance to pick apart their flaws, and any close call is considered a sign of weakness. Yet I'd argue we learn far more about teams when they're tested than when they cruise.
Stanford handled adversity Saturday like it was routine, with cameras spotting Luck smiling on the sideline each time USC scored in the second half (except of course after his pick-six). In Week 8, Oklahoma did not. Undefeated Oklahoma State has blown out seven of its eight opponents, but its signature win was a 17-point rally against Texas A&M. Previously undefeated Clemson battled back several times this season but finally dug a hole it couldn't escape (21 points) in Saturday's 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech.
Now comes college football's latest Game of the Century, the Week 10 showdown between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. This meeting would mean just as much if each team had won all of its games on last-second field goals; however, the great anticipation surrounding the contest largely stems from each team having steamrolled the competition to this point. Finally, we get to see them face a worthy adversary.
Alabama's toughest test to date was a 27-11 win at 8-1 Penn State the second week of the season. If you've watched the Nittany Lions' offense, you know the game was essentially over when Nick Saban's team went up 17-3 just before halftime. The Tide have won their other seven games by no fewer than 24 points.
LSU's closest call was a 19-6 Thursday night win at Mississippi State on Sept. 15. If you watched the Bulldogs' floundering offense that night, you know the game was over when Jarrett Lee threw a 19-yard touchdown to put the Tigers up 16-6 with 11:56 left. The Tigers have won every game since by at least 25 points.
"Philosophically, in terms of how you want to build a team, our two teams are similar," said Saban. "They're a little bit different style wise than us, but certainly get their results the same way."
To this point, LSU and Alabama both look like reincarnations of the early 2000s Miami teams, brimming with speed, athleticism and depth on both sides of the ball. Barring another blowout by one side on Saturday night, we'll finally get to see how they respond when challenged.
We know that LSU generally pounds teams into submission with its deep stable of running backs. But what if Alabama shuts down the Tigers' ground game like it has every opponent's to date? Can the vastly improved Lee and Jordan Jefferson win a game in the fourth quarter with their arms?
We know Alabama's defense is as talented and fundamentally sound as they come. But what if Les Miles digs into his usual bag of tricks like he did last year, calling the famous fourth-and-1 reverse that helped LSU to victory and immortalized Miles' grass-eating habit? Can Saban's notoriously disciplined unit handle the unexpected?
Speaking of the unexpected, we don't know what these two coaching masterminds did during their bye weeks. We're sure to see things from both teams we haven't through eight games.
"With an extra week to prepare, we go through a real self evaluation and whatever statistics or tendencies we have, we try to break them," said Miles.
The beauty of Saturday night's game is that style points won't matter; only the final score will. The winner will continue its seemingly inevitable march to New Orleans. There's no risk of being "exposed," because no reasonable person would expect either team to put on a clinic. But we'll still learn something.
We know there's a quarterback on the West Coast who doesn't get frazzled by anything. Ditto for that guy in Boise. And there's a team in Stillwater, Okla., that continues to score 50 points a game with ease. The eventual SEC champ will likely be favored over any of them, regardless of how Saturday's game plays out. But a fourth-quarter comeback or a last-second touchdown may say more about the winner than its previous eight blowouts.