College Football Overtime (cont.)
With a suddenly crowded field, we had been waiting for one of the Heisman contenders to step up and deliver a definitive Heisman moment. It figures the guy who did it was the same one who started things off back on the first Friday night of the season.
Robert Griffin III captured the nation's attention early this year when he led Baylor to a season-opening upset of reigning Rose Bowl champ TCU, then proceeded to maintain a ridiculous stat line, going nearly four games with more touchdowns than incompletions. He was SI.com's first team midseason All-America quarterback. But then the Bears lost three of four games, and RGIII fell out of the discussion involving Andrew Luck, Trent Richardson, etc.
But the truth is, Griffin never went away. He kept putting up ridiculous numbers; it's just that America wasn't watching. But we were watching Saturday night when, with 51 seconds left and the game tied 38-38, the Baylor quarterback calmly led his team down the field, scrambling for runs of 22 and eight yards to keep the drive alive before throwing a game-winning 34-yard strike to Terrence Williams in the far corner of the end zone with just eight seconds on the clock.
"They said we needed that signature win," said Griffin, whose team won its first game in 21 tries against Oklahoma and beat its highest-ranked opponent since 1985. "We got it."
Griffin finished the night with 562 yards of offense. Only one team (Texas Tech earlier this year) has gained more than that against the Sooners during Bob Stoops' tenure. Griffin was 21-of-34 for 479 yards, no interceptions and four touchdowns, one of them admittedly so lucky even he shook his head in disbelief afterward.
"Another day at the office for Robert," said Baylor coach Art Briles. "Very talented, very gifted."
On the season, Griffin has now completed 72.9 percent of his passes for 3,572 yards, 33 touchdowns and five interceptions while rushing for 550 yards and five scores. His 191.7 efficiency rating would shatter Colt Brennan's FBS season record (186.0), though he's second right now behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson (199.3). Wilson has attempted 105 fewer passes.
Remember, Griffin is doing this for Baylor. He's not protected by a bunch of future NFL linemen like Luck. He's played substantially tougher competition than Houston's Case Keenum or Boise State's Kellen Moore. He's not throwing to a pair of five-star receivers like USC's Matt Barkley. My Heisman ballot arrived last week, and while there's still two more sets of games to go before making any final decisions, it's hard to imagine Griffin failing to be in the top three -- if not No. 1.
Not so fast. USC coach Lane Kiffin would like to stump for his own candidate, Mr. Barkley.
"He's not getting [the] attention he should," Kiffin said Sunday. "It's not his fault we're not going to bowl games. If people judge him fairly, and don't take into account the probation and the sanctions, I don't see how he's not going to New York."
Indeed, Barkley shredded the same Oregon defense that shut down Stanford's Luck a week earlier, going 26-of-34 for 323 yards, four touchdowns and one admittedly unfortunate fourth-quarter interception. On the season he's now thrown for 3,105 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But Saturday was as much a showcase for Kiffin's rebuilding program as it was for his quarterback. After watching the Trojans end the Ducks' 19-game home winning streak and become the first Pac-12 team to beat Oregon in more than two years, it's time for the nation to reluctantly acknowledge what many (especially SEC fans) hate to believe: Kiffin knows what he's doing.
Last winter, he made the calculated decision to put off NCAA scholarship reductions for another year pending USC's appeal (eventually denied) to load up on a 30-member recruiting class ranked in the top five nationally. Among those recruits was dynamic receiver Marqise Lee, who caught eight passes for 187 yards Saturday. "There were all these NFL picks on the field, and arguably the best player on the field was Marqise Lee," said Kiffin.
But USC's youth movement is hardly limited to receiver (where Lee plays opposite standout sophomore Robert Woods). The Trojans start three true or redshirt freshman linebackers (Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard), a freshman guard (Marcus Martin) and one of two freshman tight ends (Xavier Grimble or Randall Telfer). It's no wonder this team started slowly out of the gate. However, since an Oct. 22 win at Notre Dame, the Trojans have looked more and more like they did during Kiffin's first go-around as an assistant to Pete Carroll, with their only loss coming in triple overtime to Stanford.
"We're a totally different team," Kiffin said. "It's always exciting to see a plan come together, in believing in these kids, these freshmen. All of those guys that were making plays [Saturday] night were the ones making the mistakes at Arizona State [in a 43-22 loss on Sept. 24]."
And they're all going to be around for at least a couple more years, giving USC fans reason to believe the Trojans could return to glory, if even briefly, before the sanctions kick in. Now Kiffin just needs his best recruiting pitch yet to convince his Heisman-caliber quarterback to come back for his senior year.
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:
Title game: LSU vs. Alabama
Rose: Oregon vs. Wisconsin
Fiesta: Oklahoma State vs. Stanford
Sugar: Michigan vs. Houston
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia
Obviously, things changed considerably this week. The once improbable LSU-Alabama rematch now seems closer to reality. In turn, the projected Big 12 champion (I'm sticking with Oklahoma State) falls to the Fiesta Bowl, and the conference might not produce a second BCS team. (If it does, it's more likely to be 10-2 Kansas State than the loser of Bedlam.) Stanford, which may be guaranteed a berth if it moves back into the top four, is the overwhelming favorite for the other spot.
Meanwhile, the Sugar Bowl now faces the unusual predicament of having to fill its matchup with two at-large teams and no SEC anchor to guarantee fan turnout. Michigan, should it beat Ohio State for the first time in eight years to finish 10-2, would be obviously appealing, provided it moves into the top 14 by season's end. For the Wolverines' opponent, the bowl will likely have to choose between a non-AQ team (undefeated Houston or, if it loses to Tulsa or Southern Miss, 10-2 TCU) or the Big East champ, which right now could be any of five teams, four of them unranked. Houston at 13-0 would be the no-brainer choice, but 9-3 West Virginia would get the nod over 10-2 TCU -- setting up the RichRod Bowl.