Great Upset Weekend everything we love, hate about chaotic BCS
Oklahoma St., Oregon, Oklahoma upsets were thrilling, but make rematch likely
Robert Griffin III reinserted himself into Heisman race in remarkable fashion
Plus: Lane Kiffin's signature win; Penn State stays alive; tragedy strikes; more
Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads may be the most qualified person in America to write a manual on how to invoke mass BCS chaos.
Four years ago, Rhoads was the defensive coordinator of the 4-7 Pittsburgh team that shocked No. 2 West Virginia on the last night of the regular season. That result, coupled with Oklahoma's Big 12 title-game win over top-ranked Missouri, sent voters on an 11th hour scramble to determine the BCS championship participants.
Last Friday night, the Cyclones' third-year head coach oversaw another BCS-jumbling upset, as 27.5-point underdog Iowa State took out second-ranked Oklahoma State 37-31 in overtime.
Of course, his primary objective wasn't to create national chaos in either case.
"There's no gratification in doing that," Rhoads said Saturday, hours before more BCS upheaval ensued in two other locales. "You don't go into meetings and say, 'Let's knock that team out of it.' There's never a thought of that. It's just, let's go out and surprise people that don't think you can do something."
As much as the public hates to hear it, the Great Upset Weekend of 2011 was everything we've come to love about college football in the BCS era. If this were the NFL, a middling team like Iowa State would be playing for draft position at this point in the season. Baylor (7-3), which put a final dagger in preseason No. 1 Oklahoma's national title hopes with a last-second upset, may be the equivalent of a wild-card contender, but even that's a stretch. USC (9-2), ineligible for the postseason, could have packed it in months ago instead of going on the road and toppling No. 4. Oregon.
But these are (mostly) 18- to 23-year-old kids driven by the most personal motivation: respect. For Iowa State, that meant showing a national audience it's no cuddly pushover. Cyclones cornerback Leonard Johnson spent 13 days devouring tape of Justin Blackmon so he could spend the night blanketing Oklahoma State's star receiver. Johnson had an interception and a fumble recovery Friday, helping his team slow down the nation's most prolific offense and delivering the school's first win in 59 tries over a team ranked in the top six.
Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden got his usual 476 yards, but it took 58 attempts to do so, as Johnson and his teammates did a masterful job wrapping up Weeden's receivers. More importantly, the Cyclones forced five turnovers, including a dagger third interception of Weeden to set up Iowa State's winning score in the second overtime.
"Once I got in the end zone, I realized the enormity of what happened," said Cyclones running back Jeff Woody, who rumbled four yards to seal the deal. "Senior night. Friday night on ESPN; only show in town. We're 0-for-history [against top-six teams]. We need a sixth win to go bowling, and on ESPN.com they say we've got a 12 percent chance of playing in a bowl. All those things combined together create the perfect storm."
Oklahoma State wasn't the only victim of that storm. Three of the top five teams in the BCS standings went down in Week 12, the first such occurrence in a decade and the sort of massive upheaval not seen since the wild 2007 Year of the Upset. The past two seasons have seen two BCS powers (Alabama and Texas in 2009, Auburn and Oregon last season) make it through the season unscathed. These types of seasons tend to be more fun.
On the flip side, however, the end result of all that chaos is everything we find maddening about college football in the BCS era. As a result, it's looking increasingly inevitable that this season is heading toward an unsatisfying and unresolvable conclusion.
The latest standings feature an unprecedented occurrence: Three teams from the same division of the same conference (the SEC West's LSU, Alabama and Arkansas) in the top three spots. On the one hand, it's the strongest testament yet to the recent dominance of the conference that's won five straight national titles. On the other hand, it's a reflection of a top-heavy league in which recent champs Florida and Auburn struggled to put away FCS foes Furman and Samford, respectively, on Saturday. Even the Crimson Tide allowed a season-high 21 points to Georgia Southern.
The upside is that Friday's showdown between No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Arkansas suddenly takes on even greater importance. Whichever of the three emerges from the cluster to reach Atlanta the following weekend will face another challenge from surging Georgia (9-2) in the SEC title game.
The downside is that, in one of those only-in-the-BCS scenarios, the second-ranked Crimson Tide would be better off not winning their division. Despite losing at home in its biggest game of the season (9-6 to No. 1 LSU) and despite boasting victories over just three teams with winning records (10-1 Arkansas, 9-2 Penn State and 6-5 Florida), Nick Saban's team will likely cruise into the BCS championship game with a win Saturday over 7-4 Auburn and an LSU victory over Arkansas. The same unwritten axioms pollsters have used to dismiss contenders in the past -- that a team must win its conference championship and that regular-season rematches are frowned upon -- might go out the window for lack of a better option.
Other teams had their shot. Oklahoma State could have punched its own ticket before coughing it up five times in Ames. (Sadly, the tragic plane crash that took the lives of women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna undoubtedly impacted the Cowboys' performance.) Oklahoma or Oregon may have moved back ahead of Alabama had they won out. They all ran into upset-minded foes with chips on their shoulders.
"You've really got to break it into tangible things that we could control, and try to separate it from how high a caliber opponent we were talking about," said upset specialist Rhoads. "We had objectives that were specific to this game that we focused on and we executed. It led to a scripted night."