Eventful Week 9 sets the stage for BCS-altering 'Bama-LSU showdown
The BCS race continued to shape up with Florida, Oregon State and USC all losing
Alabama rolled Miss. St., will travel to LSU with shot to back up frontrunner status
Plus: Arizona's big upset, Year of the Linebacker, Marcus Lattimore's injury, more
Week 9 was arguably the most eventful slate of games to date this season. Five of the 11 remaining undefeated teams went down. Notre Dame asserted itself as a national championship contender. Georgia reclaimed control of the SEC East in the World's Largest Outdoor Interception Party, while USC lost control of the Pac-12 South despite producing a 345-yard day from receiver Marqise Lee. It was a beautifully chaotic Saturday.
Except, of course, in terminally suspense-free Tuscaloosa, where No. 1 Alabama treated then 7-0 Mississippi State like every other previous opponent in a 38-7 rout. You know things are going well when Nick Saban's biggest complaint was the benchwarmers allowing a garbage-time touchdown. "I got upset with the backup players because they are better than that," Saban groused.
For the past several weeks, the nation has fixated its attention on BCS title contenders like Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon, preemptively speculating where each would rank if all were to finish undefeated. Beneath that debate is the underlying assumption that one spot in Miami has already been locked up.
If ever the Tide are to be tested, it figures to be Saturday in what will surely be the season's most hyped game. No. 1 Alabama (8-0) will travel to No. 5 LSU (7-1) in the latest chapter of a two-year, three-game grudge fest.
To be clear: This is NOT the Game of the Century. It is not No. 1 vs. No. 2. And whereas both of last year's matchups were perceived as virtual toss-ups, 'Bama should be a prohibitive favorite Saturday. While LSU, to its credit, is coming off consecutive wins over top-20 foes South Carolina and Texas A&M, its anemic passing game inspires little confidence going up against the nation's premier defense.
However, there is at least one parallel to last year's regular-season meeting in the first week of November, in which the Tigers beat the Tide 9-6 in overtime and sparked the first wave of backlash toward an impending title-game rematch. Last year LSU came in battle-tested, having beaten Oregon in Texas, Mississippi State in Starkville and West Virginia in Morgantown. This year's Tigers lost one road test in Gainesville, but they shined defensively in College Station.
Conversely, last year's Alabama squad had yet to face a worthy adversary, save for an early-season 27-11 road win against an eventual 9-4 Penn State team. The Tide had won every subsequent game by at least 24 points -- just like this year's team has won all but one game by at least 27.
And that's where the parallels end.
A year ago, 'Bama quarterback AJ McCarron was a first-year starter the coaches trusted to do little more than hand off to Trent Richardson. A year later, McCarron (68.9 percent completions, 18 touchdowns, no interceptions) is the nation's most efficient passer. Against a talented Mississippi State secondary Saturday, the junior went a cool 16-of-23 for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns in three quarters.
"I have great respect for AJ McCarron," said Bulldogs All-America cornerback Johnthan Banks. "He doesn't make mistakes."
Meanwhile, it's hard to remember now, but LSU's Jarrett Lee went into last year's game as the SEC's most efficient passer. Of course that didn't last long. This year's Tigers quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, ranks 12th in the conference in that category. He went 11-of-29 for 97 yards in that Oct. 20 win at Texas A&M.
"It's a game I've prepared for my whole life," Mettenberger told reporters last week. "You can look at the numbers all you want. For me, individually, they're not the prettiest thing there is, but we're winning football games. That's the important thing."
Last year, LSU also had a decided edge in special teams, and while Tyrann Mathieu never broke a return, extraordinary punter Brad Wing pinned the Tide at their own five-, four-, 11- and 18-yard lines. This year, the Tigers have slipped from third to 32nd in net punting and have been largely a nonfactor in the return game.
In short, LSU does not hold a single discernible advantage over Alabama, and there seems a much better chance of the scoreboard reading 29-6 than 9-6. But the game is at night in Death Valley, where the Tigers rarely lose. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo will come at Alabama's offensive line like no defensive linemen the Tide have seen this season, and linebacker Kevin Minter will wrap up running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon well before they can reach second gear. Neither LSU-Alabama contest played to form last year, so why should we expect anything different this time around?
Another all-SEC championship seems unlikely now with Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame all sitting pretty. But remember, at this same time last year, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Boise State were also unbeaten. If LSU wins -- brace yourself -- it's entirely conceivable Alabama could play its way into another rematch. Or how about this scenario? The Tide win and beat Georgia in the SEC title game to finish 13-0, but Florida, which fell to No. 7 in Sunday's latest BCS standings, wins out, finishes 11-1 and climbs back to No. 2.
Yes, there are possible parallels to 2011. But as of today, it seems there's a much greater probability that a high number of undefeated teams will cause this year's BCS controversy. If you feel the need to freak out over something, let it be that.
Nov. 3 has been circled on our calendars since the summer not only because Alabama plays LSU, but also because Oregon visits USC. But most of the anticipated buzz for the latter matchup decreased considerably Saturday when Matt Barkley's last-second Hail Mary fell incomplete at Arizona, dooming the disappointing Trojans to their second defeat.
In a huge win for first-year coach Rich Rodiguez's program, the Wildcats (5-3, 2-3 Pac-12) went on a 26-0 second-half run to outlast the Trojans, 39-36. It was a shootout that saw Trojans star wideout Marqise Lee catch 16 passes for a Pac-12 record 345 receiving yards -- and still somehow lose.
"It almost looked like our game plan was to have [Lee] get so many yards that he'd get tired. He had about a half mile," Rodriguez said by phone Sunday. "I'm glad the clock ran out."
Rodriguez had his own big-number stars, most notably senior quarterback Matt Scott, who now ranks second in the nation in total offense (386.1 yards per game) after throwing for 369 yards and rushing for 100 more against a befuddled USC defense. And if not for Lee, Arizona receiver Austin Hill would have jumped off the page with his 10 catches for 259 yards.
USC (6-2, 4-2 Pac-12) continues to be its own worst enemy. While Matt Barkley threw for a career-high 493 yards, he also had two interceptions, giving him more picks through eight games (eight) than he had in all of 2011 (seven). The Trojans had three other turnovers and racked up 117 penalty yards, none of which serve as good omens a week before facing the second-ranked Ducks, who blasted Colorado 70-14 Saturday.
"We needed them to help us a little bit," said Rodriguez. "Right now we're not quite good enough to stop people, so we need a little help, and those turnovers did really help."
For Arizona, the victory was the latest in a season full of crazy games. After upsetting Oklahoma State 59-38 in Week 2, the Wildcats dropped their first three Pac-12 games, including a last-minute 38-35 heartbreaker against Oregon State and a 54-48 overtime loss at Stanford. Now, amazingly, No. 24 Arizona has an outside shot to win the Pac-12 South if USC loses to Oregon. It would control its own fate with remaining games against the two other teams ahead of it, No. 25 UCLA (6-2, 3-2) and Arizona State (5-3, 3-2).
"It's like Dumb and Dumber -- you're telling me there's a chance," said Rodriguez. (Note: RichRod is obviously a College Football Overtime reader.) "It's a long chance, but there's still a chance and maybe that helps with motivation."