More Overtime (cont.)
Stanford coach David Shaw had just engineered an important victory, a game in which the Cardinal (8-2) jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on No. 13 Oregon State (7-2), proceeded to watch the Beavers score 23 straight points, then clamped down in the fourth quarter to win 27-23. While his players (many of whom had just played their last home game) could be heard celebrating in their locker room on the other side of the wall behind him, Shaw admitted he would not be able to enjoy this one for very long.
"I'll say 24-hour rule [for the players]," said the coach, "but I'll give myself a six-hour rule. I'll be on my computer tonight [watching Oregon.]"
USC began the year as the Pac-12's favorite, and Oregon State soon emerged as its Rose Bowl sleeper. But heading into their meeting Saturday in Eugene, the Ducks and Cardinal find themselves in the same position as the past two seasons: They're the conference's two highest-ranked teams. This year, of course, there's a large gap between No. 1 Oregon and No. 14 Stanford, and even over the past two years, when the Cardinal had Andrew Luck and went 23-3, they lost to the Ducks 52-31 and 53-30, respectively. Shaw didn't sound particularly optimistic about his team's chances this time around.
"We have not fared well with those guys," he said. "A few years ago [in 2009] we beat them ... but this is a different Oregon team. Those guys are special. I agree with what most people -- outside the computers -- say: This is the best team in the country. It's going to take our best game and not their best game to pull this thing off."
In truth, Stanford may represent the last real shot of derailing the Ducks. As mentioned earlier, Oregon's defensive line is reeling. Stanford's power running game has not been as prolific as it was with Luck, but Shaw unleashed a new wrinkle against the Beavers. Mobile redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan took over as the starting quarterback, and he allowed the Cardinal to dust off the read-option run game they abandoned with Luck at the helm last year. An offense that struggled mightily with former starter Josh Nunes racked up 417 yards in victory, though it also coughed up four turnovers. Hogan went 22-of-29 for 254 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions while rushing for 49 yards on 11 carries.
But Stanford is also the lone Pac-12 team with an elite defense. The Cardinal's top-ranked rushing defense held the Beavers to 82 rushing yards (3.1 per attempt), its sixth game holding a foe to less than 100 yards on the ground. And the group seems to have a never-ending armada of linebackers. Senior Alex Debniak, Stanford's 14th-leading tackler, recorded a crucial sack of Cody Vaz on the Beavers' last drive. (Vaz suffered a twisted ankle and left the stadium on crutches.)
Stanford will bring the best defense Oregon has seen by far. Of course, the Cardinal have been decent the last two years, and they've still given up 50-plus points each time. Will this year's unit fare better? "We'll see," said Shaw, before glancing at his watch, "in about seven days and an hour from now."
Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my current edition:
Title game: Oregon vs. Kansas State
Rose: Nebraska vs. Notre Dame
Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M
Sugar: Alabama vs. Clemson
Orange: Florida State vs. Louisville
The Texas A&M-Alabama game set off a gigantic ripple effect that resulted in six of the 10 spots here changing from last week. That starts with the fact that the Rose Bowl may now have first choice of replacement teams if Oregon finishes No. 1, and while there's still a chance a three-loss Stanford, Oregon State or UCLA finishes in the top 14, the folks in Pasadena will be hard-pressed to turn down the Irish. (If it's Stanford, they can use the excuse that Notre Dame beat the Cardinal.)
If that happens, the Fiesta Bowl will have a shot at an SEC team. Texas A&M is unquestionably that game's most logical choice, both for proximity and fan enthusiasm over the Aggies' breakthrough season. Note, though, that if Florida beats Florida State to finish 11-1, the Gators would almost certainly finish in the top four and be guaranteed a spot.
Meanwhile, if Alabama wins the SEC but doesn't move back to No. 2, it could be looking at a Sugar Bowl date with 11-1 or 10-2 Clemson. That's sure to stoke the fans' fire. Here's how that scenario could be avoided: The Rose Bowl sticks with a Pac-12 team, and the Fiesta Bowl passes on Notre Dame to avoid an Oklahoma-Irish rematch. Then it's Alabama-Notre Dame. The bowl will practically be able to print money.
To refresh, this is a real-time top three Heisman ballot in which the only consideration is the players' performances to date. Neither preseason buzz nor the likelihood of a player actually winning will come into play, but the quality of competition so far will.
1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. Klein is now facing stiff competition from Johnny Manziel, a dual-threat quarterback with more gaudy statistics. But Klein still leads him in one important area: He's yet to lose a game.
2. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. You've won me over, Johnny Football. Manziel now has more than 1,000 rushing yards and is closing in on 3,000 passing yards. And I've got no problem voting for a freshman; I voted Adrian Peterson No. 1 in 2004.
3. Marqise Lee, WR, USC. The Trojans star had 10 catches for 161 receiving yards along with six carries for 66 rushing yards in the Trojans' 38-17 win over Arizona State. And all that came despite an allergic reaction before the game that caused his eyes to nearly swell shut.