Texas A&M's upset win at Alabama could have far-reaching SEC impact
Texas A&M's win at Alabama proved that explosive offenses can succeed in SEC
Oregon, K-State keep winning despite injuries; Stanford is prepared to play spoiler
Plus: Current BCS forecast, a Heisman ballot in making, spreading the field, more
For the most part, conference realignment has wrought more bad than good. Longstanding rivalries (Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, West Virginia-Pittsburgh) have been disrupted. One conference (the Big East) will soon be a geographic farce, and another (the WAC) will soon be extinct.
However, one school's decision to change conferences has had a direct hand in one of the most exciting stories of 2012. In fact, it led straight to the most impactful upset of the season, a game that may one day go down as a milestone moment that not only alters a national championship race, but one that ushers in far-reaching changes.
When Texas A&M's leadership decided to bolt the Big 12 for the SEC back in the summer of 2011, the most common response (from myself included) was ... man, the Aggies are going to get their butts kicked for a while. They had long played third fiddle (at best) to Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12. Now they were going to attempt to tussle with Alabama and LSU?
Of course, we couldn't have known then that just a few months later, Texas A&M would upgrade at head coach from notorious underperformer Mike Sherman to Kevin Sumlin, who overachieved at Houston. And not even recruiting analysts realized that Sherman had signed a preternaturally gifted quarterback who, when deployed in the right offense (and afforded an appropriately cool nickname), would flummox the SEC's most renowned defense -- as a freshman.
Texas A&M's 29-24 defeat of top-ranked Alabama Saturday was one of those stop-what-you're-doing upsets that we've come to expect (even if we rarely predict them at the time) in November. Without fail, just when you think you have the BCS pegged, someone gets upset and turns the whole postseason landscape upside down.
But suppose it had been, say, Mississippi State that took down the Tide in Tuscaloosa. While the result would have been arguably more shocking, it wouldn't have carried nearly the same significance. This was Texas A&M, the new kid on the block with its new-fangled offense and its phenom freshman quarterback, beating the defending national champs and the SEC's reigning juggernaut on their own field. And in doing so, the Aggies rendered 'Bama's vaunted defense mortal.
Start with the immediate implications. Texas A&M, the school that came running for refuge from the then-crumbling Big 12 two summers ago, may go down as the team that ended the SEC's BCS dynasty. It's too soon to declare Alabama's national championship hopes dead -- it fell to No. 4 in the BCS standings, one spot above a Georgia team it will face in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game (provided the Tide beat hapless Auburn in two weeks) -- but 'Bama needs some two of the three teams ahead of it -- Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame -- to lose. But remember, just a year ago the Tide lost in November and climbed back to No. 2.
Let's assume for the moment that most or all of the teams above Alabama hold serve, and that Oregon and Kansas State meet in the first SEC-free BCS championhip game since 2005. For six years, the South's most popular talking point was that big-boy defenses like Alabama's were impervious to the no-huddle spread offense practiced in other parts of the country. Well, either Texas A&M magically cultivated an influx of so-called SEC speed in the past 10 months, or the Aggies are living proof that you can in fact win there with an offense imported from Conference USA.
With Johnny Manziel delivering another virtuoso performance (24-of-31 for 253 yards and two touchdowns and 18 carries for 92 yards), A&M raced to a 20-0 first-quarter lead against a defense that had not allowed 20 points in a game for nearly a year. Nick Saban had sounded numerous warnings about the dangers of A&M's no-huddle attack, but they had gone mostly unheeded.
"Their offense is a very difficult offense to stop," Saban said afterward. "... Their quarterback is a fantastic player. He obviously made some plays that were great plays out there. You have to have a tremendous amount of discipline to play against a guy like that."
Alabama's defense mostly clamped down after that early surge, and after cutting the deficit to 20-17 in the third quarter, it seemed inevitable the Tide would eventually pull through. Soon enough, we were watching a Big 12-like shootout with AJ McCarron unleashing bombs to Amari Cooper and Manziel coming back down the field with answers. But the Aggies held on, thanks in large part to notching the first two interceptions of AJ McCarron's season, the second a dagger in the end zone with 1:36 left.
"It is big for us in our first year in the league," said Sumlin. "We are the new guys coming in and we have to prove ourselves and we have to continue to prove ourselves week in and week out."
Oh, they've proven themselves. And in doing so, they may well precipitate a sea change in the SEC. As many as four conference schools (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn) may soon change coaches, and you just know they'll be seeking their own versions of Sumlin. Defense will remain a bedrock for schools like Alabama, Florida and LSU, but before you know it, nearly half the schools in the league could be running their own version of the Air Raid.
Maybe one day we'll be hearing about the SEC's unparalleled offenses.
We've reached the point in the season where injuries can play as big a role in determining a team's success as its gameplan. Even the programs at the top of the latest BCS standings have not been immune -- though so far, they've yet to be severely affected.
Early in 10-0 Oregon's Saturday night clash at Cal, there was cause for concern whether the Ducks would be able to field a full team. They went into the game already down four of their top five defensive linemen (Dion Jordan, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Ricky Heimuli), and their last healthy starter, Taylor Hart, went out in the first quarter. Safety Avery Patterson suffered what looked like a serious knee injury shortly thereafter. (Coach Chip Kelly does not reveal injuries.) The Ducks plugged in two freshmen (one that was planning to redshirt) and a recently converted tight end.
And then, just to strike actual terror in Ducks fans, star running back Kenjon Barner left clutching his hand and quarterback Marcus Mariota took himself out with apparent pain in his non-throwing arm. The 3-7 Bears pulled to within 24-17 in the third quarter.
As it turned out, Barner was fine -- and Mariota was more than fine. The redshirt freshman from Hawaii threw four touchdowns in a less than 10-minute span and tossed six scores overall in an eventual 59-17 rout. Over his past two games, Mariota has now gone 47-of-57 for 681 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions to rise to No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency. His 71.7 completion percentage would set an NCAA freshman record. In short, Mariota is the reason Oregon's offense has gone from good to ridiculously good, setting an NCAA record Saturday with its 13th straight game scoring at least 40 points.
"Marcus played outstanding," said Kelly. "When you've got the guy pulling the trigger who's got his sense not to rush things, take what they give you ... they did a decent job early against us but he really made some plays through the air."
Meanwhile, new BCS No. 1 Kansas State dealt with its own injury scare at quarterback last week, as Collin Klein left the Wildcats' game against Oklahoma State with a still-undisclosed injury. The Heisman frontrunner returned Saturday against TCU, and while he didn't have his best game passing (12-of-21 for 145 yards and an early interception; three sacks), he was still healthy enough to run for touchdowns of seven and 34 yards in a 23-10 victory.
"He played reasonably well," said K-State coach Bill Snyder. "He made the plays he had to make in the ball game, but we were probably a little conservative for him. We could have given him more chances than we did."
K-State's defense continues to be superb and can likely compensate if Klein does not return to pre-injury form. Oregon, on the other hand, heads into two games against ranked foes (Stanford and Oregon State) with a beyond-patchwork defense. Still, it, too, can compensate if Mariota keeps performing at a lethally precise pace.