When can you safely assume that the game you've just witnessed was not a masterpiece of offense? When one of the stars trotted out for reporters is the punter. Take a bow, Ohio State senior Andy Groom. Enjoy your moment in the sun. That 59-yard moon shot you belted out of your own end zone late in the fourth quarter helped ice an ugly-as-sin 13-7 win against Penn State. When it was over, Groom and his teammates gathered in the south end zone of the Horseshoe, faced the Buckeyes' band and sang along to Carmen Ohio:
While our hearts rebounding thrill,
With joy which death alone can still....
Actually, Ohio State's joy may be stilled by something less dramatic. Yes, the Buckeyes are 9-0. Yes, they could win out and finish the regular season 13-0. No, that would not guarantee them a shot at the national championship.
What's up with that? Is it not one of the basic tenets of sport that if you win all your games, you win the title? Sorry. That's not how Division I-A college football works. Ohio State is one of eight undefeated teams, an absurdly inflated number for November. The cold truth is, most of those squads could finish their seasons unbeaten yet still ascend no higher than third in the BCS rankings, which would leave them with their noses pressed against the glass of the championship game, the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl.
Let us harden our hearts and narrow the field by two. We applaud your spotless seasons, N.C. State and Bowling Green, even as we exclude you from the rest of this discussion. Your respective chances of playing in the Fiesta are nil and niller. Try not to be bitter. Georgia and Ohio State, two other teams that made it out of October unscathed, are only slightly better off; both need major help if they're to get to the Fiesta. The four remaining teams- Miami, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame—are more in control of their fate, though ultimately the decision will come down to the arcane calculus of the BCS formula (box, page 64).
One team will be especially hard to keep out of the Fiesta Bowl if it remains unbeaten, and that's the Fighting Irish. They came into the season unranked and to date have played the nation's toughest schedule without a blemish. Apologies are in order here not only to the Irish, whom we suspected of winning with lucky bounces and the sorcery of first-year coach Ty Willingham, but also to The New York Times computer ranking, which was ridiculed when the Old Gray Lady dubbed Notre Dame the nation's best team.
What can we say? The computers were right. The microchips somehow divined what the experts could not—that a team with the Irish's strengths (solid special teams; punishing, larcenous defense; a wizard for a coach) doesn't need a prolific offense. While the Irish found themselves No. 6 in the human polls going into last Saturday's game at Florida State, they were third in the BCS rankings. Four of the seven BCS computers had them ranked No. 1. The machines saw what we missed.
Until Saturday, that is, when the skeptics saw Notre Dame thump the Seminoles in their own stadium 34-24. The Irish put the game away in one stunning, 4�-minute stretch in the third quarter during which they scored 17 points. The highlight was free safety Glenn Earl's cartoon-violent collision with Seminoles quarterback Chris Rix, which propelled the ball 15 yards into the Florida backfield. The Irish picked it up and scored a touchdown two plays later, then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and scored again. The Seminoles were finished. "People say they turned the ball over," says Earl. "Not exactly. We forced those turnovers. There's a difference."
These guys will let you know if they think you're not giving them their due. "I don't even like the word opportunistic" says linebacker Courtney Watson. That adjective, he says, is too suggestive of luck. "Catching balls, stripping balls, recovering balls, picking 'em up and running 'em back—those are things that we practice every day, things we take pride in."
It irks some Golden Domers that the country was late to warm to them. "People say our offense doesn't put up 40-plus points a game," says Watson. (The Irish offense is averaging 19.4 per game.) "Well, where does it say you need a high-scoring offense to win a national championship?"