TCU can take lessons from JoePa

Watching Joe Paterno win for the 400th time at Penn State reminds us – in addition to how amazingly successful the man has been, and how incredibly old he is – how little college football has changed.

In his 45 seasons as a head coach, Paterno has enjoyed five undefeated seasons and two national championships, including one title when Penn State went 11-1. That’s right, it’s easy to forget that four times in his career, the incomparable JoePa ran the table from beginning to end … only to go trophy-less.

He’s not the only coach who has been left satisfied by his team’s perfect record but unsatisfied by the respect it has garnered nationally, but he knows the feeling better than anybody else.

  • 1968, 11-0 – Ended regular season No. 3, behind 9-0 Ohio State and 9-0-1 USC; beat Kansas in Orange Bowl to finish No. 2 behind Buckeyes.

  • 1969, 11-0 – Ended regular season No. 2, but this time lost the vote to 11-0 Texas; beat Missouri in Orange Bowl.

  • 1973, 12-0 – Incredibly, ended regular season ranked 6th, behind three teams with a loss or a tie. No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) beat No. 1 Alabama in a classic Sugar Bowl to win the title, while Lions were relegated to beating No. 12 LSU in Orange.

  • 1994, 12-0 – Ended regular season No. 2, behind 12-0 Nebraska, but while NU beat No. 3 Miami in the Orange, the Fighting Paternos were allowed only to face No. 12 Oregon, and beat the Ducks in the Rose Bowl.

Of course, in the 1960s and ’70s the Nittany Lions were merely an "Eastern Independent," which was remarkably similar to being in the Western Athletic Conference or Mountain West Conference today. Penn State was considered as if it was in a lower division of upper-division football and was not taken seriously, even though the Lions answered every challenge, including winning bowl games.

By the 1980s, Paterno had earned long-standing respect (after all, he’d been the head coach of one of college football’s most successful programs for two decades!), and his 1982 team barged its way into the penthouse by beating No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for a no-argument national championship. The Nittany Lions won it again in 1986 by scoring the greatest championship-game upset in history when Paterno’s defense intercepted Vinny Testaverde five times in a 13-10 Fiesta Bowl decision over top-ranked Miami.

Seven years later, Penn State joined the Big Ten … and almost immediately went undefeated, but lost the 1994 poll argument to Tom Osborne and Nebraska, in part because the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl contract committed Paterno’s second-ranked team to face a three-loss upstart that had won the Pac-10 (a team called the Ducks, of all things).

Sixteen years later, Paterno is still the toast of the college football world, and now it’s youngish coaches like Chris Petersen at Boise State and Gary Patterson at TCU who are waving their arms in the dark trying to get that same world to notice them.

Now it REALLY looks like Oregon and Auburn are the only remaining teams that control their own destiny into the BCS national championship game. Of course, if one or both was to be upset in one of their remaining games, it looks like TCU or Boise State might have to arm wrestle for the right to show up and become America’s Team in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 10.

I realize there have been times this column might read like I’m pushing for Boise State to get into the national championship game, but all I’m hoping for is a sense that the best two teams get to Glendale. And almost all along, I have felt that the Broncos are one of the best two … but, geez, how good did TCU look in routing previously undefeated Utah?!

It’s going to be hard to tell a program that will have 26 consecutive wins if it runs the table (including beating TCU in a BCS bowl last January), that it hasn’t done enough to get a chance to play for the right to be called No. 1.

Joe Paterno can relate to that one, which is why he has long supported at least some sort of playoff.

GAMBLING MAN: Les Miles reminded us why being a little bit of a gambler is more fun and easier to root for than the cookie-cutter guys. Going for it on fourth down. Faking a punt. Showing some positive life on the sideline. Letting his team know he believed it would get it done.

And, of course, it did against Alabama.

Another thing about Miles: He played the TV on-field postgame interview Saturday as well or better than any coach ever has, grinning into the camera and declaring in something of a compelling recruiting pitch: "What a quality, quality game. This is the best of college football."

As Patrick Peterson raced around the stadium in the background waving a giant LSU flag, Miles went on, "Don’t let anybody kid you … you look right around right here … it’s about Tiger Stadium and a quality opponent playing a great college game."

Miles and his staff prepared the holy heck out of LSU – just as they always do. Now that the Tigers have a good chance of finishing 11-1, there’s a possibility that they could wind up in the national championship game even without winning the SEC championship.

And that would be just plain wrong on many levels. It has happened before, of course (Nebraska in 2001, Oklahoma in 2003), and both lost the BCS championship game.

In light of these teams fighting like crazy to get through their conferences, to have a non-champion play for the right to be THE champion is preposterous. The BCS really needs to change the rules to say only conference champions are eligible to play in the national championship game.

DID RICH ROD SAVE HIS JOB? Congratulations to Michigan for winning the circus game against Illinois. For your efforts, you get a lower-level bowl game, and you’ll essentially be forced to live with Rich Rodriguez for a while longer, when you probably could have had Jim Harbaugh.

Speaking of Stanford, the Cardinal ought to be a strong contender for a Fiesta Bowl at-large spot, but it won’t be. Despite having a strong Heisman contender in Andrew Luck, glamour coach in Harbaugh, the national image of Stanford, etc., the Cardinal have such a weak overall fan base for football they aren’t selling out their own home games, and will not be taken seriously for a BCS at-large berth.

That’s got to be at least some of the reason (along with the monster contract offers he’ll get) that Harbaugh cannot be expected to stay at Stanford. His 15-year NFL career, his NFL-oriented staff, his feistiness that sounds more NFL than college, and even his brother (John) having success with the Ravens all suggest that he’s not just another typical college coach. Jim Harbaugh seems more like an NFL coach in waiting.

SOMETHING SPECIAL: Oregon got off to a slow start against Washington – the Ducks went scoreless in the first quarter for the first time all season – but the special teams helped make things easy for Chip Kelly’s team, which scored 50 points in the game’s last 35 minutes, 18 seconds. Three of the touchdowns came on short fields after returns of 30, 80 and 69 yards.

As much as the Ducks "struggled," they finished with 53 points and 522 yards of offense.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: Don’t look now, but it appears as if Florida has found its offense, just in time for the unofficial SEC East Championship Game against South Carolina this week. The Gators have won two in a row, and finally are acting like they know what to do when they have the ball (they’ve scored 89 points in the wins against Georgia and Vanderbilt).

And while Alabama looks like an all-time strong spoiler for the Nov. 26 game against Auburn, let’s not overlook the winner of the East in the SEC Championship Game, if only because Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier would be among the top handful of coaches you’d want to have on the sideline for one game.

THAT GOT US THINKING … Let’s see, who would be our double-handful of top choices for one such game at the moment, assuming equal talent on both sides and just 1-2 weeks of preparation, rather than a full bowl month?

1, Urban Meyer. 2, Chris Petersen. 3, Jim Harbaugh. 4, Les Miles. 5, Nick Saban. 6, Gary Patterson. 7, Frank Beamer. 8, Chip Kelly. 9, Steve Spurrier. 10 Gary Pinkel.

This might be a bit arguable, but my half-century list (since 1960, including overall career success) would look like this: 1, Bear Bryant. 2, Barry Switzer. 3, Tom Osborne. 4, Pete Carroll. 5, Urban Meyer. 6, John McKay. 7, Nick Saban. 8, Don James. 9, LaVell Edwards. 10, John Ralston (hey, his Stanford teams upset Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler in back-to-back Rose Bowls). Sorry, JoePa and Bobby Bowden fans, we’re talking about one monster game, not the longevity of building a program.

NOT A FULL SIX PAC: Saturday’s results, with USC and UCLA beating Arizona State and Oregon State, respectively, in the final seconds, means the Pac-10 could have trouble filling its six bowl spots. Only Oregon, Stanford and Arizona are assured bowls, USC is ineligible and Washington State is out of it. Several bowl candidates still must face each other and the three power teams, which means the league is counting on more upsets:

— Cal (5-4) vs. Oregon, Stanford, Washington (all at home)

— UCLA (4-5) at Washington, at Arizona State, vs. USC

— Arizona State (4-5) vs. Stanford, vs. UCLA, at Arizona

— Oregon State (4-4) vs. WSU, vs. USC, at Stanford, vs. Oregon

— Washington (3-6) vs. UCLA, at Cal, at Washington State

THIS WEEK’S FUZZY BCS MATH: We wonder if the computers forgot to plug in the results of last week’s Missouri loss to Nebraska. Even AFTER the Cornhuskers won, 31-17, the computer average for the two teams (both with one loss) was Missouri No. 4, Nebraska No. 6. The human polls had Missouri a full 10 spots lower than the computers (14 and 15). Sigh.

Suddenly, Nebraska could be the team to sneak back into the national-championship race. Just over a week ago, the Cornhuskers were down at No. 14 in the BCS rankings (following the loss to Texas), but Alabama, Utah and Oklahoma all losing paves their way to contention. The computers love them, and the humans won’t be far behind.

It would probably take several things to happen, but several weird things always seem to happen in November in the BCS race.

Add Rex Burkhead’s 129 yards against Iowa State (his second 100-yard game of the season) to Roy Helu’s four 100-yard games (and he had 99 Saturday) and Taylor Martinez’s five 100-yard games, that gives the Huskers 11 century performances in nine games.

NEW JERSEYS: That was a classy move by Utah on Saturday, replacing players’ names on the back of their jerseys with the words "Duty, Honor, Courage, Commitment, Country, Integrity and Service."

Too bad it didn’t work. Now it’s a jinxed idea for anybody to ever try again.

THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST GAMES

Friday, Nov. 12

Boise State at Idaho – Don’t just walk into the Kibbie Dome and expect a W. Run.

Saturday, Nov. 13

Oregon at California – Could this be a "trap game" for the Ducks?

Georgia at Auburn – Could this be a "trap game" for the Tigers?

San Diego State at TCU – Aztecs (7-2) average 35 points a game … until now.

Penn State at Ohio State – JoePas seem to be back on track … but so are Buckeyes.

Oklahoma State at Texas – One is 8-1, the other fighting for bowl life; guess which is which?

South Carolina at Florida – Winner captures SEC East title, no questions asked.

Texas A&M at Baylor – Entertaining teams jockey for Big 12 bowls.

Virginia Tech at North Carolina – Tar Heels have won 6 of 7; Hokies 7 in a row.