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Weekend wrap: TCU, Boise State both look good

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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The college football season's 11th week gave us another big Stanford statement win, blowouts in Fort Worth and Boise, and studies in the game of survive and advance in Cincinnati and Columbia, S.C. With just a few weeks left, let's do a little Q and A. Here are five burning questions as the college football season hits its home stretch. 1. Who's got the best defense in all of the land? If last year was all about spread offenses, big name Heisman candidates and weekly Saturday night fireworks shows, the 2009 season has been about one thing and one thing only: defense. Florida, Alabama, Texas and TCU — the top four teams in the current BCS standings — rank first, second, seventh and eighth in the nation in scoring defense, respectively. An even crazier statistical category is Total Defense, where Texas ranks first, Florida second, Alabama third and TCU fourth. The Dec. 5 SEC Championship Game is being hyped by the college football world as either a matchup of Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer or some battle between Heisman candidates Tim Tebow and Mark Ingram. The truth is, those four will take back seats to Charlie Strong and Kirby Smart's defenses. It's going to be a defensive bloodbath. Plain and simple. The defensive unit that has the more dominant afternoon that day will determine which SEC team will be playing in the BCS Championship and which SEC team will be headed to the Sugar Bowl as an at-large bid. Putting my NFL draftnik hat on, I can safely say that we haven't seen a crop of future pro talent on two defensive units in one game like we will in this one in quite some time. This battle could be the most defensive pro talent-ridden matchup since the Miami-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl of 2003. That battle featured 41 future NFL players, close to half of which were on the defensive side of the ball. Alabama's Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, Javier Arenas, Marcell Dareus, Courtney Upshaw, Justin Woodall, Mark Barron and Kareem Jackson are all likely first day draft choices. In Carlos Dunlap, Ahmad Black, Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham and Will Hill, the Gators have a slew of future first day defensive picks, as well. The SEC championship game could have more pro scouts in attendance than coeds in Bear Bryant Houndstooth hats. But don't sleep on the D's of Texas and TCU. The Longhorns, up against a notably lighter schedule than usual, have beat up on their 2009 opponents handedly. The 'Horns haven't given up more than 14 points in a game since Sept. 19. They're tops in the nation in rush defense and second in interceptions. The Horned Frogs, meanwhile, feature a defense made of a bunch of former high school running backs and guys who didn't get offered scholarships to Texas. They're nasty. TCU held the C.J. Spiller-led Clemson Tigers to just 10 points, BYU to just 7, and an SMU offense averaging close to 30 points per game to just 14. The Horned Frogs won all three of those contests. Naturally, the defense led the way. In the end, it may very well be the team with the best defensive depth that hoists the BCS Championship trophy in Pasadena. That team? Gimme the Gators. When most squads are running on empty in the fourth quarter, Florida seems to just be getting started. That's because they have what appears to be up to 20 capable players getting significant playing time. In Wondy Pierre-Louis and Markihe Anderson, Florida has two starting cornerbacks from a defending BCS Championship team two years ago coming off the bench in supporting roles. In Dustin Doe, they have a former starter at linebacker rotating in throughout the game. The DT position is like a hockey team with line changes shifting in and out on every drive. Jaye Howard and Omar Hunter — two big time defensive line recruits out of high school — come in off the bench to serve as second winds. They'd be three-down starters on just about any other SEC team. The D is skilled, experienced and as deep as any college unit we've seen in recent years. The Gators have been criticized far and wide for winning ugly and plodding through a season of "survive and advance." And that's precisely why they'll be the most prepared for epic battles in both the SEC and BCS Championship games. And oh yeah, having that quarterback helps a little bit too. 2. If the Orange and Fiesta Bowl selection committees have the choice between a two-loss Penn State team, a two-loss Wisconsin team and a two-loss Iowa team, who are they taking? As you know, only two teams from any one BCS conference can play in BCS bowls. With Ohio State locked and loaded for the Rose Bowl, that leaves quite a decision from either the Orange or Fiesta Bowl selection committee on which two-loss Big Ten team they'd rather invite. There's a very strong chance Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State all finish the season with just two losses on the year. Only one of the three can play BCS football. Though it may seem like a no-brainer to give the nod to Iowa of the three, it's not that easy. Yes, Iowa beat both Wisconsin and Penn State head-to-head this season. And sure, few would argue that the Hawkeyes have one of college football's best traveling fan bases. But when it comes down to it, I think Joe Pa and the more nationally recognized Nittany Lions would get the nod. This, of course, would leave thousands of fans from Iowa City to Des Moines outraged. Having been burned three years ago by a similar "odd men out" situation, it would cause great distress in Madison, too. But this is college football, and in college football, things like logic, head-to-head matchups and what's "fair" don't always come into play. In fact, they rarely do. With Iowa coming off back-to-back losses, banged up at various positions and without the big name star attraction of a Ricky Stanzi, Penn State becomes the far more appealing — and likely more lucrative — at-large option for the Orange and Fiesta. Iowa fans have a fantastic track record and will travel to any bowl host city in hordes, but Penn State's fan base can hold its own, too. Though Iowa has the larger alumni fan base in the Southwest, Penn State could likely fill both the Fiesta and Orange Bowl, too. Furthermore, Joe Pa and the Nittany Lions are the bigger television draw. Fans will tune in to see the legendary coach on what might be his last BCS bowl sidelines. Merchandise will be sold. Wisconsin is looming, but is the likely third choice of the three. With a big win over Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday, Penn State can make the statement it needs to leapfrog Iowa in both the BCS standings and the hearts and minds of bowl selection committees in Arizona and Florida It'll cause a lot of confusion a bit of outrage, but I think two-loss Penn State would likely get the nod over two-loss Iowa. And to the great dismay of many, that's regardless of what happened when the two teams took the field in September or how the two teams looked comparatively against Ohio State. Absurd? Senseless? Unjust? There have been a lot worse words used to describe the BCS. 3. What's Houston's loss to UCF mean for Colt McCoy's Heisman bid? Time to play some connect the dots. Though his Heisman bid was picking up significant steam in the recent weeks, Houston's heartbreaking 37-32 loss to UCF on Saturday likely cost Case Keenum a trip to New York City in December. Keenum's putting up Andre Ware-esque passing numbers this season, but with Houston having now dropped two games in Conference USA play, he'll be an afterthought for Heisman voters. Keenum finished 33-of-56 for 377 yards and three scores in Saturday's loss, but he wasn't Johnny Drama down the stretch. No, there were no chants of "Victory" to be had. Keenum had more than 500 yards passing the previous two weeks against Southern Mississippi and Tulsa, and Houston won both games by scoring in the final minute. Which leads to McCoy, the Texas quarterback. With Sam Bradford out of the Heisman discussion since September, Big 12 big names Zac Robinson and Dez Bryant no longer in contention and now Keenum no longer in the conversation, McCoy should take the majority — if not all — of the Southwest and Midwest region's Heisman votes. You've got to think Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Tim Tebow will split votes in the South, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, while Toby Gerhart and Kellen Moore won't be big enough names to steal the Far West from the Texas super senior so late in the game. Though Keenum wasn't going to win the Heisman, he would have likely taken some votes from McCoy. Now? The entire region is McCoy's. In a weird way, Keenum's loss might have had the bigger impact on McCoy's Heisman chances than his NCAA record-breaking win on Saturday. College football ... there's really nothing quite like it. 4. What's the wildest offseason coaching move possibility? Though I'd still be a bit surprised to see Charlie Weis given the boot in South Bend, it's certainly possible. The same goes for Rich Rodriguez in Ann Arbor and Steve Spurrier in Columbia, South Carolina. Those three positions, in addition to whether or not Al Groh and Ralph Friedgen last in Virginia and Maryland, should get the bulk of the media's attention over the next few weeks. But a chorus of nervous whispers have been coming out of Gainesville for several weeks now. That whisper has Urban Meyer leaving.
And not for South Bend. But rather, Cleveland. Cleveland? Oh, yes. To coach the disastrous Cleveland Browns. It's way out there, sure, but with every Florida win and every Browns loss (and every Eric Mangini public relations nightmare), those whispers are getting louder and louder. Say the Gators go on to win their third BCS title in four years under Meyer. And for argument's sake, say the Browns don't win another game the remainder of their season. Cleveland will go into the NFL offseason with the top overall pick in the NFL draft, a blank slate of a roster for a new coach to work with, and a fan base in dire need for an inspiring leader at the helm. Would Meyer — a Northern Ohio native who had accomplished everything a college coach could accomplish in a five-year span — not make a little sense? Some Browns fans may be leery of seeing Cleveland management go the college coach route after how the Butch Davis era ended in the early 2000's, but I'd imagine the majority of them would be very much in favor the change. As for Meyer, the guy's a competitor. And for as much as he loves the college game, as a competitor there's got to be a part of him at least tempted by the thought of the NFL. And to coach in his home state of all places? Even the most die-hard Gators fan has to see where that could be an attractive move for the man. The Meyer to Notre Dame rumors have been vibrant since he initially passed on the job in 2005. With the way Notre Dame's season is finishing up a once promising '09 campaign, that chatter is louder than ever now. But don't ignore those Meyer-to-Cleveland whispers. The volume's rising quite a bit on those, too. 5. Could this be the year we see two non-BCS conference teams play in BCS bowl games? As much as it baffles me to say so, you'd better believe it. All season long, we've been told time and time again (by yours truly, included), that only one of the two undefeated non-BCS schools would be playing in a BCS bowl this January. But with losses by Miami, USC and Notre Dame on Saturday — it seems more and more likely that we will see both Boise State and TCU play in their own BCS bowl games this season. Both Boise and TCU have done their part. After being given a minor scare in last Friday night's 10-point victory over Louisiana Tech, Boise righted itself to the tune of a 63-25 annihilation of Idaho on Saturday. It doesn't hurt the Broncos that the very same Louisiana Tech team gave LSU a major scare on Saturday night in Baton Rouge. We'll assume that the Big Ten, whether you like it or not, is sending two teams to the BCS — Ohio State and either Penn State, Iowa, or Wisconsin. The same goes for the SEC. The loser of the SEC Championship game is likely headed to the Sugar Bowl. TCU will take another one of the at-large bids. With four at-large berths to be had, that leaves one spot open. Why not Boise? Bowl executives are concerned with things like hotels, local commerce, ticket sales and TV ratings. Boise's main competition for an at-large bid is likely Big 12 No. 2 Oklahoma State. Would the average American football fan be so much more inclined to tune in for a two-loss Cowboys team over the undefeated Broncos? It's not like Oklahoma State is a noted college football powerhouse like Notre Dame or USC. The Pokes still have to get by a pesky Colorado team and a hungry Oklahoma squad, anyway. Even with wins over the Buffs and Sooners are they a more attractive option — both at the gate and on television — than the Broncos? Other possibilities for the at-large berth could be one of the surging teams out of the Pac-10, and an ACC and/or Big East runner-up. The Stanford Cardinal have been a nice story of late, but they still face a juggernaut of a schedule. More importantly, their fan base is no more likely to fill a stadium and populate a host city for a week than Boise's. As for a Pittsburgh/Cincinnati loser, neither of those two options would be very attractive considering they'd be losing a game to finish the season. Talk about backing in. If Georgia Tech beats Georgia but falls to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, there's a chance the two-loss Yellow Jackets get the nod over the Broncos. But again, is Georgia Tech that much more of an appealing draw than America's Cinderella squad up in Idaho? Are that many more people inclined to buy Fiesta Bowl tickets if the game involves the Yellow Jackets instead of the Broncos? Is there a Georgia Tech fan base going to travel across the country after the Jackets were shocked just a few weeks earlier in Tampa? Again, it looks like Boise's the safer bet of the two. In truth, this could be the year we are all proven wrong. From the start of the season, it was all but assumed that it was TCU or Boise who'd be going BCS bowlin' in January, but that there was no possible way they'd both be given at-large invites. But with national powerhouses shooting themselves in the feet each and every week and the alternatives becoming less and less appealing with every passing Saturday, it looks like Boise may somehow, some way, get the nod. Whether it's by process of elimination or by merit, it's really of no consequence. If Boise State gets a BCS invite, it's a major win for the little guys. The irony of it all is that the Broncos' fate might be controlled by Oklahoma — the very team that fell to Boise in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. If the Sooners can knock off Oklahoma State in two weeks, the path will be all but clear for a Boise State return to the BCS. And if that happens, it'll be a major foot in the mouth for all of us in the media who dismissed the possibility so casually. I'll be the first to say, it serves us right. I never thought I'd see the day where the BCS system worked out for not just one — but two--non-BCS conference squads. It appears as though that day might be here.
Tagged: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, Boise State, Idaho, Ohio, Arizona, Stanford, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, LSU, South Carolina, Louisiana Tech, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, Southern Mississippi, Cincinnati, Houston

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