The Blitz: No. 2 debate? Let’s focus on unlikely SEC finale

Started from the bottom now we’re here. Started from the bottom now the whole team here.
— Drake, ‘Started From The Bottom’

We’re all getting ahead of ourselves, every last one of us.

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, talking heads and anyone with a Twitter account are already debating: Can a one-loss SEC team pass an unbeaten Ohio State to play for a BCS title?

None of that matters, at least for a few days anyway.

What’s tangible and in no way hypothetical is an SEC Championship Game that’s as stunning as anything in this crazy season. Duke playing for an ACC crown? Florida’s collapse? UCF in line for its first BCS game? They’re all great stories, but nothing will capture the unlikeliness of 2013 like No. 3 Auburn and No. 5 Missouri meeting Saturday in Atlanta.

There will be no Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU or South Carolina at the Georgia Dome. Instead, the Tigers (The Plains version) went from 3-9 and winless in the SEC in ’12 to a West crown in their first year under Gus Malzahn; and the Tigers (the Show-Me State variety) have gone from 5-7 (2-6) in their first season in the conference — generating rumors Gary Pinkel was on the hot seat — to an East title.

Forget talk of destiny, this is more like absurdity and you would have needed Grays Sports Almanac to have seen it coming.

“I think about both teams being very hungry,” Malzahn said. “We’re kind of down at the bottom to start the year and have improved. This time of year, there’s not a lot of teams that improve this late. I feel like we’ve improved each game.  If you look at them, they could probably say the same thing.”

It figures to be strength vs. strength. Auburn, which is fifth in the nation at 318.3 rushing yards, just burned the Crimson Tide — ranked No. 4 vs. the rush at the time — for 296 yards. Meanwhile, Missouri, which is second in the SEC against the run (and 14th in FBS) in allowing 119.1 per, held Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to 216 yards of offense, his lowest output of the season.

“They’re a great running football team with a great quarterback and a great scheme that causes every defense nightmares,” Pinkel said. “We’re athletic at the defensive end position. The guys can run, they’re physical.”

The SEC’s here and now is an unlikely matchup of two turnaround teams. Though it could lead to another less celebrated reality: the end of the league’s seven-year reign as college football’s king.

No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Ohio State are in the driver’s seat to reach Pasadena. Unless the Seminoles fall to Duke in the ACC title game or the Buckeyes lose to Michigan State in the Big Ten finale, a one-loss SEC winner will have to hope its resume can be enough to get it up to No. 2 to avoid the first national championship game since 2005 that didn’t include an SEC team.

That jump itself would be unprecedented; no one-loss team has been voted over an undefeated from a major conference in the format’s 16 years. But it wouldn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility considering Ohio State had a scant .0270 lead over Auburn and was 0.1075 ahead of Missouri in the latest BCS Standings

It’s one final wrinkle in the last days of the BCS, one that’s only fitting for this much-maligned system. Pinkel did his first bit of lobbying for it Sunday, saying “I think any one loss team in the SEC, strength of schedule, hopefully that will be taken into consideration for it.”

But that debate must wait, because this week belongs to a game that’s a testament to a topsy-turvy season.

This week belongs to Auburn and Missouri.

Another Heisman contender falters

We’ll get into this in greater detail in this week’s Forecast, but this weekend saw the candidacies of Manziel, Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Fresno State’s long shot Derek Carr take hits, no one may have been hurt in more ways than Boston College’s Andre Williams.

Manziel and McCarron will remain on a number of ballots regardless, and while Carr has been intriguing, he wasn’t going to win anyway — no player from outside the major conferences has taken the award since BYU’s Ty Detmer in 1990, and if anyone is going to challenge that this year, Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch is the more logical choice. Williams, though, saw a burgeoning campaign damper as he was challenging history.

The senior running back had run for 897 yards in his three previous games, vaulting him not just into the conversation, but had some thinking he could legitimately challenge for the award. Making a run at Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing record of 2,628 was going to be difficult, but the way Williams was running, there was the possibility he was at least going to get around 2,500 yards. But he managed just 29 yards against Syracuse before aggravating an ongoing shoulder problem that ended his day one carry into the third quarter.

“There is a fine line between being a liability and being able to help your team, and I had to make that decision,” Williams told reporters. “If I had gone back in there I would have been a liability. There is no question this hurts. I was excited to do something and we couldn’t do it.”

Before he left the Eagles’ 34-31 loss, Williams did manage to become the ninth player in FBS history to go over 2,100 yards rushing, but the defeat was the end of Boston College’s regular season, meaning it was his last chance to impress voters before ballots are due Dec. 9.

He was already playing from behind in this race with the Eagles not even a factor in the ACC race and now Boston College is 7-5 and 4-4 in-conference. That would be the fewest wins by a Heisman winner since Oklahoma’s Steve Owens won in 1969 on a 6-4 team.

Williams may still get enough support to reach New York based on having the biggest season for an RB — 2,102 yards — since Kevin Smith in ’07, but the Orange’s defense and Williams’ health have made winning the Heisman a near impossibility.



UPS AND DOWNS

UP: DUKE

Behold, the magic of David Cutliffe. He has the Blue Devils at 10 wins for the first time in school history and delivered their first ACC division crown. Never mind that the Seminoles opened up as 29-point favorites in the ACC title game, the mere idea that Duke is playing in this game will make whatever happens in Charlotte secondary.

DOWN: Florida

The Gators’ worst season since 1979 came to a fitting end with a 37-7 rout at the hands of Florida State. “We hit rock bottom this year,” guard Max Garcia said. “I feel like the only way we can go is up.” It cant’ get much worse as Florida lost seven of eight and missed a bowl for the first time since 1990. The changes have already begun in Gainesville as Will Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Will Muschamp (see what I did there?) maintain the run-heavy offense that left little margin of error or get with the times and spread things out? Chances are Muschamp sticks to his perception of what an offense should look like, but this season should be proof enough that the approach isn’t the right one.

UP: Baylor

While Clemson and Wisconsin saw their hopes of at-large BCS berths suffer in losses to South Carolina and Penn State, respectively, the Bears kept their hopes alive as they held off TCU 41-38. Should Bryce Petty and Co. get past Texas on Saturday in Waco and end the regular season at 11-1, they’d be an intriguing choice for an at-large (if they can’t get an assist from Oklahoma in beating Oklahoma State to give it the Big 12 title). Still, it’s expected the Orange Bowl will still take Clemson due to its ACC ties and the Bears may need a loss from Northern Illinois to get that berth. But the Bears bounced back after suffering their first loss to at least stay in the conversation.   

DOWN: Fresno State

Speaking of BCS hopes, Derek Carr and the Bulldogs’ ended in spectacular fashion in a 62-52 loss to San Jose State in which they combined for 1,389 yards. “Put the blame on me for the offense,” said Carr, who threw for 519 yards, six TDs and a fourth-quarter INT. “You guys want to praise me when it’s good — Heisman this and all this. Blame me for the loss. I need to do a better job to help my team win.” Chances are the Bulldogs weren’t going to be able to pass Northern Illinois in the BCS Standings, but this loss took some of the intrigue out of the final weekend.

UP: Southern Miss

The Eagles avoided a place in infamy, dumping UAB 62-27 in the season finale for their first win of ’13 and their first since dating back to the 2011 Hawaii Bowl, a stretch of 23 consecutive losses. Had Southern Miss lost they would have been the eight team in major college football history to have back-to-back winless seasons and the first since Kansas State in 1987-88.

DOWN: Notre Dame

Tommy Rees threw two fourth-quarter interceptions as the Fighting Irish dropped to 8-4 one year after reaching the BCS title game. “It’s not where we want to be; losing is unacceptable,” Kelly said. “An 8-4 record is not where we want to be. We lost some tough games, but those are all excuses. We come to Notre Dame to win football games.” The Irish’s eight wins tie for the fourth-fewest by a team in the BCS era that played in the title game the year before and its the worst since Auburn went 7-5 in the regular season in ’11.

Jordan Lynch
Jordan Lynch broke his own FBS single-game record for rushing yards by a QB with 321 vs. Western Michigan. (Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports-USA TODAY Sports)

BMOCs

OFFENSE: Jordan Lynch, QB Northern Illinois, RS Sr.

He broke his own FBS record for rushing yards by a QB, burning Western Michigan for 321 and three TDs in a 33-14 win. With Carr’s slim Heisman hopes all but finished, Lynch is certain to see an up-tick (the reality is, most voters wouldn’t have room for two non-BCS conference players on their ballots) and now he has the Huskies one game away from a second straight trip to a big-money bowl game.

DEFENSE: Tyvis Powell, DB Ohio State, RS Fr.

He stepped in front of Devin Gardner’s two-point conversion attempt, picking it off and saving the Buckeyes’ hopes of playing for a national title. He got an assist from secondary coach Kerry Coombs, who when Michigan’s Brady Hokes opted to go for two, told Powell one of two things was coming: a speed option play or a pass out of a triple stack. The Wolverines went with the latter and Powell jumped the route by Drew Dileo to seal Ohio State’s 42-41 win.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Davis, CB Auburn, Sr.

The NCAA will only credit him with 100 yards, but it was more like 109 as Davis fielded Adam Griffith’s 57-yard field goal and ran it back for a touchdown to beat No. 1 Alabama 34-28 that rivals the greatest finishes in college football history. “We’re a team of destiny,” Davis said. “We won’t take no for an answer.”



CRYSTAL BALL

No. 18 Oklahoma vs. No. 6 Oklahoma State

A win would give the Cowboys their second outright Big 12 title in three years, while a loss would give the conference’s Fiesta Bowl bid to the winner of Baylor-Texas. The Sooners have scored 48 and 41 points since being routed by the Bears, but those were wins over 3-9 Iowa State and Kansas State, which is 5-4 in league play. This remains an Oklahoma D that gave up 445 yards to Texas, 460 vs. Texas Tech and 459 against Baylor. Oklahoma State, which is scoring 41.2 per (10th), will follow suit.
The Pick: Oklahoma State 41, Oklahoma 27

Big Ten Championship: No. 10 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Ohio State

The Spartans’

top-ranked defense hasn’t allowed more than six points in five of the

last six games and a combined nine points the last two outings. But the

Buckeyes, who average 48.2 points (third in FBS) and 530.5 yards (sixth)

will be the best offense they’ve seen. That’s the matchup that will be

on the marquee, but of more glaring importance is how Ohio State’s pass

defense holds up. The Buckeyes gave up 451 yards and four TDs to Gardner

in the win over Michigan, exploiting what’s been a major issue for Ohio

State, which ranks 98th (255.8) in that department. The question is,

can the Spartans, who are 95th through the air at 194 ypg, take

advantage of it? Braxton Miller and Co. will score, but Michigan State

may not have enough firepower to match them.
The Pick: Ohio State 28, Michigan State 21

ACC Championship: No. 20 Duke vs. No. 1 Florida State

The Blue Devils have largely gotten it done by being opportunistic on defense and balanced on offense. They’re not incredibly strong in one area, they’re just solid and have done just enough to win 10 games. It’s not a knock, it’s the truth as Duke has played five games decided by seven points or less. That won’t get it done against the Seminoles, not with them poised to cement a spot in the BCS title and not with Jameis Winston poised to clinch a Heisman.
The Pick: Florida State 42, Duke 17

SEC Championship: No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 4 Auburn

As we saw against Alabama’s

defense, Auburn is dedicated to the run and facing another high-level

rush D, that’s not going to change. The duo of Marshall and Tre Mason —

they combined for 263 of Auburn’s 296 rushing yards vs. the Tide —

will be hard to stop and even if Missouri can manage it, Marshall has

shown the ability to stretch the field with the long ball. That should

allow him to take advantage of a Missouri pass defense that’s giving up

266.3 ypg (110th) and keep Auburn’s unexpected season going with — at

the least — a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
The Pick: Auburn 34, Missouri 30

Last Week: 0-3
Overall: 27-11