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November 29, 2008

Saturday's winners and losers

The SEC will decide its BCS Championship Game representative on the field next week. The Big 12 will rely on the Bowl Championship Series standings to determine its top national title contender.

Texas Tech's 35-28 escape against Baylor and Oklahoma's 61-41 victory over Oklahoma State created a three-way tie atop the Big 12 South standings. Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech have one loss each.

The Big 12 will have to go to tiebreaker No. 5 the team ranked highest in the BCS standings to decide who faces North Division winner Missouri in the Big 12 Championship Game. The other big game next weekend is the SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Florida, who each won Saturday to move one step closer to playing for the national title.

While the biggest suspense of the weekend involves the release of the BCS standings Sunday afternoon, Saturday's action on the field also produced plenty of drama. Here's a look at Saturday's biggest winners and losers.


Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford and TE Jermaine Gresham: While each helped keep OU's national title hopes alive, Bradford and Gresham staked claims that they're the nation's best players at their respective positions. Bradford boosted his Heisman candidacy by throwing four touchdown passes and running for a fifth score in the Sooners' 61-41 victory over Oklahoma State. Gresham scored two touchdowns giving him 12 for the season and caught nine passes for 158 yards. Gresham has scored at least once in six of Oklahoma's past seven games.

Big 12 offenses: The winning teams in Big 12 games this week averaged 45 points. Even the losing teams averaged 29.2 points. Texas A&M a 49-9 loser to Texas was the only Big 12 team that failed to score at least 28 points. Are the offenses that good, or are the defenses that bad? We probably won't know until bowl season.

Rose Bowl: Oregon State's run for the Roses might have been a nice story, but did anyone outside of Corvallis really want to see a rematch of Penn State's 45-14 rout of the Beavers? Oregon's 65-38 destruction of Oregon State made that scenario much less likely. Assuming USC beats UCLA next weekend, the Rose Bowl instead gets a Penn State-USC matchup that should get the best ratings and most publicity of any bowl outside of the BCS Championship Game.

Alabama and Florida. The Crimson Tide and the Gators didn't get caught looking ahead to the SEC Championship Game in their regular-season finales. They made quick work of their rivals to turn the conference title game into a de facto national semifinal. The SEC division winners enjoyed some symmetry in their wins, including dominant performances in the ground game and stifling defenses. Florida jumped to an early lead in a 45-15 win while Alabama turned a 10-point first-half lead into a 36-0 win.

Tim Tebow. Tebow's performance was enough to keep him among the Heisman frontrunners. He threw for 185 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 78 yards and another touchdown. But the highlights likely will win him some valuable PR. The downpour in Tallahassee combined with Florida's all-white uniforms reinforced Tebow's linebacker-playing-quarterback image as he finished the day covered in mud and red paint from the end zones.

Virginia Tech's defense. The Hokies don't win games without massive contributions from the defense. Saturday, Virginia Tech needed the defense to help make up for long drives that came up empty. After Vic Hall, the Cavaliers' cornerback-turned-quarterback, rushed for 77 yards and two touchdowns on direct snaps in the first half, Virginia Tech held him to 33 yards and no scores in the second half. The Cavaliers had two possessions in the final 6:30, but Virginia Tech came up with an interception, then a sack to end the drives.

Dominique Davis. Boston College did just fine in Davis' first start. Davis, a redshirt freshman who was playing because of the injury to Chris Crane, threw for 153 yards and two touchdown passes and also was effective while on the run. As with fellow ACC division winner Virginia Tech, Boston College won on the strength of its defense. The Eagles intercepted Maryland's Chris Turner twice and sacked him five times in the 28-21 win.

Clemson. The Tigers will go to a bowl after winning their seventh game to cap a 4-1 November. Clemson was inspired early, opening a 24-0 lead thanks to three interceptions and a blocked punt in the first half. The regular season ended with what many people expected out of Clemson this season: a strong defensive effort and a combined 207 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns from tailbacks C.J. Spiller and James Davis.

Ohio State: Oregon State's likely absence from the Rose Bowl would open up a BCS at-large berth for either Ohio State or Boise State. Even though Boise State (12-0) has a better record than Ohio State (10-2) and is ranked higher in the BCS standings, the Buckeyes almost certainly would get the BCS bid because they're a much better draw.

Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly: Rivals.com has reported Kelly will interview Wednesday for the Syracuse coaching vacancy. Oregon's record-setting performance against Oregon State has to improve the chances that Kelly gets a head-coaching opportunity somewhere next season. Oregon gained 694 yards in total offense and scored the most points Oregon State had allowed in a game.

Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer: This won't go down as one of Fulmer's finest seasons, but the outgoing coach closed his 17-year tenure at Tennessee in style by beating up on the teams he dominated throughout his career. One week after Tennessee knocked off Vanderbilt 20-10, Fulmer led the Vols to a 28-10 victory over Kentucky to maintain his perfect record against the Wildcats. "It's been a heck of a tough year in a lot of ways," Fulmer said, "but these last two ballgames shows the true character of these young men."

USC coach Pete Carroll in November: USC's 38-3 whipping of Notre Dame improved the Trojans' record in November to 27-0 during Carroll's tenure.

Clemson's coaching candidates. It was a good three hours or so for the Clemson administration as Dabo Swinney and Bud Foster, two candidates to replace Tommy Bowden, helped their teams to important wins. Foster's defense keyed Virginia Tech's win over Virginia. Swinney is 4-2 as Clemson's interim coach, including the Tigers' eighth win in 10 meetings against South Carolina.

N.C. State. After a 2-6 start, the Wolfpack became bowl eligible with a 38-28 win over Miami. Redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Wilson has been the catalyst during this run. Against the Hurricanes, he threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 58 yards and another score. NCSU is bowl eligible for the first time since 2005.

ACC. Kick the league if you want, but the conference won't struggle to fill its bowl commitments like the Big 12, SEC and Pac-10. The ACC has 10 bowl-eligible teams after wins by Clemson and NC State.

Paul Johnson. The first-year coach won over Georgia Tech fans in a way Chan Gailey never did. Ending a seven-game losing streak to Georgia helps. The victory left no doubt Johnson's offense can work at a high level. Georgia couldn't tackle the inside-outside duo of Roddy Jones (12 carries, 213 yards, two touchdowns) and Jonathan Dwyer (20 carries, 144 yards, two touchdowns).

Kansas' image. The Jayhawks had done little to dispel the notion that last season's 12-1 record was a product of a soft schedule. Going into the Missouri game, Kansas' only win over a bowl-eligible team was against Louisiana Tech. Kansas finally beat a top team with a wild 40-37 win over Missouri. There were 28 points and a missed field goal in the final 6:52, but the key was Kansas' first-half defense, which ended Missouri possessions with an interception, a fumble and a safety. Mark Mangino called it the "guttiest" win he's seen as a coach: "Our injury list, a roll of toilet paper wouldn't be enough," he said.

Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane got the assist they needed to reach the Conference USA Championship Game when Rice beat Houston. Still, Tulsa had fits with Marshall, needing a 22-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to beat the Thundering Herd 38-35.

Wake Forest CB Alphonso Smith: The senior All-America candidate made his 20th career interception Saturday to tie the ACC record set by former North Carolina star Dre Bly. Smith's interception set up the game-clinching touchdown in the Demon Deacons' 23-10 victory over Vanderbilt.

Rice TE James Casey: He caught three touchdown passes, ran for a 1-yard score and threw a 3-yard touchdown pass in Rice's 56-42 victory over Houston. The victory gave Tulsa the Conference USA West title. Casey has 104 catches this year to set a league single-season record.


Oregon State's defense: The defense that couldn't stop Stanford's Toby Gerhart or Penn State's Evan Royster in its first two games reverted to its early-season form at the worst possible time. Oregon's Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount combined for 331 rushing yards. Jeremiah Masoli threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a fourth score. Johnson rushed for 202 yards in the first half alone.

Big 12: Sure, your conference has been the biggest story of the season, but your ridiculous tiebreaking rules are now making your league the subject of ridicule. While it's hard to find any ideal way to sort out a three-way tie, having the division champion decided by BCS standings has reduced Texas coach Mack Brown and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops to politicking for their respective teams. Both deserve better.

Music City, Liberty, Independence and Papajohns.com bowls: The SEC hasn't done these bowls any favors this year. The Music City and Liberty probably must choose between a pair of .500 teams in Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The SEC didn't even have enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill its partnerships with the Independence and Papajohns.com, leaving them to pick among Sun Belt Conference teams.

The BCS. The conference commissioners, university presidents and everyone else who supports the BCS cursed Baylor on Saturday. Texas Tech scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second half to beat the Bears 35-28. A Baylor win would have relieved the BCS of some controversy by sending Texas to the Big 12 title game. The Texas Tech win made sure the Big 12 South would be the center of BCS discontent.

Texas. With the Texas Tech win, the Longhorns are at the mercy of the voters and the computers to reach the Big 12 Championship Game. The Longhorns would have clinched the South with a Baylor win.

Star wide receivers. It wasn't a good day to be one of the nation's top receivers. Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and Florida's Percy Harvin left their games in the first half with ankle injuries. Missouri's Jeremy Maclin was hobbled with a hip injury but did not leave the loss to Kansas.

The ACC. Virginia Tech and Boston College will play in the ACC title game for the second consecutive season, much to the chagrin of anyone other than Virginia Tech and Boston College. Hotel and restaurant owners in Tampa are probably a little disappointed, too. The attendance at last season's game in Jacksonville was dismal, and don't expect it to be any better this season.

Willie Martinez and Georgia's defense. The Bulldogs' defense was so pitiful, it's stunning to think this once was a national championship contender. Georgia's poor tackling allowed Georgia Tech to rush for 409 yards. The Bulldogs managed to lose a 16-point halftime lead at home despite allowing only one pass completion all day. Martinez's defense was shredded in the Bulldogs' three losses this season.

Chris Smelley. With Stephen Garcia out with a bum shoulder and stomach ailment, South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley was on his own. Smelley threw four interceptions against Clemson. At least there's some symmetry here: Tommy Beecher threw four picks in the opener against NC State.

Kentucky (whenever it faces Tennessee): Kentucky's 28-10 loss to Tennessee marked the 24th consecutive time the Wildcats have fallen to the Vols. That's the nation's longest current losing streak by one team against another.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis: How do you respond to reports that your job is on the line? Well, if you enter a game with your biggest rival as more than a four-touchdown underdog, you ought to at least cover the spread. Weis' team couldn't even accomplish that much in a 38-3 loss to USC. The Irish had 9 total yards in the first half and didn't pick up a first down until the final play of the third quarter. Notre Dame's 15 losses over the past two seasons are the most during any two-year stretch in school history.

Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen (whenever he's on the road): Clausen's two-interception performance against USC continued his season-long road woes. Clausen has thrown 11 interceptions and four touchdown passes away from home this year, including six interceptions and no touchdown passes in Notre Dame's past two road games.

Houston. The Cougars needed to beat crosstown rival Rice to face East Carolina in the Conference USA Championship Game but fell apart in a 56-42 loss. Tulsa will be the C-USA West representative despite losing 70-30 to Houston, whose defense was a problem all season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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