And then there were three.
Three weeks left in the college football regular season and three teams still undefeated who can play for the national championship. Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame all won with relative ease on the road on Saturday and, in all likelihood, two of them will play for the national championship in Miami in January.
Saturday’s stunner, of course, was Alabama’s loss at home to Texas A&M. The fact that the Tide dug itself a 20-0 hole before almost rallying to win would indicate that Nick Saban didn’t get the message across to his team about the dangers of facing a talented upstart one week after an emotional road win over an archrival.
It now appears the SEC may be locked out of the national championship game, which would mean the end of its six-year run of national titles.
Oh well, weep not for Alabama — or Saban — who was quick to point out that “two of my three national championship teams had a loss.”
While Alabama’s loss was built to some degree on self-destruction, it was also partly the result of the play of A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, whose legend as “Johnny Football” has grown so quickly that his family and the school are already engaged in a legal battle with a local investment firm in College Station over the trademarking of the nickname.
All the attention on Manziel has deflected attention from the job first-year coach Kevin Sumlin has done at A&M. Even though the Aggies blew a chance to beat Florida early in the season, his presence has clearly made a difference in College Station, a place where football is only a little more important than whether the sun rises in the morning.
Sumlin isn’t going to get any serious consideration for national coach of the year. That award is going to go to either Kansas State’s Bill Snyder or Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. No one expected either one of their teams to be undefeated this deep into the season and each is coaching a Heisman Trophy candidate: Collin Klein, the quarterback at K-State, who played hurt Saturday night and was still effective, and Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo, who has been the heart and soul of a defense that is the reason the Irish are 10-0.
Of course, this is the time of year when people speculate on which coaches are going to be fired at season’s end. It appears likely now that three jobs will open in the SEC: Arkansas Coach John L. Smith probably needed to win at least 10 games to have the interim tag removed after he replaced the disgraced Bobby Petrino in the spring. The Razorbacks are 4-6. Tennessee’s four-overtime loss at Missouri on Saturday may have sealed Derek Dooley’s fate, even though it is only his third season in Knoxville. The most stunning fall is that of Auburn’s Gene Chizik, who won the national title two years ago and is currently 2-8 without an SEC win. Unless Chizik can convince people at Auburn that he’s figured out a way to bring Cam Newton back, he’s probably gone. Patience is not an oft-used word in SEC country.
Amazingly, amidst the remarkable mediocrity in the ACC, the only coach likely to lose his job is Boston College’s Frank Spaziani, whose team has two wins — one over Maine, an FCS team and the other over Maryland, which was fielding an FCS offense when it played the Eagles.
Maryland’s Randy Edsall will get a bye because of his team’s remarkable string of injuries even though his team is likely to finish 4-8 after a 4-2 start. It is worth noting that Maryland lost to a very mediocre Connecticut team at home while still largely healthy and that its four wins are over teams with a combined record of 14-25.
Jon Embree is only in his second season at Colorado but is 1-9 this season and 4-19 overall. He may be gone with three years left on his contract. And the coach who most deserves firing — and is likely to get it — is Wyoming’s Dave Christenson. If a 2-7 record this season and 20-27 in four years isn’t enough, the profane tirade he directed at Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun last month should be a clincher.
On the flip side of the bad, the ugly and the profane are a handful of coaches who won’t get national consideration but deserve, like Sumlin, a good deal of credit for the seasons their teams have had.
A lot of people thought Rutgers would slip when Greg Schiano went to coach in the NFL but, at least this season, there’s been no sign of that. The Scarlet Knights are 8-1 under Kyle Flood.
David Cutcliffe will probably be the ACC coach of the year, partly by default, but anyone who can coax six wins out of Duke deserves recognition. The Blue Devils have been exposed by the ACC’s two best teams — Florida State and Clemson — in their past two games, but Cutcliffe has brought them a long way since taking over arguably the worst FBS program in the country five years ago.
Even after collapsing Saturday at Nebraska, Penn State is 6-4 under Bill O’Brien. It can be argued that no coach has ever taken over a football program under more difficult circumstances and O’Brien has kept the Nittany Lions respectable after an 0-2 start.
Finally, two coaches who probably won’t be noticed anyplace except (perhaps) on their campuses. One is Pennsylvania’s Al Bagnoli, who is in his 21st season at Penn and Saturday wrapped up at least a share of his ninth Ivy League title when his team stunned Harvard, 30-21, without starting quarterback Billy Ragone, who hurt his ankle at the end of the third quarter. The sight of the Penn seniors lighting cigars on the field to celebrate their win was one of the highlights of the season.
The other coach who won’t be noticed but should be is Colgate’s Dick Biddle. Like Bagnoli he has gone largely unnoticed nationally, even though he has had great success in 17 seasons coaching the Raiders. Colgate won the Patriot League title on Saturday, coming from 14-0 down to shock unbeaten Lehigh on the road, 35-24. The Raiders are now 7-3 after a 1-3 start and Biddle called the win “the greatest of my career.” This from a man who is 132-64 as a head coach, has won seven Patriot League titles and took his team to the FCS national championship game in 2003.
Colgate will now represent the Patriot League in the 20-team FCS tournament, which will conclude on Jan. 5 with the title game. Imagine, a real tournament where who plays and who wins are decided strictly on the field. What a novel idea.