REBIRTH OF ALEX SMITH
A SLOW START UNDER KLINSMANN
As LSU's coaches and players walked off the field at Neyland Stadium following their 38--7 win over Tennessee last Saturday, the Tigers fans who made the trip to Knoxville hailed them with a chant: "We want 'Bama!" Days earlier, someone (presumably an LSU fan) accessorized the Nick Saban statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with a purple cape. Clamoring for a college football playoff? You just may be treated to an unofficial final four this season, with the first semifinal—call it the SEC bracket—taking place Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
By the time No. 1 LSU (7--0) and No. 2 Alabama (7--0) meet, it will likely be the most highly anticipated regular-season game since No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan on Nov. 18, 2006. A fast, deep front four and a stacked secondary led by ball-hawking cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu (four forced fumbles and two interceptions) and Morris Claiborne (three interceptions) give LSU coach Les Miles his strongest defense since the '07 BCS championship team, while the quarterback tandem of Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson (suspended for the first four games for his alleged role in a bar fight) have been surprisingly efficient.
While LSU looks like the complete package, so too does Alabama, only with an even scarier defense. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick lead a group that held top 20 opponents Arkansas and Florida to a combined 32 rushing yards on consecutive weeks. The winner of the LSU-Alabama showdown will be well-positioned to earn a sixth straight national championship for the SEC.
The Sooner State, of course, has something to say about that. The other likely final four matchup—henceforth known as the Bedlam bracket—could come on Dec. 3 when No. 3 Oklahoma (6--0) visits No. 6 Oklahoma State (6--0). If aggressive D is the hallmark of Alabama and LSU, the Sooners' and Cowboys' signatures are their explosive offenses.
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones (362.7 yards per game, 16 touchdowns) and his trio of game-breaking receivers, Ryan Broyles, Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds, have a terrific chemistry, and they operate at a breakneck pace and with a dazzling precision matched only, perhaps, by Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden (349.7 yards per game, 16 TDs) and receiver Justin Blackmon (101.3 ypg, 7 TDs).
Of the two programs, the Sooners have the superior defense, a game-breaking unit that scored three touchdowns in a 55--17 rout of rival Texas two weekends ago. With such playmakers as defensive ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, linebacker Travis Lewis and cornerback Jamell Fleming, Bob Stoops has his best D since the early 2000s, but they will be challenged by Weeden & Co.
None of these four teams is immune to upset, but it seems increasingly likely that one, if not both games will feed into the Jan. 9 BCS championship game in New Orleans.
There's only one problem with this fantasy: Those teams—who claimed the top four spots in the first BCS rankings of the season—are hardly the only teams with a shot of running the table. No. 4 Wisconsin (6--0), which has added a potent new dimension to its bruising offense with the addition of big-play quarterback Russell Wilson, is head and shoulders above the rest of the Big Ten. Andrew Luck and No. 7 Stanford (6--0) may only be tested twice more, against Oregon and Notre Dame, both at home. And No. 8 Clemson (7--0) has already survived the toughest part of its schedule unscathed. Only two undefeated major-conference teams—Auburn in 2004 and Cincinnati in '09—have failed to reach the championship game since the inception of the BCS in 1998. Two or more in one season would surely cause an unprecedented firestorm. And that doesn't even take into account No. 5 Boise State (6--0), which may be as strong as any of these teams but will likely be prevented yet again from proving it due to its weaker schedule.
Presumably some late-season upsets will reduce the pool of unbeatens, but don't bet against the top four. Here is SI's projected lineup for the BCS bowls: Oregon vs. Wisconsin in the Rose; Oklahoma State vs. Stanford in the Fiesta; LSU vs. Boise State in the Sugar; Clemson vs. West Virginia in the Orange; and Alabama vs. Oklahoma in the championship game.
The aforementioned Fab Four will grab the headlines, but not all of them in the second half
Team to watch I
Clemson. Dabo Swinney's team is playing with confidence. In knocking off three straight ranked opponents (Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech), sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd and speedy freshman receiver Sammy Watkins proved to be perfect pieces for new coordinator Chad Morris's up-tempo spread offense. Barring a second-half collapse, the Tigers should win their first ACC title in 20 years.
Team to watch II
Michigan State (5--1). The Spartans, 2--0 in the Big Ten's Legends Division, are a genuine threat to upset Wisconsin this week. Mark Dantonio's team has quietly produced the nation's second-ranked defense (186.2 ypg). They held Michigan star Denard Robinson to 9-of-24 passing and 167 total yards in a 28--14 win last Saturday. Disruptive 310-pound defensive tackle Jerel Worthy helps key a dominating front four.
Top flop candidate
Baylor (4--2). Robert Griffin III may be the best quarterback in the country not named Luck, but unfortunately for the Bears, he can't play both sides of the ball. Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill lit up Baylor's 99th-ranked defense in a 55--28 drubbing last week, which doesn't bode well with Oklahoma State's Weeden, Oklahoma's Jones and Missouri's James Franklin all remaining on the Bears' schedule.
Next coach to be fired
UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. In four seasons the Bruins' coach has gone 18--25 (3--3 in 2011). His teams have yet to produce a consistent quarterback or offensive playmakers, once a specialty of Neuheisel, and he has failed to take advantage of crosstown rival USC's NCAA woes. The Bruins could still get to a bowl, but AD Dan Guerrero has been outspoken about needing to see more substantial progress.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. It's a crowded race. Wisconsin's Wilson, Baylor's Griffin, Oklahoma's Jones and Alabama running back Trent Richardson are all excellent candidates, but Luck, the preseason favorite, has done nothing to hurt his cause, throwing for 18 TDs. Unless the Cardinal struggles down the stretch, the NFL's most sought-after college QB since Peyton Manning should earn Stanford its first stiff-arm trophy since Jim Plunkett in 1970.
Photograph by Andrew Hancock
NOW HEAR THIS Lee (12) has conducted a surprisingly efficient offense for a Tigers team that is even more loaded on defense.
STEVE CONNER/ICON SMI
TOP OF THE CLASS Luck's Heisman candidacy may be a secondary Stanford story line behind the Cardinal's national title drive.
REY DEL RIO/SOUTHCREEK/ZUMAPRESS.COM
WORTHY PURSUIT Robinson couldn't break free of the Spartans' massive defensive tackle as upset specialist Michigan State continued to haunt the Big Ten.