Setting the Table: A Rivalry Week for the Ages

Saturday’s Iron Bowl will go down as one of the most memorable college football games of all time.

Last week, I prepared a piece highlighting the importance of last Saturday’s slate of big time matchups, especially concerning the BCS top five.  The main focus of college football was on the plains in Auburn, as this year’s Iron Bowl was one of the most epic installments of the bitter rivalry, even before the whistle blew.  Auburn’s last second miracle toss against Georgia was perhaps the greatest play in all of college football this season, but it was topped, in the same stadium, by the same team on Saturday.  By now, you’ve likely seen an endless loop of Chris Davis’s missed field goal return, priceless fan reactions and the legendary call on Auburn radio.  The play speaks for itself.  Nick Saban went for the kill, wanting to skip overtime and ice the Tigers, despite their valiant effort, in their own stadium and focus on next weekend’s championship matchup and likely another national title.  The kick sailed wide right, into the hands of a waiting Chris Davis, who would return the kick 102 yards.  It was a one in a million, miraculous play, but let’s give Gus Malzahn and Auburn credit.  Davis exploited Alabama’s special teams, who weren’t prepared for the possibility of a return, even if the field goal missed.  Lots of discussion has revolved around Saban’s call.  I get it, try the 57 yarder, make it, and go home victors.  Miss the field goal and there’s a 99.9% chance the return man downs the ball, trips, steps out of bounds or gets snagged by SOMEBODY on the kicking unit.  The overwhelming odds tell you there’s too much going against Auburn for this to work out.  Credit Davis for seeing the lack of coverage and preparation among the Alabama special teams unit once the field goal sailed right.  Even if he was tripped up at the fifty, running it back was the right move.  Why Alabama chose this play, of all plays, to be caught asleep at the wheel is likely a question that will haunt Tide fans for months to come.

Chris Davis returns a missed field goal 102 yards as time expires.

Outside of the surreal nature of the play, which is more akin to a moment on Xbox than real life, there’s still plenty of interesting twist and turns the national championship road can take.  Ohio State was one play away from seeing their title hopes flushed away, Brady Hoke’s gutsy two point conversion attempt fell flat and the Buckeyes escaped the Big House to live another day.  Alabama’s loss puts OSU in control of their own destiny, for now.  Auburn plays Mizzou next week in the SEC championship game and should Auburn win, the computers will put them ahead of Ohio State, with the human element being the wildcard.  Could there be enough voter support for the Tigers to jump Ohio State?  There seems to be somewhat of a mixed opinion, but it’s likely that while Auburn has a more impressive resume, the principle of being an undefeated team from a BCS qualifying conference along with Ohio State’s tradition and prestige will be enough to push them into the national title game, barring a hiccup against Michigan State.  Speaking of Michigan State, the Spartans have been playing great football lately.  Sparty relies heavily on a tremendous defense and could stifle Ohio State’s rushing attack.  The Buckeyes showed a lot of defensive vulnerability against a mediocre Michigan team last Saturday, it doesn’t take an all-conference offense to light up the scoreboard against the Buckeye defense.  Throw in the fact it’s a neutral field and anything can happen.  It’s fitting that in their last game, OSU will face its best opponent this season.  It will be important for Meyer to have his squad amped, motivated and ready to play, a loss against MSU puts Auburn, Mizzou and Alabama all ahead of Ohio State, with no time left on the clock to regain the number two spot.  The Buckeyes will be favored on Saturday, but smart money will be moving towards Michigan State.  An upset would not be entirely unexpected.

Senior Captain L’Damian Washington celebrates Mizzou’s first SEC championship appearance.

If the insane endings to the Iron Bowl and “The Big Game” weren’t enough to make your Saturday, the other half of the SEC championship game went down to the wire.  In possibly his last appearance in a Texas A&M uniform, Johnny Manziel was thrown off of his game all night in Faurot Field, the Tiger defense laying their hands on Johnny Football more than perhaps any defense this season.  Future NFL draft pick Mike Evans was held to 8 yards, but the inconsistency of the Mizzou offense coupled with a surprising effort from the maligned Aggie defense kept things interesting well into the fourth quarter.  With a little over three minutes to go, Missouri halfback Henry Josey broke free for 57 yards and the go ahead touchdown.  Manziel, held to the lowest total yardage of his college career, was held back by the Mizzou defense on his last drive, forcing a resigned Kevin Sumlin to punt the ball and all but concede.  A year ago, not a single soul would have predicted a Tiger vs. Tiger SEC Championship, at least not involving Auburn or Missouri.  On Saturday, both will meet in the Georgia Dome, with national championship and BCS implications on the line.  Regardless of the outcome, Guz Malzahn and Gary Pinkel will likely finish as number one and two, respectively, for national coach of the year honors.

Florida State got a tune up against Idaho to prepare for Duke, and most likely, the national championship game.

For now, only one team is safe.  Florida State has all but punched its ticket to the national championship game in January.  The Seminoles are number one in the nation for the first time since 2000 and face Duke next week in the ACC Championship game.  The Noles will be multi-touchdown favorites over the Blue Devils and barring one of the most historic upsets in college football history, should take care of business rather handily.  If last week’s loser was Oregon, this week’s is Alabama.  Alabama, thanks to the success of both Auburn and Mizzou, are all but officially eliminated from national title contention.  Sad day in Tuscaloosa, and for SEC faithful, given the very, very real possibility now that the SEC is not represented in the national title game.  Still, for fans, you couldn’t ask for a better way to end the season.  Every game matters and we won’t know who’s playing for it all in January until it’s announced on our TVs.  Nothing, from the BCS title to the Chick Fil A Bowl is set in stone.