Last year, it became such a prevalent meme that it's still alive and kicking even now: if football games lasted thirty minutes, Texas A&M might have won the national championship, but the Aggies stumbled to disaster after disaster in the second half. On Saturday night in Shreveport, in a game postponed from the season's opening week, the 22nd-ranked Aggies faced the unbeaten and 23rd-ranked Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, and it looked like it was happening all over again.
With just over 20 minutes gone, the Aggies were up 27-0 and the Bulldogs looked completely incapable of either stopping A&M or scoring on them; by the end of the first quarter, Louisiana Tech only had 33 yards of offense while Christine Michael had more than that on his 40-yard TD run which opened the scoring. Johnny Manziel added a 20-yard scoring pass to LeKendrick Williams and a 15-yard scamper on his own legs. Taylor Bertolet kicked two field goals, one a 54-yarder, in the first few minutes of the second period.
However, over the final six minutes of the half the teams combined for 28 points as the Bulldog offense finally got the A&M defense sorted out. Colby Cameron hit Quinton Patton from 11 yards out to get the Bulldogs on the board. Just twelve seconds later, Manziel found Mike Evans open, and Evans rolled 75 yards to the end zone to get the margin back. A key play occurred after Louisiana Tech scored on a six-yard Kenneth Dixon run with 2:55 to go in the half, as Matt Nelson's point-after was blocked and returned for two points by A&M's Dustin Harris. After Bertolet and Nelson traded field goals, Nelson's with zeroes on the clock, the Aggies went to the locker room with a 39-16 lead rather than 37-17.
Midway through the third quarter, Patton caught his second and third touchdown passes of the night from Cameron; a Manziel run in between left the score 46-30 at the end of three. And that's when the Bulldog defense started showing up, too. Getting the ball back, Tech scored a couple of minutes into the final frame on a 21-yard dash by Dixon during which he simply refused to allow the Aggies to tackle him. An attempt to convert for two failed, but A&M was called for pass interference; Cameron ran it in on the second chance. Just 30 seconds later, Manziel attempted to throw out of his own end zone and Shakeil Lucas picked him off, scampering fifteen feet into the end zone to bring the Bulldogs within two. The conversion attempt failed, though, another gaffe that would loom large.
Defense then stiffened for A&M, and it seemed as though they'd reasserted control as they scored twice over the next ten minutes on a 17-yard pass to Thomas Johnson and a 75-yard run by Manziel with just 2:04 to go. The PAT failed after the latter score, but still it seemed as though Louisiana Tech was done for.
Patton hauled in a Cameron pass only 18 seconds later and rambled 62 yards for a score. Tech coach Sonny Dykes, knowing he could go for two if the Bulldogs scored again to tie the game, opted to kick, and it was good. After an onside kick which was touched first by A&M before it had gone ten yards was recovered by Tech, Cameron marched the Bulldogs quickly, finding Ray Holley from 13 yards out with 38 seconds to go. Tech was again within two, but Cameron's pass sailed way over anyone's head on the edge of the end zone on the conversion attempt. Another onside attempt failed, and Texas A&M had escaped with an absolutely insane 59-57 win.
Amazingly, they almost shouldn't have. The Aggies scored two points on a blocked PAT, and Tech failed to convert twice on two-point attempts. Change the missed conversions to successful kicks, and keep the blocked PAT but remove the two-point return... and even if you give A&M the point for their own missed PAT to be fair about it, the Bulldogs would have won the game 59-58. That's how close this game really, truly was, and also sort of points out in giant neon letters the importance of special teams.
Offense? A lot. The two teams combined for 1293 yards of offense. A&M had 678, 576 of it directly attributable to Manziel, who passed for 395 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 181 with three more scores. Manziel broke his own SEC total offense record which he'd just set two weeks ago. Tech rolled up 615 yards, with Cameron throwing for 450 and five touchdowns while Dixon ran for 111 yards and two scores. Patton hauled in a ridiculous 21 catches for 233 yards and four touchdowns.
Shreveport was on fire Saturday night, and it was a sight to behold. It was, personally, my first extended look at A&M's freshman phenom, and I have to tell you: man, he's something. If Kevin Sumlin can build a defense, as much as it pains me to say this, A&M could legitimately challenge within a couple of years. We'll just have to see if the new coach is capable of it.
IT'S ALABAMA, AND THEN...
There was no surprise at all atop the first BCS rankings released last night, as there's the Alabama Crimson Tide sitting at #1 just like we all knew they would be. One of only two teams in the nation to actually hold the top spot in more than one computer ranking, it was a given that the Tide's computer ranking would be more than sufficient to keep their poll spots secure.
However, there was one major shock, and a quieter, deeper one. The major shock was Florida -- whose computer rankings after discarding top and bottom was twos across the board, good for the top slot in computer average -- landing above Oregon. The quieter shock, though, directly impacts Kansas State. The gap between #1 Alabama and #2 Florida is wider than the gap between Florida and #5 Notre Dame; more pertinently, the gap between Florida and #3 Oregon is three times wider than the gap between Oregon and the fourth-ranked Wildcats, whose advantage over Notre Dame is almost twice as large as their deficit to the Gators.
What precisely does all this mean? Right now, as we speak, there's really nothing to separate numbers two-four in the rankings, which is actually almost a perfect parallel to reality at this point. Just going off gut and eyeball, Florida would probably beat Oregon, as Florida seems capable of stopping the Ducks. Oregon would probably handle K-State, as the 'Cats probably can't stop Oregon. But Kansas State might actually be favored over Florida, as the Gators might have a hard time scoring on the Wildcats. Notre Dame, trailing behind the trio, has admittedly been strong defensively, but haven't really played a team whose offense is both potent and consistent, so it's hard to say where they'd fit in there.
After that, it's a massive drop from Notre Dame to the rest of the field; the Irish are closer to Alabama than they are to #6 Louisiana State. Obviously, there are probably going to be shakeups which bring the second tier closer to relevance later... but it is possible that each one of the top five could roll straight into December without losing. At that point, it's going to come down to strength of schedule; that will almost certainly benefit everyone but Notre Dame and potentially Oregon.
Wildcat nation is going to have to hope Oregon slips unless the 'Cats just go crazy and start beating everyone by 40, but given the current situation things look good otherwise. An Oklahoma win over Notre Dame would help, but isn't absolutely critical as long as the 'Cats keep winning; K-State is a lot closer to #3 Florida in the Harris Poll than they are to #5 Notre Dame -- only 18 points behind the Gators, but over a hundred points ahead of the Irish. They're ahead of Florida in the coaches' poll, by ten points, and have a 56-point cushion over the Irish (which, given the difference in actual voters in the two polls, is basically equal to a 100+ point cushion in the Harris). Most importantly, K-State's fourth overall in computer ranking, and nothing that's going to happen the rest of the season so long as they keep winning is really going to damage that position outside of the Irish beating the Sooners. More important than that, though, is this: beating Oklahoma isn't going to help the Irish much, as they're already ranked second in the computer average. They have no real "up" to go, and as the Irish get deeper into their season, heavily back-loaded with weak competition, any benefit of a win over the Sooners will be heavily eroded.
Understand, I am not saying Notre Dame can't slip past an unbeaten Wildcat team. You can't account for the voters. But Notre Dame does not appear to be equipped to blow out a team like Oklahoma, and if they have a narrow win in Norman... well, has there ever been a case where two teams not in the same conference had enough correlation to be able to compare them so directly? Both teams will have faced two opponents in common, at roughly the same site (Notre Dame played Miami in Chicago rather than at home, but come on). K-State will have clearly played a better schedule by season's end. Of course, the Land Thieves could take care of the entire problem themselves... but more importantly, the 'Cats have business to take care of themselves. Let's hope they can.
DOWN THE BALLOT
Hanging out in the catbird seat once again are the Boise State Broncos. They open at #22, and since the Big Ten is (not so) mysteriously absent from the proceedings, they only need to climb six more spots for an automatic BCS berth. Assuming they win out, even if there are no upsets at all the rest of the year they're absolutely guaranteed to pick up at least a couple of those spots; the Big East unbeaten troika ahead of them will cause at least two, if not all three, to slip behind the Broncos by season's end. Of course, we all know that there are going to be upsets 'twixt now and then, don't we?
A CRAZY IDEA
Bear with me here. Imagine that Oregon and Notre Dame fall out of contention. Kansas State wins out. Alabama wins out except for losing to LSU, and as a result the Tigers -- who also win out -- stumble into the SEC title game, where they get trucked by the unbeaten Gators.
There's little doubt that Florida would be #1 in the BCS. There's little doubt that K-State would be #2 in the polls. But imagine... just imagine... that Alabama barely slips past K-State into the #2 spot in the BCS. A pissed off K-State has to settle for the Fiesta Bowl, but if they were to win big and Alabama were to knock off Florida in an ugly mess of a game...
Cackle with glee as you think of the chaos. It's cathartic.