Drama Builds: Alabama-FSU, Winston-Manziel

There comes a time in every championship season, every dynasty, when even an old football guy like Nick Saban goes Lou Reed on us. Saban got down and dirty midway through the third quarter against LSU, with the game tied 17-17 and Alabama’s reign teetering in the November drizzle. Facing 4th and 2 at his own 41-yard line, he called a time out, then decided circumstances were right for a fake punt.

Hey, Nick, take a walk on the wild side.

But Saban — and here is why he’s arguably the greatest college football coach ever — didn’t originally signal for a timeout because he was scheming. Seems the Crimson Tide had only 10 players on the field, forcing the stoppage. “I was on the sideline talking to coach, going over a play call,” safety Landon Collins confessed, per Al.com. “We just got stuck.” When the full 11 returned to the field, Saban noticed LSU had changed to a formation conducive to a fake punt.

The call was made as the timeout ended. All-America linebacker C.J. Mosley, serving as the up-man in punt formation, executed the play perfectly, handing the ball to Jarrick Williams for a six-yard gain. The first down led to a touchdown and a stream of 21 unanswered points — on scoring drives of 79, 71 and 78 yards — in a 38-17 victory that inched Alabama closer to the national championship game.

“We didn’t want to give them the ball back,” Saban said. “We weren’t playing great on defense, so I think it was a big play in the game and for our offense to finish that drive really changed the momentum of the game.”

Wait, isn’t that something the Mad Hatter, LSU coach Les Miles, would have tried? “Coach has got a couple of ‘em up his sleeve, too,” said Williams, a defensive back.

And wasn’t it perfectly pulled off by Mosley? “I’d trust C.J. to do anything. Watch my kids, take care of my house. (Punt) fake is not much,” Saban said. “C.J. is so conscientious about everything he does. You know he’s going to execute and do it exactly like you tell him to do it, the way you want him to do it.”

This is why Alabama is bidding for its fourth national title in five years and trying to become the first team since Minnesota in the 1930s to win three straight championships. Saban is always one step ahead of the game. He has two difficult assignments left before Pasadena, including a dangerous game at Auburn to end the regular season, but it’s hard to imagine Alabama not tightening the vice grip and securing a Jan. 6 berth in Pasadena. Known for being grouchy, Saban was uncharacteristically giddy afterward, hugging his big-game quarterback, AJ McCarron, before AJ hugged his mom and world-famous girlfriend Katherine Webb. Saban senses what’s coming the next two months, I think. “We probably played our best half of football,” he said. “We didn’t play great in the first half, but, man, I tell you what, a lot of character out there in the second half.”

In a common-sense world, McCarron would lead the Heisman Trophy race because he has won every big game during an all-time dynasty. But he is punished by voters who perceive him as a game manager in a bigger system. “All he does is win and does what he needs for his team to do,” Saban said. “I think the guy is the best quarterback in the country.” It sounded like a rare Heisman push from Saban, who realizes McCarron needs lobbying help now that Jameis Winston is the frontrunner. As Florida State solidified its hold on the No. 2 spot with a 59-3 thumping of Wake Forest, Winston helped his Heisman campaign with two touchdown passes on a day when the Seminoles relied on seven turnovers to pile up points.

The voters love Winston because he’s charismatic, poised and a dual-threat machine, so compelling that ESPN’s “SportsCenter” goes live to his midweek press conferences in Tallahassee. It also helps that he isn’t lobbying for the award, all but apologizing because FSU gained only 296 total yards against Wake. “For us to be a great team, both (offense and defense) have to be clicking,” Winston said. “When they’re getting turnovers and scoring touchdowns just like that, sometimes it is hard to stay in a rhythm, and obviously, I’ve got to do a better job of commanding the team and leading us.”

My man, you won 59-3.

With Oregon’s Marcus Mariota taking a step backward in Heisman chatter after the Stanford loss, a familiar name has re-emerged as Winston’s foremost rival at the moment. Remember Johnny Manziel? He lit up Mississippi State for 446 passing yards and five touchdown passes in Texas A&M’s 51-41 win. No one doubts Johnny Football has the numbers to win his second straight Heisman, but his team is out of the national championship picture in large part because he threw two critical interceptions against Alabama in September, including a fatal Pick 6. Winston is helped by a defense far superior to A&M’s, but he has fared well in Florida State’s big games and has the advantage of weak competition in the last four games. It becomes a baseball MVP-type debate: The player having the greater individual season or the player who might lead his team to a national title?

My current ballot would go: Winston first, McCarron second, Manziel third. Johnny Football says he isn’t thinking about it. “I’m focused on trying to get us to a BCS bowl,” said Manziel, who was saluted by chants of “One More Year!” from the A&M crowd. There is no chance he’ll stay in College Station another season, having quieted some NFL concerns about his maturity level with an exceptional seven weeks under the national radar. “We have a process that we go through,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said, referring to Manziel’s NFL decision. “We talk all the time about opportunities down the road.” Sumlin also might be leaving, as USC targets him for its coaching vacancy.

Though the national title picture seems stable at the moment — Alabama vs. Florida, Mentor Nick vs. Disciple Jimbo FIsher — chaos still has a chance of mucking things up. What else would you expect, in the final season of the Bowl Championship Series, but the perfect storm for the most imperfect system known to sportingkind? Before the BCS suffers a long-overdue death, it might trigger a national debate on whether FSU ultimately will be worthier than Baylor as Alabama’s opponent.

Unless, of course, Alabama loses in the interim, which then would leave a bigger mess than Webb’s Carl’s Jr. ad and usher FSU and Baylor to play a 64-58 sort of game. Unless, of course, the BCS computers and pollsters were tochug and whir and hypothesize and spit out Ohio State instead of Baylor. My current ballot would go: Alabama first, FSU second, Baylor third and Ohio State fourth (thanks to a weak Big 10).

For this potential disarray, applaud Stanford. It wasn’t long ago when the school best known for Tiger Woods, a tree mascot and a band that marched in marijuana-leaf-shaped formations just assumed it never could have an elite football program, based on academic standards too lofty to allow jock riff-raff. That notion ended when Jim Harbaugh showed up and proved eggheads also could be champions. And it continued when Harbaugh left for the NFL and handed the coaching reins to David Shaw, who’ll soon be in the NFL himself but not before performing the unthinkable in the college game: twice slowing down the supersonic Oregon spread offense and preventing Phil Knight U. from winning national titles in back-to-back seasons.

The school that thinks deeper than most of us — and the school that is firmly standing by its embattled alumnus, Jonathan Martin, in his legal warfare against a Jersey thug — used simple brainpower in quieting the Ducks again. Know how to stop an offense that was averaging 55.6 points, 632 yards and 78 snaps a game? Know how to drop Mariota behind Winston in the Heisman race and slow an attack that was averaging 8.1 yards per play and popping a mind-blowing 71 plays for 20 yards or more?

Play keep-away. When the game is 60 minutes and Stanford kept the ball for 42 1/2 minutes, it doesnt take a Linear Algebra major to realize you’re limiting Oregon’s opportunities. Once again, power football and boring uniforms trumped speed and Nike outer-space apparel, with Tyler Gaffney leading a bulldozing attack that rushed for 274 yards on 66 carries and beat up the Ducks. If Martin is as “soft” in the trenches as Richie Incognito and various Miami Dolphins players have expressed, he would be proud that the offensive line — loading up in some cases with nine men up front — dominated the game and lifted the Cardinal to a 26-20 victory.

“If you control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball you can beat these guys,” said Shaw, making the biggest statement of the college season to date. “We’re a big, physical football team that plays well together.”

While dumping Oregon from the ranks of the unbeaten, Stanford did a major favor for the charismatic Winston as he tries to win the Heisman in his first season as FSU’s quarterback. Mariota struggled throughout, while playing on a sore left knee, and didn’t put the Ducks on the scoreboard until the fourth quarter. Once again, Oregon loses a big one, making us ask if the program is a bigger mannequin for gaudy Nike wear than a true title contender. “It is tough and it is hard because a lot of these guys have really worked hard,” Mariota said. “It ain’t over. It happens. We’re going to come back stronger than ever and we’re just going to take it in stride.”

It is over, Marcus — the national title dream and the Heisman. Winston has four golden opportunities to pile up numbers and wins — Syracuse, Idaho, five-loss Florida and the ACC title game — and very little chance of losing a game. “We don’t hold the cards anymore,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who looked overmatched in his first major headline game as Chip Kelly’s successor. The only question is whether Baylor, which started slowly against Oklahoma but ended up flexing both offensive and defensive muscle in a 41-12 romp, possibly could end up with a title-game argument if it finishes unbeaten. The Bears have a much tougher upcoming schedule than Florida State — No. 25 Texas Tech, No. 15 Oklahoma State and a Texas team unbeaten in the Big 12 — and are gaining traction. Ohio State fans also will be kicking and screaming, but the Big 10 is a weakling by comparison, and the Buckeyes likely will slide behind Baylor in due time in the BCS standings.

“We’re just talented, man. We’re committed. I think that’s all you can say about it,” said Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, himself a Heisman candidate after throwing for three touchdown passes and rushing for two. “This is a very special team.”

It’s a team coached by Art Briles, a football lifer who might be regaeded as the father of the spread offense — the current rage in the sport. Baylor was a rock-bottom program that had suffered 12 straight losing seasons when he took over. Since then, he has given us Robert Griffin III and a current team that would be a hoot against Alabama or Florida State in the title game. This is a group that feels it had an off night offensively against Oklahoma, having entered the game averaging 64 points and 718 yards.

“We’re ready and willing and anxious to get into the grind time,” Briles said. “Get into where we’re fighting and scraping for every single thing that’s out there.”

Including the national championship.

Stanford, no doubt, would be a worthy title-game participant had it not lost to Utah last month. This is not your typical powerhouse in the sport. Unlike Ohio State, Texas, Alabama, Florida State and the other elites, Stanford doesn’t have whopping revenues from ticket and merchandising sales. So how does the Cardinal compete in the elite? Private donations that feed unique endowments. As the Wall Street Journal points out, Shaw’s job is endowed. All 85 scholarship players are endowed. The offensive coordinator is described as the Andrew Luck Director of Offense when a donor — maybe Luck himself, maybe Jonathan Martin, maybe Woods, maybe John Elway — provided a gift for that position.

It will be viewed as one more reason to bash Stanford in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room. But it works.

So now, we see if Alabama can survive a very interesting game at Auburn, then either South Carolina or Missouri in the SEC title game. The path to Pasadena looks easy for Florida State, but I must remind all that the BCS still lurks.

We know what the B and the S stand for.

The C is for chaos.

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