There's three ways to look at Iowa State's 26-25 victory at Baylor on Saturday. And your perspective probably depends on how you felt about the job Dan McCarney was doing before the game was even played.
First, there's the pessimistic viewpoint, which says the Bears are arguably the worst team in any BCS-level conference (i.e. Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC, Pac-10, and Big East). Nonetheless, the Cyclones needed an improbable 80-yard drive to win it at the end, an unlikely 65-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Brent Curvey, and a plus-three turnover margin to pull it out. Then there was a defense that surrendered 450 yards of total offense to the league's worst statistical offense.
And against a Baylor team that hadn't given up fewer than 37 points in any game this season against a Division I-A foe and owned the worst defense in the conference, ISU only mustered 20 points on offense and 257 yards. ISU also was forced to punt six times.
Now Baylor has displaced ISU with the longest Big 12-losing streak, yet the Bears' other 10 losses in this string were by an average of 39 points per defeat.
The naysayer looks at those numbers, and considering what he or she previously thought of the direction of the program, says the Cyclones lucked out to win this game and proved nothing except their slightly better than a team headed for ESPN.com's Bottom 10 poll.
Next, there's the optimistic perspective. The optimist realizes that breaking a mental block like a school-worst 13-game conference-losing streak doesn't usually happen in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The optimist notes that ISU overcame several stumbling blocks that would've given it reason to mail in another loss and instead showed some testicular fortitude when it counted most. The 80-yard drive that produced the game-winning points for the Cyclones, plus the 91-yard drive that led to ISU's first touchdown, give the young offense something to build on; a frame of reference for the future if you will.
Bret Meyer came off the bench dinged up to engineer the winning drive. The running game finally found a second look with the emergence of Jason Scales. Other receivers stepped up when Todd Blythe was being double-teamed, and then Blythe stepped up when he was needed most. Sure, the defense probably isn't happy with its overall performance against anemic competition, but when the plays were there to be made it came up with the turnovers that turned the momentum around. Heck, even the dubious special teams avoided their weekly snafu. Troy Blankenship had a career-day punting, Nick Leaders blocked a field goal before halftime, and Bret Culbertson made both of his extra points—no mean feat for a kicker wearing cardinal-and-gold.
The optimist says forget the caliber of the competition, this was really about ISU football learning how to win again and it passed the test, plain and simple.
The final approach is that of the realist, and you can place me in that camp. The realist looks at the statistics and shudders along with the pessimist, but then looks at the intangibles and cheers along with the optimist.
In reality, we won't know what this game means until Saturday at 1 p.m. when the Cyclones kick off against Kansas at Jack Trice Stadium. If ISU were to come out and lose at home against a beatable conference opponent, its likely all the good will built up coming out of Waco goes up in smoke. The Jayhawks are still good enough to beat ISU, or is that ISU may still be bad enough to lose to the Jayhawks? We just don't know yet.
However, this realist is glad for Coach McCarney, his staff, and the players that they finally got to head home happy from a conference road game for the first time in nearly three years. This is still a season of opportunity. ISU finishes with three of its final four games at home, and all of those games are winnable. Thus, bowl-eligibility is still attainable, but doubtful.
I'll stick by my preseason pick of a 5-6 finish with something to build on for 2005.
Whose Afraid of the Big, Bad, Big 12 North?
It's getting downright embarrassing for members of the Big 12 North.
To put how bad it is in perspective, had ISU not given away the game at Colorado on October 16th, the Cyclones would be tied for first place in the division right now. No, that's not a joke.
Trev Alberts is publicly saying Bill Callahan has lost the Nebraska program already. Missouri blew a 10-point lead at home to an Oklahoma State team that thinks pass is four-letter word. Colorado had a chance to put a "stranglehold" on the early division race, note the sarcasm, but blew it at College Station. Kansas State has looked the best since conference play began, and that was in a loss to Oklahoma.
What's the common thread? Well, questionable quarterback play is plaguing every team in the division except Missouri. The Tigers have had the unfortunate coincidence of playing a focused Texas and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks coming off a loss, otherwise they're clearly the team to beat. They're the only North Division team to rank in the top five in the conference in both total defense and scoring defense.
Missouri will represent the Northern half in Kansas City in the Big 12-title game. Now the question is how many other North teams will reach bowl-eligibility?
A new segment in the column debuts this week with the debut of the first BCS ratings. Here's a look ahead to which teams I think will play on college football's four biggest stages based on how I forecast the season to unfold each week.
Fiesta Bowl—Oklahoma (11-1) vs. West Virginia (10-1)
Orange Bowl—Miami, Fla. (10-1) vs. Texas (10-1)
Auburn and USC each finish undefeated and play in the national championship. California wins out and earns the Rose Bowl's at-large berth against Wisconsin, which ties Michigan for the Big Ten title but wins the better overall record tiebreaker. Oklahoma loses one of its tough two remaining road games but still wins the Big 12. West Virginia earns the Big East's automatic berth. Miami stays home as the ACC champ and faces at-large selection Texas, which passes upstart Utah in the BCS and saves Mack Brown's job as a result.
My Top 25
If I had a vote in the Associated Press college football poll, this would have been my ballot this week:
2. Oklahoma (7-0)…Last week—2…This week—beat Kansas, 41-10…Next week—at #14 Oklahoma State (6-1).
3. Auburn (8-0)…Last week—3…This week—beat Kentucky, 42-10…Next week—at Mississippi (3-4).
4. Miami, Fla. (6-0)…Last week—4…This week—beat N.C. State, 45-31…Next week—at North Carolina (3-4).
7. Wisconsin (8-0)…Last week—7…This week—beat Northwestern, 24-12…Next week—idle.
12. Texas (6-1)…Last week—13…This week—beat Texas Tech, 51-21…Next week—at Colorado (4-3).
13. Texas A&M (6-1)…Last week—15…This week—beat Colorado, 29-26 (OT)…Next week—at Baylor (2-5).
14. Oklahoma State (5-1)…Last week—19…This week—beat Missouri, 20-17…Next week—#2 Oklahoma (7-0).
15. Virginia (6-1)…Last week—14…This week—beat Duke, 37-16…Next week—idle.
17. Purdue (5-2)…Last week—11…This week—lost to Michigan, 16-14…Next week—at Northwestern (3-4).
20. Arizona State (6-1)…Last week—22…This week—beat UCLA, 48-42…Next week—at #6 California (5-1).
24. South Carolina (5-2)…Last week—NR…This week—idle…Next week--#9 Tennessee (6-1).
25. Southern Mississippi (5-1)…Last week—NR…This week—beat East Carolina, 51-10…Next week—idle.
Dropped out: #21 Florida (4-3), #23 Notre Dame (5-3), #25 Alabama-Birmingham (5-2).
Handicapping the Heisman
Heading into the final month or so of the season the race is still wide open.
1. Jason White (QB-Oklahoma)…Really starting to come on, but how much credit does the freshman behind him running the football get for that? Faces a big challenge this week against a fine secondary on the road.
2. Matt Leinart (QB-USC)…Had a chance to put up some impressive numbers against one of the worst defensive teams in the country and didn't do so. Still, quarterbacking the nation's No. 1 team has its Heisman advantages.
4. Alex Smith (QB-Utah)…Probably the best dual-threat quarterback in the country with 15 touchdown passes and eight touchdown runs, including an impressive 70-yarder against UNLV last week.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)