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One play can turn the tide of a season

Without a playoff, a day like Saturday is what makes college football so amazing . . . and so frustrating.

October 26, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

If Alabama and Iowa end up playing for the Bowl Championship Series title in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 7, a game that probably would end up 3-3 on its way to overtime, remember Saturday.

Saturday was one of those possible "game-changer" days that make fundamentally flawed college football more interesting than every other sport -- a sport you might want to think long and hard about before you let Congress tamper with it.

In no other sport can a blocked field-goal try in Tuscaloosa and a last-second miracle in East Lansing have such a potential impact on hopes in Cincinnati and dreams in Boise.

Iowa defeated Michigan State as time expired when quarterback Ricky Stanzi hit Marvin McNutt with a seven-yard scoring pass.

Was the ball ever going to get there?

Iowa's season could be measured from the release point out of Stanzi's hand to his receiver's fingertips.

"It felt like the slowest play ever," McNutt said.

Iowa is now 8-0 after dodging its fourth or fifth dagger this season. The Hawkeyes, by all rights, should have been cooked birds on opening day when they needed two blocked field goals in the final seconds to hold off Northern Iowa at home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 27, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
College football: In Monday's Sports section, an article about how one play can affect a team's season misstated the first name of an Arkansas quarterback who fumbled in a 1998 game. He was Clint Stoerner, not Curt.

Had Iowa lost then, no one would be talking about Iowa now.

Every week counts in college football, even the weeks you had no business winning.

After Saturday you wondered how many miracles Iowa could possibly have left.

"We've already had a couple," Coach Kirk Ferentz admitted after the win. "Hopefully we're not using them all up."

Alabama should have lost to Tennessee at home -- but didn't. In a 12-10 win, Tennessee missed one field goal and had two others blocked, the last by Terrence Cody as time expired.

If Alabama (8-0) advances to win the national title, no one will remember at the 10-year reunion how unfair Tennessee Coach Lane Kiffin thought it was.

Tennessee had eight penalties in the game to Alabama's one.

"Very shocking to me," Kiffin said afterward.

A bad bounce here, a blown whistle there.

"That's how fragile a season is," Alabama Coach Nick Saban said.

If only Tennessee's long snapper could have bothered Cody long enough for Daniel Lincoln to make the game-winning kick.

It could have meant the world . . . to Texas Christian.

"Just stuck my arm up," said the 350-pound Cody, whose one arm equals three for the average human.

You don't get a best-out-of-seven to find out who ends up on top in college football. Sometimes you get fourth-and-goal and one play to beat Michigan State.

Sometimes two teams end on top and you get to argue about it for years.

Saturday is what makes college football so week-to-week watchable, profitable, and confounding to millions who think the circumference of Cody's arm should not be able to possibly determine which team hoists the crystal trophy.

"I think great teams have great players that make great plays in critical situations," Saban said.

Without a playoff, college football careens for months like a runaway car without its brakes -- you don't know where it's going or when it's going to stop.

How many times has one play during the regular season determined everything?

In 1997, Nebraska defeated Missouri in overtime thanks to a you've-got-to-be-kidding pass from quarterback Scott Frost that bounced off receiver Shevin Wiggins' foot into the diving arms of teammate Matt Davison.

Nebraska ended up 13-0 and won the third and final national title for legendary coach Tom Osborne.

In 1998, the first year of the BCS, Arkansas quarterback Curt Stoerner's fumble in the backfield without being touched allowed Tennessee to score the winning touchdown with 28 seconds left. That enabled Tennessee to win the national title with a victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl.

In 2002, Ohio State finished 14-0 after squeezing past Cincinnati by four, Purdue by four, Wisconsin by five, Penn State by six, Illinois by seven in overtime and Michigan by five.

Sound like another Big Ten team you've seen lately?

The real destiny indicator for Ohio State that year came against Purdue, when Craig Krenzel completed a fourth-down touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins to win the game and save the season.

What about this year?

Will Damian Williams' punt return for score in a six-point win against Oregon State at the Coliseum be the play USC fans look back on at this year's post-BCS title party?

Answer: we don't know yet.

How many teams lost a national title because of one play it didn't make?

UCLA would have been in the title game of 1998 had the Bruins tackled Edgerrin James once in a crazy four-point December loss at Miami.

USC would have had a third straight national title in 2005 had it converted on fourth and two against Texas, a possible fourth straight title in 2006 had it made a two-point conversion at Oregon State, a possible fifth straight title in 2007 had it stopped Stanford on fourth down.

We may look back on Saturday as the day when the Crimson Tide turned and Iowa said luck was the residue of design.

Stanzi wasn't contemplating history when he zeroed in on McNutt to beat Michigan State.

"I definitely wasn't thinking about championships or an undefeated season," he said.

Yet, both are still in play.

All Terrence Cody did was stick his giant arm in the air and block a field goal.

The questions to ask as Congress threatens to intervene and change college football from a weekly crapshoot to a banker's accounting with pie charts and brackets:

Would you rather have seedings . . . or Saturday?

Do you want fair . . . or do you prefer fragile?


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