- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Late Saturday night, LSU coach Les Miles was virtually inaudible when meeting with the assembled media. The Man under The Hat was gassed in the wake of a 23-21 victory against third-ranked South Carolina. He was exhausted, but relieved.
It had been a long week here, answering questions about a beleaguered offensive line and how the Tigers were going to move the ball. And now? Nov. 3, when Alabama comes here, remains a relevant date on the national level, and LSU remains in the BCS discussion.
In fact, the list of viable one-loss teams is growing. In addition to the two here Saturday, Oklahoma and USC belong in that conversation (maybe West Virginia, too, although that's debatable after the nature of its loss Saturday). And another thought: Where does Notre Dame fit in if it should lose at OU or USC and win out otherwise?
If there's another shakeup similar to the Oct. 6 quake, those teams will again ascend. It's still early enough. Remember that it was a team that lost in early November that wound up winning the crystal football last season.
LSU's hopes of hanging around in the title discussion were flickering after a miserable day at Florida, but the patchwork offensive line destroyed a talented South Carolina front to restore hope for those on the bayou.
"We're not used to losing around here," linebacker Lamin Barrow said. "This game wouldn't have broken our season, but we couldn't take another loss. It was beautiful to see us come together as a team."
Evidently, that process actually started Friday night. Team leaders took turns talking about how they viewed the current position of a team that has seen 23 injuries, suspensions or defections since the spring. That includes the latest curious case, veteran tackle Alex Hurst, who basically just left the team a week ago.
With things unraveling, the Tigers' leadership tried to sew things back together on the eve of what turned out to be only their second win against a top-five team at Tiger Stadium since 1997.
"We had to prove something," senior lineman Josh Dworaczyk said. "We had to show we were who we said we were."
The home win streak is now at 22 -- and Alabama is next up in Baton Rouge. First, though, LSU has a tricky game next week at improving Texas A&M.
It'll be interesting to see how the run game, hit-and-miss at Florida and excellent on Saturday, evolves. Jeremy Hill looked like a future star as he got more carries during the course of a 124-yard, two-touchdown night. Two touchdowns for LSU right now is like 20; the Tigers had gone 27 offensive possessions without a TD until Hill capped a roaring, nine-play, 69-yard drive to begin the second half.
If Hill gets going and this offensive line continues to gain confidence -- and stays somewhat healthy -- the yards just might be there, even against the vaunted Tide. The game is in the right place for the Tigers; that part's for sure.
"It got back to what it should be," one LSU staffer said of the Tiger Stadium crowd, which bordered on deafening when Hill scored the 50-yard put-away TD.
Just imagine Death Valley for Bama, then. We'll see if another team's "dreams come to die," as Miles so bluntly put it Saturday.
Here are some other takeaways from Week 7 in college football:
1. A loss, but not a bad one for South Carolina
Out the door from where Miles and the players spoke, and about 90 yards down the Tiger Stadium turf, Steve Spurrier was suited up and doing part of his TV show. He still has to be the youngest 67-year-old coach ever. Well past midnight ET, he was spry and alert and generally seemed to be in a pretty good mood.
His team had been hammered up front, giving up 258 rushing yards; LSU held the ball 14 more minutes and at one point had run twice as many plays; South Carolina converted 3 of 13 third downs, while LSU, which had four third-down conversions on its opening drive, converted 11-of-19 overall; his QB was out-of-character off, including a crushing fourth-quarter interception.
And the Gamecocks lost by two points in the toughest place on the planet to play a night game. How bad could Spurrier feel knowing all that? He also knows that this week's game at Florida is the really critical one for the Gamecocks, with the SEC East in mind.
It's weird to say a loss in college football doesn't matter. But this is as close as it gets. Win out, as tough as that would be to do, and even the national championship comes back into focus.
"If we had won tonight, we would need to beat those guys [Florida], or else they're going to be in position," Spurrier said. "If somehow or another we can go beat Florida, we've got the next two [Tennessee and Arkansas] at home, so if we win out, we know we're the Eastern Division champs because we already beat Georgia. We know that.
"But beating Florida is another question."
Saturday was a physical and emotionally draining game. How, then, do the Gamecocks get up for a third top-10 game in as many weeks?
And, when it comes to X's and O's, how do they stop a running back in Mike Gillislee, who punished LSU the week before? Then there are Jeff Driskel's legs with which to reckon. (Did you see how fast he looked on the game-sealing TD run at Vandy?)
Against LSU, the Gamecocks knew what was coming -- Zach Mettenberger wasn't going to drop back and throw 50 times -- and they were still getting pushed back and blocked. One coach I texted with during the game couldn't believe the time-of-possession disparity.
Gillislee and Florida's offensive line have played terrifically in the second halves of their big wins. What can South Carolina do in the next week to tighten up its run defense?
The bottom-line takeaway is that both the Tigers and Gamecocks, though flawed, are legitimate BCS contenders as a result of their defenses and, in South Carolina's case, a special punt returner.
2. The prime-time matchup was just that
Dworaczyk stayed in the media room for about 30 minutes, probably answering the same question five or six times from different reporters. But he didn't want to stop talking about what had just happened.
"That was a great game," he said at one point, heaving a long sigh. "God, that was awesome."
3. The Big 12's a wacky place
Get used to the way things are going in the Big 12. It's going to be a week-to-week league, up and down and all over the place, with points everywhere. That's why I thought in August that the champ would be 7-2 and, in lieu of a championship game, win via a tiebreaker. (Granted, I thought it would be Texas. Never mind that part.)
West Virginia still has as good of a shot as anyone, since both primary contenders Kansas State and Oklahoma have to go to Morgantown. The Wildcats go this week, in fact.
With the way the Sooners' offense is playing, paired with the Mountaineers' lack of defense, perhaps OU is in the passenger seat (no one's in the driver's seat). Then again, K-State has that head-to-head tiebreaker so it's going to have to drop one more than OU to fall behind it. That makes this week huge for the Wildcats, who gutted out a win in Ames with Collin Klein's arm and legs.
Are TCU and Oklahoma State out of it? Hard to say for sure, though with Casey Pachall done and OSU's defense struggling, it's difficult to consider them on the same level as the top-tier contenders.
4. Oklahoma might be playing better than anyone in the country
That's a funny thing to say after how dreadful the Sooners looked in the first month at UTEP and then in the loss to Kansas State. But whatever happened in that bye week after the loss, it's been a different team since then.
Here's one important reason.
Of the half-dozen or so JUCO signees earlier in the year, the Sooners seemed jazzed most about three: offensive tackle Will Latu, receiver Courtney Gardner and running back Damien Williams. Williams was the only one of the three to get into school, but OU will take the one it got.
Bob Stoops vowed last week to get Williams the ball more -- he was averaging 10 yards a touch with 32 touches before the Texas Tech win -- and he has. Williams has 43 touches the past two weeks and he's still averaging 8.3 yards a touch, aided greatly by a 95-yard touchdown run against the Horns. His size (6-foot, 238 pounds) and speed make him extremely difficult to bring down.
We've pointed to the need for the Sooners' receivers to help out Landry Jones. In doing so, we probably neglected to say how critical the run game was for Jones' success.
I was at the blowout of Texas last season -- but Saturday was even more lopsided; it was 56-8 in the fourth quarter. The only times in Stoops' tenure the Red River Rivalry was that out of kilter were 2000 and 2003 -- two years in which OU played for a national title.
Is this that sort of team, too? Kansas is next, but how good is that Oct. 27 Notre Dame game looking? It seems like Norman doesn't see very many big games; that is looking like one.
5. Who wants to go to NYC? Anyone?
The Heisman race is again open after the giant egg West Virginia laid Saturday.
Weekly, it seemed, we'd run those numbers about Geno Smith's incompletions versus touchdowns. Well, not Saturday. He had a single TD pass and threw nearly as many incompletions (26) as completions (29).
Is Smith still the leader? If not, is there one?
Smith obviously is still a factor and this week is huge for both him and Klein, whose hopes could surge if he beats Smith head-to-head on the road and K-State remains undefeated. You have to like his chances to have a pretty big game, don't you? The Mountaineers made Seth Doege look like Joe Montana. I can already see Klein rumbling in the open field.
Braxton Miller had his fifth 100-yard rushing performance in seven games, and Ohio State needed all of it to get past Indiana. His name is climbing.
As long as Notre Dame wins and doesn't allow an offensive TD -- four games and counting now -- Manti Te'o's stock is going to remain high.
Can Matt Barkley get back into this thing? Saturday's numbers did him no favors, but with those receivers and all kinds of time to throw, who knows?
6. It was a tough road for West Virginia
We'd talked about West Virginia's assimilation to the new league and it really showed Saturday in its second trip to Texas in as many weeks. Brent Sobleski from Rumor Central helped me out with some research on exactly what the travel demands are for the Mountaineers relative to the rest of the Big 12 favorites.
They had to go 1,194 miles last week to Austin and then turn around and go 1,283 miles this week to Lubbock.
In four true road games, excluding the trip to Morgantown, K-State will travel an average of 376 miles a game; in three true road games (also excluding WVU) OU will travel an average of 320 miles.
That's a sizable difference. And the long haul for two consecutive weeks has to wear on a team.
Sure, there were lots of factors that went into what happened against Texas Tech -- one of them being first-year defensive coordinator Art Kaufman and his blossoming Assistant of the Year resume -- but travel had to be part of it.
That, and the Mountaineers who struggled last season to put together week-to-week performances in the Big East again appeared.
7. Stanford got hosed
I thought the replay clearly showed Stepfan Taylor reached the end zone on the Cardinal's final attempt to score the game-tying touchdown against Notre Dame in their 20-13 overtime loss. But the officials didn't see it that way.
Though you could argue the Cardinal should have just stopped Notre Dame in regulation.
8. See-ya-later moments in the SEC?
This is likely the Saturday we'll point to as "the end" snapshots for at least two SEC coaches, and maybe three.
Joker Phillips at Kentucky is almost certainly working on borrowed time. He obviously didn't mention his former assistant by name, but even previous coach Rich Brooks couldn't help but take a jab at the Wildcats during their 49-7 loss at Arkansas. Only severe weather, which ended the game in the third quarter, could stop the Hogs.
"My phone is going dead," said Brooks, a pretty savvy tweeter for someone who recently entered retirement. "The Cats are as well."
Things are also quickly deteriorating for Gene Chizik, whose team gave up 41 in a loss to Ole Miss. Auburn is 1-5, and it had to beat Louisiana-Monroe in overtime. New Mexico State and Alabama A&M are still on the schedule, but who are the Tigers going to beat in the SEC? They play next week at Vanderbilt, which has been scrappy the past two weeks in beating Missouri and hanging with Florida. Seventh in the West now looks like a lock for a team that returned as many starters as any in the country.
As I wrote last week, holding on to the top-flight recruiting class is vital for Chizik. But again, what has he done with the highly ranked classes he's reeled in the past few years? Maybe the collection plates will go around at Sunday services to accrue enough money for Auburn to afford the $7.5 million buyout?
And then there's Derek Dooley, who coached Saturday from the booth. His case is curious. The win-loss total means a lot, obviously, but at least the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers are competing and fighting -- as opposed to how things went down the stretch last season.
Granted, a similar spiral could still happen. Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the final three games. If the Volunteers go 3-0 in those, they'd likely finish 7-5 and Dooley could be safe pending the bowl result.
Lose one of those, though -- or to Troy -- and the seat will really sizzle. It already is likely to get hotter, because Alabama and South Carolina are the next two opponents for Tennessee. UT will probably be 3-5 and 0-5 in the league before it can begin to try to prop itself up.
9. What gives, Texas?
Of the confounding and difficult things to explain so far this season, Texas' defense has to be at or near the top. A team that was supposed to be built on power running and playing D continues to lean heavily on its still-developing offense.
It had 74 rushing yards and gave up 677 total yards Saturday to Oklahoma. Mack Brown told me repeatedly this summer that he liked this team -- but that he loved the idea of the 2013 team.
A lot of that optimism, though, was centered on the excitement about the defense. There's far less to be excited about at the moment, in 2012 or 2013.
"It's just unacceptable for Texas to lose like that to Oklahoma, much less anybody," Brown told reporters afterward. "I'm disappointed for our coaches, our fans and our players because that's not who we are."
I think the natural response, then, is: Who are you? Because it isn't what we thought all spring and summer. Did the defense read and hear too much about how good it was going to be?
10. NFL hasn't forgotten Penn State's O'Brien
A good point this week from my buddy Steve Coughlin, the excellent producer for the "SVP and Russillo" show, on Penn State's Bill O'Brien: The Nittany Lions, who were off this weekend, are 4-2 and easily could be 5-1 if not for blown kicks at Virginia.
Forget getting calls for other college jobs. We've heard there are NFL execs, so impressed by what he's done to glue the pieces back together in Happy Valley, getting in line to see if the former Patriots assistant would be interested in jumping back to the pros.
Not saying he would leave, but it's an intriguing thought.
Can you imagine, though? For the players who stuck it out through all that's happened, and then see their coach leave? Again, it's not likely to happen -- but something worth watching.
Extra point: Texas A&M evidently never plays boring games. Up 27-0, some Louisiana Tech fans gave up on their team. Sonny Dykes wasn't happy about that. The BCS-busting Bulldogs gave it a run, falling a two-point conversion shy in a 59-57 A&M win.
I saw one national colleague had Johnny Manziel on his Heisman top-five list. That might be pushing it, but is there a more valuable QB in the country than Manziel? Perhaps only Miller at Ohio State -- and, heck, Driskel at Florida. And Manziel didn't win his job until just before the season, and Driskel won his during it.