Expect a postseason of surprises
A season can roll placidly along, not much remarkable happening, and then all of a sudden Devan Cunningham winds up in the end zone with the football.
Cunningham is a 350-pound offensive tackle for Fresno State, and his play to beat Illinois on Saturday by the absurd score of 53-52 was symbolic of an orderly season that finally got quirky in the late stages.
The play was a two-point conversion attempt with two seconds left, Fresno trailing by one. Quarterback Ryan Colburn flung a heavily pressured prayer toward the end zone, where an Illinois defensive back deflected it away from the intended receiver. The ball then plopped into the hands of Cunningham at the 2, and he hurled his beefy self just past the goal line to win the game in preposterous fashion.
That's college football. Stuff happens.
"That's not exactly how the play was drawn up," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said, "but it counts."
For a long time, this season played out pretty closely to how it was drawn up. But by the end of a regular season in which not much exciting stuff seemed to happen, you look back and see that stuff did indeed happen.
Who out there predicted Oklahoma and USC would finish the season unranked and combine for nine losses?
In a Heisman Trophy race that was supposed to belong to Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow, who could have foreseen it becoming so wide open that the top nominees now include a defensive tackle (Ndamukong Suh) and three running backs (Toby Gerhart, Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller)?
Who thought we'd have TCU (preseason rank: 17th) and Cincinnati (preseason: unranked) in BCS bowls? Who thought they'd be vigorously stating their case for why they should have been in the Citi BCS National Championship Game?
(A playoff, of course, would give them their chance. But we all know how college football feels about inclusiveness and settling things on the field.)
On Saturday morning, most of us were anticipating a Florida-Alabama classic that probably would go in favor of the Gators. By Saturday night, the Crimson Tide had forcefully knocked the crown off of Florida, and Greg McElroy had outplayed Tim Tebow.
We also anticipated a leisurely Big 12 title-game stroll for Texas over Nebraska, as the South Division giant routinely poleaxes the North Division pip-squeak. The game turned into a life-and-death struggle down to the final gun, with the Longhorns flat-out lucky to win and avoid a clock-management fiasco of Les Milesian proportion.
But that was part of the storyline that developed as the season wore down. It's supposed to be hard to earn those six automatic BCS bowl bids. And it was.
Texas and Cincinnati secured their bids Saturday by a single point each, and both needed special-teams disasters to aid them. The Longhorns' last-gasp field goal drive was abetted by a Nebraska kickoff that went out of bounds, giving Texas possession on the 40-yard line. The Bearcats got their chance to win in regulation only after Pitt botched the hold on an extra point.
Ohio State won the Big Ten by three points in overtime over Iowa. Speaking of plot twists, who out there imagined that 26-year-old backup kicker Devin Barclay, a former pro soccer player, would be the hero of Columbus? He drilled the winning field goal to beat the Hawkeyes.
Oregon captured its BCS berth by all of four points, beating rival Oregon State 37-33 on Thursday. That brought a 90-day saga full circle when prodigal running back LeGarrette Blount, suspended after his Sept. 3 meltdown at Boise State, scored a key second-half touchdown for the Ducks on Dec. 3 -- his first action since the opening game.
Georgia Tech beat Clemson by five Saturday night for its BCS spot -- a leisurely spread compared to some others. But the Yellow Jackets didn't score the winning touchdown until 1:20 remained.
The only automatic bid that was secured with ease was the only upset of the group, when Alabama housed the defending champions. Nevertheless, the Tide had their trials along the way -- none more harrowing than when Tennessee lined up to kick the winning field goal on the final play in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 24. Massive nose guard Terrence Cody blew past his blocker, stuck an arm in the air, blocked the kick and cemented his place in Alabama lore.
(Another theme here: the kicking game. Texas and Ohio State are here because they made kicks. Alabama because it blocked a kick. Cincinnati because Pittsburgh muffed a kick. Next time someone yawns at special teams, remind them of what transpired this year in college football.)
So the drama leads us to an endgame that we could see coming from August: Big 12 versus SEC for all the marbles, for the second straight season.
This time, though, it's the two teams that were left rejected last year. The Crimson Tide and Longhorns used the heartbreak of 2008 as motivational fuel for 2009.
Texas lost its bid for the '08 title on one play -- Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree -- and a bad Big 12 tiebreaker system. The tiebreaker put Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, even though the Sooners had lost by 10 points to the Horns on a neutral field.
This time around, Texas did not leave it up to anybody's tiebreaker formula. And this time, the one play -- Hunter Lawrence's clutch 46-yard field goal -- went Bevo's way. (So did the officiating. When the refs put a second back on the clock, it gave the Horns a chance to avoid a defeat they would never have lived down.)
For Alabama, the bitter aftertaste of losing a fourth-quarter lead to Florida in last year's SEC title game was present for a full year. Throughout offseason workouts and in-season preparation and competition, the Tide players almost obsessed on redemption and retribution.
And when they got their shot? Man, were they ready. Alabama absolutely ran a clinic on Florida -- the Tide were better prepared, more thoroughly focused and absolutely hungrier. They seemed to win every key collision, sucking the swagger and the willpower right out of the lordly Gators.
So now Alabama swings suddenly from SEC underdog to BCS overdog, installed as an early favorite over the Longhorns. Texas has to like its position -- last time it played in Pasadena as an underdog, Vince Young ran the Horns past USC to the national title.
That was one of the greatest games in history. Nobody knows whether this version will come close to resembling that classic, but we do know this:
Stuff happens in college football. So go ahead and expect the unexpected this bowl season.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.