- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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College football fans who looked at unbeaten, third-ranked Penn State and saw flashbacks of the past two BCS National Championship Games can rest easy. Two months to the day before No. 1 will play No. 2, the Big Ten's last hope to play for the crystal football came up one play short at Iowa.
History and the law of averages both dictate that every contender for the national championship will play one game looking like a groom walking down the aisle with toilet paper stuck to his shoe.
The best teams find a way to win that game. On Saturday, No. 1 Alabama committed three turnovers on the road and got a short field goal blocked at the end of regulation. Alabama handed No. 16 LSU, a team the Crimson Tide hadn't beaten since 2002, one chance after another to stay in the game.
Yet in overtime, when the Crimson Tide had little choice but to stop the defending national champion Tigers, Alabama safety Rashad Johnson made his third interception of the day. Alabama quickly scored and escaped Death Valley with a 27-21 victory.
Since this is November, when college football pays no attention to rankings, when emotions rise as high as the stakes, anyone is vulnerable. Alabama found a way to win. Penn State found a way to lose.
The Nittany Lions lost in a way that anyone who has ever experienced a car wreck will understand -- in slow motion, with every moment magnified and branded on Penn State minds from here to eternity. At least that's how the final four minutes of the game felt after Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark threw an interception at the Hawkeyes' 15-yard line with 3:47 to play.
Iowa drove 57 yards in 15 plays, converting a third-and-15 on a pass interference penalty, and converting a third-and-10 and a third-and-6 on completions. All the while, the clock ticked away, taking any chance of a Penn State comeback with it.
Just to make it worse, Hawkeyes kicker Daniel Murray, who hadn't attempted a field goal since September -- he lost the job after going 1-for-3 -- split the uprights from 31 yards out.
The Crimson Tide and No. 2 Texas Tech, as the only remaining unbeaten teams in the six automatic-bid conferences, could do every fan a favor and win the rest of their games to prevent the rise of anxiety and anger that seem to accompany the annual identification of the teams that play in the BCS National Championship Game.
The Red Raiders began their game against No. 9 Oklahoma State looking more like the team that needed overtime to beat Nebraska on Oct. 11 than the team that stunned then-No. 1 Texas a week ago. Texas Tech turned the ball over three plays into the game, and the Cowboys quickly scored. That's when the trap game ended. Texas Tech scored on its next four possessions and outraced Oklahoma State 56-20.
On most Saturdays, the news that Alabama's victory at LSU clinched the SEC West championship would have set off celebrations from Mobile to Muscle Shoals. For Crimson Tide fans, the nine years since Alabama last won the division have felt like 90. Think of all that has happened -- the Twin Threes of the 2000 season, when Alabama began the season No. 3 and finished with exactly three wins, the firing of head coach Mike DuBose, the NCAA near-death penalty, the abandonment by head coach Dennis Franchione for Texas A&M, the five-month tenure of head coach Mike Price, the struggles of caretaker head coach Mike Shula, and finally, blissfully, the rebuilding by head coach Nick Saban.
Given that lifetime of drama crammed into less than a decade, you would think the trip to the Georgia Dome on Dec. 6 would be cause for fireworks. And yet, in Alabama's case, winning the SEC West feels like having the 36-hole lead at a major championship. At the Masters, the second-round leader takes home some crystal. But it's not the trophy he came to win.
Texas Tech still must play at No. 6 Oklahoma. Alabama still has archrival Auburn and No. 5 Florida, which clinched the SEC East after its 42-14 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday night. There is a chance the Red Raiders and the Crimson Tide will stumble. If that happens, the debate over the merits of any number of one-loss teams will begin.
But neither Texas Tech nor Alabama stumbled Saturday. Because of that, the national championship race is swimming-pool clear -- at least for now. After all, it's still November.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
Two months to the day before the BCS National Championship Game, the race to Miami became crystal clear for Alabama and Texas Tech. Then again, it's still November.