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October 30, 2006

Big East ready to claim national spotlight

Experts' blog
Scenes from Saturday
The College Football Wire

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The Big Least? Forget about it.

This year, the Big East is more like the Big Beast. It's the 800-pound gorilla that could lock Florida, Texas and all those other one-loss teams out of the national title game.

Southern California's 33-31 loss to Oregon State on Saturday has made the Big East's three undefeated teams West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers the three missing pieces to the national championship puzzle.

And it makes Thursday's West Virginia-Louisville showdown the biggest game of the season thus far.

West Virginia was ranked third behind only No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan in the Bowl Championship Series standings that came out Sunday. The Mountaineers probably would face the Nov. 18 Michigan-Ohio State winner in the national championship game if they remain unbeaten.

Jerry Palm, who analyzes the BCS standings as the publisher of collegebcs.com, also likes No. 5 Louisville's chances of playing for the national title if the Cardinals beat West Virginia on Thursday and finish the regular season unbeaten.

Palm said an undefeated Big East champion has the inside track to a national title game as long as it continues to have a convincing lead over all the one-loss teams in the USA Today coaches' and Harris polls. West Virginia currently is third in both of those polls, which makes up for its lower position in the computer rankings.

"I'm kind of assuming Lousville would just take West Virginia's spot in the (USA Today and Harris) polls if they beat them," Palm said.

Palm also pointed out that the computer ratings of the Big East teams leave plenty of room for improvement, while a one-loss team such as Florida probably won't get much higher in the computer polls.

The best chance for Florida, Texas or any other one-loss team to reach the national championship game instead of an unbeaten Big East champion would come if Rutgers wins the conference title. Rutgers is 12th in the latest BCS standings, which came out several hours before the Scarlet Knights' 24-13 victory over Connecticut.

Palm noted that Rutgers is so far behind the other national title contenders No. 14 in the Harris poll and No. 15 in the USA Today poll that the Scarlet Knights would have a tough time getting to the No. 2 spot in the final BCS standings even if they go undefeated.

The BCS rankings also provided good news for Florida, which moved up to No. 4 and now is the highest-ranked of the one-loss teams. That would appear to put Florida first in the pecking order to reach the national championship game if the Gators go 12-1 while West Virginia and Louisville lose at least once.

But there also is the potential that Michigan and Ohio State could meet in the regular-season finale and the national championship game.

Although USC's loss intensified the speculation of a potential Michigan-Ohio State rematch in Arizona, Palm doesn't expect it to happen unless upsets in conference championships allow the loser of that Nov. 18 game to move back up in the rankings.

Palm doesn't think human voters would put the Ohio State-Michigan loser in the No. 2 spot in the following week's poll, particularly if West Virginia or Louisville is undefeated at the time.

"Even if that's a classic game, traditionally if you lose, you drop," Palm said. "You don't get to keep your ranking. That's based on what voters have always done. Michigan could lose and there's two more weeks of football, so they could crawl back up. The odds of them losing and being No. 2 still are very remote."

Southern California's loss and the ensuing shakeup in the BCS standings represented just one of this week's top 25 stories in college football. Here's a rundown of the other top plotlines to arise from this weekend's action.

2. TURNOVER TURNAROUND: The biggest concern surrounding Southern California all season was its lack of big-play ability on offense after the departures of Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.

A more troubling problem lay under the surface.

The Trojans made plenty of big plays Saturday while erasing most of a 23-point deficit. Their 38-game regular-season winning streak ended because of their tendency to give the ball away without taking it back.

USC has ranked among the top five teams in the nation in turnover margin each of the last five years, but that trend hasn't continued this season. The Trojans' turnover margin for the year dropped to minus-1 after they coughed the ball up four times Saturday and didn't create any takeaways.

3. SUPERSTAR SMITH: USC's stunning loss overshadowed a brilliant performance from Steve Smith.

The Southern California receiver played more like the Carolina Panthers superstar of the same name. Smith caught 11 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, including the potential game-tying score in the final seconds.

USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett garnered most of the Trojans' preseason acclaim after catching a total of 29 touchdown passes in 2004 and 2005, but Smith was definitely the better player Saturday. While Jarrett hurt USC with a couple of drops, Smith rescued the Trojans again and again.

4. BEAVERS BOOST BOISE STATE: Oregon State's upset may help Boise State earn a berth in a spot in a BCS bowl - as long as the Broncos finish the regular season undefeated.

A non-BCS program can gain an automatic bid to the Fiesta, Sugar or Orange Bowl as long as it is ranked among the top 12 teams in the final BCS standings. Boise State is 14th in the most recent BCS poll.

Boise State's strength-of-schedule rating should improve because its early season 42-14 victory over Oregon State suddenly looks much more impressive.

5. NARROW ESCAPES: While Oregon State's upset of Southern California stole the headlines, plenty of other BCS contenders had narrow escapes.

Auburn was tied with Ole Miss in the fourth quarter. Tennessee trailed South Carolina in the second half. Texas fell behind Texas Tech 21-0. Wisconsin allowed Illinois to take a quick 21-3 lead.

All four of these one-loss teams avoided upsets and kept their BCS hopes alive. Wisconsin's best hope is for an unlikely BCS at-large invitation, but the other three teams still believe they could play for the national title.

6. HEISMAN WATCH: The Big East is the conference to watch in the national title sweepstakes and in the Heisman Trophy race.

Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith appears almost certain to win the Heisman as long as the Buckeyes remain unbeaten. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn now looks like the top alternative if Smith struggles in a loss to Michigan.

But a few Big East players still could work their way into the mix.

West Virginia quarterback Pat White or tailback Steve Slaton could make things interesting by delivering big performances in wins over Louisville and Rutgers. Rutgers tailback Ray Rice could throw his hat in the ring by leading the Scarlet Knights to victories over West Virginia and Louisville.

7. MICHIGAN DEFENSE LOOKS GREAT: Michigan continues to stop the run better than any team in recent memory.

The Wolverines beat Northwestern 17-3 while holding the Wildcats to minus-13 rushing yards on 17 carries. Two weeks earlier, Penn State lost to Michigan 17-10 while finishing with negative rushing yards for the first time in Joe Paterno's 41-year coaching tenure.

Michigan is allowing a microscopic 1.2 yards per carry this year. Minnesota is the only Michigan opponent to gain more than 2.5 yards per rush against the Wolverines.

How dominant is this defense? Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Central Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State combined for a grand total of five rushing yards on 107 carries in their games against Michigan.

8. MICHIGAN OFFENSE LOOKS ORDINARY: Michigan owes a debt of gratitude to its powerful defense because the Wolverines' offense hasn't responded particularly well to star wide receiver Mario Manningham's knee injury.

The Wolverines have averaged just 18 points a game since Manningham was sidelined three weeks ago. Chad Henne completed just 50 percent of his passes Saturday for the second time in the last three weeks.

Upcoming games with Ball State and Indiana at least should allow the Wolverines to rest Mike Hart before the Ohio State showdown. The 5-foot-9 tailback leads the nation with 234 carries.

9. REGGIE ON THE BALL: You can complain about Reggie Ball's arm all you want, but never doubt the Georgia Tech quarterback's heart.

Ball limped to the sidelines after opening the Yellow Jackets' biggest game of the year with a fumble that Miami returned for a touchdown. At the time, it looked like he might not be able to return to the game.

Not only did Ball come back, he led Georgia Tech to a 30-23 victory that gave the Jackets a commanding lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division. Once again, his leadership and mobility made up for his lack of accuracy.

Ball went just 11-of-27 through the air, but he also threw a pair of touchdown passes. His 1-yard toss to Calvin Johnson broke a tie with 6:18 left in the game.

10. COLT QBs: Want to make sure your son grows up to be a great college quarterback? Maybe you should name him Colt.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy justifiably has received plenty of praise for completing more than two-thirds of his passes as a freshman. McCoy threw for four touchdowns Saturday as the Longhorns rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Texas Tech 35-31.

But there's an even better quarterback with the same first name.

Although it's easy to dismiss any Hawaii quarterback as a product of June Jones' pass-happy system, Colton Brennan's remarkable season is difficult to ignore. The NCAA leader in total offense has thrown 24 touchdown passes and only one interception during the Warriors' five-game winning streak, which continued Saturday with a 68-10 waxing of Idaho.

11. RED RAIDER REGRETS: McCoy and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell combined to throw 93 passes for 775 yards Saturday, so naturally the game came down to a running play by each of the two quarterbacks.

Texas Tech trailed 35-31 and faced fourth-and-inches from Texas' 15-yard line when the Longhorns stuffed Harrell on a quarterback sneak. On the Longhorns' next series, McCoy ran 33 yards on a third-and-5 play to seal the victory.

Harrell was close enough to the first-down marker on his sneak that the call could have gone either way. You could say the same about the fourth-down stop that ended Texas Tech's previous series.

No matter how much they may want to criticize the officiating, the Red Raiders have only themselves to blame for this loss. Texas Tech killed itself with eight second-half penalties.

12. SAME OLD NORTH: Saturday's Big 12 action should put to rest any notion that the North Division has caught up to the South.

Oklahoma's 26-10 victory at Missouri and Oklahoma State's 41-29 triumph over Nebraska made the South's superiority quite clear.

Next weekend's Missouri-Nebraska showdown likely will determine the North Division winner. Based on how the Tigers and Cornhuskers played Saturday, it's tough to imagine either team winning the championship.

13. BACK TO EARTH: Those high-powered Purdue and Missouri offenses look rather ordinary once they face tougher defenses.

Purdue averaged 33 points per game through its first seven contests, but the Boilermakers have scored a grand total of three points the last two weeks in losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. Missouri has averaged 35 points per game in its seven wins and 14.5 points per game in its two losses, which came against Texas A&M and Oklahoma.

14. WAKE WIDE AWAKE: Rutgers' Greg Schiano will be the favorite for any Coach of the Year awards as long as the Scarlet Knights stay unbeaten, but Wake Forest's Jim Grobe also deserves consideration.

The Demon Deacons lost their starting quarterback and tailback to season-ending injuries in September, but they still control their destiny in the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division race. Wake Forest's 24-17 triumph over North Carolina gave the Deacons victories over each of their three ACC in-state rivals North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke for the first time since 1987.

Jon Abbate, who ranks among the game's most underrated linebackers, clinched this victory by intercepting a pass in the end zone as time expired. The Deacons (7-1) now own a 3-0 record in games decided by seven or fewer points.

15. CLEMSON COLLAPSE: Here's how much a program's fortunes can change in a week.

One week ago, we were heralding Clemson as the class of the ACC and perhaps one of the five best teams in the nation. Now they're stuck in fourth place in their division after a 24-7 loss to Virginia Tech.

Boston College, Wake Forest and Maryland all control their own destiny in the Atlantic Division. Clemson still has a chance to win the division title, but the Tigers need plenty of help.

16. SAVIOR LEE?: Florida State continues to stagger through its worst start since 1976, which marked Bobby Bowden's first year on the job.

But the Seminoles' latest loss at least provided reason for optimism.

With Drew Weatherford sidelined by tendinitis, Xavier Lee made his first career start and provided a spark in a 27-24 loss to Maryland. The former five-star prospect rushed for 50 yards and went 22-of-36 through the air for 286 yards.

He played so well that it's tough to imagine him losing the job even when Weatherford is ready to return.

17. COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: If college football gave out this type of award, Indiana wide receiver James Hardy would rank among the top contenders.

The preseason all-Big Ten candidate served a two-game suspension earlier this year and wasn't much of a factor the first two months of the season. But he has since played a key role in Indiana's recent resurgence.

Two weeks after catching three touchdown passes in an upset of Iowa, Hardy collected six receptions for 83 yards and four touchdowns in a 46-21 triumph over Michigan State.

Hardy could make an even bigger name for himself next week when the Hoosiers play host to Michigan.

19. NO RALLIES THIS TIME: One week after pulling off the biggest comeback in Division I-A history, Michigan State appeared intent on breaking its own record.

The Spartans fell behind Indiana 46-7 before two meaningless touchdowns allowed them to leave Bloomington with a 46-21 loss. That memorable victory over Northwestern last week sure didn't give them much momentum.

We thought a week ago that Michigan State's big win over Northwestern could earn the Spartans a bowl berth and maybe take some heat off coach John L. Smith. This week's performance probably sealed Smith's fate.

20. AMATO IN TROUBLE: Speaking of coaches on the hot seat, North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato didn't do himself any favors by losing to Virginia.

When North Carolina lost to Virginia last week, the Tar Heels responded by firing coach John Bunting. Don't be surprised if the Wolfpack make a similar move at the end of the season.

21. OFF THE HOT SEAT?: While the pressure intensifies for plenty of ACC coaches, one coach in the Big 12 may have bought himself at least one more season.

Texas A&M's Dennis Franchione needed to have a big year after the Aggies went 5-6 last season. An uninspiring victory over Army and a loss to Texas Tech in the first half of the season did nothing to help his cause.

Now that Texas A&M has improved its record to 8-1, however, it's tough to imagine Franchione losing his job. He can probably remove all doubt if the Aggies win one of their remaining three games home dates with Oklahoma and Nebraska and the regular-season finale at Texas.

22. AVOIDING MISTAKES: If Franchione does keep his job, he should send quarterback Stephen McGee a thank-you note.

Texas A&M has won four games in a row all by 10 points or less primarily because of McGee's mistake-free approach. The sophomore has thrown just one interception in 225 pass attempts this season.

Of the top 100 passers in the nation, only McGee and Wake Forest's Riley Skinner have thrown just one interception.

23. HAZED BY FRESHMEN: For the second time this season, a freshman quarterback come off the bench to rally a team past Colorado.

Last month, Georgia trailed Colorado 13-0 in the second half before Joe Cox sparked the Bulldogs to a 14-13 victory. Kansas followed a similar script Saturday in a 20-15 triumph over the Buffaloes.

True freshman Todd Reesing threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third score after entering the game in the second half as the Jayhawks rallied from a nine-point deficit to beat Colorado 20-15.

24. CARPENTER REBUILDS SEASON: We called Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter the nation's most disappointing player in the first half of the season, so it's only fair that we point out that the sophomore has since returned to form.

After throwing nine interceptions in his first five games of the season, the 2005 NCAA passing efficiency leader hasn't been picked off the last three weeks. He has gone 42-of-58 with four touchdown passes during that stretch, including a 25-yard overtime completion to Brent Miller that gave the Sun Devils a 26-23 victory at Washington.

25. TEMPLE ENDS SKID: Chalk this one up to karma.

Until this weekend, Temple had done more good off the field than on it. The week of their 63-7 loss to Clemson, the Owls donated $1,500 to the Fahmarr McElrathbey Fund, which benefits the younger brother of Clemson defensive back Ray Ray McElrathbey.

Two weeks later, their good deed was rewarded with a 28-14 victory over Bowling Green that ended Temple's 20-game losing streak. The longest losing streak in Division I-A football now belongs to Duke, which fell 45-28 to Vanderbilt for its 16th consecutive setback.

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