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If the 2007 season taught us nothing else, it revealed the folly of attempting before the last weekend to predict which teams would play in the BCS National Championship Game. Even if this season isn't approaching the upset-a-week pace of 2007, the lesson is obvious.A midseason assessment of the national championship race reminds me of the episode my wife refers to as Ivan's America's Cup. She once tried to teach me how to sail. Having assessed the variables -- wind, rudder, boom, drowning -- I successfully negotiated us into a place so remote that Garmin, had he been GPSing back then, couldn't have found us. Rather than assess the race, let's just break down the contenders into four categories. Undefeated Teams, Automatic-Bid Conferences, Not the Big 12: No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Penn State
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Daryll Clark's leadership has helped Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions to a 7-0 start.
The Big 12: Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas
Before the season, the Big 12 staked its claim as the second-best conference behind the Southeastern. Halfway through, the case that the Big 12 has surpassed the SEC this season looks stronger every week. Oklahoma lost by 10 points to Texas on Saturday and fell only three spots in the AP and Harris polls and five spots in the coaches' poll. That's an endorsement of the Sooners.
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Mack Brown, Colt McCoy and the No. 1 Horns are looking at a tough stretch of games.
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Jim Tressel and one-loss Ohio State are still in the BCS picture.
The Trojans have returned to championship contention since their loss at Oregon State, proving that poll voters have as much memory as a 20-year-old laptop. The same would happen for the Bulldogs or the Tigers if either wins out.There is precedent for a team to win the national championship despite suffering a humiliating defeat. In 1982, No. 3 Penn State lost to No. 4 Alabama 42-21 in Birmingham on Oct. 9 and fell to No. 8. The Nittany Lions kept winning, beat No. 13 Notre Dame and No. 5 Pittsburgh in their last two regular-season games and climbed to No. 2. They beat No. 1 Georgia 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl. Both LSU and Georgia have a schedule that would enable them to prove that they are contenders. The Tigers get Alabama in Baton Rouge. The Dawgs play Florida in Jacksonville, and Georgia Tech, currently 5-1, goes to Athens on Thanksgiving weekend. The last team listed above is -- that's right -- Ohio State. If the Buckeyes win at Michigan State and beat Penn State in the next two weeks, they will be poised to move up should the teams in front of them falter. Stranger things have happened. Remember last season? Undefeated, Non-Automatic-Bid Conference: the BYU-Utah winner, Boise State, Ball State, Tulsa
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Max Hall and the Cougars are in the mix for Miami.
The No. 9 Cougars have a chance at earning one of the berths in the BCS National Championship Game. They need to keep winning, and they need the No. 14 Utes to keep winning. If the Holy War (I don't know, that name creeps me out) matches undefeated teams, the Cougars will get a bounce in the polls. And if they win out, they can take a 22-game winning streak into the postseason. While 10 of those victories came in 2007, the streak still would be a badge worn by the Cougars that no other team could wear.Utah, however, has too far to climb to make it all the way to the BCS title game. The Utes would have to console themselves with their second BCS bid in five seasons. An undefeated Utah team, with a victory over an undefeated BYU team, would maintain its current lead over the No. 15 Broncos, the No. 24 Cardinals and the Golden Hurricane. Though it's not germane to this discussion, the possibility that another undefeated school could join the BYU-Utah winner in the BCS is slim. There would be three remaining at-large berths. Figure a Big 12 team will take one and an SEC team will take another. That leaves the final one to be fought over by the Big Ten runner-up and, say, 12-0 Boise State. When it comes to TV ratings, hotel rooms filled and fannies in seats, it may not be a fair fight.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.
1. Minnesota, one year after a 1-11 season that included losses to North Dakota State and Florida Atlantic, is 6-1 and bowl-eligible. (And Michigan is not. Put that in your Little Brown Jug and chug it.) Second-year head coach Tim Brewster is known as a recruiter, and his best signee has been defensive coordinator Ted Roof. The Gophers have forced 20 turnovers and have 17 sacks; both marks are higher than their season totals a year ago. Even if the schedule has been more featherweight than heavyweight, that's impressive.
2. For the first two weeks of the season, the ACC did its best imitation of the FCS Southern Conference. The league not only recovered its balance but began to look downright good. North Carolina and Florida State look as if they will be national contenders in 2009. Virginia Tech and Boston College have picked up where they left off last season. Duke is alive again, and Virginia, after a horrid 1-3 start, has dominated its past two opponents. And that leaves out Georgia Tech, 5-1 under new coach Paul Johnson.
3. Remember when programs that are good this year were good last year and good 10 years before that? Of the eight BCS teams from 1998 -- Wisconsin, UCLA, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Florida, Syracuse, Tennessee and Florida State -- only the Buckeyes, Gators and Seminoles have winning records, and the latter isn't even ranked.
Beano Cook joins Ivan in the ESPNU College Football Podcast to discuss Tommy Bowden's split with Clemson, hand out some midseason awards and more. Listen
Game of the Half-Season: The 45-35 victory by Texas over Oklahoma had everything: long history, passionate crowd, high stakes, big players, big plays, controversial calls. And, right outside the front gate, spam quesadillas. That's food, not a computer virus. After the Longhorns' comeback in the fourth quarter, coach Mack Brown expressed regret that Texas and Oklahoma had to play so early in the season and had to live in the same division. Baloney. I don't want to see a rematch in the Big 12 Championship Game. There's no way it would match what took place in the Cotton Bowl. Besides, Texas-Oklahoma in Arrowhead Stadium? Puh-leez.Half-Game of the Season: Alabama ran up a 31-0 lead on No. 3 Georgia by dominating the Bulldogs in every aspect of the game. Michigan's comeback from a 19-0 halftime deficit to upset No. 9 Wisconsin looked magical at the time. Given the Wolverines' subsequent losses to Illinois and -- gulp -- Toledo, now the victory over the Badgers looks otherworldly. But the Half-Game award goes to UCLA, which overcame a first half of unsurpassed ineptitude in its opener against Tennessee. Third-string quarterback Kevin Craft took the starting job because the two senior Bruins in front of him got hurt. Craft completed 7 of 18 passes for 66 yards and four interceptions before halftime. Somehow, UCLA trailed only 14-7. After halftime, Craft completed 18 of 25 for 193 yards and a touchdown. UCLA won in overtime 27-24. It doesn't matter that the Volunteers have proven they are not very good. The Bruins have shown that they are as bad as every UCLA fan feared. Somehow, they pulled out that opener against Tennessee.
Player of the Half-Season: If you measured Texas quarterback Colt McCoy merely by his improvement as a passer, he would grab your attention. Add in his newly found skills as a scrambler -- that weight-room work pays dividends -- and the redshirt junior has become the two-tool threat that so many of today's top quarterbacks have become.But McCoy is the Player of the Half-Year because, in addition to his physical ability, his leadership as a third-year starter has fueled the Longhorns' rise to No. 1. Texas is a team greater than the sum of its parts. Tip your hat to the pride of Tuscola, Texas. Half-Player of the Season: Senior quarterbacks Cullen Harper of Clemson and Todd Boeckman of Ohio State began the season leading top-10 teams. Harper lost the confidence of his coaches and eventually his job. Boeckman had the misfortune of being overtaken by a more talented player, even if Terrelle Pryor is a freshman. They join an unusual number of senior quarterbacks (Nate Longshore of Cal, Drew Weatherford of Florida State, Sean Glennon of Virginia Tech) who lost their starting positions in August or once the season began. Maybe experience isn't as important as coaches have led us to believe.
Coach of the Half-Season: It's tempting to pick JoePa, who has led Penn State to No. 3 despite a painful hip injury and the incessant chirp of speculation about his career. But the vote goes to Alabama's Nick Saban. Let's not forget: These are mostly the same Tide players who lost their last four regular-season games in 2007, and then nearly blew a 27-0 lead over Colorado in the Independence Bowl.Half-Coach of the Season: Tommy Tuberville of Auburn and Phillip Fulmer of Tennessee began the season in the Top 25 and now are fighting rumors of their imminent demises. Why Auburn fans would decide to start over as Alabama is gaining momentum is beyond dumb, but never let reason get in the way of boosters and their egos. Remember, this is the same university that tried to fire Tuberville five years ago. He outfoxed them, and went 13-0 the following season. But that doesn't mean the people who wanted him out changed their minds. Still, the Half-Coach of the Year goes to Tommy Bowden. Clemson had problems on the offensive line yet Bowden didn't try to fight off the preseason hype that declared the Tigers a top-10 team. When they proved that they weren't, the team's confidence shattered. Bowden's career shattered with it.