Handicapping the magnificent seven

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (cole slaw sold separately):

The Magnificent Seven

Back in the optimistic days of August, all 117 Division I-A teams were undefeated. Here in the harsh reality of late October, 110 of those teams have lost at least once. The Dash's MIT-level math skills say that leaves seven programs, from seven different conferences, still dreaming of running the table.

The Magnificent Seven, in order of undefeated probability:

Utah (1)

Why the Utes can get there: Nobody has come within 17 points of them yet this season, and the rest of the Mountain West is a morass of mediocrity.

Why they can't: No good reason, other than the fact that it's simply very hard to go 11-0.

Scariest remaining game: The final five games look like a cakewalk, but watch out for the season finale against arch rival BYU. Neither team has won by more than a touchdown in the last five years, and Cougars coach Gary Crowton's job could be on the line.

Southern Cal (2)
Why the Trojans can get there: The last two road trips are manageable: at Washington State Oct. 30 and Oregon State Nov. 6 (playing UCLA in the Rose Bowl Dec. 4 doesn't qualify as a road trip). They've shown excellent survival skills and know how to win in pressure situations.

Why they can't: Running game has been only fair, and the receiving corps has been depleted (although the blossoming of freshman Dwayne Jarrett is timely). It's hard.

Scariest remaining game: Notre Dame, Nov. 27. Pete Carroll has owned Ty Willingham since he got to South Bend, beating him by 31 points both meetings. But this Fighting Irish team looks better equipped to compete with the Trojans, and memorable games are a staple of this rivalry.

Boise State (3)
Why the Broncos can get there: Remaining two road games are bunnies, at San Jose State and Nevada. And they've won 21 straight on the blue turf.

Why they can't: Having the No. 111 pass defense in the country hardly breeds security. The Broncos were lucky to win two of their last three (by a point over BYU and three over Tulsa) and might be feeling the pressure of owning the nation's longest winning streak.

Scariest remaining game: Probably Fresno State Saturday, but watch out for Hawaii the following week. If Boise lets down, quarterback Timmy Chang could exploit a susceptible secondary and turn the game into a shootout.

Miami (4)
Why the Hurricanes can get there: They've already survived their two toughest opponents, Florida State and Louisville. Despite the struggles Brock Berlin knows how to win, and return man Devin Hester is the nation's No. 1 special-teams X-factor.

Why they can't: Have the 'Canes used up all their good luck getting this far? Can Berlin avoid the brainlock throws that sometimes get him in trouble? Did surrendering 507 yards and 38 points to Louisville expose weaknesses in the Miami defense?

Scariest remaining game: At North Carolina State Saturday. Wolfpack has the nation's No. 1 total defense and tends to play well against big-time opponents under Chuck Amato.

Oklahoma (5)

Why the Sooners can get there: They're outstanding defensively, have the leading Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Adrian Peterson AND the defending Heisman winner in quarterback Jason White. And coach Bob Stoops knows a little about winning championships.

Why they can't: The schedule. They play Oklahoma State (Les Miles has beaten Stoops two of the last three) in Stillwater Oct. 30, followed Nov. 6 by Texas A&M in College Station (Aggies shocked the Sooners there in 2002 and will be on a crusade after last season's 77-0 loss). Then there's a potential Big 12 championship game.

Scariest remaining game: At Texas A&M. The Aggies are on a roll, winning five straight by an average of 22.2 points, as the Dennis Franchione method takes hold.

Auburn (6)
Why the Tigers can get there: Nobody outside of Norman has been as impressive as Auburn this season, from beating LSU to routing Tennessee. Thanks to the development of Jason Campbell and his receivers, they're exceptional on both sides of the ball: No. 14 nationally in total offense and No. 5 in total defense.

Why they can't: Auburn has a history of shrinking when the expectations and stakes increase -- and right now the expectations and stakes are as high as they get. And the schedule is tough, with the possibility of an SEC championship game at the end.

Scariest remaining game: Georgia Nov. 13. Bulldogs blew a big one by losing to Tennessee, but they're 13-1 in opposing teams' home stadiums under Mark Richt -- including an SEC title-winning thriller at Auburn two years ago.

Wisconsin (7)
Why the Badgers can get there: When you're No. 2 nationally in total defense, you're going to be in every game.

Why they can't: When you're No. 89 nationally in total offense, you wonder where the points will come from every game.

Scariest remaining game: At Iowa in the regular-season finale. Hawkeyes have won 16 straight at Kinnick Stadium and have beaten the Badgers two straight.

Statistical Profile Of An Unbeaten Team

Here's what the numbers say about the magnificent seven:

  • Stopping the opposition is more important than scoring: the average I-A national ranking of the seven teams is 20th in total defense, 32nd in total offense.

  • The basic building blocks of football -- run the ball, stop the run -- apply: all seven are in the top 45 nationally in rushing defense, and five of seven are in the top 20; six of seven are in the top 45 in rushing offense (all but Miami).

  • Not surprisingly, ball security is a good thing: six of seven have positive turnover margins (all but Boise State), and five of seven are at least plus-five in takeaway-giveaway on the season.

  • All seven rank in the top ten nationally in at least one of seven major statistical categories. In other words, they're all dominant in at least one phase of the game.

    And Then There's The Flip Side

    The Dash encourages Hallmark cards and care packages for Central Florida (8), the last of 117 teams waiting to walk off the field victorious in 2004. It's been a difficult return to college coaching for George O'Leary (9), whose team is 0-6 so far. The final two losses have been by a total of seven points.

    Best chance to win: the season finale against 1-6 Kent State, Nov. 23 -- a game that, chillingly, is to be broadcast on ESPN.

    Hopefully it won't take that long for a UCF victory. Dash groupie Adriana Lima (10) has climbed a billboard in Orlando and says she's not coming down until the Golden Knights win a game.

    Yo, Adriana: Let us know if you need an emergency shipment of eye shadow up there, OK?

    At Liberty To Speculate

    With the release of the first BCS standings comes the first wave of bowl speculation -- no matter how premature. Utah stands out as the leading wild card in BCS scenarios, and the postseason whereabouts of the Utes could have a substantial domino effect on several bowls.

    If Utah goes undefeated there is considerable speculation that it could be the first BCS gate-crasher, landing in the Fiesta Bowl (11). (There are several scenarios which could disrupt that, most notably a loss.) What, then, would happen to the Liberty Bowl (12)?

    Most notably, a potential non-BCS blockbuster matchup between Utah and Louisville (13) would be history.

    Liberty executive director Steve Ehrhart (14) isn't interested in reading tea leaves in October. He ticks off midseason BCS speculation about Tulane in 1998, BYU in 2001 and TCU last year and notes that none of it ever came to pass -- all three teams wound up in non-BCS bowls.

    "It never seems to happen," Ehrhart said. Then, just in case it does happen, he started rattling his saber.

    "There's a contract for (the Mountain West winner) to play here, even if they are 11-0," Ehrhart said. "We gave that league a chance when they didn't have anyone to play. ... We've been the best partner they could've had.

    "Money drives everything. (Schools and conferences) get that money flashing in front of them and forget where they came from."

    If Utah makes a BCS bowl, the Liberty would be released from taking a Mountain West school -- which would give the bowl a chance to get creative. If Louisville goes 10-1 and is ranked in the top 15 -- no sure thing, given a trip to face Memphis in November -- might the Liberty be able to entice Notre Dame (15)? The Fighting Irish don't look like BCS material, and they might not be able to face an opponent as highly ranked as the Cardinals in either the Gator Bowl or Insight Bowl, two games that hold slots for a Big East school or Notre Dame.

    Any other Ute substitute is likely to be a letdown.

    WAC Bowls In Flux Too

    Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson (16) also has an undefeated team to promote for BCS consideration in Boise State.

    "What if they're 11-0 and ranked No. 10?" Benson asked. "What if? Our champion would deserve the opportunity to play the highest-rated, highest-profile team."

    That isn't likely to be anyone the Broncos would face in the WAC's three bowl tie-ins: the MPC Computers Bowl (17) (in Boise); the Silicon Valley Football Classic (18); and the Hawaii Bowl (19). So there could be some wheeling and dealing involving Boise State.

    Filling its slot in the Hawaii Bowl is tricky for the WAC as well. The home-team Hawaii Warriors (20) have enjoyed "favored-nation status" with the bowl, as Benson put it, but they need to win five of their last seven to be bowl eligible.

    "They're under the gun," Benson said. "If they're not eligible, we're obligated to place a team in Hawaii." That would be costly for the bowl game, the league and the team taking the Warriors' place, and it illustrates the risks of basically creating a bowl for a single school to fill every year.

    On the WAC's eastern front, Benson notes that the GMAC Bowl in Mobile has an option for a WAC or MAC team to play a C-USA opponent. He mentioned Louisiana Tech (21) and UTEP (22) as geographically appealing candidates for that bowl. The question is whether a return to Alabama -- and uncomfortable Gulf Coast proximity to Pensacola -- would be appealing to Miners coach Mike Price (23).

    Redemption Of A Kicker

    Remember Alexis Serna (24)? His three missed extra points cost Oregon State a season-opening upset of defending BCS champion LSU, and he became the national poster boy for early-season kicking disasters.

    Serna not only endured, he's prevailed. Last week he scored 17 of the Beavers' 29 points in a 29-14 win over Washington, nailing all five field-goal attempts and two extra points. That included a career-best 55-yard field goal at the end of the first half to give Oregon State a 9-7 lead.

    "That felt great," Serna said.

    In fact, Serna hasn't missed a placement since that awful night in Baton Rouge, going 6 for 6 on three-pointers and 5 for 5 on one-pointers. How did he put it all behind him?

    He spent the day after the debacle with his older sister, Olivia, who was in Corvallis to visit.

    "She didn't even know about the game," Alexis said. "It gave me a different mentality about it to get out in the real world. It's actually just a game."

    A good thing to remember from time to time.

    Mack vs. Mason: Somebody's Gotta Win

    In Hell, your team is playing a must-win game and you have just two choices for your coach: Mack Brown (25) or Glen Mason (26). Forfeiture is not an option.

    The Dash would actually take Mack 10 times out of 10 in that matchup, despite his macabre inability to beat Oklahoma. Mason has done a solid job making Minnesota annually competitive in the Big Ten, but check out his current losing streaks to some of the league's better coaches:

    Six straight to Michigan's Lloyd Carr (27).

    Six straight to Purdue's Joe Tiller (28).

    Three straight to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (29).

    Two straight to Ohio State's Jim Tressel (30).

    Two straight to Michigan State's John L. Smith (31) -- including a 51-17 de-pantsing in East Lansing last Saturday against a mediocre Spartans squad.

    Minnesota's annual gorging on non-conference creampuffs leaves the Gophers overhyped and underprepared for quality opponents. Mason's non-conference record the last 5½ seasons: 18-2 against a steady rotation of Louisiana-Lafayettes, Ohios and Buffalos. His Big Ten record in that time: 21-23.

    Adrian Karsten Golden Suspenders Award

    For coaching excellence goes to Louisville's Bobby Petrino (32), for a simply brilliant offensive game plan against Miami last Thursday night. Using the Petrino trademarks -- different formations and personnel groupings on every play, a fast pace in and out of the huddle, an unpredictable mix of run and pass -- the Cardinals routed the nation's No. 1 scoring defense for 24 first-half points and 38 overall. If Cal coach Jeff Tedford (33) is the nation's hottest offensive strategist, Petrino is right behind him.

    Trev Alberts Fire-Him-Now Award

    Goes to Petrino for two major gaffes in the Miami game: kicking the ball to unbelievable return man Devin Hester (34) and poor clock management in the final 90 seconds.

    On its first punt, Louisville kicked to the boundary with bad results -- a 19-yard quacker. After that it kicked everything down the middle until Hester broke one 78 yards for a touchdown -- and that was after he had a 95-yard kickoff return called back on a penalty. No way he should have gotten those chances.

    Petrino also erred in not taking a defensive timeout when Miami had the ball at Louisville's 3-yard line. The Cardinals let more than 30 seconds trickle off the clock before the Hurricanes scored. Then they ran out of time on their final possession and ended the game with a timeout on the board.

    Last Interception Pool Winner

    Drum roll, please: The first annual winner of the Forde-Yard Dash Last Interception Pool is ... Texas A&M's Reggie McNeal (35). He's still untainted after 149 throws, having outlasted runnerup Jon Beutjer (36) of Illinois. (It was a bad week for Beutjer: three picks against Michigan and he's been benched for the Illini's next game, against Minnesota. Coach Ron Turner -- yes, his seat is hot -- said he wasn't sure who would start against the Gophers -- just that it wouldn't be Beutjer. Ouch.)

    McNeal's acceptance speech: "I give credit to my offensive line and coach (Vic) Koenning (A&M's offensive coordinator) and film work. The O-line has worked really hard, and I've had a lot of time -- especially since the Utah game. If my receivers are not open, I don't mike tucking the ball and running."

    And how long can he go interception-free?

    "I hope we can keep this streak going, but the main thing is winning."

    Putting Out An APB For. . .

    Old-school Washington hero Sonny Sixkiller (37). With all the tales of woe coming out of Huskieland these days, it's time to catch up to the vividly named former quarterback. The Dash found that a band of moderate renown has become his namesake, allegedly performing "sweet female-fronted jangly pop." (Which reminds The Dash of a story it once heard about Pearl Jam originally wanting to call itself Mookie Blaylock.) But we digress. Please advise as to the human Sixkiller's whereabouts.

    Meanwhile, The Dash has had a most entertaining time locating last week's APB subject, former West Virginia hero Major Harris (38). Suffice to say, the Major hasn't spent his after-college life in a 9-to-5 desk job.

    After playing in "every league but the NFL," by his estimation, Harris has gotten involved in politics. Sort of.

    Earlier this month, Harris moderated a political debate between a candidate for state attorney general and a man in a chicken suit. Really.

    He was named the "treasurer" for republican candidate Hiram Lewis IV's attorney general campaign, although Harris acknowledged this week that he's done no treasuring. (Can you say, "publicity stunt"?) He's around for the name recognition, and will take his hero's label on a statewide bus tour with Lewis next week.

    "The state was never as united as it was during that team's 1988 run," Lewis said of the Mountaineer team Harris led to the Fiesta Bowl. "I want to bring that same type of unity of spirit."

    But back to the chicken-suit debate: Lewis attempted to get his opponent, Darrell McGraw, to debate with him in Charleston on Oct. 8. McGraw declined, so Lewis staged the debate without him in the Marriott, dressing up someone in a chicken suit to portray his opponent, while Harris "moderated."

    "It wasn't attended too much," Lewis acknowledged. "We were competing with high school football."

    Harris still has few competitors for Most Beloved Mountaineer status. Between stints in the Canadian Football League, arena football and semipro football -- from the Steel Valley Smash to the Lincoln Lightning to the Charleston Swamp Foxes -- he got his degree in 1995. He's recently moved back to Morgantown and is "trying to see what I want to do next."

    With Major Harris, the next chapter doesn't figure to be dull.

    Point After

    Once again, The Dash challenged the readership and the readership responded. The call went out for barbecue in Montana and we got half a dozen touts. The winner for multiple touts was the delightfully named Knucklehead's Barbecue (39) just outside Missoula. Next challenge: Cue in Howard Dean's backyard, Vermont.

    The Dash also must note the slogan once used on signs by a previous Dash tout, Fatt Matt's (40) in Atlanta: "Modeled After The Great Rib Shacks of Europe." Classic.

    Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.