Commentary

Don't sleep on Ohio State's chances at USC

Originally Published: September 11, 2008
By Chris Fowler | ESPN.com

Have you heard that Ohio State is visiting the Coliseum this Saturday night to play USC?

If not, you must have been locked in on the round-the-clock obsession with the presidential race on all the 24 hour "news" channels.

In that case, heaven help you.

But, yeah, it's the Bucks and Trojans in 2008's regular-season "Game of the Century." The only reason that there isn't more hype is that too many fans believe Ohio State is really overmatched. I don't agree.

True, winning a road game in the Coliseum is the hardest chore in college football these days. Unless you creep in as a 41-point underdog and catch Pete's guys in a stupor (hello, Stanford).

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Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe Traveler is among the reasons the Coliseum is magical in a big game.

There will be no creeping in Saturday night. Nobody at USC is fooled by the Bucks' awful performance against Ohio University last weekend. Pete Carroll has lost only once when given more than a week to get ready. That was Vince Young's masterpiece in Pasadena for the national championship. Other than that late loss, USC is perfect with time to prepare.

Ohio State is good. But what gives me a little pause is that it doesn't seem to exude that quiet confidence this week. Maybe the vets are gun-shy from the BCS championship game flops. I don't know. The Buckeyes will tell you that they were not flat against the Bobcats. That they were actually sort of up for the game. That's a bit scary, too. If you can't chalk up the near-disaster to complacency, then what? And what does it say about their chances in L.A.?

But don't go to sleep on OSU. All my West Coast friends are certain that SC will send a huge message Saturday night. I keep telling them it won't be easy.

Interesting, isn't it, that the past five matchups of top five teams have all been won by the lower-ranked team? The past three times a top-five matchup has featured a double-digit line, the underdog has won each time.

My heart skips a beat just thinking about the Trojans and Buckeyes together on the Coliseum grass.

I am old enough, barely, to remember televised images of their momentous meetings in the late '60s and '70s. This will be my first time seeing them together in person.

And the setting is perfect. Since I am often asked about my favorite places to watch a college game, here are my top five.

1. The Coliseum: In a big game, especially one in the sunshine, it is magic. The Song Girls, the Traveler, the droning band, all of it. Very hard for a recruit to resist.
2. The Swamp: Loud and nasty, but a bit disappointing last Saturday night. The fans never seemed worried about Miami, and the place never reached peak electricity. When LSU gets there, I suspect it will be vintage Florida Field.
3. Tiger Stadium: When it's not raining, for a change. Lately, when we visit, the weather gets ugly. When I stay dry, I love the place.
4. Beaver Stadium: I love the white-out thing. The next one planned is for Illinois on Sept. 27. It is unrecognizable since my childhood days of watching the Lions in the old horseshoe-shaped place, but Penn State's student section is awesome.
5. Autzen Stadium: Beautiful setting. Mysteriously loud, given its modest size. I'm not a structural engineer, but it's something about the acoustics.

Just missing the cut: Kyle Field at Texas A&M and Folsom Field in Colorado. (Hey, it's alumni bias, but the backdrop of Boulder's foothills is pretty special).

Used to make the list: the Orange Bowl. Gone forever, never to be replaced.

The BCS-buster derby is on

For the moment, there are four legitimate at-large contenders from three different conferences. Voters have shown a willingness the past two years to reward an undefeated season. Boise State and Hawaii made the big time despite not beating a ranked opponent in the regular season. Will the Rainbows' woodshed beating from Georgia make pollsters think twice this year?

Maybe.

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Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSkip Holtz and ECU have the schedule to go undefeated, but will it be enough?

East Carolina is the current buzz-team after smothering West Virginia, a remarkable followup to the Pirates' punt block pilfer of the game against Virginia Tech. Already, that's two more wins versus ranked teams than Boise State or Hawaii had in previous seasons.

I never saw Saturday's ECU win coming. How could any team, much less East Carolina, hold Pat White and pals to three points? Astonishing. It's a humbling loss for a Mountaineer team that was overflowing with confidence heading to Greenville. And why not, after totaling 599 yards in last season's ECU beatdown? (This is not a reference to the unfortunate pummeling some fans took from police after the game. Guys, take it easy … those fans deserve to celebrate a little.)

This week, it's Fresno State's chance to sieze the spotlight by turning back visiting Wisconsin in perhaps the program's biggest home game ever.

Meanwhile, BYU can regain some of the momentum it lost from struggling against one of the weakest Pac-10 teams in that controversial win at Washington if the Cougs conquer UCLA. Beating the team that beat Tennessee will carry some weight. BYU shouldn't get too much credit for surviving in Seattle on Saturday. Potential BCS teams are supposed to win those games easily.

Utah has no chance to face a ranked team until the annual collision with BYU. Oregon State looks bad. Unless the Beavers shock USC the game before they visit Utah, the Utes will impress few by handling this struggling bunch.

Meanwhile, the Pirates zoomed onto my AP ballot at No. 12 this week. Time will tell if they are that good. Last year, voters got far too carried away with South Florida's early success. That the Bulls got up to No. 2 before crashing to earth should be a cautionary tale. Boston College is another team that was hugely overrated before reality arrived.

But to deny East Carolina a top-15 ranking this week is to stubbornly hold on to a preseason bias. No team has two higher-quality wins. The coaches are always more cautious and less impressed than the media by emerging teams, so ECU is sitting down at No. 20. The ranking is significant, given the BCS bylaws. (More in a minute).

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Jarrett Baker/Getty ImagesTom Brandstater and Fresno State could be back in the BCS bowl picture if they beat Wisconsin.

The question is: Which team from a non-BCS league will have the focus and staying power to navigate the bumpy path to 12-0? There is no margin for error. One loss for any of them, and it's back to simply fighting for their conference crown, a goal that doesn't do that much to energize anyone.

So let's handicap. East Carolina has the best chance to run through the remaining schedule. That's a plus. But there's also a problem: The Pirates will be favored the rest of the way against mostly weak opponents and will have few chances to impress.

Conference USA is a loosely bound 12-team collection that sprawls from the Pirates' den in Greenville, N.C., to El Paso, Texas. Most power conference snobs couldn't name half of the C-USA teams, let alone three of its coaches.

So ECU won't get much traction from just coasting through the conference slate, beginning Saturday at Tulane. Trouble is, the Pirates can feed off their fans' apathy about the C-USA games and stumble against lesser foes. A 26-7 loss to lowly Marshall last year comes to mind. In 2005, the Pirates played West Virginia to a very tough loss, then neglected to show up against mediocre Southern Miss, UCF and Tulsa. Simply put, the ECU community is much more focused on nonconference regional rivals than the league opponents, and that rubs off.

This year could be different, though. If the Pirates are playing for BCS respect, there is no excuse for one single apathetic performance. We'll see if this Pirates team can handle the pressure with more maturity. There are two more chances to spank ACC teams, with visits to rival NC State and Virginia. Both are struggling, especially the Cavs. If ECU is going to posture itself as a BCS buster, it must handle both with relative ease. Style points will weigh heavily. The only possible chance to make an impression late in the year would be to beat a quality Tulsa team in the C-USA championship game.

That's important because only one non-BCS team has a realistic chance of snagging an at-large bid. Under the system, the champ of a league like C-USA, the WAC or the Mountain West is guaranteed a bid if it finishes in the top 12 of the final BCS standings, as Hawaii did last year. If more than one finishes that high (and it is possible if two of them run the table), only the higher of the two is certain of a bid.

So, ECU is competing with Fresno State, BYU and Utah, not just its own opponents. For the pollsters and the computers in the BCS, the performance of these teams' opponents will be significant. If West Virginia loses at Colorado and continues to stumble in Bill Stewart's first year, or Virginia Tech proves to be just middle of the ACC pack, some of the Pirates' cache will fade. Utah needs Michigan to bounce back and validate the Utes' opening win in the Big House. If Rutgers proves to be a Big East contender, it would potentially give Fresno State a second really high-quality win, with potential for a third, at UCLA in two weeks. The WAC schedule won't help build credibility much, with Hawaii down.

It's somewhat significant that ECU still trails BYU by five spots in the coaches' poll. (They are four spots higher in the AP). The coaches' poll counts in the BCS standings, of course, and the AP is opted out. It seems there might be little ECU could do to catch the Cougars, if BYU keeps winning.

If Fresno State conquers Wisky, watch Pat Hill's team jump right over ECU, too.

This might be a fun debate if these nontraditional teams can stay on course: Which one is most worthy of playing the huge underdog role against this season's runner-up from the SEC or Big 12? Are you pumped up for Florida-East Carolina or Missouri-Fresno State?

Off The Tracks

A special screening of the new movie "The Express" on Friday night in Syracuse serves not only to honor the film's subject, Ernie Davis, but also to illustrate how far off the tracks the Orange have skid.

When Davis and Jim Brown were rambling through defenses, Syracuse mattered. A lot. It was a symbol of racial tolerance and diversity and a darn good program. When Donovan McNabb was mesmerizing people, the Cuse mattered simply because it was good.

The film, which carries the central theme of triumph over racism, will cause tremendous unease in places like Texas and West Virginia. Scenes depicting ugly treatment of Davis and his teammates by players and fans in those places are uncomfortable to watch.

These days, the performance of the Syracuse team is tough to watch. And don't expect any sympathy from Joe Paterno on Saturday. Syracuse has always been an important game to him. The old days of battling Ben Schwartzwalder and Dick MacPherson for the Lambert Trophy are still very fresh in JoePa's ageless brain. Lions fans of a certain age would love to see their team punish the Orange for having the impudence to challenge State's eastern supremacy in decades gone by. I think they will get their wish.

Next week's Northeastern game is Homecoming at the Dome. Good call. It looks like Syracuse's only chance to avoid 0-12.

Just Asking

Why is Baylor a home underdog to Washington State? I am not sure Wazzu should be expected to win any road game anywhere right now. Pac-10 coaches are almost unanimous is stating how far down the Cougs seem to be. It takes real dedication for various alums to bring the omnipresent Wazzu flag and wave it behind our "GameDay" set each week! I applaud the spirit, in the face a huge rebuilding challenge in the Palouse. But I gotta go with the Bears to pull the mild upset Saturday.

Saying "I told you so" gives me no pleasure. In fact, I hate when my wife (not to mention Corso or Herbstreit) are quick to point out when they foresaw something. So I won't mention (or maybe I will) how certain I was that overzealous officials would step in and follow orders to more sternly enforce the unsportsmanlike conduct rule at an inappropriate time.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.