The ins and outs of the top contenders

Originally Published: November 15, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

BCS proponents say the key to making the system work is to allow it to work, to let the entire regular season play out. That doesn't do much to explain last year, mind you, and with three Saturdays before bids are handed out, there remain three viable national championship contenders for two berths. The latest polls are so close for the No. 2 position that the vote counters are checking for hanging chads.

If one coach had flip-flopped Auburn and Oklahoma, the teams would be tied in both polls. As it is, the Sooners lead the Tigers by two points in the coaches' poll and are tied in the media poll. Auburn is reaping the benefit of dominating Georgia 24-6.

All of which begs the questions: How does USC remain above this fray? Will the weakness of Baylor and the Big 12 North champion cost Oklahoma an Orange Bowl bid?

If Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is this effective as a lobbyist, why isn't he working in Washington?

The Trojans, Sooners and Tigers can each make a good case to play in the national championship game. Their fans can make a good case as to why one of the others should be the team left out. Here are the ins and outs concerning who should be in or out of Miami on Jan. 4.

The following can be used in any barroom/chatroom discussion. There's something here for everyone.

USC Trojans (10-0)

Reggie Bush
The Trojans have the talent to continue their domination.
In: You're kidding, right? The Trojans gave No. 4 Cal its only loss, 23-17 -- the best victory any of the three teams has -- and gave No. 15 Virginia Tech one of its two defeats, 24-13, way back in August. The defense is better than the national championship defense of a year ago, and the special teams, with returner Reggie Bush, are among the best in the nation. The Trojans, as defending co-national champions, have taken the best shot of every team they have faced, and still have a 19-game winning streak. Their opponents' cumulative record of 48-40 is good.

Out: When three teams are undefeated, you have to look at how they have gone about winning. Three second-half comebacks, including nailbiters at Stanford (4-6) and at Oregon State (5-5), mean the Trojans aren't as dominant as a No. 1 should be. Conference power may be cyclical in nature, but the Pac-10 is taking its time returning from the bottom to the top of Division I-A. The only reason that the Trojans are No. 1 is that they started there.

Oklahoma Sooners (10-0)

Jason White
Oklahoma doesn't put on Heisman campaign for Jason White because it feels the Heisman is won the field.
In: The Sooners have beaten three ranked conference opponents away from Norman, including the 12-0 shutout of No. 5 Texas, which hadn't been shut out in more than 20 years, as well as No. 22 Texas A&M and No. 23 Oklahoma State. The Sooners have gone undefeated in the most competitive division in I-A football. Their non-conference schedule included No. 24 Bowling Green, a team that Oklahoma beat, 40-24. Oklahoma has the most exciting offense in the nation, with an offensive line full of future NFL players, a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and the best freshman tailback in the last 10 years. Their opponents are 57-33, which means Oklahoma has played one of the toughest schedules in the nation.

Out: Just like last year, the Sooners were the best team in the nation in mid-October. Too bad the season didn't end then. The defensive struggles have been easily explained -- the absence of corner Antonio Perkins -- but the explanation doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that the Sooners gave up 35 points on consecutive weeks. Yes, the games were on the road, and against ranked teams. But USC and Auburn didn't give up five touchdowns to the ranked teams they played. That strength of schedule is going to look a lot less foreboding once you add in Baylor (3-7) and whatever mighty champion the Big 12 North produces.

Auburn Tigers (10-0)

Jason Campbell
Jason Campbell and Auburn have been the surprise of the season.
In: Every coach who wants to convince a junior to stick around for his senior year can point to the Tigers as evidence of the reward. Tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams came back and not only have their team contending for a national title but have proven themselves to be first-round picks. Quarterback Jason Campbell has developed under new offensive coordinator Al Borges into an efficient leader. The Tigers have mowed over every team they have played with the consistency of a John Deere. A no-name defense made a name for itself by holding its best opponents to no more than 10 points: No. 14 LSU (10-9), at No. 16 Tennessee (34-10) and No. 10 Georgia (24-6). All three were ranked in the top 10 at the time that they played. Other than LSU, the Tigers have beaten every team by at least 18 points. And how can anyone resist the rise of coach Tommy Tuberville, who overcame a palace coup last season to lead his team to the top?

Out: Lack of schedule strength is stuck to the back of the Tigers like a "Kick Me" sign. Closing with Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee will help cure that, but the conscious decision to get the USCs and Georgia Techs off the schedule and Louisiana-Monroe and The Citadel on will be the reason that the Tigers may end up in the Sugar Bowl. And call me a heretic for saying it, but the fact is the SEC is not as strong as it is supposed to be. Auburn has been dominant, yes, but the SEC has only four ranked teams, only seven bowl teams (and Alabama, while improved, is a bowl team only in the most technical sense of being 6-4).

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com