- Mark Schlabach, College Football Reporter
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I've spent the majority of my professional career in SEC press boxes. From Fayetteville, Ark., to Columbia, S.C., I've always felt SEC schools had the most rabid fans, the prettiest coeds, several of college football's best settings and many of the game's best athletes. The South has always been the region where college football matters most.
So nine seasons out of 10, I would probably agree that from top to bottom, the SEC is hands-down the best conference in college football.
But not this year. The SEC might still be the deepest league in the land, but it's not good enough this season to afford a mulligan to Arkansas, Auburn, Florida or Tennessee, which are all trying to jockey their way back into the BCS title game picture now that USC has fallen.
If the winner of Thursday night's Louisville-West Virginia game at Papa John's Stadium in Louisville (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) finishes the season with an undefeated record, that Big East champion will be more deserving of a spot in the Jan. 8 BCS title game than any one-loss team from the SEC.
In fact, undefeated Louisville or West Virginia would be more deserving than the loser of the Nov. 18 game between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan. And it would be more deserving than one-loss Texas, one-loss California or one-loss Notre Dame.
"Certainly, you keep your eye on that," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of the BCS standings. "When you saw USC lose, it's one more step for the winner of our game or the winner of the Big East having a shot at the BCS title game. Rutgers is sitting out there undefeated, so there's more to the season than this game."
The Mountaineers and Cardinals would probably struggle to finish unbeaten in the meat grinder that is the SEC. Auburn couldn't do it this season. Neither could Florida, nor Tennessee. Auburn had its chance to win a national championship and lost to Arkansas. Florida lost to Auburn, and Tennessee lost to the Gators. LSU might be the best team in the league, but the Tigers can't win big games.
The bottom of the SEC is worse than the bottom of the Big East. Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have combined for two conference victory. Georgia can't score. Kentucky can't defend. South Carolina can't win games that matter.
And what have those SEC teams at the top done besides beat each other? Arkansas got crushed by USC in Week 1. Auburn's best nonconference win came against Washington State.
Florida beat Southern Mississippi and Central Florida and finishes the season against I-AA Western Carolina and Florida State, which is playing like a I-AA team. Tennessee has the SEC's best nonconference win, 35-18 over California in the opener, but the Vols struggled against Air Force and barely beat Alabama and South Carolina.
For that matter, whom has Ohio State beaten besides Texas? Whom has Michigan beaten besides Notre Dame? Whom have the Fighting Irish beaten at all?
So it can be argued that Louisville and West Virginia have played just as tough a schedule as everyone else.
The Big East isn't chopped liver. Rutgers is one of six unbeaten teams left in Division I-A.
Pittsburgh is 6-2 and was on the cusp of being ranked before the Scarlet Knights beat the Panthers.
Cincinnati and South Florida aren't as easy to beat as Mississippi State, and both the Bearcats and Bulls should play in bowl games again. Syracuse and Connecticut still have a ways to go, but both are getting better.
"We're a small league, but from one through eight, we're as strong as we've been in a long time," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I think all of that talk about the demise of the Big East should be gone."
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese isn't looking past Thursday night's game between his league's two powerhouses. The Mountaineers still have to play at Pittsburgh on Nov. 16 and host Rutgers in a Dec. 2 finale in Morgantown, W.Va. (who would have ever thought a Big East regular-season game would trump the ACC, Big 12 and SEC championship games on the last day of the season?). If the Cardinals beat West Virginia, they still play at Rutgers on Nov. 9 and at Pittsburgh on Nov. 25.
"I haven't even given it a lot of thought," Tranghese said, when asked about the possibility of unbeaten Louisville or West Virginia being left out of the BCS title game. "If that happens, I will be disappointed. But I'm not going to sit here and scream about it. I don't even worry about it. There's still a long way to go. There's a lot of games left. I don't even know if we're going to have an undefeated team left at the end. Those teams still have tough road games left."
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville was screaming about the BCS, even before his Tigers were upset at home by Arkansas 27-10 on Oct. 7. Auburn regained its footing to beat the Gators 27-17 the following week, but struggled at Ole Miss before beating the lowly Rebels 23-17 last Saturday.
With Tuberville's team right in the middle of the BCS beauty pageant, in which strength of schedule and final scores will matter most during the next month, Auburn is preparing Saturday to play Arkansas State.
Along with Washington State, the Tigers' other nonconference games were against Buffalo and Tulane. And the Tigers won't face a formidable opponent on the road this season -- they played at Mississippi State, South Carolina and Ole Miss and play rival Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 18.
The Crimson Tide were losing to Duke in the second half three weeks ago.
Beating Georgia, which lost to Vanderbilt and nearly lost to Colorado and Mississippi State, won't do much for the Tigers' strength of schedule this season, either.
Conversely, the Big East teams' strength of schedule figures to get better. If West Virginia finishes undefeated, it will probably have beaten seven teams with winning records -- if Cincinnati, East Carolina and South Florida finish better than 6-6. An undefeated Louisville team would have as many as nine wins against teams with winning records -- if Miami, Kansas State, Middle Tennessee and Cincinnati finish strong.
The Mountaineers' victory over Maryland looks better and better each week, and the Cardinals played the Hurricanes at home and Kansas State on the road. There are few SEC teams that can claim such quality nonconference wins.
"I think because there are so many games left, I don't know how you can compare strength of schedule until the end of the year," Rodriguez said. "For us, everybody said our nonconference schedule wasn't very good. But look at what Maryland did. They beat Florida State and have done well. I think if there are two undefeated teams left from BCS conferences, those two teams will be there."
In a perfect college football world, teams such as Louisville and West Virginia would get an opportunity to prove themselves against the likes of the SEC.
The Mountaineers got that chance a season ago -- and they waxed the SEC champions in the Sugar Bowl.
On (and off) the Mark
On The Mark
McCoy, a redshirt freshman, has gotten better each week, and the Longhorns have won seven games in a row since losing to Ohio State 24-7 on Sept. 9. McCoy has completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,705 yards with 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He ranks seventh in Division I-A in pass efficiency and is on pace to throw 35 touchdown passes, which would break the Texas single-season record.
On Saturday, the Longhorns play one of the quarterbacks ranked ahead of McCoy, Oklahoma State's Bobby Reid, who has the third-best passer rating in the country. Reid has thrown for 1,616 yards and 19 touchdowns. He and receivers Adarius Bowman and D'Juan Woods could have a big day in Austin, Texas, against a secondary that allowed Texas Tech's Graham Harrell to throw for 519 yards in the Longhorns' 35-31 win last week.
Off The Mark
It has to be over for Michigan State's John L. Smith. His team rallied for the biggest upset in Division I-A history in beating Northwestern two weeks ago, and then responded by getting blasted 46-21 at Indiana. The Spartans scored a touchdown on their first drive of the game, but didn't get another first down until the fourth quarter. They trailed 30-10 at halftime, had 12 penalties, lost two fumbles and dropped six passes.
Michigan State is 4-5 and 1-4 in Big Ten play and must win two of its last three games against Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State to finish 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game.
On The Mark
Louisville and West Virginia aren't the only unbeaten teams that benefited from USC's 33-31 loss at Oregon State. So did Boise State, which blew out the Beavers 42-14 on Sept. 7.
The Broncos are 8-0 and No. 14 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. They also greatly benefited from Virginia Tech's 24-7 win over Clemson Thursday night.
To qualify for one of the four BCS at-large berths, Boise State must finish in the top 12 of the BCS standings or ranked in the top 16 of the BCS standings and ahead of the champion of one of the six BCS conferences which receives an automatic BCS berth (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-10 or SEC).
At No. 15, Boston College is the highest-ranked ACC team in the BCS standings. Clemson is No.
19, Georgia Tech is No. 21, Wake Forest is No. 24 and Virginia Tech is No. 25. So the Broncos will be rooting for the Demon Deacons to beat Boston College in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Saturday.
Boise State hosts struggling Fresno State on Wednesday night, then faces one of its toughest tests at San Jose State on Nov. 11. The Broncos then host Utah State on Nov. 18 and finish the regular season at Nevada on Nov. 25.
Off The Mark
North Carolina State athletic director Lee Fowler doesn't want to go through another coaching search. The Wolfpack struggled to find a basketball coach this spring after Herb Sendek left for Arizona State, and eventually settled on former player Sidney Lowe, who was 79-228 as an NBA coach.
But Wolfpack football coach Chuck Amato isn't making Fowler's decision easy. NC State seemed to rebound from early-season losses to Akron and Southern Miss by upsetting Boston College and Florida State in consecutive games. Now, the win over the Seminoles doesn't look very impressive and State has lost three straight games to Wake Forest, Maryland and Virginia.
The Wolfpack is 3-5 and 2-3 in the ACC, with games left against Georgia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina and East Carolina. Amato might find a way to lose all of them, and he should have to win three of them to keep his job.
NC State is reluctant to make a change because North Carolina has already fired coach John Bunting, and the Wolfpack can benefit from the Tar Heels' instability. But how stable is State with Amato still standing on the sideline?
On The Mark
Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson (284 passing yards and three touchdowns in 34-31 win at Mississippi State). Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson (400 yards offense -- 150 rushing and 250 passing -- and five touchdowns in 45-28 win over Duke). Wake Forest linebacker Jon Abbate's interception. Georgia Tech receiver James Johnson's touchdown catch. Arkansas running back Darren McFadden's versatility (129 yards rushing and threw for a touchdown in 44-10 win over Louisiana-Monroe). Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson (three touchdowns in 26-10 win over Missouri). Oklahoma State's bowl chances. Temple's first win in 21 games. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn's Heisman Trophy chances. Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis (five touchdowns in 46-21 win over Michigan State). The Hoosiers' bowl chances. Iowa freshman quarterback Jake Christensen (256 passing yards in first start). Washington State quarterback Alex Brink (405 passing yards and three touchdowns in 37-15 win over UCLA). Tennessee in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech running back Branden Ore (200-plus rushing yards in back-to-back games).
Off The Mark
Auburn in the red zone. Texas' secondary. Georgia's turnovers (15 in the last four games). UCLA's bowl chances. Washington's postseason hopes. Miami quarterback Kyle Wright's protection. Florida State's kicking game. Minnesota. Purdue's offense (shut out 12-0 by Penn State; first time Boilermakers were held scoreless in 127 games). Winless Duke's 16-game losing streak, now the longest in Division I-A. Blown replay calls at Texas Tech and Oregon State. Clemson quarterback Will Proctor. Bottle throwing by a Clemson fan.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Nine years out of 10, the SEC is the toughest league in the land. This year, that honor goes elsewhere, writes Mark Schlabach.