Updated: November 12, 2006 4:57:36 PM PST

The slow whittle is part of the process


THAT'S WHY THEY PLAY ALL THE GAMES

Let us stipulate the formula used to select a national champion is flawed. That everyone understands as much contributes to the anxiety ginned up by the last few weeks of the season. The lack of solid footing ratchets fan stress to final-exam level the deeper the calendar dips into November.

Which teams will make it?

Which team will deserve a bid and not get it?

And, ohmigod, why is Rutgers in this conversation?

Georgia sacks Auburn
AP Photo/Rob Carr
Auburn's offensive woes finally caught up with the Tigers.

The conversation today is very different from the conversation on Thursday afternoon. The candidates to play in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8 have been trimmed by four, and a surprising four at that. Louisville must live with having the shortest path to Glendale before it blew an 18-point lead at Rutgers. Texas no longer has a chance to defend its national championship. Auburn and California are toast.

All of which delivers a reminder that, in order for the current system to work, we must believe not just in the wisdom of the regular season, but of the entire regular season. The difference between good teams and great teams is sometimes so small that 10 games -- or more -- are needed to find it.

The Texas defense began to look suspect at Texas Tech. Kansas State confirmed it, and with a freshman quarterback at that.

Auburn hid its offensive problems for nearly the entire season. The offensive line has young tackles. Tailback Kenny Irons hasn't been healthy all season and Carl Stewart is a tailback lining up as a fullback. Auburn scored a total of one offensive touchdown in its two biggest victories, 7-3 over LSU and 27-17 over Florida.

The Tigers' problems caught up with them against Georgia.

Seasons are coming to a close. Ohio State and Michigan are one game away from clinching an invitation to the BCS Championship Game. After the upsets of Saturday, the teams in genuine contention to play on Jan. 8 are Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Florida, Arkansas, Rutgers, and maybe Notre Dame.

The system is working. There are three weeks remaining in which to eliminate five teams. USC's leap to third in the new BCS standings could mean a third consecutive championship game berth is the Trojans' to lose, as long as you assume that the Ohio State-Michigan game will eliminate a team.

If e-mail of the last 24 hours is any judge, debate on the topic could be extended and excited. With the field narrowed, more fans are wondering why a one-loss Ohio State or Michigan won't be considered. It's a sign of hope for the losers, and a sign of the uncertainty that comes with being a college football fan at the end of the season.

There's always the possibility that the loser of this game will prove that it deserves consideration for a rematch. But there's a greater possibility that the loser will prove itself not worthy of a second chance. Sometimes it takes an entire season for a team, even one as good as Ohio State or Michigan, to fall short.

NO AX-CIDENT

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Even when his team trailed then-No. 3 Louisville by 11 points at halftime on Thursday night, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano had this calming message for his team: "Keep chopping away."

Rutgers defense
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
The Rutgers defense caused all kinds of problems for Brian Brohm and Louisville.

And when the second half started in front of a record crowd of 44,111 at Rutgers Stadium, Schiano threw everything but the kitchen sink at Cardinals quarterback Brian Brohm and his high-octane offense.

"We stuck by our motto of 'chop, chop, chop,'" Scarlet Knights defensive tackle Eric Foster said. "Brohm is a hell of a quarterback and he can expose a defense. But coach Schiano did a great job of leading us throughout the game."

Schiano, the former Miami defensive coordinator, also runs Rutgers' defense. Schiano knew he had to pressure Brohm, who threw for 132 yards and one touchdown in the first half. Brohm completed a 45-yard pass to Harry Douglas on the Cardinals' first offensive play.

"We did a nice job coming out of the gate," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "But it changed up fast."

With Rutgers rushing as many as seven, eight and nine players, Brohm never seemed comfortable in the pocket in the second half. He was sacked five times and completed only 13 of 27 passes for a season-low 163 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Louisville, which went into the game ranked second in total offense and fourth in scoring offense, had only 53 yards in the second half and crossed midfield only once in the final 30 minutes.

"I think all the pressure started to bother Brian," Petrino said. "I'm not sure he kept his eyes downfield like you need to."

Instead, Brohm spent much of the night on his back and looking at the clear New Jersey skies, which was Schiano's plan all along.

Rutgers (9-0, 4-0 Big East) leads Division I-A in sacks and tackles for loss, is second in pass defense and fourth in total defense and scoring defense. They lead the Big East in all those statistical categories.

Rutgers painted the New York City metro-area Scarlet on Thursday.

"Coach Schiano prepared us for chaos," Foster said. "Being down 25-7 is chaos. We prepared for that all year. It wasn't nothing for us to go out there and accomplish our mission."

The Scarlet Knights' mission is far from finished. They took over first place in the Big East standings -- they've never done that this late in the season -- and have games left at Cincinnati, against Syracuse at home and at West Virginia in the Dec. 2 finale.

If Rutgers wins all three, it will win the Big East and the corresponding spot in a lucrative Bowl Championship Series game. And, depending on what happens in the last three weeks of the regular season, it could even be the Jan. 8 BCS title game in Glenadale, Ariz.

Louisville was one of four teams ranked ahead of Rutgers in the BCS standings to lose this past week. The Scarlet Knights, who were No. 13 in last week's BCS standings, climbed to No. 6 on Sunday.

HIGHER LEARNING

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Good thing Troy Smith doesn't have a Heisman vote.

If he did, the Ohio State quarterback might not put himself in the running for college football's highest individual honor, which by all accounts is his to lose as the 2006 season heads into its final weeks.

After the senior dissected Northwestern's secondary for four touchdowns Saturday on 12 of 19 passing for 185 yards -- en route to a 54-10 win -- he downplayed his success and his role in the Buckeyes' 11-0 start.

Rutgers defense
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Professor Smith is a harsh grader.

"I'd probably give myself a strong B," said Smith, when asked to grade himself on the season. "I think I've played alright. There's a lot of things that you don't see that I could do better. I would hope that a humble player would talk about things that he can still do better. I want to be the best that has ever played the game."

OK, we'll bite. How exactly do you improve upon what to this point has been an unbeaten wire-to-wire job at No. 1 that now includes the nation's longest current unbeaten streak at 18 games and a 24-2 career record as a starter?

"Decision making as a quarterback is everything," Smith said. "Every time you drop back with the ball or every time you come up to the line and you read a coverage, the decision-making process that you go through develops you into the kind of player that you want to be."

The one bad decision for Smith on Saturday resulted in an interception late in the first half. With the Buckeyes on their own 40, Smith tried to connect with Ted Ginn Jr. up the right sideline but the ball may have gotten caught up in the gusting winds and it was intercepted by Sherrick McManis in front of Ginn on the NU 24.

It was Smith's fourth interception of the season, but Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was more than willing to take the blame for the turnover.

"[Troy] was in control and command and that is what we like," Tressel said. "He knew what was going on the whole time. He had the one throw that was probably a poor call, asking him to throw a home run into the wind. That call was probably on me."

Smith quickly made amends for himself and his coach by finding Ginn up the left sideline for a 34-yard TD with just :03 left in the half to give the Buckeyes a 33-10 lead.

"He is very aware of what it going on, but sometimes it looks like he ad-libs," Tressel said. "He is only ad-libbing because he knows what [the defense] is doing and he knows where to find someone."

For the season, Smith is 170-of-256 for 2,191 yards with 26 TDs and a 168.69 passer rating. He also has rushed for 221 yards and 1 TD.

But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of college football, it could be all for naught if No. 1 Ohio State (11-0) can't solve No. 2 Michigan (11-0) and its highly touted defense in Columbus on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 ET).

"I've never known both teams to be undefeated coming into this game," Smith said. "It's bigger than anything I've known in the past. And I'm actually a part of it.

"It really blows my mind."

Some, including many Heisman Trophy voters, would say the same about Smith's performance this season.

HOGS CLOSER TO HEAVEN

Hey, what about Arkansas?

That season-opening 50-14 thumping the Razorbacks suffered at the hands of the USC Trojans has been the football version of the Scarlet Letter for them.

But nine victories later, most recently a 31-14 smackdown of Tennessee on Saturday, and it's obvious these Hogs are for real.

"People haven't been respecting us all season," said sophomore tailback Darren McFadden, who's thrust himself front and center into the Heisman Trophy race. "When they talk about the one-loss teams, we don't get mentioned. I feel like we proved ourselves to them [Saturday night]."

Rutgers defense
Nelson Chenault/US Presswire
McFadden has vaulted himself into the Heisman race.

The Razorbacks (9-1, 6-0) remain the only unbeaten team in SEC play. They can clinch the Western Division title and a trip to the SEC Championship Game this weekend by winning at Mississippi State.

There could be more out there for them, too, if they keep winning and get some help.

Playing in the BCS National Championship Game isn't that farfetched for Houston Nutt's club, which believes in running the football the way Tiger Woods does in swinging away with the driver.

Arkansas obviously needs to win out over Mississippi State and LSU and then defeat Florida in the SEC Championship Game. From there, the Hogs probably need California to defeat USC on Nov. 18 and then the Trojans to turn around and defeat Notre Dame the following week.

Stranger things have happened.

Nutt, whose Hogs rushed for 259 yards against the Vols, isn't interested in sorting through all the scenarios.

"I'm just going to let all those guys figure that out," Nutt said of the pollsters and computer experts. "I'm just going to try and get ready to beat Mississippi State. If we start thinking about that, I think we'll take energy away from the task at hand.

"It's not about rankings or bowls or the BCS for us right now. It's about the next game."

For those who haven't noticed, this is a markedly different team than the one that turned it over five times and was blown out by USC on national television back on Sept. 2.

Arkansas, nearly forgotten after a loss to USC, is in the title game picture.

McFadden is the most dangerous running back in the country. He wasn't close to 100 percent in the opener after nearly having his toe dislocated during a preseason fight. His sidekick, Felix Jones, provides an excellent complement, and the Hogs' offensive line is experienced and nasty.

The biggest improvement has come on defense, where Arkansas is making a habit of getting to the quarterback and not giving up much of anything in the run game.

Still, all great teams have a star, a player that raises everybody else's play around him, a player that breaks open close games with a jaw-dropping run or tackle.

For Arkansas, that guy is McFadden.

"He's the best running back I've seen since I've been here," Tennessee linebacker Ryan Karl said after watching McFadden romp for 181 yards and two touchdowns and throw for another touchdown out of the shotgun.

"The key to their whole scheme is having No. 5 back there. He's their whole offense. If he wasn't back there, it would be a different game."

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Fear the Turtle? Hardly, at least not on paper, anyway.

With two games left in the regular season, Maryland ranks 102nd among 119 Division I-A teams in total offense. The Terrapins are 89th in passing offense, 81st in rushing and 75th in scoring offense.

Maryland's production on the other side of the football isn't much better. The Terps are 101st against the run, 53rd in pass defense and 45th in scoring defense.

Maryland has given up two more turnovers than it has gained, and allowed one more sack than its defense has produced.

Darrius Heyward-Bey
Pouya Dianat-US PRESSWIRE
Maryland hit a pair of long scores then held on in a squeaker.

So how in the world has Maryland won five consecutive games, including a 14-13 victory over Miami at Byrd Stadium on Saturday, to remain tied with Wake Forest for first place in the ACC's Atlantic Division?

"I don't know what to say," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "It's miraculous."

To say the least. The Terrapins (8-2, 5-1 ACC) have won their last five games by a combined total of 13 points. They won at Virginia by two, rallying from a 20-point deficit in a 28-26 victory. They beat Florida State by three points, blocking a field goal with 46 seconds to go to preserve a 27-24 win.

At Clemson last week, Dan Ennis kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Terps a 13-12 win.

And against Miami, Maryland took a 14-0 lead in the first half on two long touchdown passes from Sam Hollenbach to Darrius Heyward-Bey, then punted seven straight times and hung on for dear life.

It was the ninth consecutive game in which the Terps were out-gained by their opponent. That includes closer-than-expected wins over Middle Tennessee and winless Florida International.

"The ball has been bouncing our way, but there was a period of time when it didn't go that way," Friedgen said.

Like during each of the previous two seasons, when Maryland finished 5-6 each year and missed the postseason. That prompted Friedgen to change both coordinators and take over the offensive play-calling again.

With games left at Boston College on Saturday and against Wake Forest in the Nov. 25 finale, the Terps control their destiny. If they win both remaining games, they're guaranteed a spot against Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech in the Dec. 2 ACC championship game at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville.

If Maryland loses to Boston College and beats Wake Forest, they'll need some help but can still get there. The Demon Deacons (9-1, 5-1 ACC), who won at Florida State 30-0 on Saturday, close the season with a home game against Virginia Tech and at Maryland.

"I'm living a good life," Friedgen said. "I don't know how else to explain it."

FIVE SATURDAY OBSERVATIONS
IVAN MAISEL
USC 1. We all wrote off USC too quickly after its 33-31 loss at Oregon State. The Trojans scored 35 points against a good Oregon team on Saturday night, and the statistics that stood out in the box score are these: Steve Smith caught seven passes for 88 yards and Dwayne Jarrett caught six passes for 54 yards and added a 37-yard run. The Trojans are healthy. That's why they still could win the national championship.

Arkansas 2. No one will be rooting harder for California to beat USC on Saturday than Arkansas. It's pretty obvious that the Razorbacks are playing the best football in the Southeastern Conference. But as long as the Trojans remain in the discussion for a BCS Championship Game berth, Arkansas can't get there. USC's 50-14 victory in Fayetteville on Labor Day weekend may have been against an Arkansas team that resembles the current one in name only, but it remains on the record books.

Dennis Franchione
Franchione
3. Is it possible that the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saved the job of Texas A&M head coach Dennis Franchione? President Bush chose Texas A&M president Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld. I question whether any university without a president, or a president who has one foot out the door, would consider to undertake the enormous financial and symbolic task of replacing a football coach. Oh, and disgruntled Aggie fans may not want to hear this, but Fran has improved the team from 5-6 to 8-3, with all three defeats coming in the final minute of play.

Big East 4. Rutgers' comeback defeat of Louisville in the short term may have cost the Big East an invitation to the BCS Championship Game. But in the long term it is nothing but good news for the league. Not only did the victory legitimize another Big East team, it engaged the New York metropolitan area. That will be attractive to BCS bowls, who are always interested in TV ratings. With Saturday's upsets, the Big East still may end up with two BCS invitations.

Bob Stoops
Stoops
5. Don't do it, Oklahoma fans. Enjoy the way that coach Bob Stoops has used chewing gum and baling wire to take this injury-riddled team to 8-2. Don't think about the loss at Oregon depriving you of being in the national championship conversation. Even a win at Oregon wouldn't have looked as good as it once did, and the loss to Texas would have kept you out of the Big 12 Championship Game anyway. Don't torture yourself with what-ifs. Enjoy what you have.
COLLEGE GAMEDAY STUDIO RECAP
Rece Davis, Lou Holtz and Mark May break down the best one-loss teams.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM THE FINAL CREW
RECE DAVIS
Big Ten Over consecutive November weekends, we will have seen the best college football has to offer. In the long history of the sport, there haven't been many games bigger than the Collision in Columbus this Saturday between Michigan and Ohio State. And as great as that one could be, it won't be able to provide the same type of thrills as this past weekend, when the landscape of the national-championship race was totally changed by four contenders being upset. No matter how strong or weak the schedule of games might seem, any given Saturday can be one to remember in college football.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Andre' Woodson, Kentucky
450 passing yards, 4 TDs vs. Vanderbilt
Steve Breaston, Michigan
331 all-purpose yards, 2 TDs vs. Indiana
LOU HOLTZ
Wisconsin We may have lost three once-beaten teams on Saturday, but we found two. Arkansas and Wisconsin haven't gotten much attention this season, but they should be noticed now that a few more popular teams are out of the way. Arkansas still has a shot at the national title, and even though Wisconsin doesn't, you can't ignore what a great season they've had and what a great job Bret Bielema has done in his first year as a head coach.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Tra Battle, Georgia
3 INTs in 1st half (one return for TD) vs. Auburn
Josh Freeman, Kansas State
269 pass yards, 3 TDs, rush TD vs. Texas
MARK MAY
Darren McFadden
McFadden
I was so impressed with Arkansas, particularly their offense. I loved the way they attacked the Tennessee defense by giving them different looks with Darren McFadden and stretching the field just enough with Marcus Monk. There was a lot of pressure on Arkansas to win that game, and rather than come out nervous, they came out swinging. If anyone had doubts about this team, those should now be erased.

Helmet Stickers Go To:
Antoine Caison, Arizona
4th-quarter INT return for a TD vs Cal
Jarvis Moss, Florida
Blocked PAT and FG in 4th quarter vs. South Carolina
OBJECTS APPEAR CLOSER ...
BRAD EDWARDS, ESPN Research
Not sure how much Bobby Bowden drives these days, but if he looks in the rearview mirror, Joe Paterno (on his new motorized scooter) might be much closer than he actually appears. Even though Paterno watched Penn State's 47-0 victory over Temple from home on Saturday, he got credit for the win and is now back within three of Bowden on the all-time victory list.

Not too long ago, it seemed that Bowden was going to run away with the record. On Nov. 12, 2004 -- after six straight losses by Penn State -- Bowden had 350 wins to Paterno's 341. The margin was narrowed to five after Paterno's head-to-head win in last season's Orange Bowl and is now close enough that it's not a stretch to think these legendary coaches could be even again by early next season. With Paterno unable to walk and Bowden's team unable to score, the race is too close to call.

LOOKING AHEAD: OHIO STATE
GAME ON
After a quick tuneup with Northwestern, Ohio State is ready for 'The Game' against Michigan on Nov. 18, writes David Albright. Story
HIGHLIGHTS: BUCKEYES-WILDCATS
Ohio State took advantage of Northwestern turnovers to rout the Wildcats.
LOOKING AHEAD: MICHIGAN
NEXT?
In many ways, Michigan's win over Indiana provided ideal preparation for the team the Wolverines can start talking about, writes Ivan Maisel. Story
HIGHLIGHTS: WOLVERINES-HOOSIERS
Steve Breaston did it all in Michigan's rout over Indiana.
CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN
BRAD EDWARDS, ESPN Research
On Saturday, Steve Spurrier became only the fourth person to go as an opposing head coach into the stadium of a team he previously led to a national title. And like those before him, he lost the game.

The first to try was North Carolina's Jim Tatum in 1957. He led his Tar Heels into Maryland, where he had coached the Terps to the national title just four seasons earlier, and left a 21-7 loser. In 1966, South Carolina head coach Paul Dietzel, who won the 1958 national championship at LSU, took the Gamecocks to Baton Rouge and went home with a 28-12 loss. Then it was Howard Schnellenberger, who took his first Louisville team to the Orange Bowl to face the Hurricanes in 1985. The Cardinals lost most of their games that season, and the one at Miami wasn't even close ... 45-7.

The only other person to coach against a major-college program he had led to a national title was Johnny Majors, but both of his meetings with Pittsburgh while head coach at Tennessee were in Knoxville. Both, by the way, were losses.

Including Spurrier's games against Florida, coaches have gone 3-7 versus the programs they once led to prominence, but they are 0-4 on the road in those situations. Even in coaching, you can return to your old stomping grounds, but it's never quite the same as it was when you left.

LOOKING BACK: MIAMI-MARYLAND
REALITY CHECK
Grieving Miami suffered another loss on Saturday, but the reality of Bryan Pata's death hurts much more, writes Mark Schlabach. Story
HIGHLIGHTS: CANES-TERPS
Maryland was able to hang on vs. a grieving Miami squad.
GONE TILL NOVEMBER
BRAD EDWARDS, ESPN Research
If November is indeed the month that defines a college football season, then Arizona coach Mike Stoops is much better than his 11-21 overall record would suggest.

In his three seasons with the Wildcats, Stoops is 4-10 against ranked teams: 0-5 in September, 0-4 in October and 4-1 in November. Timing, they say, is everything.

Stoops' first November game against a ranked opponent was a 49-9 loss to No. 1 (and eventual national champion) USC. Since then, he has won four straight against the Top 25 in the closing month of the season, knocking off No. 18 Arizona State to finish the 2004 campaign, No. 7 (previously unbeaten) UCLA last year, and back-to-back wins this year over No. 25 Washington State and No. 8 Cal.

That's a far cry from what's happening in College Station, Texas, where Dennis Franchione has lost 10 of his last 11 November games -- many of them in heartbreaking fashion, such as the past two weeks' home losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma. Things aren't a whole lot better in the spot previously vacated by Franchione, as Alabama is just 3-8 in November under Mike Shula, with all three wins coming against Mississippi State.

But the month is not over yet. Shula and Franchione can mend some of the past with wins in their upcoming rivalry games against Auburn and Texas, respectively. Stoops can assure Arizona of its first bowl berth since 1998 by beating Oregon and Arizona State.

One thing's for sure, though. Their seasons will be remembered for what they did in November.

HERE COME THE TROJANS
BRUCE FELDMAN, ESPN The Magazine
In the second quarter of last night's Oregon-USC game, Trojan defensive end Lawrence Jackson finally got a sack. This is news here in L.A.. Pretty big news. Not the "NFL comes back to L.A." big news, but still pretty noteworthy because the loquacious Jackson, a media favorite, hadn't had a sack since like the days when Shaq was a Laker. (OK it's only been a year, but that was still pretty stunning considering that he had 10 sacks last season.)

Anyhow, after Jackson dumped Ducks QB Dennis Dixon, he mimicked lifting a monkey off his back. Actually, after a day the Trojans spent watching games from their hotel, that gesture might as well have been Auburn, Texas and Louisville that USC was shedding too. It's November and the Trojans suddenly are looking pretty impressive again, and they appear to be in prime BCS title position. Pete Carroll's record in college football's big-money month is 18-0, and after thumping Oregon, the Trojans have now outscored teams 77-10 in November. This was a pretty good team USC blew out.

To read more of Bruce Feldman's analysis of USC, click here.



 

Search Arrow