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Fresno State or NIU? Sizing up BCS debates entering rivalry week

Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Behind quarterback Derek Carr, Fresno State is undefeated in 2013, but the Bulldogs lack quality wins.

Once Baylor's 49-17 loss to Oklahoma State ended the constant attempts to compare the Bears with Ohio State, I figured my ballot for this week's AP Poll would be free of controversy. Whoops.

Apparently, I'm the only AP voter who doesn't have undefeated Fresno State ranked in the Top 25. I must be nuts. The Bulldogs are 10-0. How could I leave them off my list? Didn't I stay up to see their stirring overtime win over Rutgers in Week 1? (I did.) Didn't I see their one-point win over (now 7-4) Boise State on Sept. 20? (I did.) Didn't I see Fresno State's win over... wait, wait. I'll find a good one. Still looking. Never mind.

Following the release of the latest BCS standings (of which the AP Poll is not a component), Bulldogs fans only seem to care about one team that I have ranked above Fresno State. I put Northern Illinois -- the Bulldogs' fellow non-AQ conference unbeaten -- at No. 21, which is still lower than most of my voting counterparts. The folks from Fresno can't believe this. After all, the Bulldogs' vanquished FBS opponents have a combined winning percentage of .400, while the Huskies' vanquished FBS opponents have a combined winning percentage of .372. Fresno fans don't seem to care that NIU's season-opening 30-27 win at Iowa is better than any victory on the Bulldogs' schedule. They also seem terribly concerned that I'm not properly taking into account what happened when each team played Idaho. Fresno rolled. Northern Illinois had to come from behind to win by 10.

MANDEL: Where do Fresno State, NIU land in the latest bowl projections?

OK, Bulldogs fans. I'll make you a deal. I'll rank teams based how they performed against a common opponent. The catch is I get to choose the common opponent. So I choose San Diego State. On Aug. 31, Eastern Illinois, an FCS team, whipped the Aztecs 40-19 on the road. Nearly a month later, Fresno needed overtime to beat them 35-28 on the road. Remember, you're the ones who told me I should base my rankings on common opponents. And based on each team's performance against San Diego State, I would rank the Panthers ahead of the Bulldogs. Hmm, what's this? Which team beat Eastern Illinois on Sept. 21? Why look, it was Northern Illinois.

Any more helpful advice?

I'm just having a little fun here. There are far more factors at play than common opponents. But the point is that voters aren't supposed to grade on a curve. So I'm not. If Fresno State had better wins -- or if it had simply torched every one of its opponents -- the Bulldogs would be ranked higher. I could be completely wrong, because I'm an idiot. Just ask Oklahoma State fans. I left their team off my preseason ballot, and the Cowboys have proven me hilariously wrong. Don't ask Nebraska fans, though. Three months later, most of them agree with my preseason assessment that the Cornhuskers were not a Top 25 team.

Before we leave this discussion and head to the rankings, I'll ask one last question: Is it crazier that I have Fresno State outside the Top 25, or that the SIDs who fill out their bosses' ballots for the Coaches' Poll think that the Bulldogs are better than Wisconsin, LSU, Louisville, Oklahoma and Arizona State?

MANDEL: Eventful Week 13 highlights flaw of the BCS era; more Overtime

NCAA Football Power Rankings
1Alabama Crimson Tide
Las week: 1
Terry Saban has spoken, telling The Wall Street Journal that "We have decided: this is where we are going to end our career." The "we," in this case, is Terry and her husband, Nick -- who coaches a little football. Now that we've cleared that up, it's time to play one of the most meaningful games in a rivalry that already means more to the fans of both teams than any other sporting event in America. The victor of the Iron Bowl will win the SEC West and advance to the conference championship game in Atlanta. A Crimson Tide win would leave Alabama in position to play for a third consecutive BCS title. Read on for what an Auburn victory would mean.

Last game: Beat Chattanooga, 49-0
Next game: Saturday at Auburn
 
2Florida State Seminoles
Last week: 2
This is the team Florida State will play on Saturday.



So it's probably safe to cancel that upset alert.

Last game: Beat Idaho, 80-14
Next game: Saturday at Florida
 
3Ohio State Buckeyes
Last week: 3
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer actually uttered the M-word on Monday. "I learned to dislike Michigan at a very young age," he said during a press conference. This is an egregious breach of protocol for Meyer, who throughout his time as a head coach has avoided mentioning the name of his rival. When he worked at Florida, he called Florida State, "The team out west." At Ohio State, he calls the Wolverines, "The team up north." This is the same guy who, when he was at Utah, used urinal cakes emblazoned with the BYU logo in the locker room during Holy War week. So is Meyer slipping? Is he too worried about the Buckeyes potentially getting shut out of the BCS title game to properly focus on Michigan?

Nah. I just needed something to talk about for a few sentences. No one who has watched the Wolverines or Ohio State in the past month expects a competitive game. It's a rivalry and Michigan has nothing to lose, so anything is possible. But if the Buckeyes play as well as they have in recent weeks, Ohio State should roll.

Last game: Beat Indiana, 42-14
Next game: Saturday at Michigan
 
4 Auburn Tigers
Last week: 5

Should the Tigers emerge victorious over Alabama in Saturday's Iron Bowl, Gus Malzahn will lock up every coach of the year award that can be given. An Auburn win would also set off a massive celebration at Ohio State that would last approximately 14.2 seconds. At that point, doubt would creep into the minds of everyone outside the SEC. Would the BCS really put a one-loss SEC champ in the title game instead of the undefeated Buckeyes?* No. It wouldn't do that. Would it?

Such a scenario is unlikely, because while Malzahn and his staff have worked a minor miracle after the Tigers went 0-8 in the SEC in 2012, the gap between Auburn and the Crimson Tide still seems significant. But doubt Malzahn at your own peril.

*Voters and computers wouldn't really rank the one-loss Tigers ahead of Ohio State. I think. Maybe.

Last game: Beat Georgia, 43-38
Next game: Saturday vs. Alabama

 
5Oklahoma State Cowboys
Last week: 15
I told you up front that I was an idiot. This should prove it. I didn't have the Cowboys ranked in the preseason because I wondered how they would adjust to two new coordinators. I dropped coach Mike Gundy's team again after it lost at West Virginia on Sept. 28. But since Oklahoma State coaches settled on Clint Chelf as the starting quarterback last month, the offense has developed an identity and become a great complement to a defense that leads the Big 12 and ranks second nationally in turnover margin. Last Saturday's demolition of Baylor proved that. Now, the Cowboys have two weeks to prepare for Bedlam. A win would give them their second Big 12 title in three years. A loss would open the door for the Bears.

Last game: Beat Baylor, 49-17
Next game: Dec. 7 vs. Oklahoma
 
6 Clemson Tigers
Last week: 7
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of coach Dabo Swinney's tenure at Clemson is the Tigers' current four-game losing streak to South Carolina. This is a series that has historically tilted toward Clemson, and while the Gamecocks are enjoying the best four-year run in school history, the Tigers have been good against just about everyone else. But against South Carolina, Clemson's offense has stalled. In 2011 and '12, Chad Morris' first two seasons as Swinney's offensive coordinator, the Tigers averaged 78.4 offensive plays per game. In Morris' two games against the Gamecocks, Clemson has averaged 59.5. In the past few years, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's teams have become great at taking the air out of the football. Morris, Tajh Boyd and company will have to keep the chains moving to prevent the Gamecocks from bleeding the clock.

Last game: Beat The Citadel, 52-6
Next game: Saturday at South Carolina
 
7 Missouri Tigers
Last Week: 8
Faurot Field has been the site of an awful lot of heartbreak through the years, and 2013 has been no exception. But if the Tigers can beat Texas A&M and claim the SEC East title on Saturday, they might erase a lot of that pain. Missouri has earned its way to this point with a dynamic offense and a stingy defense. The Tigers played through the four-game absence of starting quarterback James Franklin and remained in control of their destiny. Last Saturday at Ole Miss, Franklin started for the first time since he injured his shoulder on Oct. 12 and completed 12-of-19 passes for 142 yards, with an interception. Backup Maty Mauk played a little and completed 3-of-7 passes for 83 yards. Mizzou's offense may have to produce more this week, because the odds suggest that Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel will not have two horrible outings in a row. If the Tigers win the game and capture the division crown, they could turn cursed ground into sacred ground.

Last game: Beat Ole Miss, 24-10
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas A&M
 
8 Stanford Cardinal
Last week: 9
Even though Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III is out with an injury, the quality of the Fighting Irish's defensive front should help prep the Cardinal offensive linemen for a rematch with Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game. Stanford easily beat the Sun Devils the first time they played on Sept. 21, but Arizona State has gotten much better since then. For Notre Dame, an upset of the Cardinal would be huge. For Stanford, a loss wouldn't make much difference. Coach David Shaw's squad would still get a shot at the Rose Bowl in the conference championship game next week.

Last game: Beat Cal, 63-13
Next game: Saturday vs. Notre Dame
 
9Arizona State Sun Devils
Last week: 13
The Sun Devils clinched the Pac-12 South last week by beating UCLA, but they will play Arizona for more than just the Territorial Cup on Saturday. A win over the Wildcats would allow Arizona State to host the conference title game. Given the fact that the Sun Devils lost by two touchdowns at Stanford on Sept. 21 -- and the beatdown was actually worse than the 42-28 final score suggests -- they would probably prefer to avoid a return trip to Silicon Valley. Securing that extra home game won't be easy, though. Arizona dismantled Oregon last week, and Wildcats tailback Ka'Deem Carey ran for 206 yards and four touchdowns. Carey might still be a little sore after carrying 48 times against the Ducks, so Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton and his linemates may be able to slow the Pac-12's top back with a few early hits.

Last game: Beat UCLA, 38-33
Next game: Saturday vs. Arizona
 
10South Carolina Gamecocks
Last week: 10
The Gamecocks can't control what happens in the SEC's other Columbia, but they can control whether they win 10 or more games for the third consecutive season. Besides, South Carolina's best chance to finally play in a BCS bowl might be to win this game and have Missouri beat Texas A&M, thus allowing the Gamecocks to avoid a potential loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. That would mean that a lot of happy, BCS-starved South Carolina fans would have money originally intended for a trip to the SEC title game burning holes in their pockets, practically ensuring a sellout for any BCS bowl that selects the Gamecocks. Naturally, the South Carolina players would still prefer a chance to play for the SEC title. Whether they win or lose on Saturday has no bearing on that possibility. Of course, Clemson also needs a victory to make itself an attractive choice for a BCS at-large berth. That means the Tigers will probably come to Williams-Brice Stadium with plenty of motivation.

Last game: Beat Coastal Carolina, 70-10
Next game: Saturday vs. Clemson
 
11 Wisconsin Badgers
Last week: 14
The Badgers, like South Carolina and Clemson, can make a strong case for a BCS at-large berth. But they'll probably need some help. Wisconsin has to beat Penn State and hope that the Gamecocks defeat the Tigers. The SEC will probably get two teams into the BCS no matter what, and either Northern Illinois or Fresno State will likely secure another at-large spot thanks to the top-16 rule. But a South Carolina victory over Clemson will probably knock the Tigers out of the running. Then the Badgers will have to hope that Ohio State beats Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, because a one-loss Buckeyes team would get the nod over Wisconsin.

Last game: Beat Minnesota, 20-7
Next game: Saturday vs. Penn State
 
12Oregon Ducks
Last week: 6
Never, ever say you're bored with the Rose Bowl. The San Gabriel Mountains have magical powers, and they can put the whammy on a team that doesn't properly appreciate their majesty. Ducks running back De'Anthony Thomas and receiver Josh Huff learned that fact the hard way in a loss to Arizona last Saturday, five days after the two had expressed ambivalence about playing in the Rose Bowl. Oregon will likely end up exploring San Antonio's Riverwalk instead.

Last game: Lost to Arizona, 42-16
Next game: Friday vs. Oregon State
 
13Baylor Bears
Last week: 4
The Bears were without left tackle Spencer Drango (season-ending back injury) and tailback Lache Seastrunk (groin injury), but neither should excuse the egg they laid in Stillwater. The moment seemed too big for a team that supposedly came into the game with designs on the national title. The Cowboys shut down Baylor's offense by leaving its cornerbacks one-on-one with the Bears' receivers and using extra pass rushers to pressure quarterback Bryce Petty. The tactic only works if the corners cover very well. Otherwise, Baylor's offense can explode. TCU doesn't have much going for it this season, but the Horned Frogs have some excellent defensive backs. Don't be shocked if they use a similar strategy. It will be up to the Bears to make sure Oklahoma State doesn't beat them twice.

Last game: Lost to Oklahoma State, 49-17
Next game: Saturday at TCU
 
14 Michigan State Spartans
Last week: 16
Everything seems to be coming together for the Spartans at the right time. The offense -- with running back Jeremy Langford carrying the load on the ground and quarterback Connor Cook throwing to ever more reliable receivers -- seems to improve every week. The defense, after a minor hiccup at Nebraska, returned to the land of no-touchdowns-allowed last Saturday in a rout of Northwestern. This week's visit from a pretty good Minnesota team won't count for much other than pride, but Michigan State wouldn't mind roaring into the Big Ten title game with an eight-game winning streak.

Last game: Beat Northwestern, 30-6
Next game: Saturday vs. Minnesota
 
15LSU Tigers
Last week: 20
Hey, remember these guys? Fast, athletic defense. Bruising running game. Wacky coach. Ring any bells? We saw those Tigers for what seemed like the first time all season in Saturday's demolition of Texas A&M. Maybe the defense just needed some time to grow up, but if that was a taste of what this group will look like with more seasoning, then LSU could dominate in 2014. In the meantime, first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema will get his first Black Friday taste of Normal American Football against a team that proved in the win over the Aggies that its talent is still at an abnormally high level.

Last game: Beat Texas A&M, 34-10
Next game: Friday vs. Arkansas
 
16UCLA Bruins
Last week: 11
The Bruins need to get over losing the Pac-12 South to Arizona State and get ready for a trip to the Coliseum. All the progress they've made since coach Jim Mora arrived before the 2012 season could be erased with a loss to a shorthanded USC team that wants to give athletic director Pat Haden one more reason to consider hiring interim coach Ed Orgeron. UCLA has made significant headway in Southern California while the Trojans have been hampered by NCAA sanctions, but with the penalties coming to an end soon, and with USC preparing to upgrade from Lane Kiffin, the only way for the Bruins to keep making progress is to beat their rival head-to-head. Against the Trojans' pro-style offense, expect UCLA's Myles Jack to return to his usual linebacker position. Jack played only tailback last Saturday against the Sun Devils because Mora figured the defense could survive without him since it would be playing nickel on most downs.

Last game: Lost to Arizona State, 38-33
Next game: Saturday at USC
 
17Texas A&M Aggies
Last week: 12
How will Manziel respond after the worst game of his college career? Memories are so short in the Twitter age that the quarterback could likely reinsert himself into the Heisman race with a monster game at Missouri. Here's the scary part for the Aggies, though: If Texas A&M loses this weekend, it will finish 4-4 in SEC play. If coach Kevin Sumlin sees that the SEC is so tough that he might only go .500 in league play while starting one of the best collegiate quarterbacks in the history of the game, the USC coaching vacancy might look awfully attractive.

Last game: Lost to LSU, 34-10
Next game: Saturday at Missouri
 
18UCF Knights
Last week: 17
A win on Friday would clinch the American Athletic Conference title and a BCS bowl berth for the Knights, and it might also provide a little poetic justice for the folks in Orlando. No school worked harder to block UCF from joining the Big East than South Florida. This was strategic on USF's part. There isn't that much difference between the two schools along Interstate 4, so the fact that the Bulls were in a BCS automatic-qualifier conference and the Knights weren't was a big deal. Then the conference landscape shifted. The BCS and the concept of an AQ conference were eliminated. UCF was finally invited to join the Big East -- soon to become the American -- as the league clawed for survival. Now, the Knights are on the verge of grabbing the conference's vestigial BCS bowl berth before the new system begins next year and plunges UCF and USF back into college football's middle class. For the Bulls, who might be in the ACC or the Big 12 right now if they had harnessed their geographic talent advantage and won a few Big East titles, it must be brutal to watch.

Last game: Beat Rutgers, 41-17
Next game: Friday vs. South Florida
 
19Louisville Cardinals
Last week: 18
Breathe easier, Cardinals. Despite Florida's loss to FCS Georgia Southern, it appears that Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley meant what he said last week when he pledged to stand behind coach Will Muschamp. So don't expect Florida to come after Louisville coach Charlie Strong. As for the current season, Cardinals fans should probably avoid watching the USF-UCF game on Friday. It will likely just make them angry as they think about what might have been.

Last game: Beat Memphis, 24-17
Next game: Dec. 5 at Cincinnati
 
20USC Trojans
Last week: 21
This must be a tricky one for Haden. The athletic director wants the Trojans to win on Saturday because he's a USC graduate. But yet another victory will create more grassroots support for Orgeron to become the full-time coach, and Haden probably wants to hire someone who is more proven. The hire-the-interim-coach-based-on-two-emotional-months gambit worked for Clemson and Swinney, but there is no guarantee it would work for the Trojans. Haden probably wants to be able to examine a number of candidates, but he should expect pressure from the fan base (no leverage), the players (those who can turn pro have leverage) and the recruits (some leverage) to hire Orgeron -- especially if USC beats UCLA to run Orgeron's record to 7-1 since taking over for Kiffin.

Last game: Beat Colorado, 47-29
Next game: Saturday vs. UCLA
 
21 Northern Illinois Huskies
Last week: 22
The Huskies leaped past Fresno State in the BCS standings this week, putting them in position to grab a BCS berth if they finish ranked higher than No. 16 and ahead of likely American champ UCF. Northern Illinois shouldn't have much trouble with Western Michigan, but the winner of Friday's Bowling Green-Buffalo game should provide more of a challenge in the MAC title game. The Bulldogs will play San Jose State on Friday in a marquee quarterback matchup (Derek Carr vs. David Fales), but the coaches already think Fresno State is better than Wisconsin, LSU and Louisville. The coaches don't think nearly as highly of the Huskies, but the computers do.

Last game: Beat Toledo, 35-17
Next game: Tuesday vs. Western Michigan
 
22Ole Miss Rebels
Last week: 19
The Egg Bowl has returned to Thanksgiving. Hooray. The Rebels should notice something disturbingly familiar about the circumstances of this game. The visiting team is bowl eligible and having a fairly successful season. The home team is 5-6 but is playing its best football in recent weeks and needs this win to go to a bowl game. If you guessed that this sounds an awful lot like last year's Egg Bowl with the roles reversed, give yourself a gold star. The Ole Miss players and coaches should remember how desperately they wanted to win this game last year, because that's why they won it. That's exactly how Mississippi State's players will feel on Thursday.

Last game: Lost to Missouri, 24-10
Next game: Thursday at Mississippi State
 
23Oklahoma Sooners
Last week: 24
Maybe the Sooners' coaches made the correct quarterback decision the first time. Entering the season, they named Trevor Knight the starter. They benched Knight when he struggled during the West Virginia game on Sept. 7 and handed the offense to Blake Bell. But after Knight replaced the injured Bell against Iowa State, the Sooners developed something resembling an offensive identity. Can Knight throw like Landry Jones? Nope. But he can run, and at press time, a rushing touchdown counted for the same number of points as a passing score. Oklahoma's problem in the middle of the season was that it couldn't run or throw effectively. With Knight, at least the Sooners can run. He may give them a shot to win Bedlam. Whatever they were doing before wouldn't have worked against Oklahoma State's defense, which is a turnover-forcing machine.

(If Oklahoma does win that game and Texas loses to Texas Tech and then beats Baylor, holy four-way tie, Batman. The Fiesta Bowl team in that case would be the Cowboys, because the league would compare the four programs' records against one another. In that scenario, the Bears would be 1-2, the Sooners would be 1-2, the Longhorns would be 2-1 and Oklahoma State would be 2-1. The Cowboys would win by virtue of their head-to-head victory at Texas.)

Last game: Beat Kansas State, 41-31
Next game: Dec. 7 at Oklahoma State
 
24 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Last week: 23
This is a good spot for the Golden Gophers. Michigan State has nothing at stake on Saturday and some very good reasons to look ahead to next week's Big Ten championship against Ohio State. Minnesota doesn't have anything at stake beyond a potential bowl-game bump. When a win might get a team out of Jacksonville and into Phoenix or Tampa, that's plenty of motivation.

Last game: Lost to Wisconsin, 20-7
Next game: Saturday at Michigan State
 
25Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 25
The sharps in Vegas aren't nearly as impressed with the Blue Devils' bid for the ACC Coastal title as the rest of us. Duke is a five-point underdog at North Carolina, which has won five in a row after starting the season 1-5. If the Blue Devils lose, Virginia Tech would win the Coastal. (Unless the Hokies lose to Virginia. Hey, it's the ACC. Be prepared for anything.) But if Duke beats its rival from Chapel Hill, it would set up a David-Goliath matchup between the Blue Devils and Florida State in the ACC championship.

Last game: Beat Wake Forest, 28-21
Next game: Saturday at North Carolina

Next five: Fresno State, Notre Dame, Georgia, Cincinnati, East Carolina

Andy Staples' Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

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