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Unbeatens Michigan State, Mizzou could be wildcards in BCS race

If the season ended today, the BCS National Championship Game would produce an unusually satisfying matchup: No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 2 Oregon. It's not just that the Tigers and Ducks currently sit atop this season's most respected conferences. Oregon's 60-13 beatdown of UCLA last Thursday only intensified our fascination with Chip Kelly's breakneck offense, and Auburn's 24-17 victory over undefeated LSU on Saturday only increased our adulation for Tigers star Cam Newton, who posted his first 200-yard rushing game.

But this being the BCS, there's no way we're headed for such a smooth ending. Chances are one or both will go down by season's end -- especially with both ESPN's GameDay and SI.com's Andy Staples, Angels of Death to top-ranked road teams the past three weeks, covering Saturday's Oregon-USC game. There's also the Boise State factor, which promises to make a mess of nearly any season-ending scenario.

And then there are the M&M's.

Many have long expected the title race to devolve into a slew of one-loss contenders, myself included. But amid that prophesying, Michigan State (No. 5 in the latest BCS standings) and Missouri (No. 6) are still quietly lurking, undefeated. Somehow, the Tigers (7-0) were still buried in the low teens of both major polls as of last week, with only the BCS computers (which helped elevate Mizzou to 11) taking notice of their much-improved defense. That same defense held then-BCS No. 1 Oklahoma to 99 rushing yards and intercepted quarterback Landry Jones three times in a 36-27 win.

The Spartans (8-0) survived a scare Saturday at Northwestern, falling behind 17-0 before rallying to win 35-27, thanks in large part to another Mark Dantonio special-teams surprise. On a fake punt called "Mouse Trap," ("We had to get them to take the cheese," said Dantonio) punter Aaron Bates -- the same guy who threw the game-winning "Little Giants" touchdown as the field goal holder against Notre Dame -- unleashed a 21-yard pass to Bennie Fowler that helped State get back in the game.

But you won't hear many mentioning the M&M's in the same breath as Oregon, Auburn, Boise State or TCU. Much like Iowa last year and Penn State the year before, both of whom started 9-0 to little fanfare, the M&M's aren't being taken all that seriously, which can be attributed almost entirely to these two factors: 1) Neither has won a title anytime recently (Missouri last won its conference in 1969, Michigan State in 1990) and 2) They both started the season unranked.

As much as I'd like to rip these seemingly lazy perceptions, I can't because ... well, I kind of feel the same way. I do respect the Tigers -- so much so that I picked them to beat Oklahoma -- and I love the Spartans' no-frills, smash-mouth offense. But do I think they'll run the table?

Actually, I'm inclined to think neither will be undefeated this time next week.

Coming off a program-defining win that coach Gary Pinkel described as "gigantic" (the Tigers hadn't beaten Oklahoma in his tenure, including Big 12 title-game blowouts in 2007 and '08), Missouri must turn around and visit No. 14 Nebraska (6-1). The Huskers shook off their Week 7 loss to Texas with a 51-41 win at Oklahoma State, in which Taylor Martinez showed that yes, he can throw (23-of-35 for 323 yards and five touchdowns). Defensively, the Huskers will present a tougher challenge for Mizzou quarterback Blaine Gabbert than did Oklahoma.

Michigan State also hits the road to face No. 18 Iowa, which suffered a soul-crushing 31-30 defeat to Wisconsin on Saturday. After the Badgers scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:06 remaining, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz channeled his inner-Les Miles and let the clock run out on his team before it could kick a potential game-winning field goal. Regardless, Iowa is certainly a step up in competition from Northwestern.

Having said all that ... what happens if they both win?

Saturday's games represent the toughest remaining tests for the M&M's. After Iowa, Michigan State finishes with Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State. The Spartans don't play No. 10 Ohio State this season, which simultaneously helps their chances of running the table while dampening any potential claim they might have for one of the top two spots.

The Tigers close with Texas Tech, Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas. If they win all those, they would most likely face either a rematch with Oklahoma or a date with No. 20 Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game. Theirs is a tougher road than the Spartans', but is still not perceived to be as challenging as Auburn's or Oregon's.

It's been six years since Auburn became the first undefeated major-conference team to be left out of the title game. (Technically, it happened to Cincinnati last year, but there was no real outcry.) Asked Sunday what chance Missouri or Michigan State have of jumping undefeated Auburn or Oregon, CollegeBCS.com publisher Jerry Palm replied bluntly: "Roughly, zero." But he does think they'd ultimately pass Boise/TCU.

"No undefeated major has ever finished behind a non-major," said Palm. "I don't think this year will be the first time."

So, there you have it. Feel free to start salivating over Cam Newton vs. Darron Thomas. But be prepared for the lurking possibility of Kirk Cousins vs. Blaine Gabbert.

Thanks to the videographers at Iowa State's official website, Cyclones.com, we get to see what it's like to be inside the victor's locker room after a rousing upset. Last year, coach Paul Rhoadsbrought down the house following Iowa State's 9-7 win at Nebraska, and he and his players were at it again Saturday after beating Texas for the first time in school history. Both are spine-tingling scenes.

But Saturday's 28-21 victory was a much different animal than last year's Nebraska win, which required a staggering eight Huskers turnovers. The Cyclones (4-4) -- coming off drubbings against Utah (68-27) and Oklahoma (52-0) -- went into Austin and took it to the 22nd-ranked 'Horns, jumping to a 28-6 fourth-quarter lead before Texas rallied.

"You get beat and you get beat and you say, 'Enough is enough,'" said Iowa State running back Jeff Woody. "We are done with losing, we are sick of it."

But as much as I'd like to revel in the Cyclones' feel-good vibe, the real story here is Texas' continuing implosion. Turns out the Nebraska win was an aberration, not a spark, and that Texas' season is quickly turning into a Florida-like debacle. (Crazy, isn't it, that Florida and Texas were the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country most of last season?) Coach Mack Brown, described by longtime Austin American Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls as, "Angry like we've never seen before" after Saturday's game, called out his team, saying: "I don't think it's [a lack of] talent. It's attitude. ... I'm mystified."

Those are eye-opening words from Brown, who usually defends his players to the death and at times tries almost too hard to shoulder the blame himself. Presumably there's some truth to his claim. Just as Florida is feeling the leadership void left by Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes, Texas is still waiting for its next Colt McCoy or Jordan Shipley to arise. But whether or not Brown wants to admit it, talent's a problem too.

Much like Florida's mystifying lack of playmaking receivers, Texas' continued lack of an even semi-potent running back is baffling. The 'Horns ran for 96 yards on the nation's 112th-ranked defense. Just as John Brantley has struggled to live up to his considerable hype, Garrett Gilbert, who tossed three picks Saturday, has shown few signs of development since his unanticipated Pasadena indoctrination.

After the Nebraska win, I envisioned Texas doing what it's done so many times under Brown: going on a post-Red River hot streak and ending with yet another 10-win season. That's not happening. The question now is whether the 'Horns will even finish in the upper half of a very deep Big 12 South.

As a member of one of the BCS' six founding conferences, the Big East's champion will earn its conference a nice, fat check for approximately $21 million this January. And for the first time in the system's 13-year history, it's looking increasingly plausible that said champion will enter its bowl game unranked.

With Syracuse's 19-14 road upset of then No. 20 West Virginia (a huge win for Doug Marrone's program, which hadn't beaten the Mountaineers since 2001 and reached five wins for the first time since 2004), the Orange became the league's closest thing to a ranked team, receiving eight points in the AP poll. In a sign of the times, the WAC has three teams (Boise State, Hawaii and Nevada) who received more votes.

Take a look at these standings. There's parity, and then there's this. The Orange and Mountaineers are the only teams left with as few as two losses. Pittsburgh, at 2-0 in conference play (including a 45-14 rout at Syracuse two weeks ago), is probably considered the favorite at this point -- and the Panthers lost three nonconference games (Utah, Miami and Notre Dame).

And yet, the one thing we know for sure is that one of the league's eight teams will play in one of the five major bowl games, while at least one of three current undefeated teams -- Boise State, TCU and Utah -- will not. While the Mountain West could possibly become the seventh AQ league at the end of the current four-year evaluation period (2008-11), the Big East's spot is contractually secure through at least 2013. Maybe the 'Cuse will be a national-title contender by then. In the meantime ... basketball season begins Nov. 8.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:

Title game: Alabama vs. Boise State

Rose: Oregon vs. Michigan State

Fiesta: Oklahoma vs. Pittsburgh

Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Utah

Sugar: Auburn vs. Wisconsin

If Oregon wins at USC on Saturday, I swear I'll move the Ducks into the title game (presumably bumping Boise) and keep them there until proven otherwise. I almost made the change this week -- it's tough not to be wowed by a 60-13 win -- but reminded myself that they've beaten just one team with a winning record thus far.

The Big Ten's Rose Bowl race could shake out any number of ways. If Iowa beats Michigan State this week, Ohio State would jump back into the lead based on BCS standings. If the Spartans win, or if they lose and the Hawkeyes then beat the Buckeyes on Nov. 20, Michigan State would win a theoretical tiebreaker with Wisconsin and Iowa. (The Hawkeyes would be eliminated due to their nonconference loss to Arizona.) And those are just two of umpteen possible scenarios.

• Paralyzed Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand's condition has not changed, but public support for him has been overwhelming. Thousands of Pittsburgh fans at Heinz Field for Saturday's Rutgers game signed a banner and sported "Pitt is Pulling for Eric LeGrand" stickers. Rutgers has started an Eric LeGrand Believe Fund in his honor, while a grassroots "Wristbands for Eric LeGrand" campaign is garnering donations on campus and nationally.

Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano said Sunday that LeGrand was able to watch Saturday's game (a 41-21 Pittsburgh win) from his Hackensack hospital room. "He's going to keep moving on and we're going to keep moving on," said Schiano.

• Fourteen years of misery have finally given way to smiles at Baylor, which rang in several milestones this weekend. Following a 47-42 win over Kansas State in which Robert Griffin threw for a career-high 404 yards and Jay Finley ran for a school-record 250, the Bears (6-2) became bowl eligible for the first time since joining the Big 12 in 1996, entered the AP and coaches' polls for the first time since 1993 and, at 3-1 in league play, took over first place in the South Division.

Saturday will bring another rarity: A ranked Baylor team will face an unranked Texas team for the first time since 1986. "I'm just honored and proud to be a part of what happened [Saturday night] and what's continuing to happen at Baylor University," said Bears coach Art Briles.

• In a more dubious milestone, Florida and Georgia will meet as unranked foes this week for the first time since 1979. The Dawgs have quietly dug themselves out of their 1-4 hole, routing SEC East foes Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to return to .500. Running back Washaun Ealey rushed for 157 yards and a school-record five touchdowns in Saturday's 44-31 win in Lexington. Coach Mark Richt could go a long way toward quieting his critics if he can notch just his third career win over the struggling Gators this week in Jacksonville.

• How thoroughly dominant is No. 4 TCU's defense? Saturday against previously ranked Air Force, Horned Frogs running back Ed Wesley sprang for 209 yards and in so doing personally outgained the Falcons' national-best rushing offense, which netted just 184 ground yards in a 38-7 TCU rout. TCU has now allowed a combined 10 points in its first four Mountain West contests and held Baylor's aforementioned explosive offense to 263 total yards in a 45-10 win on Sept. 18.

• After covering an LSU game, I can now see the "wisdom" in Les Miles' two-quarterback system. The Tigers' offense runs more fluidly with Jordan Jefferson because of his threat to run (he carried 16 times for 74 yards). Unfortunately, he can't pass. His 87.7 efficiency rating does not even come close to cracking the Top 100 nationally. There are only 120 teams. And while Jarrett Lee throws a decent ball, Auburn's defensive front easily teed off on him. I see no solution.

• In his first start in place of the injured Nick Foles, Arizona quarterback Matt Scott -- who lost his job to Foles early last season -- was an impressive 18-of-22 for 233 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 65 yards in a 44-14 rout of Washington. At 6-1, the Wildcats are off to their best start since their 12-1 season in 1998. Coach Mike Stoops said Foles, out with a dislocated knee cap, is close to returning, but that, "Giving Matt this experience keeps our options open."

• It shouldn't be surprising given the direction of the two programs, but Alabama's 41-10 rout of Tennessee on Saturday marked the Tide's most lopsided win ever in Knoxville. After leading 13-10 at halftime, the Tide got their recently struggling offense back in gear, with Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram combining for 207 yards on 26 carries and receiver Julio Jones exploding for a school-record 221 yards on 12 catches.

• Even in defeat against Nebraska, Oklahoma State (6-1) showed that its high-powered offense is pretty hard to stop, racking up 495 yards in a 51-41 loss. Star receiver Justin Blackmon made the most of his matchup with NFL-bound cornerback Prince Amukamara, catching an 80-yard touchdown in single coverage, and running back Kendall Hunter went for 201 yards. Defense, though -- that's a problem. Taylor Martinez threw for 323 yards and rushed for 112.

• Virginia Tech's offense is finally rolling. Saturday's 44-7 rout of Duke, in which quarterback Tyrod Taylor went 13-of-17 for 280 yards and three touchdowns, marked the Hokies' (6-2, 4-0 ACC) third straight conference game scoring at least 40 points. That said, only one of their four league victories to date came against a foe (N.C. State) with a winning record. That won't be true of their next three (5-3 Georgia Tech, 4-3 North Carolina and 5-2 Miami).

• They're starting to get restless in Tempe after Arizona State fell to 3-4 following a 50-17 drubbing at Cal (4-3). Since a 10-3 debut season in 2007, Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils have gone 12-19. "I know how it works," Erickson said. "I'm the head of the program. I take the heat." Saturday's drubbing was a harsh setback, but this is the same team that gave Oregon its toughest challenge to date, nearly won at Wisconsin and lost by a field goal at Oregon State.

I was wrong about Hawaii. I thought the Warriors (6-2, 4-0 WAC), coming off a 27-21 upset of then-19th-ranked Nevada, would fall flat on the mainland against Utah State. Instead, they routed the Aggies 45-7 while posting their best defensive effort (181 yards allowed) in five years. That's good news for BCS title aspirant Boise State, which if things break right might face two more ranked opponents. Nevada and Hawaii were the first two out of this week's AP poll.

• Remember when I picked Connecticut to win the Big East? Umm, yeah. The Huskies lost 26-0 Saturday to Louisville to fall to 3-4, 0-2, after starting quarterback Cody Endres left the program following a third failed drug test.

• It doesn't get much bigger than this in Conference USA (seriously). When East Carolina (5-2, 4-0 C-USA) and UCF (5-2, 3-0) meet Saturday, it will be the latest two teams with undefeated league records have met since Nov. 20, 2001.

• Bizarre factoid: On Saturday afternoon, Niles Paul notched Nebraska's first 100-yard kick return since 1949. Saturday night, Georgia's Brandon Boykin broke his third 100-yard kick return since last season.

• Finally, congratulations to Western Kentucky for ending its 26-game losing streak with a 54-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. Only two winless teams remain in the FBS this season: Akron (0-8) and New Mexico (0-7).

When Navy knocked off Notre Dame 46-44 in 2007, ending a 43-year losing streak to the Irish, one could chalk it up to Notre Dame's youth at the time. When the Midshipmen won again in South Bend last season, it came at a time when embattled Irish coach Charlie Weis was struggling to keep his team afloat.

But there was nothing fluky about Navy's 35-17 rout at the Meadowlands on Saturday. This wasn't a case of Notre Dame's superior athletes "failing to execute." The Midshipmen (5-2) beat the Irish (4-4) because, quite frankly, they're the better team.

When I visited Annapolis in the preseason, the buzz was that quarterback Ricky Dobbs could be a dark-horse Heisman candidate and that Navy, coming off a breakthrough 10-4 season and Texas Bowl rout of Missouri, could have the makings of a special team. Those storylines quickly evaporated when Maryland stopped Dobbs at the goal line for a season-opening upset. With Dobbs hobbled by a sprained ankle, Navy's offense began sputtering, most notably in a 14-6 loss at Air Force on Oct. 9.

But as Dobbs got healthier, the Midshipmen won 28-27 at Wake Forest and 28-21 over SMU. On Saturday, their offense finally exploded as Navy switched up its inside blocking schemes and rode fullback Alexander Teich to 210 rushing yards.

"Our offensive line was whooping up on their defensive line," Teich told the Baltimore Sun.

Predictably, first-year coach Brian Kelly is feeling the wrath of critical Irish fans, who, barring a Notre Dame upset of Utah or USC, are suddenly staring down the barrel of a third straight 6-6 regular season. Notre Dame's talent level on defense has been subpar for years, but the former Cincinnati coach's spread offense has largely been a dud. Quarterback Dayne Crist went just 19-of-31 for 178 yards and two picks Saturday, though the absence of injured stars Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd certainly didn't help.

When Weis came in and immediately went to consecutive BCS bowls, it came with the asterisk that he was doing it with Tyrone Willingham's recruits. Weis brought in three straight highly ranked classes, but seeing as Kelly is having as little luck with them as Weis did, there must have been some serious misevaluations. Right now, Notre Dame is what it is: a step behind Navy.

Watching the fourth quarter of Saturday's Oklahoma-Missouri game at an Applebee's on the way back from Auburn to Atlanta, I unintentionally generated an interesting Twitter debate. When Bob Stoops unsuccessfully went for two after the Sooners scored a touchdown to get within nine points, I wanted to toss my fajita at the television. (I assume I would have been kicked out.) Instead, I tweeted:

Stoops went for 2 one score too soon. I hate when coaches do that.

There were a slew of similar-minded responses like Thank you! I was SCREAMING at the TV (@jonathanshaffer) and Stupid, stupid call (@RedDirtKings). Much to my surprise, however, there were nearly as many Tweeps who agreed with Stoops' strategy. Don't understand why everyone thinks that. If it's on the last [play] of the game, you lose. (@nd1611). And [your] argument assumes the 1st conversion won't be successful & the 2nd will. Either [it] works or [it] doesn't. (@TimCary).

Personally, I don't see why you wouldn't want to keep your team within one score for as long as possible. Whether you get the two there or not, you're still going to need another touchdown. But if you miss, as OU did, you now need a touchdown and a field goal, which would seem significantly harder to pull off in the last 6:06 of a game than just a touchdown and a two-point conversion. The contrarian philosophy, however, and the one Stoops apparently subscribes to, is to go ahead and find out sooner than later whether you're going to need one or two more scores so you can plan accordingly.

"I don't see why that is even a question," Stoops said of his decision.

Despite some persuasive, 140-character arguments, I still believe I'm in the right, and one of the winningest coaches of all time is in the wrong. But I'm willing to listen to a persuasive counterpoint -- preferably one based on quantitative probability statistics.

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

Oregon at USC, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The knock on Trojans assistant coach Monte Kiffin is that the former NFL defensive guru can't get a handle on college spread offenses. Well, this would be a good week to figure things out, because he's facing arguably the fastest, most efficient spread attack the sport has seen.

Missouri at Nebraska, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Last year's Thursday night game in Columbia served as Ndamukong Suh's national coming-out party. He singlehandedly swung the game for the Huskers. This year, Taylor Martinez can have his moment if he handles the Tigers' defense better than he did Texas'.

Michigan State at Iowa, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Does Mark Dantonio have anything left in his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks? Will he even need to? The Spartans match up well with the Hawkeyes, and if all else fails, Dantonio can sit back and hope Kirk Ferentz burns his last timeout at the worst possible moment.