The Road To a Title

USC's loss to Oregon State blew the national championship door wide open. Here is SI's playoff map, drawn from the contenders' key remaining games
November 06, 2006

As darkness fellacross Florida's east coast, Andre Caldwell's smile lit up the night. Standingon the field at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville last Saturday moments afterFlorida had closed out a sloppy but stubborn Georgia squad 21--14, Caldwell washappy to recount the first of his two touchdowns, a 12-yard reverse. Histeammates executed their blocks, the junior wide receiver explained, leavinghim just one man to beat. "One-on-one," said Caldwell, who does notwant for self-confidence. "I ain't gonna lose too many of those." ¶ Hehad to raise his voice to be heard over the roar of the Gators fans reacting tonews from the public address announcer: "In a game just ending, USC 31 ...Oregon State ... 33." ¶ While a door was closing on the previouslyundefeated Trojans, who fell from third to eighth in the BCS standings, a doorwas opening for the 7--1 Gators. Having climbed from sixth to fourth in theBCS, Florida remains very much alive in the hunt for the national title inspite of its sole defeat, incurred at Auburn a fortnight earlier. How aboutthat, Urban Meyer? Doesn't that make your heart soar?

"You saw theoffense I saw," replied the Gators' gimlet-eyed coach, whose concern overhis erratic offense cut into his enjoyment of the victory.

This soberassessment was in keeping with the theme of the 84th meeting between theseancient rivals. Concerned administrators had asked media outlets to ceasereferring to the game by its nickname, the World's Largest Outdoor CocktailParty, which had long been a misnomer, anyway. The carousing attending thisgame bears as much resemblance to a cocktail party as a burlesque show does tothe Bolshoi Ballet.

Nobody's willingto say just yet how high Florida can go, but this much we know: It won't get toNo. 1. Ohio State, at 9--0, appears to be on a different plane from everyoneelse. Still, the Buckeyes will need an opponent in the national championshipgame, and last Saturday served as a kind of kickoff party for the sport's defacto postseason. November features a series of epic matchups, so basically thenext five weeks will be a single-elimination tournament for the right to playin the title game. Depending on what day your SI arrives in the mail, the firstof the mondo games may already be over.

Aside from OregonState--and possibly the undefeated, BCS-busting Boise State Broncos, who beatthe tar out of the Beavers 42--14 on Sept. 7--no one was more delighted bySouthern Cal's loss than Mike Tranghese. He is the commissioner of the BigEast, which until this season had been perceived as the weak sister of the sixBCS conferences. Yet of the half-dozen undefeated teams left in Division I-A,three of them (Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia) play in a conferencebetter known for its hoops. It is a league that two years ago was fighting forits life, having been abandoned by Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College,which bolted for the ACC.

Before a nationalTV audience this Thursday night, the third-ranked Mountaineers hit the road fora collision with No. 5 Louisville. It is the first of three consecutiveThursday night Big East games that could be fraught with national titleimplications (Louisville-Rutgers, then West Virginia--Pitt). For now it isbeing described as the biggest game in the history of the conference.

How monstrous isit? It has overshadowed the $20 million Breeders' Cup--which will be run downthe street at Churchill Downs two days later--and is being hyped as the biggestgame ever played in Kentucky.

Only one clash ofundefeateds looms larger this season. It is one of the lamentable quirks of theBCS that the matchup that has cast its shadow over the college footballlandscape since September may not decide anything. When the No. 1 Buckeyes hostNo. 2 Michigan on Nov. 18, it's possible that the loser would fall no furtherthan ... No. 2. This could yield a Buckeyes-Wolverines rematch in the titlegame, in which case it would also yield a vast army of extremely ticked-offplayers, coaches and fans.

But until anadequate number of university presidents lift their heads from the trough ofBCS cash long enough to find the spine to adopt a playoff system (funny howthose same guardians of education can endorse their student-athletes' playingon Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays in the fall), the sport will besubjected to such absurdities. Indeed, the question may not be whether WestVirginia will be leapfrogged by a one-loss team, but which once-beaten squadwill do the vaulting.

Sorry, GoldenDomers. It won't be you at No. 2. After escaping with a 20--17 victory overUCLA on Oct. 21, Irish coach Charlie Weis professed his displeasure at seeinghis team drop two notches in the coaches poll, to No. 10. The Fighting Irishwere jumped by Florida, which had a bye, and Tennessee, which beat Alabama on alate touchdown.

Pointing out thatthe Volunteers had won almost exactly the way his team had and that the Gatorshad been "home eating cheeseburgers," the coach professed confusion."That befuddles me," he said.

Something tellsus Weis will be able to grasp the harsh new reality confronting him and histeam: His guys are out of the hunt for the national title. The Irish needed USCto keep winning, right up until their matchup in Los Angeles on Nov. 25. Only astirring, late-season victory over the undefeated Trojans might have beenenough to propel Notre Dame into the title game.

Does Saturday'sloss knock the Trojans out of the national championship picture? "To thinkthat would be a mistake," said coach Pete Carroll, who found much to likein his first regular-season loss since September 2003. Frequently erratic inwinning their first six games, these youthful Trojans may have found theiridentity in defeat. Trailing 33--10 with less than five minutes left in thethird quarter, USC came back strong. Quarterback John David Booty led the teamon three touchdown drives and looked, for the first time, like a worthy heir toCarson Palmer and Matt Leinart.

That said, thePac-10 squad that would give Ohio State the best game resides in Berkeley.After dropping its opener, Cal went on a tear, outscoring its next six foes240--94. A victory over USC on Nov. 18 should ensure the Bears of their firstRose Bowl berth in almost half a century. For now they're biding their time in10th place in the BCS, a source of irritation to Tennessee, the team thatrolled them 35--18 way back on Sept. 2. The Vols' BCS ranking? Number 11.

While he may notsympathize with the Volunteers, Cal coach Jeff Tedford can empathize with them.In 2004 Texas lobbied its way into an at-large BCS bid at the expense of theBears. This year the defending national champs are sitting seventh in the BCSstandings. The Longhorns would love a rematch with an Ohio State team thathumbled them in Austin 24--7 on Sept. 9. But the jinnis inhabiting the BCScomputers will take into account, disapprovingly, that Texas has only one gameleft against a ranked opponent (Texas A&M). Another strike against theLonghorns: They face the prospect of playing an unranked Missouri or Nebraskateam in the Big 12 title game. if there's a one-loss team playing for thenational title, it damned well better be from the SEC. So goes the thinking inthis proud conference, where the depth and talent make running the table nextto impossible.

But whichone-loss SEC team is most deserving? Tennessee's defeat came by a single pointagainst the Gators, who were beaten 27--17 by Auburn in a game closer than thescore indicates. Students had already commenced "rolling" Toomer'sCorner with Charmin when defensive back Patrick Lee returned a fumble for atouchdown with no time on the clock.

A week earlierthe Tigers no-showed, for all practical purposes, for an 11 a.m. kickoffagainst Arkansas, which beat them by 17. On the Wednesday before that gameAuburn coach Tommy Tuberville was asked about the BCS during a teleconference.Rather than bite his tongue, Tuberville stated the obvious: that without aplayoff it's going to be very tough for an SEC team to get to the nationalchampionship game. In the wake of the Arkansas loss, he was accused, unfairly,of creating a distraction for his team.

Cries of "WarEagle!" may yet ring on Dec. 2 in the Georgia Dome, site of the SEC titlegame. Yes, the Razorbacks lead the SEC West. But no team in the conference hasa tougher closing stretch. The Hogs must face South Carolina, Tennessee andLSU. No one would be surprised to see Tuberville and his Tigers in a rematchwith Florida with the conference championship on the line.

Should the Gatorsprevail in Atlanta, there's a strong chance they'll jump the Mountaineers. Thecomputers prefer Florida to West Virginia, whose nonconference opponents havebeen Marshall, Eastern Washington, East Carolina and Mississippi State."This is the fifth top 50 defense we've faced this season," one Gatorssupporter said before the Georgia game. "West Virginia hasn't facedone."

No Gator wouldadmit to looking that far into the future. Meyer was too busy obsessing on thetravails of his offense, which for the second straight game failed to score inthe second half. Staying resolutely on message, Caldwell would not directlyaddress a question about his team's improving national title hopes. Instead, heconcocted a tortured metaphor: "If we work hard and win every game, thecards will play their own hands."

But what of theCards? Would he be watching the Louisville--West Virginia game five nightshence?

Big smile. "Imight check that out."

If there's a one-loss team playing in the nationaltitle game, it better be FROM THE SEC. So goes the thinking in this proudconference. But which one-loss team is most deserving?

***2006 BCS TOURNAMENT***

YES (WEST) VIRGINIA, THERE IS A PLAYOFF--A.K.A. THENEXT FIVE WEEKS

(Pick a school, follow the arrow)

NOV. 4

West Virginia
over
Louisville (Nov. 2)

Nebraska
over
Missouri

Tennessee
over
LSU

Boston College
over
Wake Forest

Georgia Tech
over
N.C. State

NOV. 11

Rutgers
over
Louisville (Nov. 9)

Arkansas
over
Tennessee

Florida
over
South Carolina

NOV. 18

West Virginia
over
Pitt (Nov. 16)

Ohio State
over
Michigan

Alabama
over
Auburn

California
over
USC

Boston College
over
Maryland

NOV. 25

LSU
over
Arkansas (Nov. 24)

Boise State
over
Nevada

Texas
over
Texas A&M (Nov. 24)

Florida
over
Florida State

USC
over
Notre Dame

DEC. 2

West Virginia
over
Rutgers

Texas
over
Nebraska

Florida
over
Arkansas

Boston College
over
Georgia Tech

BCS

Tostitos BCS National Championship Ohio State vs. WestVirginia

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Texas vs. Boise State

citi Rose Bowl Game Michigan vs. California

Allstate Sugar Bowl Florida vs. Notre Dame

FedEx Orange Bowl Boston College vs. Tennessee

After the Irish dropped in one poll, Weis complainedabout being passed by a team that had been "HOME EATINGCHEESEBURGERS."

When No. 1 Ohio State hosts No. 2 Michigan on Nov. 18,it's possible that the loser would FALL NO FURTHER than ... No. 2.

PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Read MillerTHAT'S A WRAP Oregon State's Coye Francies upended Dwayne Jarrett as USC's championship hopes took a hard hit. FORTY-NINE ILLUSTRATIONS PHOTOSIMON BRUTYHELP WANTED Weis needed Notre Dame to knock off an undefeated USC team for the Irish to have a shot at the title. PHOTOAARON JOSEFCZYK/ICON SMIA PERFECT 10? Ohio State, led by QB Troy Smith, is on top of its game as a showdown with Michigan looms. PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesMAD SCRAMBLE Florida jumped to fourth in the BCS standings after beating Georgia, but quarterback Chris Leak and his offense have to get moving if the Gators expect to play for the national championship.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
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Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)