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October 16, 2006

Will Michigan learn from Iowa mistake?

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. Think of it as a potential national semifinal.

As long as the NCAA chooses not to hold a playoff to determine the national champion, a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown to end the regular season offers the best possible alternative.

With every Ohio State and Michigan victory, that scenario looks more and more likely.

The latest Associated Press poll lists Ohio State first and Michigan second. The initial Bowl Championship Series ratings that came out Sunday had Ohio State (7-0) at No. 1, Southern California (6-0) at No. 2 and Michigan (7-0) at No. 3.

Both the Wolverines and Buckeyes will be heavily favored in their next four games before squaring off Nov. 18 at Ohio State.

Assuming both teams stay undefeated until then, the winner of that regular-season finale almost certainly will advance to the BCS championship game. And if an 11-0 Michigan team beats an 11-0 Ohio State squad, a championship rematch is conceivable.

As the hype surrounding this game grows every week, both teams must try to avoid looking ahead.

"All we can do is continue to play," Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley said Saturday after the Wolverines' 17-10 victory over Penn State. "At the end of the season, Ohio State will be there. No matter what the rankings are, we've still got that game. We don't want to overlook any teams because you can get beat at any time."

Michigan learned that lesson from its next opponent.

Iowa's stunning 31-28 loss to Indiana sent shockwaves through the Big Ten and proved that heavy favorites can't take victories for granted. The injury-riddled Hawkeyes (5-2) will try to salvage their season next weekend by ending Michigan's dreams of a national title.

"Coach (Lloyd) Carr always says raise the bar every week," Michigan quarterback Chad Henne said Saturday. "It's just like Iowa today. We watched that game, but they're not going to be the same team on tape as the team we'll see next week in Ann Arbor. We're expecting everyone's 'A' game, and we've got to play our best to come out with the victory in this conference."

The Wolverines and Buckeyes may not be looking ahead, but that won't stop us from doing so. The potential matchup of Michigan's top-ranked run defense and Ohio State's dangerous offense is too appealing to ignore.

The release of the Bowl Championship series rankings represented just one of the top 25 stories to come out of this weekend. Here's a look at some of the other major plotlines:

2. PETERSON'S PAIN: Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson's brilliant college career may have just reached a heartbreaking conclusion.

Then again, maybe it hasn't.

Now that Peterson will miss at least the rest of the regular season with a broken collarbone, you have to wonder if the injury will affect his decision on whether to return for his senior season.

Peterson seemed likely to enter the NFL Draft after this season, but the junior now may want to return for one more full season that would allow him to end his college career on his own terms.

3. USC STRUGGLES AGAIN: Southern California is ranked second in the BCS standings, but does anyone really believe the Trojans have the second-best team in the nation?

The Trojans found themselves in a dogfight for the third consecutive week Saturday before outlasting Arizona State 28-21. That's the same Arizona State team that had lost to California and Oregon by a combined 63 points in its last two games.

Southern California will probably play for the national title if it wins out, but it's tough to imagine the Trojans' surviving the three-game stretch against Oregon, California and Notre Dame if they keep playing this way.

4. MELEE IN MIAMI: Although Miami has spent much of the last decade cleaning up its old renegade image, the Hurricanes have recently taken three giant steps backward.

First came the postgame skirmish with LSU in last year's Peach Bowl. Then the Hurricanes stomped on Louisville's midfield logo before a game last month.

The worst episode yet occurred Saturday when a brutal third-quarter brawl with Florida International resulted in 13 ejections eight from Florida International and five from Miami. The ACC and Hurricanes coach Larry Coker responded Sunday by suspending 13 players, including star safety Brandon Meriweather and starting offensive guard Derrick Morse.

The Sun Belt and Florida International suspended 18 Panthers players Sunday evening.

Although Florida International appeared to instigate the fighting and Coker reacted swiftly, Miami's reputation won't give the Hurricanes any leniency from the national public. The resulting negative publicity also can't help Coker's tenuous job security.

5. SEATS GETTING HOTTER: Two other Atlantic Coast Conference coaches on the hot seat also did nothing Saturday to help themselves.

North Carolina coach John Bunting watched his team fall to 1-5 with a 37-20 home defeat against South Florida, while Virginia coach Al Groh's squad dropped to 2-5 after blowing a 20-0 halftime lead in a 28-26 loss to Maryland.

The Chuck Amato soap opera also took another twist when North Carolina State fell 25-23 at home to Wake Forest. Amato looked like a goner after non-conference home losses to Akron and Southern Mississippi, but the Wolfpack (3-3) had opened their ACC schedule with wins over Boston College and Florida State.

6. SEC OUT OF TITLE HUNT?: The Southeastern Conference might be too good for its own good.

Auburn's 27-17 victory over Florida on Saturday left the nation's toughest conference without a single undefeated team. That probably will leave the SEC out of the BCS championship game for the third consecutive year.

Expect SEC coaches to spend the next month lobbying that a one-loss champion from its league should finish ahead of an undefeated Big East winner in the final BCS standings.

7. REASON TO WORRY: Auburn remained in SEC title contention and kept its faint national championship hopes alive with the big win over Florida, but the Tigers won't remain contenders unless they give quarterback Brandon Cox more time to throw.

The Tigers have allowed an SEC-high 24 sacks this season, a figure that increased Saturday when Florida brought Cox down five times. That lack of protection may help explain why Auburn is throwing for just 178 yards per game.

8. BRONCOS TAME WOLFE: Western Michigan helped its chances of going somewhere for the holidays while perhaps costing Garrett Wolfe a trip to New York.

The Broncos improved their record to 4-2 and boosted their Mid-American Conference title hopes with a 16-14 victory that was most noteworthy for the way Western Michigan put the clamps on Wolfe.

Wolfe gained just 25 yards on 18 carries in a game that probably ends his long-shot Heisman Trophy candidacy. The star tailback had been averaging 223.8 yards per game.

9. NO MORE ALMOSTS: The team that always plays just good enough to lose finally found a way to beat a big-name opponent.

Bryant Hahnfeldt's 33-yard field goal with two seconds to play gave Vanderbilt a stunning 24-22 victory at Georgia. Vanderbilt had lost by two points to Arkansas and by three points to Alabama earlier this season.

Although the 2005 Vanderbilt team that featured Jay Cutler garnered much more publicity, this Commodores squad might be better at just about every position but quarterback. Just like last year's team regretted the loss to Middle Tennessee that prevented it from reaching a bowl, this year's Commodores could spend the holidays wishing they could play that Ole Miss game over again.

10. WONDER DOGS NOW UNDERDOGS: Losing to Vanderbilt will undoubtedly leave Georgia fans wondering how this could have happened.

Here's one theory: Georgia just isn't very good.

Tennessee proved last week that Georgia's status as the nation's top-ranked scoring defense the first month of the season was a mirage. On offense, the Bulldogs don't have enough playmakers at quarterback or in the receiving corps.

This team may have lost its best player when kicker Brandon Coutu tore his hamstring before the Tennessee game.

11. WHITE RUNS WILD: We've all heard the jokes that preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Chris Leak of Florida might not be the best at his position on his own team. Maybe we should be saying the same thing about West Virginia's Steve Slaton.

Granted, Slaton and quarterback Pat White play different positions, but White looks more like a tailback who happens to take every snap.

White ran 15 times for 247 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-17 triumph over Syracuse, while Slaton had 178 yards and two scores on 21 carries. White ran much better than he passed, as he went 12-of-19 through the air for 99 yards and an interception.

West Virginia could be in serious trouble if anyone forces the Mountaineers to throw the ball, but that might not happen all season.

12. REINFORCEMENTS: Auburn and South Florida accomplished the college football equivalent of a baseball team picking up a star player at the trade deadline.

South Florida tailback Ricky Ponton and Auburn linebacker Tray Blackmon both made immediate impacts in their 2006 debuts after serving six-game suspensions to open the season.

Ponton rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over North Carolina. Florida had the ball at Auburn's 6-yard line in the fourth quarter and was on the verge of regaining the lead before Blackmon recovered a fumble to help the Tigers outlast the Gators 27-17.

13. DARBY'S DELIVERANCE: Alabama tailback Kenneth Darby apparently has solved whatever problems caused his early-season slump.

Darby recorded his second consecutive exceptional game by rushing for 162 yards including 141 after halftime - in a 26-23 victory over Ole Miss. The senior had gained 115 yards against Duke a week earlier.

After gaining just 3.4 yards per carry in Alabama's first five games, Darby has averaged 6.4 yards per rush the last two weeks. His big game Saturday made him the third player in school history with 3,000 career rushing yards.

14. ON THE WAY BACK: Although Ole Miss appears on its way out of bowl contention, quarterback Brent Schaeffer's performance against Alabama should give Rebels fans reason for optimism.

Schaeffer had failed to complete more than half his passes in any of Mississippi's first five games, but the junior college transfer showed Saturday why he was such a highly touted prospect. He went 13-of-20 for 163 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 37 yards on six carries.

15. CLOCK STRIKES MIDNIGHT: Washington's Cinderella story may have just ended.

Starting quarterback Isaiah Stanback was helped off the field Saturday after injuring his right foot in the fourth quarter of a 27-17 home loss to Oregon State.

Without Stanback in the lineup, Washington (4-3) may struggle to get the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility. The Huskies need a quality quarterback to compensate for their 107th-ranked pass defense.

16. GOOD NEWS FOR HAWKINS: The first six weeks of the season made new Colorado coach Dan Hawkins a giant target for criticism.

His new team entered the weekend with a winless record. The Boise State team he left behind was undefeated without him.

But the beleaguered Hawkins proved Saturday that he hasn't forgotten how to coach. The Buffaloes ended a 10-game losing streak that dated to November with a 30-6 thumping of Texas Tech.

A lesser team with a lesser coach easily could have given up on the season after a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Baylor last week. The Buffaloes instead regrouped and delivered one of the season's biggest upsets.

17. LONG RANGER: Colorado's victory helped Mason Crosby reassert himself as the nation's top kicker.

Crosby had gone just 8-of-13 on field goals in his first six games this season and missed a 36-yarder in that loss to Baylor. Crosby responded by making all three of his attempts Saturday, including a 56-yarder and a 53-yarder that gave him 12 career field goals from at least 50 yards away.

18. FRESHMAN MISTAKES: Texas Tech traditionally has a senior quarterback lead the nation in passing his lone year as a starter. This year, the Red Raiders are discovering the growing pains that come with starting a redshirt freshman.

Graham Harrell led the Red Raiders to a dramatic victory over Texas A&M two weeks ago, but he has struggled since. He fumbled twice and threw two interceptions in a loss to Missouri last week, then followed that up by losing a fumble and getting picked off three times against Colorado.

19. SIX TIMES SIX: Perhaps no player has improved as much in the last five weeks as Texas quarterback Colt McCoy.

McCoy set a school record by throwing six touchdown passes in the Longhorns' 63-31 victory over Baylor. The redshirt freshman now has completed 72.9 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in the five weeks since a 24-7 loss to Ohio State.

The guy who was supposed to be the weak link of Texas' offense has thrown 18 touchdown passes this season, which ranks him behind only Hawaii's Colt Brennan and Harrell among all Division I-A quarterbacks.

20. HAMPTON HURT: It didn't get as much attention as Peterson's broken collarbone, but Navy quarterback Brian Hampton's dislocated left knee could prove every bit as devastating.

Navy had been averaging 350.5 rushing yards per game mainly because of Hampton, who had rushed for a team-high 646 yards and 10 touchdowns before getting hurt in the first quarter of Saturday's 34-0 loss to Rutgers.

Without Hampton in the lineup, Navy gained just 161 total yards and was shut out for the first time since 2002.

21. RUTGERS FINDS BALANCE: Rutgers owns a 6-0 record for the first time since its perfect season in 1976. The Scarlet Knights' hopes for remaining undefeated depend on the progress of quarterback Mike Teel.

The Knights' offense has depended almost entirely on a rushing attack led by All-America candidate Ray Rice, but Teel delivered a breakthrough performance against Navy by throwing for three touchdown passes and 215 yards.

Teel had thrown six interceptions and only two touchdown passes before Saturday. As good as Rice is, Rutgers won't have a chance against Big East powers West Virginia and Louisville unless the Knights can throw the ball.

22. TATE'S TUMBLE: The career resurgences of Henne, Stanback and Tennessee's Erik Ainge have made this the season of the quarterback comeback.

Iowa's Drew Tate is the exception to the rule.

In a year when so many quarterbacks have made huge strides, Tate has regressed. Two weeks after throwing three interceptions in a 38-17 loss to Ohio State, Tate was picked off in the final three minutes of an upset at Indiana.

The senior quarterback has completed just 52 percent of his passes in Iowa's two losses.

23. COMEBACK TEAM OF THE YEAR: One month ago, Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner underwent brain surgery. Three days after that, the Hoosiers lost to Southern Illinois without Hoeppner on the sidelines.

The Hoosiers and their coach have come a long way since.

Indiana rallied from a 25-7 deficit to beat Illinois last week then made it two wins in a row by knocking off Iowa in one of the season's biggest upsets.

The Hoosiers (4-3) probably don't have enough firepower to get the six wins necessary for a bowl invitation, but they already have staged one of the nation's most dramatic turnarounds.

24. SACK ATTACK: Utah quarterback Brett Ratliff wasn't sacked at all in his first six games of the season, but Wyoming's top-ranked pass defense changed that in a hurry by bringing him down six times in a 31-15 victory over the Utes.

Although Utah lost the game, defensive back Eric Weddle continued his remarkable season by returning a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown. Weddle now has five interceptions, three touchdowns, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles in his last five games.

25. WISE OWLS: Temple's best play in a 53-9 loss to Clemson came off the field.

The Owls donated $1,500 including the players' per diems and donations from various staff members to the Fahmarr McElrathbey Trust. The trust is providing financial assistance to Fahnmar McElrathbey, the 11-year-old brother of Clemson freshman defensive back Ray Ray McElrathbey.

Ray Ray McElrathbey has custody of his younger brother while their mother fights drug problems.

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