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November 27, 2006

UCLA a final hurdle for Southern Cal

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Southern California can remove all suspense from the Bowl Championship Series race by winning at UCLA next weekend.

But if the Bruins pull off the biggest upset of the season, college football fans may need to pull out their calculators to predict which team will face Ohio State for the national title Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

USC moved into the No. 2 spot in the BCS standings Sunday after whipping Notre Dame 44-24 one night earlier. A victory over UCLA in the regular-season finale would give the Trojans a chance to win their third national championship in four years.

"Early on this season, not many people gave us much of a chance and (they) really questioned us," said USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, who caught three touchdown passes against Notre Dame. "But we always believed in ourselves, no matter what the media said. We definitely belong with the best.''

Jerry Palm, who analyzes the BCS standings as the publisher of collegebcs.com, couldn't imagine a scenario in which USC would fail to reach the title game if the Trojans beat UCLA.

"There would have to be complete voter revolt for that to happen,'' Palm said. "That's highly unlikely no matter how close that game is."

The biggest remaining question involves what might happen if UCLA stuns USC.

No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Florida both could stake a claim to the No. 2 spot in the standings in that unlikely scenario.

The Wolverines currently are third in the BCS standings after closing the regular season with a 42-39 loss to Ohio State a week ago. Florida still can sway voters by beating No. 9 Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference championship game next weekend.

Palm believes a close victory over Arkansas probably won't be enough to get the Gators to Arizona. The Gators probably need to win big.

Florida currently trails Michigan by 40 votes in the USA Today coaches' poll and by 86 votes in the Harris Poll. Palm said the Gators would probably need to narrow the margin to at least 57 votes in the Harris poll and 31 in the coaches' poll and also would have to lead Michigan in five of the six computer polls.

Michigan currently is ahead of Florida in four of the six computer polls.

"They've got some work to do," Palm said. "They've got to change some minds."

USC's move into the driver's seat of the national championship race represented just one of the top 25 plotlines from this week's college football action. Here's our take on the other top stories.

2. TURNING POINT: Anyone who says USC shouldn't play for the national title points to the Trojans' loss to Oregon State, which is 24th in the latest BCS standings. I'd argue that the Trojans finally started resembling national title contenders during that game.

USC had played just well enough to win against such mediocre teams as Washington State, Washington and Arizona State before tripping over themselves for the first 2-1/2 quarters at Oregon State.

The Trojans didn't start playing like the USC teams of old until after they fell behind Oregon State 33-7. Steve Smith sparked a frantic comeback as the Trojans scored the final 24 points of the game.

Although the Trojans didn't beat Oregon State, that second-half comeback marked the point when first-year starting quarterback John David Booty made the transition from caretaker to playmaker.

3. IRISH STRUGGLE: Notre Dame's 44-24 loss to USC shouldn't have surprised anyone who has followed the Fighting Irish this year. Brady Quinn's sensational season simply masked the flaws that USC finally exposed Saturday.

Notre Dame couldn't protect the passer in a close win over UCLA and allowed three sacks Saturday. The secondary that couldn't cover North Carolina freshman Hakeem Nicks last month certainly wasn't about to stop Dwayne Jarrett. And the late-season struggles of kicker Carl Gioia forced Charlie Weis to go for it whenever the Irish faced a fourth down in USC territory.

The only surprise about this game was the flurry of dropped passes by Notre Dame's highly regarded receivers. Rhema McKnight made a couple of spectacular catches but he also failed to hang on to some critical throws.

4. ROSE REMATCH?: Assuming USC beats UCLA and goes on to play for the national title, the biggest remaining BCS dilemma involves the Rose Bowl's selection process? Will the Rose go with a Notre Dame-Michigan rematch after the Wolverines beat the Irish 47-21 last September?

Here's one vote against that plan.

Why would we want to see a rematch of a game that wasn't competitive the first time? I'd rather see a Michigan-LSU game that would feature at least a couple of interesting matchups with Mike Hart running against a powerful Tiger defense and LSU receiver Dwayne Bowe lining up against Thorpe Award finalist Leon Hall.

Notre Dame still should earn a BCS bid and seems like an ideal fit for the Sugar Bowl. We could have an Urban Meyer vs. Weis pairing that would bring back memories of Notre Dame's last coaching search, or we may get the Lou Holtz Bowl between the Irish and Arkansas.

5. HEISMAN WATCH: Even if he had played brilliantly in a Notre Dame victory, Quinn probably wouldn't have overtaken Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith on most people's Heisman ballots.

By completing less than half his passes in a 20-point loss, Quinn may have allowed Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden to pass him for second place.

If I had a vote, I'd still put Quinn second and McFadden third at this point, though McFadden still has one more chance to sway voters in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Without Quinn in the lineup, the Irish almost certainly wouldn't have rallied past Michigan State or UCLA earlier this season.

6. FIESTA FOR BOISE: Here's our message to all those fans of BCS conference teams who will spend the next two weeks complaining about Boise State's inevitable invitation to the Fiesta Bowl.

Get over yourselves.

With only one win over a BCS conference team, the Broncos don't deserve to play for the national title. But they certainly have earned the right to face an elite program in front of a nationally televised audience.

I know I'll be watching, even if most of the nation isn't. I want to see how Ian Johnson fares against an Oklahoma or Nebraska defense. And I want to find out if Boise State linebacker Korey Hall who has at least 100 tackles each of the last two seasons - is as good as his statistics suggest.

7. BADGERS LEFT OUT: This year offers evidence that college football officials might want to tweak the policy that allows a maximum of two teams from each conference to earn BCS invitations.

Wisconsin moved up to seventh in the latest BCS standings, but the Badgers won't play in a BCS game because the Big Ten also includes No. 1 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan.

The rules should be changed to prevent future teams from suffering a similar fate.

8. ACC EMBARRASSMENT: How bad was the Atlantic Coast Conference this season?

The ACC started the season by losing two of three games to the Big East and ended it by getting swept in three games with the Southeastern Conference. Georgia Tech, the likely favorite in next weekend's ACC championship game, couldn't beat a Georgia team that lost half its SEC games.

At least the ACC has youth on its side. Eight of the conference's top 10 rushers and seven of its top 10 passers are underclassmen.

9. LEFT IN THEIR WAKE: Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe justifiably has earned most of the credit for the Demon Deacons' shocking rise to the top of the ACC Atlantic Division, but a couple of unlikely contributors also deserve mention.

The Deacons expected to rely on quarterback Benjamin Mauk and tailback Micah Andrews, but both players suffered season-ending injuries early in the year.

Redshirt freshman Riley Skinner stepped in at quarterback and has completed more than two-thirds of his passes. Skinner shared the spotlight Saturday with Kenneth Moore, a former receiver who moved to tailback and rushed for 165 yards in a 38-24 triumph at Maryland.

10. COACH OF THE YEAR?: Rutgers' Greg Schiano will win most of the national Coach of the Year awards with Grobe close behind him, but perhaps no coach has overcome more adversity this season than Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.

Oklahoma lost starting quarterback Rhett Bomar before the season and Heisman Trophy candidate Adrian Peterson early in the season. Peterson's backup Allen Patrick also missed two games with an injury, and the Sooners also had to bounce back from a controversial loss to Oregon that featured the worst officiating call of the season.

Yet the Sooners still found a way to win the Big 12 South Conference. They arguably are playing as well as any team other than Ohio State and USC right now.

11. IT'S THE PITTS: If Oklahoma has improved as much as any team in the nation this year, perhaps no team has taken as much of a late-season dive as Pittsburgh. The Panthers are bowl eligible with a 6-6 record, but they won't exactly be a huge attraction after ending their regular season with five consecutive losses.

A late-season schedule that closed with back-to-back games against West Virginia and Louisville didn't do the Panthers any favors. Those losses are excusable, but a team with Pittsburgh's talent shouldn't have lost consecutive road games to South Florida and Connecticut before that home stand.

12. TOP VOL OF ALL: Tennessee has earned a reputation for producing outstanding wide receivers, so Robert Meachem's accomplishment this week deserves special mention.

Meachem caught six passes for 116 yards in a 17-12 victory over Kentucky and set a school single-season receiving record in the process. Meachem now has 1,265 receiving yards to shatter the mark of 1,170 set by Marcus Nash in 1997.

13. THEY'RE FOR REAL: Kentucky may have gained more respect in defeat than the Wildcats received after any of their victories.

The Wildcats became bowl eligible this season thanks in part to a soft non-conference schedule. As Kentucky kept winning shootouts, critics noted that the Wildcats were ranked last out of all 119 Division I-A teams in total defense.

That defense finally came out of hibernation Saturday by holding a potent Tennessee offense to 17 points. The Vols had scored fewer than 17 points just once all season.

Kentucky should return plenty of offensive firepower next fall because quarterback Andre Woodson, tailback Rafael Little and wide receiver Keenan Burton are all juniors. If they can be merely respectable on defense, the Wildcats could return to a bowl next season.

14. ONE MORE CANDIDATE: Assuming South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and Schiano are sincere when they say they have no plans to leave their current positions, Miami will have to look elsewhere in its coaching search.

The Hurricanes may not have to look far to find a worthy candidate.

South Florida coach Jim Leavitt should find himself considered for plenty of openings now that he's led the Bulls to an 8-4 season. Over the last two years, the Bulls now have knocked off each of the Big East's two main powers Louisville and West Virginia.

15. HE HAS THE SECRET: Speaking of Leavitt, Schiano probably should study the game films of South Florida's last two meetings with West Virginia. The Bulls are the only team that has figured out a way to stop Steve Slaton.

South Florida held Slaton to 86 yards on 26 carries in a 28-13 loss to West Virginia last year. The Bulls fared even better Saturday and limited Slaton to 43 yards on 18 carries in a 24-19 triumph over the Mountaineers.

Slaton has failed to reach the 100-yard mark just two other times as a starter, and he left at halftime with a hip pointer after gaining 71 yards in one of those games.

Rutgers can clinch the Big East title by winning at West Virginia this week.

16. GIVE HIM A CHANCE: Miami made the right move in firing Larry Coker, but this shouldn't be the last we hear of him.

Coker has earned a second chance if the 58-year-old chooses to coach again.

His team may have been the most disappointing in the nation this year, but this is still the same coach who won his first 24 games. He certainly is capable of leading a struggling team from a BCS conference into a bowl contender.

17. TOUCHING TRIBUTE: Miami has done plenty of terrible things this year - from its on-field performance to its pregame actions against Louisville to its brawl with Florida International.

That said, there may not have been a more poignant moment in college football this year than seeing the Hurricanes celebrate their Thanksgiving night victory over Boston College by kneeling at midfield around a banner that honored defensive end Bryan Pata, who was shot to death two weeks earlier.

18. WHERE'S THE OFFENSE?: The performances by Miami and Florida State this week showed their defenses haven't fallen too far from their previous championship form.

Miami's front four abused a Boston College offensive line that is considered one of the nation's best. Florida State gave up a couple of big plays early and held Florida relatively in check the rest of the day.

The problem is that both teams lack playmakers on offense and have major problems at quarterback.

Miami's next coach better hope either Kyle Wright or Kirby Freeman improves by leaps and bounds next season. Florida State's Xavier Lee teased Seminole fans with an encouraging performance against Maryland, but neither Lee nor Drew Weatherford has done much since.

19. COLT'S CONQUEST: Hawaii's Colt Brennan is having one of the greatest statistical seasons of any quarterback in history, but questions persisted about how he'd fare against a BCS team. Doubters noted that Hawaii struggled to find the end zone in a 25-17 season-opening loss to Alabama.

Brennan answered those questions Saturday by throwing three fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a 42-35 victory over Purdue. Brennan now has 51 touchdown passes heading into next weekend's game with Oregon State and needs only three more to match David Klingler's 16-year-old NCAA record.

The showdown between these two pass-happy offenses lived up to its pregame billing. Purdue and Hawaii scored 43 fourth-quarter points and gained a combined total of 1,125 yards.

20. FINALLY: Unless you're a graduate of Clemson, you had to feel good for South Carolina after watching the Gamecocks finally win a close game Saturday.

South Carolina had dropped four in a row to Clemson and had lost by seven or fewer points to Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida this year.

This game also represented redemption for South Carolina kicker/punter Ryan Succop, who booted a tiebreaking 35-yard field goal with 7:51 remaining in the Gamecocks' 31-28 victory. Succop had a potential game-winning kick blocked against Florida two weeks ago.

21. HOGS' QB CONCERNS: Although his team will play for an SEC title next week, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has received plenty of criticism in the wake of a 31-26 loss to Louisiana State.

Frankly, I thought that game showed how remarkable a job Nutt has done this season.

The Arkansas coaching staff certainly didn't have a great game against LSU. For example, this run-oriented team's decision to call for a pass on fourth-and-3 early in the fourth quarter backfired when Casey Dick was sacked. McFadden should have touched the ball at least once on the Razorbacks' final, futile possession.

But it's amazing how well the Razorbacks have done with so much instability at the quarterback position. When your starting tailback has more passing yards than your starting quarterback in the regular-season finale, your passing game obviously has serious issues.

22. MOST IMPROVED UNIT: That honor has to belong to Texas A&M's defense after the way the Aggies handled Texas 12-7 last week.

Texas A&M was ranked last among all Division I-A teams at defending the pass last year, but the Aggies picked off four passes to shut down a Texas offense that had been averaging nearly 40 points a game.

Of course it helped that Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was trying to come back from neck and shoulder injuries that left him at less than full strength, but embattled Aggies coach Dennis Franchione and new defensive coordinator Gary Darnell still deserve plaudits for the Aggies' remarkable improvement.

23. KOETTER OUT: Whoever replaces Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter will inherit a talent-laden team that features promising quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who should bounce back next year after struggling with injuries this fall. The new coach also will have to deal with great perhaps unrealistic - expectations.

Although Koetter mishandled the quarterback competition before the season, it's tough to find too much fault with his 23-13 record over the last three seasons. His 2-19 record against ranked opponents in his six-year tenure apparently overshadowed his 4-2 mark over rival Arizona.

Arizona State hasn't played a bowl game on New Year's Day or later since Jake Plummer starred for the Sun Devils a decade ago. If Arizona State doesn't return to a major bowl in a hurry, the honeymoon could end soon for Koetter's successor.

24. BRIAN'S SONG: Rutgers promoted Brian Leonard for the Heisman Trophy at the start of the season, but the senior fullback has spent much of the year allowing backfield mate Ray Rice to bathe in the spotlight.

Leonard finally returned to center stage Saturday.

In the final home game of his brilliant career, Leonard rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns to set the Scarlet Knights' career scoring record in a 38-7 victory over Syracuse. He saved his best move for after the game, when he directed the Rutgers band while using a knight's sword as his baton.

25. SAD CONCLUSION: North Carolina State may have just discovered the worst way to wrap up a disappointing season.

The Wolfpack capped a seven-game losing streak by falling 21-16 at home to East Carolina, an in-state rival from a non-BCS conference. The loss sealed the fate of North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato, who was fired Sunday night.

Adding insult to injury, Carter-Finley Stadium officials took down the goalposts with 14.4 seconds remaining apparently to make sure the East Carolina fans scattered throughout the stands wouldn't storm the field afterward.

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