By Dave Hershorin
October 30, 2006

The game everyone’s talking about is the night game in Corvallis where then-No.3 Southern Cal lost to Oregon State 33-31. The Beavers went up 33-10 in the third quarter before the Trojans started their comeback. Junior Josh David Booty, the first-year starter, led USC with three late TD tosses, but it wasn’t enough as the two-point conversion to tie it up with :07 seconds left fell dismally short. The two-point try was a lame pass against an isolated corner on the left side that resembled the weak two-point play FSU ran late in its 1987 try against Miami in Tallahassee. Steve Smith had 11 catches for 258 yards and the final two clutch TD grabs that almost tied it late. State breaks USC’s 18-game road winning streak, as well as their 27-game streak against Pac Ten foes. The Beavers (4-4, 3-2) have had a ho-hum season until this big win. The Trojans should have beat these guys in their sleep, but what has been revealed is that they are not at all the same group which challenged for the past three BCS titles. Pete Carroll’s group now trails No.10 Cal in the Pac Ten race, which is still undefeated in conference play. The two play November 18 in Los Angeles, likely to decide the league title, and then another home game with Notre Dame the very next week is followed by a tough tilt with defensive UCLA to end their regular season. Is this the beginning of a skid or an easily forgotten aberration?

Texas didn’t let the home upstart finish the mission in Lubbock. Even though Texas Tech went up 21-0 in the first half, the Longhorns won the next three quarters 35-10. Freshman QB Colt McCoy was 21-of-31 for 256 yards and four TDs. He even had 68 rushing yards. McCoy distributed the ball to eight different receivers as the first-year starter kept his team focused on their ultimate objective. Texas’ second-ranked rushing defense pushed the Red Raiders back for -13 ground yards. Graham Harrell did go 42-of-61 for 519 yards and three TDs, but only two passes went for more than 30 yards. Texas kept the play in front of them to hold Tech at the most crucial times (TT was 5-for-14 on third-down conversions). UT has now allowed 20 or more points in three straight games after only allowing Ohio State to have that many in their first six games. The upperclassmen who make up the Longhorn back seven survived the third-ranked “Air Raid” passing attack, but they need more cohesion if they are to get back to the same levels the DBs were at when Texas climbed atop the Big 12. Ergo, ranking 112th for pass defense won’t win another national championship.

In the Big 12 North battle, neither Missouri nor Nebraska could make any headway as both lost to state schools from Oklahoma. The Tigers handed the Sooners all of their points on mistakes to lose to OU for the 15th time in 16 tries, and it was their first loss at home in nine games. Mizzu had won its first six games of ‘06 before this recent 1-2 slide. Nebraska blew a 16-0 lead in Stillwater by allowing 267 rushing yards and five sacks to a resurgent OSU squad. Each team had 200+ in both rushing and passing, but the Cowboys managed their second half chances better and out-gained the Cornhuskers 249-189 in the last 30 minutes. Save their opening third-quarter drive and a late TD effort once the game was decided, NU earned only 54 second half yards. These two North division rivals square off this weekend in Columbia in a game which should decide who wins their half. With both 3-2 in league play, there will be only one North team left over .500. By contrast, the South has only one team with a losing Big 12 mark (Texas Tech at 2-3), and only Baylor (4-5) with an overall losing record. If the South’s third- and fifth-placed teams, respectively, can rather easily beat the best from the North, it again looks like the Red River Shootout was the by-default Big 12 championship for yet another season.

Talk about barely escaping - Auburn got out of Oxford with the win by outscoring Ole Miss 16-7 down the stretch to win 23-17. The Tigers didn’t pull ahead until there was five-and-change left in the third stanza as they scored on their last four possessions to retard the Rebel’s upset bid. No.6 in the polls, Auburn is one spot ahead of Florida in the human sectors due to their victory over the Gators, yet they still trail their SEC East foe by two spots in the all-important BCS listings. Auburn may rank highest in the conference, but they still trail Arkansas (7-1, 4-0) in the SEC West standings. The Razorbacks won their head-to-head, so Auburn is hoping that South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU can hand Arkansas two losses, and the Tigers then have to win out the rest of their SEC games. If Auburn doesn’t go to the SEC Championship, they are still in the catbird’s seat to get an at-large BCS bid (as long as they win out). Florida took the throttle in the other half by downing Georgia 21-14 in Jacksonville. The Dawgs continue their struggles at QB, which weekly invites extra defenders into the box as foes dare (whichever) Georgia’s hurler to beat them deep. UGA true freshman Matthew Stafford, a Parade All-American and Rivals.com’s top QB prospect for this season, is still on the learning side of the curve after going 13-of-33 for 151 yards and two INTs. At least they stuck with Stafford despite the bumps in the road – Mark Richt had been playing musical signal-callers at the first signs of trouble, a move that has kept the Georgia offense from gaining identity as a unit. This has allowed Tennessee, which won 31-24 last week in Columbia against the Gamecocks, to reclaim the East’s second place spot. The Vols one loss, to Florida, has them ranked 8th in the human polls, but 11th in the BCS – behind one-loss Cal, whom they beat to open the year. Tennessee may be the best team not to make the BCS, though the SEC could have two top 10 teams not headed to a big dance come season’s end.

Boise State is the clear favorite to become only the second mid-major ever to earn a BCS slot. The undefeated Broncos are 14th ranked in the most recent BCS poll, and if they win their conference and can rank higher than 12th in the final regular-season BCS tally, they automatically get a birth in a BCS bowl. Notre Dame can assure themselves of another slot by ranking 8th or higher, but they have that toughie at USC on Thanksgiving Saturday, so nothing is written in stone yet for the Irish. But BSU just has to win four more to go undefeated, with only a home game against a surprisingly tame Fresno State squad and the closer at Nevada-Reno in their way of perfect regular season. The ‘smurf turf’ could get a pretty decent makeover if the Broncos can stay focused to earn the big BCS money. But even if Boise can make one of the big five bowls, they don’t seem to have the defense to stop a top BCS-aligned contender. 2004 Utah, the only small school to ever make the BCS, was a strong defensive team and had a chance against whichever big school they may have come up against that year. But Boise likely won’t be able to keep their No.18 (total) offense (No.3 for scoring) clicking enough against a big boy to win in the postseason. That doesn’t mean that BSU couldn’t win a BCS bowl, for any foe that takes them too lightly could easily wind up losing. This is exactly why the extra BCS bowl game was added, so I count myself as one of those rooting for Boise to earn their due place amongst college football’s elite.

Virginia Tech’s 24-7 smack-down of then-No.10 Clemson last Thursday on the national stage truly reflects the mediocrity that is the ACC. Not many could have predicted that, at this point, Boston College, Wake Forest and Maryland would all be 3-1 in conference play and atop the Atlantic division. Perennial favorites Clemson (7-2, 4-2) and FSU (4-4, 2-4) have fallen through the cracks. Georgia Tech, which lost to Clemson the prior week, is in front in the Coastal and sits pretty at 4-1 after having played all of its toughest league games. Still, none is (nor deserves to be) included in the nation’s elite. BC earns the ACC’s top AP ranking (16th), though the Golden Eagles only beat Central Michigan by seven and needed double overtime to dispatch BYU at home. The ACC is in danger of being passed by the Big East and could possibly be this year’s worst of the BCS-aligned conferences. Those who follow the polls could see this eventuality coming – only Virginia Tech has finished in the top 10 over the past two seasons, and no ACC team has finished in the top 5 since 2001. The league is therefore ostensibly competitive, and by no means are its participants considered doormats against major non-con foes. But there is little to be boastful of when no ACC team enters serious conversations about the best of the best. Miami and Florida State have much to fix behind the scenes before either returns to the top 10 mix, and as long as Beamer’s toughest non-con foes are Cincinnati and Southern Miss, the public annually has to wait until at least mid-season before they know if the Hokies are for real. Tommy Bowden almost had his Tigers breaking through after they decisively dispatched Georgia Tech two weeks ago, but the Hokies homogenized any hopes of a dominant team emerging from the ACC monkey barrel. In years like this, I end up rooting for a usually-nowhere team – this time it is Wake Forest – to somehow emerge from the muck and mire for the title. The Demon Deacons control their own destiny, though their work is cut out with their last four foes constituting the conference’s elite. Hey, it could be Virginia vs. Maryland for the ACC crown, proving just how muddled the waters east of the Mississippi really are these days.

Lagniappe

Ohio State still looks like the team to beat after their 44-0 home shellacking of Minnesota. Michigan had trouble putting Northwestern away in Ann Arbor, but prevailed 17-3 to keep alive the prospect of the country’s top two undefeateds meeting in Columbus November 18. Those familiar with this rivalry know how many times the Buckeyes have had their high hopes dashed in this classic, high-profile regular season ender. This one is currently too close to call, though I will break it all down in my HIGHS and LOWS the week prior to the big game…Notre Dame ran its NCAA record consecutive win streak over Navy to 43 as they throttled the Midshipmen 38-14 in Baltimore. The Irish are 70-9-1 all-time versus Navy and 127-22-5 all-time combined against the service academies. With ND going to Colorado Springs next week and then hosting the Cadets the week after that, it will be the first time the Irish have faced all three branches in the same year since 1995 and the ninth time overall. Do you happen to know the last year that the Irish didn’t face any of the service academies on their slate? (see answer below)…Northern Illinois RB Garrett Wolfe, the senior who ran for 171 yards in the opener against the Buckeyes, this time was held to 66 yards on 22 carries against Iowa and under 100 for the third straight week. His season low before this last trio of pedestrian efforts had been 162 yards, and Wolfe has scored only one TD during the dry spell after scoring 14 of them in the opening six games. He still leads I-A in rushing, but not for long if he gets one more sub-100 yard performance…West Virginia sophomore Steven Slaton is the only back that has over 100 carries and averages seven-plus per try (7.01)…Four of the country’s top six rushers are underclassmen – Rutgers’ Ray Rice (2nd with 160.6 yards per game), Slaton (4th, 151.3 ypg), and Boise State’s Ian Johnson (5th, 147.6 ypg) are all sophomores, while Wisconsin’s P.J. Hill (6th, 135.8) is the lone freshman in the top 10…Johnson has the most rushing TDs (18), while sophomores James Davis of Clemson and Jorvorskie Lane of Texas A&M are tied with 17…For this Thursday’s battle of undefeated Big East teams, note the following – Louisville may rank 10th in passing offense while West Virginia is 110th, but the Mountaineers are 13th in all-important pass efficiency while UL is 14th. WVU is the top rushing attack, and though Louisville ranks a strong 7th, they average 103 less ground yards per game…and mad props go out to Temple, which snapped its 20-game losing streak against Bowling Green with a 28-14 win over a 4-4 team. Three turnovers were the Falcon’s demise, as was Owl QB Adam DiMichele’s 201.6 passer rating (10-of-13 for 162 yards and two TDs)…Trivia answer – 1918 was the last time Notre Dame didn’t play any of the service academies in their annual slate.