Monday, November 27, 2006

College football: the final week

I was going to post my periodic review of the 2006 college season at the beginning of November, but I never got around to doing so until now. But that's okay; November has turned out to be a pretty fun month for college football fans.

There's still a little bit of football to be played this weekend, but as of right now it looks as if Southern California and Ohio State will meet on January 8 to determine the national champion. Talk of an Ohio State - Michigan rematch ended after the Trojans dispatched #6 Notre Dame, 44-24, last Saturday and moved ahead of Michigan in the latest Bowl Championship Series poll. USC's national title hopes got off-track after an upset loss to Oregon State late last month, but the Trojans have recovered nicely over the month of November. USC still needs to get past UCLA this weekend, but if they do so they would undoubtedly be chosen to face the Buckeyes in the national title game.

This would obviously come as a disappointment to other highly-ranked one-loss teams with valid arguments for inclusion in the title game - Florida as well as Michigan - but until college football does what virtually every other sport on this planet does and implements an actual playoff (something I that I don't expect to happen any time soon), controversies such as this will be an annual occurence.

At the beginning of November, several undefeated teams were vying for a shot at the national championship. The Michigan Wolverines were one such team; they were ranked #2 and were looking to knock off their arch-rivals in a one-versus-two game that became even more meaningful when Michigan's beloved former coach, Bo Schembechler, passed away the day before the game. The resulting matchup was a classic, with the Buckeyes winning 42-39, and it was easy to see why talk of a rematch began even before the final whistle had sounded. Unfortunately for Michigan, who retained the #2 position in the week following that game, the fact that their season was over, while other teams (namely USC) still had two more weeks to impress the voters and computers that comprise the BCS poll, put them at a disadvantage. The Wolverines will play in a BCS game; it just won't be the game that they want to play in.

My preseason pick to win it all, West Virginia, was looking pretty good headed into November. But they were defeated by Louisville, 34-44, in a thrilling Thursday night game. Their national title hopes were dealt a severe setback, and any hope of the Mountaineers' clawing their way back up the polls came to an end when they lost to South Florida last Saturday. Louisville's victory put them squarely in the BCS title game spotlight, but they were ambushed by Rutgers the following Thursday. A victory over Connecticut as well as a Rutgers loss to West Virginia would still put them in one of the BCS bowls as the Big East champion, however. As for Rutgers, their 28-25 victory over Louisville generated some discussion in the national sports media as to the improbable: could Rutgers actually reach the title game? That talk ended when the Scarlet Knights failed to take care of business against Cincinnati the following weekend, however.

Going into November, the Texas Longhorns still had their title aspirations in spite of an early-season loss to Ohio State. An upset 42-45 loss to Kansas State ended those hopes, however, and, as if to add insult to injury, the 'Horns lost to archrival Texas A&M, 7-12, last Friday. This was the first Aggie victory over Texas since 1999.

Notre Dame also had their sights set upon the national title game in spite of their lopsided early-season loss to Michigan, but last weekend's decisive loss to Southern Cal put those hopes to an end. Arkansas, which along with Rutgers was one of the surprising stories of the season, also had their name thrown into the mix over the last week or two; however, their loss to LSU last weekend meant that they would not play for the national title even if they did defeat Florida in the SEC championship game this weekend.

The Wisconsin Badgers end the season with one loss as well, a 13-27 decision to Michigan in September. One would think that they would get a bit more respect because they've run the table since then, but their ridiculous out-of-conference schedule (Bowling Green, Buffalo, San Diego State and Western Illinois) and the fact that they skipped Ohio State in conference play this season means that they're heading to the Capital One Bowl instead.

Other preseason favorites who are now out of the chase for the national title with two losses include Louisians State, Oklahoma and Auburn. LSU found road games to Auburn and Florida too much to handle; Auburn was able to get past Florida but got tripped up by Arkansas and Georgia. Things could have been worse for the Oklahoma Sooners, who will be playing for the Big 12 title this weekend in spite of the preseason dismissal of quarterback Rhett Bomar and a controversial mid-September loss to Oregon. Their loss to Texas in the Cotton Bowl in October, however, sealed their fate.

The nation's only other undefeated program, Boise State, punched their ticket to a BCS bowl after completing their season with a 38-7 win over Nevada last Saturday. This will be the second time that a non-BCS school has crashed the BCS party, but their weak WAC schedule will keep them out of the national title game.

Then there were the true disappointments; teams ranked highly in the preseason that performed much worse than expected. Miami started the season ranked in the top twelve in both the AP and USA Today polls; they end with a 6-6 record and have fired coach Larry Coker. Florida State, likewise, started the season with a top-twelve preseason ranking but ended the season with a 6-6 record. One wonders if the long and storied Bobby Bowden era is coming to an end at Florida State as well. Another top-twelve preseason team, California, now has three losses but is still ranked in both polls.

A handful of teams from the Big East, Pac-10, Mountain West, Sunbelt and WAC, as well as Army and Navy, will play this weekend. The only one of these games which will have any direct bearing on the national title game will be the USC-UCLA matchup in Los Angeles, although if USC loses then the outcome of the SEC championship game between Arkansas and Florida would probably become a factor. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech will meet Wake Forest to determine the ACC title, Nebraska and Oklahoma will play one another to resolve the Big 12 title, and Central Michigan will face Ohio to decide the MAC champion. Here in Houston, the Cougars will host Southern Mississippi on Friday night to determine the C-USA champ. The Cougars are "also receiving votes" in the AP, USA Today and Harris Interactive polls this week. If the Coogs win Friday, and if they defeat their SEC opponent in the Liberty Bowl, they will probably end the season with a top-25 ranking. Those are a couple of big "ifs," however; Southern Miss defeated the Coogs when the two teams met in Hattiesburg this year, and whatever SEC team Houston faces in the Liberty Bowl will be a real challenge as well.

North Texas ends their year with a disappointing 3-9 record. Controversies surrounding the firing of coach Darrell Dickey aside, the Mean Green have a lot of rebuilding and regrouping to do over the offseason.

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