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We live in the era of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. It has everything: top rankings, great tradition, compelling backstories. The game Saturday will be the pinnacle of all that college football fans hold dear.
(And my employer, which will be televising it to an audience that will be as big as any regular-season game in recent memory. I know this because my wife wrote the game time down on the kitchen calendar so that she will remember to watch it. We're talking big Nielsens).
The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry has every element of a great college football rivalry but one, the one that means it will never be the greatest rivalry.
When the game is over, Ohio State fans will remain in Ohio and Michigan fans will return to Michigan.
In Alabama, the losing fans have to go to work on Monday and face their co-workers from the other side.
When you can never let your guard down, a rivalry is a 365-day affair.
The Iron Bowl engages more people in Alabama than any other event, sporting or otherwise, in the state. There is no NFL team, no major-league professional team of any kind. The state plans its life around the game.
In 49 states, Ohio State and Michigan will win the TV ratings. But when Auburn and Alabama meet at 3:30 on Saturday, you can book that no one in the state will know or care who wins at the Horseshoe.
Yes, as an Alabama native, my perspective might be skewed. But my logic isn't. Ohio State-Michigan is the most important rivalry now. It is and always will be a grand spectacle. But until Ohio and Michigan become one state, Alabama and Auburn will be the best rivalry in college football.
That's a question I've been answering from Sooners fans ever since I projected that Oklahoma will get to the Orange Bowl. Here's what I think will happen:
The Ohio State-Michigan loser will get one at-large bid.
Boise State will get one at-large bid because it will finish ahead of the ACC champion in the final BCS standings.
Notre Dame will get one because it will finish no worse than 10-2 and because it is, well, Notre Dame.
That leaves one bid, with the most likely candidates being a two-loss team from the SEC, the Big East runner-up, and Oklahoma.
If Florida is 10-2, it will be coming off a loss in the SEC Championship Game after a string of uninspiring victories.
If Arkansas is 10-2, it will be after a loss to Florida.
That leaves the Big East runner-up. Does it take Rutgers at 11-1, which would mean it ended the season with a loss? Does it take a 10-2 West Virginia team after a loss to Rutgers? Does it take 11-1 Louisville?
LSU at 10-2 would be a threat to a 10-2 Oklahoma, but as hot as Arkansas is, I don't think LSU will beat the Razorbacks in Little Rock.
Louisville is the biggest threat to my Sooners theory. The Cardinal fans will travel, which might be important to a bowl with a Wake Forest as its host team. But Oklahoma with a seven-game winning streak and a healthy Adrian Peterson would be awfully enticing.
It has been obvious to everyone but the Florida State head coach that he needed a change at the top of his offense. Bowden, who skirted the state nepotism rules in order to hire his son Jeff as offensive coordinator, ended up proving why the rule exists.
Jeff Bowden resigned Tuesday in the wake of Wake. The Seminoles' 30-0 loss at home to Wake Forest, the first shutout loss for Bobby Bowden in 31 seasons in Tallahassee, made the son realize he had to do this for the good of the team and for the good of his father.
Bobby's response to Jeff's resignation Tuesday came from his heart. The response came from the father, not the head coach.
"I am disappointed in Jeff's decision," Bobby said in a statement released by the athletic department. "I tried my best to encourage him to stay the course, but he was firm in his belief that it is time to move on. This is a big loss to me personally. I would hope that everyone understands that his decision is an emotional one for me and for that reason I'm not going to discuss it any further at this time."
This from Bobby Bowden, who will discuss anything at anytime with anyone, who has lost Wide Right I, Wide Right II, Wide Left and assorted other games to archrival Miami, who is renowned for the perspective he brings to a competitive game. Bobby Bowden is renowned for being a family man, He proved it with his feral defense of his son as the Seminole offense sputtered.
Jeff Bowden has moved on, effective end of the season. We will watch closely to see how long it takes Bobby Bowden to move on from this heartbreak.
Davey O'Brien quit the NFL after two seasons to join the FBI.
Randy Moss once bumped a traffic control officer with his car.
Doak Walker so captivated his hometown university, SMU, that the Cotton Bowl had to be expanded twice during his career.
Randy Moss lost scholarships at both Notre Dame and Florida State because of his conduct before settling at Marshall.
Ronnie Lott is a player honored by a California foundation for his IMPACT -- Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.
Randy Moss once pretended to pull down his uniform pants and moon an NFL crowd.
Vince Lombardi had signs posted in his Green Bay locker room, "Anything is ours, provided we are willing to pay the price."
Randy Moss once left the field with :02 to play in an NFL game.
What do O'Brien, Walker, Lott, Lombardi and Moss have in common? As of this week, each has a college football award named after him. The Randy Moss Return Award will be given to the best kick returner in college football.
And if I won it, I would return it.
The Arizona offense?
The reason that Arizona has begun to show some life is that its offense has begun to show some life. The reason it took this long for the offense to show some life, coach Mike Stoops said, boiled down to this: The Wildcats needed the second month of the season to recover from the first month.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Willie Tuitama and the Wildcats are back on track.
Last January, when I bumped into Stoops at the American Football Coaches Association convention, he said he was worried about whether his team would survive playing BYU, at LSU and USC in its first four games.
Stoops' premonition proved accurate. Those teams are a combined 24-5. Arizona beat BYU, 16-13, in the season opener. Not only did the Wildcats lose to both LSU (45-3) and USC (20-3), they lost three of their next four after the Trojans.
"It takes a lot out of you," Stoops said Tuesday. "We have to play so damn hard every time we step on the field. It takes a lot out of you emotionally and physically. It took a while for us to regain our composure."
Sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama suffered two concussions in the first six weeks. After the sixth game, a 27-7 loss to UCLA that dropped Arizona to 2-4, Stoops took control of the running game away from offensive coordinator Mike Canales and gave it to assistant coach Dana Dimel, the former head coach at Wyoming and Houston.
"We couldn't protect the quarterback with our protections and we weren't protecting him with our run game," Stoops said. "I just said, 'That's enough.'"
Tuitama missed the next two games, and Dimel began to rework the offense. When Tuitama returned, Arizona won at Washington State and, last week, scored a stunning upset over California. The Wildcats have rushed for a total of 176 yards in the two games, but considering that, excluding I-AA Stephen F. Austin and I-B Stanford, Arizona had rushed for a total of 88 in its other six games, that's an improvement.
"We've got the fifth-hardest schedule in the country," Stoops said. "Willie took some tough hits early. It was scary. It was scary for him the first game back [against Washington State]. Once he gets in there, he gets into the flow of the game. These two games have really helped his confidence."
The Wildcats (5-5) need a victory either at Oregon or against archrival Arizona State to qualify for a bowl. With seven freshman or sophomore starters on the offense, next season is promising.
"You know what it's like for a freshman offensive lineman to go against a senior defensive lineman? It's ridiculous," Stoops said.
He is 11-19 in three seasons in Tucson. He's got his turn signal on, and the corner seems closer than ever.
"It's been the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with, except for the death of my father," Stoops said. "For the first time, we're making improvement. How many times can you tell people, 'We're close.'? Our kids know we are close. They kept fighting their way through it. You look at Mississippi, Mississippi State, Illinois. We're all going through the same process. It's an ugly process."
Good news: LSU rotates off the schedule. New Mexico comes on in 2007. If you're looking for a dark horse
Jarett Dillard didn't go to Rice expecting to catch 71 passes in one season. When Dillard signed with former Owls coach Ken Hatfield nearly three years ago, the best Dillard could hope for was to be the lead receiver in an option offense, which is like being the lead banjo player in a symphony orchestra. They just don't call on you that much.
Jeff Lewis/US PRESSWIRE
Jarrett Dillard leads Div. I-A receivers with 16 TD catches in 2006.
Dillard went to Rice anyway. He finished first in his class at Sam Houston High in San Antonio. He knew his way around a library. But that's not the main reason that Dillard went to Rice, either.
Dillard went to Rice because no other Division I-A school offered him a scholarship.
"In high school, believe it or not, I was a basketball player," said Dillard, who's listed at 5-foot-11, 160. "I just played football because it was something to do in the fall. In my junior and senior year, I started liking football more. Basketball started getting so repetitious. I played it every day. I found I had more passion for football."
He decided he would rather play receiver in an option offense than play at I-AA Stephen F. Austin or Sam Houston State, or take academic scholarships at Division III Wabash, or take a basketball scholarship at Liberty or Colgate.
Now, Dillard leads I-A with 16 touchdown catches, four more than any other receiver, and ranks fifth in catches per game (7.1). Naturally. If Brady Quinn of Notre Dame is the quarterback who benefited the most from a head coaching change, Dillard might be his receiver.
Dillard redshirted in 2004. He caught 35 passes as a freshman in Hatfield's offense last season, the most any receiver caught for Hatfield in 12 seasons. But the Owls went 1-10. Hatfield retired, and Rice hired Todd Graham, who brought with him the spread offense.
"When I met with [offensive coordinator] Coach [Major] Applewhite, and [receivers] Coach [David] Beaty, one of them said, 'Hey, you might catch 80 passes,'" Dillard said. "I was sure they were embellishing. Eighty balls is more than anyone has seen."
With at least two games remaining, he is on a pace to catch 85 passes, and that doesn't include a possible bowl game. Rice is 5-5 with East Carolina and SMU remaining.
"It's just like hitting the lottery," Dillard said the other day. "I wouldn't want to change places with any other receiver."
He might look the size of your typical political science major, but in uniform, Dillard is coming up big.
New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Jim Kleinpeter dropped Oklahoma from No. 15 to No. 24 in the Associated Press poll this week because he had been told in the press box in Baton Rouge on Saturday night that Texas Tech beat the Sooners. In fact, Oklahoma won, 34-24.
Kleinpeter also voted Auburn No. 8 in this week's poll because he thought Auburn had beaten Georgia, 37-15. ESPN.com is reporting that the Bulldogs won by that same score.
My memory of voting for 17 seasons in the AP poll prevents me from ripping Kleinpeter. I made my share of errors, cloaked in the anonymity of 60-odd voters, that I corrected the following week. Kleinpeter told the Tulsa World that he made a honest mistake (which one?) and would correct it this Sunday.
Presumably, that's following the showdown between No. 1 USC and No. 2 California.
Editor's note: Every week, Ivan Maisel will explain how to perform a task integral to college football. It might happen on the field. It might happen on the sideline. It might have to do with tradition, or preparation, or the band, or the managers. But you'll go inside the sport as you never have before. Here goes:
It is one of the bread-and-butter plays of organized football. The offense needs a yard. The defense knows the play is coming. The offense knows the defense knows. And yet the offense pushes ahead -- literally.
"First of all, some people will not run a quarterback sneak," said Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "The pressure for the center to get movement when he's covered (has a defender directly in front of him) and get the ball up to the quarterback is tough." Texas believes in it. The Longhorns scored once and got two first downs on sneaks in the 45-42 loss at Kansas State. They also lost a quarterback. Freshman Colt McCoy suffered a shoulder stinger in the goal-line pileup on his first-quarter touchdown. No one has given any indication that McCoy won't be available for the Longhorns' game against Texas A&M on Nov. 24.
"The first thing we want to do with the offensive line is we want to form an apex with the center," Davis said. "If the center is not covered, we're going to apex to the nearest 'shade'; that is, rather than have the center go straight ahead, which might create a crease for the defense, if the defender is lined up on the center's shoulder pad, the center will step to that guy."
After that, as far as the line is concerned, it's like every other play.
"There are a lot of bodies around the ball," Davis said. "Low man wins. We're trying to root them out. We have a drill with the offensive line. We lay the big tackling dummies down [so that] they're a foot, a foot-and-a-half off the ground. We try to tell our linemen to get their pads down and move those dummies, instead of being submarined."
The quarterback's first job after taking the snap is not to surge forward. It is to wait.
"Just a slight hesitation," Davis said, "so that the surge gets ahead of you. Then you create another surge when you hit. Vince [Young], being 6-foot-5, would let the surge begin and then jump. Depending on where the linebackers are, that could be effective, if you're 6-5 and have springs for legs. We want most guys to get down, protect the ball and force the surge."
Some offenses will use three tight ends and bet on power. Others will empty their backfield to force some of the linebackers out of the box. If the linebackers stay inside, that leaves the possibility of a home-run play, even if it's fourth-and-one. That takes guts but then the entire play takes guts. A sneak opens up a quarterback to get hit, and every offensive coach is reluctant to allow that to happen.
"There's a lot going on during the play, and immediately after the play," Davis said.
1. Troy Smith, Ohio State, QB: Nineteen attempts, four touchdown passes versus Northwestern. That's good work.
2. Brady Quinn, Notre Dame QB: If the Michigan defense does to Smith what it did to Quinn, then Quinn has a shot.
3. Darren McFadden, Arkansas, RB: After a slow start to the season, he gets better every week. If he puts up big numbers against LSU, watch out.
4. Colt Brennan, Hawaii, QB: He leads the nation in passing efficiency and has 43 touchdown passes in nine games. He needs 12 more in the last four games to set the I-A single-season record.
5. John Beck, BYU, QB: The first BYU quarterback in a long time to throw like, well, a BYU quarterback.
1. Ohio State (1 last week): In seven Big Ten games, the Buckeyes have trailed for a total of 10 minutes, 58 seconds.
2. Michigan (2): If the Wolverines play at Columbus as well as they played at Bloomington, Ohio State will need its A game.
3. USC (9): Despite the problems of this season, the Trojans are on the verge of entering the Promised Land again.
4. Arkansas (5): Forget the polls. It's hard to argue with the idea that this is the best team in the SEC.
5. Rutgers (16): The Scarlet Knights must come down from the emotional high of a lifetime to play at Cincinnati, a hard-nosed defensive team.
6. Florida (7): The Gators' last three victories, against unranked teams, have been by a combined total of 14 points.
7. Notre Dame (11): The Irish might not be playing anyone, but they're winning those games by the appropriate margins. That UCLA victory is looking better, too.
8. Wake Forest (NR): Its schedule might look soft, but no other team has gone into Tallahassee and shut out a Bobby Bowden team, much less win 30-0.
9. Louisville (4): Don't you think Bobby Petrino is still lying awake at 4 a.m. thinking, "We were 8-0, No. 3, and had an 18-point lead. What happened?"
10. West Virginia (10): The Mountaineers dominated an underrated Cincinnati team. Don't forget, that Rutgers game in is Morgantown.
11. LSU (12): Only the Tigers can catch Arkansas in the SEC West.
12. Wisconsin (14): The Badgers win at Iowa with backup quarterback Tyler Donovan. They have to make sure that they pay attention in the season-ender against Buffalo.
13. Texas (3): OK, so Jevan Snead is young and not as polished as Colt McCoy. But in the last two road games, the Longhorns' defense has allowed a total of 76 points.
14. Oklahoma (NR): Bob Stoops might have won a national championship but this has been his best coaching performance.
15. Boise State (15): The Broncos survived a tough game against the San Jose State defense. As long as the ACC leaders struggle, Boise State will make it to the BCS.
16. Georgia Tech (NR): The Yellow Jackets' last four victories have been by 4, 7, 8 and 7 points. Let's hear it for defense.
No. 2 Michigan at No. 1 Ohio State
Saturday, 3:30 p.m ET, ABC
Their records are the same. Their goal is the same. Shoot, even the players are the same.
"We're almost looking at each other in the eye," Michigan quarterback Chad Henne said Monday. "The same players are almost on opposing sides. We're going to have to show our best."
Make sure you watch when Ohio State has the ball.
"You're really impressed with the talent that Michigan has on defense and how they play," Minnesota head coach Glen Mason said. "It's the opposite on offense. You look at Ohio State and you're really impressed with their talent and how they play."
There are a lot of reasons to like Michigan. The defense is fast and aggressive. No defense has allowed as few as 29.9 rushing yards per game in a season since Syracuse allowed 19.3 yards per game in its national championship season of 1959. Lloyd Carr was 14 years old that season.
"The whole Michigan team is playing with a purpose," Mason said.
Only a defense this good can corral Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. That's a guess, both because the Ohio State quarterback hasn't been stopped as a passer this season, which means he hasn't needed to run. That threat remains there, and it might make all the difference for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Smith has great options available to him. He could find boyhood friend Ted Ginn Jr. in his sleep, and the other reason, Anthony Gonzalez, is "the unsung hero" of the Buckeyes, according to Mason. "He has made more plays in clutch situations than any 10 guys."
Ohio State's soft schedule might be a concern, but when hasn't coach Jim Tressel had a team ready to play? Michigan's injuries have healed. Wide receiver Mario Manningham is ready to stretch defenses again and linebacker Prescott Burgess is expected to play.
Ohio State will have a big advantage playing at Ohio Stadium -- home of the meanest fans in the Big Ten, and the loudest.
For the entire season, Ohio State has been ranked at the top. The Buckeyes have won 18 consecutive games. They have not been challenged. Michigan is relishing its standing as the underdog. There aren't many people outside of the maize and blue who believe the Wolverines will win. The conventional wisdom is that Tressel will raise his record against Carr to 5-1.
But in a season when Wake Forest and Rutgers are the class of their leagues, when Miami and Florida State are both mediocre, what does conventional wisdom know? I have thought from the first week of the season that Ohio State is the best team in the nation. But I think Michigan is onto something with its "Cinderella Man" persona. And there's another reason to pick Michigan. Whenever something can go wrong for the BCS, it does. Ohio State with one loss could throw the BCS into controversy. Buckle your seat belts.
No. 15 Auburn at Alabama
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
The "One for the Thumb" T-shirts have been worn by Auburn fans all year. The Tigers have won four straight from the Crimson Tide, and they are favored to win again, even though the game will be played at Bryant-Denny Stadium, even though the Tigers are coming off a 37-15 home loss to Georgia.
That might have been coach Tommy Tuberville's gift to Alabama coach Mike Shula. It is Tub's turn to get roasted on the talk shows, which takes Shula off the spit for the first time in weeks.
Despite all of that, Auburn still has a way to go before it reaches the low place occupied by its archrival. Alabama has been the picture of mediocrity this season. Of the six teams that the Tide has beaten, five have combined for a total of nine victories. Of the five teams that have beaten Alabama, four are ranked. In short, no surprises, and an Alabama victory against Auburn would be a surprise.
Auburn's strength has been its defense, which bodes well for Saturday. Alabama has struggled on offense. Check that. Alabama has struggled on offense only on the scoreboard. The Tide is third in the SEC in first downs per game (19.2), second in the SEC in turnover margin (plus-11), first in the SEC in time of possession (32:18) and tied for last in the SEC in lowest percentage of touchdowns in the red zone (.348).
The Auburn offensive line has been a patchwork all season, and Georgia took advantage of that last week, forcing Brandon Cox to throw three first-half interceptions. But Alabama might not be able to take advantage of that. The Tide is last in the conference in sacks, having only 10 in 11 games (Ole Miss has 10 in 10 games).
Alabama has played hard all season, which makes its struggles all the more frustrating for its fans. But playing hard will be an improvement over its performance in the Iron Bowl last season, when an Alabama team deflated by its overtime loss to LSU the previous week failed to show up. Auburn has the better team, and T-shirts saying, "One for the Other Hand" should be on sale next week.
No. 17 Cal at No. 4 USC
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
It all seemed so promising. Cal overcame its season-opening nightmare at Tennessee and reeled off eight consecutive victories. USC didn't look like its old self. Cal kept winning. USC lost at Oregon State, and looked bad doing it. Cal had one foot in the Rose Bowl. Cal had only to win at Arizona before it went to Los Angeles to take on the Trojans.
Not only did the Bears falter, losing to the Wildcats, 24-20, but the Trojans played with their customary flair and dominance in defeating Oregon, 35-10.
The game we had in mind disappeared. Instead, we're back where we've been for the last three seasons. It's late November, and USC is one victory away from clinching the Pac-10 championship. Yes, Cal still goes to the Rose Bowl if it wins, but it's hard to leap over the hurdle when you stumble on the previous step.
California will win if it finds a way to slow down the USC offense. Cal also has picked off 20 passes. That's important because USC sophomore John David Booty still can make the occasional boneheaded throw. The Bears have a balanced offense and a decided edge in special teams, especially with DeSean Jackson, the nation's leader in punt returns ( 20.7-yard average, four touchdowns).
But the sheen has dulled on this one. USC has won 31 consecutive home games, which attests to the very un-L.A.-like intimidation in a sold-out, 92,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC should be comfortable and should pull out to victory in the second half. All those new Cal fans in South Bend, Gainesville and New Jersey will have gotten their hope up for nothing.