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Monday, November 12, 2007
Weighing the pros and cons of the title contenders

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

It must have been the seven-day layoff. How else to explain No. 1 Ohio State's losing 28-21 to unranked Illinois and No. 12 Michigan's losing at unranked Wisconsin 37-21 on Saturday?

At least we won't have to hear about a 50-day layoff before the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game in the Louisiana Superdome.

Ohio State's chances to be in New Orleans were all but eliminated with its loss.

The Buckeyes were exposed by the Illini as yet another BCS title pretender. Ohio State's loss leaves six teams fighting for two spots in the national championship game. The winners won't be decided until Dec. 2, the day after conference championship games and state rivalries determine the top two teams in the final BCS standings.

Here's a closer look at the six teams left in the hunt for the 2007 national championship:

1. LSU (9-1, 5-1 SEC)

Pros: The Tigers have already beaten five opponents that were ranked at the time they played: No. 9 Virginia Tech, No. 12 South Carolina, No. 9 Florida, No. 17 Auburn and No. 17 Alabama. LSU already has secured a spot in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome by winning the SEC West and should be an overwhelming favorite against the SEC East winner.

Cons: Unlike Oregon and West Virginia, the Tigers will have to play in a conference championship game. LSU should be a heavy favorite in its last two regular-season games: at Ole Miss on Saturday and against Arkansas on Nov. 23. LSU had to win its share of close games, with four games decided by seven points or fewer. LSU beat the Gators by four points, Auburn by six and Alabama by seven. The Tigers lost to then-No. 17 Kentucky 43-37 on Oct. 13. A 12-point victory over South Carolina and the win over the Crimson Tide aren't as impressive as they were when the games were played.

2. Oregon (8-1, 5-1 Pac-10)

Pros: The Ducks are as explosive as any team in the country, scoring at least 24 points in each of their nine games. Quarterback Dennis Dixon might now be the Heisman Trophy favorite. The Ducks seemingly have the easiest path among the BCS title contenders in winning out with three unranked opponents left to play. Oregon plays at Arizona on Thursday night, then travels to UCLA on Nov. 24 and hosts rival Oregon State on Dec. 1.

Cons: The three-game finish is hardly daunting and doesn't give Oregon much of a chance to really make a statement to voters. The Ducks have to win each of those games by a sizable margin. They have beaten only two ranked opponents: 24-17 over No. 12 Southern California and 35-23 over No. 4 Arizona State. They lost to then-No. 6 California 31-24 in Eugene, Ore., on Sept. 9. Oregon has suffered its share of injuries, losing receivers Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin and tailback Jeremiah Johnson, but the Ducks have been able to mask those personnel losses so far.

3. Kansas (10-0, 6-0 Big 12)

Pros: Kansas and Hawaii are the only unbeaten teams left in Division I-A. Everyone keeps waiting for the Jayhawks to lose, but they keep winning. Kansas blew out Nebraska 76-39 and won at Oklahoma State 43-28 in its last two games. If the Jayhawks win three more times -- they play Iowa State on Saturday, No. 5 Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Nov. 24 and possibly Oklahoma in the Dec. 1 Big 12 championship game -- they'll have a strong argument for a chance to play in the BCS title game.

Cons: You can't punish Kansas for its Big 12 schedule -- the Jayhawks don't play Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech during the regular season -- but you can penalize them for their soft nonconference slate. Kansas played non-league games against Central Michigan, Division I-AA Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International. The Jayhawks have beaten only two teams with winning records: 6-4 Central Michigan and 6-5 Texas A&M. A 30-24 win at Kansas State doesn't seem as impressive after the Wildcats lost consecutive games to Iowa State and Nebraska.

4. Oklahoma (9-1, 5-1 Big 12)

Pros: It's hard to believe the Sooners are flying under the radar nationally, but that might be the case. Since losing at Colorado 27-24 on Sept. 29, Oklahoma has won five games in a row. The Sooners beat then-No. 19 Texas 28-21 and then-No. 11 Missouri 41-31. The Longhorns and Tigers proceeded to keep winning games.

Cons: Oklahoma faces one of the more difficult paths in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Sooners play at dangerous Texas Tech on Saturday night, then host rival Oklahoma State on Nov. 24. If Oklahoma wins one of those games, it will face either No. 3 Kansas or No. 5 Missouri in the Big 12 championship game. The Sooners have the most unsightly loss among the BCS contenders, to Colorado, which has lost four of its last five games, including a 31-28 defeat at Iowa State on Saturday.

5. Missouri (9-1, 5-1 Big 12)

Pros: The Tigers might have a couple of chances to make big impressions during the next three weeks. Missouri plays at Kansas State on Saturday and then plays No. 3 Kansas in Kansas City on Nov. 24. If Missouri wins those two games, it would probably face No. 4 Oklahoma in the Dec. 1 Big 12 championship game.

Cons: Missouri's résumé doesn't have as much substance as some of the other BCS title contenders. The Tigers beat Illinois 40-34 in the season opener, but beat only two ranked opponents: then-No. 25 Nebraska and then-No. 24 Texas Tech. Each of those schools has struggled mightily down the stretch. Missouri didn't play Texas and lost to Oklahoma 41-31. The win over Illinois looks pretty impressive now, but the Tigers' other three nonconference opponents -- Ole Miss, Western Michigan and Division I-AA Illinois State -- have a combined record of 10-21.

6. West Virginia (8-1, 3-1 Big East)

Pros: This might be coach Rich Rodriguez's most balanced team at West Virginia. The Mountaineers are still very explosive on offense with quarterback Pat White and tailbacks Steve Slaton and Noel Devine. But the West Virginia defense has teeth, too. The Mountaineers rank No. 10 in scoring offense with 40.4 points per game and ninth in scoring defense, allowing only 16.7 points per game. They face two ranked opponents during the last three weeks: at No. 22 Cincinnati on Saturday night and against No. 24 Connecticut on Nov. 24.

Cons: The Mountaineers would have been a serious BCS contender last year, when the Big East was much stronger. But with Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida struggling this season, West Virginia had no room for error. The Mountaineers lost at South Florida 21-13 on Sept. 28. West Virginia's nonconference schedule wasn't terrible -- the Mountaineers beat possible bowl participants Maryland, East Carolina and Mississippi State -- but its résumé lacks a marquee victory.

On (and Off) the Mark

On the Mark
Paul Smith
Paul Smith has thrown for nearly 3,500 yards this season.
Points producers. These players scored points on Saturday as quickly as South Carolina's defense surrenders them. Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith threw for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a 56-7 win over Houston. Rice quarterback Chase Clement threw for 364 yards and two scores and ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns in a 43-42 win over SMU. Mustangs quarterback Justin Willis threw for 165 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 69 yards and one score in the loss to the Owls. Texas quarterback Colt McCoy passed for 268 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two scores in a 59-43 victory over Texas Tech. Red Raiders quarterback Graham Harrell threw for 466 yards and five touchdowns in the loss to the Longhorns. North Texas quarterback Giovanni Vizza completed 40 of 50 passes for 478 yards and eight touchdowns in a 74-62 loss to Navy. Mean Green receiver Casey Fitzgerald caught 13 passes for 134 yards and five scores in the same game. Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz completed 30 of 40 passes for 510 yards and seven touchdowns in a 73-31 rout of Kansas State. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow ran for 120 yards and five touchdowns and threw for 304 yards and two scores in a 51-31 blowout at South Carolina. Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns and ran for one score in a 44-10 win over Wake Forest.

(Off) the Mark
Miami officials plan to demolish the Orange Bowl after this season, once the Hurricanes move their games to Dolphin Stadium beginning in 2008. City officials might not have a choice now. The area might be condemned for toxic poisoning from the remnants of Miami's last game in the storied 70-year-old stadium, a 48-0 loss to No. 19 Virginia on Saturday night.

It was the Hurricanes' first shutout loss at home since Oct. 4, 1974 and their worst defeat since a 66-13 loss at Syracuse in November 1998.

Miami officials also plan to sale salvageable parts of the Orange Bowl as sports memorabilia. They can start with Miami's guts and heart. The Hurricanes must have left them in the locker room, because they sure didn't take them onto the field.

On the Mark
Chauncey Washington
Chauncey Washington's 220 yards rushing against Cal were a career high.
Clock-eating tailbacks. Rutgers' Ray Rice (34 carries for 243 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-6 victory at Army). Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton (33 carries for 141 yards and one score in a 31-28 win over Indiana). North Carolina State's Jamelle Eugene (32 attempts for 159 yards and three scores in a 31-27 victory over North Carolina). South Florida's Mike Ford (28 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-10 rout over Syracuse). Penn State's Rodney Kinlaw (27 carries for 168 yards and one touchdown in a 31-0 shutout of Temple). Wisconsin's Zach Brown (27 carries for 108 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-21 upset of Michigan). Iowa State's Alexander Robinson (29 attempts for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-28 victory over Colorado). Missouri's Tony Temple (22 runs for 141 yards and one touchdown in a 40-26 victory over Texas A&M). Nebraska's Marlon Lucky (16 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns in the rout of Kansas State). Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice (24 carries for 170 yards and two scores in a 41-24 win at Duke). Air Force's Chad Hall (32 carries for 142 yards in a 41-24 win at Notre Dame). Boise State's Ian Johnson (19 carries for 110 yards and one score in a 52-0 rout of Utah State). Georgia's Knowshon Moreno (22 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-20 win over Auburn). Arizona State's Keegan Herring (22 carries for 116 yards and one touchdown in a 24-20 win over UCLA). Texas' Jamaal Charles (23 attempts for 174 yards and one score against Texas Tech). Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray (13 carries for 95 yards and three scores and a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown). Virginia's Mikell Simpson (22 attempts for 93 yards and two touchdowns at Miami). Tulane's Matt Forte (38 carries for 171 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-19 win over UTEP). Central Florida's Kevin Smith (41 carries for 320 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-31 victory at UAB). USC's Chauncey Washington (29 carries for 220 yards and one touchdown in a 24-17 win at California). Cal's Justin Forsett (31 attempts for 164 yards and one score in the loss to the Trojans). Maryland's Lance Ball (32 attempts for 109 yards and one score in a 42-35 upset of Boston College). Kansas' Brandon McAnderson (25 runs for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a 43-28 win at Oklahoma State). Oregon State's Yvenson Bernard (36 carries for 149 yards in a 29-23 win over Washington).

(Off) the Mark
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier led Florida to the 1996 national championship and won six SEC titles as coach of his alma mater. This season, Spurrier sits in the captain's chair of one of the worst collapses in recent SEC history.

Less than a month ago, the Gamecocks were 6-1 and ranked sixth in the country. Now they've lost four games in a row and are in danger of being left out of a bowl game if they don't beat No. 15 Clemson on Nov. 24. If South Carolina doesn't beat the Tigers, it will finish 6-6. It is Spurrier's first four-game losing streak since his first season as a college coach at Duke in 1987.

South Carolina's defense has allowed a whopping 1,188 yards and 99 points in its last two games.

"Whatever we're doing the last couple of weeks hasn't worked very well," Spurrier said. "I'm responsible for the defense. I am the head coach. My style of coaching has really always been run the offense, hire somebody and let him do the defense. You can't run both sides of the ball. But I'm going to try to take more of an active role in watching defensive practice."

On the Mark
Big-play quarterbacks. BYU's Max Hall (26-for-44 for 305 yards with one touchdown in a 27-22 win over TCU). West Virginia's Pat White (16-for-25 for 181 yards and two touchdowns and one touchdown run in a 38-31 win over Louisville). South Florida's Matt Grothe (15-for-22 for 181 yards and two touchdowns and 73 rushing yards and one score in the rout of Syracuse). Penn State's Anthony Morelli (22-for-33 for 260 yards with three scores in the shutout of Temple). Michigan State's Brian Hoyer (22-for-31 for 266 yards with two touchdowns in a 48-31 win over Purdue). Missouri's Chase Daniel (27-for-35 for 352 yards with three scores against Texas A&M). Boise State's Taylor Tharp (26-for-29 for 283 yards with two touchdowns against Utah State). Georgia's Matthew Stafford (11-for-19 for 237 yards with two touchdowns versus Auburn). Illinois' Juice Williams (12-for-22 for 140 yards with four touchdowns and 70 rushing yards in the upset of Ohio State). Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor (10-for-15 for 204 yards and two touchdowns and 92 rushing yards and one score in a 40-21 win over Florida State). Cincinnati's Ben Mauk (21-for-33 for 276 yards and three scores in a 27-3 upset of Connecticut). Washington State's Alex Brink (32-for-47 for 449 yards with one score in a 33-17 win over Stanford). Marshall's Bernard Morris (24-for-32 for 238 yards with two touchdowns and 126 rushing yards and one score in a 26-7 upset of East Carolina). Memphis' Martin Hankins (35-for-48 for 396 yards with four touchdowns in a 29-26 upset of Southern Miss). Virginia's Jameel Sewell (20-for-25 for 288 yards with one touchdown and one scoring run in the win at Miami). Maryland's Chris Turner (21-for-27 for 337 yards with three touchdowns in the victory over Boston College). Kansas' Todd Reesing (27-for-40 for 308 yards with three touchdowns versus Oklahoma State). Hawaii's Colt Brennan (28-for-39 for 396 yards with two touchdowns in a 37-30 win over Fresno State).

(Off) the Mark
Jamaal Charles
The Texas Tech defense has not had good showings against the Big 12's better teams this season.
On the Mark is all for college football coaches being candid. It makes our jobs easier. But we're all for accountability, too. After Texas Tech's defense once again pulled a no-show against a powerful opponent, Red Raiders coach Mike Leach blasted Big 12 officials after his team's 59-43 loss to the Longhorns.

Leach was upset about a sequence during the third quarter, in which the Red Raiders had a long catch reversed by instant replay. Then Texas Tech had a touchdown catch wiped out by replay and another touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. Leach was upset the Longhorns weren't called for roughing the quarterback on the last play.

"Unless this can change, the Big 12 Conference needs to take a serious look at having out-of-conference officials officiate the Texas-Texas Tech games and perhaps other games where there is proven to be a bias by officiating," Leach said. "It's unfortunate, and does the bowl picture enter into it? I don't know. Does the money enter into it? I don't know.

"Am I condemning the crew? Hell, yeah, I'm condemning the crew."

Leach might want to start by condemning his defense. The Red Raiders allowed 49 points to Oklahoma State, 41 to Missouri, 31 to Colorado and 59 to Texas, all losses.

On the Mark
Game-changing receivers. Akron's Jabari Arthur (eight catches for 129 yards and one score in a 48-37 win over Ohio). Wisconsin's Paul Hubbard (seven catches for 134 yards in the upset of Michigan). Michigan's Mario Manningham (three receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to the Badgers). Michigan State's Devin Thomas (10 catches for 116 yards in the win at Purdue). Iowa State's Todd Blythe (four catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns versus Colorado). Missouri's Jeremy Maclin (five receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns against Texas A&M). Nebraska's Maurice Purify (six catches for 108 yards versus Kansas State). Rice's Jarett Dillard (13 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns in the win over SMU). Georgia's Sean Bailey (four catches for 96 yards and one score versus Auburn). Arizona State's Chris McGaha (nine catches for 123 yards against UCLA). Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree (nine catches for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Texas). Virginia Tech's Justin Harper (five receptions for 167 yards and one score in the win over the Seminoles). Cincinnati's Dominick Goodman (eight catches for 127 yards and one score versus the Huskies). San Jose State's Kevin Jurovich (10 catches for 233 yards and two scores in a 51-17 rout of New Mexico State). Washington State's Brandon Gibson (seven catches for 153 yards against Stanford). Oklahoma's Manuel Johnson (four catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns against Baylor). Tulane's Jeremy Williams (eight receptions for 188 yards and two scores versus UTEP). Florida's Andre Caldwell (11 catches for 148 yards and one score against South Carolina). Boston College's Ryan Purvis (10 catches for 102 yards and two scores in the loss to Maryland). Kansas' Marcus Henry (eight catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns at Oklahoma State). Hawaii's Ryan Grice-Mullen (nine catches for 128 yards) and Davone Bess (nine catches for 98 yards and one score against Fresno State).

(Off) the Mark
Coaches on the hot seat. Michigan's Lloyd Carr. Syracuse's Greg Robinson. Texas A&M's Dennis Franchione. Nebraska's Bill Callahan. Duke's Ted Roof. Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey. UCLA's Karl Dorrell. Baylor's Guy Morriss. Marshall's Mark Snyder. Kent State's Doug Martin. Colorado State's Sonny Lubick. UNLV's Mike Sanford. Washington's Tyrone Willingham. Washington State's Bill Doba. Ole Miss' Ed Orgeron. Arkansas' Houston Nutt.

On the Mark
Jimmy Clausen
Jimmy Clausen's three touchdown passes against Air Force were a small bright spot in the Irish's loss.
Central Michigan's comeback. West Virginia quarterback Pat White's touchdown run. Clemson running back C.J. Spiller's kickoff return. Iowa State's comeback. Mississippi State cornerback Anthony Johnson's interception return. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen's three touchdowns. New Mexico kicker John Sullivan's game-winner at the horn. Ron Zook. Sylvester Croom. Memphis' big win. Marshall's upset win. Virginia's defense. Navy's offense. Georgia in black. Mississippi State bowl eligible. Tennessee's resolve. NC State's turnaround.

Off the Mark
Alabama quarterbacks (the Tide's John Parker Wilson and Auburn's Brandon Cox). Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman's interceptions. Kansas State. Arkansas' offense. Miami quarterback Kyle Wright. The Big Ten. Boston College's defense. 1-10 Minnesota. 1-9 Notre Dame. 0-9 Florida International. 0-10 Utah State.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.