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November 3, 2010

Games, players that will shape the BCS title race

The race for the national championship now enters its stretch run with the "high five" -- unbeatens Oregon, Auburn, Boise State, TCU and Utah -- leading the way.

But the quintet should have that uneasy feeling that comes when someone is looking over your shoulder. That's because one-loss teams Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Arizona are breathing down their necks, just waiting for those teams to stumble.

In one case, a one-loss team can actually cause the stumbling. Alabama looms on the schedule for Auburn, and that annual grudge match could ultimately decide the SEC champion and even which team plays for the national championship. Indeed, the always-intense Iron Bowl clash is the most compelling and anticipated game that remains, though Boise State still must visit Nevada (many have lost their shirts in Reno) and Arizona and Oregon State could spoil Oregon's championship dreams.

Arizona's bid to wrest the Pac-10 championship away from the Ducks will be boosted by the return of quarterback Nick Foles, though the Ducks figure to face Washington and California teams that will play without their starting quarterbacks.

Colorado is also without its starting quarterback and that's a blow for Buffaloes coach Dan Hawkins, who needs a strong showing in November to keep his job. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State's Dennis Erickson also are among a list of embattled coaches whose jobs are dependent on whether their teams finish strong or limp home.

The games you need to watch
Here are the three "must-see" games each weekend for the rest of the season.

Nov. 6
TCU at Utah: Potential BCS party-crashers likely settle the MWC championship, and they also can enhance their standing in the national championship picture.

Alabama at LSU: As if more motivation was needed than old-fashioned hate, this is a top-10 matchup of teams that still have hopes for the SEC title -- and more.

Stanford at Arizona: At the least, the winner keeps alive its chances of reaching a BCS bowl. Arizona has yet to play Oregon, so the Wildcats still have a legit shot at the Pac-10 title.

Nov. 13
South Carolina at Florida: If Florida wins at Vanderbilt this week, this game will decide the SEC East title. Steve Spurrier, who guided Florida to five SEC titles, is trying to lead South Carolina to its first.

Mississippi State at Alabama: Dan Mullen's surprising Bulldogs could be a spoiler for Alabama's championship aspirations.

Oregon at California: Schizophrenic Golden Bears are unbeaten at home and the Ducks have lost three in a row in Berkeley.

Nov. 20
Ohio State at Iowa: A share of the Big Ten title and possibly a BCS bowl should be at stake.

Wisconsin at Michigan: Wolverines QB Denard Robinson may be all that's standing between the Badgers and the Rose Bowl. And a win sure would help Rich Rodriguez's job security.

Oklahoma at Baylor: This could determine the Big 12 South champion. Seriously.

Nov. 27
Auburn at Alabama (on the 26th): Oh, my, as if the Iron Bowl isn't intense enough. The SEC West title and a spot in the national championship game could be at stake.

Boise State at Nevada (on the 26th): This contest in Reno is the biggest obstacle Boise must clear to notch another perfect season.

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State: It would be "bedlam" for real if these in-state rivals clash with the Big 12 South crown on the line.

Dec. 4
Oregon at Oregon State: The outcome of the always-intense "Civil War" could decide whether Oregon will be in the BCS national championship game.

Big 12 championship game: Probable North representative Nebraska hopes to leave the Big 12 as the champ. And the Huskers may even have national title hopes.

SEC championship game: The West has been the strongest division by far, leaving the East representative hoping to play spoiler and knock the West winner out of the national title picture.

The spotlight is on
Here are five guys who will help shape the BCS picture, listed alphabetically.

TCU QB Andy Dalton: TCU leads the nation in total defense and scoring defense, but the Horned Frogs' underrated offense has scored at least 27 points in each of their games this season. TCU relies more on its rushing attack than its passing game, but Dalton still is the guy who makes this offense go. He ranks 17th nationally in passing efficiency and must continue his steady play for TCU to remain unbeaten.

Baylor QB Robert Griffin: Boise State, TCU and Utah remain in the national title hunt, but this season's real Cinderella story is Baylor, which has come from nowhere to challenge for the Big 12 South title. Of all the ranked teams, perhaps none rely as heavily on one player as Baylor depends on Griffin. Baylor won't have any chance of beating Oklahoma State or Oklahoma unless Griffin is on his game.

Auburn DT Nick Fairley: The obvious Auburn pick is to go with QB Cam Newton, but we don't have any questions about what the Heisman front-runner can accomplish. Instead, Auburn's national title hopes rest on the improvement of its suspect defense. Fairley has performed as well as any defensive player in the nation, and he will have to keep that up.

Alabama WR Julio Jones: The former five-star prospect had a school-record 221 receiving yards against Tennessee in his last game. He lines up against Thorpe Award candidate Patrick Peterson of LSU this week and gets a chance to expose the holes in Auburn's secondary later this season. If Jones keeps playing as well as he did against Tennessee, he just might lead the Tide back to the BCS championship game.

Oregon WR Jeff Maehl: For the past several weeks, Maehl has given the Ducks a deep threat to complement their explosive rushing attack. Maehl caught eight passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns against USC last week. He has scored in six consecutive games, and he has at least eight catches and 107 receiving yards in three consecutive games. His continued emergence would make Oregon's offense that much tougher to stop.

Will coach for food
Here are five guys who will be coaching to try to save their jobs down the stretch, listed alphabetically.

Arizona State's Dennis Erickson: For what it's worth, A.D. Lisa Love has pledged her allegiance to Erickson. But after debuting with a 10-3 mark in 2007, Erickson has failed to deliver a winning record. Arizona State is 4-4 this season, but a rugged stretch run (at USC, vs. Stanford, vs. UCLA and at Arizona) will make a bowl push difficult. Plus, because the Sun Devils have two FCS victories, they have to win seven to become bowl-eligible. With Arizona continuing to rise, can Erickson survive a third non-bowl season in a row?

Colorado's Dan Hawkins: Many wonder why CU officials haven't already pulled the trigger on Hawkins' dreary five-year run, which hasn't produced a winning record. Regardless, it appears to be a mere formality for Hawkins, whose 3-5 team is in the midst of four-game skid. With Colorado moving into the Pac-10 next season, it's time for a fresh start all around.

New Mexico's Mike Locksley: The combination of some poor off-field decisions and a hideous won-loss record (1-19) may doom Locksley after just two seasons. Still, Locksley insists he will be back for a third season.

Michigan's Rich Rodriguez: The Wolverines started 5-0 but since have lost three in a row. Unless they pull some upsets, there looks like just one more win on the schedule, meaning a 6-6 record. That will get Michigan a bowl bid, but it doesn't figure to be enough to save Rodriguez, who is hurt even more by a looming NCAA probation.

Washington State's Paul Wulff: He's in Year Three, yet the progress isn't measurable. There's just no positive spin to put on a 4-30 record. And there's also that 1-23 Pac-10 mark.

Can he play or not?
Injuries or returns from injury that could shape the stretch run, with the players listed alphabetically.

South Carolina CB Chris Culliver: The Gamecocks' struggling pass defense took a big hit when Culliver, a senior, suffered a torn pectoral muscle; he may miss the rest of the season for the Gamecocks, who are close to their first SEC East title. Replacing Culliver will be junior C.C. Whitlock, who is backed up by a pair of former/current walk-ons. The injury could really sting this week against Arkansas, even though the Hogs will be without injured WR Greg Childs.

Arizona QB Nick Foles: The Wildcats suffered no drop-off with backup Matt Scott against Washington and UCLA, but the schedule gets much tougher in November. The Wildcats are hoping Foles will be ready for this weekend's road trip to Stanford, which just shut down Jake Locker and Washington. After the trip to Stanford, the Wildcats finish with USC, Oregon and Arizona State. They need Foles.

Miami QB Jacory Harris: Coach Randy Shannon declined to rule Harris out for this weekend's Maryland game, but reports indicate he almost certainly will not play against the Terrapins after suffering a concussion against Virginia. The Hurricanes already have two ACC losses (Coastal Division leader Virginia Tech is 4-0 in the league), so they can't afford to lose to Maryland, which is in the hunt in the Atlantic Division. Harris' backup is true freshman Stephen Morris, whose first career snaps came last week in the shocking loss to the Cavaliers.

Washington QB Jake Locker and California QB Kevin Riley: Does Oregon have any challengers in the Pac-10? At least two of the Ducks' future opponents will be without their starting quarterbacks. Washington already was a sizeable underdog in Eugene this week; then, it was announced Locker would miss the game with a rib injury. Riley, meanwhile, was carted off the field with a knee injury against Oregon State last week and could be out for the season.

Pittsburgh DE Greg Romeus: The Panthers' star defensive end returned from back surgery this week and could play in Pitt's next game, against Connecticut on Nov. 11. The Panthers are the lone undefeated team in the Big East. If they lose a conference game, it's possible -- maybe even probable -- that an eight-win team would represent the league in the BCS.

One but not done
Here's a look at the one-loss teams that still have hope --legitimate hope, in some cases -- that they can reach the national title game. They're listed from strongest chance to weakest chance -- and if a team isn't listed, that means it would take a miracle for that team to get to Glendale.

Alabama: Despite their one loss, the Tide are in good shape if they win out. They're sixth in the BCS standings this week, and they know one of the teams ahead of them (either TCU or Utah) definitely is going to lose this weekend. They also play host to Auburn on Nov. 26. To make things easier for the Tide, it sure would help if Oregon lost. But even if the Ducks win out, a one-loss Alabama team -- with late-season wins over LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, along with an SEC championship game victory over Florida or South Carolina -- would have a legitimate shot at passing an unbeaten Boise and an unbeaten Mountain West champ in the polls and in the computers, which would mean they could pass them in the BCS standings.

Nebraska/Oklahoma: We're grouping these together because these Big 12 rivals need the same things to happen. First, each needs to win out, which includes winning the Big 12 championship game; Oklahoma, especially, has some opponents that will boost the computer numbers. Second, each needs need Alabama and Auburn to lose -- and it wouldn't hurt if LSU lost, too. Finally, they also need Oregon to lose. The Huskers/Sooners could climb over some SEC teams, but it seems doubtful they'll have enough to get past Boise and an unbeaten Mountain West champ, which is why their best hope is a title-game matchup with one of those non-Big Six teams.

Wisconsin/Ohio State: They need a lot of help. They need the same scenario as the one laid out for Nebraska and Oklahoma -- but the Badgers and Buckeyes also need both the Huskers and Sooners to lose, too.

Arizona: The Wildcats are just 15th in the BCS standings, but they still have a shot at winning the Pac-10 title. If they do that, they will have beaten Stanford and Oregon; they also own a win over Iowa, which has a chance to tie for the Big Ten title. The Wildcats must win out and have the aforementioned teams on this list lose to move high enough in the BCS standings to play for the national title in their home state; their only chance to play for the national title would have to come against Boise or the Mountain West winner.

LSU: First, the Tigers have to win out, which includes winning the SEC championship game. But because Auburn beat LSU and holds the tiebreaker, LSU has to have Auburn lose twice to even get to the SEC title game. Then, the Tigers also need Nebraska and Oklahoma to lose, Wisconsin to lose (probably Ohio State, too), Arizona to lose and Oregon to lose. As with most of the teams on this list, LSU's best chance is a title-game matchup with either Boise or the Mountain West champ.

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