Chase for the championship heats up

Monday, October 15, 2001

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When Damon Duval's 44-yard field goal split the uprights late Saturday night in Auburn, Ala., hundreds of football fans at a packed restaurant here stood and cheered the Tigers' 23-20 victory over Florida.

Florida State might have lost to Miami a few hours earlier, but Seminoles fans everywhere were feeling a little better knowing the mighty Gators had fallen, too.

In Florida, you're either "for the Gators, or against them," as coach Steve Spurrier likes to say. So in this state where national titles are usually on the line whenever two of the three teams play each other, the Gators' loss had even more impact than Miami knocking the Seminoles out of contention with a 49-27 win at Doak Campbell Stadium.

With Duval's kick, the chase for the championship narrowed significantly. Midway through the season, there's is a six-team wave of top contenders from three conferences -- No. 1 Miami and No. 6 Virginia Tech in the Big East, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Nebraska in the Big 12, and No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Oregon in the Pac-10.

The halftime half-dozen still have league games against each other and the results probably will determine who plays in the Bowl Championship Series' title game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3. But these are the teams with the best chances to play in Pasadena.

Some smaller waves

Since college football's rule of thumb is whenever something appears certain it isn't, there are smaller waves right behind. Among the second wavers are surprise teams No. 8 Fresno State (6-0) and No. 12 Maryland (6-0), as well as a one-loss No. 7 Florida, No. 10 Michigan, No. 13 Clemson and No. 14 Colorado.

The longest shots form a third wave -- undefeated No. 18 BYU and No. 19 Washington State, as well as a one-loss team from the Southeastern Conference, such as No. 11 Tennessee, No. 16 South Carolina or No. 20 Auburn.

And that's about it. Of the 117 I-A teams, we're already down to three monster games -- Oklahoma at Nebraska on Oct. 27, Oregon at UCLA on Nov. 10, and Miami at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1. If the winners end up unbeaten Dec. 8, then the final Bowl Championship Series standings a day later will leave one school screaming for a playoff.

But since the first BCS standings don't come out until next Monday, put away the calculators. Stop trying to figure out strength of schedule, power ratings and bonus points that are part of the BCS formula.

Here's a guide to which teams have the easiest road to Pasadena:

1. Virginia Tech: The Hokies should be 10-0 when the Hurricanes visit Blacksburg, Va., where the 'Canes haven't won since 1992. Quarterback Grant Noel has been a capable replacement for Michael Vick, and he has a strong running game plus star receiver/returner Andre Davis. The defense is No. 1 in the nation, allowing 185.6 yards and 7.3 points per game. Also, Miami looked sloppy at times against the Seminoles, being called for 15 penalties for 125 yards. Remaining schedule: Syracuse, at Pittsburgh, at Temple, at Virginia, Miami.

2. Miami: The 'Canes should also cruise to 10-0 by Dec. 1. Ken Dorsey has been unflappable at quarterback and is a top Heisman Trophy contender. The defense needs discipline, but new coach Larry Coker plans to make sure his team stays focused with four of the next five games at home. Visiting are West Virginia, Temple, Syracuse and Washington. The road game is at Boston College.

3. UCLA: Now that they've beaten Washington -- 35-13 on Saturday -- the Bruins' toughest games are at Washington State on Nov. 3, followed by the Oregon game, crosstown rival USC and the season finale against Arizona State. With Heisman contender DeShaun Foster coming off a record 301-yard effort and a defense allowing just 12 points per game, UCLA is ready for its second title run in four years.

"We are shooting for the national championship, we just can't get ahead of ourselves," Foster said.

4. Oregon: Before traveling to UCLA, the Ducks still have to get past Stanford on Saturday and survive a visit to Washington State. After the Bruins, it's the Civil War game against Oregon State on Dec. 1 in Eugene.

5. Oklahoma: The defending champs have a 19-game winning streak, but a tough trip lies ahead even if they beat the Huskers in two weeks at Lincoln. Two weeks later it's Texas A&M and then on to the Big 12 title game, where Nebraska is likely to show up again.

6. Nebraska: Seemingly getting stronger with each game, the Huskers not only have to beat the Sooners twice, but in between there's a visit from Kansas State and a trip to Colorado.

While the season will work itself out, there's usually a team or two that feels it belongs in the title game. Miami beat Florida State last year, both teams finished with one loss, and the Seminoles got to play undefeated Oklahoma in the title game.

By next week, the title chase will be determined by a computer. Already, Miami running back Najeh Davenport doesn't like it, even though he knows Florida State (3-2) is out of the mix.

"I don't think the BCS likes us," he said. "Maybe it thinks we're a bug, or we have a bad area code."

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