Oct. 10, 2004
By Dennis Dodd
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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Halfway through the season, the national championship race has some feel, some texture.

Dodd's Power Poll

1. Oklahoma
2. USC
3. Miami
4. Florida State
5. Auburn
6. Virginia
7. Purdue
8. Louisville
9. Georgia
10. Texas
11. Utah
12. Boise State
13. Wisconsin
14. Arizona State
15. Cal
16. LSU
17. Michigan
18. Tennessee
19. Florida
20. West Virginia
21. Oklahoma State
22 Minnesota
23. Navy
24. Southern Miss
25. Missouri
25. UCLA
Non-BCS Top 10
1. Louisville
2. Utah
3. Boise State
4. Navy
5. Southern Miss
6. Florida Atlantic
7. UAB
8. Memphis
9. Wyoming
10. Northern Illinois
And some chaos just in case you forgot the BCS is a week away from weighing in. USC remains No. 1 but lost style (and poll) points in beating Cal. No. 2. Oklahoma handled Texas to creep closer. It's hard to believe Miami is now a heartbeat away at No. 3 considering some of its problems.

What's it all mean? Refer back to last season when the BCS couldn't make up its mind between LSU, USC and Oklahoma. A similar nightmare scenario is developing.

Three words: Split national champions. The new BCS that was supposed to lessen that likelihood looks like it is leading down the same path. Remember, there is nothing in the new BCS formula that can pick the "right" teams if there are three or more worthy teams for the two Orange Bowl slots at the end of the season. By leaning more on the human polls this year, the BCS commissioners are hoping the credibility of those rankings will sort things out.

One of many problems: The computers still count for one-third of the formula, which could just as likely create split champions as prevent it. Last season, LSU, Oklahoma and USC all lost one game before the bowls. The BCS math picked Oklahoma and LSU to play in the Sugar Bowl despite the fact USC was No. 1 in both human polls.

We'll say it again: More reliance on the human polls this year doesn't necessarily clean things up.

Here's an early glimpse at this year's potential train wreck: Assume there are these 13 legitimate national championship contenders at this point. Nine of them are undefeated -- USC, Oklahoma, Miami, Purdue, Wisconsin, Virginia, Utah, Arizona State and Auburn. Four have one loss -- Florida State, Michigan, Cal and Tennessee.

At this point a year ago (using the Oct. 12, 2003 Associated Press poll), there were 14 contenders. But there were only three undefeated teams worthy of title consideration: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Miami and No. 3 Virginia Tech. Co-champions USC and LSU were among 11 other one-loss schools from major conferences that were contenders at that point.

If anything, that recent history proves that 2004 is going to be more complicated than 2003. Start with the reliance on the human polls, but point totals will be weighted. How that is going to impact the BCS no one is really sure yet.

Poll points are determined on a descending order basis: The No. 1 team on a ballot gets 25 points, No. 2 gets 24, etc.


QB Jason White and the No. 2 Sooners are closing in on No. 1 USC. (AP)
For example, USC went into Saturday with a 44-point lead over No. 2 Oklahoma in the AP (1,604 points to 1,560) and 45-point lead in the coaches poll (1,507-1,462). USC's lead in both polls shrank to a mere 19 points in the AP and 33 points in the coaches.

More significant might be the difference between No. 2 and No. 3. Oklahoma had a 69-point cushion last week in AP and 64 in coaches. After shutting out Texas, that margin grew to 118 points in the AP and 78 in the coaches.

"I don't think it's going to matter," BCS guru Jerry Palm said. "It's USC and Oklahoma until someone beats them."

We'll see. With more reliance on the human polls, we might be back to the old week-to-week fashion show. It's a good thing margin of victory was eliminated from the BCS formula, because it's going to be reflected each week by the voters.

In essence, USC will have to win by "enough" in coming weeks to keep Oklahoma from overtaking it. Yardage, turnovers, even comments will be considered by voters.

"If they're No. 1 ... we would beat them nine out of 10 times," Cal free safety Ryan Gutierrez said after USC's narrow escape on Saturday. "This was the day they beat us."

Split champions? SportsLine.com's Power Poll already has foreshadowed it this week in disagreeing with the humans. Oklahoma was elevated to No. 1. Georgia, No. 1 since January, tumbled to No. 9 after losing to Tennessee.

Six of those 13 contenders will be involved in what amounts to head-to-head elimination games. It's safe to assume that at least three of the 13 will be eliminated in these showdown games: Wisconsin-Purdue, Arizona State-USC and Virginia-Florida State.

That would leave 10 title contenders surviving into the third week of October, which is also the first week of the BCS. Anyone else getting nervous?


Now, officially, the Big Dead
It's going to hurt a lot and for a while at Nebraska.

Texas Tech's historic 70-10 victory over the Huskers raises several questions but one stands out: How does it feel? What goes around comes around. Tom Osborne was known for being merciless over the years for the way he stomped lesser opponents, frequently leaving in first stringers for extended periods.

Now that the Huskers are struggling to adapt to Bill Callahan's system, well, we should still pity Nebraska (3-2). The 70 points are the most scored against the Huskers in their 115-year history. There were five interceptions by the Red Raiders and seven Nebraska turnovers overall. Five of the turnovers came after Texas Tech led 35-10. All five were converted into touchdowns.

"It's obviously very embarrassing," Huskers linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "It was an embarrassment to everybody involved in it. This is the worst loss I've ever been involved in." The basic problems in Lincoln are significant. The Huskers can't defend the pass or throw one. Quarterback Joe Dailey threw only one of the five interceptions but now has 12 for the season. Meanwhile, Texas Tech's Sonny Cumbie hit on 44 of 56 passes for 436 yards and five touchdowns.

"I never saw anything like it," Tech defensive end Adell Duckett said. "The last nine minutes took forever. Everyone got involved, it was good stuff."

To his credit, coach Mike Leach did run the ball on Texas Tech's last series. If Nebraska wants to complain about Texas Tech (Texas Tech? ) running it up, it should quit turning the ball over.

The wackiest thing about the result: Nebraska (1-1 in the Big 12 North) still has a heck of a chance to win the division.


Scoping the nation

The top three losing streaks in the country ended -- Army, East Carolina and Louisiana-Monroe. But the only one you should care about is Army, which earned, deserved and finally received relief from its 19-game streak. Coach Bobby Ross and the goalposts were carried off the field after a 48-29 victory over Cincinnati. Now on the clock is Central Florida with the nation's longest losing streak at eight.

Tennessee (4-1, 2-1) is suddenly in control in the SEC East after its 19-14 upset at Georgia. The Bulldogs (also 4-1, 2-1) were spent emotionally from the previous week's big victory against LSU. The loss ended Georgia's 17-game home winning streak and gives the Vols the tiebreaker. South Carolina is also 2-1 in the division but has already lost to Georgia.

As for the SEC West, an Auburn-Tennessee rematch in the SEC title game looks inevitable. The Tigers (6-0, 3-0) cruised past Louisiana Tech 52-7. Auburn has allowed a touchdown or less in five of its six games and haven't allowed a rushing touchdown.

A week after its offense failed at Georgia, LSU ran up 464 yards against Florida in a 24-21 victory in The Swamp. The Gators blew a 14-0 lead. The wolves are sure to start howling now that Florida (3-2, 2-2) is all but out of the SEC race. The result takes a lot of the steam out of the Georgia-Florida game (Oct. 30) too.

The Old Ball Coach used to alternate quarterbacks at Florida. Mississippi's David Cutcliffe did him one better. He used three quarterbacks -- pretty much on a play-by-play basis -- in the Rebels' 31-28 victory over South Carolina. Cutcliffe kept the plan secret from even his own team. Ethan Flatt, the designated "thrower" on passing downs, completed 18 of 27 passes for 214 yards.

Purdue went 14 quarters this season before its first turnover against Penn State. Kyle Orton threw two interceptions but was fairly effective throwing for 275 yards and a touchdown in a 20-13 victory. The last two undefeated teams in the Big Ten go at it this week when Wisconsin travels to West Lafayette.

Speaking of which, it's not that Ohio State is dead, it's just that Barry Alvarez has started channeling Jim Tressel: Run, run, screen pass, punt. Repeat. The nation's top scoring defense allowed the Buckeyes only two first downs in the second half of a 24-13 victory in Columbus. It's still staggering to imagine the innovative and talented John Stocco (two touchdown passes) could actually set foot on the Rose Bowl floor. Ohio State is 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since John Cooper accomplished the feat in 1992. Watch your back, Tres.

More Purdue: Receiver Taylor Stubblefield (271) passed former teammate John Standeford (266) for the Big Ten career receptions lead.

Florida State converted one third down against Syracuse. It was Leon Washington's 21-yard scoring run in the 'Noles' 17-13 victory over the Orange. The victory sets up this week's ACC showdown when Virginia visits Tallahassee.

This is the first time Missouri (4-1, 2-0) has been alone in first place in the Big 12 North. The Tigers beat Baylor 30-10.

The two best teams in the Sun Belt are 2-4 overall. Fortunately for New Mexico State and North Texas, both are tied atop the conference at 2-0.

Connecticut (4-1, 1-1) can take a giant step toward Big East contention on Wednesday when it plays host to West Virginia (4-1, 0-0). The Huskies already have lost to conference leader Boston College (4-1, 1-0) meaning they essentially need the Eagles to lose two conference games. But it is fascinating this late in the season to think that UConn could be playing in a BCS bowl.

Kansas broke an 11-game losing streak against Kansas State, winning in Lawrence 31-28. This one was personal. The Wildcats had won the last nine by an average of 40 points. The combined score the past two years was 106-6. Both goalposts came down at Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks (3-3) are one of the better stories in the Big 12 this year. All the hype has been drained from next week's Oklahoma-K-State game. The Wildcats dropped to 2-3.

A parting shot from the Red River Shootout
Or, another reason to interview coaches right after games. They're still hyped up and full of venom.

"I'm done answering any damn questions about, you know, 'All the sudden you can play defense,'" Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "This wasn't the first rodeo for any of these guys on the field and certainly our coaching staff. ...

"This wasn't the invention of the wheel or anything else. It's 11 guys playing together. All of a sudden we don't go from being the Bad News Bears to the Pittsburgh Steel Curtain. I don't know who has the questions, but we don't have questions."

Texas didn't penetrate Oklahoma's 20 on Saturday and was shut out for the first time 24 years. Just in case you didn't get that impression from reading The Annotated Venables.