We embark now on the final weekend of college football’s regular season, and the question hovering over all is this: Is it finally the year the Southeastern Conference plays its way out of a shot at a national championship after seven straight titles?
“Un-American,” huffed Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs this week at the prospect.
Already, we’re well down that path, courtesy of Auburn’s for-the-ages victory over Alabama last week. In the BCS, it’s Florida State, Ohio State, Auburn and Alabama, followed by Missouri.
Most projections have Ohio State hanging onto the No. 2 spot with a victory Saturday night over Michigan State, because it would take a massive flip of voters willing to jump either Auburn or Missouri over Ohio State. That zero in the loss column is still powerful for the Buckeyes, no matter their lukewarm strength of schedule.
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How the weekend’s games set up, chronologically:
Bowling Green vs. Northern Illinois at Detroit (AP No. 16), 5 p.m., ESPN2: This is the one that would unlock another BCS spot, and history says it won’t be easy for NIU to maintain it. In each of its past four appearances in the MAC title game at Ford Field, the games have been decided in the final minute. Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch is still all the rage, with a 7.1-yard average per carry and 1,755 yards rushing. The Falcons rely on their No. 7-ranked defense and Travis Greene’s running (1,422 yards).
Oklahoma (18) at Oklahoma State (6), 9 a.m., Ch. 4: The Big 12 has no title game, and Oke State, Texas and Baylor each have 7-1 records. The Cowboys beat them both, so they have the leg up on the BCS berth to the Fiesta Bowl. OU’s Bob Stoops is 11-3 against State, and the Sooners rushing game has boomed for 706 yards in the past two games.
Central Florida at Southern Methodist, 9 a.m., ESPN: The Knights (10-1) will have nothing riding on this, thanks to Louisville’s overtime win over Cincinnati. The Cardinals’ win secured the American Athletic Conference title for UCF.
Texas (23) at Baylor (9), 12:30 p.m., Ch. 13: Baylor still has a shot at a BCS game, and you can’t say the Bears wouldn’t be flashy. That hope probably hinges on the Bowling Green-NIU result. If Oklahoma State loses to Oklahoma, the winner of this one goes to the Fiesta. There’s also the question of Mack Brown’s future at Texas; a win here (as a big underdog) would win Brown some favor with new AD Steve Patterson.
Missouri (5) vs. Auburn (3) at Atlanta, 1 p.m., Ch. 7: Has any team ever had to overcome a bigger emotional rush from the previous week than Auburn, which now has to play an 11-1 team for the SEC title? The time seems ripe for the Tigers (the SEC West ones) to fall.
Stanford (7) at Arizona State (11), 4:45 p.m., ESPN: For the second year in a row, Stanford has to beat a team in the Pac-12 title game that it essentially blew out in the regular-season meeting before it eased off the gas pedal. Stanford ran for 240 yards in that victory and allowed only 50, a gap that has to diminish if this game is going to be different.
“You watch them (the Sun Devils) dominate teams we struggled with,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “That game was a long time ago. It seems like it’s almost a different season. We believe they’re a different team and we’re a different team.”
As for ASU’s progress in a seven-game winning streak, coach Todd Graham says, “We matured more than I’ve ever had a team mature.”
Duke (20) vs. Florida State at Charlotte (1), 5 p.m., Ch. 4: Just what you want in a league-title game: One team favored by 29 points. Duke is a fetching story, having gained its first 10-win season and about to play in back-to-back bowl games for the first time. Now it must figure out a way against a team that leads the nation in scoring defense (11.0), pass defense (153 yards a game), interceptions (23) and defensive touchdowns (eight). Maybe the site will help. Duke has played in Charlotte only twice, the first time in 1923.
Ohio State (2) vs. Michigan State at Indianapolis (10), 5:17 p.m., Ch. 13: Those hoping to squeeze into the BCS (Oregon is one) need an Ohio State victory, preferably a big one. But that might be iffy, considering MSU’s No. 1-rated total defense (237.7 yards). Ohio State will test it with Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, each of them within hailing distance of 3,000 yards rushing, a milestone attained by only six other Buckeyes. If the Spartans win, Ohio State is considered a lock for the BCS.
Utah State at Fresno State (24), 7 p.m., Ch. 7: In the first Mountain West title game, the winner probably goes to the Las Vegas Bowl to play USC. Utah State (8-4) carries this quirky stat: It leads the nation in punt-return defense — at a negative 1.33 yards per attempt. But it will have to contain Fresno State’s (10-1) Derek Carr, who leads the nation in passing yards a game at 405.6.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org