By Dave Hershorin
November 21, 2006

What a weekend!!! The lineup of games didn’t fall short, providing many great battles – many of which went down to the wire. The game we all awaited was Notre Dame at Southern Cal in primetime Saturday night. Not an epic battle, it also did not disappoint with a display of good football on all sides of the ball. USC was never in danger of losing and beat ND 44-24, which was by six less points than Michigan’s week three 47-21 win over the Irish in South Bend. Still, USC went by Michigan in this week’s BCS poll, now sitting comfortably in second by a 0.0244 margin. Michigan and Florida, which won its rivalry with FSU 21-14, have to hope UCLA can pull off some magic in the “Battle of L.A.” if either is to have any chance of a spot in the title game. UF is 5-0 versus teams that have been ranked at sometime this season, while UM is 4-1 and USC is 7-0. USC is now 31-42-5 all-time against ND, and this five-game series streak they have going matches their longest ever against the Irish (also 1978-82). In the first 73 contests of this series, USC reached 34 points or more just six times…now they’ve done such five times in a row!!! Coach Charlie Weis lost the first night game of his tenure (8-1) and for the first time in the month of November (7-1). Pete Carroll is 20-0 in the 11th month at USC and has won 33 in a row at home.

South Florida proved some pollsters right – the ones who properly had WVU ranking in the low teens and not the ones who had them at last week’s No.7 (AP, BCS). USF took the Mountaineers to their own woodshed there in Morgantown 24-19, never allowing that vaunted WVU running game to get started. With sophomore pair Pat White and Steve Slaton combining for only 60 ground yards, the Bull’s defense did the job no other defense this season had been able to do in stopping them. Freshman George Selvie led South Florida with seven tackles and 3.5 TFLs, which go well with his fumble recovery for a TD that proved to be the difference between winning and losing. This was an over-hyped Mountaineer squad that has ridden on its past reputation (via the media) to its high rankings while faltering against the better squads it’s faced. Freshman USF QB Matt Grothe exploited their back seven just like Louisville’s Brian Brohm did. USF will be formidable for the next few years with such talented freshmen securing their future. So, the philosophers want to know - since Louisville has beaten West Virginia and Rutgers has beaten Louisville, then – with all sporting one loss - how did WVU enter Thanksgiving weekend ranked higher than Louisville and how did Louisville then rank higher than Rutgers? Really, what is more clear-cut as to who is better (and more deserving of a higher ranking) between two teams than a head-to-head result? The polls still have Louisville ranked higher than Rutgers!!! Which of these three gets into the BCS comes down to this weekend. WVU hosts Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights have to win in order to claim the Big East crown and an automatic BCS birth. Louisville just has to beat Connecticut at home and root for WVU. But if the Redbirds lose and WVU wins, the highest ranked between the three will go to the BCS, and that likely would mean the Mountaineers. Rutgers sure shot themselves in the ass by allowing scrappy Cincinnati to beat them 30-11 last week. Otherwise, they likely win the conference outright, even with a loss to end at WVU.

Speaking of who gets their conference’s automatic BCS birth, Texas found more holes in their armor as they tanked at home against A&M. Texas has ended most of its 105 seasons with their arch-rivals and has had the Aggies on the roster every year (except from 1912-14). The Longhorns hadn’t lost this game since 1999, which fittingly was the last time they lost two in a row before Friday’s letdown. And though Texas is a strong team, this should surprise few insiders who know what happens to freshman QBs in big games like this (McCoy went 17-of-28 with three INTs and no TDs for only 160 yards – his longest pass was 20 yards.) The real story, besides UT losing its spot in the Big 12 final to victorious Oklahoma (beat State 27-21 in Stillwater), has been Texas A&M’s resurgence back into the conference elite. The Aggies had just lost two in a row to Oklahoma and Nebraska, each by one point, and their only other loss this season was to Texas Tech 31-27. That means six points separate A&M from playing for the national title. Sophomore QB Stephen McGee has shown why the Reggie McNeal era is now barely an afterthought – only two INTs thrown all year have meant a 5-0 road record after A&M had been 3-13 when away before McGee took over. A&M only threw the rock 13 times against Texas, which had the nation’s top rushing defense before the Aggies ran for 244 yards. Who needs to throw when your running unit goes for 4.8 yards per try? Coach Dennis Franchione’s ball-control approach made the Longhorn D tired by keeping them on the field almost 12 more minutes than his D. This is an up-and-coming Aggie squad that (likely) loses only two starters on offense and three on defense. They (along with Oklahoma) effectively ended Texas’ stranglehold on the South division.

Like they had done from 1986-95, when both were in the now-defunct Big 8, Oklahoma and Nebraska end their regular season slates with each other – this time for all the conference marbles and a BCS birth. The series finds OU ahead 42-37-3, but knotted 3-3 over the last ten years. This one is up for grabs – it should come down to whether the Cornhuskers ninth-ranked offense can find success against OU’s No.14 defense. You might take a plane, or you might take a train…but any way you can, make sure to catch this game.

Boston College would have blamed themselves if Maryland had won over Wake Forest, for their 17-14 loss Thursday to a struggling Miami team would then have kept them out of the league championship game. But Wake handled the Terps 38-24 in College Park to render the BC-UM result moot. WF now faces Georgia Tech in the ACC title game this Saturday from Jacksonville. Tech and WF are somewhat similar looking teams – both offenses use the run early and often to set up the pass. Reggie Ball, the Yellow Jackets oft-maligned senior field general who seems to have finally overcome his inconsistencies, gives Tech an edge due to experience. But his counterpart, freshman Riley Skinner, has found more aerial success (31st-ranked in pass efficiency vs. 83rd for Ball) and is the top passer in the ACC. Both teams lost to Clemson, and though GT has three losses (also Notre Dame, Georgia) compared to just two for the Demon Deacons (Virginia Tech), Georgia Tech’s ambitious non-conference slate means overall they have seen stronger challengers. The key matchup here is the 11th-ranked Tech run defense against Wake’s No.40 rushing attack, their bread-and-butter for ball movement. The Hokies proved the DDs are vulnerable if their runners are “grounded” and they have to rely on the pass to win. WF’s destiny seems to depend upon which Reggie Ball shows up. If Ball is on like he has been against most in 2006, look for Tech to easily reach the BCS and their first outright ACC title in 16 years. If Tech’s offense is disrupted and Wake can run the ball, the boys from Tobacco Road should prevail for only their second league crown ever (1970). This one could pivot on even more factors and is as unpredictable as great games get…another DON’T MISS (December 2nd, kickoff at 1pm e.s.t.).

Boise State responded to its critics with a 38-7 trouncing of Nevada in Reno, shoring up the Broncos perfect regular season with a very likely trip to the BCS. BSU now officially sits at No.11, well ahead of both ACC finalists (regardless of who wins). If Boise finishes atop the WAC and ranked 16th or higher (which they did) while one of the automatic bid conferences produces a league champion ranked lower than them (like the ACC), State gets into the BCS. The newest scenario for ‘06 that saw an extra BCS game added and the inclusion rules revamped for mid-majors has proven worthy as to exactly why things were changed – so the smaller conferences with standout teams can get the leg up they need to compete on college football’s highest level. The smaller schools were constantly missing out on the $11-13 million payout given to BCS participants, keeping their programs financially struggling as bigger schools’ budgets thrived with their conferences’ automatic and/or wildcard bids. In retrospect, TCU took the hit last year to force the ‘big six’ to change its bylaws. The Broncos beat Oregon State 42-14 (which in turn beat Southern Cal), Hawai’i (9-2, nation’s top passing attack and total offense), Fresno State (a 4-7 lemon that was thought to be a serious contender until they lost all seven in a row) and Nevada (8-4, scoring 40+ in four straight before meeting BSU) to prove why they are not on anyone’s wish list for this holiday season. Urban Meyer’s Utah, the only previous non-aligned school to make the BCS, tore Pittsburgh a new one a few years ago in the Fiesta Bowl, proving just how serious other BCS teams have to be against a hot upstart (like BSU is this season). The Big East champ or Wisconsin seems like a fair test for the Broncos, who have six 10+-win seasons over the past eight years. Think ex-BSU coach Dan Hawkins – whose Colorado team finished 2-10 – is kicking himself for leaving after 2005’s 9-4 ‘slump’?

As stated at the start, the great games were aplenty during ‘rivalry week’. Here were some of the biggest, nastiest, down-to-the-wire finishes:

Oregon thought they had it in the bag. With two kicks missed in the driving rain (one extra point, one FGA) Duck coach Mike Bellotti decided to risk a two-point try after his team scored with 3:07 left. QB Brady Leaf converted, putting Oregon up 28-27. But Oregon State RB Yvenson Bernard and QB Matt Moore took the Beavers down field efficiently so PK Alexis Serna could kick the go-ahead 40-yard field goal (amazingly, his third one made from 40+), making it 30-28 with 1:12 left. Oregon got a great kick return and the Ducks were in position for a game-winning 44-yard FGA with :06 left. Beaver senior DT Ben Siegert again used every inch of his 6’4” frame to earn his second kick block of the game and a win for State in this 110th “civil war”. Oregon has failed to win in Reser Stadium since 1996, but is still up in the series 55-45-10.

Arkansas pulled to within 31-26 and had the ball on their own 27 with 2:04 left to play against LSU. But Casey Dick then threw four incomplete passes in a row to top off a 3-of-17, 29-yard performance, a play-calling sequence that had many wondering why coach Houston Nutt didn’t rely on Felix Jones (142 rushing yards, TD) and/or Heisman-worthy Darren McFadden (182 rushing, two TDs, 2-of-2 passing for 33 yards) during this important juncture. The Hogs were on the outside looking in at the national championship race and had to win out for even an outside shot at playing Ohio State…now they play Florida to salvage any respectability to their poorly book-ended season. LSU slips into fifth in the latest BCS standings, making them a shoe-in for a wildcard bid.

In the battle to avoid the ACC basement, North Carolina scored a basketball-like 45-44 win over Duke with a blocked PAT to keep the Blue Devils from sending it to OT. UNC was up by two TDs with five minutes left when Duke surged, getting their second (and seemingly tying) TD on a 21-yard INT return with 2:49 left. That’s when 6’5” junior DL Kentwan Balmer broke through the middle for the game-saving block. ‘Lame duck’ coach John Bunting went out in style, beating the Tar Heel’s two biggest rivals in his last two games. Butch Davis takes over for 2007, introduced Monday at an official press conference as the Tar Heels look to get back to playing competitive ball after going 3-9 this season and 19-40 over Bunting’s five years.

Though most people who took the under (74 points) knew either offense could explode without even a moments notice, most of them surely thought they had made the right call. Purdue held a defensive-laden 21-20 early fourth quarter lead over No.24 Hawai’i out there in Honolulu, making many think Purdue had corralled Warrior QB Colt Brennan, especially seeing how he had no TD passes up to that point. Then Brennan went on a 12-for-17, three TD tear as he helped UH win the last stanza 22-21 and the game 42-35. This is nothing new for Warrior fans – Brennan is on the verge of passing for the most TDs ever in a season (Houston’s David Klingler has the I-A record with 54 in 11 games, Brennan now has 51 in 12 games…Brent Elliot (Division III) has the collegiate record of 61 set in 2004 over 13 games). The junior is also right above Shaun King’s efficiency record (has a 186.7 mark vs. King’s 183.3) and a hair under Dante Culpepper’s completion percentage mark of 73.6% (71.9). The Warriors themselves are close to breaking the I-A team mark for TDs in a season (’83 Nebraska’s 84 in 12 games is the record, UH has 80 so far in 12 games with two games left), though Pittsburg St. (II) has the all-division record (113 in 2004).

Kentucky and Tennessee have pretty much ended their regular seasons against each other since 1910 and have played dating back to 1893. And though the Vols have won 22 consecutive in this series and lead all-time 70-23-9, this was a pride game for the Wildcats as they tried to reach eight wins for the first time since 1984 (also the last year they won vs. UT). UK held a 12-10 lead to start the fourth, but a 15 play, 80 yard drive was capped by a LaMarcus Coker one-yard plunge to give the Vols a 17-12 lead that was enough in the end. The Wildcats outgained their arch-rivals 410-336, but had to settle for two short FGs on drives they needed to end with TDs, providing the difference.

Utah looked like they had won the Blue/Red Bowl over BYU when they scored to make it 31-27 with 1:19 left. But QB John Beck then took the Cougars on a 10-play, 75 yard drive that ended with a 11-yard strike to Jonny Harline as time expired for the 33-31 win. The final play seemingly took forever - Beck scrambled adeptly from side to side, providing an excruciating sequence for Ute fans to end their four-game run in the series. Beck won Walter Camp Offensive Player of the Week honors, finishing 28-for-43 with 375 yards and four TD passes. No.20 BYU lost two games this season by a total of ten points, giving them a coulda-woulda-shoulda complex as they head to the Las Vegas Bowl instead of a BCS finale.

Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy, a TE in high school, lined up at WR and scored his team’s first TD with a 23-yard grab. Though the Egg Bowl battle in Oxford saw Mississippi State outgain the Rebs 314 yards to 200, the Bulldogs fell to their in-state nemesis for the fourth time in five tries 20-17. Ole Miss RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis needed just 38 yards to finish the campaign with 1,000, but fell one yard short. Bulldog QB Omarr Conner finished his career with only 15 INTs (in 507 attempts), setting a school record with a .029% for picks. Still, MSU hasn’t won more than three games since 2000. If coach Croom isn’t on the bubble yet, how much more does he need to fail before landing on the hot seat?