13 October 2008

Battleground: Penn State

(From BCS Guru)

While presidential candidates are busy traversing the Keystone State trolling for votes, Pennsylvania just happens to be the epicenter of another important race that will be settled this fall - the battle for the BCS title game.

While as expected, Texas and Alabama are Nos. 1 and 2 in the latest unofficial BCS standings, it's No. 3 Penn State that has the inside track to the championship game in Miami.

The reasons are pretty simple: Penn State doesn't have to play in a conference championship game; and the Nittany Lions have an astonishingly favorable schedule.

With three of their remaining five games at home, the Lions also will face just two ranked teams the rest of the way. Their biggest test, of course, is the Oct. 25 trip to Columbus. But Ohio State has been anything but an offensive juggernaut, having scored just one offensive touchdown in its last seven quarters. Penn State, meanwhile, has averaged over 45 points per game.

The Lions' BCS quest, and Big Ten title hopes, might come down to the season finale against Michigan State. After losing at Cal in the season opener, the Spartans have ripped off six straight. If they can get by Ohio State this Saturday, a Penn State-Michigan State at Happy Valley on Nov. 22 will have Pasadena on the line, perhaps more.

Penn State has been flying under the radar - partly because of a benign schedule devoid of ranked teams, partly because the Big Ten has been so thoroughly discredited after repeated Ohio State debacles, including this season's 35-3 shellacking by USC. But the Lions served notice after Saturday's 48-7 romp over Wisconsin, which nearly defeated the Buckeyes a week prior.

Even Joe Paterno was impressed by his own team, declaring his Lions a national title contender.

"We certainly deserve to be considered," he said. "I thought we'd win, but anybody who thought we'd win by 41 hasn't been in the game very long."

While Penn State's road to Miami seems pretty open, all other top contenders will have to knock heads with one another, and the survivors will have to play a conference championship game. Texas, for example, faces the murderer's row of Missouri-Oklahoma State-Texas Tech in the next three weeks. Not to mention Kansas and the Big 12 title game still to come. Alabama must face LSU in Death Valley, Auburn in the Iron Bowl, and possibly Florida or Georgia in the SEC title game.

Another team with a smoother path that has sneakily returned to the chase is USC. The Trojans, stunningly, are now No. 4 in the standings, behind just the three unbeatens and lead all one-loss teams. USC should be the prohibitive favorite to win its remaining seven games, against only one ranked opponent, Cal - at home.

Other one-loss teams have much taller mountains to climb. Oklahoma, the erstwhile No. 1, now needs Texas to lose twice to get into the Big 12 title game, thus its prospects of going to the BCS title game become a longshot. Florida and Georgia will play each other in essentially an elimination game on Nov. 1 in Jacksonville, but both teams are hampered by low computer ratings and lag behind USC. Both Missouri and LSU, after last week's losses, are just about out of it.

Of the five non-BCS conference unbeatens, both Utah and BYU have a legitimate shot at a BCS bowl berth. And if both remain undefeated, the Nov. 22 game at Utah should be a BCS play-in game. Boise State is waiting in the wings should both teams falter, but the chances of two non-BCS teams getting an invitation to a BCS bowl game are just about nil.

At least one team can be safely crossed off the potential BCS guest list - Notre Dame. After their dramatic loss at North Carolina, the Irish now virtually have no shot at finishing in the top 14 of the BCS standings to warrant consideration. Virtually, unless the Irish run the table from here on out, including an unthinkable upset of the Trojans at the Coliseum on Nov. 29.

Even the most optimistic Irish fan probably wouldn't bet on that.

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