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October 27, 2008

Monday with Mike: Who really has a shot?

RELATED: Week 9: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 9 Awards

So, we're basically into November, and the number of teams with a legitimate chance to play for the national title continues to dwindle. Penn State, USC and the champions from the Big 12 and SEC look to be the only legit contenders.

Penn State took a huge step by winning Saturday at Ohio State, and the only way Penn State doesn't finish unbeaten in the regular season is if it beats itself. An unbeaten Penn State would be in the title game unless both the Big 12 and SEC champs finish unbeaten. To have both conference champs finish unbeaten seems a tall order, given the remaining regular-season games for the contenders - plus the conference championship games. It's worth remembering that four times in the 12-season history of the Big 12 Championship Game, a team in line for a spot in the national title game has lost.

As for USC, the Trojans squeezed past Arizona in what likely was USC's last tough road game of the season. But the Trojans need a lot of help to get to Miami for the title game. Their most impressive victory this season likely will be the September smackdown of Ohio State but that Buckeyes team seems destined to finish second, at best, in the Big Ten. Nobody left on the Trojans' schedule makes anyone stand up and say, "Man, if USC wins that game, it will be an impressive victory." There is no one left on the schedule that's going to provide a big computer bump for the Trojans in the BCS standings. All the Trojans can do is win out and hope Penn State loses once and that the Big 12 and/or SEC champ has two losses.

Just as this past Saturday's games cleared up the title picture in the Big Ten, this Saturday's action will go a long way toward making things clearer in the Big 12 and SEC. Well, the SEC for sure and maybe the Big 12.

For the second week in a row and the third time in four games, Texas faces a fellow unbeaten this time meeting Texas Tech in Lubbock. Three weeks ago, Texas downed Oklahoma in a battle of unbeatens; this past Saturday, the Longhorns handed Oklahoma State its first loss. In between was a victory over a Missouri team that seems destined to win the Big 12 North.

A win this Saturday and Texas all but locks up the Big 12 South. As for the national title race, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and the loser of Saturday's game still will be in it, but each would have long-shot hopes. You'd have to think that even if Texas were to lose Saturday, it would remain ahead of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the polls because of the head-to-head outcomes in their games. Plus, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State still have to play each other - as well as Texas Tech.

While Texas is finishing up its murderous four-game stretch, Texas Tech will be on game two of its own journey through the minefield. First was a rout of Kansas; next comes a game with Texas, followed by contests with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.

Thus, a win Saturday puts Texas in a good position to get to Miami. But can the Longhorns muster the needed emotion for the fourth consecutive week? The Longhorns have won five in a row in the series and Tech coach Mike Leach is 1-7 against Mack Brown. A Red Raiders victory obviously gives them a leg up in the Big 12 South and in the national title race and also gives new life to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the division because of the potential tiebreaker scenarios.

In the SEC, meanwhile, it will be game two for Georgia in what was supposed to be a difficult stretch. That stretch doesn't look so daunting after the game with Florida. The Bulldogs rolled past LSU on Saturday and have Kentucky and Auburn on the road in the league after they play the Gators. But the Wildcats and Tigers are weak offensively, and they have combined to lose seven of their past nine games.

The Gators have Vanderbilt and South Carolina in their remaining SEC games, so Saturday's winner almost certainly locks up the SEC East title, which in turn almost certainly would mean a meeting with Alabama which has a two-game lead in the SEC West in the league's championship game.

Florida has won 15 of the past 18 in the series, but the Bulldogs rolled last season. A loss this Saturday by either means national title dreams are gone and a trip to Orlando for the Capital One Bowl looms.

Good times in the Twin Cities

With all the attention Penn State is getting for its unbeaten season, a lot of folks are overlooking what has happened at Minnesota: One season after going 1-11 in coach Tim Brewster's first season, the Golden Gophers are 7-1 and in the hunt for second place in the Big Ten.

The new guys
Six of the 18 new coaches have winning records. Here's a closer look:
ArkansasBobby Petrino3-5 overall, 1-4 in SEC
BaylorArt Briles3-5 overall, 1-3 in Big 12
Colorado StateSteve Fairchild4-4 overall, 2-2 in Mountain West
DukeDavid Cutcliffe4-3 overall, 2-2 in ACC
Georgia TechPaul Johnson6-2 overall, 3-2 in ACC
HawaiiGreg McMackin4-4 overall, 3-2 in WAC
HoustonKevin Sumlin4-3 overall, 3-0 in C-USA
MichiganRich Rodriguez2-6 overall, 1-3 in Big Ten
NavyKen Niumatalolo5-3 overall as an independent
NebraskaBo Pelini5-3 overall, 2-2 in Big 12
Northern IllinoisJerry Kill5-3 overall, 4-1 in MAC
Ole MissHouston Nutt4-4 overall, 2-3 in SEC
SMUJune Jones1-8 overall, 0-5 in C-USA
Southern MissLarry Fedora2-6 overall, 0-4 in C-USA
Texas A&MMike Sherman3-5 overall, 1-3 in Big 12
UCLARick Neuheisel3-5 overall, 2-3 in Pac-10
Washington StatePaul Wulff1-7 overall, 0-5 in Pac-10
West VirginiaBill Stewart5-2 overall, 2-0 in Big East
New coaches' overall record so far: 64-78.
Minnesota beat Purdue 17-6 on Saturday, continuing a trend of playing solid defense. It was the first time since 1990 that Minnesota had surrendered seven or fewer points in a Big Ten game away from home.

The Golden Gophers have allowed 17 or fewer points four times this season. Last season, the lowest point total allowed was 21 and Minnesota gave up less than 30 just twice. It ranked last in the nation in total defense a year ago.

In 2007, Minnesota held just one opponent under 300 yards and allowed more than 500 yards eight times. This season, three teams have been held below 300 yards, including Purdue, and only once have the Gophers allowed more than 500 yards.

"I have tremendous confidence in our defense," Brewster said after Saturday's victory. "We did things good defenses have to do to be successful."

Minnesota's new defensive coordinator is Ted Roof, who had been coach at Duke. He replaced Everett Withers, who left in the offseason to become defensive coordinator at North Carolina (where he has done a superb job). Roof always has been considered a solid defensive strategist, but as a head coach at Duke, he seemed overmatched. This season, his defense has forced 24 turnovers, including three against Purdue, and Minnesota leads the nation with a plus-15 turnover margin. Last season, Minnesota finished with a minus-15 margin.

It's true that Minnesota doesn't really have a marquee win; the "best" victory is over Illinois. But that's quibbling, considering this team was 1-11 last season and was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the standings again.

The Golden Gophers have been to just 12 bowls in their history and haven't been to a New Year's Day bowl since the 1961 season. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Golden Gophers could be in Florida on New Year's Day, in the Capital One or Outback bowls, considering the remaining schedule: vs. Northwestern, vs. Michigan, at Wisconsin and vs. Iowa. At the least, a trip to the Alamo Bowl looks likely.

The regular-season finale against Iowa could be important in terms of bowl positioning; it's also the final game for the Golden Gophers at the Metrodome, which is not a good facility for a college team. TCF Bank Stadium, a 50,000-seat facility, is set to open on campus next season. A ticker on the school's athletics Web site is counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until next season's opener.

Perhaps the school will add another ticker soon, counting down the days until Minnesota plays in a bowl game.

Out of the stands, on to the field

Give it up for Matt Williams, who kicked nine extra points in Texas Tech's 63-21 beatdown of Kansas.

Williams is the Tech student who made a 30-yard field goal as part of a promotion during Tech's win over Massachusetts on Sept. 20. The kick earned him a month of free rent, and it also caught the eye of Red Raiders coach Mike Leach, who invited Williams to join the team in the last week of September.

The Red Raiders had missed six extra-point attempts in their first seven games, and Saturday was the first time Williams had kicked in a game since high school. "I thought it was easy compared to the kick that got him free rent," Leach told reporters Saturday, adding that he didn't make the decision to use Williams until pre-game warm-ups.

All good things must end

Last week, Washington State's streak of scoring in 280 consecutive games came to an end in a 69-0 loss to USC. This week, Colorado's streak of scoring in 242 consecutive games came to an end in a 58-0 loss to Missouri Mizzou's first-ever Big 12 shutout, by the way, and its first whitewashing in league play since 1988, when the Tigers were in the Big Eight.

Colorado's streak had been the ninth-longest in NCAA history and the third-longest current streak. The longest streak ever is BYU's 361 (Sept. 27, 1975 through Nov. 15, 2003). The longest current streak is Michigan's 296, which started in October 1984. Given the state of Michigan's offense, that could end soon, as well. The second-longest current streak is Florida's 250, which started in November 1988.

Around and around they go

See if you can follow this ACC stream of consciousness: Boston College beat Virginia Tech, which beat North Carolina but UNC beat BC on Saturday; Georgia Tech beat Duke, which beat Virginia but Virginia beat Georgia Tech on Saturday; and Wake Forest beat Florida State, which beat Miami but Miami beat Wake Forest on Saturday.

Grid Bits

Ball State wide receiver Dante Love, who had to give up football after suffering a spinal injury in a victory at Indiana last month, watched from the coaches' box as the Cardinals remained unbeaten with a 38-22 victory over Eastern Michigan on Saturday. Love, who caught 100 passes last season and was a legitimate NFL prospect, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Oct. 12 and is in Muncie, Ind., where Ball State is located, to continue his studies and his rehab.

At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot more interesting.
USF at Cincinnati, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.: Both are coming off losses, and both need a win in terms of bowl positioning. The Big East's bowl tie-ins aren't exactly glamorous, so the loser of this one can start making plans to spend the bowl season in Birmingham or worse.
Miami at Virginia, noon: The Cavs have risen from the dead and now lead the ACC's Coastal Division. Miami's division title hopes basically would end with a loss.
Iowa at Illinois, 3:30 p.m.: The Fighting Illini were expected to at least be a sleeper contender in the Big Ten, but they currently reside in the bottom half of the league. Iowa, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise. The winner of this one has a shot at a "good" bowl; the loser doesn't.
Nice job by ESPN to make its rankings reflect the BCS standings. You wonder why more media outlets don't do that. Using The Associated Press rankings is beyond ridiculous, considering those rankings have no bearing on anything anymore.

Remember all the attention Vanderbilt was getting after its 5-0 start? Well, now the Commodores deserve some attention for what could be a colossal letdown. Vandy has lost three in a row after Saturday's 10-7 home loss to Duke. Vandy hasn't been to a bowl since 1982 and has to win one of its remaining four games to become bowl-eligible. The problem: The Commodores' offense is such that Vandy might not get another win against Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky or Wake Forest. Vandy is averaging 254.6 yards per game, which is 116th in the nation. Vandy hasn't gained more than 300 yards in a game since Sept. 13 against Rice, a span of five games. And each of the remaining teams on the schedule has a solid defense.

Missouri tight end Chase Coffman had seven catches in the Tigers' mauling of Colorado; that gives him 63 for the season and 220 for his career, an NCAA record for tight ends. The mark had been 217, by Louisville's Ibn Green (1996-99).

Rutgers' Kenny Britt had made 46 catches this season before Saturday's game against Pittsburgh. The problem: None had gone for a touchdown. That problem has been solved. Britt caught five passes, with three going for TDs, in the Scarlet Knights' upset of the Panthers.

Some numbers from the weekend: Kansas' 13-game home winning streak came to an end in the loss to Texas Tech. Florida now has won 22 in a row over Kentucky, the second-longest current streak, to Tennessee's 23 in a row over the Wildcats. Purdue's loss to Minnesota was its 18th in a row to a ranked opponent. TCU has held each of its past four opponents to seven points. And the Horned Frogs have held seven of their nine foes this season to seven or fewer. USC allowed a third-quarter touchdown to Arizona, which ended the Trojans' streak of 13 consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown. Still, the Trojans now have given up just one touchdown in the past 15 quarters. Florida State has outscored opponents 148-38 in the second and third quarters this season.

RELATED: Week 9: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 9 Awards

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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