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BlogPoll Roundtable: Which Teams Are in National Title Contention?

In addition to casting the weekly ballots that help us to win friends and influence people, those of us who vote in the BlogPoll periodically are asked to participate in roundtable discussions about college football. The current conversation centers around questions posed over at the Big Red Network in an effort to find order in the midst of chaos. Asks Brandon Vogel:

Of the four presumed national title contenders to go down this past week—USC, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin—which team has the best chance to get back in the race by the end of the year?

Leaving aside the fact that I believe including the Badgers among the contenders was a bit of a stretch even before Wiscy’s loss last weekend, the answer unquestionably is Southern California. Let’s face it, the Trojans get the benefit of the doubt from the national news media---like Florida State in the 1990s, they face double elimination while the rest of the field may be ousted after a lone loss---and the case for U.S.C. is helped by the fact that the Men of Troy lost on the road, while the Bulldogs and the Gators lost at home.

Most importantly, it appears from the early returns that the Pac-10 is having a down year. Ultimately, it may not play out that way, of course, but it’s hard to look at Southern California’s schedule and find another team that should challenge the Trojans (although, inevitably, one or more of them will), whereas it’s hard to look at Georgia’s and Florida’s remaining slates without cringing. The once-beaten teams will have to run the table at this point, and U.S.C. is the better bet to win ‘em all.

I mean, it’s not like the Men of Troy have to play a Mountain West slate or anything!

But what does this mean for Ohio State? Are they back in?

On paper, I suppose you’d have to say the Buckeyes are back in the hunt, although the O.S.U. faithful ought to be rooting pretty hard for Oklahoma if they want to make it to a third straight national title tilt.

Why the Sooners? Well, for one thing, they’re No. 1, and I’m sure Ohio State would like to be the hunter rather than the hunted for a change. Really, though, any Big 12 champion will do for the Buckeyes’ purposes; what’s imperative for O.S.U. is that neither U.S.C. nor the S.E.C. champion make it to Miami. After the high-profile drubbings absorbed by the Bucks against Florida two years ago, L.S.U. last year, and U.S.C. earlier this season, no one wants to see Jim Tressel’s club back in the ring with the Trojans or a Southeastern Conference squad. Given the choice between, say, Ohio State and a once-beaten Big 12 champion to play a once-beaten Southern California team or S.E.C. champion, the voters will opt for the selection that doesn’t make a nation of viewers collectively roll its eyes and mutter, "Here we go again!"

They shoot horses, don’t they?

Did the week that was open the door for any of the undefeateds out of some of the non-BCS conferences like the Mountain West or the Big East? (Yup, that’s a cheap shot. Thanks, Virginia Tech for not allowing me to make it about the ACC.)

That depends on what you mean by "open the door." If you’re asking whether it opened the door for a mid-major to make it into a B.C.S. bowl game (or, in the likely event that a non-B.C.S. conference squad was going to get into a major bowl game already, whether it opened the door for a second such team to make the cut), it undoubtedly did. If you’re asking whether Boise State, Brigham Young, or Utah has a shot at the national championship game, I seriously doubt it.

If you’re the Mountain West Conference commissioner, you have to be kicking yourself over the fact that the Cougars and the Utes don’t begin the season by playing each other (like Colorado and Colorado State do) rather than end the season by playing each other, as the loser of that contest might have gone 11-1 after suffering a Labor Day weekend setback and made some real noise.

As it is, though, none of the mid-major contenders appears to have adequate "oomph" to make it as far as Miami. The Broncos are bolstered by their win at Oregon, but, with Hawaii having crashed back to earth in a big way, the W.A.C. (which featured three teams with winning records as of the close of business on Thursday evening) lacks sufficient schedule strength, even assuming (not at all safely) that Fresno State remains ranked heading into the November 28 showdown.

No offense, Broncos, but, if you want to be taken more seriously by the rest of the country, try playing football on a green field like everyone else.

The Mountain West is more impressive than the W.A.C.---heck, it’s more impressive than the A.C.C.---but B.Y.U. got an unfortunate draw out of the Pac-10, inasmuch as every indication is that U.C.L.A. and Washington are two of the three or four worst teams in the league. At a time when Baylor, Duke, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt all are showing varying degrees of promise, the simultaneous decline of multiple prominent Pac-10 programs works to the detriment of the mid-major teams that play them.

Any cachet that accompanies a win over the Bruins or the Huskies is historical rather than actual at this point. When the toughness of a non-B.C.S. conference team’s slate is at issue, an undefeated mid-major does little to bolster its case by beating---even, in the case of the Cougars’ win over U.C.L.A. in Provo, beating badly---a Pac-10 team that isn’t even going to a bowl game.

Of the three, Utah has the best shot, but the Utes need Michigan and Oregon State to finish the season with respectable records. Currently, the Wolverines stand at .500 and the Beavers are the best 2-3 team in America, but the Mountain West squad needs the teams from Ann Arbor and Corvallis to win as much as possible.

O.S. did its part by registering a nationally-televised upset of U.S.C., but the season needs to see another of those patented Mike Riley slow starts followed by a dramatic turnaround. The Maize and Blue at least need to have as good a season as they had in 2005, which doesn’t seem like a stretch, but it very well may be. If Michigan and Oregon State don’t win at least eight regular-season games apiece, the Utes could be bound for their second Fiesta Bowl in the last five seasons, but, even with the carnage in the top ten, they won’t improve upon that.

Of course, you never know when a small-market representative from the western half of the country is going to be called up to the big time. . . .

While we’re on the subject of the Wolverines, by the way, this is neither here nor there, but it is gratifying, nonetheless. A Michigan fan recently wrote:

It frustrates me to no end that we signed to play ND for another 20 plus years when teams like OSU and Georgia are playing great intersectional matchups.

Thank you, Damon Evans. The decision to go play Arizona State already is starting to have an impact, even though some folks who saw the Bulldogs’ methodical dismantling of the Sun Devils inexplicably came away with the impression that "Georgia struggled with Arizona State." We Georgians are subject to some bizarrely harsh judgments from Big Ten country, for some reason.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the foregoing questions in the comments below.

Go ‘Dawgs!