Is this optimistic Penn State fan that I attended their thrashing of Wisconsin with justified in flashing the index finger? Not yet, according to the polls, but the Nittany Lions are climbing fast. They are up to #3 and got some first-place votes in the coaches poll, the one that will count toward the BCS Standings. Only Alabama and Texas stand in the way of seeing Joe Paterno coach perhaps his final game for the national championship. (Well, there's the minor matter of Ohio State & Michigan State, but I refer only to matters Paterno can't control).
Here's a brief overview of how the race for the title is shaping up, conference-by-conference. I tried to be generous in who was a contender, as you will see, since the certain upsets ahead of us will provide opportunity for unlikely heroes.
Big East--They have four teams with one loss. Even I can't be so generous as to include Pitt and Cincinnati as contenders, but circle a November 23 game between UConn and South Florida. If both can win out until then and dominoes fall above them, that will be a game with impact.
ACC--Six teams have one loss and all are legit contenders for the league championship. Virginia Tech is the strongest contender for national honors, simply because of its reputation and they have a head-to-head win over fellow contender North Carolina. The Hokies play at BC, at Miami and at Florida State over the next four weeks. If they are still on only one loss then, we'll consider them seriously. The Tar Heels remain the stronger prospect, as their schedule makes a win-out very possible. Wake Forest is also on just one defeat, but needs to win road games at Maryland and Miami the next two weeks.
Big Ten--we talk about our home conference almost every day here, so we'll trust you know to circle October 25 and Penn State-Ohio State on the calendar. Here's a thought for you to kick around--Minnesota showed its bona fides in beating Illinois and could theoretically be favored in all but one of their remaining games. That one exception is at Wisconsin, and we have no idea how the Badgers are going to respond right now. Thinking the Gophs for the national title is on a par with my joking weekend prediction of Vandy-Northwestern in an all-academic showdown. But not having Penn State or Michigan State on the schedule is clearly paying Rick Brewster some big dividends.
SEC--every media person's favorite league is down to four teams, who will settle it head-to-head. Alabama and LSU will play in the West, Georgia-Florida in the East. Any of the four that win out should find themselves in Miami, and 'Bama can probably still lose a game, so long as its not a division-costing one to LSU.
Big 12--this one is just crazy. Six teams have one loss or fewer and are ranked. Four are in the Top 10. To give this the proper analysis I'd have to spend so much time on it that this site would need to be re-named Big Twelve Country. But let's start with this: Texas hosts Missouri next week. The Longhorns do *not* need to win this game. If they win out, they would bump fellow unbeatens Texas Tech & Oklahoma State and still win their division. Then they'd rematch with Missouri in the conference title game. There's no way they would be denied Miami if they were 12-1 with the only loss being this coming Saturday. The Tigers have everything on the line, but the 'Horns have some slack.
Pac-10: USC & Cal play in November. The Trojans will see enough teams ahead of them lose to get back in contention and only their habit of pulling unexpected clunkers can deny them an 11-1 season. The question is a political one--will the voters forgive their habit, in light of the fact its in its third year? Ohio State can testify how tough it can be to shed a bad rap. And unlike the Buckeyes, SC actually deserves the heat launched their way for a lack of concentration.
BCS Busters: Boise State and Ball State just don't have the schedule strength to make it even if they win out. They may get a major bowl bid, but not the top game. BYU & Utah are probably in the same boat, but at least they have each other. The Coogs and Utes tee it up on November 22 in a game that will get serious media attention if both are unbeaten, and BYU is already in the Top 10.
Overall? We should assume a Big 12 vs. SEC battle until something happens to rattle the applecart. The good news for the Nittany Lions is that winning in Columbus, along with the inevitable loss by either the Tide or Horns would be just such a rattling. The bigger question is whether PSU could survive a close loss in Columbus or the Buckeyes could get back in the picture at all. I think the Lions would have a 50/50 shot, while OSU's chances are more remote, because of an unjust political situation they face.