BCS picture starts coming into focus

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Associated Press

The Bowl Championship Series picture is coming into focus with West Virginia joining Southern California and Penn State as automatic qualifiers and Notre Dame all but reserving a spot for itself.

If all goes according to plan on Saturday, when three more BCS conference titles will be decided, the only mystery remaining is whether Ohio State or Oregon will nab the final at-large bid when the pairings come out the next day.

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USC and Texas are playing for the biggest stakes. With one more victory by each, no one will be able to quibble with a Rose Bowl matching the nation's only two unbeaten teams.

USC plays crosstown rival UCLA (9-1) in the Coliseum while Texas gets a much easier draw, facing Colorado (7-4) in the Big 12 championship game.

The Trojans will play in the BCS regardless of whether they beat the Bruins, but the Fiesta Bowl isn't exactly what Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Co. have in mind.

The first Atlantic Coast Conference championship game pits Virginia Tech and Florida State in Jacksonville, Fla. It looks like a mismatch. The Seminoles (7-4) come in on a three-game losing streak. Virginia Tech has recovered nicely from the Miami loss. The Hokies (10-1) have won two straight by a combined 82-17.

&#8220It's still Florida State,” Hokies defensive end Darryl Tapp said. &#8220They've got great talent, great coaches and great history and they're going to be jacked. This little skid they've had - I'm not for sure about that. They could just be playing with everyone's head.”

No bulletin board material there, but feel free to pencil in the Hokies for the Orange Bowl.

In the Southeastern Conference, LSU (10-1) faces Georgia (9-2) in Atlanta with the winner likely earning another trip to the Georgia Dome for the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.

The Tigers and Penn State (10-1), the Big Ten's BCS rep - and Virginia Tech to a lesser extent - still hold out hope that an upset will send them to the Rose Bowl.

But let's assume that doesn't happen, and USC vs. Texas in Pasadena, Calif., finally becomes a reality.

The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl gets the first selection of the eligible teams to replace Big 12 champion Texas. The chances of the Fiesta taking any team but Notre Dame is about the same as finding a bag of Cheetos on sale in Sun Devil Stadium on Jan. 2.

&#8220It seems Notre Dame gets better every week,” Notre Dame tailback Darius Walker said after a 38-31 victory over Stanford. &#8220We've played well enough to get the BCS bid.”

Argue about whether the Fighting Irish (9-2) deserve a spot if you want, but the fact that the debate gets so many people so fired up essentially makes the case for Notre Dame.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, everybody watches the Irish.

And it may not sit right to some people that the Big East gets an automatic bid to play on college football's biggest stage, but those are the rules - so no sense whining about it.

Besides, West Virginia (9-1), which locked up a spot when South Florida lost Saturday, has looked BCS worthy. The Mountaineers get to prove it against the SEC champs in the Sugar Bowl.

That leaves two spots open: Notre Dame's opponent in the Fiesta and Virginia Tech's in the Orange. Penn State has to get one of those spots and the second at-large pick gets the other.

The Orange Bowl holds the key. Joe Paterno's revival of the Nittany Lions rates with USC's run at a three-peat and Notre Dame's resurgence under Charlie Weis as the best stories this year in college football.

Penn State hasn't played in the Orange Bowl since 1986 and JoePa's crew might be too good for the Miami contingent to pass up.

If not, maybe Ohio State (9-2) is the Orange's pick. The Buckeyes haven't played in an Orange Bowl since 1977, they bring truckloads of fans, have a national following that will bring eyes to television sets and, oh by the way, they might just be the third-best team in the country right now.

The Fiesta Bowl has a long and successful relationship with Penn State. The Lions have played in the Tempe game six times and won their last national title there in 1987 against Miami.

Given a chance to match Notre Dame and Penn State, how could Fiesta officials not take it?

But if Penn State is off the board, the decision appears to be Ohio State, which has played in two of the last three Fiesta Bowls, or Oregon (10-1). The Ducks' only loss is to USC and their fans happily will make the trip to Arizona. Also, doesn't the BCS kind of owe the Pac-10 one after California got shut out last season?

But what if USC or Texas loses? Well, then things get complicated, and let's just leave it at that.