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November 7, 2008

Mailbag: Is USC still in the title race?

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Seven is a sacred number.

There are seven days in a week, seven seas, seven phases of the moon, seven dwarfs and even The Magnificent Seven.

But when shooting dice, seven is an unlucky number, and it would seem just as unfortunate for getting a shot at college football's national championship.

The top two teams in the BCS standings play for the national crown. Thus, you'd figure that this late in the season, the team ranked seventh in the standings wouldn't have much chance to move up five spots.

But upon closer inspection, seven can be a lucky number in the BCS standings, too. We examine that and more in the mailbag.

Trojans in trouble?

Jeff in Philadelphia: Is USC officially irrelevant regarding the national championship game?

It's tempting to write off USC. The Trojans are ranked seventh in the BCS standings, and it would seem unlikely they could climb into the top two. But looking at last season shows that dismissing the Trojans would be premature.

Ohio State and LSU played for the national title last season, and both were ranked seventh in the BCS going into their last game of the season. USC has four games left.

Considering that happened for two teams with one game to play, it's not too outrageous to think it could happen for one team with four games left. What if Penn State loses to Iowa or Michigan State? What if Alabama falls to LSU or Auburn, then beats Florida in the SEC Championship Game? What if Missouri or Kansas upsets the South Division representative in the Big 12 Championship Game? What if Boise State or Utah lose?

What's the difference?

Mike in Moscow, Pa.: Am I missing something? Penn State's only win against a ranked team is No. 12 Ohio State. This has hurt them in polls and expert analysis and discussion. But Alabama's only win over a ranked team is against No. 14 Georgia. This has not hurt Alabama nor have I seen it mentioned. And Alabama's next big game is against LSU, which has lost badly to two ranked teams and not beaten any. Could someone tell me what I'm missing?

The difference is that the Big Ten is viewed as a weaker conference than the SEC, so Penn State's problem is guilt by association.

That's not fair, but that's the way it is in the BCS system - which does not necessarily reward the best teams in the country but rather the teams that can put together the best résumé.

Penn State squeaked past Ohio State in its most impressive victory. That same Ohio State team was annihilated by USC.

Of course, Chris Wells played against Penn State, the game was in Columbus and Ohio State was playing better at that point in the season than it was when it faced USC. But computers – and perhaps some voters – don't take that into account. So, your argument in favor of Penn State is valid.

A counterpoint could be made that Penn State's FBS (i.e., Division I-A) opponents are a combined 31-39 and only three have winning records.

You then could say that Penn State beat Oregon State, which defeated USC. The counterpoint? Utah also defeated Oregon State, so why not campaign for the Utes? Your response could be that Penn State blew out Oregon State, while Utah squeaked by. And that takes us back to the issue of teams getting better and playing better from one week to the next.

Your contention is that Alabama's body of work is no better than Penn State's. Perhaps not, but you also have to acknowledge that Alabama's FBS opponents are a combined 35-34. I'll agree that's not dramatically better than Penn State's opponents. But the SEC is a stronger conference than the Big Ten, and that has to be taken into consideration.

A stronger conference does not ensure a stronger team. For example, USC is one of the premier teams in the nation even though, overall, the Pac-10 clearly is struggling this season. But the BCS system requires looking at several factors, including conference strength, to identify the teams most deserving of a place in the national championship game.

That's why Alabama's overall body of work to this point might look better than Penn State's. It's not fair and it's not necessarily accurate. But that's the way it is.

Easy to explain

Jack in Naples, Fla.: Where are the poll voters' guts? They put Penn State over Florida even though Florida demolished Georgia. Penn State beat Oregon State and Ohio State, and that's pretty much it. But despite the fact that Florida would be favored by 14 points if they played, voters are still afraid to knock down Penn State because of JoePa.

The difference between Florida and Penn State is simple: Florida has a loss.

Maybe Florida would beat Penn State. Maybe Florida would win in a blowout as you suggest. We don't know that.

What we do know is that Florida lost at home by one point to Ole Miss, which is unranked. In this system, a loss cannot be ignored.

And why the outrage about Florida being behind Penn State? Texas' only loss came on a last-second play on the road at Texas Tech, which is unbeaten and now ranked second. Yet, Texas is behind Florida in both polls used by the BCS. Would you question the voters' guts for that?

Top 10 talent?

Bo in Jefferson City, Tenn.: Will sophomore strong safety Eric Berry stay all four years at Tennessee or declare early for the draft? If he does decide to leave, will he be a top-10 pick?

Well, only Berry knows that. And at this time even he might not know. He's only a sophomore and did not redshirt, so he will be back with the Volunteers next year.

Berry is a marvelously gifted athlete and has a penchant for making big plays. In less than two full seasons, he already has 11 interceptions. This season, he has six for 220 return yards.

In the past five NFL drafts, four safeties have been top-10 selections – LSU's LaRon Landry, Texas' Michael Huff, Ohio State's Donte Whitner and Miami's Sean Taylor. But if Berry declares for the 2010 NFL draft, I think he would be a top-10 pick. He's just too talented to ignore.

Defending the Pac-10

Mark in Tallahassee, Fla.: USC plays a fluff schedule every year. Yes, they do play about two teams a year, but then the rest is fluff. The Pac-10 hasn't been tough since UCLA stopped being a real contender.

I disagree completely. The Pac-10 might be down this season, but year in and year out, it's been a valid conference.

In the past four seasons, the Pac-10 has had at least three teams ranked among the final AP Top 25. In that span, its teams are 13-9 in bowls: 2-0 vs. Big East, 4-0 vs. Big Ten, 1-1 vs. ACC, 3-4 vs. Big 12, 2-3 vs. Mountain West, 0-1 vs. WAC and 1-0 vs. Notre Dame.

Obviously, Pac-10 teams have not faced SEC teams in bowl games during that span. But from 2004-08, the Pac-10 is a respectable 4-6 against the SEC.

Out of conference, USC typically schedules better than most. In fact, USC is the only team in the nation this season that will play every game against "Big Six'' teams.

USC always plays Notre Dame. The Trojans blew out Virginia, which is a contender in the ACC Coastal Division. They also overwhelmed Ohio State of the Big Ten.

From 2004-08, USC is 11-0 in non-conference games against "Big Six" opponents.

Ohio State is 7-2 and ranked No. 12 this year. In '05 and '06, USC defeated Notre Dame teams that played in BCS bowls. In '06, the Trojans beat SEC West winner Arkansas and Big 12 North winner Nebraska. In 2004, they defeated ACC champion Virginia Tech.

No fluff there.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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