Usually we're into October before the top two teams have separated themselves. Even then, the remaining schedule usually plants a tree in the road for each team, keeping hope alive for the other contenders. But the fall of 2005 was cast before Sept. 20.
First, Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart decided last winter to return, making USC the clear No. 1 as the signal caller seeks his second Heisman and third national championship. On Sept. 10 the second-rated team in both polls, Texas, consolidated its position with a 25-22 win at Ohio State, which was then ranked fourth by the Associated Press.
Further solidifying USC and Texas as the top two teams, their competition in the Pac-10 and Big 12, respectively, gives little indication of testing them down the road.
Oklahoma's five-game winning streak against Texas is jeopardized in light of dismal losses to TCU and UCLA, not to mention a dismal win over Tulsa. Four other Pac-10 teams join USC in the USA Today top 25, but when scribes dream up chinks in USC's armor based on a 45-13 road win against 24th-ranked Oregon, you know imagination is alive and well.
Barring some kind of remarkable upset in the next three months, we already know it's going to be USC and Texas for the mythical title on Jan. 4 at the Rose Bowl, and we already knew that 10 days ago. Be assured, USC and Texas will take everyone's best shot down the line, but who's going to beat them?
The tougher road lies on front of USC, which travels to No. 15 Arizona State Saturday and later plays at No. 14 Notre Dame and at No. 11 California before closing the regular season at home against No.
20 UCLA. It remains to be proven that any college football defense is equipped to stop Leinart and Trojan running back Reggie Bush.
Of the remaining USC games, the one to watch pops up on Nov. 12, when the Trojans travel to Berkeley. Cal ranks 10th nationally on offense and 38th on defense. USC ranks 42nd on defense and second on offense.
The only more prolific offense in college football belongs to Texas Tech, which raised a stir last week with speculation it could have scored 100 against Division I-AA doormat Indiana State. Rated 16th by the AP and 13th by USA Today, the Red Raiders loom as the only remaining ranked team on Texas' schedule. And that just reveals the Big 12's weakness this year.
Though Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has won praise for his explosive passing game, he can equally be chastised for scheduling Florida International, Sam Houston State and Indiana State as his non-conference opposition. The Raiders could drop from the rankings as soon as they take on someone their own size.
The second most likely Rose Bowl scenario puts Texas in the title game against the Atlantic Coast Conference champion -- not because the Longhorns are so great but because no remaining opponent should stand a chance against them. In comparison, the USC schedule is a buzz saw.
Waiting in the wings are Florida State and Virginia Tech of the ACC and Florida, Georgia and Louisiana State of the SEC. The best position of that group belongs to Virginia Tech, which not only rates third in the polls but finds the easiest path.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech and Florida State, each is in a different ACC division, meaning they're pointed at each other in the conference championship game. Both teams are scheduled against 18th-ranked Virginia as the toughest regular-season conference opponent.
Florida State, however, also plays fifth-ranked Florida in its regular season finale. If Florida wins that game, then it's possible a win in the ACC conference title game will put Virginia Tech in the Rose Bowl, but it wouldn't do the same for Florida State.
It's often been said, here and elsewhere, that the SEC operates football a notch below the NFL and a notch above the rest of Division I. As such, it probably shouldn't even compete for the national championship, but that's not why it won't.
The earliest coaches poll this year placed two SEC teams, Tennessee and LSU, in the top 10, though four others started in the top 25. The Volunteers, who opened the season third in both polls, still would be a serious contender today except they play in the SEC. They lost at Florida 16-7 on Sept. 17.
Meanwhile, weather complications have limited LSU to only one game so far, an impressive victory at Arizona State. Now the coaches poll has LSU fourth, Florida fifth, Georgia sixth, Tennessee ninth, Alabama 16th and Auburn 24th with Vanderbilt also receiving votes. Out of the best 30 teams, by the coaches' reckoning, the SEC includes seven.
With four teams in the top nine, the SEC is, by far, the toughest league to navigate without a loss. With few exceptions, they'll play each other.
An excellent SEC team could lose a game and be shut out of the Rose Bowl just for that. Or, like Auburn last year, it could go unbeaten and find itself playing for third because no one beats USC or Texas. The SEC probably lost its dog in the national championship fight when Tennessee fell to Florida, but that's the SEC. The chances are good that everyone will lose once.
Of all the injustices ever wrought by the Bowl Championship Series system -- and it's still the best we're going to get -- none surpasses Auburn being denied a crack at the title with a perfect season. The same kind of event could happen this year.
Well, college football isn't designed to decide a true national champ, so maybe it doesn't matter if the national title chase is a snooze. But conference championships do matter in college football, and the races will be thick, particularly in the SEC and the Big Ten, where Ohio State will try to fend off a cast of thousands.
Looking in that direction might be the only way to stay awake.
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