With one week remaining in the regular season, we know that the Ohio State University will play in the Fiesta Bowl. Somewhere, Woody Hayes is smiling.
Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel, relying on a powerful running game, an opportunistic defense, and, at times, a little bit of luck, has the Buckeyes at 13-0 for the first time in school history. And, in only his second year at the helm, he has a two-game winning streak against archrival Michigan. The Buckeye faithful are primed for the school’s first national championship run since 1968. This is what we know.
What we do not know, officially, is which team Ohio State will face come January 3rd. Well, conventional wisdom suggests Miami — defending champions, 32-game winning streak, two Heisman Trophy candidates, and probably more talent than the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. Why not? If I were a betting man, my money would definitely ride on the ‘Canes to make it to Tempe and go back-to-back.
However, they are still one win away from punching their ticket to the national championship. They must beat Virginia Tech, against whom they will be heavy favorites. Though the Hokies seem little more than a shell of the undefeated, No. 3 team we saw just weeks ago, they will arrive in South Florida with their vaunted running game intact fresh off an emotional victory over rival Virginia with everything to gain — especially an upset victory over the top-ranked Hurricanes. Such a win would provide considerable consolation for the Hokies’ otherwise disappointing and underachieving season.
Of course, the Hokies beating the ‘Canes is about as likely as getting the Pope to convert to Judaism. But, if the Hokies corral the Hurricanes — a big “if,” since the last team to do that was Washington, nearly 15 months ago — Ohio State might be looking for another partner in the BCS title tango. Let us just speculate a bit on what could happen.
Recent losses by Washington State and Oklahoma, in bitter in-state rivalry games, and the Notre Dame debacle at the hands of Southern California, place Georgia in the proverbial “on-deck circle.” But, ESPN’s Brad Edwards notes that the Bulldogs will probably not be as strong a BCS No. 3 this week as Oklahoma was last week. That could mean that even if Miami were to lose, it might remain in the BCS top two anyway — if it keeps a lead over Georgia in the polls and in the number-crunching concoctions of various computers — a scenario reminiscent of Nebraska a year ago, which lost the final regular season game, rank no higher than third in either poll, and still play for the title.
What if Miami blows it against Virginia Tech and Georgia blows it against a resurgent Arkansas Razorback team in this weekend’s SEC Championship game? Well, it is quite likely that the Hurricanes will go to Tempe anyway. Unless of course Virginia Tech can win impressively and significantly affect the polls. Sound far-fetched? You bet.
So who is on the outside looking in? The Iowa Hawkeyes who, by the way, tied Ohio State this season for the Big Ten title. When the new BCS rankings are released this afternoon, the Iowa Hawkeyes may sit in fourth, but, following Southern California’s waxing of Notre Dame, will likely be fifth.
Should Miami and Georgia misstep, Iowa is likely to become this year’s version of last year’s Oregon Ducks — number two in both polls, but not in the BCS computers, and the match-up that Big Ten aficionados wanted all season will probably never materialize.
Because of Ohio State’s struggles to produce offensively and its malleable “bend-but-not-break” defense (six of Ohio State’s victories were by less than a touchdown this season), many prognosticators give Iowa the edge head-to-head.
A quick glance at how both teams matched up against some common opponents: against the Big Ten’s third place team, Michigan, Ohio State sealed its 14-9 home win on the final play of the game, while Iowa handed the Wolverines their worst home loss, 34-9, in nearly 40 years. Iowa throttled Wisconsin 20-3, while Ohio State struggled to a 19-14 win. Iowa beat lowly Northwestern 62-10, while Ohio State won a lackluster game 27-16. Iowa may be the better Big Ten team.
The bottom line, though, is that Ohio State has done nothing but find ways to win every game this season, while Iowa came up short in an early-season nonconference loss to rival Iowa State. But for that fourth quarter meltdown, the Hawkeyes would be in the thick of a BCS controversy brewing among three undefeated teams — not on the outside looking in.
Yet, the Hawkeyes should remain hopeful as they watch the action unfold in Miami and Georgia this weekend, because as we have learned in recent years, anything can happen in the season’s final games.
In 1998, the BCS’s first year, three undefeated teams took the field on the regular season’s final Saturday to stake their claim for an invitation to the championship game. By the end of the weekend, UCLA and Kansas State had both fallen victim to upset losses, leaving Tennessee as the nation’s only undefeated team. This opened the door for previously fourth-ranked Florida State to sneak into the title game. Not bad for a team that did not even play that day.
Should this year be any different? It probably should, as the computers already strongly favor Miami and Georgia. But, the unpredictable results of the past remind us that nothing can be taken for granted in college football and every game has meaning. Miami controls its destiny and, in all likelihood, should easily take care of business at home this weekend.
Nevertheless, until those final BCS scores are tabulated Sunday afternoon, a couple other teams can still dream big and hope for the impossible.