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November 13, 2006

Arkansas may be late, but still at the party

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. Arkansas already is on the verge of accomplishing the improbable.

Now the Razorbacks want to achieve the unthinkable.

The team that opened the season with a 50-14 loss at home to Southern California just might end it by playing for the national title.

Is it a long shot? Certainly.

Is it out of the question? Not at all.

The obstacle course that stands between Arkansas (9-1) and the No. 2 spot in the Bowl Championship Series standings suddenly doesn't include quite as many hurdles.

"You never know," Arkansas cornerback Chris Houston said. "God's been with this team for a long time. He's brought us from 4-7 (last year) to 9-1."

Arkansas zoomed all the way from 11th to seventh in the latest BCS standings after beating Tennessee 31-14 on a week when Louisville, California, Auburn and Texas all lost.

A victory at Mississippi State next weekend would clinch the Southeastern Conference Western Division title and could allow the Razorbacks to leapfrog the loser of Saturday's game between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan.

Arkansas would probably move ahead of No. 4 Florida by beating the Gators in the SEC championship game.

Then the Razorbacks would need help from some other teams.

No. 3 Southern California probably has to beat No. 5 Notre Dame. Southern California almost certainly must lose to either California or UCLA. No. 6 Rutgers probably needs to lose to Cincinnati or West Virginia.

That's probably asking too much.

Then again, who expected California, Louisville, Texas and Auburn all to lose on the same week?

Better yet, who ever figured Arkansas might contend for a national title just one year after staggering to a 4-7 finish?

The Razorbacks certainly didn't look like national title contenders in that season-opening setback against USC. The Arkansas team that faced USC two months ago bears little resemblance to the squad that dismantled Tennessee this weekend.

Darren McFadden was still feeling the effects of preseason toe surgery when he faced USC. He has since returned to full strength while developing into the nation's most electrifying player.

Robert Johnson started at quarterback against Southern California. He has since moved to wide receiver while first Mitch Mustain and now Casey Dick have taken turns running the offense.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt isn't surprised with the way his team has responded since that USC game.

"I knew that we had a good team, unlike what everyone else was saying," Nutt said.

That perceived lack of respect from outsiders has motivated Arkansas all year.

McFadden admitted it bothered him that Arkansas wasn't mentioned as one of the top one-loss teams before this weekend. Arkansas won 27-10 at Auburn last month and still remained behind the Tigers in the polls until Auburn lost again Saturday.

Arkansas still must face Louisiana State in its regular-season finale before that potential SEC championship game showdown with Florida. That gives the Razorbacks a couple more opportunities to win over any remaining skeptics.

"We're just going to take this game by game and step by step," Dick said after the Tennessee game. "We know we'll eventually earn some respect from those people who don't believe in us. It's just going to take a while. We might have gained that respect tonight."

Arkansas' emergence as a national title contender represented just one of the top 25 stories to come out of this weekend. Here's a rundown of the other major plotlines.

2. MICHIGAN-OHIO STATE HYPE, PART ONE: After struggling to beat inferior opponents a week ago, Michigan and Ohio State breezed to one-sided victories Saturday to set up next weekend's No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown.

The most interesting thing to come out of either game was the emergence of Michigan wide receiver/kick returner Steve Breaston, who hadn't made much of an impact this season until Saturday.

Breaston caught a 62-yard touchdown pass and returned a punt 83 yards for another score in a 34-3 triumph over Indiana. The senior's return to form gives Ohio State one more cause for concern.

3. MICHIGAN-OHIO STATE HYPE, PART TWO: Now that so many one-loss teams barely escaped or fell by the wayside this weekend, get ready to hear plenty of calls for a potential Michigan-Ohio State rematch in the national championship game.

But you won't hear it in this space.

Opponents of a playoff like to emphasize the importance of the regular season in college football and how it makes every game important. If that's the case, then a team shouldn't get to play for the national title after losing its final game.

Nebraska never should have gotten that second chance in 2001 after dropping its regular-season finale to Colorado. And it also shouldn't happen to the loser of this game.

4. RESPECT RUTGERS: After I saw Rutgers beat Louisville on Thursday night, I decided that the Scarlet Knights deserve to play for the national title if they stay unbeaten even though they aren't as good as the top once-beaten teams.

I have since changed my mind.

After watching Saturday's action, I'm starting to think Rutgers just might be one of the best teams in the nation. The Scarlet Knights sure played better this week than any of the one-loss teams other than Arkansas and Southern California.

5. RISE OF TROY: Southern California was the big winner of the weekend by rising all the way to the No. 3 spot in the latest BCS standings.

The Trojans have tough games with California and Notre Dame the next two weeks, so their schedule appears tough enough to give them the inside track to the national title game if they win out.

Any title contenders hoping for a USC loss shouldn't hold their breath. The Trojans have won all 18 of their November games since Pete Carroll took over the program in 2001.

6. GETTING THEIR IRISH UP: Don't look now, but Notre Dame also has returned to the national championship race by moving up to fifth in the BCS standings.

Notre Dame may have looked unimpressive while eking out victories over Michigan State and UCLA, but the Fighting Irish have continued to win while other Top 10 teams have fallen by the wayside.

The Irish probably need a Michigan victory next week to keep their title hopes alive. It's tough to imagine a once-beaten Michigan falling behind the Irish in the polls after the Wolverines won 47-21 at Notre Dame earlier this season.

7. JUST JOSHING: Redshirt freshman Colt McCoy justifiably has earned plenty of credit for keeping Texas in the national championship picture this season, but he had to watch a different freshman quarterback knock the Longhorns out of title contention this weekend.

Josh Freeman led Kansas State to a stunning 45-42 victory over Texas after McCoy went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter.

Even a healthy McCoy might not have been able to beat Freeman, who threw three touchdown passes and rushed for a fourth score to continue a remarkable turnaround.

Freeman threw eight interceptions and no touchdown passes in Kansas State's first eight games of the season. He has since thrown six touchdown passes with only two interceptions while leading the Wildcats on a three-game winning streak.

8. PASSING THE BLAME: Freeman's big game exposed the weakness that Texas had tried to hide all season.

The Longhorns own the nation's second-ranked run defense, but they're 108th out of 119 Division I-A teams at stopping the pass.

Texas escaped with a 35-31 victory over Texas Tech two weeks ago despite allowing Graham Harrell to pass for 519 yards. They weren't as fortunate Saturday when Freeman picked them apart for 269 passing yards.

The Longhorns limited Kansas State to 23 yards on 25 carries, but the Wildcats didn't have to run the ball because they were passing so effectively.

9. DASHING IN DEFEAT: California's shocking 24-20 loss to Arizona overshadowed a brilliant performance by DeSean Jackson, who has replaced Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr. as the nation's most dangerous all-purpose threat.

Jackson caught six passes for 131 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown that gave the Golden Bears a 17-3 lead. He also scored on a 95-yard punt return and has set a Pac-10 record by returning four punts for touchdowns this season.

His day almost got even better.

Jackson's apparent 63-yard catch would have put California back ahead with 2:18 remaining, but the touchdown was overturned when replays showed he stepped out of bounds on Arizona's 41-yard line.

10. KICKING THEMSELVES: The irony of South Carolina's latest heartbreaking loss is that the kicking game made the difference.

South Carolina kicker/punter Ryan Succop entered Saturday as one of the nation's top special teams players, while Florida kicker Chris Hetland has made just three of his 10 field-goal attempts this year.

But the Gators squeaked past South Carolina 17-16 on Saturday only after blocking two Succop field goals and an extra-point attempt. Jarvis Moss blocked a 48-yard field goal as time expired to prevent Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier from winning in his return to Gainesville.

South Carolina now has lost to Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida by seven points or less.

11. NOWHERE TO RUN?: Those blocked kicks kept Florida's national championship hopes alive, but the Gators won't win the title unless they develop some confidence in their running game.

Florida's lack of a star runner has caused coach Urban Meyer to seek all sorts of different ways to move the ball. A tailback has led the Gators in rushing in only six of their 10 games this season.

The Gators now may have gotten too unconventional for their own good.

DeShawn Wynn gained 7 yards per rush against South Carolina, but he only got a dozen carries. Instead of simply running the ball down South Carolina's throat, Florida hurt itself on a number of drives by attempting trick plays that backfired.

12. STAFFORD MAKES STATEMENT: A couple of years from now, we may look back on Saturday as the moment Matthew Stafford matured into a big-time college quarterback.

After throwing 12 interceptions and four touchdown passes through the first 10 games of the season, the true freshman resembled a seasoned veteran in Georgia's 37-15 upset of Auburn. Stafford completed 70 percent of his passes and wasn't intercepted.

Stafford finally displayed the promise that caused Rivals.com to rate him as the top quarterback in the 2006 recruiting class. He may have inherited Georgia's starting job before he was ready for it, but Stafford showed Saturday that his freshman-year struggles haven't wrecked his confidence.

13. JACKSON RETURNS TO ACTION: Southern California's rise to the No. 3 spot in the BCS standings coincided with a star player's return to form.

Defensive end Lawrence Jackson entered the season as an All-America candidate, but he didn't collect any sacks in the Trojans' first eight games. Jackson ended the drought Saturday by recording three sacks in a 31-10 victory over Oregon.

Jackson's performance was particularly impressive because Oregon had allowed only seven sacks all year before this weekend.

14. NOT MUCH JUICE: While Stafford showed plenty of improvement this week, Illinois true freshman quarterback Isiah Williams continues to struggle.

Williams rushed for 145 yards in a 42-31 loss to Purdue, but he also went just 8-of-29 through the air for 95 yards. Williams has a dreadful .406 completion percentage this season

His latest performance occurred the same week five-star receiver Arrelious Benn verbally committed to Illinois. Illinois coach Ron Zook keeps stockpiling an impressive array of talent, but the Illini won't make any noise in the Big Ten unless Williams improves his accuracy.

Of course, the team in the next item might argue that point.

15. JACKETS CLINCH: Georgia Tech clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title Saturday while continuing to prove it can win without an effective passer.

Even though he has Biletnikoff Award favorite Calvin Johnson as a target, Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball has connected on 47 percent of his passes. He has completed less than 40 percent of his attempts during the Yellow Jackets' current three-game winning streak.

Georgia Tech continues to win because Tashard Choice has rushed for over 100 yards in five of his last six games and Ball makes the most of his rare completions. Ball threw four touchdown passes a week ago despite going 13-of-35 in a 31-23 victory over North Carolina State.

16. AWFUL AUBURN: Few units in college football have underachieved quite as much as Auburn's offense.

Offensive guards Tim Duckworth and Brennan Grubbs and 2005 SEC rushing leader Kenny Irons were Rivals.com preseason All-Americans. Brandon Cox returned at quarterback under the tutelage of highly touted offensive coordinator Al Borges.

But the Tigers are ranked just 62nd in the nation in total offense and have exceeded the 27-point mark just once in their last seven games.

Irons has battled injuries much of the year and probably won't reach the 1,000-yard mark. Cox has thrown six interceptions in his last two games. And that vaunted offensive line has allowed 28 sacks.

17. HONORING PATA: Miami hasn't done much right this season. The Hurricanes own a 5-5 record and took part in one of the worst brawls in recent memory.

While these players justifiably have received plenty of criticism, they also should get plenty of praise for the way they responded Saturday under the worst possible circumstances.

Four days after defensive tackle Bryan Pata was shot to death, the Hurricanes honored their teammate with one of their most inspired performances of the season in a 14-13 loss to Maryland. Miami coach Larry Coker called it the kind of effort that would have made Pata proud.

Maryland's players also deserve credit for agreeing to donate their per-diem money from this weekend to the Pata family.

18. CAROLINA PRIDE: North Carolina hasn't beaten a Division I-A team all season, but the Tar Heels deserve at least a little credit for playing their best football at the end of the year.

One week after staying relatively competitive in a 45-26 loss at Notre Dame, the Tar Heels delivered their best defensive effort of the season Saturday before falling 7-0 to Georgia Tech.

If the Tar Heels had played with this much pride at the start of the season, John Bunting might have kept his job.

19. SIGH-CLONES: North Carolina has improved in its last few games of the Bunting era, but the announcement of a coaching change couldn't shake Iowa State out of its doldrums.

After nearly winning the Big 12 North Division each of the last two years, the Cyclones guaranteed themselves a last-place finish this season with a 33-16 loss to Colorado. The dismal performance came three days after Iowa State coach Dan McCarney announced he'd be leaving at the end of the season.

McCarney didn't use his impending departure as an excuse for his team's poor performance. He also didn't criticize Colorado for allowing Mason Crosby to try a 65-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach.

Crosby's attempt fell about a yard short.

20. ZAC ATTACK: Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor set a pair of school records while leading Nebraska to a Big 12 North-clinching 28-27 comeback victory over Texas A&M.

Taylor threw his 21st touchdown pass of the year to set a new single-season mark. He also became Nebraska's all-time leading passer by increasing his career passing yardage total to 5,193.

Those numbers reflect the drastic shift in Nebraska's philosophy from a run-oriented attack to a pass-oriented scheme in the Bill Callahan era.

21. SOMETHING FOR JOE: Penn State coach Joe Paterno missed a football game for the first time in 29 years, but he had to like what he saw of his team on television.

Tony Hunt rushed for 167 yards and four touchdowns as the Nittany Lions breezed to a 42-0 victory over Temple.

Paterno could only watch the game from home as he recovered from leg surgery after getting hit in a sideline collision last week. Although he wasn't on the field, Paterno remained in his players' thoughts.

He spoke to the team via speakerphone before the game. Penn State offensive tackle Levi Brown said afterward that he planned to give Paterno the game ball.

22. WASHINGTON WASHOUT: Washington's dream season has turned into a nightmare.

The Huskies had emerged as one of the feel-good stories of the year by winning four of their first five games, but everything changed once quarterback Isaiah Stanback went down with a season-ending foot injury.

Washington's six-game losing streak reached its low point Saturday with a 20-3 loss to a winless Stanford team that hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in over a month.

23. HITTING BOTTOM: So much for the theory that Xavier Lee could spark Florida State down the stretch.

The Seminoles can't beat quality opponents no matter who's playing quarterback.

Florida State's fall to the ACC Atlantic Division basement reached its nadir Saturday with the Seminoles' first shutout loss in Bobby Bowden's 31-year coaching tenure. The 30-0 debacle against Wake Forest also represented FSU's most one-sided home loss since they fell 58-14 to Southern Mississippi in 1981, the last year they failed to reach a bowl.

24. BOISE BCS WATCH: You've probably never heard of Anthony Montgomery, but he delivered one of the most clutch performances of the weekend.

Montgomery's 37-yard field goal as time expired gave Boise State a 23-20 victory over San Jose State that kept the Broncos' BCS hopes alive.

The payoff from his kick came Sunday when Boise State moved up to the No. 12 spot in the BCS standings. Boise State earns an automatic BCS berth if it finishes in the top 12, which should happen as long as the Broncos win their final two games against Utah State (1-9) and Nevada (7-3).

25. BYU IS BACK: Boise State may own a perfect record, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Broncos are the best team from a non-BCS conference this year.

That honor may belong to Brigham Young. Since losing in double overtime at Boston College, the Cougars (8-2) have won seven straight games by an average margin of 30.7 points.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has brought a defensive mindset to a program known for its offense. The Cougars have allowed 17 points or less in each of their last seven games.

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