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November 3, 2008

Conference races really heating up

RELATED: Week 10: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 10 Awards

It's early November, which means everyone is focused on the BCS. But the conference races are especially intriguing this season. Here's a look at how they're going in the "Big Six" conferences.

ACC
The Lowdown: For sheer entertainment value, the ACC has been tremendous this season. There seemingly is an upset every week, and teams that previously were thought to be dead and buried (Maryland, Virginia) have awakened and are in the title mix. The Coastal Division race is especially close, with five of the six teams having two league losses. Duke, with three losses, looks to be the only division member that doesn't have a chance. In the Atlantic Division, Maryland leads the way with one league loss, and Florida State and Wake Forest are a game behind in the loss column. There are three huge Thursday night games one in each of the next three weeks, starting with this Thursday's Maryland-Virginia Tech game. The others are Virginia Tech at Miami on Nov. 13, and Miami at Georgia Tech on Nov. 20.
Key games: Maryland at Virginia Tech, Nov. 6; Virginia at Wake Forest, Nov. 8; Georgia Tech at North Carolina, Nov. 8; Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 13; North Carolina at Maryland, Nov. 15; Miami at Georgia Tech, Nov. 20; Florida State at Maryland, Nov. 22; Virginia at Virginia Tech, Nov. 29.
Projected division winners: North Carolina in the Coastal, Maryland in the Atlantic.
Projected winner: North Carolina.
National title contenders: None.

BIG EAST
The Lowdown: West Virginia started 1-2 overall and suddenly the league looked wide open. But the Mountaineers are the only team unbeaten in league play, and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are the only teams with just one league loss. Everybody else appears to need too much help.
Key games: Cincinnati at West Virginia, Nov. 8; Cincinnati at Louisville, Nov. 14; West Virginia at Louisville, Nov. 14; Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, Nov. 22; West Virginia at Pittsburgh; Nov. 28; Pittsburgh at Connecticut, Dec. 6;
Projected winner: West Virginia.
National title contenders: None.

BIG TEN
The Lowdown: This is Penn State's to win or lose, as the case may be. The league as a whole is down, and the Nittany Lions, Michigan State and Ohio State are the only teams with fewer than two league losses. Penn State already has beaten Ohio State, which already has drilled Michigan State. If form follows, Penn State's home game against the Spartans will determine the league champ. But there still are a few other intriguing games, as well.
Key games: Penn State at Iowa, Nov. 8; Ohio State at Illinois, Nov. 15; Michigan State at Penn State, Nov. 22;
Projected winner: Penn State.
National title contender: Penn State.

BIG 12
The Lowdown: Missouri looks to be the best team in the Big 12 North, and its game against Kansas on Nov. 29 likely will determine the division titlist. But the South is like a puzzle missing a few pieces it's hard to tell what it's going to look like when it's done. Texas Tech is the only division team without a loss, but the Red Raiders still have to play Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which still are in the running for the division title. And don't forget Texas, which is the only team to beat the Sooners and Cowboys. It's not far-fetched to think the division could have three teams end up 7-1 in the league but which three is the question. The Big 12 South's top four teams also have shots at the national title, though Oklahoma State needs a lot of things to happen.
Key games: Oklahoma State at Texas Tech, Nov. 8; Texas at Kansas, Nov. 15; Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Nov. 22; Kansas vs. Missouri in Kansas City, Mo., Nov. 29; Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Nov. 29.
Projected division winners: Missouri in the North, Texas in the South.
Projected winner: Texas.
National title contenders: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech.

PAC-10
The Lowdown: California, Oregon State and USC each have one league loss, but the Trojans do not control their own destiny; Cal and Oregon State do. Cal plays the Beavers and Trojans on the road. Stanford has two league losses, but thanks to its wins over Oregon State and Arizona, the Cardinal also has a shot at the league title albeit a small one. The Cardinal must win out (they still have to play Cal and USC) and have Oregon State lose once.
Key games: California at USC, Nov. 8; Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 8; California at Oregon State, Nov. 15; USC at Stanford, Nov. 15; Oregon State at Arizona, Nov. 22; Oregon at Oregon State, Nov. 29.
Projected winner: USC.
National title contender: USC.

SEC
The Lowdown: Alabama and Florida are steaming toward SEC title game appearances. Alabama can lock up the SEC West with a win at LSU on Saturday. The Gators can clinch the SEC Eastern Division title with a win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. Alabama can afford a loss to LSU and still win the West, but a loss to LSU would all but end the Tide's national title hopes.
Projected division winners: Florida in the East, Alabama in the West.
Projected winner: Florida.
National title contenders: Alabama, Florida.

Here's a look at the non-"Big Sixers." No non-"Big Sixer" has a realistic shot at the national title, but a few have a shot at a BCS bid.

CONFERENCE USA
The Lowdown: Despite its first loss of the season, at Arkansas on Saturday, Tulsa still looks like the class of the league assuming the setback doesn't send the Golden Hurricane into a tailspin. Crosstown foes Houston and Rice still have a shot at the C-USA West title, too. In the East, it looks like a two-team race between East Carolina which garnered a lot of national attention early before returning to earth and Marshall. They play this weekend.
Key games: Marshall at East Carolina, Nov. 8; Tulsa at Houston, Nov. 15; Marshall at Rice, Nov. 22; UTEP at East Carolina, Nov. 28; Houston at Rice, Nov. 29; Tulsa at Marshall, Nov. 29.
Projected division winners: East Carolina in the East, Tulsa in the West.
Projected winner: Tulsa.
BCS contenders: None

MID-AMERICAN
The Lowdown: Both division races are close the West because there are some good teams, the East because there is a lot of mediocrity. Ball State and Central Michigan are atop the West standings, and they're the only teams in the league without a conference loss. Ball State still has a shot at a BCS bid, and the Cardinals' game at Central Michigan on Nov. 19 could end up being the biggest game in school history if they're unbeaten headed into the matchup. Central is the two-time defending league champ. Northern Illinois and Western Michigan also are in the mix. The East is a mess. No one is over .500 in league play; Akron and Buffalo are at .500 and everyone else is below. Both play league games in the middle of this week Buffalo on Tuesday against Miami and Akron on Wednesday against Toledo. Both division winners are guaranteed bowl bids, assuming they are above .500 overall. Miami won the East last season but finished 6-7 and didn't go to a bowl.
Key games: Northern Illinois at Ball State, Wednesday; Central Michigan at Northern Illinois, Nov. 12; Buffalo at Akron, Nov. 13; Ball State at Central Michigan, Nov. 19; Buffalo at Bowling Green, Nov. 21; Western Michigan at Ball State, Nov. 25; Akron at Temple, Nov. 28.
Projected division winners: Buffalo in the East, Central Michigan in the West.
Projected winner: Central Michigan.
BCS contenders: Ball State.

MOUNTAIN WEST
The Lowdown: This easily is the strongest of the non-"Big Sixers," and Thursday night's TCU-at-Utah game is a monster showdown. They are the only two unbeaten teams in league play, and Utah also is unbeaten overall and in good shape for a BCS bid if it wins out. TCU already owns a 25-point win over BYU, and if the Horned Frogs can get past the Utes, a BCS bid could be there for the taking. That said, a season-ending game against Air Force which has one league loss could be interesting. Utah beat Air Force, which still has to play BYU. The regular-season finale in Salt Lake City between BYU and Utah also looms.
Key games: TCU at Utah, Thursday; BYU at Air Force, Nov. 15; Air Force at TCU, Nov. 22; BYU at Utah, Nov. 22.
Projected winner: Utah.
BCS contenders: TCU, Utah.

SUN BELT
The Lowdown: Louisiana-Lafayette is the only team unbeaten in league play. It looked as if the Nov. 22 ULL-Troy game would pit two unbeaten teams in league play, but Troy was stunned by a bad Louisiana-Monroe team Saturday. That was Troy's first league loss. The only other team with one league loss is Arkansas State, whose loss came to ULL.
Key games: Louisiana-Lafayette at Troy, Nov. 22; Arkansas State at Troy, Dec. 6.
Projected winner: Troy.
BCS contenders: None

WESTERN ATHLETIC
The Lowdown: Boise State is the only team unbeaten in league play, and there is just one team with one loss San Jose State. Boise already has beaten the Spartans, which basically gives the Broncos a two-game lead. But Boise State really isn't worried about the conference race. The Broncos are hoping they can finish unbeaten and get back to the BCS for the second time in three seasons.
Key game: Boise State at Nevada, Nov. 22.
Projected winner: Boise State.
National title contenders: None.

Whew!

The Big Ten was the place to be Saturday. There were five games involving league teams, and none of the five was decided by more than a touchdown.

Further, four came down to the final 30 seconds:

Northwestern scored on an interception return with 12 seconds left to beat Minnesota 24-27.

Michigan State kicked a field goal with seven seconds left to edge Wisconsin 25-24.

Purdue scored on a hook-and-ladder play with 26 seconds left to down Michigan 48-42.

Illinois kicked a field goal with 24 seconds left to defeat Iowa 27-24.

In the other game, Central Michigan edged Indiana 37-34 but the winning touchdown came with 8:52 left, making that one dull by Saturday's standards in the Big Ten.

Grid Bits

Georgia's Matthew Stafford and Florida's Tim Tebow were in the same recruiting class and both were considered among the top three quarterbacks nationally. Saturday's game may have been their last meeting as collegians, because Stafford is expected to go pro. As freshmen, Stafford started for the Bulldogs but Tebow was a key component of UF's national title team as a reserve. As sophomores, Tebow won the Heisman but Stafford won the head-to-head meeting and the Bulldogs finished ahead of the Gators in the SEC East. Saturday's win basically guarantees that Florida wins the SEC East this season, and Stafford's three second-half interceptions played a huge part in Florida's 39-point victory. While Tebow is going to wind up with the more successful college career, Stafford looks as if he could make more NFL money than his counterpart.

BYU's come-from-behind 45-42 victory over Colorado State definitely was a family affair for the Cougars. BYU QB Max Hall threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to TE Dennis Pitta, including the game-winner with 22 seconds. Hall and Pitta are brothers-in-law, married to sisters. The Halls have been married for two years, the Pittas for just over two months.

UNDER-THE-RADAR GAMES
At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot more interesting.
Louisville at Pittsburgh, noon: Louisville is coming off an embarrassing loss at Syracuse and needs a win to get back in the race for the Big East crown. Meanwhile, which Pitt team will show up the one that got blown out at home by Rutgers or the won that went on the road and won in overtime at Notre Dame?
Illinois vs. Western Michigan in Detroit: Western Michigan is 7-2 and can take a big step toward a possible bowl bid with a victory over the Illini, who are coming off a win over Iowa. Western Michigan has a chance if QB Tim Hiller has a big day. This could be a shootout and should be fun to watch.
Virginia at Wake Forest, 3:30 p.m.: This has the look of a close one in the wild and wacky ACC. Both appear to be in OK shape for a bowl bid but in the ACC, you never know. Wake started fast, but has cooled off. UVa started miserably, but steadily has improved.
Texas Tech's victory over Texas was the 500th in school history and the first over a top-ranked team.

Oklahoma's game against Nebraska was over early. OU scored on its first possession. On Nebraska's first play of the game, QB Joe Ganz threw an interception that Dominique Franks returned for a touchdown. On the second play of Nebraska's next possession, the Huskers fumbled; OU scored three plays later to make it 21-0. On the second play of Nebraska's next possession, Ganz threw another interception. OU scored on its first play of the ensuing possession to make it 28-0 with 9:32 left in the first quarter.

Give it up for Iowa State true freshman CB Leonard Johnson. He set a FBS (i.e., Division I-A) record with 319 kickoff-return yards in the Cyclones' loss to Oklahoma State. He compiled the yardage on nine kickoff returns. His two longest covered 72 and 73 yards. The record had been 282 by Clemson's Justin Miller against Florida State in 2004.

Some numbers from the weekend: Ole Miss' victory over Auburn gave the Rebels three SEC wins in their first season under coach Houston Nutt. That's as many as the Rebels managed in three seasons under former coach Ed Orgeron. Arkansas beat Tulsa 30-23 and held the Golden Hurricane scoreless in the fourth quarter. That was the first time Tulsa was held scoreless in a quarter this season. Army threw the ball 26 times in its 16-7 loss to Air Force, more than a quarter of its 93 attempts this season. UNLV scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in its 44-14 loss to TCU. That score was noteworthy because those were the first points allowed by TCU in the fourth period this season. The Horned Frogs now have outscored foes 85-7 in the quarter. Oklahoma State has started 8-1 for just the third time in school history, and the Cowboys have won eight games in a season for the first time since 2003. Boise State beat New Mexico State 49-0. In the past two seasons, Boise has beaten the Aggies by a combined 107-0. USC scored touchdowns on its first six possessions in its 56-0 victory over Washington. That means the Trojans beat the Pac-10's two Washington schools by a combined 125-0.

RELATED: Week 10: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 10 Awards

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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