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Breaking down the conference races

| Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006

With conference play about to hit full gear, here's what to watch for in the races for automatic bids to the Bowl Championship Series:


ACC

The potential for a wild and muddled race is great. Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division and Clemson in the Atlantic look like the only teams capable of pulling away. Don't bet on it.

Miami and Florida State shouldn't be counted out. The Hurricanes get the Hokies at home on Nov. 4. The Seminoles have a favorable schedule, with road games at North Carolina State and Maryland and a home game against Boston College as the toughest tests.

Georgia Tech could get in the mix, but the Yellow Jackets have to play at Virginia Tech, at Clemson and have Miami at home.


BIG EAST

West Virginia and Louisville. Louisville and West Virginia. The Big East's two heavyweights appear on course for a huge showdown on Nov. 2 in Kentucky. Unless something weird happens, that Thursday night game will feature two 7-0, top-10 teams.

The banged up Cardinals, playing without QB Brian Brohm (hand) and RB Michael Bush (leg), play Middle Tennessee, Cincinnati and Syracuse before the Mountaineers come to town. They hope to have Brohm back for West Virginia. The Mountaineers' next three opponents are Mississippi State, Syracuse and Connecticut.

But don't just assume the league title will be decided when Louisville and West Virginia play. Both teams play Rutgers, South Florida and Pitt after they play each other.


BIG TEN

The conference title will be decided — one way or another — Nov. 18 in Columbus when Ohio State plays Michigan. Best case scenario for the Buckeyes and Wolverines, it'll be the Big Ten game of the century between two unbeaten teams, playing for a spot in the BCS title game.

There are hurdles to clear for both on the way, though, the toughest being Iowa. In a Big Ten that isn't as deep as last season, the Hawkeyes appear best equipped to get in the way of the Michigan-Ohio State mania. The Buckeyes visit Iowa City on Saturday night.

Another potential problem, if you want to call it that: Purdue doesn't play either Ohio State or Michigan.


BIG 12

The South is all about Texas and Oklahoma, and — as usual — the winner in Dallas in two weeks takes a giant step toward playing in the conference title game.

File Texas Tech and Texas A&M under pretenders until further notice.

The North was supposed to be Nebraska's to run away with, and still may be. Missouri has emerged as the Cornhuskers' main competitor. They play Nov. 4 in Lincoln.

Iowa State's problem is the schedule. The Cyclones play both Oklahoma and Texas out of the South. The good news is they get both Missouri and Nebraska at home.


PAC-10

Once again, everybody's chasing Southern California, which has won four straight league titles. And the teams with the best chance to knock off the Trojans have to do it in the Los Angeles Coliseum, where they've won 28 straight.

Maybe Oregon and California can wear down USC. The Ducks play at the Coliseum on Nov. 11 and the Bears follow the next week. Cal and Oregon play each other Oct. 7.

Arizona State has shown no ability to beat good teams in recent seasons and the gap between the top teams and the rest of the league seems fairly wide.

USC's toughest road game might be a bus ride to Pasadena for UCLA on Dec. 2 in the season finale.


SEC

The Southeastern Conference has already had it's first major shakeout, with Auburn beating LSU and Florida knocking off Tennessee two weeks ago. But there's much more fun to come.

In the West, Auburn and LSU are in a two-team race. Auburn's still got games against Florida, Georgia and Alabama. LSU plays Florida, Tennessee and Alabama.

Georgia still gets its shots at Florida and Tennessee in the East. How about the Gators' schedule with LSU, Auburn and Alabama• And Steve Spurrier brings South Carolina to Gainesville on Nov. 11.

The bottom of the league isn't very scary, but those five heavy-hitters (Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee) should make for two entertaining races to the SEC title game in Atlanta.


In the other leagues:

While TCU worries about finishing undefeated and reaching the BCS, Utah will make the Horned Frogs work just to win the Mountain West Conference. .... Boise State is still the class of the Western Athletic Conference. ... The favorites in Conference USA• Try Houston in the West and Southern Miss in the East. ... In the Mid-American Conference, the West looks like the stronger division with Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and Western Michigan. Kent State could take advantage of a down year in the East. ... As for the Sun Belt, we'll take a pass.

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