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Championship game ... or not?

| Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

College football conferences can be broken down into the haves and the have-nots.

We're not talking relative strength of the member teams, but rather the presence, or absence, of a conference championship game.

The split is even among six Bowl Championship Series conferences with automatic BCS berths to their winners. The Big 12, SEC and ACC all have championship games between division winners. The Big Ten, Pac-10 and Big East all lack conference championship games, and the requisite number of teams -- 12 -- in order to have such contests.

Both setups have pros and cons to them.

For all the argument that conference championship games mandate one more difficult game and another chance to stumble, thereby appearing to be a disadvantage when trying to reach the BCS title game, recent history suggests otherwise.

The past three BCS champions -- LSU, Florida and Texas -- had to win conference championship games to reach the BCS title game.

The victims in those three BCS title games -- Ohio State (twice) and USC -- came from conferences without championship games.

While the conference championship game is another difficult test, it's also another chance to impress the computers or human pollsters who collectively determine the BCS standings.

It's also another game played closer chronologically to the championship game. With the BCS title game now running after the traditional bowl dates -- this year Jan. 8 in Miami -- teams without the conference championship games have longer layoffs.

The Big Ten is most notable on that front. Because of the geographic location of its schools, mostly in the northern reaches of the Midwest, the Big Ten tries to end its regular-season schedule early. In each of the past two seasons, Ohio State had been idle much longer than its BCS title game opposition.

Penn State, No. 3 in the current BCS standings, plays its final game Nov. 22. If the Lions can work their way up to a top-two spot and land in the BCS title game, the opposition almost certainly would have played in a Dec. 6 conference championship game. That would mean a one-month layoff for the team from the conference with a championship game, vs. six idle weeks for Penn State.

The early read on the conference championship games likely to factor at the top of the BCS standings are mixed.

In the Big 12, Texas is No. 1 and the favorite to win the South, presuming it takes care of business Saturday against Texas Tech. Although Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas are tied atop the Big 12 North, Missouri would be the favorite to win it, meaning a possible Texas-Missouri rematch. That was a 56-31 Texas romp the first time around.

It's more interesting in the SEC. Pencil in BCS No. 2 team Alabama to win the SEC West.

Georgia and Florida, each 4-1 in the SEC East play Saturday. If Georgia goes on to take the East, that could set up rematch with Alabama, which crushed the Bulldogs, 41-30, in an earlier meeting. Florida-Alabama, however, would be a first-time matchup this season.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

The Top 5 of this week's BCS Standings show that some teams can win despite penalty problems.

School-BCS rank-Penalty rank

Texas-No. 1-No. 81, 55.9 yds/g

Alabama-No. 2-No. 18, 38.6 yds/g

Penn State-No. 3-No. 4, 26.4 yds/g

Oklahoma-No. 4-(tie) No. 95, 64.3 yds/g

USC-No. 5-No. 113, 73.3 yds/g

YOU, AGAIN?

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Nebraska counterpart Bo Pelini are good friends who attended Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. They previously coached together at Oklahoma in 2004, when the Sooners won a Big 12 Conference title.

They were in Youngstown together last summer attending a fund-raiser for their school and joked about facing each other in Saturday's matchup in Norman, OK.

Stoops, who is 3-1 against the Cornhuskers in his tenure and will be trying to protect a 22-game home winning streak (the nation's longest), admitted this week that he is not a fan of coaching against his friends in the business, but neither coach is worried about the outcome affecting their relationship.

"This game is about a lot more than he and I," Stoops said. "It's been going on for a long time, and it will be going on a long time after us."

BOWL DEVILS

After going 1-11 in 2007, Duke, 4-3, needs two wins to earn a bowl berth this season, and its last five games are all ACC contests, including Saturday at Wake Forest.

"I told them (his players) Sunday, November is so great," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "You get to decide who the conference champions are, or who may play in the conference title game. You got the battle going on for the national championship game. You got the battle for echelons of bowl games. You got the battles to get into bowl games.

"Then I looked at them and said, 'Welcome to November.' This is their first chance in November. How about that?"

DEFINING BIG

Big games are becoming old hat for Texas, which plays its fourth consecutive game vs. an unbeaten, highly ranked opponent Saturday when the No. 1 Longhorns travel to No. 6 Texas Tech.

Judging by rankings alone, it will be the biggest game ever to be played in Lubbock's Jones AT&T Stadium.

It's so big that on Sunday, ESPN's "College Football GameDay" traveling road show announced it would be in Lubbock for the first time. ABC picked it for a prime-time national telecast.

But Tech coach Mike Leach was parsing the language to tamp down enthusiasm in the wake of his team blasting Kansas 63-21 last weekend.

"I don't think there are any biggest games ever played anywhere," Leach said. "I mean, all of them leading up to this were pretty big, too, if that's going to make the next one big at all. We just have to do the same stuff . . . prepare well and see where it takes us."

Texas is 8-2 against Tech during Mack Brown's tenure, but both losses have come in Lubbock

BLAME GAME

USC, despite being ranked No. 7 by AP and rating No. 5 in the BCS Standings, is hearing criticism for lackluster wins, including the 17-10 victory over Arizona last weekend.

Coach Pete Carroll was criticized for his team punting with 23 seconds left on the play clock late in the game, instead of running it down closer to zero.

"We didn't handle that right," he conceded.

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is taking heat for the offensive struggles of late after looking so good in one-sided wins over Virginia and Ohio State.

Sarkisian suggested that quarterback Mark Sanchez is pressing.

"He tries too hard to make it work," Sarkisian said. "But he'll be fine."

BEST BETS

Lion eyes

Wisconsin at Michigan State (Noon, Saturday, ESPN/ESPN 360): Penn State fans, who will spend the day rooting against Texas and Alabama, should save some invest some enthusiasm on No. 22 Michigan State. Penn State closes the season with the Spartans, and it's in the Lions' interest that Sparty wins ahead of that.

Revenge bowl

Florida vs. Georgia (3:30 p.m., Saturday, CBS): Remember last year's game and Georgia's mass touchdown celebration early• Florida's coaches and players do, although they didn't speak of it this week. Georgia was silent on the matter, too. Expect much talking on the subject after this one.

Eyes on Texas

Texas at Texas Tech (8 p.m., Saturday, ABC): It's another week, another unbeaten, highly regarded opponent for the Longhorns. If Texas can win this one, it would complete a perfect record against a brutal month of games. Tech is looking to make a statement of its own, both in and beyond the Lone Star State.

Memories

Nebraska at Oklahoma (8 p.m., Saturday, ESPN/ESPN 360): Once upon a time, this rivalry went a long way toward determining the national champion. These days, it's not even the top game in the Big 12. The Sooners still have big hopes. The Cornhuskers are looking to survive.

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