College football: How the conference races are shaping up
Ask any college football coach or player at the start of the season what the No. 1 goal is and the all-but-inevitable answer is "Win the conference."
It's a safe cliche and not quite as exciting as saying, "National championship or bust!" but it's the truth. It's the one thing in major college football that is decided solely on what happens on the field — last year's three-way tie in the Big 12 South being the exception to the rule.
With less than a month left in the season, here's a look at the conference races and where they are headed.
ACC No. 7 Georgia Tech (Coastal) and No. 24 Clemson (Atlantic) control the division races and have manageable remaining schedules. Only a significant upsets stands in the way of the Tigers and Yellow Jackets meeting in the ACC championship game for trip to Orange Bowl. If Tech loses the ACC title game, at 11-2 it would still be a candidate for a BCS at-large bid — though not a particularly attractive one.
Big East The Big East doesn't have a conference championship game, but No. 5 Cincinnati at No. 8 Pittsburgh on Dec. 5 is shaping up to be just that — provided West Virginia doesn't blow up those plans. The Mountaineers play both the Panthers and Bearcats over the next three weeks. Question: If the Bearcats and Panthers both finish 11-1, could the Big East get two teams in the BCS for the first time?
Big Ten Simple: No. 15 Iowa and No. 10 Ohio State play for the league title Saturday in Columbus. The winner gets a Rose Bowl bid. Iowa would still be in the BCS at-large mix if it losses, then beats Minnesota the following week. An Ohio State loss probably means no BCS bid for Buckeyes for first time since 2005. Penn State and Wisconsin could cosmetically share the conference crown with Iowa or Ohio State (or both). Potential BCS controversy: Penn State at 10-2 gets selected for an at-large bid over Iowa at 10-2. The Hawkeyes beat the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley.
Big 12 Only a major meltdown will keep Texas out of the conference title game, where the Longhorns will face whatever sacrificial lamb wins the Big 12 North. Kansas State and Nebraska control their destinies in the North and play each other Nov. 21. If Texas falls apart, Oklahoma State could sneak in and take the South. If not, the Cowboys would be in the BCS at-large mix if they finish 10-2.
Conference USA Houston (West) and East Carolina (East) lead the races to the conference championship game. The Cougars are in better shape than the Pirates, who still have to play second-place Southern Miss. The league winner goes to the Liberty Bowl. Houston still has BCS hopes, but the planets would truly have to align for the Cougars.
MAC Who's pumped for that Temple-Central Michigan conference title game? Not so fast. Northern Illinois could still take out CMU in the West and Ohio can catch the Owls in the East. The two division races should come down Temple at Ohio and Central Michigan against Northern Illinois on Nov. 27, which — in true MAC-fashion — is a Friday.
MWC No. 16 Utah at No. 4 TCU on Saturday could all but decide the conference title and the Horned Frogs' BCS fate. The Horned Frogs will be home free if they can handle the Utes, with Wyoming and New Mexico remaining. The Utes still have a big game against BYU to finish the season, so a three-way tie for the league crown is still possible. That would be great for the Utes and Cougars, but bad for the conference, which could lose millions of BCS bucks.
Pac-10 It's a potential mess, with five teams still in the running. Here's the simple solution: The winner of Oregon-Arizona wins the league and heads to the Rose Bowl. Stanford, USC and Oregon State also are still in it. As for potential BCS at-large picks, all you need to know is this: If the Trojans finish 10-2, they're practically a lock to get into the BCS.
SEC The simplest of them all — sort of. Undefeated and No. 1 Florida vs. undefeated and No. 3 Alabama play for the SEC title on Dec. 5 and a spot in the national championship game. The loser goes to the Sugar Bowl. Now if either team stumbles on the way to Atlanta, it doesn't necessarily eliminate that team from playing for the national title as long as it wins at the Georgia Dome. And a rematch in Pasadena is not totally out of the question, either. But that's a long story.
Sun Belt Troy is unbeaten in the league, with a one-game lead and victories already in hand over its nearest competitors. Looks like its back to the New Orleans Bowl for the Trojans.
WAC With all the talk of Boise State and the BCS, the Broncos are nowhere close to wrapping up the conference title. Nevada is unbeaten in the league and a half-game ahead of the Broncos in the standings. Boise State hosts Nevada on Nov. 27 in the toughest of the Broncos' four remaining games. Unless TCU takes a tumble, Boise State is staring at another undefeated regular season that doesn't lead to the BCS.