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Senior College Football Columnist

BCS title hopes alive for many teams, but all will depend on chaotic rush to finish line

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Undefeated Mississippi State can really gain national attention if it can knock off Alabama this weekend. (AP)  
Undefeated Mississippi State can really gain national attention if it can knock off Alabama this weekend. (AP)  

The ball? It may have gone to upset heaven. The precious ball that slipped out of Alabama quarterback Don Jacobs' hands should be bronzed somewhere in a Mississippi State trophy case, but like everything that happened that day 32 years ago, it is a memory.

"I held it up, someone came and grabbed it," said Billy Jackson, the Mississippi State defensive end who forced the fumble that altered college football history on Nov. 1, 1980. "I went dancing off the field. It might be in the clubhouse somewhere. That excitement, you forget about."

Jackson was reminded of this week it's been a long time since Starkville enjoyed as much excitement. His fumble recovery near the Mississippi State goal line sealed a 6-3 Bulldog victory that knocked Alabama from the No. 1 ranking. More than that, it ended the Tide's 28-game winning streak, 26-game SEC winning streak and a string of 22 consecutive wins over Mississippi State.

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The Bear himself congratulated the Bulldogs in their own locker room.

"That's hard to forget," said John Bond, the quarterback on that team. "There was kind of a hush that went from the front of the locker room to the back. He told us not let any of these guys fool you, ya'll beat us."

There is a ball on campus at the M-Club covered with players' autographs from that game, but no one is sure if it is the ball. What remains is one big reality: Between that day and 2008, Alabama was ranked No. 1 only one other time -- after the 1993 Sugar Bowl win over Miami.

"As a freshman you don't think it's a big deal," said Jackson, now a high-school teacher in Brandon, Fla. "Then you think about it: 'I stopped Alabama's winning streak.' A lot of kids you tell them about it at school, they don't believe it."

Jackson tells his students to Google the moment.

"It runs through me, brings back memories of the team we had back then," he said.

Remaining opponents avg rank
SchoolRanking
1. USC27.2
2. Alabama34.5*
3. Florida34.7
4. Miss. State35.2*
5. LSU38.2
6. Oregon State38.8*
7. Oklahoma41
8. Kansas State43.2
9. Oregon46.2*
10. Florida State55.5
11. Rutgers59.2*
12. Notre Dame59.6
13. Georgia59.7
14. Louisville64.8*
Opponents Strength of Schedule
SchoolRanking
1. Oklahoma17.66
2. Miss. State17.8*
3. Oregon18*
4. Oregon State20.8*
5. Kansas State21.6
6. Georgia21.7
7. LSU23
8. USC25
9. Alabama25.5*
10. Florida State44.7
11. Notre Dame44.8
12. Florida56.2
13. Louisville78.6*
14. Rutgers82*
* - Has an undefeated team left on its schedule. Note: The strength of schedule is based on Jerry Palm's computer rankings. The rankings are based on how the poll would look at the end of the season.

What about Mississippi State now? The circumstances this week are eerily similar to 1980. While Bulldogs everywhere are hoping that Alabama goes down again, Mississippi State is a national championship afterthought just as it was in 1980. That team was 5-3 going into the Alabama game. This one is undefeated.

No. 1 (again) Alabama goes into Saturday's game a 24-point favorite. (It was 20 points in '80.) It's a well kept secret, then, that No. 13 Mississippi State is attempting to elbow its way into that national championship discussion with another epic upset. This time Alabama has won 11 in a row, 20 of the last 21 and is in line to win a third national championship in four years.

But why not a national championship discussion for Mississippi State? With six weeks left in the season CBSSports.com has narrowed that discussion to 14 teams. The list includes the top nine unbeatens -- Alabama, Florida, Oregon, Kansas State, Notre Dame, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Louisville and Rutgers. It also includes five with one loss -- USC, LSU, Oklahoma, Florida State and Georgia.

Using Jerry Palm's weekly rankings, we averaged the ranking of each team's remaining opponents. (According to Palm, USC has the toughest schedule.) We also averaged those 14 teams' strength of schedule down the stretch -- basically a look at opponents' opponents, thought to be a component of BCS computers. (Oklahoma leads in that category.)

Unbeaten Ohio State was not included because it is not eligible for a bowl. One-loss Clemson is not mentioned because it lost head-to-head to higher-ranked Florida State. Remaining games against FCS (I-AA) teams were not counted.

The advantage in doing this now is that Palm projects forward. His rankings include possible conference championship games. For example, he concludes -- to the consternation of Ducks everywhere -- that USC will win out, beating Oregon twice.

Sure, it's early and only thing we know for sure at this point is this: Any team in this discussion should hope there are only two undefeated teams left and they are one of them. Other than that, pretty much everything else is chaos.

Some notes on the future -- or at least the next six weeks:

Resolving the unbeatens: Six of the nine unbeatens have another unbeaten team left on their regular-season schedule -- Alabama, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Oregon, Rutgers and Louisville. That means a maximum of three unbeatens could come out of this group before conference championship games.

Mississippi State-Alabama (Saturday), Oregon-Oregon State (Dec. 1) and Rutgers-Louisville (Nov. 29) will meet before then.

What are the chances of the SEC playing for a seventh consecutive championship? Good, if you merely consider that Alabama is a powerhouse. Great, if you consider that part of the SEC's success is based on the favorite winning that SEC title game. In other words, upsets in that game have not often clouded the SEC's championship hopes.

If Bama, Mississippi State or Florida win out and take Atlanta, book it. They're in. LSU or Georgia can get there by winning out but may need help. It's still possible that three teams above those two can win out -- Kansas State, Oregon (or Oregon State), Notre Dame.

What are the chances of a one-loss team jumping an undefeated team in the top two?

Zero, says Palm. That squelches talk of a one-loss SEC team moving ahead of, say, of an unbeaten Oregon or Kansas State. A one-loss team has never finished ahead of an undefeated major-conference team in the BCS era. And it's not going to happen this year, Palm says.

Kansas State is a nice story and all but will it stay ahead of Oregon in the BCS? That's where our formula comes in. K-State is No. 3 in the BCS, one spot ahead of Oregon. Kansas State is ahead of Oregon (barely in our rankings) in opponents' average rank and slightly behind it in strength of schedule.

It may come down to the "wow" factor. Oregon impresses each time it hits the field with its speed. Kansas State tends to wear opponents down. With each other's schedules basically cancelling each other out, it may come down to the fact that the Pac-12 plays a championship game and the Big 12 does not.

"No, Kansas State will not hold Oregon off unless they make up significant ground on Oregon in the polls between now and the end of the year [if both stay undefeated]," Palm said.

Oregon's schedule is back-loaded with Oregon State, Stanford and USC (possibly twice). The Ducks already enjoy a significant advantage over Kansas State in the Harris Poll and the coaches' poll.

A conference championship game was the difference in Oklahoma State losing out to Alabama last year by .0086 of a point. The Big 12 is happy with 10 but how long will it be happy with 10 when the Pac-12 and SEC, among others, have an advantage by playing an extra game?

What are the best chances of Alabama losing a game and still playing for the national championship?

If you must lose, it's always better to lose early. It would be best for Alabama to endure that loss against Mississippi State on Saturday or LSU on Nov. 3. But if there are two undefeated teams on top at the end, it doesn't matter.

Oklahoma doesn't think it is out of it, why? The Sooners (No. 8 in the BCS, No. 6 in Palm) may have the best loss of any of the one-loss teams at the moment. Bob Stoops spent time on the Big 12 conference call Monday pumping up Kansas State.

In that Sept. 22, two key fumbles -- one near its own goal line and one near the K-State goal line -- undid the Sooners in a 24-19 loss.

"What people fail to realize is that we played a heck of a game against them," Stoops said.

That's interesting. Oklahoma using Kansas State to make its case.

The Pac-12 is a three-team race: Folks are still figuring out how Oregon State is doing it. You can sense Oregon's unease from down I-5. If the teams reach the Civil War unbeaten on Dec. 1 in Corvallis, why can't the Beavers win?

As of now, there are three SEC teams above Oregon State in the BCS. The Beavers would probably have to hope Kansas State and Notre Dame lose as well.

Meanwhile, don't discount USC coming from behind. The Stanford loss is nearly five weeks old and still looks impressive. The Cardinal remain ranked (19th in AP, 17th in the BCS). To get to the promised land, the Trojans could end up with three top-10 wins down the stretch (Notre Dame and Oregon twice).

It also helps that USC -- according to our formula -- has the toughest schedule left.

What are Notre Dame's chances? A lot of teams have to lose ahead of the Irish considering they are 12th in opponents' average rank and 11th in schedule strength.

Notre Dame plays two more ranked teams -- Oklahoma and USC -- but will be hurt by games against Pittsburgh, Boston College and Wake Forest. Also, playing Michigan State, Navy and Purdue earlier will diminish the overall strength of schedule.

But this is Notre Dame which sometimes operates on ample amounts of magic and fairy dust. Beating USC on national television to end an undefeated regular season is going to give voters pause -- and perhaps inspiration to vote the Irish up.

"I can't remember a time when late in the season one major undefeated teams jumped another in the polls," Palm said. "However, if it were going to happen to anyone it would happen to Notre Dame, because they're Notre Dame -- for no other reason."

What has a better chance -- a snowball in hell or Louisville/Rutgers playing for the national championship? If they get that far undefeated, Louisville and Rutgers will meet in Piscataway on Nov. 29 with the Big East title on the line. It seems as if that's all that will be on the line.

While the two schools, along with Cincinnati, have raised the maligned Big East's profile this season, there is a lead ceiling above their championship hopes. The Scarlet Knights and Cardinals are stacked 15th and 16th in the BCS between one-loss Texas Tech (No. 14) and two-loss Stanford (No. 17).

"Voters don't respect the Big East enough for them to move up," Palm said. "They could get into the top 10, might even get into the top five. But top two is not realistic."

As for Jackson, Florida high-school teacher and Mississippi State hero? The man knows more about the process than he lets on. Covered in 32-year old glory, he does sound a lot like a BCS administrator this week. Mississippi State worked its way up to No. 16 in Palm's rankings, No. 11 in the BCS.

"If we win, and we keep winning," Jackson said, "it will work itself out."


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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