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Stewart Mandel The Weekend That Was

Don't forget about LSU

OU-USC may be the game, but Tigers could have compelling argument

Updated: Tuesday November 25, 2003 10:36AM
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  Kevin Steltz
Kevin Steltz and the Tigers walked out of Oxford with a 17-14 win Saturday.
AP

They were celebrating in L.A. on Saturday before Chris Perry even had a chance to clench his first rose stem.

ESPN's GameDay crew noted Saturday night that it's only six weeks until "the game everyone's been waiting to see."

UCLA's players, having lost to both Oklahoma and USC, offered their opinions on who would win.

All of which had to leave a whole lot of Louisianans saying, "Umm ... hello?"

The issue of who deserves the No. 2 spot in the BCS is, at least in this writer's opinion, far from settled, mostly because LSU is going to have a lot to say about it over the next two weeks.

Having gone into one of the most treacherous situations imaginable Saturday and handing Ole Miss its first SEC loss, 17-14, the Tigers will now take on 8-3 Arkansas on Friday. If they win that, their likely reward is a championship-game rematch with what would be a 10-2 Georgia team -- at the heavily partisan Georgia Dome, no less.

The fact is that if LSU manages to win both -- combined with the Ole Miss victory and its previous win over Georgia -- no one could possibly say they've accomplished less than the Trojans. The Tigers will have beaten five teams with at least eight wins (Georgia twice, Ole Miss and Arkansas) and lost to another (Florida), while USC, which finishes with 7-4 Oregon State, will have beaten no more than two eight-win teams (9-3 Washington State and 7-4 Hawaii, which has two games left) and lost to a 7-6 Cal team.

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Nevertheless, America has fallen in love with the Trojans, and understandably so. USC is a big-city program with one of the sport's greatest traditions, and its team is a spitting image of the recent Miami dynasty, oozing with athleticism and a seemingly unlimited supply of playmakers. Having won their last six games by scores of 44-21, 45-14, 43-23, 43-16, 45-0 and 47-22, it's easy to see why, to the naked eye, they're the more powerful team.

The reality, however, is that only one of their opponents during that stretch has a winning record.

While LSU doesn't often put that many points, they also give up far fewer -- a nation's-best 9.4 per game, in fact. USC's defense is good, but the Tigers' is at a whole different level -- Oklahoma's.

In Saturday's game, Ole Miss, which had been averaging nearly 460 yards per game, managed just 227, with Eli Manning completing only 16 of 36 passes. Fittingly, the outcome was decided when Manning tripped over the feet of offensive lineman Doug Buckles while dropping back on fourth and 10. It wasn't entirely his fault -- LSU nose tackle Chad Lavalais, a sure first-team All-America and leader of the Tigers' fierce defensive line, got that much push on Buckles.

Mathematically, the race between USC and LSU figures to be even closer than the Ole Miss game, with the Trojans holding the advantage.

"LSU's got a shot," CollegeBCS.com's Jerry Palm said. "They don't have as good a shot as Ohio State did, but they've got a shot."

Weighed down by non-conference games against Arizona (2-9), Louisiana-Monroe (1-11), Louisiana Tech (5-6) and I-AA Western Illinois, the Tigers' schedule strength is currently ranked 22 spots behind USC's, though it will be boosted enough the next two weeks to surpass the Trojans'. The problem is, they're already a point behind in the human polls and another two points in the computers, not to mention that by beating Georgia, they'll lose quality-win points.

"LSU has played teams on both ends of the extreme; USC has played a lot of teams in the middle," said Palm. "It's going to come down to strength of schedule."

In other words, the Sugar Bowl berth ultimately be decided not by USC beating Oregon State or LSU beating Arkansas and Georgia, but Florida (an LSU opponent) beating Florida State, Notre Dame (a USC opponent) losing to Stanford or Syracuse, and, in what could become the biggest game of the year, LSU opponent Alabama beating Trojans opponent Hawaii.

Said Palm: "We could see a real nail-biter."

Darren Sproles, RB, Kansas State

One player alone cannot win a football game, but he can gain more yardage than the other team. With 42 carries for 273 yards and two touchdowns and another 12 yards on two receptions, K-State's speedy tailback outgained Missouri 285-264 in a 24-14 win that earned the Wildcats' a spot in the Big 12 championship game. The 5-foot-7 junior set school records for both yards and carries and broke his own single-season rushing record in the process (he has 1,713 with two more games to go). This despite going the entire game without breaking a run longer than 22 yards. Sproles' performance proved especially important, as QB Ell Roberson was not particularly effective passing against the Tigers, and K-State's usual 1-2 punch became more of a 1-1-1-1 ... Now comes a much bigger challenge: running against No. 1 Oklahoma's defense in Kansas City in two weeks.

Michigan

The theory coming into the game was that Chris Perry would have a hard time running against Ohio State's top-ranked rush defense, so it would be up to QB John Navarre to avoid mistakes and beat the Buckeyes with his arm, also a question mark. It turned out, the Wolverines would have no problem doing any of that. Perry was sensational, Navarre nearly flawless and receiver Braylon Edwards unstoppable in Michigan's Rose Bowl-clinching 35-21 victory. Truth is, offense was never really the problem for the Wolverines this season. Defense and special teams were what did them in against Oregon and Iowa, and in fact, the defense had its troubles against Ohio State's normally lackluster offense. And as much as it pains the Rose Bowl, the best thing that could have happened was getting highly overrated Washington State out of the picture. Now we're looking at Michigan against the likes of LSU, Texas or Florida State, any of which would make for a compelling matchup.

LSU 17, Ole Miss 14

The SEC's and CBS' seasonlong dominance in the game-of-the-week department continued with another back-and-forth, last-minute thriller. In one of the most charged atmospheres you'll ever see, the Tigers ruined Eli Manning and the Rebels' storybook ending, but only after a flurry of late-game activity. LSU had gone up 17-7 on the first play of the fourth quarter when previously struggling Matt Mauck hit Devery Henderson for a 53-yard touchdown pass, but Manning helped the Rebels cut it to 17-14 with his own heroics, a 10-yard floater to Brandon Jacobs on third and goal, and appeared to be doing it again with his improbable heave to Billy Flowers on their next possession. That play helped set up a potential game-tying field goal with 4:15 left, but Ole Miss kicker Jonathan Nichols, who had made 23 of 24 attempts coming into the game, inexplicably missed his second try of the game from just 36 yards. Still, when the Rebels got the ball back on their own 32 with 2:16 remaining, the whole stadium must have felt they were about to watch magic. Instead, LSU's aggressive defense, which had been blitzing the heck out of Manning all day, forced three straight incompletions before Manning's slip on fourth and 10.

With an unbelievable 16-catch, 245-yard, two-touchdown performance against Stanford, Cal receiver Geoff McArthur has gained 627 yards his past four games and trails only Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald with 1,504 on the season. ... With its 28-23 loss to Auburn, Alabama clinched its third losing season in seven years after having just one in the previous 38 years. ... Washington State, which dropped its sixth straight Apple Cup on Saturday, is 0-3 against Washington the past three seasons, 29-5 against everyone else. ... Washington is 18-16 in non-Apple Cup games during the same span. ... Utah's 3-0 win over BYU marked the first time a team had shut out the Cougars since 1975. ... West Virginia receiver Chris Henry caught six passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the Mountaineers' 34-23 win over Syracuse, their sixth straight. ... USC's Mike Williams caught 11 passes for 181 yards -- including eight for 139 in the first quarter -- and two touchdowns in the Trojans' 47-22 win over UCLA. ... The Trojans held the Bruins to 11 yards rushing. ... After going 22-of-32 for 394 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against Texas Tech, Oklahoma's Jason White has thrown 40 touchdowns against just six interceptions. ... Sooners RB Kejuan Jones scored five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) in the 56-25 win. ... Oklahoma State freshman Vernand Morency ran 32 times for 227 yards -- his second straight 200-yard performance -- in the Cowboys' 38-21 win at Baylor. ... In his home finale, Michigan State QB Jeff Smoker threw for 359 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-10 win over Penn State. ... The game marked an 85-point turnaround from last year's 61-7 Nittany Lions win over the Spartans. ... Penn State finished with its worst record (3-9) in school history. ... In its 38-20 win over Illinois, Northwestern ran 70 times for 444 yards, with Jason Wright running 42 times for 251 yards and four touchdowns and Noah Herron gaining 163. ... Illinois, two years removed from a 10-2, Big Ten title season, finished 2003 without a single win over a I-A opponent. ... ... Auburn's Carnell Williams carried 26 times for 204 yards and two scores in the Tigers' Iron Bowl win. ... Boston College's Derrick Knight carried 38 times for 197 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the Eagles' all-time leading rusher in their 34-27 win over Virginia Tech. ... With its 30-22 win at North Carolina, Duke ended a 13-year losing streak to the Tar Heels and a 16-game ACC road skid. .... ... Pittsburgh's Brandon Miree carried 27 times for 188 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-16 win over Temple. ... Boise State clinched at least a share of its second straight WAC title with its 16th straight conference victory, 31-17 at Fresno State. ... A year removed from 2-10, Kansas became bowl eligible for the first time since 1995 with a 36-7 trouncing of Iowa State.

The BCS standings were officially intended to determine only the two participants in the national championship game and the eligible teams for a BCS at-large berth. A couple of conferences, however, have adopted them for their own use, which will make for a pretty strange finish to their respective races.

In the Big East, should Pittsburgh beat Miami and West Virginia beat Temple next weekend, the Panthers and Mountaineers would finish tied for first at 6-1. Seeing as West Virginia beat Pittsburgh 52-31 just last week, the Mountaineers should hold the tiebreaker, correct?

Nope. Apparently to avoid situations just like this one, in which a four-loss West Virginia team could be the Big East's BCS representative, the league included a clause that the team that won head-to-head must also be within five spots in the standings of the team it beat. In Palm's latest projections, Pittsburgh stands 26th, West Virginia 30th, but the Panthers' schedule will be boosted by playing Miami, the Mountaineers' hurt by playing Temple. So it looks like West Virginia is out, which, if the Panthers end up winning, would be a shame.

The SEC is using the same rule to break its likely three-way tie between Georgia, Florida and Tennessee in the East. The Dawgs are seventh, the Vols, whom Georgia beat, eighth and the Gators, who beat Georgia but lost to Tennessee, 11th, so Tennessee would need Georgia to lose to Georgia Tech, and the Gators would at the very least need to beat Florida State and probably also have the Vols lose to Kentucky.

That's right, two non-conference games could determine who plays for the SEC championship.

What a strange sport.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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