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If the season ended today, the BCS National Championship Game would produce an unusually satisfying matchup: No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 2 Oregon. It's not just that the Tigers and Ducks currently sit atop this season's most respected conferences. Oregon's 60-13 beatdown of UCLA last Thursday only intensified our fascination with Chip Kelly's breakneck offense, and Auburn's 24-17 victory over undefeated LSU on Saturday only increased our adulation for Tigers star Cam Newton, who posted his first 200-yard rushing game.
But this being the BCS, there's no way we're headed for such a smooth ending. Chances are one or both will go down by season's end -- especially with both ESPN's GameDay and SI.com's Andy Staples, Angels of Death to top-ranked road teams the past three weeks, covering Saturday's Oregon-USC game. There's also the Boise State factor, which promises to make a mess of nearly any season-ending scenario.
And then there are the M&M's.
Many have long expected the title race to devolve into a slew of one-loss contenders, myself included. But amid that prophesying, Michigan State (No. 5 in the latest BCS standings) and Missouri (No. 6) are still quietly lurking, undefeated. Somehow, the Tigers (7-0) were still buried in the low teens of both major polls as of last week, with only the BCS computers (which helped elevate Mizzou to 11) taking notice of their much-improved defense. That same defense held then-BCS No. 1 Oklahoma to 99 rushing yards and intercepted quarterback Landry Jones three times in a 36-27 win.
The Spartans (8-0) survived a scare Saturday at Northwestern, falling behind 17-0 before rallying to win 35-27, thanks in large part to another Mark Dantonio special-teams surprise. On a fake punt called "Mouse Trap," ("We had to get them to take the cheese," said Dantonio) punter Aaron Bates -- the same guy who threw the game-winning "Little Giants" touchdown as the field goal holder against Notre Dame -- unleashed a 21-yard pass to Bennie Fowler that helped State get back in the game.
But you won't hear many mentioning the M&M's in the same breath as Oregon, Auburn, Boise State or TCU. Much like Iowa last year and Penn State the year before, both of whom started 9-0 to little fanfare, the M&M's aren't being taken all that seriously, which can be attributed almost entirely to these two factors: 1) Neither has won a title anytime recently (Missouri last won its conference in 1969, Michigan State in 1990) and 2) They both started the season unranked.
As much as I'd like to rip these seemingly lazy perceptions, I can't because ... well, I kind of feel the same way. I do respect the Tigers -- so much so that I picked them to beat Oklahoma -- and I love the Spartans' no-frills, smash-mouth offense. But do I think they'll run the table?
Actually, I'm inclined to think neither will be undefeated this time next week.
Coming off a program-defining win that coach Gary Pinkel described as "gigantic" (the Tigers hadn't beaten Oklahoma in his tenure, including Big 12 title-game blowouts in 2007 and '08), Missouri must turn around and visit No. 14 Nebraska (6-1). The Huskers shook off their Week 7 loss to Texas with a 51-41 win at Oklahoma State, in which Taylor Martinez showed that yes, he can throw (23-of-35 for 323 yards and five touchdowns). Defensively, the Huskers will present a tougher challenge for Mizzou quarterback Blaine Gabbert than did Oklahoma.
Michigan State also hits the road to face No. 18 Iowa, which suffered a soul-crushing 31-30 defeat to Wisconsin on Saturday. After the Badgers scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:06 remaining, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz channeled his inner-Les Miles and let the clock run out on his team before it could kick a potential game-winning field goal. Regardless, Iowa is certainly a step up in competition from Northwestern.
Having said all that ... what happens if they both win?
Saturday's games represent the toughest remaining tests for the M&M's. After Iowa, Michigan State finishes with Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State. The Spartans don't play No. 10 Ohio State this season, which simultaneously helps their chances of running the table while dampening any potential claim they might have for one of the top two spots.
The Tigers close with Texas Tech, Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas. If they win all those, they would most likely face either a rematch with Oklahoma or a date with No. 20 Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game. Theirs is a tougher road than the Spartans', but is still not perceived to be as challenging as Auburn's or Oregon's.
It's been six years since Auburn became the first undefeated major-conference team to be left out of the title game. (Technically, it happened to Cincinnati last year, but there was no real outcry.) Asked Sunday what chance Missouri or Michigan State have of jumping undefeated Auburn or Oregon, CollegeBCS.com publisher Jerry Palm replied bluntly: "Roughly, zero." But he does think they'd ultimately pass Boise/TCU.
"No undefeated major has ever finished behind a non-major," said Palm. "I don't think this year will be the first time."
So, there you have it. Feel free to start salivating over Cam Newton vs. Darron Thomas. But be prepared for the lurking possibility of Kirk Cousins vs. Blaine Gabbert.
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