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No.1 PRIORITY
Austin Murphy
October 21, 2002
Top-ranked Miami's close call against Florida State lifted the national title hopes of the other contenders—so who has the best shot at dethroning the Hurricanes?
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October 21, 2002

No.1 Priority

Top-ranked Miami's close call against Florida State lifted the national title hopes of the other contenders—so who has the best shot at dethroning the Hurricanes?

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The CONTENDERS

Who will play for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3? Miami and Oklahoma have the inside track, but with major hurdles remaining on their schedules, the Hurricanes and Sooners are far from sure things. Here's how the Top 10 teams in the Associated Press's Top 25 poll scope out for the rest of the season.

SCHOOL, RECORD

BIGGEST WIN

REMAINING GAMES

SKINNY

1. MIAMI (6-0)

Florida State, 28-27

At West Virginia, at Rutgers, at Tennessee, Pitt, at Syracuse, Virginia Tech

Volunteers and Hokies pose threats, but the Hurricanes have the horses to get back to the national championship game

2. OKLAHOMA (6-0)

Texas, 35-24

Iowa State, Colorado, at Texas A&M, at Baylor, Texas Tech, at Oklahoma State

Sooners have the best defense in the nation, and Bob Stoops's teams are always well-prepared and step up in big games

3. VIRGINIA TECH (6-0)

LSU, 26-8

Rutgers, Temple, Pitt, at Syracuse, West Virginia, Virginia, at Miami

Hokies cruise to showdown in Miami on Dec. 7, with the winner claiming the Big East crown and earning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl

4. OHIO STATE (7-0)

Washington State, 25-7

At Wisconsin, Penn State, Minnesota, at Purdue, at Illinois, Michigan

Talented but young Buckeyes have plenty of competition in the balanced Big Ten; coach Jim Tressel's team might be a year away

5. GEORGIA (6-0)

Tennessee, 18-13

Vanderbilt, at Kentucky, Florida (at Jacksonville), Ole Miss, at Auburn, Georgia Tech

With an offense that's been shaky at times, the overachieving Bulldogs aren't likely to make it out of the SEC unscathed

6. OREGON (6-0)

UCLA, 31-30

Arizona State, Southern Cal, Stanford, at Washington State, Washington, at Oregon State

An easy nonconference schedule will come back to haunt the Ducks, who are unlikely to run the table with a first-year quarterback and a soft D

7. NOTRE DAME (6-0)

Michigan, 25-23

At Air Force, at Florida State, Boston College, at Navy, Rutgers, at Southern Cal

Fighting Irish aren't as good as record indicates; they'll come back to earth swiftly with four of last six games against likely bowl teams

8. TEXAS (5-1)

North Carolina, 52-21

At Kansas State, Iowa State, at Nebraska, Baylor, at Texas Tech, Texas A&M

Loss to Oklahoma puts the Longhorns in a big hole; to reach the Big 12 title game, they must win out and the Sooners must lose twice

9. IOWA STATE (6-1)

Nebraska, 36-14

At Oklahoma, at Texas, Missouri, at Kansas State, at Colorado, Connecticut

Seneca Wallace has a better chance of winning the Heisman than the Cyclones have of getting through their brutal schedule

10. WASHINGTON STATE (6-1)

Southern Cal, 30-27

At Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Washington, at UCLA

Having already lost to Ohio State, the Cougars must win the rest of their games and hope that several of the seven unbeaten teams lose

There are no excuses on Shakeout Saturday, no what-ifs or yeah-buts or moral victories. At the midpoint of the college football season, with the stakes jacked up and the first BCS rankings a week away, seven teams remained unbeaten and ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press poll. Fate was tempted at the Orange Bowl in Miami and character tested at the Red River Shootout in Dallas, with familiar results: Florida State found itself consoling its kicker, and Texas was left to ponder how its hopes had been dashed by Oklahoma. When the smoke had cleared, however, one team still looked better than the rest.

Which is not to say that Miami didn't come away from its 28-27 victory over Florida State badly bruised. After watching the Hurricanes blow through the first five games on their schedule, we'd begun to think of the defending national champions as unbeatable, indomitable, head and shoulders above the rabble of college football. But after last Saturday, after they had to fight their way back from a 27-14 fourth-quarter deficit.... "They ain't head and shoulders above nothing," said Seminoles defensive end Alonzo Jackson, spitting the last word. "They bleed just like everybody else—and today they should've died."

What ought to have been terminated, Alonzo was suggesting (we hope), was not the Hurricanes themselves but their best-in-the-nation winning streak. That run was extended to 28 games, dating to September 2000, only after Florida State's 19-year-old kicker, Xavier Beitia, sailed his 43-yard field goal attempt a few feet outside the left upright as time expired in the Orange Bowl. Beitia, last seen sobbing in the arms of the team chaplain, shouldn't be so tough on himself—the snap was low and the hold was unsteady. The kid had to kick the laces.

His teammates could only kick themselves for letting Miami back into a game that the Seminoles, now 5-2 and out of the hunt for the national title, had dominated. More shocking than the fact that Florida State had the big lead late was the way it had built it: by running the ball down the Hurricanes' throats. In addition to providing the country with a crackling good game, the Seminoles provided future Miami opponents with a template for how to compete with the Hurricanes: Run the ball, and stop their run.

Yes, that was Florida State tailback Greg Jones rushing 31 times for 189 yards against a defensive line often celebrated as the nation's finest, a 10-deep unit stocked with such future pros as tackles William Joseph and Vince Wilfork and end Jerome McDougle. Running back Nick Maddox, the water bug to Jones's wrecking ball, added 74 yards on the ground. "We were able to run the ball so effectively that it wore down their pass rushers," said senior tackle Brett Williams. "That's the key to beating the Hurricanes. You've just got to come down here and run the ball on them."

Now salivating at that prospect are the Hokies of Virginia Tech, a team whose signature strengths are—wouldn't you know it?—a pounding ground game and a smothering defense. The third-ranked Hokies visit the Orange Bowl on Dec. 7 and are likely to be undefeated when they arrive. Are McDougle & Co. up to the challenge? "They weren't any better than Louisville up front," said Williams, comparing the Miami defense with that of the other team the Seminoles lost to this season. "We basically did whatever we wanted."

That's right, pile on. Take your best shot. This sort of smack was the inevitable fallout from a game that exposed the Hurricanes as mortal. Here's what Florida State defensive tackle Darnell Dockett had to say about Miami's offensive line: "Not as good as everyone thinks." The Hurricanes are overly reliant on double teams, said Docket. "When it's a one-on-one block, they're not that good—and they hold"

Yes, Willis McGahee's 68-yard run with a screen pass set up the winning touchdown for Miami. On the whole, however, the sophomore running back had a long day at the office: 95 tough yards on 26 carries. It was the Seminoles' audacious game plan, as it is now likely to be Virginia Tech's, to force senior quarterback Ken Dorsey to beat them with his arm. Dorsey did—completing four of six passes for 126 yards and a touchdown on the last two scoring drives—but just barely. Hurrying and hitting him on virtually every pass play, Florida State forced Dorsey into his worst performance in more than two years, one that included a pair of interceptions that were very much his fault and several wobbling throws unbecoming a Heisman Trophy candidate.

He had plenty of help putting his team in a hole. The Hurricanes committed 14 penalties, including four offsides and a fourth-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct that could easily have cost them the game. "We played hard," said defensive line coach Greg Mark. "We just didn't play very smart. We'll get things fixed. If Virginia Tech wants to come down here and run the ball against us, bring it on. We'll take that all day."

At a restaurant two nights earlier, a reporter had bid Mark goodbye and wished him good luck on Saturday. "Luck's got nothing to do with it," Mark said. "You make your own luck." After a pause he added, "On the other hand, I wouldn't want to piss off the luck gods. So, thanks."

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