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Football Commentary: Notre Dame not yet out of BCS championship picture

Bob Griffin | Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sometime during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s blowout against Michigan, Charlie Weis’ mind might have wandered back to that 21-game winning streak his Patriots put together in 2003-04.

It was a magical streak. From week to week, nobody could beat New England. Weis, along with head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel solidified themselves as the best coaching trio in the NFL – maybe in league history.

The following season, Belichick was the lone remaining coach in New England of the three. Crennel took another job – righting the ship of the Cleveland Browns. Weis, of course, found a home in South Bend.

And after Saturday’s drubbing at the hands of Lloyd Carr – Weis must’ve been thinking about the huge differences between the league he once dominated and the one he is just beginning to figure out.

He said before the 2006 season that 9-3 is not good enough. He was right.

But guess what? That same winning percentage in the pros means a likely first-round playoffs bye.

Yet nothing will change the fact that in college, some playoff games come in September. The best a one-loss team can do in college is pray – knowing fate rests in its ability to win the remainder of its games and get a bunch of help from other teams around the country.

Oh, and it also must win out.

Because if Weis’ Irish are going to somehow climb their way back from the depths of Saturday’s devastating loss, Notre Dame will have to begin its own similar streak. Twenty-one games would be unnecessary. The Irish just need nine.

But at any level, nine straight wins is a lot to ask – especially from a team having shown no life or spark in its most recent game. However, things aren’t as grim as they appear, and Notre Dame has a legitimate shot at making a run – provided a few things fall into place.

Weis will just have to duplicate a little of the magic he had two years ago.

Because even after the Patriots lost to Pittsburgh to end their streak they bounced back pretty nicely – as New England won its third Super Bowl in four years.

Heading into this weekend, there are 11 teams ranked higher than Notre Dame in the AP Top 25. They are Ohio State, Auburn, USC, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Louisville, Georgia, LSU and Virginia Tech. Most face huge obstacles to undefeated seasons, and if Notre Dame somehow manages to beat Michigan State this weekend, then run the table until its Thanksgiving matchup with the Trojans – things could get interesting.

Here’s how it breaks down.


For a team to emerge undefeated from the SEC, that squad will face the biggest barriers of anyone in the country. The SEC is the toughest conference in the nation – with four teams in the AP top 10 (No. 2 Auburn, No. 5 Florida, No. 9 Georgia and No. 10 LSU).

Florida faces the toughest battle. Urban Meyer and the Gators have a murderous four-game streak that begins with a Sept. 30 matchup at home with Alabama. The Crimson Tide will likely be ranked in the top 25 before that game.

From there they host LSU on Oct. 7, travel to Auburn on Oct. 14 and then return home for a date with Georgia on Oct. 28.

Gators quarterback Chris Leak won a big road game against Tennessee last weekend. But he has never been a big-game quarterback after being the top recruit at his position coming out of high school. Expecting Leak to get through four straight difficult games is unlikely. Figure them for at least one loss by the end of the season.

Georgia plays three ranked opponents from here on out – No. 15 Tennessee on Oct. 17, Florida on Oct. 28 and Auburn on Nov. 11. It also must deal with a rivalry game at home against Georgia Tech on Nov. 25.

Unlike the Gators, the Bulldogs have the luxury of spreading their games across their difficult schedule. But that game at Auburn looms as a huge challenge, especially if Georgia squeaks by a fired-up Tennessee team – who is also playing for its season after losing at home to Florida Saturday.

Georgia is probably the weakest of the four SEC top-10 teams, and despite its annually stellar recruiting classes, head coach Mark Richt has never sniffed the title game. Its last big game was a 38-25 loss against West Virginia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl.

LSU and Notre Dame are in similar situations having lost early in the season. The BCS polls always seem to favor teams who lose early and then rebound the rest of the way. And guess what? LSU’s schedule is fairly easy other than its Oct. 7 game at Florida and a Nov. 14 game at Tennessee.

But road games are road games, and the SEC is too tough to expect LSU to win both of those matchups against teams who will also be playing for their seasons.

If the Tigers do win out, they deserve to be ahead of Notre Dame – provided the Irish are 11-1 as well.

That leaves Auburn – by far the scariest team in the conference with arguably the easiest schedule. That’s not a good combination, and Irish fans should be watching three Auburn games carefully – the aforementioned games against Florida on Oct. 14 and Georgia Nov. 11.

Auburn will play both of those games at home. It will be favored in each of the games and should end its opponents chances of winning the national championship in each.

The biggest test for Auburn might actually come at Alabama on Nov. 18. The Iron Bowl is a big deal every year, and the Tide will bring its best performance, especially if its in-state rival is undefeated and playing for a title bid.

Oh yeah, and should a team emerge undefeated in conference play – it will also have to win the toughest conference championship in the country.

Good luck.

The Big East

Let’s quickly shift from the best conference to the worst conference in the country – especially now that both Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush are on the shelf with injuries.

No. 4 West Virginia and No. 8 Louisville shouldn’t even be in consideration for a BCS Championship spot because of their weak schedules. Once either team loses, they will be left out of consideration.

It’s likely Louisville will slip up in its remaining nine games even though it plays just one ranked opponent (West Virginia). Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino is talented and has done a great job building the Louisville program. But with an inexperienced quarterback (Hunter Cantwell) leading the way until Brohm returns in 4-6 weeks, Louisville should lose at home to West Virginia on Nov. 2.

The bigger problem for Notre Dame is West Virginia. The Mountaineers, like Louisville, play only one ranked opponent the rest of the season (Louisville). West Virginia has an explosive offense led by running back Steve Slaton and will present problems for any one-loss team if they are undefeated at the end of the season.

Best-case scenario? Louisville knocks off West Virginia at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and then slips up the following week at Rutgers.

Maybe Weis can give fellow Jersey native and Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano a call before that Nov. 9 matchup to spark a little Jungleland magic.

Virginia Tech, USC and Texas

The No. 11 Hokies, No. 3 Trojans and No. 7 Longhorns have nothing to do with each other aside from the fact they each represent a conference where they should be the only teams competing for a spot in the BCS Championship.

Virginia Tech plays a tough schedule with a home game against Georgia Tech Sept. 30, a road game against No. 20 Boston College Oct. 12, a home game against No. 19 Clemson Oct. 26 and a Nov. 4 matchup at Miami.

It’s conceivable the Hokies could run the table, but very unlikely. Virginia Tech has played nobody so far – and its 3-0 record proves that. Blowouts over Northeastern, North Carolina and Duke are not a strong measure of this team’s abilities.

Keep in mind quarterback Sean Glennon is a sophomore with no big game experience. Expecting an undefeated season from this group is a reach.

Notre Dame’s season will ultimately come down to its Nov. 25 game at USC. It will help if the Trojans are undefeated heading into that game – which should be a safe bet.

USC is a young team that will continue to build confidence with each game. Junior quarterback John David Booty looked impressive against Nebraska, and with the combination of wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett and a running attack that includes Emmanuel Moody and Chauncey Washington – no Pac 10 team should stand a chance.

Two November dates – Nov. 11 against No. 13 Oregon and Nov. 18 against No. 22 California – are noteworthy. Biggest problem? Both will be played at the Coliseum.

But that’s a good thing for the Irish. Notre Dame fans need to pray that USC is undefeated when the Irish fly to Los Angeles.

Of any team outside the SEC, Texas might be the biggest obstacle standing in Notre Dame’s way – even if the Irish are an 11-win team in late November.

Like Notre Dame and LSU, Texas lost early. But the team who beat Texas (Ohio State) is the most complete team in the country with the best chance of being undefeated at the end of the season. If the Irish and Longhorns are both one-loss teams, Texas should have the higher BCS ranking.

The coaches will respect the Longhorns if their only loss was against Troy Smith’s Buckeyes – even if the Irish knock off USC.

The one regular season challenge Texas faces is an Oct. 7 game at No. 17 Oklahoma. The Sooners remember last season when the Longhorns dominated them 45-12 and will be looking to repay the favor. And this year, the best player will be standing on the Oklahoma sidelines – Heisman hopeful running back Adrian Peterson.

The Big Ten

No. 1 Ohio State and No. 6 Michigan will play the biggest game of their seasons Nov. 18 in Columbus, Ohio. And as funny as it sounds, Irish fans better start practicing their O-H-I-O chants.

It’s possible Michigan loses before this game, and if that happens, this matchup becomes less significant. But given the spark the Wolverines offense had in South Bend Saturday, it’s more likely they will enter Columbus undefeated.

The Buckeyes need to smoke the Wolverines in this game – ending the Michigan regular season and any real national championship aspirations. With a late loss, Michigan would not be the highest ranked one-loss team in the BCS – especially if Notre Dame beats USC on the road, Texas wins the remainder of its games and LSU earns those two tough road wins against Florida and Tennessee.

Sure, Ohio State would likely be undefeated with a win against Michigan, but there has to be at least one team taking a perfect season into the BCS Championship.

The Buckeyes, who play their toughest games at home against No. 24 Penn State this Saturday and at No. 14 Iowa Sept. 30, have shown balance on both sides of the ball so far this year. They’ve already won their biggest game of the season after defeating Texas on the road and should run the table.

What does this mean?

It’s going to take a lot for Notre Dame to sneak its way into the BCS Championship game – no question. But weirder things have happened, and should Notre Dame regroup and win the remainder of its contests, the season is not a lost cause.

Notre Dame is not thinking about these scenarios yet. The Irish can’t with the amount of work they have to do for the remainder of the season. Because after all, a loss this weekend against Michigan State – or in any other game, for that matter – and the Irish are done. Plain and simple.

But the Irish do play an easier schedule than any of the other BCS contenders outside West Virginia and Louisville. While the SEC beats up on itself in October and November, Notre Dame will have dates with the service academies.

So while it might be a reach, don’t count the Irish out just yet. There’s still too much season remaining.

And as Notre Dame learned against Michigan – sometimes the unexpected happens in college football.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Bob Griffin at rgriffi3@nd.edu