- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

At the midpoint of the season, the chase for the chip is already fairly well defined.

Half the title equation involves the Showdown at the ‘Shoe, which is looking more and more like the game of the season. Barring a real Big Ten shocker, the Nov.18 meeting between No.1 Ohio State and No.4 Michigan in Columbus is likely to be a title-game, play-in affair.

The Buckeyes (6-0) shouldn’t have to break a sweat between now and then. Michigan’s only prior tests come over the next two weeks, as the Wolverines (6-0) travel to Penn State (4-2) and play host to Iowa (5-1). Don’t expect a maize-and-blue stumble given the spectacular play to date of the Michigan defense and the continuing emergence of sophomore wideout Mario Manningham.

In the four games dating back to his breakout day vs. Notre Dame, the Michigan burner has caught 19 passes for 456 yards and eight touchdowns, earning the fifth and final slot in the Back Judge’s Heisman Trophy ladder. By the way, the Back Judge is familiar with the dubious Heisman history of smallish, yellow-winged wideouts, but he was under a keg somewhere in college during the “One-play Desmond” debacle of 1991.

So who gets to play the Ohio State-Michigan winner for the national title Jan.8 in the Nachos Bowl? Well, No. 2 Florida clearly holds the midseason pole position. The Back Judge thinks the overrated reptiles are going to get exposed on the Plains next week, but if Florida were to run the table, beating Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida State and the SEC West champion (Arkansas?) along the way, the Ohio State-Michigan winner would have earned the right to play the Gators (6-0) rather than the other way around.

If more than two teams finish undefeated and one of them happens to be Florida, there’s no way the Gators will be left out. And that’s a good thing because the Back Judge would like to avoid a second Civil War, which is exactly what would happen if Florida beat the best schedule this side of the NFL and some Gates-style geek from Cal Tech pulled Ohio State vs. USC out of his BCS computer.

Southerners handled the system’s spurning of undefeated Auburn in 2004 with far more grace than the situation merited. But if you want to see some red states really mobilize, try rear-ending their beloved SEC twice in three seasons. Instead of Bleeding Kansas, we would get Burning Indianapolis, but secession might follow all the same.

With that reality in mind, USC fans better start Gator-hating. The third-ranked Trojans, downright rotten in back-to-back weeks in the Apple State, have no shot at supplanting unbeatens from the Big Ten or SEC but are next in line if one of the three principals falters. Most of USC’s schedule is back-loaded, with a brutal four-week, season-closing run against Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame and UCLA.

Given USC’s stretch slate and some doubts about the Gators, the Back Judge actually thinks the title game slot opposite the Ohio State-Michigan winner will fall to the third contingency and go to the winner of the Thursday night Big East brawl between West Virginia and Louisville (Nov.2).

There is no attractive fourth option because other than West Virginia/Louisville, there’s only Boise State (see BYU, 1984) or a slew of one-loss teams. The Back Judge already wasted two days of his life on Colt McCoy and Co., and nobody outside of Austin wants a redux of the Ohio State-Texas rout.

Gameballs and gassers

Missouri is for real. Auburn is not. The Tigers from the Big 12 are 6-0 for the first time since 1973 … and still have no chance of beating Texas in the league’s title game. The Tigers from the SEC were manhandled in their own backyard (27-10) by unranked Arkansas.

Word of the forward pass hasn’t yet made it to Fayetteville, home of the team with the high school coach and freshman quarterback. But one dimension was plenty against Auburn, as gameball recipients Darren McFadden and Felix Jones combined to rush for 249 yards in the Razorbacks’ emasculation of Auburn.

Memo to Florida: You picked a really bad week to visit Opelika.

The final gameball goes to N.C. State’s Daniel Evans, the sophomore quarterback who has managed the unthinkable in his first two starts — making Chuck Amato look competent. Frankly, the ACC is so suspect (see Clemson at Wake and Maryland at Georgia Tech) and the Wolfpack’s playmaking quintet so solid (Evans, Andre Brown, Toney Baker, Geron James, Darrell Blackman) that the Back Judge likes the resurgent Amatos to win the league.

Current Heisman ladder: Troy Smith, Steve Slaton, Adrian Peterson, Garrett Wolfe and Mario Manningham.

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