Thursday, October 20, 2005

Half the college football season remains, but the moon, the stars and the schedules are moving into position for another big, ugly Bowl Championship Series controversy.

Virginia Tech, which plays at Maryland tonight, might be the new Auburn.

You remember Auburn, unbeaten at 12-0 last year and absent from the national championship game. A victory at Byrd Stadium in front of a national television audience may have Virginia Tech staring down the same barrel that was pointed at the Tigers last season.

Absent a playoff system, the BCS, with its computers and human polls, tries to match the two best teams in the country. But somebody usually seems to get hurt. In 2004 it was Auburn, which found itself ranked third in the BCS poll behind similarly unbeaten Southern California and Oklahoma. “The system,” ABC college analyst Ed Cunningham said, “is not set up to handle three no-loss teams.”

Accordingly, the Trojans and Sooners played for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. Auburn had to keep telling itself that a Sugar Bowl date with Virginia Tech was a worthy consolation prize. USC won, and the Trojans took home the crystal football. Auburn won, too, accepting the bowl trophy and a hearty handshake for a 13-0 season and a job well done.

The BCS tinkered with its system during the offseason. It’s too early to tell if it is better, but we do know that Virginia Tech is ranked No. 3 behind USC and Texas in the first BCS poll released earlier this week. And if all three remain unbeaten, it is very possible the poll that determines who plays for the whole thing in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4 will stay that way even though Virginia Tech plays an apparently tougher schedule than the other two.

USC and Texas sit ahead of Virginia Tech in the human polls that constitute two-thirds of the BCS poll. It would take a lot for the Hokies to advance assuming all remain spotless. Even if the computers ended up liking Virginia Tech better because of strength of schedule, it might not be enough.

The Trojans, who needed a miracle finish to beat Notre Dame last week, end their season against three teams ranked this week in the Associated Press and/or BCS polls — at California, and home against Fresno State and rival (and currently unbeaten) UCLA. There is no Pac-10 championship game.

Texas appears more vulnerable to being passed by the Hokies because its schedule does not appear as strong. Other than Saturday’s home game against unbeaten Texas Tech, No. 7 in the BCS poll, none of the Longhorns’ remaining opponents are ranked. Texas probably will play in the conference championship game, but among likely foes from the Big 12 North, only Nebraska appears in any of the polls — and that’s near the bottom.

Meanwhile, after Maryland, the Hokies’ schedule includes home games against Miami and Boston College, No. 8 and No. 12, respectively, in the BCS poll, and a game at Virginia, which beat Florida State last week and crept into the AP and USA Today polls.

Will all three — and maybe even Georgia or Alabama from the Southeastern Conference as well — make it through unblemished?

“I think one of the top three teams is going to lose,” Cunningham said. “USC is incredibly vulnerable. Virginia Tech has a long way to go. The ACC is the best conference in the country.”

Even though Virginia Tech is one of those select programs that starts most seasons with realistic national championship dreams, coach Frank Beamer does not want to get into the BCS ramifications. Too much lies ahead. And tonight’s game will be a challenge.

“The only thing we can control is how we play against Maryland,” he said.

When it was surmised that the BCS poll was a topic that has not been discussed within his program, he replied, “That is correct.”

Beamer has been in this position before, so he especially knows not to look too far ahead. In 2003, the Hokies were 6-0 and ranked third, just as they are now. Then, as now, they were coming off a bye week. And, they were playing a weeknight game on the road, in a loud, rowdy environment, on ESPN, just as they will tonight. Virginia Tech lost to West Virginia 28-7.

“We’ve talked about it as a football team,” Beamer said. “There are so many similarities. … I still think it’s how we prepare and how we play and how we know what a challenge we’ve got. But certainly there are some similarities, for sure.”

Those similarities evidently include problems “some are not even familiar with,” he said. Beamer mentioned “a lot of different things, family-wise, that have happened, the same as a couple years back,” but did not elaborate.

Despite facing the possibility of being left out like Auburn, Beamer said he does not favor a playoff system to determine a true national champion.

“I’m for the bowls as they are,” he said. “I think it’s a great experience and once you take that away. …People say keep the bowls and have a playoff. But the fans come in [for bowl games] three or four days early and I think that’s pretty neat. You have a playoff, you go in the night before you play it. I’m a bowl guy. I think they’re special for college football and I want to see them continue.”

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