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It's 'Canes vs. Vols for now but potential storm awaits

If Tennessee beats LSU in SEC title game, all is well for BCS. If not, prepare for chaos.

By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 4, 2001


In the crazy, but crucial, final weeks of the college football season, several teams have been in position to control their own destiny and win their way into the national championship game in the Rose Bowl.

Now it's Tennessee's turn.

The Volunteers follow in the treacherous path journeyed unsuccessfully by Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida. Each of those teams in the past two weeks was in position to meet No. 1 Miami for the national title on Jan. 3, only to lose and allow someone else to step up.

The Volunteers moved up to the No. 2 spot Monday in the Bowl Championship Series rankings behind Miami and need only a victory Saturday over LSU in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta to assure their second national championship showdown in four years. The Vols defeated Florida State for the 1998 title in the Fiesta Bowl.

And as far as the lords of the BCS are concerned, Tennessee better go ahead and take care of business.

If the Vols don't, a huge controversy is likely to follow.

The reason? Nebraska is third in the BCS standings and all but assured of meeting Miami if Tennessee loses.

That's the same Nebraska that allowed 62 points and lost by 26 to Colorado in its last regular-season game and was unable to even win the Big 12 North Division, let alone the conference championship.

But the Cornhuskers are a solid No. 3 in the standings and nearly a lock to move ahead of Tennessee should the Vols lose. Colorado, which has two defeats, is fourth, followed by Oregon.

The Buffaloes won the Big 12 title with a victory Saturday over Texas and have a win over Nebraska.

"Our particular situation puts a lot of questions on our league playoff game," Colorado coach Gary Barnett said. "If a team goes and plays for the national championship and didn't make it to our league playoff, what's that say about league and the importance of that playoff game?"

Barnett makes a good point, but the Buffs are hurt by the fact that they lost two games. Teams with two defeats don't play for the national championship in this system. And yet, the Buffs are ahead of one-loss Oregon, which should have the real complaint.

The Ducks are ranked third in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls, but they are fifth in the BCS.

"The reaction if Nebraska gets in will be bad," said Jerry Palm, whose Web site closely monitors the BCS standings. "It's hard to understand how a team that doesn't qualify for a conference title gets to play for a national title. Oregon has a stronger argument since Colorado has two losses and that's tough to overcome. But that's kind of the way it goes in the BCS."

And what about Maryland (ACC champion) and Illinois (Big Ten champion)? Each has one loss.

All of this sets up the possibility of split national champions. The ESPN/USA Today poll automatically awards its title to the winner of the BCS title game. The AP poll has one final vote after the game, and voters could give the championship to Oregon should the Ducks defeat Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl coupled with a Nebraska win over Miami in the Rose Bowl.

The BCS standings were set up to determine two teams to play in a national title game using a formula that includes the two major polls, eight computer rankings, strength of schedule and won-loss record. There also are bonus points awarded for victories over teams in the final top 15.

Despite not playing, Nebraska moved into contention after Florida lost Saturday to Tennessee and Texas lost to Colorado. The Cornhuskers moved from fourth to third in the standings. The Vols jumped from sixth to second.

And, of course, they can eliminate the controversy by simply defeating LSU.

"It's in our hands now," UT quarterback Casey Clausen said. "It's up to us. We've worked way too hard and spent way too much time trying to get to this point."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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