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Friday, November 3

No clear favorite for national title

As we approach the midway point of the college football season Saturday, the race for the national championship is wide-open, with the Top 25 undergoing significant change on a week-to-week basis.

In what has been a tremendously exciting campaign, there doesn't appear to be a truly great team, one capable of running roughshod over just about every opponent. In fact, it is debatable whether we'll see any team remain unbeaten heading into the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3.

Jonathan Beasley
K-State's Jonathan Beasley has 12 TDs rushing and thrown for 10 and 1,359 yards.

Just take a look at the challenges the top teams face throughout the final half of the college football season.

Nebraska must travel to Norman to face the Oklahoma Sooners, featuring a sharp-shooting quarterback in senior Josh Heupel and the ground attack of Quentin Griffin, who is coming off a school-record six-touchdown effort against Texas.

On Nov. 11, the Huskers face another brutal road trip, this time at Manhattan against Kansas State. Getting through unscathed against a pair of well-coached teams on the road will be rough. And if that's not enough, the Huskers also must be ready to play an "A" game in the Big 12 championship matchup.

Beano Cook, my good friend and the No. 1 college football historian, always stresses how critical the home-field advantage is in college football. Just look at the past weekend.

Miami, Purdue, Clemson, Mississippi State, Georgia and Washington all won hard-fought games on their home turf. Bill Snyder and the Kansas State Wildcats have the advantage of hosting Oklahoma (this week) and Nebraska (Nov. 11). After that, the Big 12 championship game awaits.

Virginia Tech is in the hunt once again. While Heisman candidate Michael Vick has struggled with consistency throwing the football, he's a dynamic talent who seems to raise his performance level whenever the Hokies are challenged or need a major boost.

With Vick leading the Hokies into battle, they are tough to beat. Whether the new-look Hokie defense is up to the task against top-echelon competition remains to be seen. In order to position themselves for another shot at the national championship, the Hokies must show their mettle against the Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl on Nov. 4.

This leads us to Miami. Butch Davis got his first win in six tries against Florida State on Saturday, while young signal-caller Ken Dorsey showed the college football world he has taken a giant step in his maturation process as a quarterback.

After letting a 17-0 halftime lead slip away, as FSU stormed back to go ahead 24-20 with just over a minute remaining, Dorsey was flawless leading the Hurricane offense down the field. He showed command, distributed the ball accurately, and finished things off with a 13-yard TD pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey. Even then, Florida State missed 49-yard field goal, proving once again what a major role special teams ultimately play in the outcome of a football game.

In 1993, Florida State lost to Notre Dame on Nov. 13, yet went on to win the national championship after Boston College scored a shocking upset over Notre Dame at South Bend the following week.

Now, does Florida State's chance of repeating as national champion go by the boards? While the Seminoles' hopes have been severely damaged, there is still a lot of football to be played. They'll need a lot of things to fall into place and a great deal of help along the way, with top teams knocking each other off. But if the Seminoles can defeat Clemson and Florida, with both games in Tallahassee at Doak Campbell Stadium, who knows?

In 1993, Florida State lost to Notre Dame on Nov. 13, yet went on to win the national championship after Boston College scored a shocking upset over Notre Dame at South Bend the following week.

And don't forget 1996. That's when Florida lost to Florida State on Nov. 30, yet still won the national championship when the Gators defeated FSU in a rematch at the Sugar Bowl. Anything can happen, especially in a season when no truly great team has stepped forward.

For Miami, despite an earlier loss at Washington, the Hurricanes now find themselves back in the national championship hunt. Their toughest test will be Nov. 4 at the Orange Bowl when Michael Vick and the Hokies come to town. Keep in mind, the Big East doesn't have a conference championship game.

Vick's draft decision marked by complexity
Speaking of Vick, he'll have a big decision to make at the end of the season. Does the third-year sophomore return to Blacksburg for the 2001 season or does he opt to make himself eligible for the NFL draft in April?

Currently, the NFL's Chargers (0-6) and Bengals (0-5) are winless, and the Bears have just one victory. Obviously, with the major quarterback problems the Chargers have had, Vick would be a welcomed addition. However, the Bengals and Bears hope youngsters Akili Smith and Cade McNown will develop into quality signal-callers. So a trade involving the top pick could be a possibility.

Looking ahead to the 2002 NFL draft, we already know the expansion Houston Texans will have the top pick.

Looking ahead to the 2002 NFL draft, we already know the expansion Houston Texans will have the top pick. So if Vick returns to the Hokies next season and performs up to the level expected, general manager Charley Casserly would be in a position to draft Vick. With Casserly directing things for highly regarded owner Robert McNair, the Texans figure to have a quality organization that will do things the right way.

Remember, with former general manager Bill Polian running the show in Carolina, the Panthers -- with young quarterback Kerry Collins at the helm -- were playing in the '96 NFC title game in just their second NFL season. That year, the Panthers finished with a 12-4 record and lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay.

So folks, with the avenues the NFL provides for expansion teams to develop, the opportunity for success exists earlier than you might expect. Also, look at the improvement the Cleveland Browns have shown in their second year. So Vick will have a great deal to ponder as he wrestles with the question of when to enter the NFL draft.

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