<
>

Defending my top 7

OK, it's not Survival Saturday. Or even Saturation Saturday, as ESPN's Dan Patrick has labeled it, since wherever our College GameDay posse ends up, we get rain. It's not supposed to rain Saturday in Pittsburgh, anyway. Watch, that will quickly change when we hit town. It wasn't supposed to rain Thursday in Little Rock, either. I sound a little bitter. Sorry.

Even without the catchy label, and even with BCS contenders USC and LSU idle (plus Michigan and Georgia), this is an intriguing week. There are at least nine games I'm looking forward to checking out.


We'll see the Hokies try to handle prosperity and pay back another team (Pittsburgh) that has owned them. How will Miami bounce back against a mysteriously average Tennessee bunch? Bouncing back is a big theme Saturday, with teams like Michigan State, Washington State, Oklahoma State and Clemson all needing quick mental healing before facing tough challenges. Hitting the season's home stretch, who's got enough juice left to finish strong?

There's blood versus blood in Bowden Bowl V ... bad blood in Ole Miss versus Auburn ... and a potential bloodbath when Oklahoma settles another personal score, this time against poor A&M.

Then there's Navy-Notre Dame. More on that later.

Since it's a hot topic for fans, I'll start with how I'm voting the top seven on my AP ballot. Kirk tells me the airwaves in places like Columbus are cooking with complaints about why this team or that team is ranked where they are. They can't be applauding the rankings in Miami, either.

1. Oklahoma -- Any last doubters left out there now? Didn't think so. The most entertaining aspect of A&M's visit to Norman would be a pair of iso cameras on Mike Stoops and Brent Venables. The excitable co-defensive coordinators put on quite a sideline show, bouncing around in perpetual motion, using every bit of body language to help their guys make a tackle. Remember, this is the Aggies' offense that embarrassed OU last year, with then-freshman Reggie McNeal inheriting a 10-0 deficit, then throwing four TDs and running for 89 yards in a stunning rally. He won't catch OU off guard again. Then again, I don't think A&M will have the ball for very much of this game, since its defense can't get anyone off the field.

2. USC -- To me, it's a no-brainer to rank the Trojans here. They have the highest quality road win of any contender (at Auburn) and have destroyed five straight teams, scoring 43-plus the past four games. If USC wins out and plays well, I will not move them down. Arizona is the only gimme in this league. UCLA certainly can't match USC in a shootout, but in a rivalry game, you never know. Oregon State has improved as a road team, but I can't see Derek Anderson and Co. spoiling a Trojan trip to the title game if it comes to that on Dec. 6. Sooners-Trojans is the matchup many have salivated for. In BCS terms, it would help USC if Notre Dame could salvage a few wins.

3. LSU -- My vote for the Bayou Bengals here is a lot more lukewarm than the gumbo served up at their world-class tailgate parties. The Tigers are a pretty team on the hoof and I like their defense. The destruction of Auburn is why they are here. They have also been a dominant road team. The Tigers are not a rock-solid No. 3, though. After the off week, visits to 'Bama and Ole Miss will tell more.

4. Florida State -- Now the controversy starts. My Miami faithful friends will scream about the 'Noles being ahead of the 'Canes, who beat them handily on the road. That's OK. FSU has been the more dominant team throughout the season. Miami needed two narrow escapes to even get to Blacksburg unbeaten, then fell apart completely. The 'Canes had no excuses for falling flat. FSU has three tricky games left. If the Gators can "retake the Swamp," as Ron Zook has described the mission, then the showdown with FSU there Nov. 29 will be a classic. Here's the catch, though: even if FSU wins out, they may fall. If Miami recovers and wins out, finishing with the same record as the Seminoles, I would have to move UM back up over FSU. Teams with identical records at the end of the season should be ranked according to the head-to-head principle. But the 'Canes have a lot to prove in the meantime.

5. Virginia Tech -- The Hokies still have something to prove, too. I move them over Ohio State based on the quality of the Miami win. But Tech now has to show it can handle Pittsburgh as a road favorite, beat Boston College and win at Virginia. A team with a weak nonconference schedule always has much more at stake and more to prove in the late-season games. But if the Hokies keep winning, they will stay ahead of Miami in my rankings.

6. Miami -- The Hurricanes' first regular-season loss in three years was a beauty. How will QB Brock Berlin respond? He won't have to hit the road until the finale at Pittsburgh, where it's likely to be about 20 degrees on Nov. 29. How UM plays Saturday against Tennessee will show a lot about this team's heart and the offense's ability to regroup. Tennessee has a stunning lack of playmakers on the two-deep, but the Vols have nothing to lose in a nonconference game as they root for Georgia to lose another one.

7. Ohio State -- OK, Buckeyes' fans, here's your team. Don't panic. I know from Kirk that OSU's position as one of the lowest-ranked once-beaten teams infuriates the fans. OSU fans want full credit for surviving squeakers (as though margin doesn't matter), then want Miami, Virginia Tech, FSU and LSU marked down for double-digit losses. Doesn't work that way for me. I admire the Bucks' fortitude to survive close encounters. But an offense that struggles like theirs does equals a less-than-complete team. Now ... if OSU can run the November gauntlet that starts with visits from Michigan State and Purdue and then heads to the Big House ... well, I will certainly adjust the ranking upward. That's a big if. Especially the part about beating that team from up north.

JUMPING IN
I have obviously underrated the "other" Miami. After a convincing 33-10 win over Bowling Green on Tuesday, the Miami-Ohio RedHawks will certainly pop up in my top 20 now. I still think Bowling Green is a pretty good team. A potential rematch in the MAC title game (which would be at BG's place) would be fun to watch. QB Josh Harris would like the chance at redemption, I'm sure.

MORE HOT TOPICS

  • Paterno Won't Go -- Put a cork in the "JoePa Must Go" stuff. He's not leaving after this season. Period. After next season ... maybe, yeah. Paterno broke down when talking to his staff Sunday. It was a release after the frustrations of a long season. How much the Lions have left after Saturday's huge effort and last-minute heartbreak, I have no idea. Northwestern is not good. But this spot for PSU is not good, either.

  • Instant ACC Rivalry -- How 'bout that Virginia Tech visit to Miami in '04? That's already one to circle. The ACC debut for this hotter-than-ever before rivalry will be fueled by the nastiness last Saturday night. When mature, even-tempered coaches like Larry Coker and Frank Beamer publicly accuse the other side of dirty play, you know how hot it is behind closed doors. By the way, sideline combatants DeAngelo Hall (Tech) and Antrel Rolle (Miami) are both juniors.

  • Manning Eyes Auburn Secondary -- Ole Miss matches up with Auburn better than many people think. If Auburn QB Jason Campbell can't make plays with the passing game, this one will be tight. Auburn has the No. 2-rated SEC pass defense, but that's misleading. The Tigers have not faced an offense that throws it like QB Eli Manning. USC was focused on a conservative running game in the opener. One Auburn cornerback, Kevin Hobbs, is a walk-on sophomore and the other, Carlos Rogers, is playing with a cast on his thumb. Safety Will Herring is a redshirt freshman. Safety Junior Rosegreen has made about three starts. Do you think Auburn is focused on putting Manning on his back with front-seven pressure? Against South Carolina, Manning showed more mobility than he has before and threw well on the run. If the Rebels' O-line is up to the task, it's not farfetched to say Ole Miss can pull the upset. If that happens, Manning has to be considered a strong Heisman guy heading into a showdown at home with LSU.

  • No Joy at Bowden Bowl -- The Bowden Bowl has lost all joy for Bobby. He knows that his No. 3 child is under pressure, but Bobby's response is, "Whatever happens, [Tommy] can handle it like a man." In other words, no mercy. And, according to matriarch Ann, no chummy family gatherings leading in to this year's collision. It's Bobby's 74th birthday Saturday, and he needs his team to gift-wrap a convincing win for poll voters to munch on. As for Tommy, he still has the public support of the big-money boosters at Clemson. For now. The grassroots folks are the ones foaming at the mouth for a change. That visit to South Carolina at the end of the season looms pretty large. Tommy is promising a maximum-effort, trick-play-marked performance by his Tigers on Saturday.

    ANCHORS AWAY
    Navy can end the nation's longest head-to-head losing streak Saturday. But no matter the records, don't forget that a military-academy team should always be a sound underdog to Notre Dame. This time, the Irish really need the game to have any hope of salvaging a non-losing season. There is no Navy sneak-up here. The Irish players will be fed up by talk that this is the year the streak dies.

    How has coach Paul Johnson turned Navy around? Three factors:

    1. Schedule -- Dropping a road opener vs. Washington (replacing it with VMI) and replacing Boston College with Eastern Michigan. That's a good start toward rebuilding. Navy avoided being beaten up early, and a competitive loss at TCU did not destroy confidence. An academy team (heck, any team) needs belief. The Middies will always face a talent deficit. Losing to Delaware is not a big disgrace -- the Hens are much better than people think, with about 10 Division I-A transfers.

    2. Speed -- Navy is not fast, but it's faster. Academy teams will always seem slow compared to top teams, but this year's defense has avoided being toasted by numerous big plays. Eric Roberts is the fastest tailback, averaging an amazing 8.8 yards per carry for his career and almost 25 yards per catch!

    3. Craig Candeto -- The Mids' QB is an academy poster boy. He's a football co-captain, by far the best baseball player on campus, leads an athletes' Bible study group Thursday nights, and wants to be a fighter pilot like his uncle. Is that enough for you? How about this: Craig played in a Navy spring scrimmage, then ran over to the baseball field in time to hit a pinch-hit homer to beat Army. He scored six TDs and threw for another to beat the Black Knights in last year's Army-Navy football game! Candeto just passed Heisman winner Joe Bellino in career TDs. He was injured early in last year's loss to the Irish and wants badly to make up for that now.

    Navy has the youngest team in its history, with 11 or 12 true freshmen playing. That's unheard of at an academy, when the rigors of Plebe Year typically render freshmen almost useless on the football field. Not this bunch.

    Navy was robbed in '99 on a terrible spot (by its home crew from the ACC) in a heartbreaker at Notre Dame. The Irish appeared to be short on a fourth-and-10 completion in front of the Navy bench, but the ball was spotted for a first down. Six plays later, the Irish scored the game-winner.

    In '97, Navy really outplayed Notre Dame, but turnovers hurt them and a Hail Mary was caught two yards short of the end zone. The Mids are tired of close calls. But this time, the Irish are really tired of losing.

    GameDay makes its first visit to the Steel City on Saturday, from the pavilion at Heinz Stadium. I know it's about 10 hours before kickoff with the Hokies, but come on by if you're in the neighborhood.

    Chris Fowler is host of ESPN College GameDay