Breaking down the conference races

The national championship race should become clearer after this week's games, with each of the five remaining unbeaten teams facing pretty formidable competition (OK, New Mexico State is about as tough as Hawaii's schedule gets, except for the Nov. 23 home game against Boise State).

This week offers a smorgasbord of elimination games: Top-ranked Ohio State plays at surging No. 25 Penn State (8 p.m. ET, ABC); No. 2 Boston College plays at No. 8 Virginia Tech on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN); No. 4 Arizona State hosts No. 21 California; No. 9 Kansas plays at dangerous Texas A&M (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

While trying to remain alive for a spot in the Jan. 7 BCS Championship Game at the Superdome in New Orleans, those unbeaten teams must also remain in contention in their respective conferences. Here's a closer look at the six BCS conferences as we hit the stretch run of the regular season:

Atlantic Division: Boston College faces its stiffest test of the season at Virginia Tech on Thursday night. The No. 2 Eagles face a tough road after playing the No. 8 Hokies, with a home game against Florida State, consecutive road games at Maryland and Clemson and the Nov. 24 finale against Miami looming. If the Eagles slip, defending ACC champion Wake Forest is only one game back in the loss column. The Demon Deacons still play home games against North Carolina and NC State, with road games at Virginia and Clemson sandwiched in between.
Predicted winner: Boston College

Coastal Division: Most of the preseason prognosticators figured Virginia Tech would be in the race until the end, but rival Virginia keeps hanging around, too. The No. 15 Cavaliers have a seven-game winning streak, winning five of those contests by five points or fewer. The Hokies play consecutive Thursday night games against Boston College and at Georgia Tech on Nov. 1 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Virginia Tech then plays consecutive home games against Florida State and Miami before the Nov. 24 finale at Virginia. The Cavaliers play at NC State on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU), then host Wake Forest and play Miami in the Hurricanes' final home game at the Orange Bowl. If the Cavs survive that stretch, the finale against the Hokies at Scott Stadium might decide the Coastal winner.
Predicted winner: Virginia Tech
Predicted ACC champion: Boston College

Big East
The conference slate is just getting started, but surprising Connecticut is the only team left with an unbeaten mark in Big East play. Four teams have only one loss and it figures to be a three-team race between Rutgers, No. 10 South Florida and No. 7 West Virginia, unless the No. 23 Huskies can keep up their improbable pace. Connecticut plays South Florida on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and then Rutgers at home. But the Huskies then go to West Virginia for the Nov. 24 finale. The Scarlet Knights might have jumped in the driver's seat in the league race by beating then-No. 2 South Florida 30-27 last week. Rutgers hosts West Virginia Saturday (noon ET, ABC) in a game that will set the tone for the remaining race. The Mountaineers then play three of their last four games at home.
Predicted Big East champion: West Virginia

Big Ten
The conference race once again points toward the Nov. 17 clash between top-ranked Ohio State and No. 20 Michigan. Every other team in the Big Ten has at least two losses in conference play. If Michigan can survive a November stretch that begins with consecutive road games at rival Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Wolverines' contest against the Buckeyes in the Big House should decide the Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes can eliminate Penn State from contention with a victory at Happy Valley on Saturday. Ohio State then plays home games against Wisconsin and Illinois before traveling to Michigan.
Predicted Big Ten champion: Ohio State

Big 12
North Division: Unbeaten Kansas has a one-game lead over Missouri with five games left in Big 12 play. The road gets much tougher for the No. 9 Jayhawks the rest of the way. They play at Texas A&M on Saturday, followed by a home game against Nebraska, road game at surging Oklahoma State, home game against Iowa State and the Nov. 24 finale against No. 13 Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Missouri's road doesn't seem as difficult, with only two games left against teams with winning records before the Kansas contest: home against Texas A&M on Nov. 10 and at Kansas State the following week.
Predicted winner: Missouri

South Division: Oklahoma finds itself in quite a battle as the No. 6 Sooners are tied with Texas A&M and Oklahoma State with 3-1 records in Big 12 play. The Sooners play three of their last four games at home, including a Nov. 3 date against Texas A&M. The Aggies have the most difficult remaining schedule: home against Kansas on Saturday, followed by road games at Oklahoma and Missouri, then home against No. 19 Texas. Oklahoma State faces Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma in its final four games.
Predicted winner: Oklahoma
Predicted Big 12 champion: Oklahoma

Two games Saturday -- No. 21 California at No. 4 Arizona State and No. 12 Southern California at No. 5 Oregon -- will go a long way in determining the pecking order in the Pac-10. The Sun Devils still face the brunt of their schedule, with road games at Oregon and UCLA and a home game against USC looming after they play the Bears. UCLA, which somehow lost to Utah and Notre Dame, controls its fate in the Pac-10. The Bruins and Sun Devils are 4-0 in conference play, and UCLA plays road games at Washington State and Arizona the next two weeks, before finishing the season with home games against Arizona State and Oregon and a crosstown road game at USC. The Trojans are only one game back in the standings, but still face road games at Oregon, Cal and Arizona State.
Predicted Pac-10 champion: Oregon

East Division: The toughest division in college football is tougher than ever before. Five of six teams in the East already have two losses in conference play. Defending national champion Florida is in the driver's seat because each of its losses came against teams from the SEC West (Auburn and LSU). Florida would have to lose for Kentucky or Tennessee to win the division. South Carolina can still win out and win the division, but the Gamecocks would have to win road games at Tennessee on Saturday (7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN) and then Arkansas and a home game against Florida to do it. Georgia needs a lot of help and will have to beat the Gators for only the third time in 18 years to have a chance.<
Predicted winner: Florida

West Division: The Nov. 3 game between No. 3 LSU and No. 24 Alabama was already big because Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban was facing his former school for the first time in Tuscaloosa. Who knew the game would go a long way in deciding the SEC West. Both Alabama and LSU are 4-1 in SEC play heading into bye weeks. Each team still faces two road games -- the Tide plays at Mississippi State and Auburn and the Tigers play at Alabama and Ole Miss. Both Auburn and Arkansas are probably out of the race, but each could spoil it during the final weekend of the regular season.
Predicted winner: LSU
Predicted SEC champion: LSU

On (and Off) the Mark

On the Mark

Clock-eating tailbacks. Rutgers' Ray Rice (181 yards in 30-27 upset of South Florida). North Dakota State's Tyler Roehl (263 yards, one touchdown in 27-21 win at Minnesota). Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy (137 yards) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (100 yards, one touchdown in 24-17 upset of Cincinnati). Wisconsin's P.J. Hill (184 yards, two touchdowns in 44-3 win over Northern Illinois). Air Force's Chad Hall (167 yards in 20-12 win at Wyoming). Texas A&M's Jorvorskie Lane (130 yards, four touchdowns in 36-14 blowout of Nebraska). Nevada's Luke Lippincott (241 yards, two scores in 31-28 win over Utah State). Ohio State's Chris Wells (221 yards, one touchdown in 24-17 defeat of Michigan State). Central Florida's Kevin Smith (170 yards, three touchdowns in 44-23 win over Tulsa). Toledo's Jalen Parmele (241 yards, two touchdowns in 43-40 win over Ohio). Oregon's Jonathan Stewart (251 yards, two touchdowns in 55-34 victory at Washington). Ducks backup Andre Crenshaw (15 carries for 113 yards and two scores in same game). Southern Mississippi's Damion Fletcher (152 yards, three touchdowns in 33-24 win over Marshall). Tulane's Matt Forte (342 yards, four touchdowns in 41-34 win at SMU; his third straight game with 200 yards and second this season with 300 or more).

(Off) the Mark

Officiating is rarely (Off) the Mark because I appreciate the difficulty of the job. But there was an obvious mistake that can't go unmentioned.

With Louisville leading Connecticut 7-0 in the third quarter on Friday night, Huskies returner Larry Taylor threw his arm out -- in what appeared to be a signal for a fair catch -- before fielding a punt. His action caused the Louisville coverage team to stop. But then Taylor took off running for a 74-yard touchdown return.

Officials ruled the play a touchdown and said it wasn't reviewable by replay. NCAA rules stipulate a player must wave his arm multiple times to signal a fair catch. Taylor did it once. But NCAA rules also stipulate Taylor's action should have resulted in an illegal fair catch, which means the Huskies should have taken possession at their 26. Instead, Connecticut was given a touchdown and escaped with a 21-17 victory over the Cardinals.

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese later acknowledged officials blew the call.

The worst part of the blown call? Taylor knew exactly what he was doing. So did the game officials. After the game, Taylor told The Hartford Courant, "I talked to the official right before the play … and he said I had to get my hand high up in the air so he could see it. … I didn't really put my hand up. I was just playing a mind game with the defender."

It was the greatest act of deception on a punt return since Florida State freshman Terrell Buckley pulled a similar stunt at Syracuse in 1989. In that game, Buckley fielded a punt (without waving his arm) and stopped for a couple of seconds, as if he'd signaled for a fair catch. Then Buckley took off and ran for a 69-yard touchdown. Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden dubbed the Mississippi native the "Foolah from Pascagoula" after the game. At least Buckley didn't break rules in doing it.

On the Mark

Big-play receivers. Alabama's DJ Hall (13 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns in 41-17 rout of Tennessee). Indiana's James Hardy (14 catches for 142 yards and two scores in 36-31 loss to Penn State). Clemson's Aaron Kelly (seven receptions for 121 yards and two touchdowns in 70-14 rout of Central Michigan). Purdue's Dorien Bryant (nine catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns in 31-6 win over Iowa). Wake Forest's Kenneth Moore (15 receptions for 181 yards and two touchdowns in 44-24 victory over Navy). Rice's Jarett Dillard (five catches for 85 yards and three touchdowns in 38-35 loss to Memphis). California's DeSean Jackson (nine catches for 136 yards and two scores in 30-21 loss at UCLA). Kentucky's Dicky Lyons (eight receptions for 124 yards and three touchdowns in 45-37 loss to Florida). Boise State's Jeremy Childs (seven catches for 143 yards and two scores in 45-31 win at Louisiana Tech). Louisiana-Monroe's Darrell McNeal (seven catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns in 28-14 win over Florida International). Southern Mississippi's Torris Magee (seven catches for 156 yards and one touchdown in win over Marshall). New Mexico State's Derek Dubois (seven receptions for 141 yards and one touchdown in a 45-31 win over Idaho). Michigan's Mario Manningham (nine catches for 109 yards and two scores in 27-17 win at Illinois). SMU's Emmanuel Sanders (eight receptions for 155 yards and two touchdowns in 41-34 loss to Tulane).

(Off) the Mark

It seemed Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer had silenced his critics with a 35-14 demolition of Georgia on Oct. 6. But then the Volunteers were blown out at Alabama 41-17 on Saturday. For those keeping score, Tennessee lost its two biggest games, against Florida and the Crimson Tide, by a combined score of 100-37.

Another sign of trouble in Knoxville: Fulmer called a rare practice for the Volunteers on Sunday. Montario Hardesty, the team's second-leading rusher, failed to show up. He didn't have a carry in the loss at Alabama and voiced his displeasure to reporters after the game.

And how's this for first impressions? In his first audition for new athletics director Tom Osborne, Nebraska coach Bill Callahan watched his team get pounded by Texas A&M 36-14. The Cornhuskers fell to 1-3 in Big 12 play, losing their last three games to Missouri, Oklahoma State and the Aggies by a combined score of 122-34. Texas A&M ran for 359 yards, a sure sign Nebraska's players have quit on their coaches.

On the Mark

Dual-threat players. Vanderbilt quarterback Mackenzi Adams threw for 123 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 84 yards on 13 carries in a 17-6 upset at South Carolina. Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee passed for 100 yards and one touchdown and ran 35 times for 167 yards in the win at Nebraska. UCLA's Brandon Breazell was a three-way threat in the upset of California, running three times for 21 yards, catching four passes for 68 yards and throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass. Florida's Tim Tebow completed 18 of 26 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns, and ran 20 times for 78 yards and one score in the win at Kentucky. West Virginia quarterback Pat White ran five times for 89 yards and one touchdown and threw for 61 yards and two scores in the first half of a 38-13 rout of Mississippi State. Central Florida quarterback Kyle Israel completed 21 of 29 passes for 224 yards and one touchdown and ran 10 times for 53 yards and one score in the win over Tulsa. Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing threw for 153 yards and one touchdown and ran seven times for 84 yards in a 19-14 victory at Colorado. BYU's Harvey Unga ran 21 times for 145 yards and one touchdown and caught four passes for 57 yards and one score in a 42-7 rout of Eastern Washington. Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns and ran 16 times for 109 yards in a 41-39 win over Kansas State. Washington's Jake Locker threw for 257 yards and four touchdowns and ran 13 times for 78 yards in the loss to Oregon. LSU's Matt Flynn threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns and ran 10 times for 34 yards in a 30-24 win over Auburn. Virginia's Mikell Simpson came from nowhere to run 16 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns and catch 13 passes for 152 yards in an 18-17 win at Maryland (Simpson had two carries and four catches in his career before playing the Terps).

(Off) the Mark

Alabama suspended five players for the "impermissible receipt of textbooks" before the Crimson Tide beat up Tennessee on Saturday. Among the players suspended were starting guards Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis. When is the last time SEC players were disciplined for having textbooks they weren't supposed to have?

On the Mark

Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson (363 yards, three touchdowns in win over Tennessee). The Crimson Tide's onside kick to start the game. Rutgers' defense (seven sacks). Temple's three-game winning streak. Division II Grand Valley State's 35-game winning streak. Temple defensive end Junior Galette (three sacks, forced fumble in 24-17 win over Miami, Ohio). Clemson's offense (315 yards passing, 341 rushing in rout of Central Michigan). Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper (20-for-22 for 273 yards and five touchdowns against Chippewas). Vanderbilt finally beats Steve Spurrier. Miami's trickeration. USC quarterback Mark Sanchez (235 yards, four touchdowns in 38-0 shutout at Notre Dame). Missouri's defense. Kentucky quarterback Andre' Woodson (415 yards, five touchdowns in loss to Florida). Ohio State's defense. Fresno State's shutout. Blizzard at BYU. Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman (404 yards, three touchdowns in loss to Oklahoma State). New Mexico State quarterback Chase Holbrook (
404 yards, three touchdowns in win over Idaho). Virginia defensive end Chris Long's safety. Michigan's defense. LSU receiver Early Doucet's return. Colorado State's first win. Upcoming elimination games.

(Off) the Mark

"For Sale" signs in Tallahassee. South Florida's special teams. Minnesota. Cincinnati's fourth-quarter fumbles. Oklahoma's offense. South Carolina's offense. Ohio State's offense. Ole Miss' defense. 0-7 Marshall. 0-7 Utah State. 0-7 Florida International. 1-7 Notre Dame. Arizona coach Mike Stoops. Florida State quarterback Xavier Lee (four turnovers in 37-29 loss to Miami). Cal's season.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.