<
>

LSU's Sugar Bowl hopes take a hit

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

American football wasn't yet born when Charles Dickens wrote those words. Otherwise, he could have easily been describing this past weekend for the LSU Tigers.

When the final whistle blew on LSU's 55-24 thrashing of Arkansas on Friday, the fans at Tiger Stadium were reveling in a statement win that might give some poll voters reason to re-evaluate the No. 2 spot on their ballots. The team had also pulled itself into a virtual schedule-strength deadlock with USC after having been 35 spots back just two weeks earlier.

Life was good on the Louisiana bayou. But then it started unraveling.

The Fall
Within an hour of LSU's win, its schedule was slightly weakened by Arizona's predictable loss at Arizona State. That certainly wasn't cause for concern, but little did Tigers fans know, it was a harbinger of things to come.

There were four more games involving LSU opponents on Saturday. Georgia won, as expected, but three toss-up games all went against the Tigers. Had Alabama, Florida and Louisiana Tech all been victorious, LSU might now control its own destiny in the race for No. 2. Instead, the Tigers had a net gain of only five schedule strength spots on USC over the weekend, and their hopes of reaching the Nokia Sugar Bowl are now hanging by a thread.

The only other thing that could have gone against the Tigers also did. Florida's loss ensured that LSU will have a rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, meaning that another win over the Bulldogs will eliminate most (if not all) of the Tigers' quality-win points that are currently being deducted for the first victory over UGA. The "double jeopardy" rule doesn't seem fair, but without the conference title game, LSU wouldn't have a chance of jumping USC to begin with.

The Hope
If we assume that USC and LSU both win on Saturday -- and that the order of the two teams does not change in the polls -- the Tigers will need to make up a full point on the Trojans through strength of schedule and the computer ratings. Since LSU has no hope for a significant quality-win bonus or a commanding lead in schedule strength (thanks to this past weekend's results), the Bayou Bengals will likely need to finish ahead of Southern California in six of the seven BCS computers to make up such ground.

That might not even be possible at this point, but if LSU still has a chance, it rests on the shoulder pads of a 5-6 Syracuse team. Outside of the Tigers' and Trojans' own games on Saturday, the only remaining matchup that could have significant impact on the BCS components is Notre Dame's tussle in the Carrier Dome.

The Irish are an opponent of USC, and an additional win by ND should be enough to keep the Trojans from being jumped by LSU in more than four computers ... and it would probably help SC hold them off in schedule strength, as well. Therefore, a Notre Dame win on Saturday would mean LSU's only chance to jump USC in the BCS would be for the Tigers to overcome the Trojans in at least one of the human polls.

If Syracuse wins, however, there is still mathematical hope for LSU. There would remain an outside shot for supremacy over USC in six computers, and it would be possible for the Tigers to finish slightly ahead of the Trojans in schedule strength. The odds still wouldn't be very good for LSU, but something is always better than nothing.

And because the Notre Dame-Syracuse game will be played before the Oregon State-USC game, LSU will know by kickoff whether it needs some help from the Beavers.

Projected BCS Standings
Here's my projection for this week's BCS Standings, which should basically look the same as last week's because there were no losses among the top 10 teams. Michigan remains in the best position to capitalize if USC and LSU both go down, but Georgia might also have a shot in that scenario.

Once again, Oklahoma is all but officially in the Nokia Sugar Bowl. Even if the it loses the Big 12 Championship to Kansas State, it will still easily finish in the top two of the BCS (assuming it doesn't fall behind a twice-beaten team in the human polls).

1. Oklahoma
2. Southern California
3. LSU
4. Michigan
5. Ohio State
6. Texas
7. Georgia
8. Florida State
9. Tennessee
10. Miami, Fla.

The Bowls
Half of the participants in the Bowl Championship Series have now been determined, and we can start to make more educated guesses about what the matchups in those games are likely to be. Here's what we know.

BCS Participants:
ACC: Florida State
Big East: Miami
Big Ten: Michigan
Pac-10: USC
Big 12: Oklahoma or Kansas State
SEC: LSU or Georgia
Projected At-large teams: Texas, Ohio State

As strange as it seems, some of the biggest Oklahoma fans in the world on Saturday will be those who normally sport the burnt orange of the Texas Longhorns. Outside of USC and LSU, Texas has the most to lose of any team this coming weekend -- significant enough stakes that 'Horns backers will suck it up and root for the hated Sooners.

An Oklahoma win makes Texas a virtual lock to receive one of the two at-large berths to a BCS game, but an OU loss in the Big 12 title match would leave the Longhorns out of a major bowl yet again.

The championship game winner earns the conference's automatic BCS berth, so Kansas State would gain that spot by beating the Sooners. And because Oklahoma would still be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the BCS after the loss (as mentioned above), it would just receive its place in the Nokia Sugar Bowl as an at-large team instead. BCS guidelines prohibit any conference from placing three teams in a BCS game, so there would not be a place left for Texas if the Wildcats pull the upset in Kansas City.

But if the heavily-favored Sooners win, this is what we will probably see in January.

Nokia Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma vs. USC
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: Texas vs. FSU or SEC champ
Rose Bowl: Michigan vs. SEC champ or FSU
FedEx Orange Bowl: Miami vs. Ohio State

The Fiesta seems to be leaning toward Texas because of the Big 12 tie-in (the conference champ normally is the host team for that game) and the state's proximity to Arizona. If that pick is made, the Rose would then choose either the SEC champion or Florida State, which is suddenly much more appealing now that it has finished with only two losses.

From a national standpoint, either selection makes an attractive opponent for Michigan. But the local standpoint could be what puts FSU over the top. Bobby Bowden and his program's success over the last 20 years are much easier to sell in California than LSU or Georgia. And with the Rose Bowl not matching Big Ten and Pac-10 teams for a third straight year, it might be feeling a need for maximum appeal to its community.

The flip side is this: The Seminoles have a notoriously poor bowl following and would likely bring 15,000 to 20,000 fewer fans than the SEC champion. In order to take FSU, the Rose would need to feel secure in Michigan's ability to fill almost half the stadium by itself. If Wolverines fans can handle that much, then the Rose Bowl is in a no-lose situation.

Whichever team doesn't land in Pasadena will certainly be the opponent for Texas in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. That leaves the FedEx Orange Bowl free to select Ohio State to play Miami in a rematch of last year's national title game. As uninspiring of an offensive showcase as it might be, 'Canes fans really want another shot at the Buckeyes.

Brad Edwards is a researcher for ESPN. His Road to the BCS column appears every Sunday. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.