The BCS championship race, for all intents and purposes, is down to three teams: Missouri, West Virginia and Ohio State.
If the Tigers beat Oklahoma in Saturday's Big 12 championship game in San Antonio, and the Mountaineers beat Pittsburgh in the 100th edition of the "Backyard Brawl," Missouri and West Virginia will play for the national championship. If either team loses, the Big Ten champion Buckeyes probably will advance to the Jan. 7 BCS Championship Game in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
Only one of those teams was supposed to be in such a lofty position at season's end. West Virginia was ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, behind No. 1 USC and No. 2 LSU. Ohio State was supposed to rebuild in 2007 after losing many of its star players from the team that lost to Florida 41-14 in last season's national championship game. Likewise, Missouri wasn't supposed to do much this season, as four other Big 12 teams were ranked ahead of the Tigers in the preseason.
With one week left in the regular season, On the Mark sorts through the surprises and disappointments of the most unpredictable college football season on record:
1. Kansas The Jayhawks benefited from a soft nonconference schedule, but to finish 11-1 and ranked in the top 10 is a remarkable achievement for one of college football's most underachieving programs. Coach Mark Mangino has quietly built a strong program in America's heartland. If the chips fall right, Kansas might end up in a BCS bowl game.
2. Missouri If not for Kansas, Missouri might have been the most underachieving program in the Big 12 in the past decade. But with quarterback Chase Daniel and the best group of pass catchers in the country, the Tigers are one victory from playing for the national championship.
3. Ohio State The Buckeyes are expected to be among the country's best teams each season, but coach Jim Tressel might have turned in his best coaching job this season. After losing Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, Ohio State's offense still had enough firepower to finish the regular season 11-1.
4. Illinois The coach who couldn't win in the SEC has found a home in the Big Ten. Ron Zook led Illinois to monumental upsets of Wisconsin and Ohio State. With quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn coming back, Illinois might be poised for even greater success in the future. If Ohio State advances to the BCS Championship Game, the Illini could end up in the Rose Bowl.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs coach Sly Croom is Example A for why schools should have a lot of patience with coaches. After winning only nine games in his first three seasons combined, Croom led the Bulldogs to a 7-5 record, including upsets of Auburn and Alabama. Croom found the missing piece in freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll.
6. Virginia After the Cavaliers lost at Wyoming in the opener, Al Groh looked like an overpaid coach on his way out. But the Cavaliers won nine of their next 10 games, including an NCAA-record five contests by two or fewer points. Virginia couldn't beat Virginia Tech to win the ACC's Coastal Division, but Groh is the top candidate for ACC Coach of the Year.
7. Boston College Jeff Jagodzinski inherited a pretty good football team, but his decision to hire offensive coordinator Steve Logan was one of the best moves by a first-year coach. Under Logan's guidance, quarterback Matt Ryan became a Heisman Trophy candidate and the Eagles won the ACC's Atlantic Division. If the Eagles beat Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, they'll win the ACC and play in the Orange Bowl.
8. Arizona State The Sun Devils' decision to hire Dennis Erickson was somewhat surprising, but he worked magic once again in the Arizona desert. Not only did Erickson restore quarterback Rudy Carpenter's confidence after an awful season in 2006 but the former Miami coach rebuilt a Sun Devils defense that had been among the worst in the country. Arizona State could finish 10-2 and might play in a BCS bowl game.
9. Georgia The Bulldogs were one victory from playing in the SEC championship game and should play in a BCS bowl game. Not bad for a team that started two freshmen on the offensive line and had to replace much of its defensive line. Along the way, coach Mark Richt transformed himself from Jerry Falwell to Jerry Springer with his motivational tactics.
10. Connecticut Randy Edsall's project is complete as he led the Huskies from Division I-A infancy to Big East contender. A 66-21 loss at West Virginia wasn't how Edsall wanted to finish the season, but the ugly loss doesn't diminish the program's remarkable accomplishments.
1. Michigan The Wolverines were ranked No. 5 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, but lost to Division I-AA Appalachian State in their opener in one of the biggest upsets in college football history. An ugly loss to Oregon followed, also at home, before Michigan righted its ship down the stretch. But the Wolverines lost to Wisconsin and Ohio State (again) to finish the season. Coach Lloyd Carr retired after losing to the Buckeyes.
2. Louisville: Former Cardinal coach Bobby Petrino left Steve Kragthorpe a cupboard chock full of star players. Kragthorpe, the former Tulsa coach, didn't know the job came with one of the worst defenses in the country and a large share of off-field problems. Even with quarterback Brian Brohm leading the way, the Cardinals never got off the ground and are 5-6 going into Thursday's finale (ESPN, 7:30 ET) against Rutgers.
3. Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish were supposed to struggle this season after losing quarterback Brady Quinn, receiver Jeff Samardzija and a boatload of other top players. But Notre Dame wasn't supposed to be that bad in Charlie Weis' third season. The Fighting Irish lost nine of their first 10 games, including a 46-44 loss to Navy, their first loss to the Midshipmen in 44 games. Notre Dame won its last two games, over Duke and Stanford, to salvage a record that is the worst in school history.
4. UCLA: The Bruins were expected to be a sleeper in the Pac-10 race, but instead lost to Utah and Notre Dame. UCLA was undone by quarterback injuries, but can salvage a 7-5 record if it upsets No. 8 USC on Saturday for the second season in a row.
5. Miami: The Hurricanes expected bigger things in Randy Shannon's first season, but the Hurricanes finished 5-7 and won't play in a postseason bowl game for the first time in 10 years. Shannon was hurt by what plagued Larry Coker, his predecessor: poor quarterback play. Neither Kyle Wright nor Kirby Freeman could lead the offense, and the Hurricanes scored 16 or fewer points in six games. Miami closed the Orange Bowl with an ugly 48-0 loss to Virginia.
6. Florida State: Maybe too much was expected from the Seminoles after coach Bobby Bowden brought in offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and four other new assistants. Florida State finished 7-5 and upset then-No. 2 Boston College 27-17 on Nov. 3. But FSU lost two of its last three games, including a 45-12 rout by rival Florida.
7. Texas A&M: The Aggies never were much of a factor in the Big 12 race, even with quarterback Stephen McGee and tailbacks Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodson returning to lead a high-powered offense. Coach Dennis Franchione resigned after the regular season but left College Station as a winner with a 38-30 upset of Texas.
8. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers never seemed as outmatched as they did in coach Bill Callahan's fourth season. The Nebraska defense surrendered 40 or more points in six games, including a whopping 76 in a loss to Kansas. Callahan was fired one day after Nebraska's season ended with a 65-51 loss at Colorado.
9. South Carolina: This was supposed to be the season in which Steve Spurrier turned the Gamecocks into a contender in the SEC East. The Gamecocks were a contender in the first half of the season, winning six of their first seven games and getting ranked as high as No. 6 in the country. But South Carolina lost its last five games, finishing 6-6 and in danger of not playing in a bowl game.
10. Alabama: The early returns on the Crimson Tide's $4 million investment in Nick Saban weren't encouraging. The Crimson Tide finished 6-6 and lost consecutive games to Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe. Alabama finished the season with a 17-10 loss to Auburn, the Tigers' sixth consecutive victory in the Iron Bowl.
On (and Off) the Mark
On the Mark
Game-changing quarterbacks. Southern California's John David Booty (26-for-39 for 375 yards with four touchdowns in a 44-24 win at Arizona State). Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour (33-for-54 for 382 yards with two touchdowns, 132 rushing yards and two scores in a 35-32 victory at Akron). Texas A&M's Stephen McGee (25-for-36 for 362 yards with three touchdowns, one rushing in a 38-30 win over Texas). Hawaii's Colt Brennan (40-for-53 for 495 yards with five touchdowns in a 39-27 win over Boise State). Boston College's Matt Ryan (26-for-43 for 369 yards with three touchdowns in a 28-14 victory over Miami). Kentucky's Andre Woodson (39-for-62 for 430 yards with six touchdowns in a 52-50 loss to Tennessee). Tennessee's Erik Ainge (28-for-45 for 397 yards with seven touchdowns in the win over the Wildcats). Memphis' Martin Hankins (30-for-59 for 336 yards with four touchdowns in a 55-52 win over SMU). SMU's Justin Willis (35-for-48 for 375 yards with four touchdowns, 114 rushing yards and one score in the loss to Memphis). Tulsa's Paul Smith (22-for-39 for 441 yards with five touchdowns in a 48-43 win at Rice). Rice's Chase Clement (40-for-66 for 541 yards with three touchdowns in the loss to Tulsa). Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (11-for-15 for 150 yards with four touchdowns in a 49-17 win over Oklahoma State). West Virginia's Pat White (107 passing yards and one score, 186 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 66-21 rout of Connecticut). Fresno State's Tom Brandstater (23-for-29 for 313 yards with two touchdowns in a 45-29 win over Kansas State). Florida's Tim Tebow (19-for-28 for 262 yards and three touchdowns, 89 rushing yards and two scores in a 45-12 blowout of Florida State). Washington State's Alex Brink (27-for-40 for 399 yards with five touchdowns in a 42-35 win at Washington). Cincinnati's Ben Mauk (29-for-42 with 431 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-31 rout at Syracuse). Missouri's Chase Daniel (40-for-49 for 361 yards with three touchdowns in a 36-28 win over Kansas).
Off the Mark
Georgia Tech might fire coach Chan Gailey. Duke might fire Ted Roof. Syracuse faces a difficult decision with Greg Robinson. Arkansas wants Houston Nutt to stay, but the damage might already be done. Those schools had better make careful, calculated decisions because the pool of replacement candidates is pretty shallow. Texas A&M fired Dennis Franchione and hired Houston Texans offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay Packers coach, who has little college experience. The names being tossed about at Georgia Tech and Ole Miss include former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, former Minnesota coach Glen Mason and former Auburn coach Terry Bowden. Those coaches each had their moments, but there isn't a long list of up-and-comers who will get boosters overly excited.
On the Mark
Ground-churning tailbacks. Colorado's Hugh Charles (169 yards and three touchdowns in a 65-51 win over Nebraska). Arkansas' Darren McFadden (206 yards and three rushing touchdowns, one passing in a 50-48 upset of LSU). Arkansas' Peyton Hillis (89 yards and two rushing touchdowns, two receiving, against LSU). Texas A&M's Mike Goodson (72 yards, two touchdown catches in the upset of Texas). Virginia Tech's Branden Ore (147 yards on 31 carries in a 33-21 win at Virginia). East Carolina's Chris Johnson (155 yards, two rushing touchdowns, one receiving in a 35-12 win over Tulane). BYU's Harvey Unga (141 yards, one touchdown in a 17-10 victory over Utah). Central Florida's Kevin Smith (219 yards, one score in a 36-20 victory over UTEP). Notre Dame's Robert Hughes (136 yards, one touchdown in a 21-14 win at Stanford). Georgia's Thomas Brown (139 yards, one touchdown in a 31-17 win at Georgia Tech). Oklahoma's Allen Patrick (202 yards, two scores in the win over Oklahoma State). West Virginia's Noel Devine (118 yards, one touchdown in the win over Connecticut). TCU's Joseph Turner (226 yards, four touchdowns in a 45-33 win at San Diego State).
Off the Mark
Who knew Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon was that valuable? Playing its first complete game without the injured Heisman Trophy hopeful, who tore the ACL in his left knee in a loss to Arizona on Nov. 15, the Ducks couldn't muster a single point in a 16-0 defeat at UCLA on Saturday. The Ducks also lost backup quarterback Brady Leaf to a badly sprained ankle late in the first quarter against the Bruins, and young quarterbacks Cody Kempt and Justin Roper were unable to generate any offense. It was Oregon's first shutout loss since a 63-0 rout by Nebraska on Sept. 28, 1985. The Ducks had only 12 first downs and 148 yards of offense in the game, after averaging 40.9 points in their first 10 games. The Arizona loss eliminated Oregon from the BCS race; the UCLA loss knocked the Ducks out of the Rose Bowl.
On the Mark
Big-play receivers. USC tight end Fred Davis (five catches for 119 yards and one score against Arizona State). Central Michigan's Antonio Brown (15 catches for 174 yards versus Akron). Nebraska's Maurice Purify (11 catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns in the loss to Colorado). Toledo's Nick Moore (11 catches for 141 yards and one score in a 37-10 loss to Bowling Green). Hawaii's Davone Bess (15 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns against Boise State). Hawaii's Jason Rivers (11 catches for 113 yards and one score against the Broncos). Boston College's Rich Gunnell (nine catches for 135 yards against Miami). Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal (six catches for 147 yards and one score versus Virginia). Tulsa's Brennan Marion (seven catches for 244 yards and two scores against Rice). Fresno State's Marlon Moore (nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns against Kansas State). Florida's Percy Harvin (157 rushing yards and one score, five catches for 67 yards against FSU). Washington State's Brandon Gibson (six catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns versus Washington). Cincinnati's Marcus Barnett (11 catches for 127 yards and three scores at Syracuse). Kansas State's Jordy Nelson (15 receptions for 165 yards and one touchdown in the loss to Fresno State). Syracuse's Mike Williams (nine catches for 160 yards and one touchdown in the loss to Cincinnati).
Off the Mark
Ole Miss made its bed, and now the Rebels will have to sleep in it (without pillows and alarm clocks, of course). Ole Miss officials made the right call when they fired coach Ed Orgeron on Saturday after three disappointing seasons. The Rebels were 3-9, 0-8 in the SEC, the school's first winless season in conference play since 1982.
The second half of Friday's 17-14 loss to Mississippi State was a microcosm of Orgeron's regime. The former Southern California assistant might have been a fiery figure and excellent recruiter, but he didn't have the necessary experience to lead an SEC program.
With the Rebels leading 14-0, and the Bulldogs going nowhere on offense throughout the game, Orgeron's decision to go for the first down on fourth-and-1 from the Rebel 49 was an ill-fated move. Ole Miss tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stuffed for a 3-yard loss, and the Bulldogs took over. Quarterback Wesley Carroll finished the possession with a 4-yard touchdown to Anthony Dixon to cut State's deficit to 14-7. A few minutes later, Derek Pegues returned an Ole Miss punt 75 yards for a touchdown to tie the score at 14.
Mississippi State won the game on Adam Carlson's 48-yard field goal with 12 seconds to play.
On the Mark
Tennessee's guts. Missouri's determination. West Virginia's speed. Maryland's defense. Arkansas' surprise. Georgia's good fortune. USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson (four sacks versus Arizona State). South Florida defensive backs Trae Williams and Nate Allen (interception returns for touchdowns in 48-37 win at Pittsburgh). Maryland, Colorado, Ohio and UCLA becoming bowl eligible. Hawaii's BCS chances.
Off the Mark
Nebraska's defense. Kentucky's defense. Kansas State's finish. NC State's offense. Georgia Tech's offense. Syracuse. Washington. Duke's premature celebration. 1-11 Idaho. 1-11 Duke. 1-11 Minnesota. 1-11 SMU. 0-11 Florida International.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.