THE BOTTOM LINE
By Brad Edwards, Special to ESPN.com
It's a question that's asked by football teams all over the country this time of year, but it's muttered most often by those on the wrong side of that fine line between a blemished or unblemished record.
After Miami's domination of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Saturday night, the Hurricanes are now in the driver's seat to win the ACC's Coastal Division and force a rematch with Florida State for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series. But as sweet as it would be to exact revenge on the Seminoles for the 2005 season-opening defeat, the 'Canes can't help but wonder what might have been if their go-ahead field goal attempt hadn't been botched in Tallahassee on Sept. 5. Without that loss, Miami might currently be ranked third in the polls, perhaps with a chance to overtake Texas in the BCS Standings by season's end. But we'll never know.
What if Penn State were 10-0 right now? It might have still had an outside shot at the national title, if not for a single second left on the clock against Michigan. That's all it took for the Wolverines to beat the Nittany Lions on the last play of the game. An already special season for Joe Paterno and his team was that close to being even better.
What if LSU hadn't blown a 17-point fourth-quarter lead at home against Tennessee? The Tigers would likely be preparing for a battle of unbeatens in Tuscaloosa this weekend and would be ranked ahead of Alabama instead of being behind it. The winner of the game certainly would have been a major player in the national title race. But it didn't turn out that way.
What if TCU hadn't followed up its win over Oklahoma in Norman with a loss to now 3-6 SMU? The Horned Frogs still wouldn't be in the thick of the national championship hunt, but they would be 10-0 and one game away from closing out a perfect regular season. They'd definitely be eligible for BCS at-large selection and maybe even have a chance to qualify automatically by finishing in the top six.
It's a question these teams might be asking themselves for years to come.
LUCKY NUMBER 13
Alabama hasn't lost yet, but the Crimson Tide already have their own pair of "what ifs?" Big-play receiver Tyrone Prothro was lost for the season with a broken leg suffered on Oct. 1, and the offense hasn't been the same since. If that wasn't bad enough, the Tide just lost their most experienced offensive lineman, senior center J.B. Closner, to a broken leg against Mississippi State on Saturday. He's also out for the season.
This team has proved it can win with defense, having surrendered only one TD in its last five games -- that coming on a 26-yard drive by Ole Miss after a Tide fumble. But it just doesn't seem possible to sustain such a level of excellence in remaining games against LSU and Auburn (and potentially Georgia or Florida in the SEC title game). Just as UCLA was finally unable to overcome its defensive deficiencies, the clock will soon strike midnight on the Crimson Tide if they can't make more plays on offense.
QB Brodie Croyle has not thrown a touchdown pass in the three SEC games since Prothro's injury (he threw three in three quarters against Florida before the injury), and the offense has averaged just 303 total yards. Alabama has reached the end zone only three times in those games: once by the offense, once by the defense, and once by the special teams.
Without the benefit of midseason free-agent signings, it's hard to imagine this problem being solved, but history is on the side of the Tide. Thirteen is apparently a lucky number in Tuscaloosa, as Alabama has gone undefeated in 1966 (11-0), 1979 (12-0) and 1992 (13-0). At 9-0 in 2005, history is just four games away from repeating itself.
Though the specific bowl bid has yet to be determined, TCU became the first team to win a conference title this season, grabbing the Mountain West championship in its first year in the league. The Horned Frogs had recently shared titles in both the WAC and C-USA, but this was the program's first outright conference championship since winning the Southwest Conference in 1958.
Florida State became the first team to clinch a division title, despite losing at home to NC State on Saturday. The Seminoles gained the Atlantic Division's spot in the ACC championship game after Boston College lost to North Carolina earlier in the day.
In the Big 12, Colorado is on the verge of clinching the North Division after beating Missouri. The Buffs can end the race with a victory at Iowa State on Saturday, but even if they lose that game, they would get another chance to reach the title game by beating Nebraska at home on Nov. 25.
Whether it's technically or just practically over, the SEC East will be decided Saturday. Florida plays at South Carolina early in the day, and a loss by the Gators would give Georgia a chance to clinch the division with a win over Auburn that night. If Florida wins, a Georgia loss would put the Gators in the SEC title game. Basically, Georgia just needs to win to be safe, because its final conference game is home against Kentucky. We're not wasting any space discussing the possibility of the Dawgs losing that one.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
3,907Brad Smith's career rushing yards at Missouri, which are the most for any quarterback in major-college history.