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USC wins even on its bye week

In the harsh and ever-changing race for the national championship, there were three more losers on Saturday.

And there was one big winner.

Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida State saw any realistic hopes of reaching the Nokia Sugar Bowl fall by the wayside, as all three teams suffered their second loss of the season. The Hurricanes' defeat, however, was sugar-sweet to USC.

Whether they realized it or not, the Trojans were in serious jeopardy of being jumped by the 'Canes in the BCS Standings had Miami been able to reach No. 3 in the polls. Southern California still doesn't totally control its own destiny, but its looming disaster scenario is now much less likely than it was before.

Saturday's attrition leaves us only four major teams with fewer than two losses (unprecedented in the BCS era) ... and it also leaves us with three major questions.

If OU loses, could it remain in the top 2 of the BCS Standings?
It's possible. The Sooners are so far in front of everyone else in the computers right now that a loss probably wouldn't drop them out of the top two of most ratings. OU will also have a solid strength of schedule number at the end of the season, so the answer to this question basically hinges upon where Oklahoma would fall in the polls after a loss. That, of course, depends on whom the Sooners might lose to, how they lose, and how many other one-loss teams are still out there. As long as the Sooners stay in the top three of the polls, their chances of reaching New Orleans remain very good. But the way they're playing right now, this whole discussion seems like a waste of space.

Is there any chance USC will lose one of its last three games?

USC's only loss this season came after a bye week, and two of the Trojans' remaining three games -- at Arizona and vs. Oregon State -- both follow bye weeks, as well. Throw in the rivalry game vs. UCLA, and it sounds like USC could have a tough road ahead. But even though the Wildcats are suddenly on a roll, having won a game for the first time since August, don't count on them to pull the upset. Teams needing a loss by the Trojans will instead have to rely on the defensively capable but offensively unpredictable Bruins and Beavers. USC, however, has beaten UCLA four straight times and hasn't lost at home to Oregon State since 1960. But don't forget that an ugly win could be just as damaging to the Trojans as a loss. Their key to holding off Ohio State and LSU is to remain at No. 2 in both polls.

Could Ohio State jump USC in the BCS Standings if the Trojans remain No. 2 in the polls?

There is a chance. Obviously, the Buckeyes would need to reach No. 3 in the polls to give themselves the best shot to make this happen. That means they need LSU to either lose or play poorly, so they can climb over the Tigers in both polls. If OSU can reach No. 3, it would have a one-point deficit to USC in average poll ranking that would need to be overcome through the other elements of the BCS formula. About half of that would probably be made up through schedule strength alone, meaning that the Buckeyes could close the deal by having a computer average that is nearly a point better than that of the Trojans. It is not likely that either team will finish with much of a quality-win bonus, but USC could get enough of a boost from Washington State (if the Cougars win out) to make this scenario more difficult for OSU to accomplish.

Unlike Ohio State, LSU's schedule and computer rankings are not strong enough to help it leapfrog USC from No. 3 in the polls. The Tigers need to reach No. 2 in both and hope the Buckeyes aren't the team sitting in the third spot.

BCS Standings
Although you can't see it, there aren't many points separating fifth and 10th. That should give you an idea of how tenuous TCU's top-six standing actually is.

1. Oklahoma
2. Southern California
3. Ohio State
4. LSU
5. Texas
6. TCU
7. Tennessee
8. Michigan
9. Georgia
10. Washington State

Uncharted Territory
Barring some unforeseen computer calculations, it appears safe to say that this week TCU will become the first team ever from a non-BCS conference to hold a top-six spot in the BCS Standings. This is significant because a top-six finish in the BCS Standings guarantees a place in a BCS bowl game if your team does not play in a BCS conference. In other words, TCU will be in the Bowl Championship Series if it can hold its ground over the final four weekends of the regular season.

For Texas Christian, holding its ground involves more than just winning its remaining games, however. The Horned Frogs will lose points in the schedule strength column because of their season finale against currently winless SMU, and such a weak opponent typically has a negative impact on computer rankings, as well. In order to offset this potential damage to its BCS score, TCU probably needs to climb a little bit higher in the polls of human voters.

Therefore, the BCS fate of the Frogs (if they can beat Cincinnati, Southern Miss and SMU) will sit predominantly in the hands of coaches and media, many of whom have strong personal opinions about whether a non-BCS team should or should not be in a major bowl game. Unfortunately, the voting over the final few weeks has the potential to be as much about agendas as TCU's perceived worthiness of a shot at the big boys.

These pollsters are currently giving the Frogs an average ranking of 9.5, which combined with a likely final schedule strength ranking in the 90s, would not have been good enough to reach the closing top six in any previous season of the BCS.

That TCU has even reached this high in the polls is remarkable, considering that it has won five games by exactly three points and another by seven points against what is the nation's sixth-weakest schedule based on opponents' winning percentage.

A Change For The Better?

Whatever chance TCU currently has to reach the BCS top six can be credited to the decision of BCS officials to remove margin of victory as a factor in the computers a couple of years ago. A dominant scoring margin is the easiest way to offset the effects of a weak schedule, which is why this decision was perceived at the time to be a devastating blow to non-BCS schools.

As it turns out, TCU's ability to stay undefeated while almost every other team in Division I-A has sustained multiple losses has been enough to vault the Frogs into the top six of most ratings. If margin of victory were still being considered, however, we wouldn't be having this discussion about them potentially earning an automatic berth to the BCS.

Looking at some of the computers that use scoring margin and were formerly a part of the BCS, you can see how the decision to remove margin of victory has helped TCU and Ohio State … and how it has hurt LSU.

The Back Door
If TCU goes undefeated but is not able to finish the season in the BCS top six, the Frogs could still be extended an at-large bid to play in a major bowl. On the surface, it may sound ridiculous to suggest that one of these bowls would willingly take Texas Christian, but if you look a little bit closer, it might not be so farfetched.

Eight teams will play in the Bowl Championship Series: The champions of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC along with two at-large selections. A team that is not a champion of one of those conferences, such as TCU, must be ranked in the final BCS top 12 to be eligible for at-large consideration.

At the moment, Texas seems to be a likely non-champion that will finish with a 10-2 record and a top-12 BCS ranking. The Longhorns have not yet been to a BCS game under Mack Brown, which makes it likely that they would bring a sizeable following of fans along with their big name and football tradition. Fan base and a marquee name are factors that often secure at-large berths for schools.

That said, the defending national champion Buckeyes would become another great at-large candidate if they beat Purdue this week but lose at Michigan to finish at 10-2. For the bowl representatives, it would be difficult to pass up either Texas or Ohio State if they are available with only two losses.

But what if OSU loses to Purdue and Michigan? Or what if the Buckeyes win out and give the Wolverines a third loss? Depending on how the SEC shakes out, there might not be another team with such a great name and record that it wouldn't be worth taking a chance on TCU. Is Washington State, Virginia Tech or Purdue that much greater of a draw? That's something that might have to be evaluated.

Next week, I'll take an early look at the BCS games and how they might line up, including projections on conference champions and at-large teams.

Don't forget, the SEC champion normally goes to the Nokia Sugar Bowl, but it will be sent elsewhere this year if it is not ranked in the final top two of the BCS Standings. If Oklahoma stays at No. 1, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl would get the first choice from the BCS pool because that game normally gets the Big 12 champ. The Rose Bowl would get the second choice if it loses Pac-10 winner USC to the title game. These parameters could make for some interesting matchups in January.

A Beast Of A Decision
With news last week that the Big East will add Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida as football members to replace departing Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, speculation has begun about whether the conference will keep its preferred status in the next BCS contract.

For starters, the current BCS contract runs through the end of the 2005 season, and the Big East has done nothing to give the other conferences any legal ground on which to take away its automatic berth before that time. Discussions about the future of the BCS are in their early stages, and the next format may or may not have a strong resemblance to the current one.

That said, there is absolutely no question that the Big East of the near future does not seem to be as strong of a football conference as it has been in recent seasons. The league's first BCS bid went to Syracuse, and this year's might go to Pittsburgh, but every year in between, it has gone to either Virginia Tech or Miami, and those teams will be sorely missed.

The Hurricanes and Hokies have been the only nationally elite teams in the Big East during the BCS era, and since the league began full-fledged conference play in 1993, West Virginia is the only other team to finish a season ranked in the nation's top 10 (No. 6 in the 1993 coaches' poll).

Not that anyone at BCS headquarters has asked for my opinion, but here's my best suggestion for how they should organize things for the next contract (assuming a playoff is not an option).

I'd like to see the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC keep their automatic berths to a BCS game and have the two at-large spots also remain in place. But instead of giving one of the above eight teams a free pass to a major bowl each year, the BCS could designate the Big East's automatic bid for the highest-ranked team not from the five power conferences.

In other words, the highest-ranked team in the final BCS Standings from among the Big East, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt and WAC would get the bid that has been going specifically to the Big East. By doing this, teams such as Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Syracuse would still have a great shot to reach a BCS game if they were top 10 caliber on the field. At the same time, this would greatly improve access to the BCS for other conferences without Congress having to intervene.

It sounds like a great idea to me, but we'll see what shakes down at the conference table in the near future.

Wild, Wild East
Not only did the Big East make news last week, but the SEC also earned headlines with its decision to utilize the BCS Standings if necessary to break a three-way tie in the East division.

If Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all win their remaining conference games, the teams will finish in a deadlock that can't be resolved until it reaches the SEC's seventh tiebreaker. Before Friday, that seventh tiebreaker was a vote of athletic directors. But after much discussion, a new procedure was announced that looks at those teams' positioning within the BCS Standings.

Here's how it works: The tied team with the lowest (worst) BCS ranking on Dec. 1 is eliminated from contention. If the top two tied teams are within five spots of each other in the BCS Standings that day, then the head-to-head winner between those teams will represent the East in the SEC championship game. If the top tied team is more than five spots ahead of the second tied team, then the top team plays for the title.

This new policy indirectly placed tremendous importance on the final nonconference game each tied team had on its schedule. Tennessee's win over Miami vaulted the Volunteers over Georgia and into the Top 10 of this week's BCS Standings, putting the pressure on the Bulldogs to win at Georgia Tech and on Florida to beat FSU.

The Gators could not have been pleased with the Seminoles' loss Saturday. Florida is already the third of the tied teams in the BCS, and its potential boost from a win over Florida State has been diminished because of the 'Noles slip-up at Clemson. Because of the head-to-head situation, UF needs itself and Georgia to both finish ahead of the Vols in the BCS, and that now seems unlikely.

Gator fans will just have to root for Tennessee to lose a conference game and keep the BCS Standings out of play.

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.