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Iron Bowl tops the week's rivalry games

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football ("You Can't Spell 'Music City' Without UT" T-shirts sold separately):

Rivalry Week
These are the games The Dash loves: the November rivalries that shape the final standings and the bowl lineup and the self-esteem of millions. Here are the 10 neighborhood disputes of greatest import playing out this week, in order of relevance:

Auburn-Alabama (1): It doesn't get any more heated than this, and the current installment of the Iron Bowl doesn't get much more high-powered. Last time the Tide and Tigers got together with a combined record better than the current 17-3 was 1994, when Alabama was 10-0 and Auburn was 9-0-1. (See? So long ago that there were still ties in college football.)

This game could have a pronounced ripple effect through the bowl picture: An Alabama win might be enough to propel the Crimson Tide into the BCS. That, in turn, would leave the SEC with at least one fewer bowl-eligible team than bowl commitments and could set off an interesting scramble.

If Auburn wins, the trickle-down scenario leads Tennessee to the Music City Bowl (where the game would be a lock sellout) and Florida to the Independence Bowl (not exactly what Gator Nation had in mind when Urban Meyer came to town). That is, if the feeble Volunteers can wheeze past Vanderbilt and Kentucky and earn a bowl bid at all.

Ohio State-Michigan (2): The classic Big Ten rivalry still could impact the league championship -- if Penn State slips at Michigan State. (Not completely out of the question despite the Spartans' miserable play of late.) And if the Buckeyes win, they'll be 9-2 and prominent among the pack of teams pushing for an at-large BCS bid and a possible date with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. (Provided the Fighting Irish take care of business down the stretch.)

Virginia-Virginia Tech (3): Count Tech among the teams in hot pursuit of a BCS bid, and count the Cavaliers among the many ACC midpack teams striving to improve their bowl attractiveness. The Hokies have won five of the last six, but lost the last time they came to Charlottesville. Given that the Hokies have had two weeks to stew in the embarrassment of the Miami debacle, The Dash would expect a rather spirited effort from Frank Beamer's team.

Oregon-Oregon State (4): Plenty to play for on both sides of this one. The Ducks are another one-loss team holding out hope for a BCS bid. The Beavers are one of 10 teams with sweaty palms at 5-5, striving for a bowl invite. Bad news for the Beavs: They haven't won in Eugene since 1993.

Clemson-South Carolina (5): Steve Spurrier takes on his third career Bowden. He hasn't had great success against Bobby/Terry, going a combined 9-10-1, so we'll see what happens against Tommy. The Dash hopes both teams can get through the day without a helmet-swinging brawl, thus passing safely into postseason bowl games. As usual, conjecture about Tommy Bowden's job status comes with the territory of this game. Beating The Visor would not hurt.

California-Stanford (6): A Cardinal victory could put it in the Insight Bowl, against the postseason novelty known as Rutgers. Cal could end up there, as well. A loss would leave Stanford needing to upset Notre Dame in its finale to gain bowl eligibility. Bears coach Jeff Tedford reportedly is mulling a quarterback change after watching Joseph Ayoob go a combined 19-for-45 with zero touchdowns and seven interceptions in his last two games.

LSU-Mississippi (7): This is the 94th meeting of the border rivals, and it always seems to bring out the best in Ole Miss. As good as LSU has been in recent years, it has struggled to put away the Rebels. The Tigers have won the last three meetings by a total of seven points. Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron and 15 of his players are from the state of Louisiana. "It's neighboring states and a big-time rivalry," Orgeron said. "You throw out the records. It's always been a good football game. I go back to the years of Johnny Vaught and think about the run with Billy Cannon and how it's been a great rivalry and all the great players who have played here." At 3-6, Orgeron just wishes he had a few more great players on his side for this one.

BYU-Utah (8): At 5-5, Utah needs this game more -- and will have to try to win it without starting quarterback Brian Johnson, who tore his ACL this past Saturday in a loss to New Mexico. Three losses by a total of 11 points have the Utes in jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since before Urban Meyer. The 6-4 Cougars already have qualified for their first bowl bid since 2001, which is also the last time they beat the Utes. This game between rookie head coaches Bronco Mendenhall of BYU and Kyle Whittingham of Utah could be a referendum on which school made the better hire.

Memphis-Southern Mississippi (9): Chapter 56 of this rivalry is at Southern Miss, which historically means bad things for the Tigers. They've lost 10 straight there dating back to 1984 and are 2-18 all time in Hattiesburg. A victory makes the Golden Eagles bowl-eligible, while the 4-5 Tigers would need to follow up with a win over Marshall, as well, to get six wins. "To be backed up where you have to win going to Hattiesburg, that's pretty tough," Memphis coach Tommy West said.

Duke-North Carolina (10): If the Tar Heels can get a hand up on J.J. Redick every time he curls off a screen, they might have a chance to contain him and pull the upset. What's that? Oh. Never mind. The Dash got its wiring crossed with the Minutes for a minute (this football-basketball overlap is tough). Disregard.

Seven Degrees Of Parity
This is The Dash's version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. By the magic (and illogic) of comparative scores, The Dash can prove it's simply not very far from the Top 25 to the Bottom 10, from a contract extension to For Sale signs in the yard, from proudly worn face paint to bags over your head.

Follow along, as we show that the Miami Hurricanes (11) want no part of the Florida International Golden Panthers (12):

Miami lost by three to Florida State (13).

Florida State lost by five to North Carolina State (14).

NC State lost by eight to Wake Forest (15).

Wake lost by four to Vanderbilt (16).

Vandy lost by two to Middle Tennessee State (17).

Middle Tennessee lost by three to Louisiana-Monroe (18).

And ULM lost by two to FIU, which is ranked No. 163 in the Sagarin Ratings -- second-lowest of all Division I-A teams, ahead of only winless New Mexico State.

So there you have it. Put the Canes and Panthers in 17,000-seat FIU Stadium and The Dash will establish the mighty home team, which started football in 2002, as a 27-point favorite over those pretenders from The U.

Or not.

Who's Charging, Who's Retreating
Michigan (19): Charging. The Wolverines have won four straight, including three against bowl-bound opponents.

What's gone right: Michigan finally started winning some close games, after losing them earlier. Quarterback Chad Henne settled down a bit; running back Kevin Grady has stepped up for injured Mike Hart; and Steve Breaston has started making some contributions from scrimmage. This looks like a much more confident team now than six weeks ago.

Florida State (20): Retreating. The Seminoles haven't just lost three of their last five; they've lost them to unranked teams. Being blown out last weekend by Clemson might have marked FSU's lowest ACC moment.

What's gone wrong: A defense that was dominant for the first month of the season has been lax since, as opponents have scored 20 or more points six straight weeks -- that never had happened before to Bobby Bowden in 30 years at Florida State. Quarterback Drew Weatherford has regressed to the shaky QB we saw in the season opener, throwing five touchdowns and 11 interceptions in the past five games.

Iowa State (21): Charging. If the Cyclones win at Kansas Saturday, it will be their fifth straight victory. And if the scenarios break right, an 8-3 Iowa State team could be very attractive to some bigger bowls -- Cotton included.

What's gone right: Playing three of the last four at home has helped. So has the steady play of quarterback Bret Meyer. He hasn't thrown an interception in more than a month, with nine touchdowns in that time.

Arizona State (22): Retreating. The Sun Devils have lost four of their last six, though mostly against good competition (USC, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA). They now need to beat Arizona for a bowl bid.

What's gone wrong: A tough run of injuries has hurt, but Dirk Koetter's teams have been prone to defensive collapses late in the year. ASU didn't just give up 45 points to UCLA; it gave up pass plays of 43, 56, 61 and 81 yards in the first quarter. The Dash doesn't care how hot Drew Olson was, that's pitiful.

Oklahoma (23): Charging. The Sooners have won five straight in a weak Big 12, positioning themselves for a quality bowl bid once again (just not a BCS bowl).

What's gone right: It never hurts to have a healthy Adrian Peterson in the backfield. He has run for 281 yards and four touchdowns the past two games -- which also is a signal that an overmatched offensive line is maturing. Quarterback Rhett Bomar still hasn't made anyone forget Jason White, but at least he has improved his accuracy. He has completed 50 percent or more of his passes in four straight games after failing to hit that mark in three of the first five.

Texas A&M (24): Retreating. The Aggies are a certified disaster, losing three straight times and falling to 5-5. They need a miracle upset of Texas on Nov. 26 to salvage their season.

What's gone wrong: The defense formerly known as the Wrecking Crew is a wreck, giving up 44.7 points in its last three games. The Aggies are 117th nationally in pass defense, giving up 319 aerial yards per game.

Good Players, Bad Teams
The Dash takes a minute to salute a few stud players who will not experience the pleasure of the postseason but whose performances have been a pleasure to behold this year:

Rafael Little (25), Kentucky: The sophomore running back rolled up 372 all-purpose yards against Vanderbilt Saturday and leads the nation in that category at 193.9 yards per game. Coach Rich Brooks said Monday, "He's probably the best least-known player in the nation. I hope that starts changing pretty soon."

Jason Hill (26), Washington State: The junior wide receiver is a touchdown machine, scoring 25 in his last 19 games. He's averaging 18.4 yards per catch this season and has scored in every game he has played in this year but one -- against USC.

Chris Barclay (27), Wake Forest: The nation's No. 4 active career rusher has piled up more than 4,000 yards and three straight 1,000-yard seasons. At least he got to a bowl game his freshman year; there have been none for the Demon Deacons since.

Jerious Norwood (28), Mississippi State: Running behind what The Dash will charitably term a weak line, and against defenses stacked to stop him, Norwood has compiled 12 career 100-yard games. He's also a cinch to go over 3,000 career rushing yards in his final two games.

Jay Cutler (29), Vanderbilt: A six-game losing streak cost Cutler and the Commodores their first bowl game since 1982 -- but you cannot blame it on the quarterback. He has thrown for 1,095 yards and 10 touchdowns the past three games, and he has an outside shot at 10,000 career yards of total offense if he goes ballistic in his career finale against Tennessee (he has 9,647 total yards passing and running). Beating the Volunteers probably would feel better than any bowl bid.

Stay Off The Bird
While giving The Dash a manicure the other day, Dashette Petra Nemcova (30) was asking about underrated home-field advantages in college football. The Dash said she should check the stats on what Louisville has done lately at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium (31).

In winning their last 11 games in the Pizza Palace, the Cardinals are averaging 54.5 points per game and an average winning margin of 40 points.

They're good on offense -- and they take offense easily at perceived slights.

Visiting teams should be forewarned: Do not dance, prance, preen or even hop upon the midfield Cardinal logo before kickoff. Or prepare for a beatdown.

Poor Rutgers wandered in from New Jersey on Friday night, unaware that the home team treats its logo like a priceless Oriental rug. The Scarlet Knights gathered on the Cardinal at the end of pregame warm-ups and jumped around a bit, enraging a Louisville team that has been through this before.

During its last year of Conference USA membership, the Cards watched East Carolina players make a grand (and stupid) showing of stomping on the bird, among other disrespectful gestures. Louisville responded with a 59-7 punishing.

A few weeks later, Cincinnati gathered at midfield and bounced. Once again, the insulted Cardinals dropped a bomb on the offenders, winning 70-7.

News of this local rule apparently had not reached the Big East. Rutgers' gathering seemed innocuous enough, but the Louisville players responded immediately on the field, gesturing at the Knights as if to say, "What the hell?" Then they went about protecting this house. Final score: Louisville 56, Rutgers 5.

"Rutgers, they didn't try to disrespect us or anything," receiver Joshua Tinch (32) said. "They were calling their team up. It just happened that they were on the bird. It motivates us when we see people jumping on the bird."

After the final gun, several Louisville players ran to midfield and did their own dance upon the Cardinal while staring straight at the Rutgers players.

Coach Bobby Petrino all but admitted this was a contrived offense.

"Our guys took it a little bit personal because it has happened before," Petrino said. "I don't think they meant anything by it, but we'll take it."

Petrino's team hasn't had the season expected of it, sliding meekly off the national radar in September after a 31-point defrocking at South Florida and staying off after a triple-overtime loss to West Virginia. But while you've been ignoring the 7-2 Cards, they have quietly been piecing together another massive season of offensive production. They're averaging 47.3 points per game (58 at home) and have several players in the running for statistical championships.

Quarterback Brian Brohm (33) is third in the nation in pass efficiency, sandwiched between Vince Young and Matt Leinart. That's not bad company for a sophomore and first-year college starter. Brohm is second in the country in completion percentage (69.7 percent) and interception percentage (1.1 percent). He has been so extraordinarily consistent that he's sometimes taken for granted.

"I think he definitely is [taken for granted]," Petrino said after Brohm's fifth 300-yard passing game. "By this city, by this state and by his head coach sometimes."

Behind Brohm in the backfield is the nation's leading scorer, jumbo running back Michael Bush (34). The athletic 250-pounder sat out against the Scarlet Knights after spraining his foot the previous week, but he still has scored 21 touchdowns in just eight games. Bush is a true junior in just his second year of playing full-time running back, and Louisville will have to sweat out his decision on whether to enter the NFL draft after the season.

And on the outside, Brohm is throwing to redshirt freshman Mario Urrutia (35), who is averaging 22.5 yards per catch, second only to Texas burner Billy Pittman among the 100 leading receivers nationally.

If Bush comes back in 2006 and a veteran offensive line is rebuilt, Louisville might be able to make a late delivery on the expectations of 2005.

Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week
South Carolina's Steve Spurrier (36). There are few -- very few -- men currently walking the sideline who fit the classic definition of a great coach, as espoused by Bum Phillips: "He can take his'n and beat your'n. Or he can take your'n and beat his'n." Spurrier is one of them.

Coach Who Should Take The Bus To Work
Even on the rare occasion when Nebraska's Bill Callahan (37) does something right, he still counterbalances it by doing something disdainful. Like Saturday. The Cornhuskers beat Kansas State to earn their first bowl bid under NFL Boy. In the process, Callahan proceeded to take the redshirt off freshman quarterback Harrison Beck (38) -- in the fourth quarter of the 10th game of the season.

You think Cally was feeling a little pressure to make a bowl in Year Two or what?

Beck sort of led Nebraska on the winning drive to become bowl eligible. (He completed one pass in six attempts for the game, and his best contributions might have been tackling a defender who intercepted one of his passes and taking a roughing-the-passer penalty on the winning drive.) Callahan better hope that fourth quarter -- and what could be a trip to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl, woo-hoo -- was worth a year of Beck's career.

Putting Out An APB For …
… Former Auburn linebacker and, it must be said, 1988 No. 1 NFL draft pick Aundray Bruce (39). Bruce had a less-than-inspiring pro career with the Falcons and Raiders, but Iron Bowl week seems like a good time to track him down. Anyone with information on Bruce's whereabouts, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is sorry to report that it could not get in contact with last week's APB subject, former Miami Hurricanes running back Cleveland Gary. Several Dash spies reported that he is living in the Stuart, Fla., area -- where he played high school football -- and that he is involved in youth football. One Dash spy recalled the words of a college sports information director who said Gary was "the man named after the two worst cities in America."

Point After
If you're hungry in Athens, The Dash recommends the exceptional menu and jovial atmosphere of Last Resort Grill (40). If you've recently come into a sizable inheritance, have a Chimay Ale at the bar while you're waiting for your table.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.