And Down The Stretch They Come ...

We look at the uphill battle Ohio State faces in trying to get to at least the Rose Bowl. Plus, we look at the even bigger hurdle the Buckeyes need to leap over to get to the national title game at the Sugar Bowl. We lay out all of the scenarios and share one man's opinion on how the BCS bowls will shake out.

Ohio State can claim its first outright Big Ten championship in 19 years, but the Buckeyes will have to defeat three ranked opponents on successive weeks to do it -- something that has only happened one time previously in school history.

OSU's November to Remember actually began this past Saturday, when the Buckeyes rallied from a 17-7 deficit to defeat Penn State 21-20 in University Park, Pa. The 10-point deficit is the largest one OSU has faced since falling behind 28-0 in the 31-28 Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina in 2002. OSU overcame a nine-point deficit to defeat Cincinnati 23-19 last year.

"Coach Tressel always says, `The games in November are the ones to remember,' " said OSU split end Michael Jenkins, who caught the game winning 5-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Scott McMullen with 1:35 left. "It was important for us to get this first one."

Now, OSU (8-2, 4-1 Big Ten) must defeat three of the top 16 teams in the Associated Press poll if it expects to secure at least the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl bid and keep its hopes of landing a spot in the Bowl Championship Series national championship game in the Sugar Bowl. This stretch begins with No. 14 Michigan State (7-2, 4-1), which visits Ohio Stadium Saturday (noon, ABC regional telecast). It continues with a home date with No. 16 Purdue (7-2, 4-1) Nov. 15 before the season finale at No. 8 Michigan (8-2, 5-2) on Nov. 22.

OSU has faced ranked teams in three or more successive games nine times since the advent of the AP poll in 1936. Only once -- in 1995, when OSU defeated Notre Dame, Penn State and Wisconsin over three straight weeks -- have the Buckeyes made it through such a stretch unscathed.

But OSU coach Jim Tressel was standing behind his team after its latest dramatic win. The Buckeyes won for the 22nd time in 23 games with 11 of those wins coming by seven points or less. Interestingly, this was the first one-point win in this two-year period.

"We are awfully proud of these guys," Tressel said. "We've got a heck of a schedule, everyone playing their best game against us, Penn State. That was the best game they've played all year. I'm sure the Penn State writers would agree. That's what we face every week, everyone's best shot. For us to still have a chance as we enter one more week in November, we are awful proud of them and let's just go see what we can do."

Tressel assessed the Big Ten race, as only he can.

"I suppose whoever ends up with one loss is going to be the champ," he said. "I assume everyone is playing everyone. It's us, Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan. I know we play three of them."

OSU offensive guard Alex Stepanovich said the Buckeyes are excited to tackle this daunting stretch run.

"Any time you can beat Penn State at home, that's huge," he said. "From here on out, we have to take care of our business. We are blessed to have an opportunity to do what we want to do. Our destiny rests in our own hands. Next week, we've got Michigan State and we've got to make sure we're ready."

OSU tight end Ben Hartsock said the Buckeyes can make some history if they're able to bring back three more wins.

"I think it's a good situation," Hartsock said. "We hold our own destiny in our own hands. Our main goal right now is to get that Big Ten championship. If we do, it will be better than last year because we never got a chance to face Iowa last year. It will be an outright championship if we can win it all."

At Penn State, OSU encountered an inspired group of Nittany Lions, who led for over 2-½ quarters before OSU rallied late behind McMullen -- subbing for injured starter Craig Krenzel -- to take the the lead. PSU kicker David Kimball then misfired on a 60-yard field goal on the final play, allowing OSU to breathe a sigh of relief and keep its helmet in the Big Ten race for another week.

"We always know, no matter who we play, we're going to get their best effort," Hartsock said. "Coach Tressel says no matter what we see on tape, expect that to go up another notch, no matter who we play."

The Run For The Roses

Four teams are tied with one loss in Big Ten play as they enter the final three weeks of the regular season. Here is a look at how they finish the regular season and a best case scenario for getting to the Rose Bowl:

Michigan (8-2, 5-1)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, idle; Nov. 15, at Northwestern (4-5, 2-3); Nov. 22, Ohio State (8-1, 4-1).

Best Case Scenario: Michigan's situation is pretty simple. UM needs to simply win its last two games and it is assured of at least a tie for the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl bid. It would win two- or three-team tiebreakers with MSU and Purdue for the Rose Bowl bid by virtue of head-to-head wins.

Ohio State (8-1, 4-1)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, Michigan State (7-2, 4-1); Nov. 15, Purdue (7-2, 4-1); Nov. 22, at Michigan (8-2, 5-1).

Best Case Scenario: OSU‘s situation is the same as Michigan‘s, although it can assure itself of an outright championship with three wins.

Michigan State (7-2, 4-1)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, at Ohio State (8-1, 4-1); Nov. 15, at Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2); Nov. 22, Penn State (2-7, 0-5)

Best Case Scenario: The Spartans must win out and hope somebody beats Michigan. That scenario would either leave MSU as the outright champ with one loss or in a tie with Purdue. Since the teams didn‘t play and they would have the same overall record, MSU would win the tiebreaker over PU on the basis of the "most recent appearance" rule.

Purdue (7-2, 4-1)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, Iowa (7-2, 3-2); Nov. 15, at Ohio State (8-1, 4-1); Nov. 22, at Indiana (1-8, 0-5)

Best Case Scenario: Purdue is in a position of vulnerability and is the longest shot to make it to Pasadena. Purdue would likely have to win out and hope somebody beats Michigan and Michigan State.

Other Scenarios

Three teams are currently tied for fifth in the loss column with two losses. They are: Minnesota (8-2, 4-2), Iowa (7-2, 3-2) and Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2).

If there is a multi-team tie with two losses, any team that may have defeated all of the other teams in the tie would advance to the Rose Bowl. Failing that, the protocol then would likely fall to best overall record. Ohio State and Minnesota, which each went 4-0 in nonconference play, would have the advantage there. But Minnesota would own a tiebreaker edge on Ohio State because of the "most recent appearance" rule. Minnesota last appeared in the Rose Bowl after the 1961 season.

Minnesota to the Rose Bowl? Yes, it is unlikely. But could happen. The Gophers would have to beat Wisconsin at home and Iowa in Iowa City (I like the Gophers against the offensively challenged Hawkeyes). Then, OSU would have to lose to either Michigan State or Purdue, the team that beats OSU would have to lose another game (and MSU could lose at Wisconsin or Purdue could fall at home to Iowa) and OSU would have to go on and beat Michigan. Again, a lot of ifs and buts, but it could happen.

Pour Some Sugar On Me

The race for the BCS national championship game appears to be down to undefeated and top-ranked Oklahoma and six once-beatens: USC, Florida State, Miami (Fla.), Ohio State, Virginia Tech and LSU.

Oklahoma just needs to win out, obviously, and the Sooners will be headed to the Sugar Bowl. Here is a look at how this race shapes up right now:

Oklahoma (9-0, ranked first in BCS projection by collegebcs.com)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, Texas A&M (4-5, 56th in BCS projection); Nov. 15, Baylor (3-6, 90th); Nov. 22, at Texas Tech (6-3, 36th); Dec. 6, Big 12 championship game, likely against Nebraska (7-2, 17th) or Kansas State (7-3, 30th).

The Skinny: Even with a loss -- which seems unlikely -- OU may still get a Sugar Bowl invite.

USC (8-1, ranked second in BCS projection by collegebcs.com)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, idle; Nov. 15, at Arizona (1-8, 95th); Nov. 22, UCLA (6-3, 3-7); Dec. 6, Oregon State (6-3, 3-2).

The Skinny: The Trojans seem on track to join Oklahoma in New Orleans, provided they win out. UCLA, under first-year coach Carl Dorrell, will do everything it can to stop its rival. But that game and the other key game with Oregon State is at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. Poll voters like the way USC has dominated its opponents and are overlooking the one loss to Cal.

Florida State (8-1, ranked third in BCS projection by collegebcs.com)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, Clemson (5-4, 51st); Nov. 15, N.C. State (7-3, 29th); Nov. 29, at Florida (6-3, 18th).

The Skinny: FSU‘s schedule works against it. They will get a minor bump with N.C. State and Florida, but those two games are also possible defeats. A loss by USC would help, certainly.

Miami (Fla.) (7-1, ranked fourth in BCS projection by collegebcs.com)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, Tennessee (6-2, 13th); Nov. 15, Syracuse (4-3, 47th); Nov. 22, Rutgers (4-4, 77th); Nov. 29, at Pittsburgh (6-2, 26th).

The Skinny: Miami probably also needs a USC loss. It gets a quality win deduction from beating FSU … but FSU is still ahead of Miami in the polls. Kind of a Catch-22, if there ever was one. The game at Pitt is a major set-up, particularly if Pitt still has a chance to win the Big East.

Ohio State (8-1, ranked fifth in BCS projection by collegebcs.com)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, Michigan State (7-2, 19th); Nov. 15, Purdue (7-2, 16th); Nov. 22, at Michigan (8-2, eighth).

The Skinny: OSU needs three wins (as impressive as possible to impress voters and move them up) and some help with losses by two of these three -- USC, Florida State or Miami. Stranger things have happened, but OSU -- just because it has not won impressively on a consistent basis -- seems to be a long shot to get a chance to defend its title.

Virginia Tech (7-1, ranked sixth in BCS projection by collegebcs.com)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, at Pittsburgh (6-2, 26); Nov. 15, at Temple (1-7, 106th); Nov. 22, Boston College (5-4, 45th); Nov. 29, at Virginia (5-4, 54th).

The Skinny: Poor nonconference schedule works against the Hokies. Plus, road trips to Pitt and rival Virginia loom large. They need a lot of help.

LSU (8-1, ranked seventh in BCS projection by collegebcs.com)

Remaining Games: Nov. 8, idle; Nov. 15, at Alabama (3-6, 59th); Nov. 22, at Mississippi (7-2, 23rd); Nov. 28, Arkansas (5-3, 35th); Dec. 6, SEC championship game, likely against Georgia (7-2, ninth), Florida (6-3, 18th) or Tennessee (6-2, 13th).

The Skinny: It‘s too bad that the Tigers seem to be the longest shot to make it to the Sugar Bowl, because that could be almost like a home game for them at the Sugar Bowl. But schedule strength works against LSU, even if it runs the table and beats Georgia or avenges its lone loss to Florida in the SEC title game. And, really, LSU needs a win at Ole Miss first just to get there.

One Man's Opinion

Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published his bowl projections for the BCS today. His lineup looks like this:

Sugar: Oklahoma (13-0) vs. USC (11-1). He is assuming the top two teams will run the table and collide for the crown.

Orange: Florida State (11-1) vs. Virginia Tech (11-1). These two future ACC rivals would meet here as champs of their respective leagues.

Fiesta: LSU (12-1) vs. Ohio State (10-2) or Texas (10-2). The SEC champ usually goes to the Sugar, but the Fiesta -- which would have first choice in the rotation because it loses Oklahoma -- would take the Tigers. Then, he is assuming an OSU loss to Michigan and leaving it up to the Fiesta committee as to whether they want a proven commodity in OSU (and its fans) or Texas.

Rose: Michigan (10-2) vs. Miami (Fla.) (11-1). He is assuming that Michigan wins out to secure a Rose Bowl bid. He then sees the Rose grabbing Miami with its second choice in the rotation -- which it gets for losing USC to the Sugar.


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