College Football Nation: Will the No. 1 team fall yet again?

Eric Avidon

Ready, aim, fire!

Down goes Alabama on a late South Carolina afternoon.

Ready, aim, fire!

Ohio State falls in the Wisconsin night.

Ready, aim, fire!

Oklahoma crumbles in the Missouri darkness.

For three straight weeks, the nation’s top-ranked team has lost - Alabama and Ohio State were No. 1 in the AP and USA Today polls, while Oklahoma was No. 1 in the initial BCS Standings and ranked third in both major human polls.

After beating previously undefeated LSU, Auburn is now atop the BCS rankings, while Oregon, which mauled UCLA last Thursday night, keeps its perch atop the human polls.

Could a No. 1 team possibly lose for a fourth straight week? Could some upset-minded team do to Auburn or Oregon what South Carolina, Wisconsin and Missouri were able to do? Not even crazy 2007 witnessed four weeks of consecutive losses by No. 1, so could this season begin to trump that one in terms of pure chaos?


Oregon just happens to play its toughest road game to date on Saturday night, visiting USC. And while Auburn’s opponent - Mississippi - doesn’t strike fear, the fact that the Tigers are in perfect position to get trapped should.

Auburn’s Tigers are coming off a huge win over their fellow SEC West Tigers, who were unbeaten before their visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium and gave Auburn everything it could handle. Only a 70-yard touchdown run by Onterio McCalebb late in the fourth quarter separated the teams - plus the play of Heisman favorite Cam Newton - in Auburn’s 24-17 win. The previous week Auburn was in a shootout with Arkansas, trailing 43-37 in the fourth quarter before exploding for 28 straight points and surviving the Razorbacks 65-43.

Ole Miss is just 3-4 and has bad losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt. But all that means is that the Tigers are in classic letdown position.

How often does a team get an emotional win one weekend, the kind of victory that can define a season, only to show up flat the next week and lose to a team that wants nothing more than to take a big dog down?

Think of South Carolina.

The Gamecocks soundly beat top-ranked Alabama and moved into the top 10 with their only loss a close shave at Auburn. They got their biggest win under coach Steve Spurrier, taking a firm grip on the SEC East and a potential run toward the Sugar Bowl.

Then they lost at Kentucky, a team pretty similar to Ole Miss in stature.

Auburn has survived a minefield of a schedule that’s included Mississippi State, South Carolina, Arkansas and LSU - all of which have at least five wins so far - but it’s not like the Tigers have dominated. Five of their wins are by one score or less, including a 27-24 overtime victory over Clemson.

Auburn should beat Ole Miss. The Tigers are better than the Rebels in just about every way. But that doesn’t mean they will win in Oxford. Funny things happen seven days after big victories.

“If we do our job, you can cut that statistic out,” Newton said Tuesday of No. 1 losing three straight weeks. “We feel that our coaches do an excellent job in preparing us for our game, so we won’t have the coaches to blame because they’re going to do their job. It’s going to be up to us as players.”

Newton might as well have been speaking for Oregon as well.

The Ducks - ironically, given their nickname - don’t need to avoid any trap, knowing know all about the enemy that awaits them in the LA Coliseum on Saturday night.

The Trojans aren’t what they used to be. They’re not the team that won 11 or more games every year from 2002 through 2008 and the national championship in 2004 plus a share of it in 2003. There’s no Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart at quarterback, no Reggie Bush or LenDale While in the backfield. Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews and Taylor Mays no longer lead a fearsome defense.

But there is an offense that scored 31 and 35 points, respectively, in USC’s two losses and ranks 14th nationally in scoring. There’s a defense that’s vulnerable, but all that means is there could be a lot of points.

And as good as Oregon has looked - unlike Auburn, the Ducks have won each game by a minimum of 10 points and they’ve won all but one game by more than 20 - there was a close shave in a night game at Arizona State, and the win at home over Stanford took a comeback from a 21-3 first-half deficit.

Oregon, as well as it’s played, has shown vulnerability.

First, South Carolina shot down No. 1. Then it was Wisconsin. And then Missouri.

Each lay in wait at home, metaphorical artillery prepared to take down the enemy. On Saturday night Ole Miss and USC will be there waiting for Auburn and Oregon, rifles raised to shoot down their favored foes.

Could a No. 1 team possibly fall for the fourth straight week?

Ready, aim, fire.

What We Learned

The news broke just over a week ago, but just because it’s no longer fresh doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve praise.

The Pac-10 got it right.

When the conference announced its divisional alignment for the 2011 season after Colorado and Utah join the league and make it the Pac-12, it also announced that its championship game will be played in the home stadium of the divisional champion with the better record.

The conference all but guaranteed the title game will feel like college football, which with live bands and student sections that measure in the tens of thousands has a feel like no other American sport. It all but guaranteed there won’t be an empty seat in the house when the winner of the North Division plays the winner of the South Division for the right to head to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

It all but guaranteed the game won’t have the sterile feel of some conference championship games played at neutral sites, where the majority of students can’t afford to travel and all fans have to suddenly make the financial decision whether to spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to see their team play.

“The inaugural Pac-10 Championship game will be played in December 2011 at the home stadium of the team with the best overall conference record, ensuring a full stadium and an electric collegiate atmosphere befitting or a major conference championship game,” read the announcement.

It’s a stark contrast to the ACC, where year after the year the winners of the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions play for the right to advance to the Orange Bowl before a select group of rabid fans and a whole lot of empty seats in a cavernous neutral-site stadium.

Playing the conference championship at the neutral site Georgia Dome works for the SEC, where the schools have massive student bodies and the fan bases are rabid. It works to a degree in the Big 12 as well, where schools like Texas and Oklahoma have big enough fan bases that they can fill most of the seats. The Big Ten, with massive schools like Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State should also be able to fill a neutral-site stadium next year when it plays its first conference championship game.

But it doesn’t work in the ACC, where there are smaller schools - Duke, Wake Forest and Boston College, for example - and football is second to basketball on a lot of the campuses.

Attendance was a strong 72,749 for the first ACC title game in 2005 when Florida State beat Virginia Tech in Jacksonville. It fell by about 10,000 the following year when Wake Forest won over Georgia Tech, also in Jacksonville.

But just 53,212 showed up in the Northern Florida city for Boston College and Virginia Tech in 2007, and a mere 27,360 were in attendance at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium the following year for the same two teams.

Georgia Tech beat Clemson in Tampa last year before 42,815.

The Pac-10 went outside the box and got it right. The ACC has showed little creative thinking, and suffered because of it.

Game of the Week

While the No. 1 teams face potentially difficult road games that might end their runs at the BCS Championship, both Oregon and Auburn should win.

Two other undefeated teams, however, are also on the road and are by no means big favorites. Missouri, which took down Oklahoma last Saturday, is at Nebraska this week while Michigan State is at Iowa. And this weekend’s games not only represent the most dangerous ones to date for the Tigers and Spartans, they also represent the best chance for either to lose before bowl season.

Michigan State barely survived at Northwestern last weekend, coming back from a 17-0 deficit in the Chicago suburbs thanks in part to a fake on special teams. Though a win over Wisconsin is part of the Spartans’ resume, as is a win at rival Michigan, nothing will test them like this weekend’s trip to Kinnick Stadium.

And because they got the Badgers in East Lansing before Wisconsin hit its stride, because they needed overtime to beat a mediocre Notre Dame team, because they struggled mightily for much of last week’s game against the Wildcats, nothing on the Spartans’ schedule will legitimize them like a win at Kinnick Stadium.

“What I’ve tried to do is take it one game at a time,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Won six, bowl eligible. We won seven, maybe going to this bowl. Now we’ve won eight, and here’s where we’re at now. We’ve tried to really talk about what’s got us to this point, how difficult it was last year, how the difference between good and great is not very much, and the difference between winning and losing, going back the other way, is not very great.

“We’ve tried to keep that in perspective.”

In Iowa, Michigan State will not only be playing perhaps the strongest team on its schedule, but will be playing a team with a chip on its shoulder. The Hawkeyes have two losses by a combined eight points to Arizona and Wisconsin, and after losing to the Badgers last weekend need to win out in order to keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive.

After Iowa, all that remains between Michigan State and a 12-0 record are Minnesota and Purdue at home, then a trip to play a struggling Penn State squad the final week of the regular season.

The tale is similar for Missouri.

The Tigers have one marquee win to date - that victory over the Sooners - and they struggled early in the season to beat Illinois and San Diego State. Beating Oklahoma gave Missouri legitimacy, but the bigger test may be playing Saturday on the road in a hostile environment against a very good team.

In Nebraska, the Tigers will not only be facing their toughest road game, but will be a playing a motivated team. If the Cornhuskers win, they’ll hold the inside track on making it to the Big 12 title game.

“I wanted our players to enjoy (the win over Oklahoma),” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said on Monday. “It’s no different than after the (Texas) A&M game or any other game. You enjoy it Sunday, you wake up Monday and get back to work and you get focused.

“If we don’t focus and do the things necessary to  this week to play our best then we won’t have a chance Saturday afternoon.”

After Nebraska, all that remains between Missouri and 12-0 are trips to Texas Tech and Iowa State, and home games against Kansas and Kansas State.

The rub, however, is that the Tigers - if they won all those games - would have to then play a conference title game - get a 13th win - in order to run the table. And waiting for Missouri could be a rematch with Oklahoma.

If I Had a Ballot ...

1. Oregon (7-0): A huge test awaits in the Coliseum

2. Auburn (8-0): This week is about avoiding the trap.

3. Boise State (7-0): The “murderous” schedule continues with Hawaii next week.

4. TCU (8-0): One more week until the make or break game at Utah.

5. Michigan State (8-0): The path to perfect clears after Iowa.

6. Missouri (7-0): The ’Huskers could be the downfall of the Tigers.

7. Alabama (7-1): A win at LSU after this week’s bye keeps the Tide in the title hunt.

8. Wisconsin (7-1): Back-to-back wins over Ohio State and Iowa are impressive.

9. Oklahoma (6-1): The Sooners can easily bounce back against Colorado.

10. Utah (7-0): One more week until the make or break game against TCU.

Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 or