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UCLA Safe in Rankings, Even With a Rank Victory

Assessing the damage, there were 125 yards in penalties, two interceptions and more messes made than a kid with a crayon.

We speak of the winning team, of course, the national-title contender.

To keep pace among the elite, the victors needed a Hail Mary--the prayer, not the pass--and that rare combination of game-saving touchback followed by game-saving sack.

“I think this was the worst we’ve played,” the winning coach said.

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After watching UCLA stagger to a 28-24 victory over Stanford at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, some thoughts came to mind.

The same thoughts, in fact, that came to mind after wins against Arizona, Oregon and California:

Has a school ever botched its way to the national championship?

Can a team keep staring danger in the face, a la secret agent Maxwell Smart, and continue to retort resolutely, “And . . . loving it.”

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How many times can it keep thumbing its nose guard at its opponents, critics and closest poll pursuers.

“Hey,” UCLA guard Andy Meyers said. “ASU got away with it all the way to the Rose Bowl two years ago.”

But even Arizona State’s race across America ultimately ran out of gas, Jake Plummer’s last-minute miracle trumped by Ohio State’s Joe Germaine’s in the end.

In the laboratory that is the new bowl championship series, UCLA is putting several theories to test.

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On a day in which the Bruins scored 28 points on Stanford, seven fewer than San Jose State put up on the Cardinal defense in the opener, national-title contenders Tennessee, Kansas State, Ohio State, Florida and Florida State all recorded crushing victories over their opponents.

It would not be a shock today if UCLA falls from No. 2 to No. 3 in both the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN coaches polls.

Doomsday for UCLA?

Not necessarily.

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The only poll spot that matters is UCLA’s position in the BCS rankings, which will be released Monday.

The Bruins were ranked No. 1 in the first BCS poll, riding their top-ranked strength of schedule to hype and headlines.

In the complex formula, the Bruins had a computer rating of 3.04, better than No. 1 Ohio State’s 4.31 total and comfortably ahead of No. 3 Tennessee’s mark of 6.50.

Which means, UCLA could drop in the polls but still maintain its all-important No. 1 or No. 2 ranking in the BCS standings. Only the top two teams in that formula advance to the Jan. 4 national title game in the Fiesta Bowl.

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You see, while UCLA was bumbling its way to victory, and losing credibility, Bruin opponents on Saturday were lending a hand.

Texas’ victory over Nebraska in Lincoln, California’s win over Oregon State and Miami’s victory over Boston College all boosted UCLA’s stature in the BCS’ strength of schedule component.

“I don’t have any control over that,” UCLA Coach Bob Toledo said of his team’s poll position. “The only thing we have control over is the game we play. The key is to win the football game. Find a way to win. We can’t worry about the polls. Hopefully, we’ll keep winning and get to Dec. 5 [versus Miami] and hope it comes to that.”

Schools chasing the Bruins in the BCS might understandably be aghast to be trailing a UCLA team that is punt, pass and a kick away from three losses.

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“The last couple weeks, we’ve escaped,” Bruin quarterback Cade McNown said. “We haven’t dominated, we’ve escaped.”

As they choke down their morning coffee over the newspaper reports of UCLA’s wild win over Stanford, players from Tennessee, Ohio State and Kansas State might be thinking the BCS is just plain B.S.

“Personally, I don’t care what people think who looked at the game,” Meyers said. “We’re 7-0. Ohio State is blowing people out, Kansas State is blowing people out. I don’t care what anyone says about us. People can say we’re no good. I don’t care. As long as we’re undefeated.”

Meyers said anyone who has a problem should start an initiative to change the system.

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“I’d love to play all of them,” he said. “I wish we had a playoff. Then, everyone would leave us alone.”

There is no doubt that UCLA is playing a dangerous game with all these hair-raising finishes. The Bruins trailed in the second half against Arizona, needed overtime to beat Oregon, a gutty effort from McNown to fend off California last week and a near-miracle Saturday to stave off Stanford.

One of these weeks, unless improvement is made, UCLA is bound to get burned.

Will it be at Oregon State next week? At Washington on Nov. 14? Against USC on Nov. 21? At Miami on Dec. 5?

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The Bruins are playing cozy with the BCS’ Quartile Rank, but not even a glossy strength of schedule rank can bail out a team forever.

Can it?

“We got by,” McNown said. “But this certainly was a wake-up call. I think the guys realize people are going to give us their best effort.”

Larry Atkins, the Bruin free safety who may have saved the season with his touchback recovery of what seemed a certain go-ahead Stanford touchdown in the fourth quarter, summed it up succinctly.

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“We’ve got to get a lot better every week,” he said.

If what if that doesn’t work?

“As long as we win,” Meyers said, “we can do anything we want on the way to the national championship.

“We’ve won 17 in a row.”

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Somehow, No. 18 doesn’t seem like such a lock.


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