Third-and-Long for Trojans

Times Staff Writer

Like white doves in a magic act, USC's lead over Ohio State in the bowl championship series standings has gone poof.

Somewhere between USC's 45-0 wipeout of Arizona on Saturday and the release of the new standings Monday, the Trojans lost the 1.46-point margin they'd held over the Buckeyes in the race for the key No. 2 spot in the BCS.

The two teams with the lowest point totals in the final BCS standings will advance to the Sugar Bowl to play for the national championship Jan. 4.

If that game were played today, it would be Oklahoma versus Ohio State.

Oklahoma (11-0) easily retained the top spot with its limbo-low total of 1.80, but the banner news in Buckeye land was 10-1 Ohio State's overtaking 9-1 USC for No. 2 -- if only barely.

Ohio State, which eked out a 16-13 overtime win over No. 11 Purdue, came in at 7.52 points, with USC trailing by a scant .19 at 7.71.

USC's best chance of making the Sugar Bowl now is to win out against UCLA and Oregon State and hope that Michigan defeats Ohio State on Saturday at Ann Arbor, Mich.

In that scenario, the Trojans would have to be worried only about a late BCS surge from one-loss Louisiana State, No. 4 in the BCS and 4.5 points behind the Trojans.

Although USC crushed two-win Arizona, in the four-part BCS system, sometimes you lose even when you win.

USC soundly defeated a weak team while Ohio State narrowly beat a strong team, and this was the difference in a formula that includes computer variables and strength of schedule.

The punitive price for beating Arizona was a change in USC's schedule strength, from No. 16 to No. 37, which equates to a .84 increase in BCS points. Ohio State improved in that category, from No. 14 to No. 13, for a pickup of .04.

Strength of schedule alone, however, would not have allowed Ohio State to pass USC.

Ohio State made even more headway in the BCS computers, extending last week's .66 lead over the Trojans to a hefty 1.33 points.

Ohio State is No. 2 in six BCS computers and No. 3 in the other. After the worst score is tossed out, that gives the Buckeyes a 2.0 average compared with USC's 3.33 average. The Trojans' best ranking is second in the Sagarin ratings.

There was a time when blowout victories aided a team's cause, but last year the BCS ordered computers to eliminate margin of victory from its tabulations, meaning that the 45-0 win over Arizona for USC might as well have been 17-3.

Still, there were interesting computer fluctuations. The New York Times dropped USC from third to fifth this week, behind two-loss Texas and three-loss Florida.

USC also dropped one spot, from No. 3 to No. 4, in the rankings of Kenneth Massey and Peter Wolfe, a professor of medicine at ... UCLA.

USC players have been careful not to put too much stock in a system they cannot control.

"People are so caught up in the BCS, they forget the importance of winning," USC receiver Mike Williams said. "One step at a time, we're taking this program back to greatness.

"If the BCS doesn't work in our favor, or it goes the other way around, we'll play in whatever bowl we get and we'll hold our heads high."

If USC defeats UCLA and Oregon State and does not make it to the Sugar Bowl, it will be accepted with open arms, warm hugs and bouquets by the Rose Bowl.

"We're aware of it," Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart said of the BCS situation, "but it's not our main focus."

USC, however, would not be in this BCS predicament had the Trojans not lost, in triple overtime, at California.

That lapse ultimately allowed Ohio State, defending national champion, to make an amazing climb back into this year's title chase.

Two Mondays ago, after USC had jumped to No. 2 in the BCS on Nov. 3, Ohio State and Miami loomed as the two one-loss teams with chances to catch USC.

But even then it seemed a longshot. Ohio State was No. 5 in the BCS but No. 7 in the Associated Press poll.

The Buckeyes' slim hopes hinged on several highly ranked schools all losing. Ohio State could never have dreamed this scenario would happen on the same day, Nov. 8, when No. 6 Miami lost to Tennessee, No. 5 Virginia Tech lost to Pittsburgh and No. 3 Florida State lost to Clemson.

That fortuitous turn of events allowed Ohio State to lower its poll average from 6.5 to 4 and begin its serious BCS stalking of USC.

Monday, just as it has done all year on the field, Ohio State eked out another victory.

And now, USC prepares for UCLA. And prays for Michigan.




BCS Top 5

The top five schools in the BCS standings. The top two at the end of the season will play in the championship game at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 4 (AP -- AP poll; U-E -- USA Today/ESPN poll; Pts -- BCS number total):

*--* N. School AP U-E Pts 1. OKLAHOMA 1 1 1.80 2. OHIO STATE 4 4 7.52 3. USC 2 2 7.71 4. LSU 3 3 12.21 5. TEXAS 7 7 16.35 Complete list...D5



BCS Standings

The bowl championship series formula is used to ultimately determine the Nos. 1 and 2 teams that will play for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. Standings are for games through Nov. 15.

(text of table not available)

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