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October 24, 2011

Huguenin: Breaking down the conference races

We're done with eight weeks of the season, which is sort of sad, actually. But the good news is that the final one-third of the season has some intrigue.

It seems a given that the Alabama-LSU winner will be in the national title game, that Boise State is going to win the Mountain West crown in its first season in the league and that the Oregon-Stanford winner is going to win the Pac-12, but there remains a lot of sorting out in the other conference races and the hunt for BCS bids should be especially interesting.

Here's a look at each of the 11 conference races as we start getting ready for the final mad dash to the finish.

Buzz: Clemson leads the Atlantic Division race and is the only team unbeaten in league play. The only other team with a realistic shot at the division title is Wake Forest, which plays at Clemson on Nov. 12. Virginia Tech has the advantage in the Coastal Division, and a game at second-place Georgia Tech on Nov. 10 looks like the only tough game left for the Hokies. But Georgia Tech has Clemson this weekend and basically would fall out of the race with a loss to the Tigers. There's not all that much intrigue left in the division races unless Clemson and Virginia Tech decide to fall apart.
Projected division winners: Clemson in the Atlantic, Virginia Tech in the Coastal
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 8 - Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest

Buzz: Cincinnati is the only team unbeaten in league play. But six other teams have one league loss. Only USF, which is 0-3 in the league, is out of the running. Cincy plays three of its next four on the road; the only home game in that stretch is against West Virginia. But how good is Cincinnati? The Bearcats got blasted by a bad Tennessee team. Incredibly, Saturday's Rutgers-WVU game is huge.
Projected league winner: West Virginia
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 6 - Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, USF, West Virginia

[ Related: Huguenin: Breaking down the BCS standings ]

Buzz: There are two teams unbeaten in league play, with one in each division - Michigan State in the Legends and (gasp!) Penn State in the Leaders. Penn State certainly hasn't been overpowering, but the Nittany Lions have been efficient enough to start 4-0 in the league. Penn State closes with four tough ones, though: Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Badgers and Purdue are in second in the Leaders Division. Purdue isn't going to win the division, and Wisconsin has three tough games left - this week at Ohio State, plus a road game at Illinois and the season-ender against Penn State in Madison. Three teams - Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska - are a game behind Michigan State in the loss column in the Legends Division. Nebraska basically faces a must-win scenario this Saturday when the Spartans come to town; the Huskers later visit Penn State and Michigan in back-to-back weeks. Iowa gets Michigan and Michigan State at home in back-to-back weeks before finishing up the regular season at Nebraska.
Projected division winners: Wisconsin in the Leaders, Nebraska in the Legends
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 8 - Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin

BIG 12
Buzz: Texas Tech's stunner at Oklahoma did more than damage the Sooners' national title hopes; it also intensified the Big 12 race. Kansas State and Oklahoma State are the only teams unbeaten in league play, but K-State is doing it with smoke and mirrors and likely suffers its first loss this week against Oklahoma, which now is in desperation mode. Texas A&M and OU are the only league teams with one league loss, and after a game Saturday at home against Missouri, the Aggies go on the road to play Oklahoma and K-State in back-to-back weeks. Oklahoma State gets K-State on Nov. 5, then plays at Texas Tech on Nov. 12. And everyone knows the Cowboys end the season at home against OU on Dec. 3. Despite OU's loss to Texas Tech, chances are that game still will be the determining factor in the league race.
Projected league winner: Oklahoma
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 7 - Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech

Buzz: Arizona State looks to already have locked up the South Division title. The Sun Devils have five games left, and the only team remaining on the schedule with a winning record is California (4-3). The North Division race has a lot more mystery. Oregon and Stanford are the only teams unbeaten in league play, and while Washington has just one league loss, its performance against Stanford this past weekend shows that the Huskies aren't ready for prime time. Oregon already has beaten Arizona State, which doesn't play Stanford. The Nov. 12 Oregon-Stanford game in Palo Alto almost certainly will determine the North Division titlist - and will serve as a referendum on whether Stanford remains in the national title hunt.
Projected division winners: Oregon in the North, Arizona State in the South
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 6 - Arizona State, California, Oregon, Stanford, Utah, Washington

Buzz: By now, even people in the most remote sections of the Amazon rain forest know that the Nov. 5 Alabama-LSU game will decide the West Division title and a likely spot in the national title game. The East race has more intrigue. Georgia and South Carolina are the only division teams with fewer than three league losses, and the Gamecocks own the tiebreaker by virtue of their win over the Bulldogs. But South Carolina has a more difficult closing stretch than the Bulldogs, and they also are without star TB Marcus Lattimore. Georgia has Florida, Kentucky and Auburn left in league play; the Gamecocks have Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida. Georgia has to have one more win in its closing three games than the Gamecocks do in their closing three. Florida is alive - but barely. It must win out over the Bulldogs, Gamecocks and Vanderbilt, and have Georgia and South Carolina also lose one other game.
Projected division winners: Alabama in West, Georgia in East
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 9 - Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee

Buzz: Southern Miss stamped itself as the best team in the East Division with a dominating win Saturday over SMU, which was the Mustangs' first league loss. Southern Miss is tied with East Carolina atop the East Division and must play at ECU on Nov. 5. On paper, Southern Miss is far better. But Southern Miss also lost to Marshall. Still, that looks to be the de facto division title game because of UCF's swoon. In the West, Houston and Tulsa are the only two teams in the league who are unbeaten in conference play, while SMU is a game back. Because SMU's only league loss is to an East Division team, the Mustangs still control their own destiny. That makes Saturday's SMU at Tulsa game especially big for the Mustangs, who basically would see their league title hopes die with a loss. SMU is at Houston on Nov. 19 and Tulsa plays host to Houston on Nov. 25. Houston should be 10-0 going into the game with SMU.
Projected division winners: Southern Miss in the East, SMU in the West
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 6 - East Carolina, Houston, SMU, Southern Miss, Tulsa, UCF

[Rivals.com experts: What we learned in Week 8]

Buzz: Every team in the East Division already has two league losses, while Toledo is the West leader and is the only team in the league without a conference loss. Bowling Green, Ohio and Temple are the East front-runners. Temple faces a must-win game when it plays at Ohio on Nov. 2, while Ohio travels to Bowling Green on Nov. 16. Bowling Green also has a tough interdivision game when it meets Northern Illinois on Nov. 8. In the West, Toledo plays at NIU on Nov. 1, and that's a must-win affair for NIU. Ball State has one league loss, but the Cardinals play three of their last four on the road and the lone home game in that span is against Toledo. Finally, there's Eastern Michigan, which already has won five games, the first time since 1995 the Eagles have won more than four games. EMU must get to seven wins to become bowl-eligible because it has two victories over FCS teams. EMU lost by 38 to Toledo and isn't going to win the division, but the Eagles have a legit shot at their first bowl bid since 1987 - which also is their only bowl bid.
Projected division winners: Temple in the East, Toledo in the West
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 7 - Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Temple, Toledo, Western Michigan

Buzz: Three teams remain unbeaten in league play - Boise State, TCU and Wyoming. Wyoming, though, will be lucky to finish above .500 in league play. The conference race almost certainly will come down to TCU's Nov. 12 visit to Boise State. That also looks to be the last real obstacle between Boise and a perfect regular-season record.
Projected winner: Boise State
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 4 - Air Force, Boise State, San Diego State, TCU

Buzz: Louisiana-Lafayette already had beaten league preseason favorites Florida International and Troy, and looked like the new team to beat - until it was hammered Saturday by Western Kentucky, which put itself in the title race with the victory. The only team unbeaten in league play is Arkansas State. Arkansas State and ULL each have first-year coaches, while Western has a second-year guy. Arkansas State already owns a win over Western, so ULL's visit to Arkansas State on Nov. 12 becomes huge for both teams. Western has the toughest remaining schedule among the contenders.
Projected winner: Arkansas State
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 3 - Arkansas State, FIU, ULL

Buzz: With Boise State gone, the league race was expected to be a jumbled mess, and that's what it is. Nevada is the only unbeaten team in league play, but four others have just one league loss. But Hawaii and Nevada, both 4-3, are the only league teams that have winning records overall. Hawaii travels to Nevada on Nov. 12, and that game looks as if it will determine the league title. Nevada's game at Utah State, which has been extremely inconsistent, on Nov. 26, could be daunting, too.
Projected winner: Hawaii
Projected bowl-eligible teams: 2 - Hawaii and Nevada

Grid bits
Auburn fell to 5-3 with its loss to LSU. In the BCS era, which started in the 1998 season, the defending champ with the most losses in the following season has been the 2008 LSU team, which went 8-5 with a bowl win after winning the title in '07. Auburn still has tough games remaining against Georgia and Alabama. There have been three champs that followed up with one-loss seasons: Miami in 2002, USC in 2005 and Florida in 2009. UM and USC lost in the national title game, while Florida lost in the SEC championship game.

Last season, Navy set a school modern-era record by scoring 76 points against East Carolina. In that one, ECU put up 567 yards of offense, including 413 through the air, but still lost by 41. This season, ECU had less offense: 504 yards, including 372 through the air. The big difference: Navy had 596 yards last season and just 420 this season, and ECU won 38-35 Saturday. Navy has lost five in a row - its longest losing streak since 2002 - and it looks as if the Midshipmen's streak of eight consecutive bowls is going to end.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Clemson QB Tajh Boyd's five TD passes in the Tigers' victory over North Carolina is that the TD passes went to five different receivers. Still, just six Tigers have caught TD passes this season.

One of the more bizarre plays you'll see helped seal Louisiana Tech's win over Utah State. Trailing 21-17, Utah State faced a fourth-and-1 from its 33 with a bit less than five minutes left. Utah State decided to punt, but P Tyler Bennett dropped the snap. Facing a strong rush, Bennett kicked the ball after it bounced and got off about a 35-yard punt. Alas, it was an illegal play. Bennett was called for illegal kicking, which is a 15-yard penalty. Worse, it's a loss of down. Thus, Louisiana Tech took over at Utah State's 11. Four plays later, Matt Nelson booted a 24-yard field goal for a 24-17 lead with 2:39 left.

After two weeks of no FBS-FCS matchups - the first two weeks of the season with no such games - there were two Saturday, with Kentucky beating Jacksonville State and BYU hammering Idaho State. That makes FBS teams 85-6 against FCS competition; the losers are Minnesota (to North Dakota State), UNLV (to Southern Utah), New Mexico (to Sam Houston State in overtime), Western Kentucky (to Indiana State), Duke (to Richmond) and Oregon State (to Sacramento State).

Staying with FCS, there are three unbeaten teams left in that division, and two of them own victories over FBS teams: North Dakota State (7-0) and Sam Houston State (7-0). The other unbeaten is Georgia Southern (7-0). The Eagles' last regular-season game this season? At Alabama on Nov. 19.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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