Red Fever

    The undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes hosted their bitter rivals Saturday, the equally unblemished Michigan Wolverines. The game carried with it all the hype and significance of a National Championship, but as the often-confounding BCS standings refuse to crystallize, Saturday’s match-up may be only the first round.

    Amidst the uncertainty, only one thing is clear: Ohio State punched their tickets to the (official) National Championship Fiesta Bowl. Who will travel to meet the Buckeyes on January 8th, however, is anyone’s guess.

    Michigan and USC have the inside track in a finish that will likely be won by a nose, as Notre Dame clings to the slimmest of chances.

    At Ohio State Saturday, the Wolverines put in a valiant effort in the hostile Buckeye stadium, and indeed had opportunities to win. In the 103rd meeting between the two teams, Michigan lost 42-39, yet held on to their No. 2 BCS ranking when the updated standings were released Sunday. Things might have been different for Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr and his team if it weren’t for one costly, and very avoidable, penalty.

    Trailing 35-31 with seven minutes left in the final quarter, Ohio State’s offense was staring at a 4th and 15. The hot Wolverines offense figured to get the ball back before linebacker Shawn Crable laid an idiotic helmet-to-helmet hit on Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith. Instead of lining up to punt, the personal foul handed Ohio State an automatic first down and they scored on the ensuing drive.

    Even so, the Wolverines kept coming. Michigan running back Mike Hart, who finished with 142 yards and three touchdowns, and poised quarterback Chad Henne marched right back down the field and cut the deficit to three with a touchdown and two-point conversion. But Michigan was unable to recover an on-side kick, and Ohio State ran out the clock.

    Now, with no games remaining, all the Wolverines can do is wait, watch and hope that their No. 2 ranking holds.

    The Trojans host Notre Dame this weekend, and if Pete Caroll and his team win Saturday, then corral UCLA the following week, it’s hard to believe they won’t take the small step past Michigan in the BCS standings. USC currently has a BCS average score of .919, trailing Michigan by only .007 points.

    For the one-loss Irish to make the jump to No. 2, Brady Quinn and co. would have to win in an absolutely staggering fashion over the Trojans, in hopes to amass margin-of-victory points in the BCS computer calculation. But the chances of Notre Dame wiping out Southern Cal 65-0 is about as probable as George W. Bush unifying Iraq, ending global hunger and serving a third-consecutive term.

So as the odds-makers see it, USC will challenge Ohio State for the Championship. But calculating that Southern Cal, who gave a game away to the lowly Oregon State Beavers, are more deserving than a Michigan team who came just short against the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes is a shame. The Trojans should be penalized for falling asleep at the wheel.

    Should the Wolverines retain their second-place ranking, the Fiesta Bowl rematch becomes a most sensational championship game. The sentimentalist’s choice of age-old rivals would generate maximum hype, becoming even more interesting as the match-up takes place on a neutral field. And there, you get to see who’s really No. 1.