To hear many college football pundits tell it, the bowl season season can't get here soon enough. Seven weeks into the season, most conference races have been decided. Now, all we need to know now is who represents the SEC against Texas in the national championship game.
Last year at this time, however, Florida and Oklahoma, the championship game's two participants, were on the outside looking in. West Virginia was thought to be the favorite for the Big East crown. USC's stranglehold on the Pac-10 title looked to be up for grabs. Texas Tech had a shot at the national championship.
Obviously, plenty can change over the course of six games. Let's take a look at how the major conference races are shaping up, along with some potential sleepers to keep an eye on.
Favorites: Georgia Tech (Coastal), Boston College (Atlantic)
Miami's return to prominence has overshadowed the ACC's biggest story this year, Boston College (5-2 overall, 3-2 conference). Despite losing a head coach, starting quarterback and cancer-stricken star middle linebacker before the season even started, the Eagles are poised to win the Atlantic division. BC now gets a two-week interlude from conference play to travel to Notre Dame and to host Central Michigan. When the Eagles return to ACC play on November 14, though, they will have three easily winnable games remaining: at Virginia, home to North Carolina and at Maryland. A 6-2 conference record and berth in the conference championship game don't seem that unrealistic.
The Coastal division could produce a messy three-way tie between Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech if all three teams win out, much like last season's finish in the Big 12 South. I have no idea how the ACC tiebreaker works in that case and don't intend to investigate. Anyway, I picked the Yellow Jackets as the favorite by virtue of their head-to-head win over the Hokies and Miami's tougher remaining schedule.
Watch Out For: Clemson
Aside from a puzzling loss to a pathetic Maryland team, the Tigers have looked decent in ACC play this year. They've rolled up big wins over division foes BC and Wake Forest already. Clemson could pounce on the Atlantic crown if BC stumbles along the way.
The Bearcats have shocked many observers with their success this season after losing 11 starters from the 2008 team's defense. Quarterback Tony Pike's health has become a concern. Even without their trigger man in the second half of last week's showdown at South Florida, the Bearcats kept on rolling, as backup signal caller Zach Collaros led the team to 17 points and a 34-17 win. Win out and Cincy puts itself in line for the BCS title game.
Watch Out For: Pittsburgh
Dave Wannestedt has built the Panthers into a rugged squad in tune with their hometown's blue-collar ethos. Games against South Florida, West Virginia and Cincinnati still remain, but with the Bearcats coming to Pitt to end the season, Wanny could find himself in the drivers seat for the conference championship.
The Hawkeyes' 3-0 start in conference play has made them the Big 10 frontrunner. Road wins over Penn State and Wisconsin look especially impressive up to this point. However, Iowa's grasp on the top of the league appears relatively tenuous with road games at Michigan State and Ohio State still to play. I'd bet the Hawkeyes drop at least one of those, eliminating them fron the national title race.
Watch Out For: Michigan State
Sparty has shaken off a rough start to win three straight conference games, running its Big 10 record to a healthy 3-1 with four games to play. Iowa and Penn State both come to East Lansing in the second half of the year, which means MSU could put itself in position for a Rose Bowl berth.
Favorites: Nebraska (North), Texas (South)
The Cornhuskers' stock took a major hit last weekend, courtesy of a thrashing administered by Texas Tech in Lincoln. However, NU gets the North nod over Kansas because of the Jayhawks' brutal second-half slate, which includes Oklahoma in Lawrence plus road games at Texas Tech and Texas. Kansas could make a significant statement with a win over OU this weekend.
Texas' hard-fought win last weekend in the Red Rivalry Shootout firmly affixed the Longhorns atop the Big 12 South. As of now, it's tough to envision UT not playing for all the marbles in Pasadena in January.
Watch Out For: Colorado
Given the parity that has washed over the Big 12 North, why not CU? The Buffaloes struck a blow for their hopes in last weekend's win over division rival Kansas. CU still has matchups against conference bottom-feeders Kansas State, Iowa State and Texas A&M remaining. A home date against Nebraska on the Friday after Thanksgiving looms large.
Oregon currently leads the conference standings at 3-0, but does anyone really think this isn't USC's race to lose (again)?
I admit that I had my doubts about this iteration of the talented Trojans. However, Southern Cal is up to its old tricks. 'SC is rounding into form at just the right time and looks like the powerhouse of old. If things hold up, the Oregon-USC game on Halloween will be a national championship elimination game.
Watch Out For: Arizona
The Wildcats look like the only Pac-10 team frisky enough on a good day to beat either Oregon or USC this year. Plus, 'Zona avoids Autzen. The conference crown will go to either the Ducks or the Trojans, but Mike Stoops' team could turn out to be a fly in the ointment for one.
Favorites: Alabama (West), Florida (East)
The SEC doesn't need much more love from the media or blogosphere, so let's keep this short. The only team that has any shot to knock one of these two teams out of the divisions' catbird seats is LSU, which travels to 'Bama on the first weekend in November. Ain't happening.
Watch Out For: Georgia
Barring a total collapse, Florida will represent the SEC East in the conference title game in December. For all their flaws, the Gators appear ready to steamroll their way through their final six games, starting with Mississppi State this weekend.
If Florida doesn't bring its A-game to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party on Halloween, however, watch out. The Bulldogs are down, but they still have the talent to pull off the upset. Spoiling the Gators' bid for a second consecutive national championship sounds like a nice way to brighten up a disappointing season.