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College Football Enters Its Critical Phase...By Nelson Lardner

It all started Thursday night, when undefeated Rutgers -- an underrated outfit that hews to the fundamentals of running the ball and stopping the run very, very well -- caught Louisville in a brutal psychological spot and got up at the wire after spotting the 'Ville an 18-point lead.

'Twas one of the most-dramatic Thursday-nighters in broadcast history, and served as an appetizer to a college-football weekend which tossed the BCS-standings salad most vigorously. Besides Louisville, ranked darlings Texas, Auburn, Cal (all upset) and Tennessee (hammered as a dog at Arkansas) all lost -- and Florida nearly did, escaping the challenge of an invading Steve Spurrier by the grace of their kick-blocking skills, by a single point.

It should not surprise anyone that many of the sharpest college-football 'cappers took sincere, meaningful positions against Texas, Auburn, Cal and Tennessee.

Kansas State backers were blessed by the early exit of Texas QB Colt McCoy, due to a shoulder injury. The football gods move in mysterious ways, as we are now spared an anticlimactic Buckeye-Longhorn BCS final -- unfair, as well as a yawner, as this possibility would have tortured us with a rematch of the early-season Ohio State dismantling of Texas in Austin.

Of the one-loss teams, Florida and USC are clearly the best-balanced opponents for the Ohio State/Michigan winner, and our modest preference goes to the SEC power, so long as they can get through Florida State -- and the SEC championship game against Arkansas -- unscathed. Do that, and the Gators have punched their ticket, in my mind, though I'm aware that USC will likely enjoy the computerized edge, should they win out. The USC/Notre Dame Thanksgiving-weekend matchup will be a screamer,and Trojans will be peeking over Dame's shoulder at their annual game versus UCLA the following week. The Irish have a distinct mental advantage catching USC when they do, but I refuse to get oversold on Charlie Weis' kids. Of the top-20 teams they've played, they narrowly escaped Georgia Tech, and were thrashed by the Wolverines. Dame is much like Louisville, with a defensive secondary which cannot be trusted against top company; trust me, if Brady Quinn had faced Rutgers in Piscataway Thursday night, the Knight pass rush would have disrupted him. Just as they destroyed Brian Brohm in that second half.

We've circled back to Rutgers, for a reason. Now sixth in the BCS standings -- giddy heights, for a program in the doldrums for a quarter-century, plus -- they must now visit Cincinnati, Saturday. The Bearcats are quietly laying in wait, to pick off a team coming off an historical peak. Aware of this, the market was poised to pound Cincy at the Sunday-evening open -- and pound they did, driving the Bearcats to an underdog of less than a touchdown. This may be an overreaction; the bettors have made this Saturday's game a precise parallel of Louisville/Rutgers, and on paper, Rutgers is much more competitive with the 'Ville than Cincy would be with Rutgers, on a neutral. But despite the lessened value on this dog, I would never play Rutgers as a side in this matchup. The psychological baggage borne by this favorite is simply too weighty. So much NCAA college handicapping is about scheduling and matchups -- which is why I deem any playoff talk a sheer money-grab, rather than an honest attempt to decide a national champion in a manner that's any more legitimate than current methodology. That, and the undeniable fact that the most meaningful regular-season of any major sport is that enjoyed by college foots. So many individual games drip with deep significance . . . say that with a straight face about MLB, the NBA, or the NHL.

Knew you couldn't.

CODA: Still can't get over how otherworldly-uncanny (no other description applies) Tradesports market leans were, in indicating the eventual winners of one close Senate race after another. The big players who were essentially making the markets when putting on their trendsetting positions may not have been thrilled with the results, but any pundit who took their actions to heart was on the money. No market move was more prescient than the establishment of Democrat Jim Webb as the clearcut favorite over GOP fallen star Georrge Allen. This, in the face of an election-eve Gallup poll which put Allen ahead of Webb by three full percentage points. The Gallup organization has long been accused of harboring modest Republican bias, but get real. If some shady polling outfit had wanted to aid Allen, wouldn't they have put out numbers which reflected a slight Webb lead, to gin up the Virginia GOP base? Mid-Tuesday night, Dems were HUGE dogs to actually capture the Senate, but if you had taken all the early Election Day indicators seriously, you would have EXPECTED it. Remarkable.

Nelson Lardner

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