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Conference races come down to this


Quarterback Marcus Vick has the Virginia Tech Hokies headed for a BCS bowl and a possible shot at the national championship.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Quarterback Marcus Vick has the Virginia Tech Hokies headed for a BCS bowl and a possible shot at the national championship. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Ralph D. Russo Associated Press

As the college football season makes the final turn toward the bowls, the margin of error for teams vying for titles – from conference crowns to the national championship – goes from little to none.

With five Saturdays remaining, here’s what to look for, how it’ll shake out and which teams will cash the big Bowl Championship Series checks:

ACC

In control: Virginia Tech (Atlantic), Florida State (Coastal). The Hokies can all but wrap up their division by beating Miami on Saturday in Blacksburg, Va. The Seminoles would have to stumble badly down the stretch to miss out on the title game in Jacksonville, Fla., but they have looked vulnerable.

Ready to pounce: Miami (Atlantic). The Hurricanes aren’t about to be relegated to the role of spoiler. And they’d love to get another crack at Florida State.

Lurking: Boston College (Coastal). If Florida State crashes, the Eagles could sneak into the title game.

Forecast: The Hokies run the table, bag a second straight ACC crown and trip to – Miami for the Orange Bowl.

Big East

In control: West Virginia. The Backyard Brawl with Pitt is in Morgantown, W.Va., but that Dec. 3 game at South Florida, rescheduled because of Hurricane Wilma, could be a trap.

Ready to pounce: The critics who question why this motley crew is still worthy of an automatic BCS bid.

Lurking: Pittsburgh. The Big East’s worst nightmare: The team that lost to Ohio wins the conference.

Forecast: West Virginia loses at South Florida, but wins the league and tries not to get embarrassed in the BCS.

Big Ten

In control: Penn State, Wisconsin. An unlikely battle for first place will take place in State College, Pa., on Saturday when the Badgers visit the Nittany Lions.

Ready to pounce: Ohio State. The Buckeyes need to win out and have the winner of Penn State-Wisconsin lose its conference finale. The Lions play at Michigan State (Nov. 19) and the Badgers host Iowa (Nov. 12).

Lurking: Michigan. With the win over Penn State and another against Ohio State (Nov. 19) at home, the Wolverines still could go from underachievers to Big Ten champs.

Forecast: Wisconsin won’t win in Happy Valley with a defense ranked 99th. Up-and-down Michigan State has one more big game left, and Penn State will see it on Nov. 19. Which means it comes down to Ohio State vs. Michigan, and Jim Tressel’s got that one down pat for OSU.

Big 12

In control: Texas (South), Colorado (North). The Longhorns’ only serious opponent remaining is complacency. The Buffs could wrap up the division with a win at home over Missouri next week and some help.

Ready to pounce: Texas A&M. If there is a shred of pride and enough healthy bodies left in College Station, the Aggies have a shot to keep the Longhorns out of the Rose Bowl on Nov. 25.

Lurking: Texas Tech, for an at-large BCS bid. Nobody wants to take the Red Raiders seriously, but if they finish 10-1 you know the Big 12 will push hard for Mike Leach’s bunch.

Forecast: Texas-Colorado rematch produces similar results to the regular season – Longhorns 42-17 – and Mack Brown doesn’t have to beg to get to Pasadena this year.

Pac-10

In control: USC. The Trojans have only one more road game (at Cal on Nov. 12) and could win a third straight national title without leaving the state again.

Ready to pounce: UCLA. If the Bruins can remain unbeaten against Arizona and at Arizona State – and with the way they’ve played, it certainly won’t be easy – the Dec. 3 meeting of Los Angeles’ crosstown rivals becomes the Pac-10 title game.

Lurking: The Bruins, in the national title race. If UCLA stops USC’s winning streak and finishes 11-0, could the Bruins vault past an unbeaten Texas or Virginia Tech and into the Rose Bowl?

Forecast: The Trojans don’t allow the Bruins to throw the national title race into a tizzy, and go for three in a row at the Rose Bowl.

SEC

In control: Georgia (East), Alabama (West). Even with the loss to Florida, Bulldogs are in charge with home games against Auburn (Nov. 12) and Kentucky (Nov. 19) standing in the way of a spot in the conference title game. The Crimson Tide still must host LSU (Nov. 12), and have the Iron Bowl (Nov. 19) at Auburn.

Ready to pounce: Florida (East), LSU (West). Gators will be big Auburn fans. The Tigers can only be wondering where they’d be if they had just held the lead against Tennessee.

Lurking: Auburn (West). Here’s the way it works for these Tigers. Alabama beats LSU, Auburn beats Alabama and Tommy Tuberville’s crew is back in the Georgia Dome playing for a conference title on Dec. 3.

Forecast: One of these conference races is going to get weird, and the SEC is the most likely because the top teams are all so good. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when LSU and Florida play for the conference crown – and the Tigers return to Atlanta for the Sugar Bowl.

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