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Original Issue

Bowl Chaos Season

Illinois's upset of No. 1 Ohio State shook up an already tumultuous race for the national championship. With three weeks left, here's who is in the best shape to play for the title

THE GAMBLE inOhio was inspired by a Gamble from Ohio. The 2007 college football seasonturned on a piece of advice given by Brian Gamble, a freshman wideout fromMassillon who altered the course of gridiron history when he made so bold as tonudge an Illinois teammate on the sideline at the Horseshoe last Saturday.Gamble spoke up during a timeout that the Ohio State Buckeyes will regrethaving taken for the rest of their lives.

Illiniquarterback Juice Williams was pacing the sideline like Hamlet with 6:53 leftagainst the top-ranked Buckeyes. Having staked his team to a 28--21 lead withfour touchdown passes and zero picks, the sophomore was pitching the footballequivalent of a perfect game. But he could see how things might slip away. Onfourth-and-one from his 33, Illinois coach Ron Zook sento ut the punt team.

It was the propercall. No matter how slender the distance'"I'm telling you, it was oneinch," Williams insisted the next day'you punt the ball. You don't chancehanding the Buckeyes a short field, in their own house, when you're clinging toa one-touchdown lead. The problem was, pacing that sideline, his guts in aknot, Williams knew he could pick up the first down. When Ohio State called atimeout it only prolonged his torture. Should he say something to Zook?

Rebellion brewedamong the Illini. Williams could hear defensive players questioning thedecision to punt. As linebacker J Leman later put it, "We didn't go throughall those 6 a.m. winter workouts, didn't suffer in summer conditioning, didn'tcome all the way to Ohio to give the ball back to them."

Halfway throughthe timeout, Gamble approached his quarterback. Feeling his oats, perhaps,after having caught the touchdown pass that put his team up 21--14 just beforethe half, the 18-year-old told Williams, "If you think you can get it,you've got to tell him."

Williams walkedover to Zook and tapped him on the shoulder. It was the tap heard round thecollege football cosmos, the tap that set in motion the events that soon laidwaste to whatever order and sanity the BCS rankings had promised to provide.With closing wins over Illinois and Michigan, the Buckeyes were guaranteed areturn to the BCS title game. Yes, there would be an unseemly brawl for theother spot: The airwaves would fill with recriminations and gripes aboutstrength of schedule, the what-ifs and why-nots of one-loss teams. But one halfof the equation, mercifully, would be filled in. The rancor would behalved.

Welcome, instead,to chaos. Or as Antony says in Julius Caesar, "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slipthe dogs of war."

And Tigers (ontwo campuses) and Ducks and Jayhawks and Sooners and Mountaineers, and yes,even the undefeated Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii, who won't allow the fact thatthey have no shot at playing for the national title prevent them fromexpounding on the unfairness of it all.

This cacophony isbrought to you by Zook, who changed his mind, of course. "You better getit, or I'll hurt you," Williams recalls him saying. ("I don't think hereally meant it," the quarterback allowed the next day.) Torpedoing overthe left buttock of center Ryan McDonald, Williams moved the chains with atwo-yard gain, then got on with the job he did better than anyone else thisseason: exposing the soft underbelly of a unit that had begun the day rankedNo. 1 in total defense and scoring defense. That fourth-down conversion wasfollowed by a trio of third-down conversions'Williams calling his own number oneach'that allowed the Illini to devour the final 8:09 of the clock.

Thus did theBuckeyes' loftiest ambitions die under the bright lights of the Horseshoe. Withrunning back Rashard Mendenhall gashing the defense on early downs and Juicemoving the chains, Ohio State couldn't get the unranked visitors off the field.(In the fourth quarter the Illini ran 26 plays to OSU's three.) In the end theBuckeyes were proved unworthy of a BCS title-game berth. The burning question:Who the hell is?

THERE WAS not alot of suspense at Tiger Stadium last Saturday, with Louisiana Tech on thehomecoming menu. That was fine with LSU fans, whose nerves are a bit frayedthese days, the result of coach Les Miles's proclivity for living on the edge.The Tigers ran their record to 9--1 with a 48-point win over the Bulldogs. Oneof the loudest cheers of the night arose when the news came over thepublic-address system that the Buckeyes had gone down.

Jacob Hester, whohad a career-long 87-yard touchdown run against Tech, couldn't resist drawing adistinction between LSU and the Buckeyes: "The parity in college footballis unbelievable. The thing is, when you have those close games, you have topull 'em out."

Or if you don'tpull them out, make sure the loss happens early enough in the season for yourteam to work its way back up the rankings. On Oct. 13 the Tigers lost atKentucky in triple overtime, but they didn't panic. "Me and [quarterback]Matt Flynn and [defensive tackle] Glenn Dorsey told the guys, 'Hey, it's earlyin the season; we've got a lot of games in front of us; we can still work ourway up to where we need to be.'"

Flynn speaks fromexperience. He was a redshirting freshman on LSU's 2003 national champions.That team, you'll recall, overcame a mid-October loss (to Florida) to reach thenational title game.

As will theseTigers, if they win at Ole Miss this week, at home against Arkansas on the dayafter Thanksgiving and in the SEC championship game on Dec. 1, againstTennessee or Georgia, in all likelihood.

With the egg laidby Ohio State, LSU moved to the top of the BCS. Advancing to No. 2 was Oregonand its dynamite quarterback, Dennis Dixon, who runs the Ducks' spread optionwith a virtuosity that Williams can only hope to achieve. "He's got alittle Dennis in him," Patrick Chung allows, somewhat grudgingly, ofWilliams. Chung, Oregon's starting rover, sat in his apartment lastSaturday'the Ducks were idle'watching Williams upend the Buckeyes. Did he jumpoff the couch? Shout for joy?

"No, no,no'it wasn't like that," insists Chung, who recalls thinking, All right, weneeded that. That helped us. Now let's get back to work.

Not helpingOregon was Michigan's flat performance at Wisconsin. Every game the Wolverinesdrop'and they will be underdogs against Ohio State this Saturday'devalues theDucks' victory in the Big House in September. Devalues it, at least, in theunseeing eyes and heartless algorithms of the BCS computers. And that's not theonly way Oregon stands to get hosed.

Even if the Duckswin out'they've got Arizona this Thursday in Tucson, UCLA in the Rose Bowl onNov. 24 and Oregon State at home on Dec. 1'they could be bounced from the titlegame by events beyond their control. Profitable though it would be, the Pac-10refuses to cleave itself into divisions and schedule a championship game. TheBCS computers don't give a fig for the Pac-10's virtue; the Ducks stand to beleapfrogged by a team that has a conference title game.

Does thatpossibility prey on his mind? "Not at all," says Chung. "We've justgot to play to our potential."

And hope forothers to stumble?

"I never rootfor teams to lose. You can't wish the worst on people."

It would take ahard heart to wish any ill on the Kansas Jayhawks. They climbed to No. 3 in theBCS, upping their record to 10--0 by whipping Oklahoma State. Kansas hasn'tbeen 10--0 since 1899.

Yes, that wouldbe a trio of Big 12 teams clustered in the top five. The game of the year inthis most surprising of conferences will be played not in Norman or Austin orLincoln, but at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., where the Jayhawks willtake on No. 5 Missouri. The winner's reward: a likely matchup againstfourth-ranked Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.

The Tigers, bythe way, scored a double victory on Saturday. After its 40--26 win over TexasA&M, Missouri got a verbal commitment from Blaine Gabbert, a 6'5",230-pound quarterback from Parkway West High in suburban St. Louis upon has bestowed five stars, its highest ranking. Indicative of a neworder in the Big 12 North, Gabbert backed out of a commitment he'd made toNebraska. He told reporters that he wanted to succeed Chase Daniel.

I COULDN'TBELIEVE the way it ended. Juice just took over. Every time I turned around hewas converting a third down." The speaker was Daniel, who found a TV setfollowing Mizzou's win and watched the Buckeyes tumble.

Benched for briefperiods earlier in the season, Williams was playing the best game of hiscareer. But his light shone brightest in those last eight minutes. Followingthe Gamble, he converted those three third downs. The last came on athird-and-two from the Ohio State 30 with 2:19 left.

The call was azone read, with special instructions. Williams could fake the handoff toMendenhall, but under no circumstances was he to part with the ball.

"What if theyhave two guys outside waiting for me?" Williams asked Mike Locksley, hisoffensive coordinator.

"No matterwhat, pull the ball."

He pulled theball. Linebacker Marcus Freeman was waiting for him. With a timely hip fake,Juice picked up three, sealing the latest upset in a season so rife with themthat the word threatens to lose its meaning.

"Everyone isdangerous," says Daniel. "All I know is, based on what's happened,anything can happen."

The Front-runners

RANKED NO. 1 IN BOTH POLLS and by the computers, LSUis the clear-cut favorite to get to the BCS title game. Oregon was the biggestbeneficiary of the Ohio State loss, but the Ducks have to be wary of a trio oflurking Big 12 teams.

Triple Threat


ASSUMING IT RUNS THE TABLE, the Big 12 winner could bein the best spot to jump to No. 2. Undefeated Kansas? An Oklahoma team whosecomputer rank (No. 7) would get a needed bump? How about a Missouri team thatwould close with wins over Nos. 3 and 4?

Too Far Back


WHILE THEY ARE GOOD BETS to finish with one loss, WestVirginia and Ohio State have too many teams to pass to get to No. 2. Somebodyfigures to get out of the Big 12 unscathed, and does anyone really expect bothLSU and Oregon to lose?

Headed Elsewhere

THEIR PROSPECTS FOR GETTING TO the title game aren'tgood (O.K., darn near zero), but other BCS bowl bids are at stake. ArizonaState could get to the Rose with a victory over USC, while the BoiseState--Hawaii winner could be in line for an invite to the Sugar.


Photograph by Al Tielemans

HARD FALL Chris Wells and the Buckeyes virtually dropped out of the title race after their loss in the Horseshoe to Illinois.



1 LSU's Jacob Hester



2 Oregon's Dennis Dixon



3 Kansas' Brandon McAnderson



4 Oklahoma's Sam Bradford



5 Missouri's Chase Daniel



6 West Verginia's Pat White



7 Ohio State's Todd Boeckman



8 Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter



16 Hawaii's Colt Brennan



18 Boise State's Taylor Tharp