BOSTON — In football, Washington State usually gets lost in the shadow of the University of Washington, a perennial power.
The Cougars prowl out of Pullman, Wash. (pop. 24,000) in the Palouse valley on the state's eastern border with Idaho - not a media hot spot. They play in a stadium that holds only 37,600 fans and rarely sells out. And they only occasionally get blue-chip recruits or produce nationally known stars.
But this year Washington State (10-1) has shed its Rodney Dangerfield role. All eyes will be on the Cougars Jan. 1 when they meet No. 1-ranked Michigan in the Rose Bowl. If Michigan wins, as expected, the Wolverines will almost surely be declared the national champion in the polls. No No. 1 team in history that has won its bowl game has ever dropped in the rankings.
But if Washington State pulls an upset, anything's possible. Some of the most intense Rose Bowl watchers will be fans of Nebraska (12-0). The No. 2-ranked Cornhuskers play No. 3 Tennessee (11-1) the following evening in the Orange Bowl; if Michigan loses and Nebraska wins, the Cornhuskers will be champion.
And if both teams lose? In a word ... chaos.
Tennessee would stake its claim as the highest-ranked team to win its bowl game. But voters might look to Washington State, which would have knocked off the No. 1 team. When they turn the lights out at the Orange Bowl sometime early morning on Jan. 3, as many as seven teams might have a single loss. Just call it a tie, maybe?
All of this confusion stems from the fact that the No. 1 and No. 2 teams aren't facing each other in a "championship" bowl. The likelihood of that happening will rise considerably when the Rose Bowl joins the existing Orange-Sugar-Fiesta "bowl alliance" next season. The four bowls will then have a rotating opportunity to match up the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the polls.
That's still not a true postseason playoff, such as the one collegiate basketball provides with its 64-team "March Madness." But at least it will help football fans obsessed with "who's No. 1" to go into winter with a little less discontent.
Wednesday, Dec. 31
Fiesta Bowl at Tempe, Ariz.
No. 10 Kansas State (10-1) vs. No. 14 Syracuse (9-3)
7 p.m. (CBS)
K-State lost to undefeated Nebraska, but otherwise rolled through a relatively easy schedule. Syracuse, led by versatile QB Donovan McNabb, won its last eight games to grab its first Big East title. Syracuse has won seven straight bowl games, the longest postseason winning streak.
Thursday, Jan. 1
Gator Bowl at Jacksonville, Fla.
No. 7 North Carolina (10-1) vs. Virginia Tech (7-4)
12:30 p.m. (NBC)
North Carolina head coach Mack Brown has accepted the coaching job at Texas. He leaves behind one of the nation's best defenses. Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush replaces him.
Citrus Bowl at Orlando, Fla.
No. 11 Penn State (9-2) vs. No. 6 Florida (9-2)
1 p.m. (ABC)
It will take all of veteran coach Joe Paterno's skills to get Penn State ready for a talented Florida team, especially since he banned two star players from the game (running back Curtis Enis for accepting a gift from an agent and receiver Joe Jurevicius for academic reasons). Defending national champion Florida brightened its otherwise disappointing season by pinning the only loss on archrival Florida State.
Cotton Bowl at Dallas
No. 20 Texas A&M (9-3) vs. No. 5 UCLA (9-2), 1:30 p.m. (CBS)
UCLA has become the poster boy for those who advocate a playoff system. The Bruins, led by QB Cade McNown and runner Skip Hicks, have won nine straight games and are playing as well as anybody. But with two losses, they don't have a chance at the national title.
Rose Bowl at Pasadena, Calif.
Michigan (11-0) vs. Washington State (10-1)
5 p.m. (ABC)
A win by Michigan should clinch the national championship. The Wolverines defense has been the key to their success. Its sparked by Heisman Trophy-winner Charles Woodson, a defensive back who seems to play his best in big games. Ryan Leaf, third in the Heisman voting, will lead Washington State into the Rose Bowl for the first time in 67 years. The left-handed QB (3,637 passing yards, 33 touchdowns) has invited comparisons to fellow alum Drew Bledsoe, now a star for the New England Patriots. If the junior turns pro this year, he may be drafted ahead of Tennessee's better-known Peyton Manning. Leaf rifles passes to a quintet of gifted receivers, dubbed the Fab Five. Michael Black (1,157 yards) provides the ground attack to keep defenses off balance.
Sugar Bowl at New Orleans
No. 4 Florida State (10-1) vs. No. 9 Ohio State (10-2)
8 p.m. (ABC)
Ohio State's Andy Katzenmoyer, only a sophomore, with size and superb football instincts, was named the best linebacker in the nation this season. Florida State, led by QB Thad Busby, stumbled just once, against Florida. Both teams have high-powered offenses and stingy defenses. The entertainment quotient here is high, even if nothing more than pride is at stake.
Friday, Jan. 2
Orange Bowl at Miami
No 2 Nebraska (12-0) vs. No. 3 Tennessee (11-1)
8 p.m. (CBS)
If Michigan wins the Rose Bowl the day before, some of the shine comes off this matchup. Even then, plenty of subplots remain. Nebraska's Tom Osborne, one of the winningest college coaches of all time (career record 254-49-3), retires following the game, and his team will be eager to give him one last victory. The Cornhuskers are the most successful team of the 1990s (59-3 over the past five seasons). QB Scott Frost topped 1,000 yards both passing and running, only the 12th player in history to do so, and Ahmad Green rushed for 1,877 yards. Nebraska defensive end Grant Wistrom is just one of the big-play defenders. Meanwhile, Tennessee fans think Peyton Manning (3,819 passing yards, 36 touchdowns) was robbed when he finished second in the Heisman voting. Manning will have an opportunity to impress a national audience and show the voters they were wrong. Freshman Jamal Lewis has developed quickly, giving the Vols a breakaway runner to complement Manning.
Associated Press Top 25
1. Michigan 11-0 1,749
2. Nebraska 12-0 1,681
3. Tennessee 11-1 1,570
4. Florida State 10-1 1,536
5. UCLA 9-2 1,386
6. Florida 9-2 1,356
7. North Carolina 10-1 1,293
8. Washington State 10-1 1,292
9. Ohio State 10-2 1,246
10. Kansas State 10-1 1,194
11. Penn State 9-2 994
12. Georgia 9-2 966
13. Auburn 9-3 952
14. Syracuse 9-3 778
15. LSU 8-3 715
16. Arizona State 8-3 610
17. Purdue 8-3 578
18. Colorado State 10-2 510
19. Missouri 7-4 471
20. Texas A&M 9-3 460
21. Washington 7-4 304
22. Southern Miss. 8-3 277
23. Air Force 10-2 216
24. Oklahoma State 8-3 184
25. Michigan State 7-4 140
Others receiving votes:
Iowa 59, Mississippi 45, Marshall 44, Wisconsin 38, Virginia 37, Louisiana Tech 25, Clemson 16, Notre Dame 13, Mississippi State 7, New Mexico 4, North Carolina State 2, Miami, Ohio 1, Virginia Tech 1.
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Nebraska
The only two undefeated teams this year don't face each other in a bowl. Had they played, it would have been a classic confrontation:
Nebraska ranks No. 1 in total offense (5,628 yards, 512 per game), rushing (4,376 yards, 398 per game), and scoring (46.5 points per game).
But Michigan's stingy defense allowed the fewest points per game (8.9) and the fewest yards per game (206.9).
Would Nebraska's unstoppable offense or Michigan's unmovable defense have won the day?