Nebraska in Rose is BCS thorn

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK - Already guaranteed to fall short of pleasing everyone, the Bowl Championship Series football standings that dictate pairings in the national title game pleased just about no one when they were released yesterday afternoon.

Nebraska, an 11-1 team that gave up 62 points in losing its most recent game, finished No. 2 in the standings and will face undefeated and top-ranked Miami (11-0) in the Rose Bowl, played Jan. 3 in Pasadena, Calif.

Atlantic Coast Conference champion Maryland (10-1) will face Florida (9-2) in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, Oregon (10-1) gets Colorado (10-2) in the Fiesta Bowl and the Sugar Bowl pits Illinois (10-1) against Louisiana State (9-3).

On the Maryland campus, players sounded pleased to have things made final for the Terps' first major bowl in 25 years, several weeks after winning the school's first conference title since 1985.

"It's great to know who we're going to be playing and what to prepare for," said the team's center, Melvin Fowler.

But it was the title game announcement that touched off the expected clamor. Two other teams had hoped to reach the Rose Bowl after Louisiana State toppled then-No. 2 Tennessee in Saturday night's Southeastern Conference championship game.

Like Nebraska, Oregon also finished with one loss. But the Ducks won their conference, the Pacific-10. The winner of Nebraska's Big 12 Conference, Colorado, was the team that routed the Cornhuskers, 62-36, in Boulder on Nov. 24.

However, Nebraska's 7.23 BCS score was 0.05 lower than that of Colorado, and 1.44 lower than that of Oregon, sending both teams to the Fiesta Bowl and sending the relevance of the BCS into question.

Though John Swofford, ACC commissioner and administrator of the BCS, asserted that "controversy doesn't affect credibility," Nebraska coach Frank Solich apparently felt the need to defend his team's right to play for the national title without winning its league.

"If you look at the strength of conferences in this day and age, I think you can understand how a team that is not an outright winner of a conference could still be as good a football team as there is in the country," he said. "I could see how that played out. It certainly played out this year."

The photo finish came at the end of three straight weekends when the national title picture continued to change. While Miami extended its winning streak to 21 games, Oklahoma was eliminated from Rose Bowl contention the first week and Nebraska also lost. The second week, Texas and Florida excused themselves before the Volunteers also waved goodbye Saturday.

"It's been an extraordinary year, with upsets and unexpected turns," Swofford said, "a great thing for college football. It's brought added interest to the BCS bowl games. Five teams [including Nebraska] had opportunities to win a game to put themselves into the national championship game. None were able to do so."

Within the context of the past month, Colorado and Oregon - who finished third and fourth, respectively, in the BCS - would argue with Swofford's statement. Neither team has lost since Oct. 20, when Colorado fell to Texas and Oregon to Stanford.

The Ducks' case was hampered by a schedule that was rated 31st in the nation, the Buffaloes' by an earlier loss to Fresno State. Still, both saw themselves as more deserving than a Nebraska team that had defeated only two ranked teams in 2001.

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti minced no words, calling the BCS rankings a "travesty."

"I liken the BCS to a bad disease, like cancer," he said. "Not to take anything away from Nebraska or Colorado - they're great teams - but one has two losses and the other didn't win their conference championship. We're No. 2 in both polls, but those things don't have a lot of merit, obviously."

"This sort of takes a little luster off my support for the BCS," said Colorado coach Gary Barnett, whose team has won five straight games and captured the Big 12 Dec. 1 by defeating Texas. "I think I put a lot of trust in the system working, and it did work. It just didn't work in our favor. ... How you're playing at this point - seems to me that should be thought of."

Should Nebraska, ranked fourth in the Associated Press and coaches' polls, beat Miami, the 72 voters in the AP poll could choose the Colorado-Oregon winner as the national champion. The coaches are obliged to cast their vote for the Rose Bowl winner.

The response was far more tranquil regarding the two bowls closer to home. Florida was formally announced as the opponent for Maryland in the Orange Bowl, a pairing that was pretty much set ever since the Gators' 34-32 loss to Tennessee on Dec. 1.

Illinois was announced for the Sugar Bowl last week, with the understanding that Nebraska or LSU would be its opponent depending on the SEC championship game.

It was thought the Volunteers might be able to nudge Florida out of the Orange Bowl by virtue of their win over the Gators. However, Tennessee (10-2) fell to No. 6 in the BCS and will play Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.

Maryland, which entered the season picked to finish seventh in the ACC, was just ending its first practice in more than three weeks when the BCS pairings were announced on national television.

The Terps face a Florida team that fell two points shy of playing for the SEC title and barely a week removed from being the front-runner for a national title shot against Miami. Few teams parallel the Gators' arsenal on offense, which includes quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up Rex Grossman.

"It will be a great challenge," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I know they have tremendous athletes there. It will give us a chance to see where our program is against a very fine football team."

The Orange Bowl could be something of a letdown for Florida, which looked like the nation's best team for much of this season before suffering its second loss.

However, Florida coach Steve Spurrier said he anticipates his team will be ready for the Terps.

"Time heals a lot of wounds," Spurrier said yesterday. "We look to end the season in a positive way against a good Maryland team that is going to be sky high."

Both Spurrier, whose team defeated five ranked opponents, and Friedgen advocated a playoff as an answer for the BCS predicament.

Both also prescribed acceptance of their fates.

"When I found out I was fighting against a computer, I figured it was useless," Friedgen said.

NOTES: Maryland seems close to finishing the sale of its allotment of 15,000 Orange Bowl tickets. Athletic director Debbie Yow said fans had ordered 12,000 tickets as of the end of business on Friday. Priority ticket sales end on Wednesday, at which point the general public will have a shot at remaining tickets. ... Rain canceled the Terps' first scheduled practice on Saturday, but the team was able to practice yesterday. Friedgen said the players looked sluggish.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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