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It's the big game, and it's in Fresno

CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

September 11, 2008|Chris Dufresne

It's all you could ask of a Saturday night in September in California -- two ranked teams playing in front of a packed house, on national television, with huge bowl implications and possibly a national title at stake.

No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC won't be bad either.

Wisconsin at Fresno State is going to get stomped on in terms of build-up, sweeping panoramic backdrops, TV analysts and breathless sideline reporter reports.

I've just seen Beanie Wells' right foot and can confirm it's still attached to his leg!

ABC1 has one game and ESPN2 has the other.

One is glitter; the other ground chuck.

But I've been thinking a lot about this: Which game, in terms of the big picture, is really more football life-altering?

People say college football is great because every week is like a playoff and that one loss -- especially late in the season -- knocks you out of the national title.

People say a lot of things.

It depends who you are.

If Saturday's game is close, the USC vs. Ohio State outcome changes nothing. The teams could still meet in the national title game, or in the Rose Bowl.

USC could lose Saturday and not fall out of the top five, while Ohio State's credibility is so sketchy after Ohio that a close loss to USC might enhance the Buckeyes' reputation.

Win or lose, USC and Ohio State will campaign into November.

Don't believe it?

Last year, Ohio State lost at home on Nov. 10 to Illinois, dropped from No. 1 to No. 7 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, only to climb back to No. 1 in less than a month.

USC, a 41-point favorite over Stanford, suffered one of the worst upset defeats in the history of college football. Yet, the Trojans would have advanced to the national title game had they defeated Oregon in Eugene.

Louisiana State won the national title -- after losing its last regular-season game to Arkansas.

In 2001, Nebraska free-loaded into the BCS title game after losing its last regular-season game, 62-36, while in 2003 Oklahoma finished No. 1 in the BCS after getting run off the field by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game . . . on Dec. 6.

No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 21 Fresno State, by contrast, are working a BCS high wire without a net.

A loss to Fresno State, a "non-BCS" school, probably knocks Wisconsin out of national title contention.

And a loss to Wisconsin virtually ends Fresno State's dream of finishing in the BCS top 12 and earning an automatic major bowl berth.

All three of the "little guy" schools who have qualified for the BCS -- Utah, Boise State and Hawaii -- finished the regular season undefeated.

Wisconsin-Fresno State is an intriguing encounter of risk/reward.

After years of trying his case on the road, Pat Hill finally got a Big Ten team to come to his place. It took two games at Madison to get one back in Fresno, but a lot of BCS schools wouldn't have even made that deal.

There were reportedly some in milkland willing to pitch-fork over millions to get Fresno State to move this game to a neutral site, but give Wisconsin credit for sticking to the contract.

Now comes the "gulp" part.

"It's an opportunity for our program to gain national exposure as well," Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said. "When you go on the road, it's an opportunity for you to define yourself, what you are when no one else is around."

For all its considerable football success, especially under former coach Barry Alvarez, who won three Rose Bowls and never lost a game in California (he was 5-0-1), Wisconsin is still 0-for-forever in national titles.

The highest the Badgers finished was No. 2, in both the Associated Press and coaches' polls, behind USC in 1962.

Fresno State has spent time and treasure trying to crack the BCS, refusing to take Hawaii's easy-scheduling rout to glory.

The energy expended in taking on the Wisconsins of the nonconference world, though, is probably the reason Fresno State hasn't won a conference title since 1999.

Hill keeps firing, though, his rifle always aimed at the treetops.

Fresno State has played host to BCS opponents before -- Oregon paid a visit two years ago -- but, as Hill says, "never with so much on the line this early in the season."

USC at Ohio State, for sure, is the place to be.

In terms of the season, though, and where it goes from here, it's not the only place.

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Blitz package

* Quickest way to the top . . . and the bottom: Fresno State's Hill called East Carolina's Skip Holtz to congratulate him on his . . . schedule. Using Fresno's all-or-nothing formula, the Pirates have gone from unranked to No. 14 with wins against Virginia Tech and West Virginia, last year's Atlantic Coast and Big East champions.

"You take a big chance when you play those teams, but you know what, when you hit it, and you do it right, it gets you going a lot faster," Hill said. "I love what they've done."

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