At halftime, college season already thrill-filled winner



Midway through the 2005 college football season, something has become abundantly clear.

This could be the best season in a generation.

Can you recall a seven-week period that has produced more heart-pounding finishes? Can you remember a better tailback than USC's Reggie Bush in the past decade or two? Can you list three better teams trying to squeeze into the two-team BCS invitation envelope than Southern Cal, Texas and Virginia Tech?

The first half of the season ended Saturday night with USC's for-the-ages 34-31 win at Notre Dame, a game that will be compared to the 1984 Orange Bowl classic between Nebraska and Miami, as well as the 2003 Fiesta Bowl double-overtime thriller between the Hurricanes and Ohio State, games generally considered the most exciting in modern history.

The first half of the season ended with USC's Bush emerging as the Heisman Trophy favorite after rushing for 160 yards and scoring three touchdowns against the Fighting Irish, and helping push quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone for the winning touchdown with three seconds left.

The first half of the season ended with Florida State coach Bobby Bowden reliving the nightmare of his team's first-ever ACC defeat, against Virginia in Charlottesville, and the game's other septuagenarian coaching legend, Penn State's Joe Paterno, seeing his own unbeaten season come crashing down in a costly, last-second loss at Michigan.

Here's a look at how the season shapes up at the halfway point:

Biggest surprise

Though its most significant wins have come at home against overrated teams, UCLA has found ways to stay unbeaten, coming from 19 points down a week ago against Cal and avoiding a letdown in a tough environment to beat Washington State in Pullman in the waning moments after being down 21 in the first half. The Bruins, who also beat Oklahoma earlier in the season before it was apparent how much the Sooners had tumbled, have a pretty straight path to staying perfect until finishing the season Dec. 3 at USC.

Biggest disappointment

Forget Pittsburgh, now that the slow-starting Panthers have recovered under first-year Dave Wannstedt to win three of four. Another Big East wannabe, Louisville, has to be the biggest bust of 2005, securing that spot with Saturday's meltdown in Morgantown against West Virginia, losing, 46-44, after leading 17-0. The rest of the schedule should take a few critics off Bobby Petrino's back, but the BCS talk in the 'Ville turned out to be missing a crucial C. A close runner-up would be the Sooners, but at least they have the excuse of an injury to Adrian Peterson.

Coach of the Year

The candidacy of college football's Sunshine Boys, Bowden and Paterno, might have taken a hit Saturday, but if the Nittany Lions can somehow overcome the season-ending broken arm by freshman star Derrick Williams and finish strong, JoePa should get his share of votes. The vote here for now goes to Les Miles, the first-year LSU coach who managed to keep his team focused in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Tigers won at Arizona State in their delayed season-opener and except for a last-second home loss to Tennessee have stayed in contention in the SEC West.

Player of the Year

Before Saturday, it was difficult to sort out the Heisman Trophy votes between Bush and Leinart. Even USC teammate LenDale White - the Thunder to Bush's Lighting - was starting to get attention. Then Bush carried the Trojans to an emotional win in South Bend, scoring two of his three touchdowns on long, how-did-he-do-that runs of 36 and 45 yards. Coupled with the fact that Leinart threw two interceptions and White was a nonfactor, Bush emerged as the clear favorite to strike that famous pose with that famous trophy.

Freshman of the Year

Penn State's Williams might still win this award, given how much of an impact he made for the Nittany Lions before getting hurt late in Saturday's game. With Williams sidelined until next season, others might start getting more attention. One possibility could be Virginia Tech tailback Brandon Ore, who had a breakout performance two weeks ago against Marshall and will continue to get his touches if Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh continue to fight injuries. On the defensive side, Miami safety Kenny Phillips is following in the footsteps of former Hurricanes Sean Taylor and Ed Reed. The two burgeoning stars will collide in Blacksburg come Nov. 5, with the ACC's Coastal Division title likely at stake.

BCS controversy?

Another year, another BCS controversy. If USC, Texas and Virginia Tech all remain unbeaten, the machinations of the most convoluted system to decide the best team will again by tested. And what happens if one of the SEC's two remaining unbeatens, Georgia and Alabama, finish perfect as well? The Trojans have certainly proven the most susceptible to upset, but they're the only ones with the pressure of what is now a 28-game winning streak. The Longhorns will likely have the easiest road to the Rose Bowl title game, but the Hokies have the best overall team. Of course, that's why they could be on the outside looking in.

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