NEW YORK - Missouri and West Virginia have one more step to take before bumping into each other in New Orleans.
The Tigers and Mountaineers hold the top two spots in the Bowl Championship Series standings released yesterday with a week left in a topsy-turvy regular season.
If either Missouri (11-1) or West Virginia (10-1) trip up next week, third-place Ohio State (11-1) is poised to take advantage and play in its second straight title game.
The Tigers play Oklahoma (10-2) in the Big 12 championship game at San Antonio on Saturday, and the Mountaineers face rival Pittsburgh (4-7) at home. If both win, it'll be Missouri-West Virginia in a most unlikely BCS championship game Jan. 7 at the Superdome.
A month ago, neither team was even in the top five of the BCS standings, but a string of upsets have left Chase Daniel and the Tigers and Pat White and the Mountaineers in control of their own destinies.
"I've been telling the guys, the more you win, the more that's at stake," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said yesterday.
Missouri was fourth last week in the BCS, one spot behind West Virginia. Louisiana State had been No. 1 and Kansas second.
If the Tigers and Mountaineers both lose, the national title picture gets very murky.
Georgia was fourth in the standings, followed by Kansas (11-1). Neither will play in their conference title games, but both still have a shot to play for a national championship.
Georgia (10-2) could become the first team with two losses to play for a national title, and several other two-loss teams could make a claim to be in the championship game if the top two lose for a second consecutive week.
Sixth-place Virginia Tech (10-2), seventh-place LSU (10-2), eighth-place Southern California (9-2), and ninth-place Oklahoma all have one last opportunity to surge up the BCS standings on Saturday.
Ohio State's regular season ended Nov. 17 with a victory over Michigan that made the Buckeyes the Big Ten champions. The week before, Ohio State was No. 1 in the country when it lost to Illinois at home and seemingly fell out of the title race.
At worst, the Buckeyes, who lost the national championship game 41-14 to Florida last season, will be in the Rose Bowl.
Hawaii moved up to 12th in the standings after beating Boise State 39-27 and winning the Western Athletic Conference, putting Colt Brennan and the Warriors in position to earn an automatic BCS bid.
The Warriors, the last remaining unbeaten team in the nation, finish the season at home against Washington and need to be in the top 12 when the final standings come out Sunday.
Missouri was No. 1 in the Harris poll, and West Virginia was No. 1 in the USA Today coaches' poll yesterday. Those polls make up two-thirds of a team's BCS average. Missouri was first in the computer rankings, with West Virginia second.
The Tigers' BCS average was .978, and the Mountaineers were at .971.
A Missouri-West Virginia final seemed to be a long shot when October ended. Both had a loss and were stuck behind a pile of teams in the BCS standings. On Oct. 28, West Virginia was seventh in the standings, and Missouri was ninth.
Since then it's been a steady climb as the Tigers and Mountaineers have kept winning while the other contenders have tanked. It started when Ohio State lost to Illinois on Nov. 10. A few days later, Oregon lost quarterback Dennis Dixon to an injury in the first quarter, and the Ducks' national title hopes went with him in a loss at Arizona.
Two days later, Oklahoma lost its second game of the season at Texas Tech, leaving Missouri and Kansas as the Big 12's best hope for a national title.
At that point, it became apparent that the winner of the Missouri-Kansas game would go to the Big 12 title game with a chance to play for the national championship.
The Tigers, who entered the season unranked, took care of their business, handing Kansas its first loss of the season, 36-28.
LSU also went down, losing in triple overtime 50-48 to Arkansas on Friday, and that opened up a spot for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia grabbed it emphatically with a 66-21 victory against Connecticut to clinch the Big East title and a BCS bid. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll, but they lost in late September 21-13 at South Florida. White injured his thigh against the Bulls and didn't finish the game.
Neither West Virginia nor
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