Conference and bowl game pictures either will be cleared somewhat, or even more confused than ever in the aftermath of one of the more significant Saturdays in college football today.
The best game of the day matches No. 6 Auburn playing host to No. 4 Florida State in one of those enlightening intersectional match-ups that will push someone out of the major bowl picture.
In Chapel Hill, N.C., the 10th-ranked Clemson Tigers face North Carolina in a game that will leave the winner in sole possession of the Atlantic Coast Conference lead. And in neutral Jacksonville, No. 17 Florida and No. 11 Georgia meet in the Gator Bowl in their vehement rivalry that also has some bearing on the Southeastern Conference race.
No. 13 Alabama is miraculously still is in the SEC running, despite enigmatic behavior such as its recent loss to Memphis State, but No. 5 Louisiana State can put an end to the Crimson Tide and take a firm hold on the Sugar Bowl with a victory in Baton Rouge (ESPN, 7:30 p.m.).
No. 1 Oklahoma finally plays someone with merit when the Sooners entertain rival Oklahoma State, but the Cowboys are a 29-point underdog, and no one can remember the last time a 12th-ranked team was called that.
The game between Auburn (7-0-1) and Florida State (7-1) has absolutely no conference importance, but it is a matter of huge national significance when they meet at Jordan-Hare Stadium (CBS, 2:30 p.m.). The loser of this game will be dropped from the Orange Bowl's list of candidates to play Nebraska or Oklahoma for the national championship. Marring the record of each team are disappointing games that weakened their national cases and neither can afford another: the Tigers were tied, 20-20, by No. 19 Tennessee, and the Seminoles lost a 25-24 heartbreaker to No. 3 Miami in the last seconds.
"To hold on to what we have, we've got to win," said Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, and that holds true of all the big games around the country.
Florida State-Auburn will benefit from two of the showcase offenses in the nation. Auburn senior Jeff Burger is the fourth-best passer in the nation, throwing for 1,534 yards and 11 touchdowns. Florida State's offense is a juggernaut that gains 516 yards a game behind senior Danny McManus, and tailback Sammie Smith is the fourth-best rusher in the nation with 892 yards, averaging 7.6 yards a carry.
Florida (5-3, 2-2) is out of the SEC picture, but Georgia (6-2, 3-1) isn't quite when they meet at the Gator Bowl. Not that it matters, because whenever Florida and Georgia gather in Jacksonville, the stadium is split equally between fans of Gators and Bulldogs, all of them warring for attention. Both teams are trying to keep bowl hopes alive.
"There hasn't been one that wasn't memorable," Georgia Coach Vince Dooley said. "There's 40,000 in orange, and there's 40,000 in red. When Georgia does something good, you hear from the red, and when Florida does something, you hear from the orange. That's a lot of noise."
A duel between backs could make for more than the usual amount of shouting. Florida brings Emmitt Smith, the freshman who is the nation's second-leading ground gainer with 1,083 yards. Georgia has Lars Tate, 18th in the country with 778 yards on 148 carries. Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell has been struggling all year, but Smith's presence makes him less the center of attention, and perhaps more dangerous.
"What they like to do is give it to Smith, and give it to Smith, and then fake to Smith and put the ball up," Dooley said. "Suffice it to say they're going to cause a lot of problems for our defense."
Clemson (7-1, 4-1) is a team that has suffered mysterious lapses, and can ill afford another. The Tigers, who were upset by North Carolina State two weeks ago, could drop off the Orange Bowl list, and also could jeopardize the ACC title with an upset loss to North Carolina at Kenan Stadium (ESPN, 4 p.m.). But a win would clinch at least a tie for the conference championship, and set up an outright title opportunity the next week against Maryland.
First, the Tigers have to cure their habit of meandering through games. In the last two weeks they have scored a total of just 10 points in the first half, and trailed the Wolfpack by 30-0 at halftime.
"It seems like we've been coasting the last three weeks," Michael Dean Perry said. "We should be out of that coasting position now."
North Carolina (5-3, 3-1) was angered by a 38-10 loss last year, yet the Tar Heels are familiar with upsets of the Tigers, winning by 21-20 in the last game in Chapel Hill in 1985. They are far better than their record, with two of the losses coming to Auburn and Oklahoma, and also laboring with just three home games in the last eight. They have Mark Maye, the third-leading passer in the league with 1,510 yards, and the fifth-best back in Eric Starr (436 yards).
"We're going to see maybe the best Clemson team in 10 years," Coach Dick Crum said. "They're a complete football team. This is simply a powerful ball club."