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Rating college football's magnificent seven

Miami, Notre Dame and Michigan have all been at the top of the national college football poll, and only the Fighting Irish are left with a chance to win the national championship. That is despite a loss to Stanford a few weeks ago, which normally would have knocked them out of contention. But this is a different season. Michigan was ranked No. 1 despite its opening-game loss to Notre Dame, and now there are three teams with a defeat and one with a tie that have chances at the title.

Upsets and head-to-head meetings of Top 10 teams have caused the mess. On Saturday, eight of the Top 25 teams lost and two others were tied.

"It's not who can win the title, but who's left," said Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, whose Fighting Irish are still in contention after their 29-20 victory knocked Miami out. "It's like getting up in the morning and reading the obituary column. You're happy if you're not in it."

Miami, Tennessee and Florida State were among the deceased Sunday morning. Others are sure to drop out soon. The race is wide open, but since no team has ever won the national title with more than one loss, there are realistically only seven teams left.

No. 1 Virginia _ The Cavaliers' (7-0) only remaining test is at home against No. 16 Georgia Tech (5-0-1) on Nov. 3. They are a good bet to finish the regular season No. 1. The big question is whether they'll be playing in the Citrus Bowl _ where the ACC champ is committed _ or to the Orange or Sugar _ where the ACC champ can go if it's ranked No. 1 and the money is better.

No. 2 Auburn _ The Tigers (5-0-1) can keep their No. 2 ranking with wins at Florida (Nov. 3) and Alabama (Dec. 1). The Sugar Bowl could then have a national championship game with Auburn and Virginia.

No. 3 Notre Dame _ The Fighting Irish (5-1) probably have it toughest. They play four of their last five games on the road, including a Nov. 10 game at No. 11 Tennessee and Nov. 24 at Southern California.

No. 4 Nebraska _ The Cornhuskers (7-0) are in great shape, of course, having played nobody. They have yet to play a Top 25 team, although No. 10 Colorado is coming up Nov. 3. Nebraska also plays at Oklahoma on Nov. 17. The Cornhuskers will need losses by Auburn and Notre Dame if they are to get a shot at Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

No. 5 Illinois _ The Illini (5-1, 3-0 in the Big Ten) must play surprising Iowa and Michigan back-to-back. They'll also need some losses in front of them.

No. 6 Houston _ The Cougars (6-0) are on probation and can't win the Southwest Conference or play in a bowl. They could win the rest of their games, however, which might leave them the only undefeated team when the bowls are finished.

No. 7 Washington _ The Huskies' only loss was by six points at Colorado. At 6-1, and 4-0 in the Pac-10, they appear headed to the Rose Bowl.

Bowl talk: Virginia is no lock to play in the Citrus Bowl. If the Cavaliers remain on top, they might be able to play a national championship game in the Sugar or Orange bowls. The Sugar pays more than $3-million per team. The Orange pays $4.2-million per team.

To get Virginia, the Citrus (which pays about $1.5-million per team) would need to come up with at least $3-million more to pay both teams. That will not be easy. People assume ABC-TV will come up with the money. But the network won't need to do that if it already has a national championship game in the Sugar Bowl. And even if it doesn't get such a game in the Sugar Bowl, $3-million more is a lot of money to make up in advertising time, a task that might be impossible because there are eight games this year on New Year's Day.

More bowl talk: Even with two losses, Miami is a hot property. The Cotton Bowl is interested in the eighth-ranked Hurricanes (4-2), who should be able to win their remaining five games. "We have a real sincere and warm interest," said Cotton Bowl executive director Jim Brock. "Miami has been on our list for years, and we've been close but not close enough to matching them up."

If they can't, the Fiesta Bowl is interested. Both of those bowls are still possibilities for Florida State if the Seminoles are 8-2 on Nov. 24, the day bids are extended.

Take that, Pat: Florida State plays LSU on Saturday in Tallahassee, but Bobby Bowden can't get the 20-17 loss to Auburn out of his system. The FSU coach was asked about it again in detail Tuesday during his weekly conference call with reporters.

Bowden became irritated when one of the questioners told him that Auburn coach Pat Dye, after watching the game film, said his Tigers didn't play very well in victory and really owed the win to the Auburn fans, who were so boisterous.

Bowden agreed that the fans played a big role, but scoffed at Dye's suggestion that the Tigers played a poor game.

"I think they played great, I think they maxed out," Bowden said. "I thought they played as good as they could possibly play. They got all the breaks, and their crowd really helped them. Now take that.

"I think we made so many mistakes we beat ourselves. I get tired of hearing, "We ain't never ready to play Florida State.' All I heard before the game from their players was if they won they could win the national championship. I think they got their priorities in order.

"I better shut up, I'm getting mad. I'm looking forward to playing them next year. We'll be ready for them."

The FSU-Auburn series is scheduled to run through 1998 but is in danger because of FSU's move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. "I hope we're able to keep it going," Bowden said.

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