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Notre Dame is 1 and waiting for SEC to play out

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Notre Dame is 1 and waiting for SEC to play out

Breaking down the AP college football poll after Week 13 of the regular season.

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MAKING A STATEMENT

Notre Dame is No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 with nothing left to do but wait to find out its opponent for the national championship game.

Toward the bottom of the rankings, there was plenty of movement. Ten Top 25 teams lost this weekend, the most since Oct. 11, 2003, but for the most part the national championship race was unchanged.

No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia, both easy winners in rivalry games Saturday, held their spots in the rankings and in the BCS standings. They will play for the SEC title in Atlanta next weekend.

The winner is a lock to move on to Miami for the BCS championship game on Jan. 7, trying to extend the Southeastern Conference's string of six straight titles.

But will the right SEC team be getting a shot? Florida coach Will Muschamp doesn't think so.

``We should be playing for the national championship,'' he said after the Gators beat Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee, Fla., on Saturday.

He's got a point.

The Gators (11-1) checked in at No. 4 in the AP poll this week, up one spot, and fourth in the BCS standings.

Their lone loss was to Georgia and it was enough to settle the SEC East in the Bulldogs' favor.

But playing in the same division doesn't mean playing the same competition. Not even close in these days of expanding conferences.

The Gators have clearly played a tougher schedule than the Bulldogs. The Sagarin computer ratings have Florida's strength of schedule at 13th in the nation. Georgia's is 42nd. Alabama's is 39th, by the way, but let's keep the focus on Florida and Georgia because they played each other.

Florida also played No. 9 LSU and No. 10 Texas A&M as its two SEC West opponents, combined record 20-4. Georgia played Auburn and Mississippi from the west, combined record 9-15.

On Saturday, both Florida and Georgia played their toughest nonconference games. The Gators beat Florida State (10-2). The Bulldogs routed Georgia Tech (6-6).

Both teams played No. 11 South Carolina, the East's other beast. Florida beat the Gamecocks 44-11. South Carolina beat Georgia 35-7.

Remember it was Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier who suggested in the preseason that only division records determine division winners after South Carolina was in similar position to Florida last year.

Of course, the Bulldogs can point to the scoreboard, the one that read Georgia 17, Florida 9 in Jacksonville, Fla., back on Oct. 27.

As conferences get bigger, the SEC is up to 14 now, conference standings and championship games lose meaning. Georgia's road to the SEC championship was easier than Florida's. That road gets tougher next week. If Georgia can beat Alabama, it will further validate its place ahead of Florida.

But it's a strange situation and one that will repeat itself around the country as conferences grow and college football implements a four-team playoff in a couple of years.

Georgia and Florida had a race. The Bulldogs won, but the Gators had to cover more ground.

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GOING UP

The MAC made a big move.

No. 18 Kent State (11-1) and No. 19 Northern Illinois (11-1) each moved up five spots in the Top 25 after completing perfect Mid-American Conference seasons and setting up a must-see conference championship game for Friday night.

The last time the MAC had two teams ranked in the AP's top 20 was Nov. 5, 1973, when Miami, Ohio, was 17th and Kent State was 19th.

The Golden Flashes and Huskies benefited from a rash of losses by ranked teams. Ten went down, all ranked between No. 10 (Florida State) and No. 25 (Mississippi State, which was tied for 25th last week).

All the losses could put the MAC in position to send a team to the BCS for the first time. Kent State was 17th in the BCS standings released Sunday night and NIU was 21st. As with most things in the Bowl Championship Series, it's not quite as easy as win and you're in.

No. 25 Boise State, which is 20th in the BCS standings, is also in the mix for that BCS buster bid - again.

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GOING DOWN

No. 13 Florida State and No. 15 Clemson both dropped three spots, capping an awful day for the Atlantic Coast Conference against the SEC.

The Seminoles' loss to Florida stung badly because FSU still had slim hopes of working into the national championship picture. Instead it's off to the ACC title game to play Georgia Tech with only Orange Bowl hopes.

The Yellow Jackets, Coastal Division champions by default because Miami gave itself a postseason ban, lost 42-10 to Georgia. Georgia Tech is now in BCS or bust mode. If the Jackets lose to Florida State, they will be 6-7.

Clemson's 27-17 loss to South Carolina was maybe even more devastating for the ACC. The Tigers looked like a lock to receive an at-large BCS bid, probably to the Sugar Bowl, had they finished 11-1. At 10-2, with no marquee wins, that's probably not happening.

To top it off Vanderbilt beat Wake Forest 55-21. The final total: SEC 161, ACC 74.

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IN AND OUT

The Big East's de facto championship game will be between two unranked teams.

Rutgers and Louisville both lost Saturday to tumble from the rankings ahead of their Thursday night game in New Jersey, which will decide the conference championship.

Rutgers was stomped 27-6 at Pittsburgh and Louisville lost 23-20 at home to Connecticut in double-overtime.

The winner of Louisville-Rutgers still gets a BCS bid - even though neither was in the latest BCS top 25 - but the Big East's troubles could be a boon to potential BCS busters.

If a conference champion from a non-automatic qualifying league, such as the Mountain West or MAC, finishes in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and is ahead of a champ from an AQ league, that champion receives an automatic bid to the marquee bowl games.

It's all but a lock that the Big East champ will finish behind the MAC champion and possibly Boise State, but even though those teams are close to the BCS top 16, it's no guarantee they get there.

Kent State stands the best chance at 17 with 16th-place UCLA playing Stanford on Friday night.

Also moving into the AP rankings this week was No. 22 Northwestern.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

Southern California, sitting at 7-5 and heading toward a far-from-the-spotlight bowl, is positioned to become the first team since Mississippi in 1964 to start the season No. 1 and finish it unranked.

Though when Ole Miss did it, the AP was only ranking 10 teams. The last team to start No. 1 and finish out of the poll when at least 20 teams were being ranked was Iowa in 1961.

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ODDS & ENDS

Boise State plays at Nevada on Saturday, looking to win a share of the Mountain West title. Fresno State and San Diego State also have one league loss and their seasons are over. ... No. 7 Kansas State plays Texas on Saturday, trying to lock up the Big 12's BCS bid and a likely trip to the Fiesta Bowl. ... No. 14 Nebraska plays Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, with the winner going to the Rose Bowl. ... No. 8 Stanford hosts UCLA with a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line in the Pac-12 title game on Friday night.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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Dwight Howard shares his first health update since back surgery

Dwight Howard shares his first health update since back surgery

Three weeks removed from back surgery to take care of his nagging gluteal injury, Dwight Howard rejoined the Washington Wizards for their Tuesday night contest with the Atlanta Hawks inside State Farm Arena. 

"Physically, I'm a lot better than I was before the surgery. The nine games I played, I basically played on one leg. So, you know, I'm just happy that that's out the way and I can rehab and get ready for the second half of the season," Howard told NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller. 

During those nine games, the 33-year-old averaged 12.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, while shooting over 62% from the floor. 

Howard is no stranger to back surgery. In 2012, the then Orlando Magic center underwent a procedure to repair a herniated disk which ended his season and took him out of Summer Olympics (London) participation. 

The veteran now deals with a slow recovery process before returning to basketball activities. 

Right now, the only I can do for rehab is just walk. Anybody who has had back surgery, they understand that. You know, for the first month and a half, you can't lift weights. You can't run. You can't do anything but basically walk. 

Howard plans to remain in Atlanta for rehab. Three weeks ago, Washington said it would re-evaluate Howard after two or three months. 

"Every day I try to sit down, and you know, spend at least an hour visualizing, you know, getting healthy, but also returning to the court."

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Wizards fold late, fall to Trae Young and Hawks in Trevor Ariza's debut

Wizards fold late, fall to Trae Young and Hawks in Trevor Ariza's debut

The Washington Wizards lost to the Atlanta Hawks 118-110 on Tuesday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. When the Wizards smashed the Lakers on Sunday night and John Wall dropped 40 points, the team's social media naysayers collectively yawned, 'Let's see them do the same against Atlanta on Tuesday.' Sure enough, those people were right.

Wall and the Wizards did not bring anything close to the same energy against Atlanta that they had vs. L.A. Because the Hawks are terrible, the Wizards were able to hang around until the fourth quarter, but Atlanta pulled away with 36 points in the final frame.

There was plenty not to like about this game from the Wizards' side of things. They shot just 33.3 percent from three (13-for-39) and missed 11 of their 36 free throw attempts.

Wall had one of his worst games. He shot just 33.3 percent from the field and went 3-for-11 from three to the tune of 15 points and six assists. He played only 26 minutes due to foul trouble.

It wasn't as lopsided as their worst defeats this season, but this ranks up there with some of the Wizards' most inexcusable losses of the year so far. Even after making trades to shuffle their bench and team chemistry, the results remain the same. They let a bad team sneak up on them once again.

2. Trevor Ariza made his debut and essentially picked up right where he left off in 2014. He ended up with 19 points, eight rebounds, four assists and six steals, making a noticeable impact on both ends of the floor. His six steals tied a career-high.

Ariza went 4-for-11 from three with just about all of them on wide-open looks. Ariza was excellent  in his last tenure in D.C. at drifting away from the defense and making them pay from beyond the arc. Wall and Bradley Beal seemed to remember that, as they consistently found him for outside shots. 

The Wizards' overall defensive effort was up-and-down, as they allowed 35 points in the first quarter and 118 for the game. But Ariza was mostly not to blame, as he played smart and measured defense. With the exception of an early play where Kent Bazemore hit an open three, he did a good job closing out on perimeter shots.

The trade of Kelly Oubre Jr. for Ariza may ultimately prove short-sighted, and many fans seem to strongly disagree with the decision. But those are the things we should see over the course of the season that show why Ariza could be an upgrade in the short-term. He will play solid, structured defense with few mistakes or lapses in focus.

3. The fans who paid the price of admission in Atlanta to watch the referees go to work got their money's worth. It was hard to hear Steve Buckhantz with all the whistles.

Seriously, there were so many fouls. The two teams combined for 61 of them. Four Hawks players had four fouls or more and four Wizards players had five or more. That included Markieff Morris, who fouled out in only 17 minutes.

Even clean plays were fouls, like this one. Jeff Green got way up to deny Alex Len, only to have a foul called.

4. Otto Porter Jr. remains out with a right knee contusion, making this the fourth straight game he has missed. He hasn't missed five consecutive games since his rookie year.

With Porter out, head coach Scott Brooks rolled with Jeff Green to start alongside Ariza. Ariza is slated to be in the lineup moving forward, so that pushed out Satoransky, who had made eight straight starts.

Satoransky ended up playing mostly as a backup shooting guard with Sam Dekker at small forward. Chasson Randle, who was recently brought back on a non-guaranteed contract, backed up Wall at point guard. Though that may have had something to do with his defensive matchup on Trae Young, it was surprising.

Ian Mahinmi also got some burn after three straight DNP-CDs. That may have been due to the presence of Len, who is a lot to handle for small-ball fives.

Speaking of big men, Dwight Howard made an appearance on Tuesday. He didn't play, but sat on the bench with the team for the first time since his back surgery.

5. All of those lineup mentions should highlight one notable exclusion. That is Troy Brown Jr., who continues to be on the outside of the rotation looking in. Even with Porter out and Oubre now gone, Brown isn't in the mix.

Brown's inability to get playing time remains a head-scratcher. Yeah, he can't shoot, but he can do so many other things, things that the Wizards need. Whenever he gets spot minutes, he contributes with his passing, rebounding and defense. 

The fact he isn't playing a lot could be expected, as he was drafted outside the lottery by a deep, veteran team. But to not play at all, even when injuries pave the way? That's tough to understand.

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