The halfway point of the college football season is when conference races begin to get interesting.
They're of particular interest in Missouri, Tennessee and Clemson, S.C., where championship aspirations might have seemed far-fetched in August but don't appear too far off in October.
The Tigers (Missouri) are in the thick of the Big 12 North race, while the Volunteers are contending in the Southeastern Conference East Division. The Tigers from Clemson are looking strong in the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division.
Appearances can be deceiving, however.
Are those teams achievers or deceivers? Reading on may provide some clues.
Do you think Missouri has a chance to win the Big 12 this season? Where do you think they will be ranked at the end of the season?
-- Garry, F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming
Maybe all the way to the Fiesta Bowl.
Rivals.com named Missouri the surprise team at the halfway mark this season, but perhaps the Tigers' 6-0 start shouldn't have been such a shocker. Yeah, they lost record-setting quarterback Brad Smith, but nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters returned from a team that went 7-5 and won the Independence Bowl last season.
The Tigers are definitely making a run at winning the Big 12 North Division. Back-to-back games against Oklahoma on Oct. 28 and against Nebraska in Lincoln on Nov. 4 will determine whether Missouri will reach the Big 12 championship game for the first time.
If Missouri gets there, you have to figure the Tigers have some kind of home field advantage with the championship game in Kansas City this year.
Considering the way Missouri's defense has played (11th nationally, allowing 255 yards per game) and how quarterback Chase Daniel has performed (completing 64.3 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns) the Tigers cannot be overlooked.
However, at this point I'd still expect Texas to win the Big 12 championship.
One more thing, Garry. Thank you for courageously serving our country.
Is this Missouri team better statistically right now than the Missouri team that played against BYU in that bowl game in the 1980s?
-- Robert in Kirksville, Mo.
The numbers indicate that this Missouri team is better.
With a little help from Chad Moller in the Missouri Sports Information Department, we found that after six games in 1983 – when the 7-5 Tigers lost to BYU in the Holiday Bowl – Missouri averaged 371.8 yards on offense and were allowing an average of 287.8 on defense.
This season the Tigers are averaging 423.8 yards on offense and allowing just 255 yards.
Also in 1983, the Tigers scored 282 points and allowed 202 for the entire season. So far this season, Missouri has scored 205 points and allowed just 72. At its current pace Missouri would finish with 410 points and allow 144.
Furthermore, the leading rusher for the '83 Tigers was Eric Drain (684) yards, the leading receiver was George Shorthose (32 catches, 483 yards) and quarterback Marlon Adler threw for 1,603 yards.
With at least six games to go, this year's top rusher Tony Temple already has 563 yards. The leader receiver is William Franklin with 29 catches for 484 yards and quarterback Chase Daniel has already thrown for 1,446 yards.
What do you think are Tennessee's chances of winning the SEC East and getting to the SEC championship game?
--Hayden in Knoxville
Tennessee is one point short of being a championship team. That 21-20 loss to Florida on Sept. 16 likely doomed the Vols' championship aspirations.
That in essence put Tennessee two games behind Florida, meaning the Gators would have to lose twice in SEC play and Tennessee would have to run the table for the Vols to reach the SEC title game.
Both could happen, but neither is likely. Florida has back-to-back games against Auburn and Georgia, but the Bulldogs haven't played well of late.
Tennessee, meanwhile, still has Alabama, LSU and Arkansas remaining - among others.
Should the Volunteers close with six consecutive victories and finish 11-1 they will have proved themselves to be of championship caliber. But that loss to Florida will keep them from being champions.
Where would you rank Erik Ainge among college quarterbacks in the country? What are your thoughts on his improvements from a disastrous sophomore year?
-- Greg in China Grove, N.C.
If college football presented a comeback player of the year, Erik Ainge would be an overwhelming choice.
Last year Ainge was in and out of the lineup and completed only 45.5 percent of his passes for just 737 yards and five touchdowns with seven interceptions.
This season he has a 69.0 completion percentage and has thrown for 1,657 yards and 14 touchdowns against just five interceptions to rank sixth nationally in passing efficiency.
Also keep in mind that Ainge has done this against a schedule that includes California, Florida and Georgia, all ranked among the top 16 teams in the latest Associated Press poll.
Working with offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has obviously been a major reason for Ainge's improvement, but don't discount the fact that he's a junior now and quarterbacks usually get better with age.
If he continues his current level of play, Ainge will be listed among Heisman Trophy contenders in 2007. Just being part of that conversation will be an amazing accomplishment considering how he struggled a year ago.
Why is it that Clemson, no matter what we do or who we beat or how bad we beat them, we never get respect. Granted, we don't win championships every year, but we came close last year and we have a shot this year, but still no respect.
--Aaron in Mauldin, S.C.
You answered your question in your second sentence. Clemson doesn't get the respect you feel it deserves because the Tigers haven't won a championship since 1991 – and that season the Tigers lost their bowl game.
The national perception of Clemson is a team that's always talented, but tends to play to its competition and will always lose a game or two it's expected to win.
Let's see … that overtime loss to Boston College on Sept. 9 comes to mind.
Even though Clemson has had more than its share of injuries – particularly on defense – the Tigers have the talent to win the rest of their games and possibly win the ACC Atlantic Division if they get a little help.
At the same time, it would surprise no one if Clemson lost to Georgia Tech on Oct. 21, Virginia Tech on Oct. 26, North Carolina State on Nov. 11 or South Carolina on Sept. 25.
By the way, Clemson was my preseason pick to win the ACC, so I respect you.
Do you think it's time to worry at Ole Miss, or do you think this talent that (coach Ed) Orgeron is assembling will show up soon?
-- Phillip in Trussville, Ala.
Rivals.com rated Ole Miss' 2006 recruiting class No. 16 in the nation, which shows that Orgeron can attract high-level players. Coach O was also the recruiting coordinator for Southern Cal's Class of 2003 – the best class in the Rivals.com era.
Don't be discouraged by the Rebels' 2-4 record. Although junior Brent Schaeffer was a big reason Ole Miss' class was rated so high, most of those players were freshmen.
A good class usually doesn't start paying dividends until at least one year after it has signed, so the Rebels didn't figure to be too competitive in the SEC West race this year.
The key for Orgeron is to start putting strong classes together back-to-back, and that appears to be happening. Ole Miss has 18 commitments in its 2007 class which is currently ranked No. 4 nationally by Rivals.com.
The rankings will fluctuate, but the Ole Miss list of commitments includes seven four-star recruits. Orgeron is obviously upgrading the talent level, but it may not be until 2008 or 2009 before it begins translating to more victories.
Why are two players on the Trojans wearing the same number? (John David) Booty is No. 10, but so is a defensive player.
--Molly in Los Angeles
It's actually quite common.
Players can share a number as long as they're not on the field at the same time, which explains why USC quarterback John David Booty and linebacker Brian Cushing both wear No. 10.
Rosters typically include more than 100 players, which makes number sharing a necessity. That's also the reason more teams have stopped retiring numbers of legendary players and instead have opted to retire their jersey.
Riddell has been the standard for helmets for years. I've noticed a lot of teams this year (like Washington State) are wearing a new brand of helmet. Can you tell me who makes it and any more information about it?
-- Jim in Corona, Cal.
Washington State has been using both Riddell and Schutt helmets for several years. Most of the players still wear Riddell helmets, but some prefer the Schutt models. Schutt, which is located in Salem, Ill., boasts that: it is the helmet of choice for the SEC; 11 of the last 14 Heisman winners wore Schutt helmets; and 21 of the last 22 national champions wore Schutt headgear.
Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.