The UCLA Bruins could go 13-0 this season and be left out of the BCS Championship if Alabama and Ohio State have the same record.
Blame preseason polls.
Alabama and Ohio State will likely be ranked near the top of the preseason polls, while UCLA will be lucky to break the Top 20. Many pundits have already predicted an Alabama-Ohio State BCS Championship game matchup. They hate to be wrong.
USC's lofty No. 1 preseason ranking in 2012 was predictable. Its final 7-6 record was not. Trojans fans were embarrassed. So was the media.
CBS Sports projects Alabama vs. Ohio State in the BCS Championship game. So does Phil Steele. It is fun to try to predict who will play whom in the title game, but the repercussions are severe for teams that do not get the same benefit of doubt as Alabama or Ohio State.
It is all about a football program's perceived reputation. Alabama has a great one. So do USC and Ohio State. Oregon and Stanford have good reputations, but they're still trying to crack into the same elite statuses of the other three teams.
That is a shame, because if Alabama, Ohio State and UCLA do end up with identical records, Ohio State—based on its soft schedule—should play in the Rose Bowl instead of the BCS title game.
Stanford and Oregon, like UCLA, will have to suffer the consequences of Pac-12 bias.
Alabama's strength of schedule (SOS) is No. 40, according to Phil Steele. Ohio State's is No. 67, UCLA's is No. 20, Stanford's is No. 8 and Oregon's is No. 58. Two Pac-12 teams have top-20 schedules. If they were playing in the SEC, they would probably receive more respect from pollsters.
The SEC has lobbied pollsters for its teams in the past. In 2007, LSU head coach Les Miles talked about the "tougher road" SEC teams have. He and his wife also successfully argued that an undefeated record in regulation should count in the polls. SEC coaches are masters of manipulation.
If another team has a stronger SOS and the same overall record as the SEC champion, shouldn't it get a higher ranking? Who has the tougher path?
A closer look at Ohio State, Alabama, UCLA, Stanford and Oregon's schedules might help answer those questions.
Of Ohio State's 10 BCS team opponents, four had winning records in 2012: Wisconsin, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan. It plays four bowl teams: San Diego State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan. Northwestern is its only opponent who had 10 or more wins last season. The Buckeyes play five BCS teams on the road: Cal, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan.
Ohio State avoids Legends champion Nebraska and gets Wisconsin at home. It also didn't draw Michigan State but plays rival Michigan at Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes play one BCS bowl opponent—Wisconsin.
Alabama plays nine BCS teams, five of whom had winning records last season: Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU and Mississippi State. It also plays one FCS team (Chattanooga), one new FBS member (the Sun Belt's Georgia State) and the Mountain West's Colorado State. The Crimson Tide play four BCS teams on the road: Texas A&M, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn. They also play Virginia Tech at a neutral venue.
Alabama avoided drawing the SEC East's three top teams: Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Two of Alabama's opponents—Texas A&M and LSU—had 10 or more wins last season. It plays at Texas A&M and gets LSU at home. LSU lost 25-24 to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and Texas A&M beat Oklahoma 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Alabama does not play any BCS bowl teams.
Of UCLA's 10 BCS team opponents, seven had winning records: Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona, Washington, Arizona State and USC. It plays eight bowl teams and six BCS teams on the road: Nebraska, Utah, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona and USC.
UCLA, unlike Ohio State or Alabama, plays three non-conference games a year. Big Ten and SEC teams play four. UCLA plays the top two Pac-12 teams—Stanford and Oregon—in back-to-back weeks on the road. Stanford beat Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl game and Oregon beat Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Oregon plays 11 BCS teams, two of them non-conference opponents. Five of its 11 BCS team opponents had winning records. Two of its non-conference opponents are Virginia and Tennessee. Oregon plays one BCS bowl team—Stanford.
Stanford plays 10 BCS teams: Arizona State, Washington State, Washington, Utah, UCLA, Oregon State, Oregon, USC, Cal and Notre Dame. It plays two BCS bowl teams—Oregon and Notre Dame—in November.
Of the five teams, only Stanford and UCLA do not play an FCS team. Oregon plays Nicholls State, Alabama plays Chattanooga and Ohio State plays Florida A&M.
UCLA and Stanford will have the toughest road to the title game if Steele's SOS rankings hold true. Stanford will probably break into the AP's Top 25 preseason rankings, but UCLA is a question mark.
Polls are based on subjective analysis, and that does not help UCLA, especially in preseason polls. Last year Alabama was ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll. After beating Michigan 41-14 in its season opener, Alabama was ranked No. 1 the following week. Its reputation—and rightly so—heavily influenced pollsters.
Notre Dame was not ranked in the AP's preseason Top 25 poll. After beating Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, the Fighting Irish had not cracked the AP's Top 10 rankings in Week 5. The disparity in the polls was obvious. Pollsters were hesitant to put Notre Dame near the top of the rankings because of its perception as an overrated football program.
Only after posting a 12-0 record and beating USC in its last game of the regular season did Notre Dame snatch that No. 1 ranking. If No. 1 Alabama hadn't lost to Texas A&M, No. 2 Kansas State hadn't lost to Baylor and No. 1 Oregon hadn't lost to Stanford, undefeated Notre Dame would probably have not played Alabama in the title game.
UCLA could be the Pac-12's version of Notre Dame. It won't get a lot of respect because, like Notre Dame, it has underachieved for so many years. UCLA will not be ranked highly in the preseason polls. Like Notre Dame last year, the Bruins will have to fight their way up in the rankings. They will also be dependent on two top-ranked teams with soft schedules to drop a game if they have an undefeated record.
The College Football Playoff in 2014 will solve part of the problem, but it too has an inherent problem—the top four teams are decided by pollsters.
Until the Pac-12 gets more hype by pollsters, plays more games in better Saturday time slots and gets more love from the likes of ESPN, its higher-tiered, undefeated teams will not be able to control their own destiny. USC is the lone exception.
Pac-12 coaches need to start being more aggressive in lobbying for their teams. It's hard to visualize Stanford head coach David Shaw doing that because it is just not his style. But if Stanford wants to be a big boy in college football—it's very close—it is going to have to be more aggressive in marketing itself in post-game press conferences. The same goes for Oregon and UCLA.
Alabama and Ohio State have the proverbial conn as they power their way through the calm waters of their schedules. Pac-12 teams will be trying to keep their heads above water.
This year the tide may turn, but don't count on it.