Earlier this week my colleague Andrew Coppens opined that Ohio State needs significant help to make the BCS Championship. While one cannot help but agree with that assessment, it also begs the question of what it would take for the other undefeated Big Ten football team (Michigan) to make that same BCS Championship in Pasadena.
On its face, that concept may seem laughable after the Wolverines struggled to defeat Akron and Connecticut in September. But digging a bit deeper reveals a shocking fact: Michigan may actually have an easier road to the BCS Championship than Ohio State.
Shocked? Confused? Incredulous?
Let's take a look at why the Wolverines have much more going for them than the Buckeyes when looking at the BCS Championship chase.
Fair warning: This analysis is going to be deep and detailed. Grab a coffee, stay a while.
I. Michigan has a more impressive closing schedule
First, both these teams will struggle based on a national perception that the Big Ten conference is one of the weakest of the major conferences.
One recent metric released is the ESPN league rankings, which puts the Big Ten in a close heat for fourth-best conference with the Big 12 (the SEC, ACC, and Pac-12 are all well ahead of both). That means an undefeated champion of any of these conferences, perhaps even the Big 12, would be viewed as having survived a tougher gauntlet than the Buckeyes or Wolverines.
But while Ohio State will struggle to match impressive games and victories with the top players in the other conferences down the stretch, Michigan actually has a strong back-loaded schedule.
While Ohio State is currently projected by CBS Sports as fifth in the BCS Standings, the Buckeyes have won arguably the toughest two games on the schedule against Wisconsin and Northwestern the last two weekends. That means the Buckeyes will be disregarded for most of the following eight weeks when better games are happening for other top BCS championship contenders.
It may be a cute irony that Ohio State is the only team bowl eligible after six weeks of the season (the other 16 undefeated teams are only 4-0 or 5-0) a year after being ineligible, but that also means OSU has two byes in the final eight weekends. Meanwhile, these other contenders will be playing more games and making more positive impressions if they keep on winning.
Ohio State's remaining schedule includes home games against Iowa, Penn State and Indiana, as well as road games against Purdue, Illinois and Michigan. Only the Wolverines are nationally-ranked, although a second nationally-ranked opponent would be likely in the Big Ten Championship the following weekend.
Still, that's not much significant competition for a team trying to win style points in a scrum for the top two spots in the BCS standings.
By comparison, Michigan faces a potential murderer's row, and seven games instead of six. Road games at Penn State and Michigan State will command some respect despite neither team being ranked, and road games at nationally-ranked Northwestern and Iowa in back-to-back weeks will be tough as well.
The home schedule features one potential stinker in Indiana, and two huge games against Nebraska (which should be nationally ranked again by then) and Ohio State. Then consider that Michigan would need to knock off Northwestern on the road and Ohio State twice in the span of the final four weeks of the season. It becomes easy to see how the Wolverines could shoot up the rankings with strong performances in the closing stretch.
In fact, should the Buckeyes and Wolverines be undefeated heading into the game in Ann Arbor, the hype will match or perhaps even exceed the expected hype of games between Stanford and Oregon and between Florida State and Clemson.
Handing Urban Meyer his first two losses would be an impressive feat that not many teams could match in the nation. It would be a rocket booster to lift the Wolverines in the rankings at the end of the season.
II. Michigan actually does not need much more help from other teams than OSU
Secondly, Michigan does not actually need a significant amount of help beyond what Ohio State already needs to get to Pasadena. Let's take a brief look at each national title contender and whether they fit into three categories: teams that OSU and UM cannot catch if undefeated, teams that only OSU would pass if undefeated, and teams that OSU and UM jump in front of if undefeated.
Teams That Likely Stay Ahead of OSU and UM if Undefeated
1. Alabama - Remaining schedule includes Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State, Chattanooga, Auburn and the SEC Championship. Although only LSU and a potential game against Georgia or South Carolina are impressive, starting at the top means the Crimson Tide would not fall behind OSU or Michigan if undefeated.
2. Oregon - For the Ducks, the remaining schedule includes road games at Washington and Stanford along with a home game against UCLA. That plus a rematch against UCLA or Arizona State in a conference championship means an undefeated Ducks team would remain above both OSU and Michigan.
3. Stanford - Although the Cardinal get every good game at home this year (Washington last weekend, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame in coming weeks), those latter three games would be enough to likely propel Stanford past OSU should both be undefeated. Obviously an undefeated Stanford would also stay in front of Michigan as well.
4. Clemson - The Tigers already have a win over Georgia and will also play Florida State and South Carolina plus a potential ACC championship versus Virginia Tech or Miami. Win all of those games and it will be difficult to keep Clemson behind either OSU or Michigan.
5. Florida State - If crushing nationally-ranked Maryland 63-0 was not impressive enough, the Seminoles will win tons of style points and poll votes if the gauntlet of Clemson, Miami, Florida and the ACC championship is survived. The win over Clemson would vault FSU above both OSU and Michigan for the rest of the season.
All but one of these teams need to lose in order for either potential Big Ten champion to jump into the top two in the final BCS Standings. Thus, the fortunes of these teams matter equally to Michigan and Ohio State.
Teams That OSU Stays Ahead Of but Michigan Cannot Jump if Undefeated
1. UCLA - The other remaining unbeaten in Pac-12 play is the Bruins, but games against Oregon and Stanford remain on the schedule. Those wins would be enough to stay well ahead of Michigan but probably are not quite enough to jump the Buckeyes.
2. Miami - Although the Hurricanes do not play Clemson in the regular season, Florida State is on the schedule. This means the Hurricanes would need to defeat Virginia Tech, FSU and then FSU again or Clemson in the ACC Championship. Like UCLA, that would stay ahead of Michigan but probably not jump Ohio State
3. Oklahoma and 4. Baylor - Both of these potential Big 12 champions are ahead of Michigan in the projected BCS Standings linked above, and Baylor will rise like a rocket if it continues to blow away teams and score 70 points per game. Oklahoma has quietly put together a solid start and still has big name games left against Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor.
5. Louisville - The Cardinals have been mauling the competition for the most part, but there is simply not an impressive game left on the schedule unless one counts currently-undefeated Houston. Thus, Louisville will not be able to jump the Buckeyes considering the similar credentials and star playmakers at quarterback for both teams. Michigan is too far behind to catch up, though.
6. Missouri - Yes, of course it is unlikely that the Tigers go undefeated and win the SEC. However, Texas A&M surprised everyone a season ago so it cannot be counted out. If that happens, Missouri will jump Michigan based on the name power of the SEC. Ohio State could likely hold off the Tigers, though.
Considering the tough grind in the Pac-12, ACC, SEC and Big 12, it seems unlikely that any team outside of Louisville will remain undefeated on this list. With that in mind, Michigan really only needs one upset of Louisville to be in the same general position as the Buckeyes at the end of the season.
Teams That OSU and UM Jump Past if Undefeated
1. Fresno State - Minor conference teams do not trump Big Ten champions when undefeated.
2. Houston - Essentially the same problem as Fresno State.
3. Northern Illinois - Exactly the same as Fresno State.
4. Texas Tech - The Red Raiders are climbing from the same low position Missouri is, but, unfortunately, the Big 12 is no SEC. Therefore, Michigan would win the battle of name brands with Texas Tech if both go undefeated. Ohio State obviously stays ahead.
5. One-Loss SEC Champion (Alabama, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, Florida, Texas A&M) - This will likely be controversial, but a debate between an undefeated team like Michigan or Ohio State and a one-loss SEC team likely goes to the Big Ten champion.
The SEC can show off the last seven championships and use them to win out over any one-loss team, but the precedent has not yet been set for a one-loss SEC champion beating out an undefeated major conference champion. That's likely one step too far and the voters around the country would revolt, just like the movement against the OSU-Michigan rematch in 2006.
None of these teams should be a concern if the Big Ten champion is undefeated. Thus, to Michigan, the fates of these teams are irrelevant just like they are to the Buckeyes.
In conclusion, assuming everything holds roughly to form, the only team that likely finishes undefeated and makes life more troubling for Michigan than Ohio State is Louisville. In other words, the Wolverines are 15 spots behind in the polls, yet one upset away from being on effectively equal footing with their rival in the championship chase.
III. If Notre Dame can do it, so can Michigan
Longtime fans and admirers of college football remember when Notre Dame was great on a national level. Most of those fans agree that whether you love the Irish or hate them, having Notre Dame in the national championship makes things much more interesting than otherwise.
Thus, even though Notre Dame struggled through most of last season and looked like a reincarnation of the 2002 Buckeyes (the "Luckeyes" if you will), Notre Dame easily finished No. 1 in the country when it finally went undefeated again for the first time since 1988. This was the first time the Irish were on the big stage since about 1993.
Michigan carries almost as much name power and nearly the same drought as Notre Dame did. Although the Wolverines narrowly missed out on the BCS Championship in 2006, the Wolverines have not won a national title or competed for one other than that year since 1997. That predates the BCS!
Consequently, a late-season run by the Michigan Wolverines will carry much of the same historical and name brand appeal as Notre Dame did last year. Sure, the Irish had flaws that were exposed even more so by Alabama (and Michigan may be in the same boat with those offensive and defensive lines), but an undefeated Michigan team will not be ignored.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has been in the national spotlight for over the past decade, for better or for worse. The Buckeyes may have gotten the SEC bowl game monkey off their back in the now-vacated win over Arkansas, but the stigma of losing to that conference in the BCS Championship remains from 2006 and 2007. That works against OSU, even with Urban Meyer at the helm.
College football fans and poll voters love a good story. What better story could you write than Michigan, a team scorned by the BCS in the only real opportunity it has had in the past 15 years to play for a title, getting a chance to stop the SEC run that started when Florida jumped Michigan that year?
The answer: No story would be better.
The odds may be long that Michigan runs the table and makes the BCS Championship, but the odds are not significantly longer than those faced by Ohio State. With all of these factors coming into Michigan's favor, the outlook is a lot better than expected for a team that struggled to defeat lowly Akron and Connecticut in September.
Thankfully, September is a long time from when BCS voters and computer rankings actually matter. The end of the season is much more important in the BCS beauty contest, and the Wolverines have plenty of firepower and time left to make the all-important final impressions.
With a loss by Louisville, it is not a stretch to say Michigan is just as well-positioned as Ohio State to win a national title. That is good news for the Big Ten, which needs positive press and good publicity to turn things around.
Tell me what you think of Michigan's BCS Championship hopes and how they match up with Ohio State in the comments below. I look forward to seeing my argument dissected by Buckeye Nation and elsewhere, as debate is the spice of life in this sport.
Thanks for reading! David is the Featured Columnist for Big Ten football and can be followed on Twitter for more debate and commentary, especially on Saturdays. See you later in the week with more analysis and coverage.