When the first official BCS standings come out next Sunday, the suspense will involve the identity of the No. 2 team. It could be Oregon—which won impressively again—or the winner of next Saturday's Clemson-Florida State showdown. But who's No. 1 will not be in doubt.
But why should Alabama automatically be slotted into the top spot?
In this, the final year of the BCS era, the answer is simple: Until the Tide lose a game, no one else will have a chance to occupy the top of the BCS standings. They own the narrative, and therefore, they own the votes.
Alabama certainly has won enough on the field to warrant the preferential treatment, but it also owes a big thanks to the successful decade-long effort by the SEC to master the BCS.
Consider this: In both of the past two seasons, Alabama was chosen among a group of one-loss teams to play in the BCS National Championship Game against an undefeated foe. And the Tide were picked at the end because they spent most of the season at No. 1.
The top-ranked team always gets more benefit of the doubt from the poll voters, and in the BCS era after 2004, the polls always decided which teams play in the title game. Since the adoption of the current BCS formula nine years ago, every team that finished either first or second in the final polls played for the title. The computer rankings were completely irrelevant. (See BCS Guru for standings archives.)
And while Nick Saban has been brilliant both as a recruiter and a tactician, his scheduling has been just as effective. The Tide basically get three byes a year in their four nonconference games, and with Tennessee in a prolonged slump, they are also blessed with a softer SEC schedule than their rivals'.
This is what Alabama faced in the regular season, outside of SEC West, in the three years it won BCS titles:
- 2009: Chattanooga (FCS), North Texas (2-10), FIU (3-9), Kentucky (7-6), Tennessee (7-6), South Carolina (7-6), Virginia Tech (10-3)
- 2011: Georgia Southern (FCS), Kent State (5-7), North Texas (5-7), Tennessee (5-7), Vanderbilt (6-7), Florida (7-6), Penn State (9-4)
- 2012: Western Carolina (FCS), FAU (3-9), Tennessee (5-7), Missouri (5-7), WKU (7-6), Michigan (8-5)
- 2013: Chattanooga (FCS), Georgia State (0-6), Colorado State (2-4), Kentucky (1-5), Tennessee (3-3), Virginia Tech (6-1)
The scheduling aspect cannot be overlooked because it affords Alabama an easier path to finish the season in the top two spots in the final BCS standings.
In the three years the Tide won BCS titles, they played only five teams with 10 or more wins in the regular season and went 3-2. But here's the kicker: Alabama was third in the computer rankings in both the '11 and '12 final BCS standings yet managed to finish second to squeak into the title game.
The reason? The voters love Alabama. In each of the last four seasons (including 2010, when it didn't win the title), Alabama opened the season as the top-ranked team in the simulated BCS standings, according to BCS Guru. And they've never ranked lower than fourth at any point from 2011-13, even immediately after a loss.
That trend is almost certainly to continue. Now that Stanford has dropped from the ranks of the unbeaten and either Clemson or Florida State must lose next week, don't be surprised if the Tide end up back in the BCS title game even with a loss once again.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said after his Ducks routed Washington for a 10th straight year that his team isn't all that concerned about rankings, for now.
"We're not trying to make any statements," Helfrich said of Oregon's 45-24 thrashing of the 16th-ranked Huskies, via USA Today's George Schroeder. "We're just trying to beat ourselves, day after day. We always say, 'It's you vs. yesterday.'"
The Ducks, or anybody else, had better "win the day" every day if they want to play for the national championship. If the voters have to choose a one-loss team for a spot in the title game, they'll pick Alabama.
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