Taking stock of a team's BCS resume in late October feels a little bit like judging a bikini contest with the bathrobes still on. Sure, we've seen enough of the teams to understand who the frontrunners might be, but there's still plenty to reveal.
At 5-2, some Notre Dame fans are wondering why the Irish aren't ranked. Playing the schedule the Irish have played, two respectable losses (there's no shame losing to Michigan or Oklahoma, at least on paper), it's not hard to argue that the Irish aren't one of the top 25 teams in the country. But with postseason options that are basically BCS or bust, there's plenty of work Notre Dame needs to do to get back into the BCS.
Let's take a closer look at the three-step roadmap to the Irish securing a BCS bid.
STEP ONE: WATCH THE OTHER TEAMS LOSE
It's hard to gripe too much about the Irish's lot in life when the only three ranked teams with two losses are from the mighty SEC. LSU, currently 13th, still needs to play Alabama. Texas A&M travels to play LSU (somebody's leaving with three loses), then follows that up with a date at Missouri. South Carolina plays Missouri this Saturday, Florida in a few weeks and closes with Clemson. Consider attrition all but guaranteed from that group. (It could also signal the beginning of the end for Missouri, who might have peaked early at No. 5.)
Now take into consideration that large batch of one-loss teams. Kudos to Gus Malzahn and his work with Auburn, but there's a lot of meat left on that scheduling bone, including an Iron Bowl date with some coach named Nick Saban. UCLA heads to Eugene this weekend, where they're more than three touchdown underdogs. There's not a ton of faith in Virginia Tech, who still need to take on Miami. The Hokies might have played their most impressive game in a 25-point loss to Alabama and won't likely be an at-large darling. Oklahoma rightfully holds the tiebreaker on Notre Dame, but has three games against ranked opponents left. The same goes for Oklahoma State. Louisville might have some selling to do thanks to their paper thin schedule and might struggle to state their case if UCF continues to win (George O'Leary's team has a sneaky good resume with only a three-point loss to South Carolina.)
Of course, one big weekend in college football shakes these rankings up again. And in an era where non-conference games are often used to chalk up free early wins, the meat of the schedule is finally approaching most teams, leaving the Irish in a somewhat enviable position where they simply need to take care of business and watch the carnage.
STEP TWO: UNDERSTAND THE SYSTEM
Under BCS rules, Notre Dame automatically qualifies if they make it to the top eight. That's not likely to happen. Non-AQ teams get an automatic invite if they're ranked in the top 12, or inside the top 16 and ranked better than an automatic qualifier.
Looking at this in simpler terms, there are ten spots for BCS Bowls. We know that the champions of the ACC, AAC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC all get in. We also know that no conference can get more than two teams into the BCS. So let's start making some assumptions as we push the pieces around a little bit to see what happens.
Assumption One: Two SEC teams in the BCS, one in the Championship.
For seven straight years, the SEC has won the BCS National Championship game. It's also been that long since the SEC didn't have two teams in the pool.
Assumption Two: There's only room for one Dark Horse.
While both Northern Illinois and Fresno State are both on course for dream seasons, consider the BCS a little bit like Highlander: There can be only one.
It's hard out there for non-AQ teams, and after Northern Illinois laid an egg against Florida State last year, you should be skeptical that they'll find themselves sitting at the cool kids table in back-to-back seasons. Fresno State looks like they have the inside track for gate crashing, with their two one-point wins against Rutgers and Boise State looking good enough. Things get mighty tight down the stretch for little schools trying to run the gauntlet, but keeping an eye on the little guy is key to Notre Dame's ability to slide into a back-door bid.
Assumption Three: Conference Championship games are nice for wallets, not so nice on second BCS bids.
With the exception of the SEC, the conference championship games that the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 now play have unintended consequences. It lets a regular season runner-up hop in front of a championship game loser. We've seen multi-loss division leaders like UCLA and Wisconsin (with an assist thanks to NCAA sanctions) get a chance to play for an auto-BCS bid.
But with the Big 12 and Notre Dame watching that final weekend as conference coffers get fattened, they'll also watch four good football teams get chopped down in a weekend that works as a de facto playoff.
Assumption Four: Only No. 1 vs. No. 2 is a priority. The rest of it is a beauty pageant.
The system was designed to pit No. 1 vs. No. 2. After that? It's an ugly marriage between tradition and commerce. Natural relationships still exist: The Rose Bowl hosts the Big Ten and Pac-12 if neither team qualifies for a title shot. The Orange Bowl keeps the ACC, the SEC heads to the Sugar Bowl and the Big 12 plays in the Fiesta Bowl.
After the bowls get their chance to replace a team that's playing for the title, it's a bit of a free-for-all, with the rules technically allowing things to get crazy, including a provision that allows the "financial impact on ESPN" to actually be taken into consideration.
In this case, it's good news for Notre Dame. Because nobody does better at traveling and drawing eyeballs than Notre Dame.
STEP THREE: WIN OUT AND BEAT STANFORD
All those words you read above this? They don't matter if Notre Dame loses another game. That means taking care of business against the service academies. It means going to Pittsburgh and beating a team that nearly ruined the Irish's dream season. It means beating a BYU team that laid it on Texas. And it also means heading to Palo Alto on Thanksgiving weekend and beating Stanford.
It looked like the Irish were all but doomed to come up short against the all-powerful Cardinal, who up until two weeks ago looked like a team that could mount a legitimate challenge against Alabama. But a shocking loss to Utah, and an offense that seems to have gone off the tracks, makes David Shaw's team far more vulnerable than any Irish fan expected.
Also helping the Irish's mojo is the quiet run Notre Dame has gone on. Beating Arizona State looks better every week. The defensive renaissance in the second half against USC gives fans faith that Bob Diaco's unit is coming around. The Irish will need to survive this weekend without Louis Nix and get by without starting right guard Christian Lombard, but the table is set for a one-game playoff where a 9-2 Irish team heads into their final game playing for a spot in the BCS.
But all that looking down the road gets mighty dangerous. Especially when there's over a month of football left on the schedule.
Besides, didn't I hear something about a bikini contest?