Only four weeks are left in college football's BCS era. While an Alabama-Florida State BCS championship game is looking increasingly inevitable, strange things could still happen to derail this now much-anticipated matchup.
In fact, something already has.
The newly surfaced investigation into quarterback Jameis Winston's role in a year-old sexual assault case is casting a shadow on the Seminoles. While we absolutely need to stress that Winston has not even been questioned, let alone charged, it will nevertheless create a distraction for the team until it's completely resolved.
There are other subplots as well, as besides the BCS championship game, four other BCS bowl games with eight spots will be up for grabs. Taking everything into consideration, here are the 10 games that most likely will shape the final BCS bowl season.
The winner of the Michigan State-Nebraska game will almost assuredly face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Spartans and Cornhuskers have represented the Legends Division in the first two conference title games, and whoever wins this game should continue that trend.
The Buckeyes probably have a preference: A one-loss Michigan State team in the title game, possibly ranked in the top 10, will greatly help Ohio State to burnish its resume.
Stanford might have derailed Oregon's national title quest, but the Cardinal have BCS ambitions of their own. As the highest-ranked one-loss team in the BCS standings, Stanford has a slim chance of getting into its first BCS title game. More realistically, it's looking to lock up a second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.
The Cardinal can get most of the way there with a fifth straight victory over USC, which is on the rebound after the early-season firing of coach Lane Kiffin. Under interim Ed Orgeron, the Trojans have won each of their four Pac-12 games and can re-emerge as a contender in the Pac-12 South with an upset at the sold-out L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
Northern Illinois passed its first major test on Wednesday, scoring three late touchdowns to defeat Ball State. The Huskies will have to do it all over again next Wednesday if they want to keep alive their hopes of a repeat trip to a BCS bowl, though.
Toledo just might be NIU's toughest remaining opponent, since the Rockets have already beaten both Buffalo and Bowling Green, who will face each other to decide NIU's foe in the MAC title game. With respectable losses to Florida and Missouri, the Rockets also might be the most battle-tested team in the conference.
In a matchup between the two SEC newcomers, surprisingly it will be the Tigers who will play for a shot at the first championship game appearance in their new conference. They will probably need to win this game to stay ahead of South Carolina to claim the SEC East.
While Texas A&M can't win the SEC West, a victory in this game might allow them to finish the regular season at 10-2 and in position to snag an at-large BCS bowl berth. It will also be Johnny Manziel's final showcase in his quest to win a second consecutive Heisman Trophy.
The Iron Bowl has certainly taken on much more importance than usual, and much more than was anticipated in the preseason. Auburn has made a sudden turnaround under new coach Gus Malzahn, rising to No. 7 in the BCS standings with just one loss.
Auburn will need to defeat Georgia this week to keep its hopes of winning the SEC West alive. A victory over the Bulldogs will set up the Iron Bowl as a winner-take-all game for the division, with the Tigers themselves having an outside shot of earning a trip to the BCS title game.
Distraction or not, Florida State should still romp through the rest of its regular-season schedule with just Syracuse, Idaho and slumping Florida remaining. The potential matchup in the ACC Championship Game might not instill much fear in the Seminoles, either.
With Georgia Tech's loss to Clemson on Thursday night, the only team that controls its own destiny in the ACC Coastal is Duke. Should the Blue Devils defeat Miami, Wake Forest and North Carolina, they will be the surprising final obstacle in Florida State's quest for a fourth BCS title game berth.
Fresno State appears to be in the driver's seat for the non-AQ BCS berth, holding a considerable edge over Northern Illinois in the current BCS standings. If the Bulldogs finish the season undefeated, they're almost certain to gain the school's first BCS bowl berth.
Their toughest remaining game appears to be the Mountain West title game, which they will host, and likely a rematch against Boise State. The Broncos, who lost the regular-season meeting 41-40, will relish the unfamiliar role of playing the spoiler.
Baylor faced its first ranked opponent last week and proved its mettle with a 41-12 throttling of Oklahoma. The Bears are now in position to move up the BCS standings and perhaps sneak into the BCS title game should either Alabama or Florida State falter in these final weeks.
Standing in the Bears' way just might be Texas, which has overcome a shaky early season and somehow stayed unbeaten in conference play. Of course, both Baylor and Texas still have to face Oklahoma State, which can also take the Big 12 title by winning its remaining games.
Ohio State has gone 21-0 since Urban Meyer took over as coach, yet it could complete a second consecutive season without being able to play for the BCS championship.
Thanks to a weak Big Ten and an uninspiring non-conference slate, the Buckeyes will have no shot of overtaking either No. 1 Alabama or No. 2 Florida State.
The best-case scenario for OSU would be a loss by either of the top-ranked teams and for Michigan State to make the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes will need that final push in both the polls and computer rankings to stave off a potential challenge from Baylor if a spot in the BCS title game becomes available.
For an eighth consecutive season, the SEC Championship Game likely will serve as a springboard to send a conference team to the BCS title game. Alabama is in the driver's seat in the SEC West, while Missouri is in control of the SEC East race.
In each of the previous seven games, the higher-ranked team has won and gone on to play for the national championship. Among them, only LSU failed to win the BCS title, losing to another SEC team, Alabama, in the 2011 title game.