With just one week left in the 2013 regular season—just a few more games left with genuine BCS importance—the outlook for the BCS National Championship is far from what we expected in August.
The SEC Championship Game features teams that combined to go 8-16 last season. Ohio State has run the table thus far, but standing in its way is an 11-1 team that wasn't bowl eligible until its final game of 2012. Alabama finally lost, and Duke is playing for the ACC Championship.
What the hell is going on out here?
This late in the season, only five teams have a realistic shot at winning the BCS National Championship, though each has its own set of major questions and obstacles standing between itself and the crystal trophy.
Which teams are the most capable of overcoming them?
Missouri is one of the most balanced teams in America, equally adept at running the ball, passing the ball, stopping the run and stopping the pass.
The numbers might suggest otherwise in one facet, pass defense, where the Tigers rank 112th nationally in yards allowed per game, but that metric is flawed. The only reason it allows so many yards per game is because Mizzou is usually blowing teams out, forcing them to abandon the run and lean on the pass.
The Tigers rank 21st nationally in yards per pass attempt allowed, and they have more interceptions (18) than touchdowns ceded (15) through the air. Against Auburn next weekend, that may not make a difference, but their 3.57 yards allowed per rush most certainly will.
A win over its fellow Tigers and a loss by Ohio State to Michigan State would likely allow Missouri to jump Alabama and land in the No. 2 spot behind Florida State. That would be a fitting cap to this season, since no two teams have dominated a higher percentage of their games.
With an offense that can beat you in different ways and a pass rush that could give even FSU's mighty offensive line some trouble, this team cannot be slept on. Crazy as it sounds, the Tigers have to be treated as legitimate national title contenders.
Alabama is probably the second-best team in America; if it played Auburn 10 times on a neutral field, it would probably win either eight or nine times.
But that's not how this system works. One loss, especially this late in the season (and in such dramatic fashion) is enough to derail even the rosiest-looking season. And now, unless something unforeseen happens, the Tide are dead men walking.
Their only realistic chance of making the national title game—assuming the thought of Duke beating Florida State is deemed unrealistic—would be Ohio State losing to Michigan State and Auburn losing to Missouri.
If that happened, Tide players and coaches and fans would make desperate pleas to the media about their credentials over Missouri, and there's a chance it might actually work. But even that is a long shot.
This team is probably cooked, even though it's the last member of the BCS Top Five that Florida State would like to see in Pasadena.
I know, I know, I know. I'm a giant buzzkill, and I have been all season.
Believing in Auburn has been like the greatest roller-coaster ride of all time, and I'm just the scared-of-heights old man waiting by the lockers for his friend, jealous of all the happy passersby with their elevated heart rates and their toothy, breathless grins.
I wish I could believe in Auburn, I really do. But I can't. Everything I have ever learned about football says that luck is a finite property—and even the most delusional Auburn fan would admit that his team is lucky to be here.
Without an injury to Johnny Manziel, Auburn would have lost to Texas A&M. Without a last-second heave that was answered, Auburn would have lost to Georgia. Without four missed field goals, including one that was returned for the game-winning score, Auburn would have lost to Alabama.
I wish I could get on board with that, but football is not a craps table; you don't just ride the hot hand until it burns you. The Tigers' performance this year has been one of (roughly) a three-loss team, but Missouri and Florida State have played like zero- or one-loss teams all season.
With a one-dimensional offense and a defense that's ripe to be picked apart, I find it hard imagining a world where this team wins the national title—despite having just watched it beat mighty Alabama in a rivalry game.
If I'm wrong, I'll have to reconsider everything I know about this sport.
I'm willing to chalk up Ohio State's poor performance to the perils of rivalry week. Devin Gardner played the game of his life, and Michigan threw the kitchen sink at them playbook-wise, but the Buckeyes still managed to escape the Big House with a win.
If Urban Meyer's team can beat Michigan State, it will almost certainly keep the No. 2 spot and head to Pasadena for the BCS National Championship Game. According to Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com, only one team ranked second in the seventh BCS poll has ever won its next game but been jumped in the standings.
The precedent is there, but it's highly unlikely.
Say what you will about the Buckeyes' schedule, but undefeated is still undefeated. Wisconsin and Michigan State are two highly skilled opponents, and this program hasn't lost since Jan. 2, 2012—five days before LMFAO's "I'm Sexy and I Know It" reached the top of Billboard's Hot 100.
Florida State is better than the Buckeyes, and it would probably beat them eight times out of 10 on a neutral field. But OSU is good enough to string together 60 solid minutes in Pasadena, and Urban Meyer has coached on that massive stage multiple times.
Because its path to the big game is so clear, I am willing to buy some OSU stock. Still, if Michigan State wins on Saturday, I wouldn't be shocked in the slightest.
Florida State has enjoyed one of the most dominant regular seasons in college football history, finishing the year No. 1 nationally in yards per offensive play and No. 2 nationally in yards per defensive play allowed.
That is an incredible amount of balance, especially since the Seminoles have inserted all backups by the mid-third quarter in almost every game. They drown teams right from the start, refuse to let them come back up for air, then coast to an easy win.
This is the formula of a national champion, and if Jameis Winston's sexual assault investigation is dropped, a national champion is exactly what this team will be. Without that cloud casting a pall above them, there is no reason to think the Seminoles will lose.
If Winston is charged, however, even if eventually proven innocent, the mere stain of that allegation will throw the whole season into doubt. His eligibility will come into question, as will the state of his team on the whole.
But this is America, where everyone is afforded the right of presumed innocence. Speculation will lead us nowhere; for now, we must operate on the notion that Winston is innocent until proven guilty, active until forced from the lineup.
If that is the case, how could you not buy this team?