BCS Rankings Preview: Who's Got the Inside Track for the BCS Title Game?
Predictably, now that several experts have confirmed that they believe Boise State will be the top team in the first 2010 BCS Power Rankings released after next weekend's college football games, a firestorm is going off all throughout college football.
Say what you will about the BCS: it certainly creates a lot of controversy, which attracts attention to college football. Personally I despise the BCS (typically omitting the "C" when I talk about the "B(C)S system," and believe that there should be an eight-team playoff.
However, the purpose of this article is to analyze the chances of several top teams that I think have the best chance to get into the BCS Title Game at the end of the year.
I will be dividing teams, broadly speaking, into four general categories:
A) Controls its own destiny,
B) Win, probably in,
C) Needs some help,
D) Long shot.
The highest possible number of teams that could go undefeated this season is SEVEN (SEC Champ, Big 12 Champ, Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan State, WAC Champ, MWC Champ). I don't think we will end up with seven undefeated squads, but read on to find out how I believe the national title race will shape up.
Controls Its Own Destiny: Ohio State Buckeyes
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Let me put it to you as clear as I can: there are some programs, when they are up, that for some reason get automatic love from the pollsters, whether they deserve it or not.
I'm of the opinion that Ohio State definitely does not deserve to be the No. 1 team in the country right now (I've got them No. 3), but they are definitely one of those programs that always feel the love. They are one of college football's blue bloods, with a long, illustrious history and many trips out to the Rose Bowl; they've also won a couple of national championships.
Terrelle Pryor is a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender, particularly after Denard Robinson looked very pedestrian against Michigan State this past Saturday. Having said that, as evidenced by their ridiculously low computer rankings that dropped them to No. 5 in the projected BCS standings despite being No. 1 in both human polls, they haven't yet played anyone of consequence, and forgive me if I'm skeptical that Pryor can lead this team to an undefeated season.
However, it's really very simple: the No. 1 team in both human polls, when it's undefeated, gets in to the national title game, plain and simple. There are several teams that could theoretically jump Ohio State, but I don't see it happening—if Pryor really is as good as advertised, especially in the Iowa game upcoming, and the Buckeyes win comfortably for most of the way, I see no possible way that they get left out.
I do think that with one loss they are out, no matter what. But they are No. 1, and that team always gets the benefit of the doubt in the polls.
Controls Its Own Destiny: Auburn Tigers
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If there is one thing I've learned from being a college football fan the last few years, it's this: the best teams in the country are usually concentrated in the SEC. While I get really, really tired of hearing about how fantastic the SEC is and how "no other top team could compete in the SEC," the fact of the matter is that the best SEC team usually does have to face the best competition to get out of the conference undefeated. SEC Champs are battle-tested, and the SEC has brought home the last four national championships.
What Auburn has going for it is pretty simple: it's an SEC team, still undefeated and has a flashy quarterback, some guy named Cam Newton who is apparently pretty good. He isn't tops on my Heisman ballot or anything after leading a 19-play drive to ice the game against Kentucky that ate a ridiculous amount of clock. Sure, Kentucky isn't exactly a glorious program, but I do believe in the strength of the SEC as a conference, and a road win in the SEC counts for something in my book, no matter who it's against. Just ask Alabama.
If Auburn runs the table, they will have done it in the SEC, and they will have gone on the road to beat Alabama, the national champion from a year ago, and beaten both Arkansas and LSU at home, both top 15 teams.
Read my lips: they will jump anyone and everyone if they can survive all three of those games and then win the SEC Championship against either Florida or South Carolina (probably the latter).
I'm still taking Alabama to win the SEC West, taking down both Auburn and LSU, despite the loss at USC. But for Auburn, the door is wide open.
Controls Its Own Destiny: LSU Tigers
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I'm still trying to figure out how LSU escaped the Tennessee game with a win, but the bottom line is that the Mad Hatter seems to get all the breaks. As they say, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
Unlike Auburn, LSU seems to have mystery meat at the crucial QB position, shuffling back and forth between the maligned Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee at seemingly random intervals. However, it has a suffocating defense and has already gone on the road to win at Florida—one of the hardest places to win as a visitor in all of college football.
Understand, I don't expect LSU to go undefeated. But like Auburn, they are undefeated and in the SEC. If Les Miles can stockpile enough luck down there in Baton Rouge to get past Auburn and Alabama, never mind coming up with another miracle in the SEC Championship Game, they will again jump everyone and be locks for the national title game in January.
Again, I don't expect LSU to run the table; I'd actually expect them to lose to BOTH Alabama and Auburn. But at this point in the season? They don't need to worry about what's going on around the country at all.
In the words of Al Davis: "Just win, baby."
Win, Probably In: Oregon Ducks
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Hold your horses, Oregon fans: I know, I know, everyone else says you control your own destiny now.
I still think an undefeated SEC Champ jumps you, as I've said, and because you aren't one of college football's long standing blue bloods, OSU will get into the game ahead of you if they remain unblemished, regardless of the fact that I think Oregon is clearly better than OSU this year, despite last year's result in Pasadena.
However, I don't expect the SEC to produce an undefeated champion, because as I've mentioned I expect Alabama to defeat both Auburn and LSU. A one-loss Alabama team is certainly threatening to a lot of teams, but Oregon is just so damned PRETTY when they play football—and they win with so much style—that I don't think a one-loss SEC champ can jump an undefeated Oregon.
LaMichael James is a complete stud, and Oregon might be the fastest team in the country.
For extra bonus points, Oregon's toughest games are clustered at the end of its schedule, when it faces Arizona at Autzen Stadium and then goes on the road for the Civil War against Oregon State. That means, at the very least, Oregon will hang around the national title race for a long, long time, although don't overlook California, which seems to be much better than the beat down it received from the Nevada Wolf Pack.
And, like I said, Oregon is just damned beautiful with the ball on offense. That makes a big difference to the pollsters, and barring both Ohio State and an SEC Champ winning out, I think Oregon will get in if it goes undefeated.
However...I'm picking Oregon State in the upset to end the season and read on to find out why.
Win, Probably In: Alabama Crimson Tide
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Yeah, I know, they just lost. Guess what—they still have the most talent in college football, and they are the defending national champions. If Alabama wins out, I do think they will get into the national title game—there is too much time for either Oregon or Ohio State to stumble in a big game, especially the latter against a dangerous, disciplined Iowa team, and especially the former against Oregon State that lost the elder Rodgers brother to injury but saw the emergence of QB Ryan Katz this week.
Did I mention that the Oregon State game is a potential pitfall for Oregon yet? I'd even say it's a "likely" pitfall, to be honest, because I expect Oregon State to be playing for the Rose Bowl in that game, and it's a rivalry game on the road between two good teams. Furthermore, Oregon will be coming off a game against a good Arizona team at home and will have to get up emotionally for a big road win against a rival that would like nothing better than to knock them off and ruin their chances at a national title.
In case you didn't notice, that is how Alabama lost—following a big win against a ranked team at home, but going on the road to face another ranked team the next week. In the last ten years, only ONE team has managed to win both games when faced with such a scenario.
I do think that a one-loss Alabama will jump ahead of an undefeated Big 12 Champ, particularly if Auburn and LSU are undefeated when Alabama plays them, because neither Nebraska nor Oklahoma have looked particularly impressive this season.
Bottom line: I think that Alabama will get the help it needs to get back in the NC conversation and eventually the nod to defend its title based on the strength of its conference.
Needs Some Help: Nebraska Cornhuskers
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Nebraska is a legitimate threat to make this year's national title, but they will need a few things to happen for that to happen.
First and foremost-—they need to go undefeated and meet an undefeated Oklahoma team in a potential blockbuster for the final Big 12 Championship game. Nebraska has looked fantastic, but OU has several underwhelming wins, so they are vulnerable in any given weak.
Having said that, I'm not comfortable picking ANYONE to beat Oklahoma remaining on their regular season schedule. As for Nebraska, they are clearly better than anyone left on their schedule too. So I do think that this part of the puzzle will fall into place for the Huskers, provided that Taylor Martinez, or "T-Magic," doesn't have a classic freshman moment at a critical time.
However, I think Nebraska needs some help to make the title game for one reason: I expect Alabama to go undefeated the rest of the way, and I believe a one-loss Alabama would return to the title game ahead of an undefeated Nebraska.
If I'm wrong and Alabama loses again, I expect the team to emerge from the SEC to be undefeated Auburn, which would also go ahead of Nebraska. That means that if only one other team on this list (specifically Oregon or Ohio State) would have to go undefeated to lock out the Huskers, even with an undefeated record.
If I'm Nebraska, I'm cheering first and foremost for Ohio State and Oregon to lose, because it's very likely that the eventual SEC Champ will make the title game. Trouble is, I think they need both teams to drop a game to get in.
Needs Some Help: Oklahoma Sooners
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Oklahoma's situation is pretty much exactly the same as Nebraska's: they will need the Huskers to be undefeated going into the Big 12 Championship Game, and of course be undefeated themselves. Luckily for the Sooners, they've already passed the test posed by the annual Red River Rivalry, always dangerous regardless of team records, and the rest of their schedule seems winnable.
However, OU has been anything except convincing in several of its wins against pretty weak competition, so while I'm not comfortable saying OU is going to lose one specific game, it would not surprise me—at all—if the Sooners dropped one somewhere, in so doing sinking both their national title hopes and probably those of the Huskers all in one fell swoop.
Again, the SEC Champ probably gets into the game ahead of OU even if it has one loss, and so too would OSU or Oregon, so OU needs some real help to make the big one, at least in my view.
Needs Some Help: South Carolina Gamecocks
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Some would argue that South Carolina should be in the category of "controls its own destiny;" however, I don't agree—it's too early to designate any one-loss team that way, even coming out of the SEC.
Despite the fact that South Carolina was able to take down Alabama in convincing fashion, I'm still unconvinced that a one-loss South Carolina would have as much appeal to the pollsters as a one-loss Alabama, particularly coming out of the much weaker SEC East division (especially in light of the revelation that South Carolina might be the only team in the SEC East that is better than average).
South Carolina would have a chance to jump over an undefeated Big 12 champ, but they'd probably need the SEC West champ to be undefeated—in other words, have it be Auburn or LSU. Because they didn't start so high in the polls (and are even now below Alabama despite the big win), they face more of an uphill battle, especially with both Nebraska and Oklahoma ahead of them.
They need too much to fall into place to become a serious national title threat, but again they have the ultimate trump card: potential SEC champs.
Needs Some Help: Arkansas Razorbacks
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Arkansas is still a very dangerous team in the SEC West, but the problem is that they already dropped a big opportunity when hosting Alabama three weeks ago, and now they will need Alabama to lose to regain control of their own destiny in the SEC West race.
However, if the Tide lose another game and Arkansas wins out, Arkansas would have the tiebreakers over the other SEC West teams to go play in Atlanta for the first time in school history for the SEC Championship.
I don't expect Arkansas to win out, and as I've mentioned I do expect Alabama to finish with only one loss, so I was almost tempted to categorize the Razorbacks as a "long shot." However, if my calculations about the Iron Bowl are off, then suddenly the Razorbacks would basically control their own destiny, so there's no way I can bump them down so far.
Of course, the Iron Bowl is the last game of the season, so the Razorbacks will have to win out and just hope for the best. But they played Alabama close in their only loss to date, and might have won barring an offensive meltdown.
They aren't dead yet.
Long Shot: Boise State Broncos
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Despite my opinion that Boise State SHOULD go to the national championship if it finishes the year undefeated, the bottom line is that EVERYTHING has to fall exactly right, because last year's results don't matter.
To go ahead of an SEC champion, that team would have to have two losses (a la LSU their title year). Currently, the best bet is for that to be a Florida team that magically sneaks past the SEC West champ in Atlanta, but Florida has struggled so much offensively that it's hard to predict they'll beat South Carolina to get to Atlanta in the first place. Any SEC West champ will probably be undefeated or have one loss.
That means that the SEC Champ, as a rule of thumb, will get in to the NC game ahead of Boise, so all the other major contenders from BCS conferences have to fall flat on their faces. Oregon and Ohio State probably have to lose twice each; the same goes for the eventual Big 12 conference champ, whether it's Nebraska or Oklahoma, although it isn't inconceivable that Boise could beat a one-loss Big 12 team.
As much as I truly think Boise belongs in that game after winning every big game against AQ teams dating back to the famous Oklahoma win, I don't think the majority of the pollsters, or the computers, will agree with me—Boise's schedule will weaken as the year goes on, while the schedules of the other teams will only grow stronger, so Boise's days as the BCS team are numbered.
Long Shot: TCU Horned Frogs
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The "other" BCS buster school to appear on the list: the TCU Horned Frogs. While the MWC is generally considered stronger than the WAC, the fact that TCU is also from a non-AQ conference coupled with the fact that Boise won last year's Fiesta Bowl between the two teams makes it appear that Boise is locked in as the top non-AQ team until they lose. However, on any given day, anything can happen, so if Boise goes down, TCU becomes the top BCS buster.
Boise's out of conference schedule this year is stronger than that of TCU, which is reflected in the current BCS rankings, and ultimately it is very unlikely that, even with a big game against undefeated Utah looming, TCU would jump the Broncos.
As for the Utes, I've gone ahead and dismissed them from the national title chase: their marquee win was supposed to be against the presumptive Big East Champ, Pittsburgh. However, Pitt has already been reduced to scrounging for bowl eligibility, so Utah really isn't a threat to the Broncos as a non-AQ.
All due respect to Andy Dalton and co., but if they wanted to be the top non-AQs this year, they should have beaten Boise last January, and so they first and foremost need Boise to go down to have a shot at cracking the big game.
Long Shot: Michigan State Spartans
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Yes, I know they are in a BCS conference, and they are undefeated.
However, even if Michigan State continues to win, it has one really big game remaining—Iowa—much like Boise State only has the Nevada game left to really worry about. Furthermore, Boise and TCU have a big advantage over MSU in the human polls, an advantage that I do not think will be erased.
There is one last thing working against Sparty: because of the Big Ten's rotating schedule, they don't play Ohio State this year, and so it's conceivable that both schools could go undefeated in Big Ten play and be league "co-champions" just like back in little league (mercifully, the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten will end this possibility beginning next season), and most importantly, the Spartans don't have the chance to make a big statement against a serious title contender.
Unbeaten Boise or TCU would almost certainly go ahead of MSU, even if MSU finishes the year unbeaten, so MSU would qualify as "VERY long shot," but they can't be ignored after a couple of big wins against Wisconsin and Michigan in successive weeks.
Conclusion: Prediction Time
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The more I look at how the cards need to fall exactly right for them to miss out, the more likely it seems to me that Alabama will be able to recover from the South Carolina loss and return to the national title picture as the eventual SEC Champion, probably by exacting revenge over South Carolina in Atlanta.
The Tide are just too talented for me to predict anything differently, although they do face the remainder of their SEC competition coming off of bye weeks.
Ohio State, for its part, simply doesn't seem to have a game that it's going to lose other than MAYBE the Iowa game, and so they seem like a pretty safe pick to reach the NC game, armed with their No. 1 ranking.
MSU would be dangerous as well, but again, the rotating schedule means that Ohio State misses the Spartans, which in this case works in favor of the Scarlet and Gray. I fully expect them to get crushed by whichever SEC team emerges from that conference championship game a winner, but I do think Ohio State will make the title game.
Halfway through the season, my championship pick is the Crimson Tide...amidst all the controversy that will follow them as a one-loss champ.
Can we just get a playoff, please?