Monday, November 3

Championship Game Hopes: First edition

It's November, and that means it's officially time to start speculating about the BCS. While it may be early to guess about at-larges (Rose Bowl: USC vs Ohio State DCOL rematch. We love you, Jim Delany!) we can start looking at the Championship contenders:

Alabama controls their own destiny more than any other team in the country. There is roughly ZERO chance that an unbeaten Bama gets left out of the championship game.

Alabama's path to Miami includes this weekend's trip to LSU, then home games against Mississippi State and Auburn. In all likeliness, Alabama will be either 12-0 or 11-1 heading into the SEC Championship - most likely opponent Florida.

Alabama could also lose a regular season game but contend for a BCS title spot by beating Florida to finish 12-1. This might require Missouri winning the Big 12 Championship... but hey, it's some possible room for error.

Texas Tech
The Red Raiders are also in control of their own destiny. They are currently #2 in the BCS standings with Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and the Big 12 Championship potentially on the platter. This will only narrow the gap Penn State has over them in the USA Today and Harris Polls while strengthening TTU's position in the computer polls, possibly leapfrogging them to #1 in the machines' vote.

Really, the only chance an unbeaten TTU has of being left out of the BCS Championship is if the voters want to send out a retiring JoePa with a championship opportunity. But can those sentiments even offset the equally strong sentiments that the Big Ten is a second-tier conference which has given us a recent string of Championship and Rose Bowl flops? Realistically, these is less than a 1% chance TTU would get left out for Penn State.

Also realistically, one if not both Oklahomas could beat Texas Tech. Missouri could win a crazy shootout with them in the conference championship. TTU enters a stretch of games nearly as difficult as the one Texas just got through, and as we just saw, playing 14 quarters of good football wasn't good enough for the Horns. I think it is likely that TTU will lose a game between now and BCS selection time. Sorry, Raiders fans. (and sorry, college football fans, because this means we'll be watching Penn State get DCOL'd)

Penn State
First of all, Penn State must be unbeaten to make it into the Championship game. They don't have the strength of schedule to hope to recover from a late season loss. Fortunately, this is very likely that they will win out, as Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan State may not be able to field a top ten-caliber roster combined.

If the Nittany Lions do win out, they will need Texas Tech or Alabama to lose. Both of these teams have three games they could potentially lose remaining, so it is very likely that Penn State will wind up controlling their own destiny.

With a loss already against them, Florida has no room for error. Fortunately, playing in the SEC, they would have the opportunity to knock off Alabama themselves and then be in the position of simply needing Texas Tech or Penn State to lose.

Last season, almost every sportswriter in the country was saying that Ohio State did not belong in the title game. But when the Buckeyes were 11-1 while everyone else was 11-2/10-2, they ranked Ohio State #1 regardless of strength of schedule and regardless of their perception of the quality of the teams. Even if they are a better/more deserving team, a 12-1 Florida team will NOT go over a 12-0 Penn State team. (unless Penn State changes their name to Kansas, in which case it's okay to leave them out for teams with lesser records) So let's get that idea out of the way right now.

Given Penn State's extremely likely 12-0 finish, this means Florida is rooting for Texas Tech to lose. They would really prefer this to happen in the Big 12 Championship, as it's forseeable that Oklahoma or Texas could leapfrog the Gators if both teams finish 12-1 (indeed, Texas is actually ahead of Florida right now in the BCS standings, and Oklahoma is going to see a huge schedule boost in November)

After a road loss on a 28 yard pass with 1 second left to an unbeaten team, Texas dropped a surprising six spots in the Coaches poll and five in the Harris, including falling below an Oklahoma team they'd already beaten and who has fewer quality wins. Yes, my bias is showing here.

On a positive note, one crazy Harris voter is still giving Texas his #1 vote, and one crazy computer still has Texas #1. What this means is that Texas is 3rd in the computer average behind only Alabama and Texas Tech. Texas is 4th in the BCS standings, and if Texas Tech plus one other team above them loses, UT would certainly have strong computer support for inclusion in the BCS Championship assuming they win out and win the Big 12. I'm going to project that a 12-1 Texas would be ahead of a 12-1 SEC champion in the computers, so UT would really just need the human polls to be close.

However, there are complicated rules leading to rather specific scenerios for them to win the Big 12 South. Obviously there are more possible outcomes than I want to look at right now, but basically Texas needs to win out and have Texas Tech lose two games. Texas holds the tiebreaker over both Oklahoma schools, but in a three-way tie involving Texas Tech, they would probably not be the highest-ranked team (which is like the 20th tiebreaker).

The Sooners are ranked #4 in the Harris and #5 in the Coaches' Poll, but are just 9th in the computer average. This isn't cause for serious alarm, as OU still has OSU, Texas Tech, and possibly the conference championship remaining. Winning out would be a huge boost to their objective numbers and would be a very convincing November display for the voters.

OU's best route to the conference championship is probably for them to win out and Texas Tech to beat Oklahoma State, setting up a three way tie for the South title which the Sooners would likely win. Alternately, they could win out and Texas could lose a game - say, to Kansas.

If all of this happens, it's really a tossup as to whether or not they would be selected over a 12-1 Florida team. Needless to say, Oklahoma would need either Alabama or Penn State to lose for sure.

Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State is in almost an identical situation that Oklahoma is in terms of making it to the conference championship, as both teams have lost to Texas, both teams face each other, and both teams face Texas Tech.

The Cowboys are hurting a little more in the polls, where they are ranked 8th and 9th. We expect their #11 computer ranking to rise if they win out, as their remaining schedule is very difficult.

However, OSU's path to the title game probably means winning out, having TTU beat OU, then having Florida and Alabama each lose one game. (alternately, Penn State losing a game)

As the Pac 10's strength has fizzled, USC unfortunately has little chance of making it to the title game. This is because USC is just 10th in the computer average, and their remaining schedule does little to boost their ranking compared with the TTU/OSU/OU Big 12 South circle that's going to play out in November, or the likely Florida/Bama SEC showdown.

USC can also benefit from Missouri upsetting the Big 12 South champion. This is important because I think it is likely that either Texas or Texas Tech or Oklahoma or Oklahoma State will enter the conference championship game with just 1 loss. Any of those teams finishing 12-1 would probably be ranked above USC. It's unlikely that all four will lose in November (the latter three going rock/paper/scissors plus Texas losing to Kansas?), so Missouri is the key.

That said, crazier things have happened. USC could win out and see an extreme rash of Big 12/SEC cannibalization - or, just one of the two coupled with a Penn State loss. Therefore, their championship hopes are still alive - if only "alive" in the sense of how after you die, some of your cells are still preserved, and at least in The Fifth Element they can reconstruct you from that.

Anyone Else?

The ACC and the Big East are each a disaster, and every team has already lost at least two games. Cross them out. The Big Ten and Pac 10, aside from their leaders and likely champions, are not looking particularly strong, and these teams all also have at least two losses. Let's just say I'll eat my words if Cal somehow climbs from #21 to enter the title discussion.

Last season was proof that a two-loss big conference champion will go over an unbeaten midmajor, so let's forget about Boise State and the like. Quality wins, folks!

So then, are there any other Big 12 or SEC teams?

Missouri is sitting at 7-2 and will likely play in the Big 12 Championship game. Unfortunately they do not face Oklahoma or Texas Tech during the regular season, so the conference championship would also be their only quality win.

Georgia needs Florida to lose to both Vanderbilt and South Carolina to win the SEC East. This is extremely, extremely unlikely. On the plus side, the SECCG would then be a rematch game with the chance to upset Alabama and partially negate that earlier loss.

LSU needs to beat Alabama and then have the Tide lose to either Miss State or Auburn to win the SEC West. This is extremely unlikely. (but note how I didn't say "extremely" twice)

Keep in mind that not only would these teams need to win their conference, they'd also need everyone else in their conference to finish with 2 losses, and then they would also need two of: USC loses a game, Penn State loses two games, the other B12/SEC conference champion has two losses, and even then hope the voters are kind. So the answer is no, none of these teams have a chance worth discussing at this point.

Winning the Big 12 South

The Big 12 South champion will likely be involved in the title game discussion, assuming they go on to win the conference championship game. An interesting scenerio is what happens if three teams are tied for first place in the B12S (if it's two teams, the head-to-head result is the tiebreaker). The tiebreaker is basically:
* if one team has beaten the other two, they're B12S champs.
* if they're all 1-1 against each other, then the highest-ranked team is B12S champs.

For various reasons, I think that if the latter occurs, the team with the earliest loss will be the highest-ranked team. This means Oklahoma or Oklahoma State. So what are the paths to the Big 12 South title?

Texas Tech:
* finish 12-0
* finish 11-1 with loss to OU or OSU, but that team then loses to its rival Oklahoman school
* finish 11-1 with loss to Baylor (unlikely loss, but if this happens they still have tiebreakers over everyone else)

* finish 11-1 with Texas 10-2
* finish 11-1 with Texas Tech also 11-1, setting up a three-way tie

Oklahoma State:
* finish 11-1 with Texas 10-2
* finish 11-1 with Texas Tech also 11-1, setting up a three-way tie

* finish 11-1 with Texas Tech 10-2