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Who Should Play For National Title?

If there was ever a season that was calling out for a four-team college football playoff, this would be it.

Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Kansas State's Collin Klein, Oregon's Kenjon Barner and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o have put their teams into national championship contention

And it’s too bad that such a playoff will not become a reality for two more years.

That’s because Alabama, Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame are all speeding toward the finish line at 9-0. Two other major college teams, Ohio State and Louisville, are also unbeaten, although neither has a real shot at the national championship for different reasons. Ohio State is not eligible for postseason play, while Louisville is playing in the lightly regarded Big East.

It is possible, perhaps, that Ohio State could win the Associated Press poll national title. But that would likely require all of four of those unbeatens ahead of the Buckeyes to lose.

For the most part, though, the discussion on who should play in the BCS National Championship Game has been whittled down to those first four teams.

Below we examine each of the six unbeatens as well as three other one-loss teams that could enter the national title discussion. Plus, we share our thoughts on where things are headed and what the BCS bowls may look like.

The Undefeated Teams

Alabama (9-0 overall, 6-0 SEC)

* BCS Ranking -- First

* Human Poll Rankings – First in the AP poll, the USA Today coaches poll and the Harris Interactive poll.

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – First

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – First; Strength of Schedule: 17th.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, vs. Michigan, W 41-14; Sept. 8, Western Kentucky, W 35-0; Sept. 15, at Arkansas, W 52-0; Sept. 22, Florida Atlantic, W 40-7; Sept. 29, Mississippi, W 33-14; Oct. 13, at Missouri, W 42-10; Oct. 20, at Tennessee, W 44-13; Oct. 27, Mississippi State, W 38-7; Nov. 3, at LSU, 21-17. Opponents’ Combined Record: 45-36 (.556).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 10, Texas A&M; Nov. 17, Western Carolina; Nov. 24, Auburn; Dec. 1, SEC Championship Game (likely vs. Georgia). Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 10-18 (.357).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: 48th (424.7 ypg); Scoring Offense: 17th (38.4 ppg); Total Defense: Second (228.9 ypg); Scoring Defense: First (9.1 ppg).

* The Plus Side – Where do we start? Alabama was put to the test Saturday night at LSU, but the Crimson Tide – and QB A.J. McCarron – rallied for the win like a championship team is supposed to. The human poll voters and the computers are in complete agreement – this is the No. 1 team in America.

The eyeball test tells you that Alabama’s defense is the nation’s very best. There has never been a repeat BCS national champion. But Alabama sure seems like the team capable of changing that and winning the school’s third title in four years under coach Nick Saban.

* The Minus Side – There are at least a couple of challenges still out there. This week, Alabama can’t have a letdown against a surprising Texas A&M team. The SEC title game – setting up as a match-up with surging Georgia – could also be a tester. But with four wins, Alabama is headed to Miami for the BCS title game.

Kansas State (9-0 overall, 6-0 Big 12)

* BCS Ranking -- Second

* Human Poll Rankings – Third in the AP poll, the USA Today coaches poll and the Harris Interactive poll.

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – Third

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – Second; Strength of Schedule: Third.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, Missouri State, W 51-9; Sept. 8, Miami (Fla.), W 52-13; Sept. 15, North Texas, W 35-21; Sept. 22, at Oklahoma, W 24-19; Oct. 6, Kansas, W 56-16; Oct. 13, at Iowa State, W 27-21; Oct. 20, at West Virginia, W 55-14; Oct. 27, Texas Tech, W 55-24; Nov. 3, Oklahoma State, W 44-30. Opponents’ Combined Record: 39-40 (.494).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 10, at TCU; Nov. 17, at Baylor; Dec. 1, Texas. Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 17-9 (.654)

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: 41st (439.0 ypg); Scoring Offense: Fifth (44.3 ppg); Total Defense: 36th (358.6 ypg); Scoring Defense: 21st (18.6 ppg).

* The Plus Side – Kansas State is tremendously balanced with a stellar defense and a potent offense, led by Heisman Trophy front runner Collin Klein. While K-State was behind five other Big 12 teams in the preseason AP poll (Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU), the Wildcats have everybody in that conference looking up at them. The Wildcats are a sparkling 4-0 against teams ranked in the top 30 in the Sagarin rankings.

The remaining schedule with games against TCU and Texas is challenging and could also help K-State stabilize its computer ranking.

* The Minus Side – There is nothing wrong with what Kansas State has done. They are unbeaten in what is at least the nation’s No. 2 conference. And they have their Heisman candidate as well to lead the charge. But the human polls are favoring Oregon. The Big 12 does not have a championship game, so that’s another advantage Oregon may have if it runs the table.

Oregon (9-0 overall, 6-0 Pac-12)

* BCS Ranking -- Third

* Human Poll Rankings – Second in the AP poll, the USA Today coaches poll and the Harris Interactive poll.

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – Fifth

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – Fourth; Strength of Schedule: 47th.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, Arkansas State, W 57-34; Sept. 8, Fresno State, W 42-25; Sept. 15, Tennessee Tech, W 63-14; Sept. 22, Arizona, W 49-0; Sept. 29, at Washington State, W 51-26; Oct. 6, Washington, W 52-21; Oct. 18, at Arizona State, W 43-21; Oct. 27, Colorado, W 70-14; Nov. 3, at USC, W 62-51. Opponents’ Combined Record: 39-43 (.476).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 10, at California; Nov. 17, Stanford; Nov. 24, at Oregon State; Nov. 30, Pac-12 Championship Game (likely at Oregon, opponent TBA). Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 17-10 (.630).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: Fourth (561.2 ypg); Scoring Offense: First (54.3 ppg); Total Defense: 50th (380.8 ypg); Scoring Defense: 40th (22.9 ppg).

* The Plus Side – Oregon has scored 68 touchdowns in nine games and the Ducks have yet to be held under 42 points in any game. QB Marcus Mariota and RB Kenjon Barner power an awesome offensive attack. While the Ducks’ nonconference schedule wasn’t much to write home about, Oregon has taken some nice road wins at Arizona State and USC. Their 62-point output is the most ever scored against a USC team.

* The Minus Side – As good as Oregon’s offense has been, the Ducks would do well to shore up their tackling for when they square off against a team – say Alabama – that can contain its potent offense. The remaining games against Stanford and Oregon State won’t be easy. A rematch with USC also looms, but that would be in Eugene this time around.

Notre Dame (9-0 overall, Independent)

* BCS Ranking -- Fourth

* Human Poll Rankings – Fourth in the AP poll, the USA Today coaches poll and the Harris Interactive poll.

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – Second

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – Third; Strength of Schedule: 16th.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, vs. Navy, W 50-10; Sept. 8, Purdue, W 20-17; Sept. 15, at Michigan State, W 20-3; Sept. 22, Michigan, W 13-6; Oct. 6, vs. Miami (Fla.), W 41-3; Oct. 13, Stanford, W 20-13 (OT); Oct. 20, BYU, W 17-14; Oct. 27, at Oklahoma, W 30-13; Nov. 3, Pittsburgh, W 29-26 (3 OT). Opponents’ Combined Record: 47-34 (.580).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 10, at Boston College; Nov. 17, Wake Forest; Nov. 24, at USC. Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 13-14 (.481).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: 61st (404.4 ypg); Scoring Offense: 71st (26.7 ppg); Total Defense: 10th (294.7 ppg); Scoring Defense: Second (11.7 ppg).

* The Plus Side – At 9-0, Notre Dame is off to its best start since 1993. Notre Dame’s rugged defense has been very impressive, led by Heisman candidate LB Manti Te’o. They had held every opponent under 20 points until last week’s triple-overtime game with Pittsburgh. Of the unbeatens, they have played teams with more combined wins than anybody else. (Just imagine if Michigan State or Purdue had the seasons they were predicted to have.)

Notre Dame is 4-0 against teams ranked in the Sagarin top 30.

* The Minus Side – The remaining schedule is not going to help the Irish much at all. A road win over a USC team that could finish 7-5 or 8-4 would be somewhat beneficial, though. The fact is as good as the win at Oklahoma was the near-loss to Pittsburgh was every bit as detrimental in the eyes of the human polls.

Ohio State (10-0 overall, 6-0 Big Ten)

* BCS Ranking -- Ohio State is ineligible for the BCS rankings or postseason play due to NCAA sanctions.

* Human Poll Rankings – Fifth in AP poll; ineligible for USA Today coaches poll and Harris Interactive poll. (Ohio State and Georgia are tied for fifth in the AP poll.)

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – 20th; Strength of Schedule: 55th.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, Miami (Ohio), W 56-10; Sept. 8, Central Florida, W 31-16; Sept. 15, California, W 35-28; Sept. 22, UAB, W 29-15; Sept. 29, at Michigan State, W 17-16; Oct. 6, Nebraska, W 63-38; Oct. 13, at Indiana, W 52-49; Oct. 20, Purdue, W 29-22 (OT); Oct. 27, at Penn State, W 35-23; Nov. 3, Illinois, W 52-22. Opponents’ Combined Record: 43-49 (.467).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 17, at Wisconsin; Nov. 24, Michigan. Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 12-6 (.667).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: 36th (445.3 ypg); Scoring Offense: 12th (39.9 ppg); Total Defense: 39th (367.6 ypg); Scoring Defense: 46th (23.9 ppg).

* The Plus Side – The Buckeyes, led by first-year coach Urban Meyer, have emerged as the best team in the Big Ten after a dismal 6-7 showing last year. Dual threat QB Braxton Miller has thrown his helmet into the Heisman race. If OSU ends up as the nation’s only unbeaten team, it’s possible that AP poll voters could give them the nod. But that seems like a real big if.

* The Minus Side – NCAA sanctions mean the Buckeyes can’t play in the Big Ten title game or in a postseason bowl, denying OSU a chance to show what it could do on the field. This is the worst year for the Big Ten as well in a long time and OSU’s nonconference schedule was somewhat underwhelming as well. And OSU’s defense, while improved the last two weeks, would probably get gashed by one of the true offensive juggernauts.

And remaining games at Wisconsin and at home with rival Michigan will be anything but walkovers as well.

Louisville (9-0 overall, 4-0 Big East)

* BCS Ranking -- Ninth

* Human Poll Rankings – 11th in the AP poll, 10th in the USA Today coaches poll and the Harris Interactive poll.

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – 13th

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – 44th; Strength of Schedule: 105th.

* Results To Date – Sept. 2, Kentucky, W 32-14; Sept. 8, Missouri State, W 35-7; Sept. 15, North Carolina, W 39-34; Sept. 22, at Florida International, W 28-21; Oct. 13, at Pittsburgh, W 45-35; Oct. 20, South Florida, W 27-25; Oct. 26, Cincinnati, W 34-31 (OT); Nov. 3, Temple, W 45-17. Opponents’ Combined Record: 28-54 (.341).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 10, at Syracuse; Nov. 24, Connecticut; Nov. 29, at Rutgers. Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 14-12 (.538).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: 45th (430.1 ypg); Scoring Offense: 36th (34.0 ppg); Total Defense: 29th (337.2 ypg); Scoring Defense: 35th (22.3 ppg).

* The Plus Side – The Cardinals seem destined for their first Big East title since 2006. QB Teddy Bridgewater has been fun to watch. Head coach Charlie Strong is upwardly mobile. UL will need to up the ante or risk losing him to the likes of Auburn or Arkansas in the weeks ahead.

* The Minus Side – The Big East is short on signature wins and the nonconference wins over Kentucky and North Carolina don’t mean a whole lot, either. Even if Louisville is the lone unbeaten at the end of the regular season, there won’t be any support – either from the computers or the humans – to put the Cardinals in the national title game.

Once-Beaten Possibilities

Above, we have looked at six teams, including five of the BCS top 10. There are three more one-loss teams in the BCS top 10 this week. Each of them could have an outside shot at the national title game, provided there is a 2007-like rash of late season upsets.

Here is a look at these teams:

Georgia (8-1 overall, 6-1 SEC)

* BCS Ranking -- Fifth

* Human Poll Rankings – Fifth in the AP poll, USA Today coaches poll and Harris Interactive poll. (Georgia and Ohio State are tied for fifth in the AP poll.)

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – Sixth

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – 11th; Strength of Schedule: 39th.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, Buffalo, W 45-23; Sept. 8, at Missouri, W 41-20; Sept. 15, Florida Atlantic, W 56-20; Sept. 22, Vanderbilt, W 48-3; Sept. 29, Tennessee, W 51-44; Oct. 6, at South Carolina, L 35-7; Oct. 20, at Kentucky, W 29-24; Oct. 27, vs. Florida, W 17-9; Nov. 3, Mississippi, W 37-10. Opponents’ Combined Record: 38-44 (.463).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 10, at Auburn; Nov. 17, Georgia Southern; Nov. 24, Georgia Tech; Dec. 1, SEC Championship Game (likely vs. Alabama). Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 13-14 (.481).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: 23rd (468.2 ypg); Scoring Offense: 24th (36.8 ppg); Total Defense: 33rd (341.3 ypg); Scoring Defense: 25th (20.9 ppg).

* The Plus Side – The lopsided loss to South Carolina put coach Mark Richt’s future in doubt. But the Bulldogs have rallied in the three games since then and have everything in front of them. By running the table and beating Alabama in the SEC title game, Georgia could throw itself into the national title race – provided one or more of the other unbeatens also loses.

* The Minus Side – Georgia’s remaining scheduled opponents don’t seem too daunting. An upset of Alabama in the SEC title game, though, would be huge. A loss to Alabama would probably drop Georgia into one of the SEC’s Florida-based bowl tie-ins.

Florida (8-1 overall, 7-1 SEC)

* BCS Ranking -- Sixth

* Human Poll Rankings – Seventh in the AP poll, the USA Today coaches poll and the Harris Interactive poll.

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – Fourth

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – Fifth; Strength of Schedule: Sixth.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, Bowling Green, W 27-14; Sept. 8, at Texas A&M, W 20-17; Sept. 15, at Tennessee, W 37-20; Sept. 22, Kentucky, W 38-0; Oct. 6, LSU, W 14-6; Oct. 13, at Vanderbilt, W 31-17; Oct. 20, South Carolina, W 44-11; Oct. 27, vs. Georgia, L 17-9; Nov. 3, Missouri, W 14-7. Opponents’ Combined Record: 49-33 (.597).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 10, Louisiana-Lafayette; Nov. 17, Jacksonville State; Nov. 24, at Florida State. Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 18-8 (.692).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: 102nd (332.8 ypg); Scoring Offense: 78th (26.0 ppg); Total Defense: Fifth (286.9 ypg); Scoring Defense: Fourth (12.1 ppg).

* The Plus Side – Florida rolled all the way to No. 2 in the polls after their 7-0 start. Even after the loss to Georgia, the computers still love Florida. The Gators boast more wins against Sagarin top-10 teams (three: Texas A&M, South Carolina and LSU) than anybody else.

By not having to play Alabama – unless Georgia somehow loses to Auburn – Florida can filibuster its way into a BCS bowl. That may take a win at Florida State, however.

* The Minus Side – Unfortunately for the Gators, too many things have to happen for Florida to get back into the national title hunt. For instance, Alabama and Georgia probably both have to lose. One will lose if they play each other, but another loss seems unlikely.

Florida State (8-1 overall, 5-1 ACC)

* BCS Ranking -- 10th

* Human Poll Rankings – Eighth in the AP poll, sixth in the USA Today coaches poll and sixth in the Harris Interactive poll.

* Computer Poll Average (from BCS formula) – 19th

* Sagarin Poll Rankings – 13th; Strength of Schedule: 108th.

* Results To Date – Sept. 1, Murray State, W 69-3; Sept. 8, Savannah State, W 55-0; Sept. 15, Wake Forest, W 52-0; Sept. 22, Clemson, W 49-37; Sept. 29, at South Florida, W 30-17; Oct. 6, at N.C. State, L 17-16; Oct. 13, Boston College, W 51-7; Oct. 20, at Miami (Fla.), W 33-20; Oct. 27, Duke, W 48-7. Opponents’ Combined Record: 39-43 (.476).

* Remaining Games – Nov. 8, at Virginia Tech; Nov. 17, at Maryland; Nov. 24, Florida; Dec. 1, ACC Championship Game (likely vs. Miami). Remaining Opponents’ Combined Record: 16-11 (.592).

* NCAA Statistical Rankings – Total Offense: Seventh (524.6 ypg); Scoring Offense: Third (44.8 ppg); Total Defense: First (227.1 ppg); Scoring Defense: Third (12.0 ppg).

* The Plus Side – Florida State has enjoyed a great year on both sides of the ball. The Seminoles would be right in the thick of the national title discussion if not for the one-point loss to a middle-of-the-road N.C. State team (5-4). The Seminoles seem to be the class of the ACC, a conference that didn’t exactly distinguish itself in nonconference play.

A win over a one-loss Florida team would definitely help the cause.

* The Minus Side – FSU only has one win over a Sagarin top-30 team, and that’s No. 23-ranked Clemson. The Seminoles were stung when West Virginia backed out of a game and they were left playing two I-AA opponents to open up. That puts a crimp on FSU’s computer poll hopes. But an ACC title game win would FSU its first conference title since 2005. (That’s almost unthinkable given the way the Seminoles used to dominate the conference.)

Final Thoughts, BCS Projections

Final Thoughts

This is definitely shaping up as a fun end to the 2012 regular season. The Alabama-LSU game last weekend was a real spectacle and we can only hope to get a few more moments like that the rest of the way.

The prevailing wisdom is that the human poll voters will side with Oregon over Kansas State and Notre Dame if the Ducks can run the table. It seems like everybody is clamoring to see the Oregon offense go up against the Alabama defense. The Ducks still have some ground to make up on K-State in the computers. But the edge of possibly playing USC again could be the difference.

That isn’t to say, however, that if we got a Kansas State-Notre Dame match-up in the Fiesta Bowl (or even the title game) that it might not be just as interesting. And if one of them had to sub in for Alabama or Oregon in the national title game, it should still be a great match-up.

The bad part about the BCS is how deserving teams don’t always get what they deserve. Current top-10 fixtures like Georgia, LSU and South Carolina could all get passed over for BCS berths because of the limit on two schools per conference.

That means some others like Oregon State (11th in the BCS), Oklahoma (12th) and potential Big Ten champion Nebraska (16th) will possibly grab spots in the major bowls instead.

BCS Projections

With all of this discussion, here is what the BCS bowls could look like (all games on ESPN):

* BCS National Championship Game (at Miami), Jan. 7, 8:30 p.m.: Alabama vs. Oregon – This just seems like where we’re headed unless something disrupts it.

* Rose Bowl (at Pasadena, Calif.), Jan. 1, 5 p.m.: Oregon State vs. Nebraska – Even with two losses (assuming a loss to Oregon), the Beavers could get the nod to replace the Ducks here. Nebraska seems like it is on a path to the Big Ten title game and a rematch with Wisconsin, whom the Huskers have already beaten.

The only question is whether the Rose Bowl (or the Sugar Bowl, for that matter) would stray from tradition and take Notre Dame to replace a conference champion headed to the national title game. (I’m actually surprised that story hasn’t been more widely written.)

* Orange Bowl (at Miami), Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m.: Florida State vs. Louisville – FSU would be the host team here as the ACC champion. The Orange Bowl would have the last selection in the rotation and would likely be “stuck” with Big East champion Louisville.

* Sugar Bowl (at New Orleans), Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m.: Florida vs. Oklahoma – Florida, at 11-1, could be the fill-in for Alabama. Oklahoma, which could end up 10-2, would be a suitable regional at-large pick.

* Fiesta Bowl (at Glendale, Ariz.), Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m.: Kansas State vs. Notre Dame – As noted, this would be one heck of a consolation prize – for all of us, really -- for these two to square off in the desert. To have Klein go against that ND defense, that would be a real treat.

Now just sit back and enjoy the rest of the regular season. You never know when that November upset bug will strike and make all of this speculation moot.

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