College football wrap-up No. 4: Contender or pretender? Clearing up the BCS picture

Thirteen.

That is the number of teams in the FBS that remain unbeaten. While teams have competed for the national championship with losses on their resumes, the less you lose, the better your chances of playing for a national title. Though we’re just about halfway through the season, not all of these teams are bona fide contenders. I’m here to clear up the picture and lay out the championship path for each team.

LSU Tigers — The Tigers control their own fate. As an SEC team, its schedule is plenty challenging to satisfy the BCS computers that account for one third of the BCS formula. A win at Alabama and against Arkansas to finish the season will guarantee an appearance in the SEC championship game. A win there will produce a 13-0 record and a spot in the title game. A loss to a team other than LSU or Arkansas could complicate the picture, but an SEC championship with a 12-1 overall record should still give the Tigers a BCS title birth. Bottom line: LSU is absolutely a contender.

Alabama Crimson Tide — Just like its SEC West foe, Alabama too controls its own fate. The matchup with LSU as well as the Iron Bowl against Auburn are the only two real challenges left on the regular season schedule. Wins in those games, plus an SEC championship would send the Crimson Tide into the national title game. A loss to either SEC opponent opens the door for the rest of the conference. Bottom line: Alabama is absolutely a contender.

Oklahoma Sooners — With games versus Kansas State and Oklahoma State remaining on the schedule, wins in both contests will ensure a Big 12 title due to the lack of a title game in the conference.

The BCS computers see the Big 12 as one of the top two conferences in college football, so completing an undefeated conference schedule will most likely send the Sooners to the national championship. A loss that allows another Big 12 team to go undefeated would not help the Sooners’ cause, but a loss before going on to win the conference championship would keep Oklahoma in the national title picture. Bottom line: Oklahoma is absolutely a contender.

Oklahoma State Cowboys — With four ranked conference opponents, including Oklahoma, still left to play, the Cowboys have plenty of chances to prove themselves. As part of the BCS-computer-respected Big 12, an unblemished record and conference title will send Oklahoma State near the top of the BCS rankings. The timing of its game versus Oklahoma, in the last week of the season, will help solidify its final ranking even though other conferences will be playing title games once the Cowboys’ season is over. Bottom line: Oklahoma State’s a contender, but will have a tougher path than the first three teams.

Kansas State Wildcats — Didn’t expect to see them here? Neither did I. The Wildcats are a classic case of a back-loaded schedule. Their five wins are legitimate, including victories over Miami and Baylor, but tests against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas remain on the schedule. Winning out might be one of the most impressive runs in college football history, and I can’t argue that they would deserve a BCS championship invite. However, I can’t argue against the odds either. The teams they will be playing for the rest of the year are simply too talented. Kansas State is a nice story for now, but will probably end up looking at a 9-3 record. Bottom line: Kansas State is a pretender.

Michigan Wolverines — Michigan’s M.O. in recent years has been to start great before suffering a terrible collapse at the end of the season. Maybe that was due to a back-heavy schedule. Maybe it was Rich Rodriguez’s fault. Either way, Michigan won’t have it any easier this year, with matchups against Michigan State, Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State still on the docket. Running the table will produce a Big Ten championship game birth, and a win in that game will make for a very interesting cluster at the top of the BCS rankings. If the SEC and Big 12 both produce undefeated champions, it will be hard for the Wolverines to crack the top two in the BCS standings. Bottom line: Michigan is a contender, but will need some luck.

Wisconsin Badgers — After a big win versus Nebraska, the Badgers are in fairly good shape. Like Michigan, finishing the season undefeated will likely be a necessity. MSU, Ohio State and Illinois still remain on the schedule, but Wisconsin has looked nothing but impressive so far. A victory over Illinois should secure a Leaders Division crown, and a likely matchup with Michigan in the Big Ten title game. A 13-0 record will vault the Badgers to the top three or four of the BCS rankings, but the SEC or Big 12 champs will probably need to have a loss on its record to give Wisconsin a shot at the national title. Bottom line: Wisconsin is a contender, but will need some luck.

Illinois Fighting Illini — Close victories over Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern have given the Illini a 6-0 record, not to mention a ton of excitement in the greater Champaign-Urbana area. Five of those victories have been at home, and Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin all remain on the schedule. Even so, all three travel to Illinois, and young teams with a ton of confidence are always dangerous. The same scenario as Michigan and Wisconsin applies: run the table and win a Big Ten championship and a top tier BCS ranking awaits. The only disadvantage to Illinois is its lack of national appeal. Bottom line: Illinois is a contender, but will need A LOT of luck.

Stanford Cardinal — Ever since Oregon lost to LSU to open the season, most of the attention paid to the Pac-12 has surrounded Stanford and Heisman contender QB Andrew Luck. Oregon appears to be the final huge test for the Cardinal, though potential trap games versus USC and Notre Dame remain as well. The Pac-12 championship game gives Stanford another opportunity to prove its worth, potentially against a nationally ranked Arizona State team. Winning the Pac-12 is a must if the Cardinal want to compete in the national championship, but it won’t be enough. The SEC and Big 12 champions will likely need to lose as well. Bottom line: Stanford is a contender, but will need some Luck.

Clemson Tigers and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets — This is simple to figure out. An undefeated record will be necessary for both ACC teams, and they play each other Oct. 29. The winner will take a top-six BCS ranking into the ACC championship, which could end up being a rematch of the Tigers and Yellow Jackets. Even with an ACC title, it will be hard to argue for either one of these teams over an undefeated LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma or Stanford. Too much needs to happen for either team to sneak into the BCS championship. Bottom line: Clemson and Georgia Tech are both pretenders.

Houston Cougars — With its fearless leader Case Keenum back after an injury-plagued season last year, the Cougars are putting up big numbers. However, they will in all likelihood go the entire season without facing a ranked opponent, and close wins over UCLA, Louisiana Tech and UTEP won’t help their case. As if that isn’t enough, only the highest BCS-ranked non-automatic qualifying team is eligible for a BCS bowl. Not only will Houston not make the BCS championship, they won’t make a BCS bowl if Boise State finishes higher in the polls. Bottom line: Houston is a pretender, and it will be really sad to see a 12-0 team not play in a BCS bowl.

Boise State Broncos — For the millionth straight year, the undefeated Broncos seem to be on the outside looking in. Even an early season win over Georgia and a matchup with TCU still to go might not be enough to convince AP and coach voters that it is deserving of top BCS ranking. Boise State needs to hope for late-season losses from SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten teams in order to vault in to the top 2. It isn’t completely out of the question, but some blowout wins down the stretch wouldn’t hurt either. Bottom line: Boise State is a contender, but is, as always, far more likely to end up in a BCS game that isn’t the national championship.

The One-Loss Contenders — Oregon and South Carolina have both lost once this year, but their seasons are not lost causes yet. Oregon still faces Stanford, and would secure a trip to the Pac-12 championship with a victory. A Pac-12 title would get Oregon back in to the top 5 in the BCS rankings, and a few losses from top SEC and Big 12 contenders might mean a return trip to the national championship game for the Ducks.

South Carolina lost to Auburn, but still controls its own fate in the SEC. Running the table by defeating Arkansas and Clemson, among others, would mean a matchup with either LSU or Alabama in the SEC championship. An SEC championship with only one loss would create a close call with an undefeated Big Ten or Pac-12 champion to face an undefeated Big 12 champion in the national title game.

Arkansas isn’t included in this discussion because it doesn’t control its own fate. Even by winning out and LSU beating Alabama, the three-way tie in the SEC West would be broken by the highest BCS ranking after the last week of the regular season. This would come down to a handful of votes, and nothing is guaranteed.

*An Awkward Scenario*

Each team has its own championship scenario, or at least a path to put it in the best position possible. Say, however, that a number of teams go undefeated? Hypothetically, Stanford, one of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, or Kansas State, one of Michigan, Wisconsin, or Illinois, either LSU or Alabama, Boise State and Houston could go undefeated. That is six perfect records. What happens is a series of voters will determine which teams are better, and computers will add their opinions as well. A combination of the polls will declare two teams more worthy of a national championship appearance than the others. Four will be left out in the cold. Seems rational, right? I’d say an eight-team playoff would make slightly more sense.

*A Note on Expansion*

In the ever-changing college football landscape, not a week goes by without a new development. While the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 continue to feign satisfaction with their current group of teams, the Big 12 and Big East aren’t fooled. The Big 12 invited TCU to join its conference last week, a move that is a clear attempt by the unstable conference to convince Missouri and the rest of the members to not flee like Texas A&M. At the same time, this is a crushing blow to the Big East, which just lost Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC. The Big East will be down to six teams next year, assuming UConn and the others don’t migrate to the ACC as well. With the addition of TCU and the loss of Texas A&M, the Big 12 is treading water at the moment, but nothing seems completely stable. The SEC will most likely try and add a 14th member at some point to create two seven-team divisions like the ACC.

*Panic Meter*

Florida — After a grueling two-week span of facing Alabama and LSU, the Gators are 4-2 and travel to play Auburn on the road next week. With Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State still left on the schedule, there are more losses to come. The championship seasons with Tim Tebow seem a lifetime ago. 8-4 doesn’t seem unrealistic, but it won’t be easy either. With Alabama, LSU and South Carolina on the upswing, the Florida faithful aren’t sure when they will see another championship. Panic Meter sits at an 8.

Ohio State – The collapse continues. After allowing Nebraska to mount a massive second-half comeback to win last week, the Buckeyes go on the road to face a confident Illinois team before heading home to take on No. 4 Wisconsin. No. 11 Michigan looms at the end of the schedule as well. A final record of 6-6 seems likely, and the Buckeyes better hope that 6th win comes before the Michigan game, or else they might be heading into the offseason a little early this year. Panic Meter sits at the highest level possible, a 10.

Florida State — It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Seminoles were ranked 5th nationally and had a chance to knock off Oklahoma. Three losses later, and Florida State is unranked and spiraling out of control. With no other ranked teams on the schedule, eight or nine wins is still plausible, but all hope of a BCS game or a conference championship is lost. The Panic Meter doesn’t even apply any more. The Depression Meter sits at a 10.

*Games to Watch Next Week*

No. 11 Michigan at No. 23 Michigan State — Michigan State has been solid the entire year, save for a poor showing at Notre Dame. Michigan has played up to its potential, including an incredible comeback versus Notre Dame. If the transitive property applied to college football, we wouldn’t have to play this game. However, these fierce rivals will be competing Saturday for bragging rights and the lead in the Big Ten Legends division. Michigan State would love nothing more than to ruin Michigan’s bid for perfection at home. Both defenses have been terrific, tied for second in the nation by allowing 10.2 points per game. Michigan State pulls this one out, 17-14.

Ohio State at No. 16 Illinois — Ohio State is reeling and Illinois is carrying more momentum than it knows what to do with. Illinois hasn’t beaten the Buckeyes since its Rose Bowl season in 2007, despite coming close last year in Champaign. Ohio State is in danger of losing three straight Big Ten games after a horrible loss at Nebraska. If the Illini can keep putting points on the board, Ohio State won’t be able to keep up, especially if freshman QB Braxton Miller is still injured. The game will stay close before the running game of Illinois takes control in the second half. Illinois wins 27-17.

No. 18 Arizona State at No. 9 Oregon — The Sun Devils and Ducks both suffered disappointing early season losses and are trying to salvage what were supposed to be very high hopes for the year. The winner of this matchup controls its fate as far as winning the Pac-12 goes. With a conference title comes a trip to the Rose Bowl, and, if a few unlikely scenarios fall into place, could also spell a bid to the national championship. Arizona State has come a long way this year, but Oregon’s speed is too much to handle. The Ducks take this one, 55-32.

_Ed is a senior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @cubsfan2310._