BCS Realpolitik: Order out of chaos

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

In a perfect world, the Bowl Championship Series would not exist, and it can't go away fast enough. Until it does, though, we still live in the world we live in. So each Sunday night we examine what the new BCS numbers mean for the rest of the season, from a strictly practical point of view. Rooting interest: Chaos. Always chaos.

THAT HAPPENED. As a rule, the plunge of an undefeated juggernaut from the top of the pecking order in late November qualifies as a dramatic, season-defining twist under any circumstances. But holy smokes, what circumstances. I'm still shaking. Not only did Alabama lose: It lost to its most hated rival… with a division title on the line… after blowing a two-touchdown lead… on the final play… in the most unprecedented, is-this-real-life? fashion any living human being has ever witnessed. Which was only possible* in the first place because Alabama convinced officials it was entitled to one more second on the clock! (*Let's be real here: Given that it has never happened before, and will never be replicated under similar conditions, there is no rational basis for concluding the winning play by Auburn is actually possible. Scientifically speaking. Cannot be done.) It adds up to the most literally incredible finish in the history of organized competition and no one who participated in it or even saw it live will ever fully recover.

Still, as far as the Cardiac Cats crashing the BCS title game, don't believe the hype: If Florida State and Ohio State win their respective championship games next Saturday, Florida State and Ohio State are playing for the national championship in Pasadena. End of debate. I know, I know. SEC partisans who have bought into the league's superiority complex should go ahead and get the cognitive dissonance out of their system before false hope pushes them past the point of no return. Auburn's athletic director, Jay Jacobs, is already there, likening the prospect of a one-loss SEC champion – be it Auburn or Missouri – being left out of the Big One to a Communist conspiracy or something, as if an SEC team playing for the national championship is venerable American tradition. (In the BCS era, SEC teams have played for the crystal ball more than any other conference, but the idea of its champion being granted automatic passage is a relatively new one: Prior to 2006, the SEC champ only played in the nominal championship game twice in the Series' first eight years.) And nothing against Auburn, the most entertaining team in recent memory – or Missouri, which is actually much closer to being undefeated – but this year the numbers just aren't there.

13True, the margin between Ohio State at No. 2 and Auburn at No. 3 is close (just .027 points on a 1.000 scale), and Mizzou is certain to surge from No. 5 if it carries the day in Atlanta. But the Buckeyes remain solidly ahead of both sets of Tigers in five of six computer polls (the Colley Matrix stands alone, ranking Auburn one, OSU two, Missouri three), and in both relevant human polls. And although the margins there are narrow, too, what incentive will voters have to move a one-loss Auburn or Mizzou ahead of undefeated Ohio State next week that they didn't have this week? The Buckeyes' win at Michigan was their narrowest escape of the year, decided by a failed two-point conversion in the final minute. Whatever it looks like, a win over Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game will go down as Ohio State's most impressive victory of the year. How wide does the margin have to be in Atlanta to overcome that?

Certainly wider than we've seen from Auburn, whose M.O. against quality opponents (Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama) has been rallying from behind in the fourth quarter. Missouri's wins have been far more comfortable, but none have come over an opponent ranked in the current BCS top twenty. Neither have Ohio State's, for the record – Wisconsin's loss to Penn State dropped the Badgers to No. 21 – but if that's not enough to take the Buckeyes out of the driver's seat going into next weekend, it's going to take another bizarre turn of fate to eject them if they take care of business in Indy.

FOR CHAOS' SAKE. Beyond that, while there's no doubt Missouri will leap Alabama with a win over Auburn, the Crimson Tide aren't quite dead yet. Let's say they're in a kind of post-traumatic coma, still breathing but needing help for everything else. Unlike the last two years, there's no chance for Bama to absolve a stunning November loss by blowing the doors off the remainder of its schedule and (in the case of 2012) going on to win the SEC, anyway, but again, there is still a chance for the dominoes in front of them to fall in the Tide's favor without their lifting a finger. It's an exceedingly distant chance – both Florida State and Ohio State would have to go down at the same time on Saturday night to set up an all-SEC championship game, the former as a 30-point favorite over Duke – one that probably wouldn't even be worth mentioning if we were in reference to any other team. But anyone who dismisses a wildly unlikely set of circumstances falling in the Crimson Tide's favor out of hand is new around these parts.

The other alternative if the inconceivable is conceived in Charlotte and Indy is a late push by Oklahoma State, which – as in 2011 – would seem to have a feasible shot of overcoming idle Alabama with a thorough evisceration of its rival, Oklahoma, en route to its second Big 12 crown in three years. Unlike 2011, though, the Cowboys are well behind the curve in the computer polls, likely preventing an insurgency even if they humiliate the Sooners to a great enough extent to make a big move in the human polls. In the same way it's going take a concerted, pro-SEC push among voters to get Auburn or Missouri into the championship game over Ohio State, it would take an explicitly anti–SEC agenda to lift Oklahoma State into position to fend off a return trip by Bama. We're already on the far end of a fever dream simply envisioning the debate.

REALPOLITIK TOP TEN SIX. Each week we take the long view to reorganize the pecking order in a more user-friendly format, according to each team's odds of actually making the championship game in January. (As opposed to where they happen to rank in a given week, which may be only a fleeting snapshot.) Projections here take future schedules and multiple possible scenarios into account. Win-loss records reflect the record necessary to fulfill each scenario; opponents in the top 15 of current standings are in bold.

1. Florida State (13–0)
Credential: ACC Champion
Remaining Schedule: vs. Duke
Path to Championship: Beat Duke in ACC Championship (controls destiny)

2. Ohio State (13–0)
Credential: Big Ten Champion
Remaining Schedule: vs. Michigan State
Path to Championship: Beat Michigan State in B1G Championship (controls destiny)

3. Auburn (12–1) or
4. Missouri (12–1)

Credential: SEC Champion
Remaining Schedule(s): Head-to-head in SEC championship
Path to Championship: Winner needs loss by Florida State and/or Ohio State.

5. Alabama (11–1)
Credential: SEC at-large
Remaining Schedule: None
Path to Championship: Losses by Florida State AND Ohio State.

6. Oklahoma State (11–1)
Credential: Big 12 Champion
Remaining Schedule: Oklahoma
Path to Championship: Beat Oklahoma by colossal margin + Losses by Florida State AND Ohio State.

No conceivable scenario exists for any team beyond Oklahoma State, and including the Cowboys is stretching the concept as far as it will go.

VERY NICE PARTING GIFTS. 13Which brings us to the best of the rest, or at least the most potentially profitable of the rest. Of the ten BCS bids that will be passed out next Sunday, only two are really set in stone: The Pac-12 champion (Arizona State or Stanford) is going to the Rose Bowl, and the Big 12 champ (Baylor, Oklahoma State or Texas) is on its way to the Fiesta. The rest is still up in the air, although we can make some good guesses. As far as the other automatic bids go, it's safe to assume Florida State will beat Duke to punch its ticket to the BCS title game, thus opening up a spot in the Orange Bowl; decorum suggests that vacancy will be filled by the only other eligible team in the ACC, Clemson. Determined as Central Florida seems to be to tank its stock in the polls (Friday's come-from-behind, 23–20 win over South Florida follows close, come-from-behind wins over Memphis and Temple earlier this season), it's a virtual lock for the Sugar Bowl as BIG AMERICA champion; even with a loss Saturday at SMU, the Knights would likely hold on to their automatic status on the strength of a head-to-head win over Louisville (if the Cardinals beat Cincinnati) or a better BCS ranking than Cincy (if the Bearcats beat Louisville). If the SEC champ (Auburn or Missouri) is snubbed by the championship game, as it probably will be, it will be bound for the Sugar Bowl, too.

That leaves four at-large bids, and up to six teams in realistically position to land one:

Alabama: Bama is a lock, likely to the Orange Bowl, which will have the first choice to replace Florida State if (when) FSU clinches its spot in Pasadena. The Crimson Tide could conceivably land in the Sugar Bowl if Auburn or Missouri crashes the title game, although that would require the Orange to pass them up in favor of a less attractive option, and why would it do that? Clemson will still be there for the taking.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes are more likely candidates for the Sugar Bowl if they lose the Big Ten championship, ironically filling the SEC champ's shoes against UCF.

Michigan State: Win or lose in Indy, the Spartans are likely Rose Bowl-bound: Win, and they're in automatically as Big Ten champs; lose, and Wisconsin's loss to Penn State means MSU is still the best option for the Rose to fill its traditional Big Ten slot opposite the Pac-12 champ while keeping a key partner happy in the process.

Northern Illinois: Fresno State fell by the wayside in spectacular fashion against San Jose State, once again leaving NIU as the standard-bearer for "BCS busters" everywhere. With a win in the MAC Championship Game, the Huskies will meet both criteria for earning an automatic bid (ranked in the top 16 of the final standings, ahead of the AAC champ) for the second year in a row. Short straw this year belongs to the Fiesta Bowl, which would match the Huskies up with the Big 12 champ.

Clemson: Assuming Alabama is already in the fold, the Orange could opt for a really compelling matchup between Bama and one of the spread powerhouses from Baylor or Oregon. More likely, it will kowtow to its ongoing partnership with the ACC by taking Clemson, while writing off Baylor as a travel/ratings risk and citing Oregon's shaky finish to cover its tracks.

Baylor: Assuming a win over Texas, the Bears could replace Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl if the Cowboys bite the dust against Oklahoma. Short of a Big 12 title, though, an at-large nod over Clemson in the Orange or Michigan State in the Rose is a bad bet, and the Fiesta is out to avoid a rematch with OSU. The Sugar is a possibility only if Northern Illinois loses, allowing the Sugar to pass UCF on to the Fiesta and take the Bears instead. If NIU wins, the Sugar is only in play if a) Baylor crushes Texas in impressive, reputation-salvaging fashion, and b) Ohio State loses to Michigan State in such demoralizing fashion that the Bears suddenly become a more attractive option than the Buckeyes. Again, place your wagers on the Cotton Bowl.

Oregon: The Ducks could also land in the Sugar if Northern Illinois and Oklahoma State both lose, sending UCF and Baylor (or Texas) on to the Fiesta Bowl. There is also a distant chance the Fiesta Bowl will have an opportunity to give us the Baylor–Oregon shootout of our dreams. If NIU wins on Friday night, though, thereby locking itself into the Fiesta and UCF into the Sugar, the Ducks' four-year BCS run under Chip Kelly is kaput. More likely destination: Alamo Bowl.

IF DUKE BEATS FLORIDA STATE. Humanity is on the cusp of a cataclysmic event that will end civilization as we know it. The Mayans were off by a year. I have no contingencies for this outcome.

BILLINGSLEY WATCH. No one hates the BCS computers more than actual statisticians, and none of the computer polls comes in for more skepticism among the pros than the one overseen by Richard Billingsley, a stress-management expert from Oklahoma who does not possess a college degree. By rule, the BCS excludes the highest and lowest computer scores for each team from its overall computer average; week after week, Billingsley's numbers are inevitably rejected as outliers at a far greater rate than the other polls.

Here are this week's full standings, with the rejected computer scores for each team noted in red:

13

Despite Billingsley's overall lead for the season (which has shrunk significantly over the past three weeks), the single most fascinating outlier among the computers continues to be Jeff Sagarin's love affair with Northern Illinois. All year, Sagarin's system has lifted the Huskies to loftier and loftier heights despite their wretched strength of schedule ratings; this week, he ranks NIU No. 2 nationally (!), ahead of Ohio State, Auburn, Alabama, Missouri, et al. Because Sagarin has been the most vocal in his criticism of restrictions on BCS computer polls – namely the ill-conceived ban on accounting for margin of victory – the only rational explanation for such exuberance over the class of the MAC is that it's an intentional, season-long troll job designed to show up the statistical bankruptcy of the system in its final year of existence. (In Sagarin's "real" rankings, which include margin of victory, Northern Illinois comes in at No. 38.) Otherwise… well, there may be a few kinks to work out over the offseason.

Billingsley Watch Standings: Total Rejected Rankings for 2013
1. Richard Billingsley: 73 of 250 (29%)
2. Kenneth Massey: 49 of 250 (20%)
2. Jeff Sagarin: 49 of 250 (20%)
4. Colley Matrix: 38 of 250 (15%)
5. Anderson & Hester: 29 of 250 (12%)
6. Peter Wolfe: 19 of 250 (8%)

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