Preseason favorites Alabama have a clear path to the BCS national championship, the last ever before the introduction of a four team playoff and potentially the Tide’s third straight (and fourth in five years). What was clear coming into this season: Alabama’s dominance. What wasn’t clear? That there’s a very, very real shot that the #4 Auburn Tigers take care of business on their home turf Saturday in one of the most epic Iron Bowl matchups in recent history. For Alabama, the goal is clear. Win the game, stroll into Atlanta as the favorites for the SEC championship and reserve your spot against (most likely) Florida State in the BCS championship. For Auburn, beating Alabama wouldn’t only serve as playing spoiler to their most hated rival, but put them in serious contention for a national title spot. For two SEC schools, Auburn and Missouri, everything that needed to happen last week, happened. Oregon and Baylor are almost all but eliminated from a national title appearance, giving hope to the Buckeyes and two out of the three Tigers in the SEC, Mizzou and Auburn.
There’s likely not a single pundit, or fan, in either Auburn, Alabama or Columbia, Missouri who penciled their teams in these situations last spring. Guz Malzahn inherited a dumpster fire at Auburn, the Tigers won a mere three games, none in the SEC last year. For a program only three years removed from a national championship, their plummet was historic and puzzling in nature. Many thought booting former coach Gene Chizik, who rode Cam Newton to an SEC and national championship, so soon was a mistake that would set the program back. Guz Malzahn was an “Auburn guy”, serving as Chizik’s offensive coordinator during their championship run, but had only a full year as a head coach before taking the helm, at a Sun Belt program no less. For much of the season, Auburn’s improvement was noticeable, but it wasn’t until their defeat of Texas A&M on national television that the nation took notice. Add in an improbable, all-time great, one in a million play against Georgia, and Auburn finds itself two games away from maybe playing for a national title and reclaiming their spot as a traditional power in the SEC West. Should the Tigers fall short against Alabama this weekend, the offices in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa are on notice. Things might have gotten a lot tougher in the SEC West. Schools like Auburn rarely stay down for long, but this quick a turnaround is nothing short of miraculous.
For Missouri, limping to the finish line in their first SEC campaign was a bitter disappointment for a program that had resurrected itself from the depths of college football hell. Gary Pinkel had built a program that won forty games in four years, produced a Heisman finalist, more than a handful of first round draft picks and was a half of football away in 2007 from a national championship appearance. To those in Big 12 country, Missouri was a legitimate program that produced legitimate results. To the SEC faithful, the new kids on the block would surely be in over their heads. And for the most part, they were right. Without starting quarterback James Franklin, former All Big-12 runningback Henry Josey and a patchwork offensive line, Mizzou took its beating in year one, committing the mortal sin of letting Vanderbilt win on your home turf and eventually missing a bowl. Introspection was deep within the program and the Tigers entered 2013 much quieter and reserved than 2012, vowing to let their play do the talking, mostly due to the departure of Sheldon Richardson to the NFL, who was rarely without words in their first season. Like Auburn, Mizzou is a year removed from missing a bowl game and sits in the BCS top 5 for the second time this season and a game away from a conference title shot for the first time since 2010. Mizzou hosts Texas A&M and college football pariah Johnny Manziel in their last game of the season. Mizzou is trying to visit its first SEC Championship game and Johnny Manziel is hobbling in after a humbling in Baton Rouge. Missouri has pride on the line, Manziel, a potential Heisman repeat and future in the NFL. If it doesn’t get any better than the Iron Bowl, this is pretty close.
The SEC Championship game picture is up in the air. Alabama, Auburn, Missouri and South Carolina all won’t know who will meet in Atlanta until the final whistles on Saturday night. Florida State, BCS #2, has a clear path to the national championship game and a much easier test in the ACC championship game. But, anybody following college football knows that the games are only half the story regarding the Seminoles. It was announced this week that the Florida State’s Attorney Office won’t rule on Winston’s sexual assault case until after the ACC championship game. The accusations surrounding Winston, who’s remained tight-lipped and contained by his FSU handlers throughout, haven’t affected his play in the slightest. Winston, as of this writing, is likely the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, especially with Texas A&M’s third loss last weekend. That could all change should more fire surface beneath the smoke in Tallahassee. The sexual assault case doesn’t only affect voters in the Heisman race, but having to bench Jameis Winston if more comes to light would be disastrous for the Seminoles. Winston has already done all of the heavy lifting this season, but redshirt freshman Sean Maguire would be thrown into the hottest of fires, potentially in the ACC Championship game or the BCS National Championship with almost no room for error. If Winston is ruled ineligible before the ACC Championship game, how will that impact voters? If Winston can’t play in the BCS national championship, how good are the Seminoles?
These are important questions, but very important to the Ohio State Buckeyes, who find themselves clawing for a national championship shot, sitting at BCS #3. Theoretically, the Buckeyes have little to worry about. Baylor and Oregon’s slip ups have them sitting behind Florida State and Alabama. Florida State as of now might have punched their ticket, but there’s at least a legitimate shot Alabama can trip in the plains at Auburn. Ohio State, sitting at #3 needs either Florida State or Alabama to lose in the next two weeks…but not so fast my friends. It’s rare that a discussion revolving Ohio State and their impressive 23 game winning streak doesn’t include a discussion of their strength of schedule. According to Sagarin, the Big 10 ranks last along with the ACC among the BCS qualifier conferences. Ohio State has the nation’s 67th toughest schedule. None of this diminishes the focus and execution it takes to win 23 straight games, regardless of competition. What it does cast into question is whether the Buckeyes would be safe should Auburn or Missouri win the SEC championship. This is especially true in Auburn’s case, who would win an SEC championship by beating #1 Alabama and #5 Missouri, or #10 South Carolina in consecutive weeks. Ohio State doesn’t get the sleepwalk Florida State does this weekend either. Michigan is not a great football team this year. They might not even be a good football team. But they’re not Idaho. It’s also the most important game of the schedule for both teams in spirit and they’re playing in the Big House, one of the most intimidating venues in all of college football. Ohio State will face Michigan State regardless of Saturday’s outcome during championship week. It’s not a strong chance, but there’s enough here to think Ohio State will have to be at the top of its game the next two weeks before they should worry about being jumped by someone else. Between the Big House and a solid Michigan State team, it wouldn’t take much more than a bad bounce or sluggish start to derail the train.
The scramble for BCS berths outside of the top five is equally as interesting. South Carolina (BCS #10) will make it to the SEC Championship game with a Missouri loss, sharing the SEC division title with the tiebreaker and championship game appearance. If all goes as planned, Clemson is all but assured an appearance in the Orange Bowl. But, the indecision around the Winston situation or a historic upset by the underdog Duke Blue Devils (yes, in football) in the conference championship could give Clemson the boot. A win over a BCS top ten team would do wonders for Clemson’s portfolio, and the Tigers haven’t beaten the Gamecocks in four years. This year, Dabo Swinney brings his most talented team into Columbia, SC to regain momentum in the heated rivalry. For South Carolina, the game is meaningless for their conference title hopes, but a win against Clemson and finishing 10-2 would help strengthen USC’s stock between Auburn and Missouri, should either win this weekend and lose in the conference title game. Not confusing enough? The Sugar Bowl will likely take a bid from the new All American Conference, probably Central Florida, with an outside shot for Cincinnati. Should the Sugar Bowl committee choose to go the non-automatic-qualifier route, it will be a toss-up between Northern Illinois or Fresno State. Should the Sugar Bowl pass, either one of NIU or Fresno State will find a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. In the Pac-12, Stanford’s limped to the finish line, but Oregon’s latest hiccup will likely put the Cardinal in the Rose Bowl, should they take care of Arizona State. If Arizona State wins out (which isn’t unthinkable by any means), Arizona State gets the Rose Bowl spot, probably against Ohio State if the cards fall as is. If you’re any of the aforementioned universities, there’s still plenty left to play for and a loss could put you in the backseat with no slack left to improve your stock.
Speaking of slack, Baylor yanked their rope at the most inopportune time possible. Oklahoma State is perhaps the most improved of college football’s “great” teams in 2013, throttling Baylor on both sides of the ball in Stillwater. Baylor seemed like an unstoppable force for almost the entire season, but their singular loss puts the Cowboys in the driver’s seat for a Fiesta Bowl appearance and Big 12 championship. Baylor, a small private university, has done remarkable things with their athletic program the past few years. That being said, they don’t provide much upside for most BCS Bowls. The top ten is unfamiliar territory for Baylor and their fans. There’s little football tradition at the school and their fanbase is small and likely doesn’t travel well, but a trip to New Orleans might bring enough Bears to fill the stands. The Bears have an outside shot of getting a Sugar Bowl berth should some conglomeration of UCF, NIU and Fresno State all blow their shot and the stars align favorably for Art Briles. The most likely scenario? Baylor joins Oregon on the outside looking in at not only the national title, but conference championship and BCS bowls to boot.
There’s everything left to play for in each of college football’s major conferences. Last Saturday, Oregon went from “wanting Bama” a few mere weeks ago, to giving up their seat at the big boys table. This Saturday? Auburn or Ohio State can drop an atomic bomb on the BCS rankings and renew life for more than a handful of schools chasing a crystal football. There’s plenty wrong with the BCS. But, as the NCAA moves forward and establishes the infancy of a playoff, I’ll miss weekends like these. As a proud Mizzou fan, I sympathize with schools like Baylor. I know how much it stings to have a historic season halted and your national and BCS hopes dashed because you’re not a blue blood. If the Bears had another sticker on their helmet, maybe they’re still fighting for something besides the Cotton Bowl. That being said, it doesn’t make the ride any less fun. It seems as though we’ve arrived here at the blink of an eye, but for fans of the BCS top ten, the next two weeks may seem like an eternity.