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UNTANGLING A CONFERENCE TITLE AND BCS MESS
December 2, 2010

SCS.com This week is Championship Weekend, where every conference lucky enough to have a championship game will pit the best of their divisions in head-to-head combat for BCS or premiere bowl berths. From the SEC to the MAC, there's a lot to enjoy this weekend. However, there is one conference done with play except for one team's final non-conference game and that conference race is a pure mess. Following this week's results, the Big Ten ended with three teams deadlocked atop the conference with identical 7-1 and 11-1 records. Discounting the two WAC teams that will not get an at-large berth to the BCS at 11-1, there are a grand total of seven teams in the country that have survived to Championship weekend with one or fewer losses. Three of the seven are in the Big Ten. There's no question that these teams all deserve to be among the supposed best ten teams on display in the BCS, even considering the Big East and ACC slots. Everyone else may have had a nice season, but two losses is two losses. No getting around it. However, because of the BCS rule that no more than two teams from any conference can play in the BCS in one season, one of these three deserving teams will be left out. Let the unsavory politicking begin.

Actually, the unsavory politicking probably began four weeks ago when Wisconsin decided that instead of just sweeping the final four games on their schedule, they wanted to run up the score and humiliate each opponent with their powerful offense and solid defense. While there was certainly no late scoring against Northwestern, Wisconsin was probably assured that they would be the top ranked BCS team and so did not need to gain more points. The real shame was the 83 point output against Indiana fueled by long bombs passes in the fourth quarter with the game long decided. But all politicking aside, how should we decide which two of the teams should be rewarded with a chance of a lifetime while the other gets stuck with essentially the same bowl game as the next team down in the standings (either Penn State or Iowa, at 4-4 and 7-5 apiece). Wisconsin wants to focus on how they finished the season stronger and better than everyone else in the country let alone in the conference. Ohio State wants to also focus on how they finished after losing at Wisconsin, and also on their elite NFL caliber talent. Michigan State wants credit for playing without their head coach for weeks at a time and overcoming difficult situations multiple times like many national champions of years past. Oh and Michigan State is the only team with a winning record against the trio (1-0). However, focusing on one game or one result is not right when we have a season full of common games to look at.

In non-conference play, Wisconsin struggled to put away San Jose State and Arizona State and had no meaningful wins, Ohio State beat a decent Miami team and nobody else relevant, and Michigan State skated barely by Notre Dame and Florida Atlantic. (OSU 3, MSU 2, UW 1). Versus Illinois, MSU got a solid 20 point win while OSU escaped late and UW did not play (MSU 3, OSU 2, UW 1). Against Indiana, Wisconsin throttled them by 63 while OSU won by 28. (UW 3, OSU 2, MSU 1). Against Iowa the biggest contrast takes place as Ohio State won by 3, Wisconsin by 1, and MSU lost by an astounding 31 (OSU 3, UW 3, MSU 0). Against the Wolverines, Wisconsin won by 20 while OSU won by 30 and MSU won by 17 (OSU 3, UW 2, MSU 2). Versus Minnesota, OSU won by 42 on the road while MSU won by 23 and Wisconsin won by 18 at home. (OSU 3, MSU 2, UW 2). Against Northwestern, OSU had a bye while Wisconsin won by 47 and MSU won by 8 (UW 3, MSU 2, OSU 1). Against Penn State, UW had a bye while OSU won by 24 and MSU won by 6 (OSU 3, MSU 2, UW 1). Finally against Purdue, OSU won by 49, UW won by 21, and MSU escaped by 4. (OSU 3, MSU 2, UW 1).

Adding all these scores together, you get for common matchups (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue), Ohio State comes out on top with 12 points followedby Wisconsin at 8 and Michigan State at 6. Putting all matchups together for the entire season, the rankings stay the same with OSU at 23, UW at 17, and MSU at 16. MSU deserves a slight bump for beating Wisconsin, while OSU deserves a slight downrank for losing to Wisconsin. With all that considered, it actually appears that Ohio State should be going to the BCS with Michigan State. However, finishing strong and the eye test are all-important and Wisconsin has just simply done better in those departments than the other two teams. So while it is an unjust rule that keeps Michigan State out of a BCS game, unfortunately that seems to be fair if Wisconsin must go. While Ohio State will be making their sixth consecutive BCS bowl game appearance, Wisconsin can commiserate with the Spartans, as one of two other teams to be screwed by this BCS rule ever (2006, a 12-1 season spoiled by 11-1 Michigan and 12-0 Ohio State, also Texas Tech in 2008 at 11-1). At the end of the day, it is the rule that needs to change not the teams. It is a highly rare circumstance that three teams with one loss or fewer emerge from a conference, and those instances should be rewarded not punished. But the BCS moves like a glacier, so do not expect much change anytime soon.

The big news across the wire to start Championship Week is from the team at 12-0 and in the clubhouse, hoping for a loss by Oregon or Auburn in the final weekend to let them into the national championship. TCU will be joining the Big East in the 2012 season, which means that Boise State's move to the Mountain West has been all for naught as BYU, TCU, and Utah will all be gone shortly after or when they arrive. I explained why I thought the Big East should throw geography to the wind and grab the Horned Frogs and the Broncos a few weeks ago, but the sure-fire fit was TCU from the start. I'm happy I don't have to discuss a 17 team conference like Big East basketball (one word: ugh), but TCU brings a dose of instant credibility back to the lowly Big East. If the Big East can manage to find a good tenth team, they may not be at risk of losing their BCS automatic berth. The TCU move is designed to do just that, with a 24-1 record the past two seasons which will be considered in the next BCS cycle. Villanova sounds like the other pick, and that actually could bring long-term further credibility if Villanova can succeed even better in the jump to FBS than Connecticut has. TCU was already traveling over 600 miles to road games, so what is the difference goign northeast rather than northwest? The endless shuffle continues and one begins to wonder is Boise State will become the new Notre Dame (the special school left out of the automatic qualifying festivities). TCU will not always be this good, but they will bring more consistency and more credibility even in down years.

Every championship team has a moment when the dam is about to break, but perserverance wins through to keep a record clean and title hopes alive. Although Auburn has trailed in the fourth quarter multiple times this season, nothing looked dimmer than being down 24-0 at Alabama and watching another seeming touchdown run happen to put the game out of reach. But then something changed, as a forced fumble out the back of the end zone prevented Alabama from scoring and a pair of further turnovers cost the Crimson Tide many opportunities to put the Tigers away. Then Cam Newton became confident in the second half and took the game over. Auburn did exactly what I did not think was possible coming into the season, and that's escape Bryant-Denney with a win. For Oregon, the "moment" came against California as the Ducks needed to survive a two-point conversion to tie and a field goal attempt to win before escaping 15-13. For TCU, that moment came while down early 14-0 against San Diego State. The Horned Frogs ripped off 40 consecutive points to take control of the game, before holding on for a narrow 5 point win. Each of these teams has had a moment, but none tops Auburn this past weekend and one figures that the SEC must indeed be beaten in a National Championship game to be truly dethroned after four straight titles. Oddly enough, the Iron Bowl rivals have that in common as Alabama's "moment" last year came against the Tigers. The Tigers hope their season ends the same way.

Boise State's loss does benefit TCU greatly, but the biggest jump of all was Stanford into the top 4 of the BCS standings because that would give them an automatic at-large berth that guarantees they will not be shut out. Just like the three Big Ten teams at 11-1, there's no reason to penalize Stanford for having a more local following than other schools. Stanford clearly deserves to be on the sport's biggest stage, and now they will get the chance to do just that. Although this may spoil my game previews below, I project that Oregon and Auburn will win their final games considering how Oregon State and South Carolina have been so inconsistent. Thus, TCU gets shipped to the Rose to play Wisconsin. The Sugar Bowl gets the next two picks and likely sets up Arkansas as the SEC replacement versus Ohio State. The Orange Bowl will be happy with Virginia Tech and will add Stanford to make a very interesting game. The Fiesta Bowl sort of gets stuck with the Thanksgiving turkey sandwich leftovers, which appears to be Nebraska and Connecticut (of all teams!). These projections may change with an Oklahoma win (Nebraska out of Fiesta), a South Carolina win (TCU to BCS Championship, South Carolina to Sugar, Stanford to Rose, Auburn to Orange, Arkanas out), or an Oregon State win (TCU to BCS Championship, Oregon to Rose). However, this is the best projection I have going into the final weekend.

2011 BCS Bowl Projections - 1 Week To Go

Rose - Wisconsin (Big Ten) vs. TCU (at large)
Fiesta - Nebraska (Big XII) vs. Connecticut (Big East)
Orange - Virginia Tech (ACC) vs. Stanford (at large)
Sugar - Arkansas (at large) vs. Ohio State (at large)
BCS Championship - Oregon (Pac-10) vs. Auburn (SEC)

The first game of the week is the ACC Championship between Florida State and Virginia Tech. The only time these two giants of the conference have met in the ACC Championship was 2005, and FSU came out on top. However, Virginia Tech has dominated the conference since them and is on a 10 game roll after an 0-2 start in 2010. Hokies quarterback Tyrod Taylor has thrown for 20 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, while also running for 613 yards. Look for WR Jarrett Boykin to be Taylor's primary target, although the Seminoles defense will not be able to cheat against the pass with Taylor and RB Darren Evans each being threatening runners. Look for Virginia Tech to try and get ahead early with the passing attack so that the running game may be exploited to its full potential late in the game to dominate time of possession, tiring out the Seminoles defense. Florida State is also led by a dynamic quarterback, although Christian Ponder is a pocket passer. Ponder has a 20-8 touchdown to interception ratio and will be looking to avoid the mistakes that have plagued him against better defenses. WR Willie Haulstead only has 33 receptions on the season but he is a true talent that Ponder will look for throughout the game. Virginia Tech has not really broken down defensively outside the opener against Boise State, but Florida State has a similar offense. This game will likely come down to who makes a mistake, and Florida State is more prone to those mistakes this season. With the Hokies on a roll, Virginia Tech will keep the positive momentum going with a 7 point victory.

The second game of the week is the final Big XII Championship between two old rivals, Oklahoma and Nebraska. This meeting of old rivals is a repeat of the 2006 conference championship which Oklahoma won, and will be one final opportunity for Nebraska to win a conference crown before leaving for the Big Ten, as well as one final opportunity to knock off their long time rival from the Big 8 conference era. The game should be a contrast of styles, as Oklahoma prefers to win with a wide open passing game by outscoring opponents, while Nebraska has played many defensive slugfests this season while relying on a powerful running game. When Oklahoma has the ball, QB Landry Jones will be looking to break 4000 yards passing and improve on his 34 touchdown passes, 13 to Ryan Broyles. Nebraska's blackshirts defense can shut down one-dimensional offenses, so Oklahoma will need to hope RB DeMarco Murray is back to 100% or close to it so that Oklahoma can keep the defensive front busy. Freshman Roy Finch has been an adequate backup when Murray is out, but he still is not up to snuff in finding big holes and good running lanes. When Nebraska has the ball, the key will be whether QB Taylor Martinez has a healthy enough ankle to be effective. Roy Helu Jr. is a dynamic running back, but the dual threat with Martinez in the game makes Nebraska significantly better on offense. If Cody Green needs to play in this game, expect Oklahoma to beef up against the run and force Green to make mistakes. I believe both Murray and Martinez will play, but Martinez is more likely to be fully healthy and make the critical difference in this one. The Cornhuskers may have a mental block in the state of Texas, but they will break that in their last game in the state in a while with a 10 point win.

The third and final game of the week is the SEC Championship, Auburn versus South Carolina. Unlike the first two games of the week, this conference championship is a rematch of an earlier game this season, where Auburn used a formula now tried and true for them with a comeback from a 13 point first half deficit to rally past the Gamecocks. South Carolina has won the battles when their back has been against the wall, such as against Florida. South Carolina's defense cannot be eager to face the likely Heisman Trophy winner again although Cam Newton did not run wild in the previous meeting. However, Newton always seems to make clutch plays when needed with 2254 yards passing and 1336 yards rushing. Freshman RB Michael Dyer will also look to weaken the Gamecock defensive front over the course of the game. While Auburn has played better on defense in the second half of games, the offense also tends to wear down opposing defenses so that late in the game no lead is safe against the Tigers. South Carolina has the firepower to build a lead tough to overcome though, especially if RB Marcus Lattimore is finding big holes in the second half to play keep away with the ball. Stephen Garcia has thrown 9 interceptions this season, but he has thrown over half his passes to Alshon Jeffery, who has an astounding 1351 yards this season already. Auburn is subject to breakdowns in the secondary, so Jeffery may find some big openings that could put USC ahead. However, if Alabama cannot win at home with a 24 point lead against the Tigers, there is no way that the Gamecocks will derail the magical season for Auburn. The Tigers punch their ticket to the national championship with a 17 point win.

Other Games of the Week - Week 14

(2) Oregon defeats Oregon State
(11) Boise State defeats Utah State
(17) Nevada defeats Louisiana Tech
(24) West Virginia defeats Rutgers
Connecticut defeats South Florida (for Big East title)

2010 GOTW Record: 25-15
Last Week: 0-3
2010 Overall Top 25 Record: 198-57
Last Week: 15-5

Fitz Top 10 - Week 14

1. TCU (12-0)
2. Oregon (10-0)
3. Auburn (12-0)
4. Wisconsin (11-1)
5. Stanford (11-1)
6. Ohio State (11-1)
7. Michigan State (11-1)
8. Arkansas (10-2)
9. Virginia Tech (10-2)
10. Oklahoma (10-2)

Just Missed: Boise State, Missouri, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma State

So next week, we will take a quick look back at the preseason predictions and hand out a few postseason conference awards. 2010 has provided some interesting twists and turns, but the final month of the season ended up being pretty tame as most of the undefeated and one loss teams managed to escape the month cleanly. The bowl season is shaping up nicely, and even if you miss next week's article, come back throughout December and early January for our take on the major and minor bowl games. Enjoy the final weekend of college football for the 2010 season and we'll see you back here next week.

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