Friday, November 17, 2006

"And Now Eric's Secretary is in a Coma": A BCS Mess

That fantastic line comes from one of my all time favorite bad comedies, Billy Madison. It serves as the tail end of Brian Madison's (played by the always fantastic Darren McGavin) recap of the dire situation in which the main characters find themselves and is followed by the words, "What a mess." It always struck me as a hilarious way of wrapping up a truly absurd set of circumstances (and not just because Aaron Sorkin all-star Bradley Whitford plays the villainous Eric) and it became the catch phrase of choice for me and my buddies whenever things had gone horribly wrong.

It's been years since I've felt compelled to sigh and exclaim "and now Eric's secretary is in a coma" in order to truly express how messed up something has become. But the current BCS landscape is enough to bring it all back. Because this is one hell of a mess.

As it stands, the only sure thing about the BCS championship game is that the winner of Saturday's Ohio State-Michigan showdown will be playing in it. After that, all bets are off.

The sheer number of absurd possibilities is enough to boggle the mind. Here are the seven teams that seem to have a shot at snagging that all-important #2 spot (I would use an Austin Powers quote about "Number Two" here, but that movie got real dated, real quick, so I'm going to pass):

Ohio State. Things will be a lot easier for everyone if the Buckeyes win on Saturday. Sort of. The big thing is that Ohio State's presence in the title game would dramatically reduce the odds of "BCS Armageddon" occurring.

BCS Armageddon goes like this: two teams meet in the title game who have already played during the season and the team that lost earlier winds up winning the "championship game" and the two teams finish with identical records overall and against each other. Except that the team that won on the road (and therefore is the slightly more impressive candidate) loses the title to the team that won on a neutral field. Confused? If you are, it is probably because this makes no intuitive sense whatsoever. But there are two scenarios in which this can happen. If Michigan beats Ohio State on Saturday and the two are pitted in a rematch, the Wolverines would face that exact scenario. Michigan would also confront that prospect if matched up against Notre Dame in the title game. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The point is that an undefeated Michigan in the BCS game opens the door for them to wind up playing against a one-loss team they have already defeated on the road during the regular season. Should they lose that rematch, they would, in turn, lose the national title despite splitting the "series," boasting an identical record, and having won the only road game between the two squads. People aren't really pondering this now, but trust me, there will be much hand-wringing if it goes down like this. All of which means that Ohio State makes for a pretty safe option as the #1 team.

Michigan. The flip side of an Ohio State win (which keeps Michigan out of that undefeated team-versus-already-vanquished-at-home-opponent rematch) is, obviously, a Michigan loss. A lot of people are clambering for a rematch of this showdown (usually with the caveat that it must be a "great game") and while that might make for good television and may very well pit the two best teams against each other (although honestly, how in the world do we know that?), it creates the perverse scenario described above. And while that scenario is mitigated if Michigan is the losing team (because if they turn around and beat OSU on a neutral field after losing on the road, you can make a more convincing case that they deserve the title for reasons beyond "winning second instead of first"), it is also a whole lot more likely.

I'm not sure if anyone else has tried to figure this out yet, but Michigan seems far more likely to snag a rematch should they lose. For starters, they are going on the road, so a loss won't cause as big of a hit in the eyes of voters. The loser here will probably be in the #2 spot in the human polls, but it is possible that Ohio State could drop an additional spot or two for losing at home, especially if a team like USC or Florida runs the table in dominant fashion. Not only that, Ohio State is already the lower of the two teams in the computer average and in fact, the Buckeyes rank behind Rutgers and sit in the #3 spot. I'm not a math major, but if OSU finishes #3 in the human polls and #3 in the computer rankings, I'm guessing they won't finish #2 in the BCS. So while a Michigan win is dicey for reasons we've already discussed, it may very well prevent a dubious rematch, since Ohio State is less likely to survive such a loss. The Wolverines are #1 in the computer rankings and would probably remain #2 in the human polls after losing to the top ranked team on the road.

To recap: A Michigan win opens the door for BCS Armageddon to occur, but while a Michigan loss prevents the absolute worst, it also substantially increases the likelihood that we could get the second worst result. This is exhausting.

USC. The Trojans are probably the sexiest of the number two options. While their matchup with Cal has been dampened by the Bears' loss to Arizona, they still get a couple of high profile games that will help their strength of schedule (and therefore their computer ranking, which is currently #4) and the big showdown with Notre Dame on the 25th. It is amazing that USC is back in the mix so quickly after that catastrophic game at Oregon State three weeks ago, but that is the way of things this year. Because of USC's recent success, storied history, and conference affiliation (providing an old-fashioned Pac-10 and Big-10 showdown), I can see voters moving them right up and slotting them against the Michigan-Ohio State winner. (Again, this all seems more likely if Michigan wins on Saturday.) The flip side to all this is that the Trojans must play three more games and they come against a pissed off Cal, highly rated Notre Dame, and enigmatic UCLA. It won't be easy to run the table.

Florida. The Gators are the silent assassins in the field because they appear likely to wind up 11-1 heading into the SEC title game and if they win that, will be 12-1 and champs of a ridiculously good conference. That has #2 written all over it. Of course, there are plenty of negatives as well. Saturday was a rough day for the Gators because while they might have escaped via the blocked kick against South Carolina, they didn't exactly impress anyone. Not only that, but Florida's lone loss isn't looking so good all of a sudden after Auburn was spanked by Georgia. Also, their #6 computer ranking could take a hit with games against Western Carolina and Florida State to finish things off. The FSU game is particularly bad, because it is a classic no-win situation. If they go to Tallahassee and take care of business, it will go down as a win over an unranked, mediocre (at best) team. However, this is the one chance the Seminoles have to save their season and they get the Gators at home, and well, stranger things have happened.

Notre Dame. The Irish are loving the way things are going. A few weeks ago they appeared to be out of it no matter what happened in their own games, but all of a sudden, they are staring down a contest with USC that might produce the second title game team. The problem with Notre Dame is that no matter what happens with Michigan on Saturday, there is a common sense argument that makes the Irish a terrible option for the title bout. If the Wolverines lose, it is going to be a travesty if Notre Dame passes them for the #2 spot. After all, Michigan went to South Bend and beat the Irish like a drum, hanging a 47-21 win on the Golden Domers back in September. That might be tough to overlook for those seeking to slide America's, I mean, The Media's Team into the BCS title game. And if Michigan wins, we have that oh-so-strange issue discussed above, where Notre Dame could land a rematch, win, and claim a national title over the seemingly more deserving team. No matter how you slice it, Notre Dame making it to the final would cause massive problems and result in Michigan getting screwed.

Rutgers. Rutgers is a fascinating case. Even in the moments immediately after their enormous win over Louisville, there were doubts that the Scarlet Knights could get anywhere near the national title game. Setting aside the fact that they have a quarterback who can't throw, they just seemed to have too much ground to make up. They were #15 in the USA Today poll and #13 in the BCS rankings and even with a huge boost from the biggest win in school history, it was hard to see them passing enough teams. Then, lo and behold, everyone started losing on Saturday, Bloody Saturday. Louisville was already dispatched, but once Cal, Texas, and Auburn were finished off, Rutgers suddenly had a clear path. The voters didn't get as excited as they could have, but they still put the Knights at #8 in the USA Today poll and #7 in the Harris Interactive. Not only that, but the big jumps seem to indicate the people are starting to believe. Wins over Cincinnati and Syracuse won't help much, but a victory over West Virginia, coupled with the USC/Notre Dame loss and Florida/Arkansas loss in the SEC title game seems to put Rutgers at about #4 or #5 in the human polls at worst, which could make things interesting when coupled with their current #2 computer ranking. (To take it a step further, if Cal beats USC, then USC beats Notre Dame, and LSU beats Arkansas, then Arkansas beats Florida, Rutgers would go all the way to #2 or #3 in the human polls.)

Of course, as Robert DeNiro said in Heat, there is a flip side to that coin. The games against Cinci and the 'Cuse (especially Syracuse) won't help that sterling computer ranking and then the game against West Virginia is just going to be downright difficult to win. Rutgers does not have great team speed on defense and the Mountaineers have blinding speed with that spread option. Plus, the game is in Morgantown. So while Rutgers is in a better spot to sneak in than people realize (or want to admit), they have a really difficult challenge facing them on December 2nd.

Arkansas. I think this is the sleeping giant. The Razorbacks are only #7 in the BCS rankings as they are hurt by the computer score (it is unclear why), but they are climbing in the polls and are the only team still undefeated in SEC play. Plus, their only loss was to #3 USC (granted, it was a beating). They probably should have been defeated by two touchdowns at Alabama, but once they survived that ugly game, it has been smooth sailing for the Hogs. They have a high risk, high reward finish to the season as they get #9 LSU (a truly scary team) on Friday the 24th and then Florida in the SEC championship tilt. It won't be easy to come out of all that at 12-1 (or even 11-2, to be honest) but with the LSU game at home and the showdown with Florida on neutral turf, it is possible. A 12-game winning streak, undefeated season of SEC play, and lone loss to USC will speak volumes. That said, they might need a more lopsided result on Saturday to get past the Michigan-Ohio State loser, especially given the fact that they don't have any "conflicts" with either team.

The really interesting scenario involving Arkansas goes like this: Michigan drubs Ohio State and is #1. USC runs the table but wins ugly in a couple of games and still seems a little shaky when the dust settles. Rutgers loses to West Virginia. And Arkansas throttles both LSU and Florida as detailed above. Who is #2? Ohio State would probably have to give way to SC or Arkansas, but then do you go with the SEC titan on the rise or the team that beat them to open the season? I'm telling you, this wild, wacky stuff (RIP, Johnny Carson).

No matter how it all unfolds, there is sure to be controversy and heated debate. It is the middle of November and there are still seven teams with a legitimate shot at the national title game. Six of those teams are going to play each other (unless something strange happens with Arkansas and they don't win the SEC West) and the seventh, Rutgers, will be squaring off with the #8 team. Two games - USC versus Notre Dame and Florida versus Arkansas - have "battle for number two" written all over them, but are entirely dependent on games that come before them. In fact, while there are seven teams in the mix, it could ultimately be much ado about nothing if Michigan loses a tight one on Saturday.

The bottom line is that we've got a real mess on our hands, which means that there is only one thing left to say ...

"And now Eric's secretary is in a coma."

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