Let's begin by just reflecting on what a wonderfully bizarre day of football yesterday was. Rivalry games are special even without exciting finishes, but when college football's two greatest rivalries lead to two of the best last-minute thrill rides of the season, America gets a solid reminder of why college football is, without a doubt, better than the NFL.
NFL players don't sit crying in the tunnel after a triumph over their most hated, heavily favored opponent slips from their grasp. NFL games don't end with home underdogs sending their offense out on a point-after attempt when the outcome is triumph or defeat of the highest order, with no middle ground. NFL games don't come to a conclusion with the greatest coach in the game getting outfoxed on a special teams play that no one in the stadium saw coming but the upstart opposing coach his eleven men on the field. Plays like this are rare in college football as well, but what's commonplace at the college level, and what is missing from the NFL, is the level of total dedication displayed by every member of those Buckeye, Wolverine, Tide, and Tiger players. They understood that the stakes of their games yesterday could not be higher, not because of any championship implications, but because a loss to your bitter rival consumes your soul for the next 364 days, or if you're a senior, forever.
NFL bashing aside, let's turn our focus to the implications of yesterday's clashes of the titans. On October 20th, the day the BCS rankings were released, the Buckeyes looked to be in a pretty dark place. Sure, they were 6-0 and still in the hunt for a B1G title and possibly more, but they were ranked #4 of 8 undefeated BCS conference teams, and there was no guarantee that any of the 4 lower teams wouldn't jump them during their quest for #2. Shortly before the rankings were released, I wrote a piece assuring Buckeye Nation (and Bear Nation and Hurricane Nation etc.) that there was nothing to fear; the BCS rankings are always muddled in October but they almost always sort themselves out to the two deserving teams by season's end. Sure enough, 6 of the 8 undefeated BCS teams lost, leaving the path open to a neat and tidy matchup of the only two unbeatens. This was why the BCS was developed: to ensure that if there were two undefeated teams that wouldn't get to play each other because of existing bowl tie-ins, they'd get a chance to have it out on the field to determine who the real national champion was.
During the 15 years of the BCS, this has only occurred 4 times (1999, 2002, 2005, 2010). Among the years of multiple-BCS-undefeateds controversy (2004, 2009), and lesser squabbles among 1-loss teams (1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012) or two-loss teams (2007), these 4 matchups were the opportunities for the BCS to pat itself on the back for a job well done. No controversy, no arguments, no disputing who the real national champion was once the bowl games were played.
So the BCS has a chance to get the correct result in its last hurrah, right? That's what I thought after Auburn's unconventional kick return against Alabama. But imagine my surprise when I woke up to see the most bizarre comments spewed all over my Twitter feed and the Worldwide Leader's website. They boiled down to some version of "Well, Michigan State will probably beat Ohio State and end this controversy anyway."
Regardless of whether Sparty will or won't win on Saturday (I don't think they will, come back later this week for our picks), what is this controversy of which people speak, and why does a Michigan State win resolve it? A little deeper digging revealed that the dispute was whether an undefeated Ohio State or a 1-loss Auburn should go to the BCS National Championship to face Florida State.
Before we have that debate, it's important to note all the assumptions implicit in such a farce, and how totally without merit they are.
Assumption #1: Florida State obviously deserves to be #1 (assuming a win over Duke).
Counter: Why? Let's take a look at who's been #1 when the 2 vs. 3 arguments have reared their ugly heads.
1998: #1 Tennessee - only undefeated BCS team
1999: No 2 vs. 3 dispute
2000: #1 Oklahoma - only undefeated BCS team
2001: #1 Miami - only undefeated BCS team
2002: No 2 vs. 3 dispute
2003: #1, #2, and #3 all in dispute
2004: #1 USC - won share of 2003 title, ranked #1 preseason and never fell from that spot
2005: No 2 vs. 3 dispute
2006: #1 Ohio State - only undefeated BCS team
2007: #1 Ohio State - only 1-loss or fewer BCS team
2008: #1, #2, and #3 all in dispute
2009: No real 2 vs. 3 dispute (sorry Cincinnati)
2010: No 2 vs. 3 dispute
2011: #1 LSU - only undefeated BCS team
2012: #1 Notre Dame - only undefeated BCS team
So we see that when there's a dispute over who should be #2, the only time the conflict doesn't extend to the #1 team as well is when the #1 team has had fewer losses than any other BCS team. Except 2004. That season had a few wrinkles pertinent to this analysis.* USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn all finished undefeated. USC got the nod for the Orange Bowl because USC was fresh off an AP-championship season and spent the season at #1 wire-to-wire.
Given what we observe from the history of the BCS, why does Florida State get a free pass at #1? They're not alone at 12-0: Ohio State is right there with them. They weren't preseason #1; they were preseason #12, far behind #2 Ohio State. Maybe they're getting the benefit of the doubt from their prior BCS history:
1998 L vs. Tennessee
1999 W vs. Virginia Tech (National Champions)
2000 L vs. Oklahoma
2002 L vs. Georgia
2003 L vs. Miami
2005 L vs. Penn State
2012 W vs. Northern Illinois
1998 W vs. Texas A&M
2002 W vs. Miami (National Champions)
2003 W vs. Kansas State
2005 W vs. Notre Dame
2006 L vs. Florida
2007 L vs. LSU
2008 L vs. Texas
2009 W vs. Oregon
2010 W vs. Arkansas
Well...no help here, unless people are really impressed by that win over a MAC team. The pundits must be focusing on what Florida State has done this season only (good for them).
Let's take a look at each team's strength of schedule.
Florida State opponents' records: 61-60
Ohio State opponents' records: 62-59
Uh...hmm...that doesn't appear to help matters. Maybe if we look at wins over teams with winning records.
Florida State: @Clemson (10-2), vs. Miami (9-3), @Boston College (7-5), vs. Maryland (7-5)
Ohio State: vs. Wisconsin (9-3), vs. Iowa (8-4), @Michigan (7-5), vs. Penn State (7-5), vs. San Diego State (7-5), vs. Buffalo (8-4)
Erm...no answers there either, particularly when you consider that Ohio State faces Michigan State (11-1) in their final game while Florida State faces Duke (10-2), and NO ONE is suggesting that the Bucks have any hope of jumping the Noles after next weekend.
Let's try margin of victory.
Florida State: +28, +55, +48, +14, +63, +37, +32, +27, +56, +56, +66, +30. Average: 42.2
Ohio State: +20, +35, +18, +76, +7, +10, +10, +49, +56, +25, +28, +1. Average: 23.5
Mystery solved. If you want to be untouchable at #1, beat your mediocre-to-good opponents by more than your fellow undefeated competitor.
Assumption #2: It's ok for a 1-loss BCS conference team to finish ahead of an undefeated BCS conference team.
Counter: Show me the precedent. In 15 years of the BCS we've had at least 1 BCS conference team finish undefeated 12 times. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, these teams have finished ahead of every team with a loss, even though during all 12 of these seasons, there has been at least one 1-loss BCS team available. Obviously this doesn't mean that a 1-loss team finishing higher can't happen, but it does create quite the suffocating presumption to overcome.
Assumption #3: The SEC champion is without question the most deserving 1-loss team available.
Counter: I agree that the body of work of the SEC champion will be stronger than any other 1-loss team. However, the gap is not particularly wide, especially if Missouri beats Auburn. Missouri would have a great win over Auburn, and some good wins over Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M. Is this really that much better than Oklahoma State's potential win list of Baylor, Oklahoma, and Texas? Or Michigan State's potential win list of Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota? Again, I think Missouri would have the better claim, but to state that such a comparison would be less controversial than the false one brewing between Ohio State and Auburn/Missouri makes no sense unless you accept implicitly that...
Assumption #4: The SEC is light-years ahead of any other conference.
Counter: This is the argument you're going to hear pounded into your skull for the next 7 days. You've heard it ever since Urban Meyer's Florida beat Jim Tressel's Ohio State, and the rabid southerners and other such partisan hacks aren't going to abandon it now. Obviously there's no denying that an SEC member has won the last 7 BCS national championships and 9 BCS titles out of 15 total. But this doesn't necessarily say anything about the league itself; it could be far and away the best, or it could be just top-heavy. To know more, we have to look at the SEC's performance top-to-bottom against other conferences.
In the BCS Era
SEC vs. Pac-12 in regular season: 12-12
SEC vs. Pac-12 in bowl games: 1-0
SEC vs. Big 12 in regular season: 6-11
SEC vs. Big 12 in bowl games: 22-8
SEC vs. ACC in regular season: 47-37
SEC vs. ACC in bowl games: 17-10
SEC vs. Big Ten in regular season: 8-5
SEC vs. Big Ten in bowl games: 21-19
SEC vs. Big East in regular season: 16-18
SEC vs. Big East in bowl games: 4-9
Good? Yes. Dominant? Not so clear. Other than dominating the Big 12 in bowl games and the ACC in general, and getting beat by the Big East of all conferences, I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from this, particularly when we consider that all of the SEC's bowl games take place within the conference's geographic footprint, far from the territory of the Big Ten, the Big 12, or where the Big East was located during the BCS era.
On a side note, which team will leave the BCS era with the most BCS bowl wins? It's a tie between USC (who's not going to a BCS bowl this year) and Ohio State, whose last BCS win came at the hands of...Arkansas from the SEC, making Ohio State 1-2 against the SEC in BCS games. And yes, the Sugar Bowl win was vacated because of the tattoo scandal, but does anyone really think Ohio State's rule-breaking behavior led to them gaining a competitive advantage in that game? Put another way, if Ohio State players weren't getting the occasional free tattoo, would they still have beaten Arkansas to cap a 12-1 season?
On another side note, one of the teams tied for most BCS losses is Florida State, but you won't hear about their BCS struggles this week, even though the Noles have never beaten a Big Ten or an SEC team in a BCS bowl (0-3).
Whoopty-Doo! What does it all mean, Basil?
The assumptions necessary to even have a debate about Ohio State falling below #2 are so flawed that the debate itself is nonsensical. Only the most blinded, unabashed SEC homer would dare to make a case to leave an undefeated Ohio State out of the national championship game at this point. While SEC teams have made many trips to many BCS bowls and Alabama, Florida, and LSU have had great success there, Auburn cannot rely on past history (2 BCS appearances in 15 years), nor can Missouri (0 BCS appearances in 15 years) to rush past an Ohio State team (or, for that matter, a Florida State team) that played a big-boy schedule, in a big-boy conference, and did not lose a game. The Bucks and the Noles have earned their way to the title game before, and with two victories on Saturday, they'll do it again, much to the wailing and gnashing of teeth of all in SECSPN country.
*Remember the 2004 season mentioned earlier? Oklahoma went to the title game ahead of undefeated Auburn because they were the preseason #2 and had also occupied the #2 spot all season long, even though Oklahoma had lost the BCS Championship game to an SEC team, LSU, at the end of the previous season. In other words, an SEC team winning the prior season's national championship did not give the league the benefit of the doubt needed for an undefeated Auburn to jump an undefeated Oklahoma. How much more ridiculous would it be for a 1-loss team to jump an undefeated preseason #2 Ohio State?
In case you're still wavering about the merits of Auburn or Missouri vis-a-vis Florida State and Ohio State, here are your nails in the coffin (check out Massey Ratings' Game Graph Connecting Path to do this yourself).
Florida State beat Clemson
who beat Georgia
who beat LSU
who beat Auburn.
Ohio State beat Penn State
who beat Syracuse
who beat Maryland
who beat West Virginia
who beat Oklahoma State
who beat Mississippi State
who beat Mississippi
who beat LSU
who beat Auburn.
Florida State beat Clemson
who beat Georgia
who beat South Carolina
who beat Missouri.
Ohio State beat Wisconsin
who beat BYU
who beat Georgia Tech
who beat Duke
who beat Miami
who beat Florida
who beat Tennessee
who beat South Carolina
who beat Missouri.
"Big deal," you might say, "you can do this with almost any two teams if you want."
Not Ohio State or Florida State.
Because they haven't lost.
On to 13-0 and a place in the final BCS National Championship in Pasadena.