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CFB: Can One-Loss Teams Reach the Title Game?

T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Picks

The college national championship game is still more than two months away, but it's never too soon to speculate on who is going to be there. Perhaps more than most years, this year provides a ridiculous amount of uncertainty and a wide range of possible outcomes. The only thing that is certain is that three teams control their own fate - Ohio State, Michigan and USC. Any of those teams is guaranteed a shot in the big game if they don't lose before then. Michigan and Ohio State clash in the last game of their season, while USC still has tough games against Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks to get past, so any of those teams will have earned a shot at the national title.

If USC is not able to escape unscathed, or if, by some incredible fluke, Ohio State or Michigan were to lose against one of the weak teams on their schedules before they meet up, then things could get really complicated. There are only six undefeated teams in major conferences, and the other three all play in the Big East. Louisville, West Virginia and the shocking team from Rutgers all play each other before the end of the season. That will means only one can possibly survive with a perfect record, and those tough games could make that hard. The most likely team to emerge would be West Virginia, and they don't get a lot of national respect. Outside of Louisville and Rutgers they don't play any real teams in their conference, and their out of conference schedule is pathetic.

The problems in the Big East and the perceived vulnerability of USC means that the top one-loss teams have more hope for a shot at the national title than they normally would at this point in the season. It's far from inconceivable that the BCS formula would favor a one-loss team over an undefeated Big East champion.

The most likely place for such a team to come from would be the SEC. That conference is so strong, with Florida, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU and even Arkansas all arguably better than the best from any conference outside of the Big Ten and maybe the Big 12. Of those teams, however, only Florida has a legitimate chance of playing for BCS glory. They are on top of the SEC East and will stay there unless they lose. If they run the rest of the table and win the SEC Championship game, then they would almost certainly make the game if USC loses.

None of the other teams likely has the juice to get past an undefeated Big East champion. LSU already has two losses, so that rules them out. Logically, Auburn and Tennessee seem good enough to be in the discussion, and both would probably be favored in a match-up with West Virginia, but they both have serious problems. No team will make the National Championship Game without winning their conference, and Auburn and Tennessee will find it very hard to make the SEC Championship Game. Auburn is behind the Arkansas team that beat them in the SEC West, so they would need to win all of their games while Arkansas loses two of their last four games to make the championship. That's possible, but not likely. Tennessee faces the same situation, as they are behind the Florida team that beat them in the SEC East.

If no Big East team goes undefeated, the other SEC team that could find itself in the BCS Championship is, shockingly, Arkansas. The Razorbacks control their own fate in the conference - if they keep winning they can be SEC champions. They are only ranked No. 13 now, but they would beat Tennessee, LSU and likely Florida by the end of the season, which would vault them way up the rankings. A whole lot would need to happen for the Razorbacks to make it all the way, but this is a lot more hope than this team has had in a long, long time.

Notre Dame only has one loss, but their chances of making the big game aren't very good. First of all they have to get past USC. After that, Michigan looms large over them. Barring a major upset, Michigan will end up, at worst, as a one-loss team like Notre Dame. The Wolverines absolutely crushed the Irish when they met, however, so it seems unlikely that Notre Dame could move ahead of Michigan in the rankings.

Texas wants to defend its national title, but that will be tough. The Horns have a fairly easy schedule remaining, but a potential rematch against Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game would be scary. If they survive that, they would need a lot of help. They would need USC to lose and they would probably need the Big East champ to lose, too. They would also likely be hurt if Ohio State were to lose badly to Michigan, since their only loss was to the Buckeyes.

The last one-loss team we have to consider is the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State game. This would be particularly relevant if USC loses, all Big East teams lose, Florida loses and the game is close. In that case, a very sound argument could be made that the loser of this game is the second best team in the country. This would be most likely if Michigan were to lose a close game, since they will be on the road and they will be underdogs, so they would likely be punished less by voters.

If you're looking to get a head start on handicapping the BCS Championship game, then, here's what you need to do - watch all the remaining games for Michigan and Ohio State, watch USC, Florida, West Virginia and Louisville until they lose a game, and keep an eye on Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas, Notre Dame, Texas and Rutgers just in case something bizarre happens. If you do all that, you should be ready by the time Jan. 8 rolls around.

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