Road To The BCS Championship
Going into the big weekend, who's really in the hunt for the title?
By Richard Cirminiello
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The two major polls are made available every Sunday. The initial BCS standings go public this weekend. We know where the nation's premier teams have been, but where are they headed? In other words, who among this season's main contenders for the 2012 BCS National Championship has the best shot of actually appearing in Miami on Jan. 7?
The final eight weeks of the regular season will be steeped in hairpin turns, because, well, that's just how this sport operates every fall. Although a lot of matchups are possible three months from now, some schools have earned the coveted inside track, while others face far tougher paths to Sun Life Stadium. At the midway point of the season, the field of contenders has been pared down to a manageable number, with the total about to be methodically reduced each and every weekend going forward.
15. Stanford (4-1)
The Cardinal has fallen completely out of contention over the last two weekends with a loss to Washington and a close call with Arizona. Stanford is clearly on the outside looking in, but that vantage point could change with an upset of Notre Dame this weekend. Plus, there's still a high-profile trip to Eugene on Nov. 17 and a possible shot to beat USC for a second time if the Cardinal can win the Pac-12 North. The program has to be emboldened by last week's breakout performance from QB Josh Nunes, its weakest link in the month of September.
14. Clemson (5-1)
The Tigers just might have the softest second-half schedule of any contender with a prayer, having already faced—and lost to—Florida State. But the slate is a double-edged sword. Sure, Clemson has a legitimate shot to be among the last remaining one-loss schools, and only has road games with Duke and Wake Forest left, but who will it have beaten? Well, No. 3 South Carolina, for one, which travels to Death Valley for the annual Palmetto State rivalry. The Tigers need plenty of help, including another Seminoles loss just to win the ACC Atlantic.
13. Oklahoma (3-1)
As far as one-loss schools go, the Sooners shouldn't be in bad shape, right? They're a talented team, with a healthy reputation nationally, and a lone blemish against unbeaten Kansas State. Oklahoma's biggest hurdle, though, besides lacking consistency, is a brutal schedule that includes landmine dates with Texas, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, TCU and Iowa State. The optimist might offer that an 11-1 OU would rise as fast as gas prices in the BCS standings. The realist would properly suggest that few teams in America could survive the gauntlet that the margin-less Sooners are about to endure.
12. Texas (4-1)
The bad news? The ‘Horns are no longer unbeaten and ranked in the top 10. The good news? The loss was a three-pointer to West Virginia, one of the nation's hottest teams at this juncture. There's still time for Texas to start the long climb up the rankings, beginning with this Saturday's BCS National Championship contenders elimination game with Oklahoma in Dallas. In a reversal of expectations, the UT offense has been just fine, norming almost 47 points a game, yet the heralded D has had issues in recent games versus spread attacks.
11. Florida State (5-1)
You fooled everyone again, Seminoles. Just when it looked as if Florida State might be poised to—finally—get back in the foreground of the national title hunt, it goes ahead and suffers a narcoleptic second half at NC State. Even if the program wins out, it could reach a glass ceiling playing in an ACC that won't offer many marquee moments, including in a possible league championship game. Heck, even the Nov. 8 trip to Blacksburg to play 3-3 Virginia Tech will be treated with a rare yawn. The exception to a mundane slate? The Nov. 24 visit from No. 4 Florida, which could catapult the ‘Noles, especially if the Gators are still in the chase themselves.
10. Kansas State (5-0)
While Collin Klein and the Wildcats are off to a remarkable start, climbing into the top 5 of the Coaches' poll, there's justifiable doubt that this program can stay unbeaten. Of course, if it's 7-0 two weeks from now, following road games in Ames and Morgantown, there'll be no choice but to treat Kansas State as a legitimate threat to be at Sun Life Stadium on Jan. 7. The problem with the Cats is that they're prone to playing a lot of tight games, making them vulnerable in more than just dates with West Virginia and Texas. And a one-loss K-State will have an impossible time convincing pollsters that it belongs in the title game.
9. LSU (5-1)
The Tigers will have more than enough opportunities to prove that it still belongs. But do they have enough talent on the offensive side of the ball? LSU's descent in the polls didn't begin with last weekend's 14-6 loss to Florida in the Swamp. It had already started following listless efforts in wins over Auburn and Towson. A visit from No. 3 South Carolina this week will be the second of five straight games with opponents that are currently ranked, so moments in the spotlight will not be a problem. How the Tigers handle those chances, though, is cause for serious concern these days in Baton Rouge.
8. Georgia (5-1)
Don't snicker. Sure, last weekend's dress down courtesy of South Carolina is still fresh in a lot of minds, but Georgia is tailor-made to go on the kind of tear that makes Week 6 look like a distant memory. If the Bulldogs can win the Cocktail Party two weeks from now, it'll take a significant upset for them not to finish the regular season 11-1. From that point, anything will be possible, from catching a break to win the SEC East to slipping through the back door at Sun Life Stadium as contenders around them fall. Everything in Athens begins with one premise: Of the current one-loss teams, no one has a better shot of staying that way than Georgia.
7. USC (4-1)
Yeah, the Trojans buckled at the knees after falling to Stanford on Sept. 15, but it'll take another loss before the standing eight-count is needed. USC has time to elevate into the thick of this race, and a Nov. 3 visit from Oregon that could throw the top 5 into a state of flux. The Trojans might actually get the Ducks twice if both win their respective divisions, great news as long as Monte Kiffin's defense can contain the spread. Oh, and just imagine what could happen to Troy's composite BCS score if the team beats No. 7 Notre Dame just as the regular season is ending. USC is by no means out this thing.
6. South Carolina (6-0)
By so many different measures, the Gamecocks have the look of a championship team—the D, the big-time feature back, the winning quarterback and the legendary coach. Now, if only South Carolina had Georgia's second-half schedule, it'd be riding the HOV lane of I-95 down to South Florida. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Over the final six games, the ‘Cocks must face Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, Florida and Clemson, the last three away from home. And as a consolation prize, top-ranked Alabama might be waiting in the SEC Championship Game.
5. Florida (5-0)
A convincing argument could be made that no one has compiled a better first-half resume than the Gators, who have gotten past Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU. The key, of course, will be to maintain that level of play over the final two months of the season. Standing in the way will be SEC East contenders South Carolina and Georgia and long-time rival Florida State. Only the game with the Seminoles will be played outside of Gainesville. Is Florida title-ready? Ehh, probably not, but at No. 4 in the country, it's tough to argue with the early results.
4. Notre Dame (5-0)
Remember that insurmountable schedule that the Irish had to play this season? Yeah, it's not nearly as daunting as originally thought. Notre Dame has knocked down a few key hurdles, such as Michigan State and Michigan, thanks to a sturdy D that continues to exceed expectations. There's plenty of work left to be done around South Bend, such as trips to Oklahoma and USC, and this week's underrated visit from Stanford. Of course, no one on the schedule can be overlooked, especially if the offense remains iffy, but ND has succeeded in turning this into a three-game campaign for a title shot.
3. West Virginia (5-0)
Now that the Mountaineers have passed their toughest test to date, Texas in Austin, it's time to brand them a threat for Miami. No one would be happier to return to the Sunshine State more than Heisman-leading QB Geno Smith, who grew up not far from Sun Life Stadium, and was passed over by the state's biggest programs. With Smith at the controls, the offense is arguably America's most potent, scoring 118 points in its first two games as a Big 12 member. The D? Well, it's going to force the offense to be sharp every week. There are no gimmes on the schedule until Dec. 1, though it will help immensely to get Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma at Milan Puskar Stadium.
2. Oregon (6-0)
The years change, but the results remain very much the same in Eugene. The perennial class of the Pac-12 is averaging more than 52 points a game, while an underrated defense is creating opportunities and big plays of its own. How much gap is there between the Ducks and other prominent members of the league? They faced Arizona and Washington when both were ranked, and rolled by a combined score of 101-21. Oregon's road to the BCS National Championship Game will be spent largely, well, on the road. Of the Ducks' five toughest remaining games, Arizona State, Cal, USC and Oregon State, will be played away from Autzen Stadium.
1. Alabama (5-0)
For the time being, everyone peers up at the Crimson Tide, the unanimous top-ranked team in the AP poll. ‘Bama has gone virtually unchallenged through five games, beating its two toughest tests, Michigan and Arkansas, by a combined score of 93-14 … outside of Tuscaloosa. However, the biggest hurdles await, including trips to Missouri, Tennessee and LSU, and visits from Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Auburn can never be overlooked in the Iron Bowl, and the SEC East will send to Atlanta on Dec. 1 a far nastier representative than it has in recent years. The Tide has so much goodwill among voters that it can probably lose one regular season game, yet still have a shot at playing for a repeat national championship.