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Weekly Affirmation: Auburn and Michigan State

Staff Columnist
Posted Dec 5, 2013


If Auburn beats Missouri on Saturday afternoon, the SEC West champions would then root for Michigan State to win on Saturday night against Ohio State. Such a scenario would be entirely fitting, given the ways in which these two programs have been treated by the BCS system. Auburn and Michigan State step into the Weekly Affirmation spotlight.

By Matt Zemek
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MICHIGAN STATE AND AUBURN: TWO PORTRAITS OF BCS INJUSTICE

One of the best pieces of wisdom any college football fan – or any aspiring college football journalist – can receive is only two words long: “Context matters.”

The hardest thing for a lot of college football fans to accept is that many national realities – concerning the national title race, the Heisman race, the merits of various conferences, the strength of a team’s schedule/resume, and more – are shaped by multiple crosscurrents of events. The truths that emerge from any college football season are generally the products of many forces. They don’t ordinarily exist in isolation. Sure, there are exceptions: The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers were remarkably good; that reality existed regardless of what any of NU’s opponents did that season. That team was, of course, an exception within the larger history of college football. Almost every other time, context shapes both the debate itself and the answers that flow from it.

This part of college football – this inconvenient, maddening, messy component of almost every year – is what a lot of fan bases are grappling with as the regular season’s final full Saturday approaches.

It’s true that Saturday is a massive day for fans of Arizona State and Missouri. The Sun Devils have made the Rose Bowl only twice in their long and tortured history. A third trip to Pasadena – the first in 17 years – would bring to the desert an oasis of immense satisfaction and relief. Missouri has not won a conference championship since 1969. If the Tigers could win the SEC Championship Game against Auburn, coach Gary Pinkel would transform his legacy and career in one fell swoop.

Yet, as big as this day is for ASU and Missouri – not to mention national championship game hopefuls Florida State and Ohio State – Dec. 7, 2013 means the most to fans and alumni of Auburn and Michigan State. These two programs aren’t the only ones to feel the pain of the BCS era and its politico-economic motivations, but they’ve felt the sting of rejection more than others.

AUBURN: THE SEC’S ABANDONED, UNLOVED ACHIEVER

The story of Auburn football, once every 10 years or so, evokes the parable of the prodigal son from the Bible and its Gospel stories. Auburn is the good son, the person that does everything right, only for the father (in this case, national voters that determine a team’s fate in the politicized BCS system) to shower his affections on someone else in the family. In 1983, Auburn had the best claim to the national title other than the Miami Hurricanes, but the Tigers didn’t even finish in the top two of the AP poll or the UPI coaches poll. In an era when split titles: A) occurred; and B) were seen as acceptable ways to Solomonically resolve a national dispute, Auburn didn’t get its piece of the pie. What added to the sting of disappointment for Pat Dye’s team on Jan. 2, 1984, was that No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Texas lost their bowl games, seemingly opening the door for No. 3 Auburn to take its legitimate place at the top of the polls. Yet, No. 5 Miami shot past AU to gain the national title in both polls.

In 1993, Auburn didn’t lose a game, but probation prevented Terry Bowden’s Tigers from participating in the SEC Championship Game and a top-tier bowl. The Tigers had to sit at home and watch Florida State defeat Nebraska for a controversial national title, with Notre Dame – the conqueror of the Seminoles – being left (out) at No. 2 in both polls.

In 2004, under the BCS system, Auburn’s SEC identity didn’t mean very much. The Tigers were one of three power-conference teams to finish the regular season unbeaten. (USC and Oklahoma were the others; Utah represented a fourth unbeaten side.) Yet, Tommy Tuberville’s team didn’t make the BCS title game (the 2005 Orange Bowl). Just a year earlier, though, another group of Tigers – from LSU – made the national championship game in a fairly even three-team fight with USC and Oklahoma. In that same 2003 season, Oklahoma reached the national title game despite failing to win its conference, an event that was repeated eight years later when Alabama (in 2011) went to the BCS National Championship Game against LSU. The added detail which made Alabama’s 2011 season so conspicuously fortunate is that the Crimson Tide was given the chance to play an opponent from the same conference in the national title game. This had not previously happened in the BCS era, and unless Ohio State and Florida State both lose this Saturday, such a scenario won't recur.

In 2013, Auburn is once again in position to endure a profound form of pain. Yet again, under this “10-year plan of torture,” an Auburn team has thrown itself squarely into the national title mix, and with Florida State being a near-lock to handle Duke, the Tigers have to beat Missouri and then hope Michigan State beats Ohio State if they want to make the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. If Auburn wins the SEC but can’t get help from Sparta in Indianapolis, the Tigers will occupy that most familiar position: being worthy of playing for the whole ball of wax, but getting left just outside the candy store due to circumstances both political and football-related.

How many more ways can an Auburn team merit inclusion in a four-team playoff that doesn’t yet exist – or in a plus-one game that never was created – and always manage to finish at No. 3 or 4, with no outside help from college football’s current postseason system? In 1983, 1993, and 2004, great Auburn teams got left in the cold in one way or another. In 2013, it’s all about to happen a fourth time if Gus Malzahn’s group gets past Mizzou. Winning the SEC title or (in 1993) going unbeaten is supposed to feel so wonderful and exhilarating, but success at a high level – even perfection – just hasn’t rewarded Auburn in the same way it has blessed other SEC schools.

This is the legitimate gripe Auburn fans have: It’s not that Auburn gets treated unfairly within the context of several seasons; it’s that other SEC schools regularly receive the deference and rule-bending respect Auburn is regularly denied.

No, Auburn wasn’t clearly the No. 1 team in 1983, though the Tigers surely had a strong case to make. However, a split championship – a not-unheard of practice among poll voters in that era of college football – wasn’t extended to the Tigers, a rejection that has never seemed fair in the fullness of time.

No, Auburn wasn’t obviously better in 2004 than USC and Oklahoma, but in a similar fight from 2003, LSU was somehow able to move from No. 3 in the BCS to No. 2 in the final week, while USC – a team that won its regular season finale – slipped from No. 2 to No. 3. Oklahoma – a team that got crushed by Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game (not just beaten, but hammered…) – didn’t pay a price in the BCS rankings. The SEC’s ability to work its way into the Big Game remained intact… until Auburn came along in 2004.

It is ultimately very hard to contest the notion that most SEC schools in BCS national championship races have been given the breaks that Auburn has, by contrast, not received. LSU, Alabama and Florida have all benefited from the BCS system in a number of cluttered and uncertain situations. Auburn can’t say the same thing. The Tigers and their fans might not be right to claim that they should be accorded preferential treatment solely because they’re an SEC school, but they’d be entirely accurate in pointing out that LSU, Bama and Florida received the benefit of the doubt in most controversial circumstances during the BCS era.

How utterly appropriate it is, then, that Auburn’s national championship prospects – in the event of a win over Missouri on Saturday – depend on Michigan State in Saturday’s main prime-time passion play against Ohio State.

MICHIGAN STATE: THE BCS’S TORTURED PRISONER

Whereas Auburn’s main problem/gripe/lamentation is that its best teams have not been able to play for (or be awarded) national championships, Michigan State has received a different but equally painful form of rejection at the hands of the BCS system.

The Spartans defeated Michigan in the 1999 season and finished with the same record as the Wolverines, but Michigan State was not granted a BCS bowl bid. Michigan and Tom Brady went to the Orange Bowl to play Alabama, while the Spartans played Florida in the Citrus Bowl.

In the 2010 season, Michigan State tied for the Big Ten championship with Wisconsin and Ohio State. In three-way head-to-head competition, Michigan State beat Wisconsin and did not play Ohio State. Wisconsin split two games, losing to Sparta and beating Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost to Wisconsin and did not face Michigan State. You can do the quick math: In head-to-head competition, Michigan State went 1-0, Wisconsin 1-1, Ohio State 0-1. Michigan State, on raw merit within the Big Ten itself, deserved to go back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1987 season under then-coach George Perles.

Yet, the Spartans didn’t just get snubbed for the Granddaddy; Big Ten rules – which stipulated that BCS rankings would serve as the tiebreaker if three tied teams didn’t all play each other – sent Wisconsin to Pasadena and Ohio State to the Sugar Bowl (and a most controversially arranged Sugar Bowl at that – RIGHT, JIM DELANY?) against Arkansas. Michigan State once again had to go to Orlando for the Capital One Bowl, formerly known as the Citrus Bowl game it had to settle for 11 years earlier.

In 2011, Michigan State lost the first Big Ten Championship Game to Wisconsin when the Badgers’ punter flopped and drew a dubious running-into-the-punter call that wiped out a long Spartan punt return in the final minutes of regulation. The controversial nature of Michigan State’s loss, in a world governed by merit, should have bought the Spartans some BCS bowl leverage, but the BCS isn’t ruled by considerations of merit, what teams deserve. Michigan State, winner of the Big Ten Legends Division, was sent to the Outback in Australia… or at least, it must have felt that way. The Spartans actually went to the Outback Bowl in Tampa, while Michigan – the team MSU outclassed in divisional play in 2011 – went to the Sugar Bowl.

What fact captures the frustration Michigan State fans carry inside their hearts and minds more than anything else? Try this: The Spartans defeated Wisconsin in three straight regular seasons – 2010 through 2012 – and watched the Badgers trot to the Rose Bowl, all while Michigan State remained locked outside the BCS’s gates. To add to Michigan State’s agony, the Spartans have defeated Michigan in five of the past six meetings between the two schools. Yet, in the past six years, Michigan has made more BCS bowl appearances (1) than Sparta (0).

It’s just not fair.

Only Kansas State and (outside the AQ conferences) Boise State have been jobbed as often or as severely as Michigan State in the first 15 seasons of the BCS era. If the Spartans play well but lose a close game to Ohio State this Saturday and are denied BCS access yet again, Auburn’s national championship rejections in the BCS era and in 1983 would be fairly minor injustices by comparison.

Yet, Michigan State can remove all doubt about its BCS bowl worthiness by locking up an automatic bid and claiming the Big Ten championship on Saturday. Moreover, should the Spartans do the deed, guess which program they just might help if the SEC Championship Game breaks in favor of the SEC West champion and not the SEC East winner? That’s right – Auburn.

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In the SEC, the triumvirate of Alabama, LSU and Florida has carried more weight than Auburn in various national title disputes. In the Big Ten, the brand-name power of Ohio State and Michigan, combined with the ability of Wisconsin fans to fill both hotel rooms and stadiums, has wronged Michigan State in a BCS era that rewards economic incentives and political clout more than raw merit.

Saturday, though, Auburn has a chance to put itself in position to advance to the national championship game of college football. Michigan State is the team in position to lift Auburn to the main stage if everything breaks right.

Two programs. Two histories in which conference neighbors have received preferential treatment. Two journeys marked by overwhelming frustrations and legitimate gripes. Two paths that just might intersect on Saturday night, if Auburn can take care of business in the afternoon hours against Missouri.

Auburn and Michigan State are knitted together in more ways than many casual college football fans realize. Missouri and Ohio State represent great stories in their own right, but the poignancy of this coming Saturday is found most centrally in the odysseys of the Plainsmen and the Spartans. If the SEC’s national championship streak remains alive due to a little help from the Big Ten, a remarkable season of college football will leave the nation shaking its head in wonder and awe.