It's all pretty complicated. Photo: USA Today Sports
The Alabama Crimson Tide appear to be the number one pick heading in to the 2013 college football season, which by the way is just under three weeks away. Already placed on top of the USA Today Coaches Poll, the Tide should be honored with the top billing from the Associated Press when the AP Top 25 is released and most seem to feel the final BCS Championship could be Alabama's to lose.
Alabama will have a big test in front of them early on with a road game at Texas A&M, and as long as Heisman Trophy quarterback Johnny Manziel is eligible it is not at all out of the question that Alabama takes a loss in their SEC opener. If that happens, we could very well be on a path in which Alabama could ascend back to the top of the polls on their way to the BCS Championship Game and be left out of the SEC Championship Game. I first started thinking about this bizarre scenario while responding to a mailbag question on my site, and wanted to explore the hypothetical situation further here on Crystal Ball Run. Let's take a look…
History Repeating Itself?
Almost. The 2012 BCS Championship Game featured the rare and somewhat controversial match-up of SEC West rivals LSU and Alabama. LSU had won the head-to-head match-up earlier in the season and thus managed to get to the SEC Championship Game with the top BCS ranking to put them a win against Georgia separating them from the BCS Championship Game. Alabama was left out of the conference championship game but managed to slide in to the second BCS spot in the rankings to clinch a spot in the championship game. Part of the scenario in play here would feel familiar.
For Alabama to advance to the BCS Championship Game they need to finish in the top two of the BCS rankings, and as we have seen on occasion it is not a requirement to play in a conference championship game. But we have yet to see the top team in the BCS standings manage to miss out on a conference championship game, where the conference holds a title game that is.
Here is what needs to happen in order for this to become a realistic possibility:
Alabama avoids Virginia Tech upset
Alabama opens the season against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta. The Hokies might be capable of giving Alabama a run early on, but nobody seems to be thinking Alabama loses this game. I tend to agree. In order for this to work out, Alabama must avoid the week one upset to the ACC's Hokies.
Texas A&M defeats Alabama
Texas A&M is opening the year No. 6 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, so they should be in a good enough ranking when they face Alabama to help this work out. Things become better for this scenario of Georgia actually loses to Clemson (or if Oregon, Stanford or Ohio State take an early loss). Whether the Aggies hold the sixth spot or creep in to the top five does not matter. Let's pretend Manziel and the Aggies win a close game, say 26-24 or 29-23. How far would a top-ranked team fall in the rankings in a tight game on the road against a top-five worthy team from the top conference in the country? Not far, right?
Let's slide Alabama down to number six, just for argument's sake. Put Texas A&M wherever you want in this scenario. It will not really matter.
Alabama wins out remainder of regular season
It probably goes without saying, if Alabama loses to A&M they cannot afford another loss. You can get away with one loss in the SEC, but two probably rules them out of the BCS Championship hunt. Alabama's toughest games come at home (Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU) and I'm not ready to suggest Alabama falls victim to Kentucky, Ole Miss or Mississippi State. The Tide do not play Florida, Georgia or South Carolina so the regular season schedule is very favorable. Is Auburn going to be in a position to challenge in the Iron Bowl? I'm not counting on it yet, so let's say Alabama wins out to finish the regular season at 11-1.
Now, let's see what else needs to happen along the way to help Alabama move in to the top two of the BCS standings…
Oregon or Stanford has to be upset
Oregon and Stanford have been the class of the Pac 12 for the past couple of seasons and each start in the top five of the coaches poll. The good news is one of them will be guaranteed to lose this season as they are division rivals. The game is at Stanford and the Cardinal won last season. Let's give Oregon the loss. Alabama would likely get the edge over a one-loss Oregon so the Ducks are roasted. But who chops Stanford?
There are some possibilities. Stanford plays at USC the week after hosting Oregon and the Cardinal end the regular season at home against Notre Dame. Stanford, under this scenario, could then be playing in the Pac 12 Championship Game in what could be a rematch with USC or a 2012 Pac 12 Championship rematch with UCLA. Maybe even Arizona State. An upset of Stanford is certainly not a stretch, so pick a game and let's assume a one-loss Alabama gets the edge over a one-loss Stanford as well. Two teams down.
What about Ohio State, Clemson, or Louisville?
A one-loss Alabama may be blocked from rising back to the top of the BCS standings by an undefeated Ohio State or Clemson and maybe even Louisville. Clemson is sure to be a victim of Clemsoning at some point so they should get out of the way between September 14 and the end of the year. It's practically a given, but let's circle October 19 against Florida State and November 30 at South Carolina for good measure.
Ohio State went undefeated last season and could very well go 12-0 en route to the Big Ten championship game this fall. But we need Ohio State to lose for this scenario so let's circle the road game on September 14 at Cal as a potential upset alert along with a road game at Northwestern on October 5 and a road game at Purdue on November 2. If Ohio State survives, all hopes will fall on the November 30 road game at Michigan and perhaps a Big Ten Championship Game against Nebraska. Can the Buckeyes run the table? Maybe, although there were some close calls last season so they may be ripe for a loss along the way. That works well if we're trying to get Alabama back to No. 1. One loss by the Buckeyes and one-loss Alabama will be very likely to move ahead of Urban Meyer's team.
Louisville is a bit of a question mark. After blasting Florida in the Sugar Bowl the Cardinals have a newfound respect that a team like Boise State never seemed to gain. The Cardinals will be the favorite every week this season as long as Teddy Bridgewater is healthy but they lost to Syracuse and UConn last season so you get a sense they can certainly be beaten at least once. They get their toughest games at home against Rutgers and Central Florida but a road game at South Florida and Cincinnati have loss-potential. One hit to Louisville and there is no question Alabama would pass them at 11-1.
SEC East Fatal Three-way
While all of this is unfolding, you might be thinking we could see one of the top threats in the SEC East work their way up the standings. And why not? All three (Georgia, South Carolina and Florida) all start the year in the coaches top ten. However, we're going to hand each a loss by mid-November by having South Carolina beat Florida, Florida beat Georgia and Georgia beat South Carolina. Would any of those teams with one loss be ranked ahead of one-team Alabama by late November? I'm not counting on it so let's roll with it.
Back to Texas A&M…
If Texas A&M lands the victory against Alabama the Aggies will become the team to beat in the country. Like Alabama, Texas A&M has a somewhat favorable SEC schedule with no Florida, Georgia or South Carolina. But the Aggies do have road games at Arkansas, Ole Miss and LSU in addition to a regular season finale against at Missouri. Texas A&M will be very good, but can they pull out all of those games on the road? Maybe they do, and if they do they will likely advance to the SEC Championship Game as the nation's top-ranked team. This scenario could very well be a sequel to the 2011 season with LSU and Alabama, but for fun we want Alabama to be the top-ranked team so we're going to hand the Aggies a loss at some point. Let's go with LSU handing Texas A&M a loss on the road.
A loss on November 23 would come at a costly time. If Alabama continues to win out their season, the voters may be inclined to give Alabama the higher ranking if Texas A&M falls to LSU. Keep in mind, under the scenario we are laying out here that Oregon, Stanford, Clemson and Louisville have already all lost, and Ohio State may have as well and the SEC East has already had the fatal three-way between Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. For good measure let;s eliminate the undefeated Notre Dame scenario as well as the idea that a Big 12 team might be putting together an undefeated run. Possible? Sure. Likely? Probably not.
So we now have a top-ranked Texas A&M falling from the top spot after a loss to LSU. Meanwhile, Alabama was piling up wins and creeping back up the rankings after initially falling to sixth in the polls. That's not a lot of ground to make up and if the Tide happen to be second at the time it only makes sense the voters would make them the new number one team in a system built on "what have you done for me lately?" So we now have Alabama sitting on top of the polls, winners of eight straight games heading to Auburn.
Yet it would be Texas A&M who still controls the path to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. If Alabama and Texas A&M end up with the same record and they finish the year on top of the SEC West standings, the SEC West representative will be determined by the SEC's first division tiebreaker, which is head-to-head competition. That would send Texas A&M to Atlanta despite Alabama being our new No. 1 in the land.
This scenario could even develop in the event LSU, who has lost to Alabama and beaten Texas A&M, finished with the same SEC record. Highest BCS ranking does come in to play in determining the division representatives in the SEC championship game, but they are the last-case scenario in a three-team tiebreaker, which is used to trim down to a two-team tiebreaker (which again favors Texas A&M).
This is the final year of the BCS. It would only be fitting to see the top ranked BCS team sit out of the BCS Championship game and a team like Boise State wiggle in to the big game, right? We can leave that Boise State dream scenario for another day. This is all too much to handle as it is.
Photos: USA Today Sports