TCU, Boise State hold key to playoff

Proponents of a playoff have been looking at it all wrong for years.

But now it’s all set up perfectly. We don’t need some sort of complicated situation to unfold in order to heap on the outside pressures, and then need a Congressional committee to come along and declare that a playoff would be good for the soul of the country.

What we need is exactly what we have brewing out West: A situation in which BOTH teams in the national championship game come from "non-automatic qualifying conferences."

We’re seeing the perfect storm for a playoff system develop right before our eyes.

Now that Ohio State and Nebraska have been bumped off, we can be reasonably comfortable that the national title game will be unlike any title game we have seen. That is, it will not include a couple of college football’s bluebloods. As a matter of fact, it ought to be even money right now that we’ll wind up with – stay with me here – teams on BOTH sides of the field crashing the BCS party without invitations.

Boise State and TCU in Glendale, Ariz., for the BCS championship.

Yes, Oregon, and maybe Oklahoma, or even Auburn, or perhaps Michigan State could finish unbeaten. But the ticket that needs to be punched is one that includes two teams who don’t face a "representative schedule," which the powers that be like to yelp about.

That’s what will get the attention of the right people. The only people that matter, of course, are the folks who hold the purse strings for the traditional powers of college football: The presidents of the major conference universities.

If we were able to hold a title game without the champions of the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-10, and Big 12 in favor of a pair of interlopers from their erstwhile little brother conferences, it would take little or no time for the entire argument to turn on its heels.

If that happens, we could have a playoff system in place in, like, 20 minutes. To that end, everyone around the country who yearns for a playoff system should become huge Boise State and TCU fans for the rest of the season – bite the bullet, take one for the team, and let’s get on with it.

Because up until now, we’ve had the argument all wrong. We’ve always heard about how the little guys were unfairly left out. The new argument will go, "We HAVE to have a playoff, because these small-conference teams have an UNFAIR ADVANTAGE because of their weak schedules.

"The only FAIR way to settle this is on the field, where all teams that win major conference championships get a chance in an eight-team playoff system. Then let’s see Boise State win three playoff games against top-10 teams, heh-heh …

"We need a playoff to protect the reputations and income potential of the equity programs!"

And here’s the kicker: "We need a playoff system to protect the integrity of the regular season and make sure the (major) conference races still mean something."

We could possibly see this development if Boise State or TCU or Utah outpolls an undefeated automatic BCS qualifier for the trip to the championship game.

If it’s Boise State vs. Oregon, for instance, and Oklahoma or Michigan State was undefeated, the Earth will move. What’s more, if it’s Boise State vs. Oregon, which is the matchup we’re expecting to see in the first BCS rankings, Disney execs could be wondering if the hundreds of millions they dropped on the rights will be money well spent.

But if it’s both Boise State and TCU in Glendale, the Earth will positively ERUPT. And for that, we might merely need Oregon to be knocked off in what already looks like a whacked out Pac-10 race.

BREAKING DOWN THE UNBROKENS: The BCS rankings promise to dominate the college football conversation for the next two months, right through the end of the regular season on Dec. 4. With 10 teams still with perfect records, we will have a maximum of eight after this week, and somebody else will get bumped off.

Boise State: The Broncos, by all accounts, are the Team Most Likely to Finish Undefeated, which seems to be working against them from an image standpoint. Nevada getting bumped off by Hawaii probably did not help them, because now they don’t have any ranked opponents remaining, but they would be aided if Virginia Tech keeps winning and captures the ACC title. Remaining for the Broncos, who – like it or not – might as well be on a Fashion Week runway the rest of the season trying to look as stylish as possible: at home against Louisiana Tech, and Hawaii, at Idaho, at home against Fresno State, at Nevada (watch out!), at finish up at home against Utah State.

Oregon: No Pac-10 team other than USC has played in the BCS title game, but the Ducks are poised to be the first, as the best combination of offense and defense among all teams in the power conferences. The Pac-10, however, has shown itself to be wildly unpredictable, so nothing can be taken for granted. Without a championship game, Thursday night’s home game against UCLA starts the race to No. 1 in earnest for Team Nike. Then it’s an eight-day preparation for a rugged trip to a resurgent USC, home against Washington, at Cal, vs. Arizona, and wrapping up on Dec. 4 against Oregon State.

Oklahoma: Can this "year away" Sooners team, which struggled early against Utah State, Air Force and Cincinnati, actually be poised to finish unbeaten with a magical national championship? Don’t go to sleep on the Sooners, although four of their last six games (plus Big 12 championship game) are away from home, starting this week against unbeaten Missouri. Of course, they finish the season at unbeaten Oklahoma State. In between, though, are four exceedingly winnable games (Colorado, at Texas A&M, Texas Tech, at Baylor).

Auburn: Suddenly, the Tigers are serious. Sure, they face equally undefeated LSU this week, with SEC West supremacy on the line. But Cam Newton is looking as unstoppable now as any player in college football (sorry Denard Robinson, you were September’s darling). The game against LSU is on The Plains, followed by a trip to Ole Miss, a strangely timed nonleague game against Chattanooga, another home game against Georgia … and then the Iron Bowl at Alabama.

TCU: The Horned Frogs defense has been astounding. In their past three games, they have allowed a total of three points, which means they have won by an average score of 34-1 in the past month. Air Force offers a different defensive challenge this week, and that Nov. 6 trip to undefeated Utah looms as one of college football’s games of the year, but otherwise, UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico will not upset this apple cart.

Michigan State: From here, it looks like Sparty is the feel-good team of 2010 and playing in the soft 2010 Big Ten – without Ohio State on the schedule – seems to be in their favor. Their 7-0 start is their best since Duffy Daugherty’s teams in the 1960s, and indeed, they play sorta like those Spartans – lots of defense, a rugged offense behind a great line, and they won’t beat themselves. Don’t overlook the fact, though, that their three toughest remaining opponents are all road games – at Northwestern this week, at Iowa on Oct. 30, and finishing up at Penn State on Nov. 27 (a week before all other contenders).

LSU: The problem with these Tigers is that after they visit Auburn this week, they still have to face Alabama on Nov. 6, and finish the season at Arkansas (with home games against Louisiana-Monroe and Ole Miss in between). We can’t believe they’ve gotten this far without a defeat, but they have, and this program knows how to win big games, and won’t go down easily.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys have had the most exciting offense in college football (other than Oregon), averaging 50 points a game … and they’ll get to show it on the big stage this week against Nebraska, which might just be pouting. Between the Cornhuskers, a trip to Texas on Nov. 13, and a regular-season finale against OU (as well as trips to both Kansas schools, and a home game against Baylor), there are too many monster challenges ahead at the moment to look toward Glendale, but if they do get through all of that, they sure have lots of upward mobility.

Missouri: Tigers still have a long way to go, but we didn’t imagine that we’d be talking about them as the BCS rankings came out. While they have been impressive almost every week, they have a heck of a two-game parlay coming up – at home against Oklahoma this week, and then a trip to Nebraska. Survive those, and then we’ll talk.

Utah: Like TCU, the Mountain West Conference’s "other top-10 team," the Utes haven’t been challenged since opening the season by defeating Pittsburgh. But the challenges are coming, and if the Utes are up to them, they could take some serious strides toward the top of this class. They get to warm up against Colorado State this week before visiting Air Force, then hosting TCU, and then a nicely timed game at Notre Dame – which, if they are still unbeaten, could serve to open the eyes of voters back east. Ending at San Diego State and at home against BYU should not be problematic, but the Aztecs did bump off Air Force on Saturday.

BIG RED CHOKE? The strange thing about the Nebraska-Texas game is that the Cornhuskers were so looking forward to the game, and the fans were so geeked up for the Red Out, that they seemed to exceed their comfort zone. Certainly the Texas defense had something to do with that, but FIVE fumbles? And Taylor Martinez, known for being so fast, so quick, and so hyper, just couldn’t slow himself down enough to make the quality reads and decisions he’d made all season.

And the dropped passes? That’s a sign of guys trying to do too much, and losing concentration on the task of the moment. The Cornhuskers looked a lot like an underdog playing on the road against a highly rated opponent, trying to accomplish something over their head. Basically, they just weren’t ready for prime time.

The Cornhuskers and Martinez were a year ahead of schedule, anyway. Watch for them to be in the hunt for the national title and Heisman in 2011 … or even more likely, 2012.

AFTER FURTHER REVIEW: Rarely has a team had to overcome two more important bad calls by replays than the way Arkansas was undone by the eye in the sky Saturday.

Watching live, the officials clearly made the wrong calls – one on an Auburn touchdown (which was a fumble), and the other on an Auburn defensive touchdown (which was NOT an Arkansas fumble). But the replays had strange angles that somebody upstairs decided were not providing indisputable video evidence that the original calls were wrong. There was merely conclusive, no doubt-about-it visual observations that the calls were incorrect.

Certainly Auburn showed enough that the Tigers deserved to win the game, but this "under review" system remains seriously flawed. Referees’ buddies, former referees, people who know what it feels like to be a referee, all need to be disqualified from the process. And whatever the guys on the field decided shouldn’t be relevant. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

And it’s not working to review every play in order to tell the officiating crew when they have messed up and when they haven’t. Give each team two video challenges (plus they can use their own timeouts if they choose) to call out especially egregious calls.

And, finally, reviewing the plays should be people who know nothing other than what is obvious. We’d do better to have some old lady watching the Home Shopping Network, and just interrupt her when a coach throws a red flag, and ask her, "was he down, or did he fumble?"

HEISMAN UPDATE: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson hit his first road bump, and it was a biggie. And Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor was derailed by a nasty Badger. And Alabama’s defending champion Mark Ingram has dropped off the radar.

And here’s a factor that cannot be ignored: The BCS rankings and undefeated teams will dominate the attention of college football the rest of the season. So, players like Oregon RB LaMichael James, Boise State QB Kellen Moore, and – perhaps most pointedly – Auburn QB Cam Newton, are the ones to watch.

MID-TERM QUIZ: Halfway through the season, here is your midterm. There are no wrong answers … although some are better than others:

1. If you had to win one game, which current team would you least like to face?
2. If you had to win one game, which college coach would you want on your sideline?
3. If you had to win one game, which college quarterback would you want taking the snaps?
4. If you had to win one game, which college defense would you want on the field?
5. If you had to win one game, which college running back would you want in the game?
6. If you had to score a two-point conversion to win, who would you want with the ball?
7. If you had one pick, whose future NFL earnings would you most like to latch onto?

For me, the answers are: 1. Oregon, 2. Florida’s Urban Meyer, 3. Boise State’s Kellen Moore, 4. TCU, 5. Alabama’s Mark Ingram, 6. Auburn’s Cam Newton, 7. Stanford’s Andrew Luck.

THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST GAMES

UCLA at Oregon: Rare Thursday night game for a team trying to punch a ticket to BCS title game.
Purdue at Ohio State: Sigh.
Nebraska at Oklahoma State: Suddenly, it’s the Cornhuskers who are in the role of spoiler.
Oklahoma at Missouri: Only one of these teams can be undefeated after Saturday.
LSU at Auburn: See above.
Michigan State at Northwestern: This looks like a trap game for MSU.
Wisconsin at Iowa: The best two teams in the Big Ten, with Rose Bowl ramifications.
Air Force at TCU: The Horned Frogs’ goal of the BCS title game suddenly seems very achievable.