An annual December tradition as rich as the lighting of the tree outside Rockefeller Center or the “A Christmas Story” marathon on TBS, sportswriters are already licking their chops in anticipation of their yearly mid-December practice of recycling their two-decade-old “Why this College Football Season Needed a Playoff!” column.
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This year, however, that tried and true storyline might not hold much water.
For college football fans desperately in search of a playoff system this year — they have one; it’s right under their noses.
Though not set up with easy-to-access office pool style brackets, the college football schedule has worked out in such a way this year that there are just four games left on the 2011 regular-season slate that will ultimately end up determining the BCS National Championship Game participants.
Let me explain.
With no Big 12 Championship Game in 2011, Oregon and Stanford in the same Pac-12 division, Michigan State and Wisconsin clearly the class of the Big Ten, and the SEC East serving as the SEC West’s weakling little brother for the second straight year, the scheduling gods have saved some of the best regular-season games for last, making the final two months of the 2011 college football campaign an unofficial “Win and You’re In” elimination-style tournament.
It’s do or die, without Edith from accounting winning the office pool.
There are two things at play, here. One, the Big 12 and SEC’s overall respect over other conferences in the minds of the BCS computers and voters; and two, the complete dominance of the AP’s top 10 rated teams this season. Whereas in previous seasons, the possibility of non-contenders upsetting top-rated teams made a typical in-conference schedule somewhat unpredictable, this year has been an absolute cakewalk for college football’s power brokers. Of note, Las Vegas has taken a bath the past two weekends with the big favorites covering massive point spreads in just about every instance.
“The sports books are getting big-time clobbered this month on Saturdays. All the top favorites are covering giant point spreads. It’s borderline historic,” explains RJ Bell, an analyst for sports gambling site Pregame.com. “The AP’s top 10 rated teams are 16-1-1 vs. the spread over the past two weeks. That’s unheard of.”
What’s it all mean? Well, with the top 10 teams seemingly immune from upsets this season, the 2011 college football season is going to be decided by four games, none of which are actual “office” conference championship bouts. Circle these four dates and enjoy your long-awaited “playoff.”
Wisconsin at Michigan State, Oct. 22
First on the docket is next weekend’s Wisconsin-Michigan State matchup. The way things are working out, Michigan State is the one team left on Wisconsin’s schedule that can actually prevent the Badgers from an undefeated campaign. Bolstered by the nation’s top-ranked defense and the top defensive prospect in April’s NFL Draft in defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, the Spartans could have just what it takes to contain the Russell Wilson show. The fact that the game will be played in East Lansing, in prime time under the lights, only serves in Michigan State’s favor. Of course, the downside of a Wisconsin victory over the Spartans is that a Michigan State loss — their second of the year — will only negatively impact their BCS ranking. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Wisconsin, here. A second win over Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game would give the Spartans at least a third loss on the year, doing nothing for Wisconsin’s BCS title game chances. Wisconsin absolutely needs Stanford, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, LSU and Alabama to lose games to even have a shot at the BCS Championship Game. But if they lose this one Saturday? They — and the entire Big Ten — are done by Halloween.
LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5
Undoubtedly, this is the biggest regular-season college football game of the past ten years. LSU topped Alabama by the slimmest of margins when the first BCS rankings were released Sunday night, edging the Tide by a .003 differential. LSU and Alabama open the BCS standings closer than the initial top two teams have since the BCS formula changed in 2004. You can throw those three hundredths of a point — and whatever the next two weeks’ BCS standings are — out the window, though, come Nov. 5. The winner of this bout will have a clear path to the BCS National Championship Game. Both teams could find themselves in battles in their annual Thanksgiving weekend rivalry games (LSU vs. Arkansas/Alabama vs. Auburn), but the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta should be a breeze. Whichever team loses on Nov. 5 is more than likely out of the BCS race.
Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 12
Stanford finds itself in an unfortunate situation similar to the one facing Wisconsin. With a conference that’s not viewed to be as strong as the SEC and Big 12 and an out-of-conference schedule that borders on comical, an undefeated season by the Cardinal would be viewed in a lesser light than the potential ones by the Big 12 and SEC champions. Stanford won’t even have a shot at the BCS conversation if they don’t protect their home turf and knock off Oregon on Nov. 12. An Oregon victory will most likely give the Ducks a Pac-12 North division championship (Washington is surprisingly 3-0 in conference play at the moment, too), knocking Stanford from the Pac-12 Championship Game and the BCS discussion altogether. So yeah, Andrew Luck — this one’s a must have.
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Dec. 3
Bedlam! This one will be for all the marbles for both teams, marking the most significant matchup of this rivalry’s rich history. With no Big 12 Championship Game in 2011, this year’s Bedlam Game will serve as the season finale for both the Sooners and Cowboys. Oklahoma will most likely beat undefeated Kansas State in Manhattan this weekend and hold serve for the rest of the season until this one. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, has both Baylor and Kansas State at home, after this weekend’s road trip to Missouri. If the Sooners and Cowboys are both undefeated heading into this one (as I believe they will be), a BCS National Championship Game berth will be at stake. Win and in.
These four games are the ones that matter most in college football this season. This is your unofficial playoff.
The winners of LSU/Alabama and Oklahoma/Oklahoma State will more than likely be squaring off in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans.
If one of those four teams slip up before or after their respective meetings, look to Wisconsin and Stanford.
As for Boise State? The people’s champ? The little guy? Well, they’ll be on the outside looking in, yet again. With TCU and Air Force in the midst of down years and no Colin Kaepernick-led Nevada up ahead, the Broncos’ weak November and December slate of opponents will keep them out of the race. Clemson? Based on the initial BCS rankings, it appears as though the ACC isn’t viewed by BCS voters or the computers in all that better a light than the Mountain West is. An undefeated Clemson squad could end up in the same Orange Bowl setting as the past several ACC champions.
Want a playoff? You kinda, sorta have one this year, folks.