Arkansas win sharpens BCS picture

After all the wild games, amazing endings and shocking developments, the big winner in the big picture over the weekend worked out to be, well, lots of them.

Obviously Oregon and Auburn worked their second-half magic, Nebraska and Oklahoma earned a classic showdown, all three Big Ten powers were as good as they needed to be to become conference tri-champions, Virginia Tech kept showing how good it is and Florida State was good as well as lucky, too.

On the flip side: LSU got beat, and Boise State got its heart torn apart.

But taking big steps in their bids to earn BCS berths were Stanford, Arkansas, and TCU, each for a different reason beyond its outstanding season and season-ending performance. Suffice to say all of them benefited from Boise State’s shocking loss to Nevada.

YES, ARKANSAS CAN: For Arkansas, a 10-2 record, prime-time quarterback and Top 10 national ranking will make it easy for the Sugar Bowl to maintain an SEC connection by picking them to face fellow at-large team Ohio State. But, mostly, the Razorbacks’ huge traveling fan base to New Orleans makes it an easy and obvious choice.

This is the fifth year of a separate BCS championship game (rather than it being played in an actual bowl game previously), and each time the SEC has put a team in the national title game and in the Sugar Bowl.

Perhaps even more impressive, in the four previous seasons, Florida (3), LSU (2), Alabama (2), and Georgia went to BCS bowls. Now it’s looking as if Auburn and Arkansas will join the group, making it half the teams in the SEC in the past five years.

In the Big Ten, five teams (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Illinois) have been to a BCS bowl in the past four years, and Wisconsin will become the sixth this year while Ohio State looks to make its fifth trip in a row.

CARDINAL RULES: For Stanford, it’s a little different. The Cardinal is a school-record 11-1 and is led by two of college football’s great players of 2010 (quarterback Andrew Luck and two-way star Owen Marecic), but coach Jim Harbaugh and the Tree are still counting on the recognition and love of human voters and computer rankings.

The problem for Stanford is it has the smallest fan following of any team in the Top 10 and probably the smallest following among major conference teams in the top 40. But thanks to Kansas State getting royally screwed over in 1998, it looks like Stanford will not be snubbed after all despite its inability to pack the house.

The Cardinal, though, might have to wait and watch the BCS rankings Sunday night and again Dec. 5, making sure they hold their tenuous lead on Wisconsin.

Last week, Stanford was No. 6, just ahead of the Badgers. With No. 4 Boise State and No. 5 LSU losing over the weekend, it would stand to reason the Cardinal would move up to No. 4 and Wisconsin to No. 5. This is important because of the aforementioned "Kansas State rule," designed to protect a team like Stanford — outstanding on the field, unimpressive on the bowl niceties comparison chart — so major conference teams are guaranteed a BCS bowl if they are ranked fourth or higher.

In 1998, Kansas State was No. 3 but was snubbed by the BCS bowl committees and ended up in the Alamo Bowl. Ironically, that’s where Stanford might still wind up if the voters choose to give Wisconsin a little extra credit for scoring 70 points all the time.

If Stanford is relegated to No. 5 in the BCS rankings and left out of a BCS bowl, it would mark the third time in seven years the No. 5 team was left out. It just so happens the other two snubs also came from the Pac-10 (Oregon in 2005, California in 2004).

The shame of it is that Wisconsin-Stanford would make for a sensational Rose Bowl, but the Rose must invite third-ranked TCU. It’s a new rule this year created to open up the Rose Bowl when it loses a team to the national championship game, forcing the bowl to overlook its traditional Pac-10-Big Ten matchup

HEY, TCU, SEE YOU IN PASADENA: Snagging an undefeated third-ranked team from Texas is not a bad deal for the Rose, which envisioned seeing such once-in-a-lifetime darlings when it agreed to loopholes in the Pac-10-Big Ten exclusivity contracts in joining the BCS more than a decade ago.

The parade, the tradition, and all the pageantry that still surround the Rose Bowl have prompted teams like Texas and Oklahoma to travel like bananas to Pasadena, and TCU is expected to follow suit. And if it doesn’t, well, Wisconsin snowbirds are likely to snap up any available tickets, anyway.

The Horned Frogs were parading around the field with roses in their teeth after their victory over New Mexico, which is just about as cool as any traditional symbol in this sport.

PROBABLE BCS MATCHUPS: At this point, with only a week remaining, here’s how the big bowls would probably line up:

• BCS Championship Game: Oregon vs. Auburn

• Rose: Wisconsin vs. TCU

• Sugar: Arkansas vs. Ohio State

• Orange: Virginia Tech/Florida State winner vs. Stanford

• Fiesta: Nebraska/Oklahoma winner vs. Big East champion

ONE MORE WEEK: There are several key regular-season finales this week, which we can reasonably assume will prompt another shake of the big-bowl hopper. (See this week’s games below). The always-possible BCS Armageddon would have Oregon and Auburn both losing, and all three Big East contenders losing to send Connecticut to a BCS bowl game with a 7-5 record.

Oregon, however, would fall back to the Rose Bowl even with a loss (since it beat Stanford), and a 12-1 Auburn team would still warrant at least an Orange Bowl spot if it loses to South Carolina in the SEC championship game.

What’s more, it’s very possible for Auburn to lose on Saturday but still reach the BCS championship game. Yes, TCU is laying in wait, but the computers have such a love affair going with the Tigers they might still keep them ahead of the Horned Frogs. It happened in 2003, when Oklahoma lost to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game but did not fall out of the top two. Of course, the Sooners promptly lost to LSU in the national title game.

It could happen for Auburn this year; Stanford and Wisconsin (among others) would be over in the corner hollering, too, but if a one-loss team was to slip in this year, it would be Auburn.

BARELY ENOUGH BOWL TEAMS: There are finally enough teams qualified to play in a bowl by earning a .500 or better season. But just barely, thanks to Georgia and Tennessee both coming through. At least 10 of the 35 bowl games will be happy, since they’ll have SEC teams.

It’s the second year in a row the SEC has put a record 10 teams in bowls. The rest of the breakdown: ACC, 9; Big 12, 8; Big Ten, 8; Big East, 6; C-USA, 6; MAC, 6; MWC, 5; WAC, 4; Pac-10, 3; Sun Belt, 2; independents, 3.

Exactly 70 teams are currently available for the 70 bowl spots, with only a couple of more teams playing for inclusion this week. Washington, Oregon State, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech can get the number all the way up to 74, which might give a couple of lower-tier bowls at least a little flexibility.

The Pac-10 has the biggest problem: The conference has six bowl spots but, at the moment, is going to leave four of them vacant. Consider that both Oregon and Stanford will probably be pulled up into BCS games, so the Alamo gets Arizona, while the Holiday is hoping Washington can beat Washington State and become the fourth eligible team from the league. Otherwise, the much-coveted annual trip to San Diego would go unfilled by the conference and would be up for grabs among at-large teams.

Should Oregon State beat Oregon, lots would change in the Pac-10, since the Beavers would qualify at 6-6, and Oregon would slip to the Rose. There would be a greater chance Stanford might slip behind Wisconsin to No. 5, lose its automatic BCS bid and fall back to the Alamo, leaving Arizona for the Holiday and Oregon State and Washington for bowls in Las Vegas and San Francisco.

It appears Utah will be in the Las Vegas Bowl as sort of a transition from the MWC to the Pac-12, which are the two conferences contracted for that bowl.

THE NOT-SO-BIG EAST: Face it, no major bowl wants to settle for Connecticut, but the Huskies are still sitting pretty as the team that "controls its destiny" in the Big East. Beat South Florida this week (no easy task, just ask Miami), and they’re BCS bound. But if UConn loses, it can get complicated.

West Virginia is next in line, and if UConn loses and WVU beats Rutgers, the Mountaineers get the nod. If both teams lose and Pitt beats Cincinnati, then the Panthers have somehow worked their way back in. If all three of those teams lose (entirely possible), there would be a five-way tie for the conference championship, and Connecticut would win the tiebreakers.

As it stands, the Big East champion will be the last (or apparent last) choice of the BCS bowls once again.

TRADING PLACES: One more unlikely, but logical continuation for the BCS bowls: If West Virginia gets the Big East title, then it would make sense for the Orange Bowl to welcome the Mountaineers with their legion of traveling fans, and allowing Stanford to go to the more geographically sensible Fiesta Bowl. West Virginia, after all, would be 9-3 and would probably take 20,000 more fans to Miami than Stanford would muster.

That would help the Orange and Fiesta make lemonade out of lemons, since it doesn’t make a lot of sense for Stanford and West Virginia to pass each other in crossing the country rather than playing in games that their fans wouldn’t have to fly to. Besides, West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (the Hokies are favored against Florida State in the ACC championship game) would be a renewal of the lost Battle for the Black Diamond Trophy, which ended when Tech left the Big East for the ACC.

For what it’s worth, the other Big East teams don’t generally travel well enough for the Orange to consider "swapping" 11-1 Stanford.

ONE LAST SHOWDOWN: The Big 12 championship game at Cowboy Stadium is an absolute dream matchup with Nebraska and Oklahoma. The Cornhuskers and Sooners have traditionally staged one of college football’s great rivalries for decades.

Certainly this matchup between ranked teams — in Nebraska’s last season in the Big 12, no less — will prove a lot more interesting to the teams and their fans than the Fiesta Bowl contest against the Big Least champion that awaits the winner.

THIS WEEK’S GAMES

Thursday, Dec. 2

Arizona State at Arizona — A chance for floundering Devils and fading Wildcats to finish right.

Friday, Dec. 3

Miami, Ohio vs. Northern Illinois — NIU heads into MAC title game seeking 10th straight win.

Illinois at Fresno State — Boise beat FSU 51-0; let’s see what Big Ten bowl team can do.

Saturday, Dec. 4

Connecticut at South Florida — Big East championship is there for the Huskies’ taking.

Rutgers at West Virginia — Defense-minded Mountaineers have won three in a row, but still need help from South Florida.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati — Panthers have watched BCS hopes go down the drain; can they recover?

Auburn vs. South Carolina — Don’t overlook Spurrier and his crew in SEC championship game, which is a rematch of one of Auburn’s great comebacks.

Florida State vs. Virginia Tech — ACC championship game is rematch of 2000 national title game and 2005 ACC title game (FSU won both).

Oregon at Oregon State — Civil War has everything on the line for Ducks, and a bowl on the line for the Beavers.

Washington at Washington State — Cougars have had three weeks to prepare to foil Dawgs’ bowl plans.

USC at UCLA — Battle of unlikeable coaches pits teams that are a combined 11-12.

Utah State at Boise State — Are Broncos really going to Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl?

Nevada at Louisiana Tech — Does Wolf Pack really have to play another game? Tech needs to win for a bowl.