The haves in this week's BCS top five seem so very have-y, don't they? All neatly arrayed in their reds and greens and golds, with so many blowouts and close scrapes behind them, and so few remaining obstacles between them and a balmy January evening in the Rose Bowl. It's all very exciting, and it should be. They've earned this. It's been a privilege to witness.
Now, would you like to hear how each conference's impending champion could still go terribly, terribly astray? We're winding up Week 9 with a mostly arbitrary and entirely nonbinding conference-by-conference look back at the weekend that was and a breakdown of the sure things and pitfalls remaining:
Contenders: No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0)
Likeliest Potential Spoilers: No. 13 LSU (7-2, 3-2), no. 11 Auburn (7-1, 3-1)
You will remember the popularly circulated theory (popular because we circulated it in the first place) that Alabama football owes its meticulously executed PROCESS to an underground, elephant-headed supercomputer known only as CYBERTYDE. Should you find this hard to accept, please consider the first month of the Crimson Tide's football schedule this year, in which, faced with three overmatched opponents and one legitimate one, the Tide went 4-0 with one close win and three victories by margins of precisely 25 points. Note, too, that as soon as October began and BCS considerations loomed, Alabama's margins of victory increased. And with Bama outscoring its last three opponents by a combined total of 145-17, two-thirds of the way through the season and with Texas A&M already dispatched, the greatest danger to another Crimson Tide title run might be boredom, whether on the part of the team or the audience.
As twilight slipped over an emptied Bryant-Denny Stadium following Bama's 45-10 dismantling of Tennessee on Saturday, Nick Saban's postgame press conference glared out from oversize video boards in every corner. “I’m really happy, our players are really happy, and I hope our fans are really happy," he said. "I certainly appreciated our fans today. They stayed for the game and did a great job of supporting our team."
As is customary in this kind of program at this time of year, the potential length of Saban's tenure in Tuscaloosa and his possible future career aspirations came up. Somebody asked him whether he'd seen the "We'll Stay for 60 If You Stay Forever" sign. "Sounds like a good deal to me!" Saban replied, jovially for him, even smiling. At 6:17 in the evening the wind came back for more barbecue.
Meanwhile, no SEC East teams are listed here; what would we even do with them? Missouri, ranked fifth in the nation heading into Week 9, now has one conference loss thanks to Saturday night's overtime upset at the talons of homecoming-spoiler enthusiasts South Carolina; the Gamecocks, Florida, and Georgia each carry two conference losses and have between two and four league games left to play. This is going to come in handy before it's all wrapped up, and the fattest lobster that eats the most body parts off its enemies will get the Tide in the Georgia Dome in December.
The two teams of Tigers listed up there under "spoilers" are there by virtue of being division rivals with winning records that have not yet played Alabama, and are to be considered "likeliest" for extremely small values of "likely." This isn't a compliment but a declaration, made with all emotion usually reserved for commenting on the wetness of the sea: Alabama is it until it's not; world without end, amen.
Contenders: No. 2 Oregon (8-0, 5-0), no. 5 Stanford (7-1, 5-1), Arizona State (5-2, 3-1), no. 20 UCLA (5-2, 2-2)
Likeliest Potential Spoiler: Oregon State (6-2, 4-1)
Oregon's most frightening football game of 2013 saw the Ducks tied with UCLA 14-14 at halftime, before going on to shut out the Bruins for the two ensuing quarters while scoring four unanswered touchdowns in a 42-14 win. The Ducks pulled away while resting their star rushing threat, which is a perfectly viable option when the next guy up is this guy. Oregon is the sort of team that responds to facing fourth-and-14, deep in its own territory following a third-down sack, by employing a fake punt — a fake punt that actually works. That's what an off day looks like in Eugene right now, a champagne problem in a swoosh-branded glass. Oregon now has a bye week to prepare for its sternest threat of the regular season, its not-to-be-overlooked nemesis — not even after the Utah loss — no. 5 Stanford.
Impeding the Ducks' well-trod path to Pasadena, after the Cardinal: a season-concluding Civil War game that looks much more interesting than it did back in September, when the Beavers were busy dropping their opener to FCS squad Eastern Washington, and a meeting with whichever team the South sends up for the Pac-12 championship game. The Bruins and Sun Devils are the South division front-runners, and are scheduled to meet on November 23.
Contenders: No. 3 Florida State (7-0, 5-0), no. 7 Miami (7-0, 3-0)
Likeliest Potential Spoiler: Florida State
To say the Seminoles were coasting this week is both true and not the whole story. They were coasting, but they were coasting because they could, and it was not to their detriment. One week after a resounding 51-14 win over then third-ranked Clemson, supposedly FSU's loftiest regular-season hurdle, the Noles took a 42-0 lead over North Carolina State into halftime, returned for the third quarter, and played one final series before the staff began yanking starters left and right. The Wolfpack put up 17 cosmetic points in the second half and FSU's Levonte Whitfield added a late rushing touchdown to complete a 49-17 victory that could've been sooooo much worse.
Florida State's best remaining opponent is Week 10’s visiting team: seventh-ranked Miami, currently the ACC Coastal leader and a team that required a last-minute touchdown in Week 9 to best Wake Forest. Following that surely grisly affair, the Noles will wrap conference play with the Demon Deacons themselves and Syracuse, take a week off to play Idaho and make unnecessary preparations for their rivalry game, and close out the regular season against a Florida squad that can't score even when presented with teams that want desperately to let them. We said this last week, but we're not at all sure this Florida State team is capable of screwing up badly enough to lose any of these games.
Contender: No. 6 Baylor (7-0, 4-0)
Likeliest Potential Spoiler: The remaining top half of the conference
With Saturday's 59-14 road win at Kansas in the books, the Bears currently lead the nation in scoring, averaging close to 64 points per game while allowing just fewer than 16. Their closest victory of the season was a 35-25 win at Kansas State; their next-slimmest margin of victory was 73-42 over West Virginia. That game in Manhattan has been the Bears' one interesting contest all year, and that's not a knock on Baylor: It's demonstrably too good for the first half of its schedule.
Baylor is an excellent football team and a pure joy to watch. Its level of conference competition is also about to ramp up dramatically: After playing the Mountaineers, Wildcats, Cyclones, and Jayhawks to this point, the Bears get Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State in their next three games, then TCU and Texas to close out the regular season. The Longhorns are 4-0 in Big 12 action; the Sooners, Red Raiders, and Cowboys have each sustained a conference loss already. We're not trying to tell you how to live your lives, but spending the next six weeks or so crisscrossing the states of Texas and Oklahoma and watching all of this play out wouldn't be the worst use of your time.
Contenders: No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0), no. 22 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0)
Likeliest Potential Spoiler: Oh, nobody (Leaders); oh, everybody (Legends)
Ohio State's just not living up to its potential, we said. The Buckeyes are bright but are just not applying themselves, we said. Would a 49-point win over Penn State shut you up? the Buckeyes said. For a little bit, we said.
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) October 27, 2013
Predictions are made to pass the time and cause the pickers to grind their back teeth to powder. They're good for little else, but if we can venture out on this one sturdy-looking limb here: It is probably time to assume Ohio State won't play Purdue close again this year. The Buckeyes have a one-game lead over Wisconsin, the next-best Leaders team, plus the head-to-head advantage, and would have to lose twice to some combination of the Hoosiers, Boilermakers, Illini, and Wolverines to render the Badgers a threat to their hold on the division title.
Michigan State leads the Legends — we've been saving that one, thanks — and while the Spartans are the only division team yet to sustain a conference loss, they're headed directly into a two-game stretch against their one-loss division mates, Michigan and Nebraska. They must travel to Northwestern immediately after that, then close out the season against a vigorous and toothsome Minnesota team.
Contenders: No. 23 Central Florida (6-1, 3-0), Houston (6-1, 3-0)
Likeliest Potential Spoiler: No. 19 Louisville (3-1, 7-1)
The only AQ conference that won't bring an unbeaten team into November, the AAC is also the league most likely to see its champion finish below a mid-major program in the season-ending BCS standings. Both the Knights and Cougars recorded their most crucial victories of the season within the past couple weeks, with UCF knocking off then-eighth-ranked Louisville, 38-35, in Week 8, and Houston mauling Rutgers, 49-14, in Week 9. The Knights have a bye in Week 10, while the Cougars face a virtual walkover in a Halloween meeting with South Florida before the AAC co-leaders meet in Orlando on November 9.
If you're into anarchy in whatever geographical footprint this conference occupies this year, Louisville represents the best chance to ensnare the league's top programs in a three-way tie: A week after jaunting to Orlando, the Cougars must travel to face the Cardinals.
Profiles in Profiteroles: Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good
Looking in on the non-AQ conferences with chances to secure BCS bids, the Mountain West and MAC are the only leagues still fielding an unbeaten team. Fresno State and Northern Illinois are slotted at nos. 16 and 17 in the latest BCS standings, respectively, and if the season wrapped tomorrow, the Bulldogs would make a big-money game.
A quick review of what exactly needs to happen for that to hold up:
The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, or the Sun Belt Conference (hereinafter "non-AQ group") will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if either:
A. Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or
B. Such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.
The Bulldogs played their second free-football game of the season in Week 9, holding off San Diego State in overtime and in the process maintaining their perfect record, knocking off a division rival, and becoming the final MWC team to remain unbeaten in conference play. The approach to the conference championship game, and the potential rematch with Boise State that game would bring, will not be easy. Nevada, Wyoming, and San Jose State make up three of the Bulldogs' four remaining opponents, and all three carry some degree of shootout potential.
The Huskies currently share first place in the MAC West with Ball State, a tangle that will sort itself out in a couple of weeks when the two meet in DeKalb. A 5-3 Toledo team and one-win UMass and Western Michigan squads make up the balance of the regular-season schedule. An undefeated November is certainly attainable, but NIU's games have been a bit closely contested for a would-be repeat BCS contender.
And while this is outside the BCS conversation, take a moment to appreciate the Huskies' potential MAC East opponent in the conference title game: the Buffalo Bulls, 6-2 overall, 4-0 in league play, and bowl-eligible with a month of the regular season still left. Buffalo! (Also in the running for a postseason bid as of Week 9: Tulane. Tulane!)
Week 9 saw two of the most hard-luck programs in FBS ball attain their first victories under new head coaches. In Foxborough, Western Michigan got past UMass thanks to a failed two-point conversion:
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) October 26, 2013
And in Las Cruces, New Mexico State held off a rally by Abilene Christian:
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) October 27, 2013
The Minutemen and Wildcats aren't the sturdiest of opponents, but the two programs handled their victories quite differently.
NMSU headline: "Aggies Survive Abilene Christian Comeback"
WMU headline: "Broncos WIN"
Neither of these statements is untrue, but celebrate a little bit, Aggies. You've earned it.
— Mat Kanan (@kananmj) October 26, 2013
More on this as the games draw nearer, but including pro contests, you have just one (1) football-less night to soldier through this week before hitting a Wednesday-Saturday stretch of college ball beginning with Cincinnati at Memphis on Wednesday evening and concluding with Nevada at Fresno State on Saturday at 10:30. Halloween night sadly lacks ACC participants — saving all your best Bordello of Blood material for Canes-Noles on Saturday night — but features four total games from the AAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, and Pac-12, including a snack-size candy bar of a contest in Arizona State at Washington State. (The South Florida–Houston game is the dentistry-eviscerating peanut butter kiss in this scenario.)