With Georgia Tech's stunning upset of Miami last night, the Big Ten's BCS representative, Penn State, has now emerged as the top one-loss candidate for the Rose Bowl. USC and Texas hold the inside tracks to Pasadena right now, but if either one of them stumble, Penn State will almost certainly be ticketed west to play for Joe Paterno's third national title.
This post will deal with whether the Lions' status is justified. There are two other prominent one-loss teams in LSU & Virginia Tech. While we wait to see how the BCS standings will react to the events between now and the first weekend of December, Penn State held a wide margin of both of those teams. It's time to look at all three teams' resumes and see who deserves first crack at the Rose Bowl in the event of an upset to the Big Two. Before I begin a review of the evidence, let me explain that I excluded one-loss Oregon, as the Ducks will not win the Pac-10. I have also not included UCLA, but if the Bruins upset the Trojans they would deserve a serious look. However, I believe the likeliest crack in the Big Two will be when Texas plays Colorado for the Big 12 crown, so for the time being I'm assuming USC is in.
For Penn State, LSU & Virginia Tech there are an array of factors to begin with, but there is one that should never be considered--the writer or pollsters personal opinion of who would win if the teams played on the field. Sadly, this form of pollster egomania often dictates voting, as though this were about prognostication. The decision should be made strictly on the body of work each team has compiled. What follows is my review of that body of work in its different manifestations, and is not an opinion of who would win if they played it out. Let us begin...
Caliber of their loss
How close is each team to being unbeaten? Penn State lost at Michigan on the last play of the game, 27-25. Virginia Tech was smoked at home by Miami, 27-7. LSU lost a heartbreaker at home to Tennessee 30-27. We can begin by immediately declaring Tech the loser in this facet of the evaluation. On the surface, Penn State would seem to win. They lost on the road, and while three other teams also won in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines at least had a nice season--unlike Tennessee, who collapsed and will not go to a bowl game. BUT--this Tiger loss came in September. Recall what was transpiring in Louisiana during the month of September. LSU, like everyone else in the state, was uprooted from Hurricane Katrina--and they still nearly won the first game played after the natural disaster. When all is said and done, I'd still give the edge to Penn State--but if this debate heats up and voters start digging beyond the surface, it will be interesting to see how much of "Katrina politics" gets into college football, as LSU has continued to play this entire season in what are obviously less then ideal living conditions.
Just as we ask how close each team is to being undefeated, how close are they having two or three losses? LSU is the clear loser on this criteria. Wins over Florida and Auburn came by a combined seven points. They rallied past Arizona State by four. A win over Alabama came in overtime. I hear you Tiger fans--these are tough games, and you can't expect to win them easy. But you'll get credit for strength of schedule later in the conversation. Tech and Penn State each had one close call. The Hokies escaped N.C. State 20-16 in the opener. Penn State pulled out a 34-29 comeback over Northwestern. Frank Beamer's team gets a slight edge here. The Nittany Lions needed to convert a 4th & 16 to complete their win. Tech won a hard-fought close game. Penn State needed a miracle.
Each team played three non-conference games, and each had two pretty easy ones. LSU beat a pair of I-AA foes in North Texas and Appalachian State. Virginia Tech beat a couple 4-6 teams in Marshall and Ohio. Penn State beat Central Michigan (6-5), and Cincinnati (4-6). Our trio of contenders each played one reputable game. Penn State beat South Florida 23-13. Virginia Tech handled West Virginia 34-17. LSU had their close win over Arizona State. The Tigers clearly lose this one, as the Sun Devils are only 5-5, and the I-AA teams are a major black mark. The debate between PSU/Va Tech is still unsettled. West Virginia and South Florida will play on December 3, and the winner will take home the Big East's BCS bid. As of right now, one has to give the edge to the Hokies though. They played WVA on the road, and the Mountaineers do lead South Fla by a game in the conference standings. This could change on the 3rd, but right now I would argue this point for Frank Beamer.
I'll break these down a little more further down, but looking at the general picture of eight conference games, here's the basic numbers. Penn State's eight opponents included five bowl teams, and they had a combined 50 wins. Virginia Tech (keep in mind, we're assuming they beat North Carolina next week) has three bowl teams on the ACC slate, though both N.C. State and Maryland could still join that group. Their eight foes collectively have 40 wins. LSU's teams have 43 wins. There are three bowl teams on the list, and Vanderbilt could make it four. The Nittany Lions clearly played the most consistently tough conference schedule. Now, Penn State fans, aren't you glad you didn't have Indiana on the schedule dragging the numbers down?
How does each team look in the area of flashy wins? Penn State's win over Ohio State is probably the juiciest of any of the contenders, with the 9-2 Buckeyes probably bound for the BCS. But LSU's got some scalps of their own. Auburn and Alabama are both 9-2 as well--and both were beaten by the Tigers. And Georgia (currently at 8-2) awaits in the SEC title game. LSU would benefit greatly by the Dawgs beating Georgia Tech and arriving in Atlanta at 9-2. Decisive edge here for the Tigers. Virginia Tech has not beaten a team with fewer then three losses, and with ACC title game foe Florida State having already lost three (maybe four, pending next week against Florida), this isn't going to change.
How have the contenders fared against teams that might not be "flashy", but are no picnic nonetheless? Penn State has three wins against teams with seven wins or more--Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin. LSU has a win over 7-3 Florida. Virginia Tech knocked off eight-win Boston College. Decisive advantage here for the Lions.
How fat did our teams get on pastry? Penn State feasted on Illinois. Virginia Tech rolled over Duke. LSU pounded three-win Ole Miss. We've already docked the Tigers for the I-AA games back in the section on non-conference games, so we can give them a slight edge for this one. When Ole Miss is your easiest conference game, that's a nice way of saying there were no gimmes.
So there's the body of work. Who should get the nod? Well, it all comes down to what a voter values the most. If this were a court of law, let's imagine what each team's closing argument might look like--
Penn State--the most balanced body of work. Consistently competitive games throughout, with no room for games where they played less then their best. While these aren't glamorous, one need only ask Miami right now how easy it can be to stumble. And , say the Lions, we still have a showcase win over Ohio State to lead the higlight reel. Our schedule best reflects that of a championship team, week-in, week-out.
LSU--if it's a national contender you want, then you need to look at performance in showcase games. Wins over Auburn, Alabama, and (presumably) Georgia establish the Tigers bona fides. Perhaps there's not the same number of upper middle-class wins, like Penn State has, but hey--national championship teams are supposed to win those kinds of games. The Tigers argue against giving the Lions excessive credit for these, and focus our attention to their performance in elite matchups.
Virginia Tech--which team had the most opportunities to get beat? It's the Hokies. Penn State does not have to play a conference championship game. LSU does, but they went outside Division I-A for an opponent not once, but twice. All things being equal, the Hokies argue, their odds of losing more games were higher, simply based on opportunity. Therefore, if the teams are equal in the "L" column, we deserve the benefit of the doubt.
And what if UCLA upsets USC, and both teams share the Pac-10 title with one-loss? Well, I'm not ready to analyze that one right now...