The top of the national championship picture looks very clear right now. As all Big Ten fans know by now, Michigan and Ohio State both have a clear path to the BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, AZ on January 8. If Southern Cal wins out, the Trojans would join the Mich-OSU winner in the desert.
That much we know. What we don't know is how things will shake out if USC loses, or one of the Big Ten powers trips up in the next few weeks, and then manages to recover and win the showdown in Columbus. Looking over the rankings, the logical candidates are West Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame, Texas, Florida and Auburn.
West Virginia and Louisville are the heavy favorites in the Big East. Both are undefeated, and the winner of their head-to-head battle on November 2 would be the top remaining unbeaten squad, in the event that they also escape a road game at Pitt, and a date with fellow unbeaten Rutgers. Right now WVA is at #5 in the rankings, and Louisville at #7. I suspect though, that if one of these teams runs the table, they will be the one to supplant Mich/Ohio State or USC if the opportunity avails itself.
The rankings tell you that Auburn is in command, currently ranked #4. But the Tigers have three very soft games that will weaken their standing in the BCS. They also need to win the SEC West in order to get to the conference championship game and beef up their schedule strength. While non-division winners have made it to the national championship game in the past ('01 Nebraska), the new ranking system gives much more weight to human voting, rather then computer rankings. Which means the penalty for not reaching--and winning--a conference title game is going to be greater. And Auburn must hope that Arkansas loses twice.
If the Tigers get the breaks they need, the likely opponent for the SEC crown would be Florida. Auburn is the only team to beat the Gators so far, and Urban Meyer's team is still in line at #6 to get back in the championship mix. Florida is in better shape then Auburn--the Gators lead the Eastern Divison and control their own destiny. They also have a game with Florida State, and even in a down year, a win over the Seminoles will boost the power ranking. If Florida wins out, it is quite possible that we will see a rematch of last week's Florida-Auburn barnburner. This time on a neutral site in the Georgia Dome, and for the right to be the top one-loss contender for a trip to Arizona.
Notre Dame and Texas are next on the list. They are very close in the rankings, at #8 and #9 respectively. The Irish have one huge advantage--they still play Southern Cal, giving them a chance to control their own destiny and create an open space in the championship game. A prospective win over the Trojans would be a big boost for ND's ranking as well. Texas has a very manageable schedule, including the fact the Big 12 North rarely produces a representative division winner for the conference championship game. In the BCS world though, the easy schedule has a flip side--no chances to boost schedule strength, and for a one-loss contender that is deadly. Both of these teams would also see their chances enhanced if the one team that beat them (Michigan for ND, Ohio State for Texas) is the one that wins the battle in Columbus.
The 'Horns dilemma is the answer to the Tommy Tubervilles of the world. Tuberville has become very vocal in recent weeks in stating that teams with tough schedules--namely SEC teams--have no chance, because the odds of running the table are so long. The reality is that those teams are usually first in line if a spot for a one-loss team opens up, precisely because of that schedule strength. Which is why Florida (1996) and LSU (2003) were each in position to win their national titles, in addition to Tennessee's unbeaten champion of 1998. You can try and play a softer schedule if you want--but that only enhances the pressure to win them all.
If we assume a bid to the title game opening up, my own guess is that the SEC champ will fall a little short. Either both Auburn and Florida will lose again prior to that, or at least one of them will, but then rebound to claim the conference. That would leave the door unambigiously open to the Big East champ or to Notre Dame. So if you're an Irish fan, you might want to get real friendly with Dave Wannstedt. The Pitt head coach is the best bet to try and derail an unbeaten coming out of that league.
But in the end, this may be a purely academic conversation. It would be a shocker if Michigan or Ohio State is not in Arizona. Not only does one of the teams have to lose prior to their meeting, but the team that was presumably inconsistent enough to have lost, has to then turn around and win the head-to-head showdown. USC has looked very beatable lately, but I don't know that the Pac-10 fields a strong enough team to knock them off. Nor am I sure that ND plays the kind of defense necessary to win a big game on the road. It looks like what was once a classic Rose Bowl game--Mich/Ohio State vs. USC, will be scheduled for the desert this time.