Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Varsity Numbers: Honing in

Bill Connelly again looks at which college football teams the F/+ ratings are sure about, and which teams remain a mystery (led by Appalachian State).

10 Nov 2008

Confessions of a Football Junkie: BCS Scenarios

by Russell Levine

Last week in this space, I advised Penn State fans to relax; that their third-place position in the BCS standings was likely to work itself out.

Well, that didn't take long, did it?

Penn State's dream season came crashing down with a last-second loss at Iowa, leaving the Nittany Lions on the outside of the national title picture looking in. Penn State fans are likely anything but relaxed this week as they wonder how the national title shot eluded them despite the easiest remaining schedule among the contenders.

You know what? They should still relax. It's silver-lining time.

Apart from Penn State fans, the entire college football world is relieved to have the Big Ten out of national title picture. The conference has yet to recover from the damage inflicted by Ohio State's inability to compete in either of the last two BCS championships. Penn State won't get a chance to improve the conference's rep, but perhaps more importantly, it won't be able to drag the league down any further, either.

Comparitive results with USC vs. Oregon State aside, Penn State did not look to be on the same level as the Big 12 or SEC contenders, especially as the season wore on. The Nittany Lions' high-powered offense was stymied for a half by lowly Michigan (and yes, those words hurt), stymied for nearly the full 60 minutes at Ohio State, and hardly looked explosive against Iowa, which came in with a 5-4 record.

Those worried that Joe Paterno now won't have the opportunity to go out on top should also let it go. For one, Paterno has shown no indication that he plans to step down. The feel-good retirement scenario is something for the media to write about; Paterno does not appear to care. Besides, if Paterno's goal was merely to go on the heels of a successful season, an 11-1 mark and a Rose Bowl berth sounds pretty good. The Lions haven't played in Pasadena since the 1994 season, and their fans will gladly load up the charter flights for a return -- especially if the opponent is USC -- which appears likely.

When I was at Penn State a few weeks ago, many fans brought up to me the 2005 Michigan-Penn State game, a contest won by the Wolverines on a fourth-down, last-play touchdown pass. That would turn out to be the only loss for the Nittany Lions that year, as they went on to win the Big Ten and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl (the Rose Bowl hosted the USC-Texas BCS championship that year). The fans' issue is that Michigan coach Lloyd Carr successfully lobbied the officials to have two seconds put back on the clock and the winning score came with one second remaining. There's no need for me to recount here the multitude of reasons why that argument is ridiculous. Instead I'll just say here what I told those PSU fans: Michigan did you a favor. Had Penn State finished undefeated that year, it very likely would have been shut out of the title game as USC and Texas went wire-to-wire atop the polls that season. My point was that 12-1 and a win in the Orange Bowl was much preferable than 13-0 and No. 2 in the polls.

I think the same thing could apply this year. Not only was Penn State potentially going to get shut out of the BCS title game at 12-0 -- a scenario I found unlikely, but nevertheless possible -- but they likely would have been heavy, heavy underdogs had they made it. I'll put the question to Penn State fans directly. Would you rather finish 12-1 with a win in the Rose Bowl or 12-1 with a loss in the BCS title game?

Elsewhere as the BCS turns, we now have the clearest picture yet of the championship scenario. If Texas Tech wins out, the Red Raiders will be in the title game opposite the winner of the Alabama-Florida SEC championship (assuming neither the Gators nor the Tide drop a game before then).

Where it gets interesting is if Oklahoma beats Texas Tech in two weeks. Assuming the Sooners can also beat Oklahoma State and there are no other shockers, that would create a three-way tie in the Big 12 South between Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech, with each having gone 1-1 against the other two. Things could come down to the fifth tiebreaker to determine the division's representative in the Big 12 championship: the BCS standings.

The highest-ranked team would get the bid. Texas probably has the edge, but it's possible it could be Oklahoma despite having lost to the Longhorns.

USC remains alive for the title game, but the Trojans are going to need a lot of help to overcome their current standing in the polls -- something like the Big 12 South champ losing in the conference title game -- and get to Miami.

The other interesting facet of the BCS this season is the fate of the mid-majors. Utah's win over TCU last Thursday kept the Utes in position for an at-large bid, and also removed the possibility of TCU becoming the first-ever non-BCS league school to garner a bid despite a loss (the Frogs lost to then-No. 1 Oklahoma earlier this year).

But Utah is not alone. Undefeated Boise State is also in position to qualify for an automatic bid this year (by finishing in the top 12 of the BCS standings). So, will we see multiple mid-major teams in the big-money bowls?

Don't count on it.

The BCS provision that allowed Hawaii and Boise State to qualify the last two years merely covers the highest-ranked eligible non-automatic qualifier. So if Utah were to finish at No. 7 and Boise State at No. 10, only Utah would be guaranteed a berth. There is no ticket guarantee large enough to get Boise State into the BCS as a second mid-major team, not with so many quality "name" schools likely to be eligible. Boise State's only path is to hope for a Utah loss (presumably to BYU in the season finale).

If they get shut out, the Broncos won't be the only team complaining. Another BCS rule limits each conference to a maximum of two participants. That means one of Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech is going to get shut out. (Put your money on the latter if the Raiders lose to Oklahoma). SEC fans will no doubt want to add a likely snub of Georgia to the list, but the Bulldogs haven't done much to deserve a bid. The SEC will get its two bids (Florida and Alabama) and it won't deserve another.

If you're doing the math in your head, we're now up to nine of the 10 bids (the six BCS conference champs, plus Utah/Boise State, plus one at-large team from the Big 12 and one from the SEC). Who's going to ge that final bid? It will come from the Big East, the Big Ten, the ACC, or the Pac-10.

Unless Oregon State gets the Pac-10's automatic bid, in which case USC would probably bet the final at-large choice, the answer is Ohio State. Assuming the Buckeyes win out, they'll be 10-2 and on their way to the BCS. They might even find an SEC squad waiting. Alabama-Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, anyone?

John L. Smith Trophy

It wasn't a banner week for poor coaching decisions. Very few strategic moves stood out in the games I watched.

So it is with that caveat that I award this week's JLS Trophy to LSU's Les Miles. His team was lucky to reach overtime after blocking a 29-yard field goal on the final play of regulation. The kick would not have been the final play had LSU opted to use its timeouts while Alabama was position itself for the potential game-winning kick, but that's an argument for another day.

My issue with Miles came in the OT, when he had a shaky quarterback throw deep on the first possession, leading to an interception and the Alabama win. LSU was facing third-and-6 at the 21-yard line when Jarrett Lee threw deep into the end zone. The receiver was bracketed by two defenders and Rashad Johnson made an easy catch for his third interception of the game -- the fourth overall by Lee, who finished 13-of-34 on a miserable afternoon.

Given the way Lee was playing, and the fact that Alabama's offense isn't exactly explosive, Miles might have gone with a safer call there, say a screen or a short crossing pattern, or even a draw. Instead, ever the gambler, he threw deep and the game was lost.

BlogPoll Ballot

This season, I am again voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog, and now available on CBS Sportsline. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and I may make changes based on comments for a revised ballot later in the week .

Rank Team Delta
1 Texas Tech --
2 Alabama --
3 Texas 1
4 Oklahoma 2
5 Florida 3
6 Penn State 3
7 Southern Cal --
8 Utah 1
9 Ohio State 3
10 Oklahoma State 5
11 Missouri 2
12 Boise State 1
13 Georgia 2
14 North Carolina 4
15 Brigham Young 1
16 TCU 6
17 LSU 3
18 Ball State 1
19 Michigan State --
20 Pittsburgh 4
21 Florida State 4
22 Virginia Tech 4
23 Cincinnati 3
24 Tulsa 2
25 Oregon State 1



Dropped Out: California (No. 20), Georgia Tech (No. 21), Northwestern (No. 22), Maryland (No. 23).

Rankings that may require further explanation: I feel even better about Texas Tech at No. 1 after they bounced back from a program-defining win to lay a beating on Oklahoma State. I think Florida is playing better than everyone but the Red Raiders right now, but I can't ignore the Ole Miss loss as they compare to undefeated Alabama and once-beaten Texas and Oklahoma. I did give the Gators the nod over USC this week, however. The big drop-off starts after the Trojans at No. 7. The margin between Utah at No. 8 and Oregon State at No. 25 is about as thin as it could be. I've tried to apply steady logic in how I ordered things, but I'm sure there are some oversights in there as well.

Games I watched at least part of: TCU-Utah, Nevada-Fresno State, Michigan-Minnesota, Georgia-Kentucky, Alabama-LSU, Notre Dame-Boston College, Cal-USC, Oklahoma State-Texas Tech, Cincinnati-West Virginia, Florida-Vanderbilt.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 10 Nov 2008

21 comments, Last at 15 Nov 2008, 8:24am by Kibbles

Comments

1
by Solomon (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 12:40am

It looks likely that Ohio State will play in the Fiesta Bowl (yawn) for the fourth time and not the Sugar or other BCS Bowl. The 4 BCS at-large teams are likely the Alabama/Florida loser, the Big 12 South runner-up, the Big 10 runner-up/co-champion, and one of Utah or Boise State (although it would be cool if Ball State could somehow make it instead). The selection order is Fiesta, Sugar, and then Orange for this season.

The selections would likely go as follows:
BCS Championship: SEC Champ vs. Big 12 Champ -- Alabama vs. Texas
Rose: Penn State vs. Southern California
Fiesta: Oklahoma (replacement for Texas) vs. Ohio State
Sugar: Florida (replacement for Alabama) vs. Big East Champ (Cincinnati?)
Orange: ACC Champ (Wake Forest?) vs. Utah/Boise State (probably Utah)

This assumes Oregon State loses again. If not, then Org St goes to the Rose, Southern Cal goes to the Fiesta, and Ohio State goes to the Capital One Bowl.

I further assume Oklahoma beats Texas Tech and Texas wins the tiebraker for the South title. The Fiesta elects Oklahoma over Tech as the Big 12 replacement, and the Sugar replaces the SEC champ with the SEC runner-up.

For the last three slots, the Fiesta picks ahead of the Sugar and Orange. I believe it will take a big "name" school such as Ohio State rather than the Big East Champ (Cincinnati or maybe Pittsburgh -- meh) or a non-BCS conference team. This is not about who "deserves" to go but rather what would likely transpire.

If Florida beats Alabama, then switch those teams in the list above.

Ohio State could still make the Rose Bowl if Michigan State can upset Penn State (go Spartans).

If Ohio State plays Oklahoma, we can look forward to a slew of articles debating which team is worse in BCS bowls or big games (although OSU is 4-2 in BCS bowls).

19
by Kevin Eleven :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 8:46pm

1. Texas Tech
2. Alabama
3. Texas
4, Florida- right now, I'm picking UF to win it all when all is said and done.
5. Oklahoma- and I favor OU to be Florida's opponent in Miami.
6. Utah- If either the Big-12 or SEC champ has two losses, Utah has a real chance to play for the National Title. This is a far better team than last year's Hawaii team or Boise State's 2006 or 2008 teams. Beating BYU is not a given, but the MWC is a beast this year.
7. Southern Cal
8. Penn State
9. Oklahoma State
10. Ohio State
11. Missouri- huge gap between #11 and everyone else.
12. North Carolina
13. Georgia
14. Boise State
15. TCU
16. Michigan State
17. BYU
18. LSU
19. South Carolina
20. Pittsburgh
21. Florida State
22. Ball State
23. Cincinnati- the Big East sucks again.
24. Air Force
25. California

2
by Solomon (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 12:54am

Just for fun, here are conference records in BCS bowl games (1998-2007 seasons):

SEC 11-4
Pac 10 8-4 (USC 5-1)
Big East 6-4
Big 10 8-9 (OSU 4-2, Mich 1-3, PSU 1-0)
Big 12 6-8 (Okla 2-4)

non-BCS 2-1
Notre Dame 0-3

and, wait for it ...

ACC 1-9

For the detail-oriented folks, the chart correctly splits Virginia Tech b/t its Big East and ACC periods.

(courtesy of Wikipedia)

3
by Joe :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 1:29am

The argument seems silly to me. Why assume Penn State would win the Rose Bowl game to go 12-1 but also assume they would lose the championship game to go 12-1?

Every PSU player, coach, and fan would rather play for a shot at the national title than go to the Rose Bowl - there is no argument.

I fail to see any silver lining to breaking up an undefeated season by suggesting that it places the team in a more winnable bowl scenario. In fact I think the suggestion is pretty ridiculous. Or do you also suggest that PSU would rather lose out and play some SEC also-ran in the Outback Bowl?

Seriously - you are claiming that PSU fans are concerned mostly with avoiding potential embarrassment in a tough game. So why play at all? Think about it.

4
by sethburn :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 1:50am

If Oklahoma defeats Texas Tech and Oklahoma St. they have an EXCELLENT chance of passing Texas. The hairy scenario is Oklahoma over Texas Tech, Oklahoma St. over Oklahoma, and then Missouri over Texas Tech. SEC Champ vs. Texas? Or Sec Champ vs. USC?

I'm rooting for drama. :)

13
by Big6 (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 2:47pm

Yep, that's where it gets interesting.

I don't understand why Oklahoma is higher than Texas in the human polls right now, but that makes it certain they'll stay ahead if they win out. And certainly, beating Tech and OK St would help them in the computers. But by how much? Does anyone have enough insight into the formulas to tell if it will be enough to catch Texas overall?

As to scenario 2, if Texas wins out I don't see how USC can catch them in the BCS ranks. Not that they're necessarily better, but I think they have the math locked up.

5
by MC2 :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 1:52am

"Or do you also suggest that PSU would rather lose out and play some SEC also-ran in the Outback Bowl?"

Uh, why would Penn State prefer losing the Outback Bowl to winning the Rose Bowl?

On a more serious note, even as a lifelong Georgia fan, I don't think the Dawgs belong anywhere near a BCS Bowl this year. Regardless of how much talent they have on paper, their actual on-field accomplishments this year just don't warrant them being considered among the nation's 10 best teams.

6
by QB (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 2:38am

Yes, Penn State sure looked horrible against Michigan when they were 24.5 point favorites and won by 39. I know you're a Michigan fan and you'd like to pretend that the first half of the game was somehow the story of that game, but you're really grasping at straws to criticize Penn State throughout this article.

They've dominated the weak opposition and won convincingly over the good competition all season up until Saturday, which was a hard fought road game against a veeery underrated Iowa team. Virtually every professional handicapper saw this loss coming due to a variety of situational angles, but I think the general consensus in Vegas is that only 4 teams are definitely better than Penn State, those being Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and USC, with the last 2 not being far ahead. Penn State (as well as Texas Tech and Alabama) had every right to be ranked at the head of the polls going into last week, as the rankings are not so much an accurate representation of each team's inherent skill level, but rather a meritocracy where teams such as Florida and USC are being punished for being upset by clearly inferior teams. PSU is now among these teams that have been upset, and has justifiably been knocked down the ranks, but to spin it like they were done a favor because they get to avoid the BCS title game is beyond belief. Especially if they end up facing USC in Pasadena, which is not far from the toughest bowl assignment they could ask for.

In case you can't tell, I found this article fairly insulting.

7
by QB (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 2:59am

Maybe I should've checked my math on the PSU/Michigan game. 46-17 is a 29 point win.

18
by beargoggles (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 4:55pm

It's totally insulting. If you think you're really good, even as the underdog you want the chance to play for the championship. If I were a Penn State fan, I could care less if Ohio State got blown out in BCS championships: I want my shot.

Besides, I'd hardly say playing USC in the Rose Bowl is a recipe for avoiding humiliation. USC will devour Penn State's offense. If you have to lose, better lose in the championship game.

8
by Devin McCullen (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 10:49am

I think most people are putting Utah in the Fiesta Bowl because a lot more of their fans will make it to Arizona than Miami. (After Hawaii last year, no way is the Sugar Bowl taking another non-BCS team.) Obviously the Fiesta Bowl can do whatever they want if it comes down to it, but the BCS bowls usually sort these things out amongst themselves.

One other point: If Ohio State loses one of its last 2 (not likely, but still), then in all likelihood there will be 2 non-BCS teams in the big bowls, because there won't be 2 teams from the ACC, Big East, Pac-10 or Big 10 in the top 14 of the BCS standings, so any extra non-BCS team there would be the only choice. (The only scenarios I see where this doesn't happen are Oregon State winning out, or Michigan State beating Penn State.)

9
by Justin Zeth :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 11:10am

I'll put the question to Penn State fans directly. Would you rather finish 12-1 with a win in the Rose Bowl or 12-1 with a loss in the BCS title game?

Would I rather watch my team play for a championship, or not play for a championship?

Yeah, I'll take the opportunity to root for my team in a championship game, thanks. Those opportunities don't exactly grow on trees.

10
by Justin Zeth :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 11:14am

QB, it was fairly obvious that Penn State was likely headed for a loss. The story of their season is their kinda-sorta-spread option offense took the nation by surprise, but as the weeks went on good opposing coaches, armed with increasing amounts of tape, figured it out. And if there's one thing that's always been true of Penn State, it's that they don't make adjustments, midgame or midseason. They do what they do.

The Iowa loss is not especially surprising to anyone; Penn State was drifting a little downward with each week all year.

I think it's even money that Penn State also loses to Michigan State and ends up yet again in the Penn State Beats Up an SEC Team Bowl Presented by Outback, to lay the wood to Georgia. That'll be fun.

11
by DMP (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 12:57pm

I would put this question out to all: would you rather your team

a) finish 12-1 or 13-1 with a loss during the season, but a win in the non-championship BCS game;
b) finish 12-1 or 13-1 with a final loss coming in the BCS championship game
c) finish 13-0 or 14-0 with a win in the non-championship BCS game (and forever be able to cry foul, probably treating this as your own championship season within the fan base)

I don't see any Ohio State or Oklahoma fans complaining, but we did see Auburn and Utah fans complain. Would they have rather have a loss? I'll leave out what I think between option (b) and (c). I'd like to know who would take option (a) over the other two.

14
by Greg (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 3:21pm

Oh, we buckeyes complain, but not about being there - about our teams getting blown out.

Its ridiculous to think I'd rather watch my team in some BCS bowl OTHER than the national title game, for fear of losing. Fear of losing and looking bad? I got numb to that in High School.

I also think its ridiculous to punish anyone from 2008 for what their conference did in 2007. Or 2006. Or 05, etc... Each year is independent of the previous, especially in college football, where the talent is turned over constantly...

12
by mrh :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 1:59pm

Assuming for a moment that OU beats TT and TX gets the tiebreaker and wins the B12 and thae OSU (West Coast edition) loses and USC gets the PAC10 bid, then we might have TX, USC, Penn St, the Big East and the ACC champs in the BCS mix. Assume FL and AL split the SEC bid and an at large bid and OK gets another at large bid. Utah and Boise St go unbeaten.

Why would a bowl NOT take OU vs Boise St? I understand the ticket sales issue and what hard core college football fans might prefer. But I suspect an OU-Boise St rematch would attract far more TV viewers than just about any other matchup on offer - my data set being 1, me, a casual follower of the college game who probably will watch very few bowl games except the championship. But I'd tune in for an OU-Boise St rematch.

15
by DangerGnat :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 4:13pm

I'm surprised by the general level of disbelief in Texas Tech. The comments here, and writers around the country, seem to be talking about the 3-way tie scenario as if it's a certainty, or at least more likely than Tech winning out. As an Oklahoma fan, I'd like nothing more than to see the Sooners somehow make it to the title game, but NO ONE has stopped, or even slowed down Tech's offense. And Oklahoma's strength this year is definitely not on the defensive side of the ball. Realistically, I think Tech has a very good chance of beating OU, even with the game in Norman.

16
by Unverified Telamon (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 4:27pm

I think the issue here is that if Tech wins out, they go to the championship game. End of discussion.

For columnists, it takes a lot more than that to reach quotas.

20
by Kevin Eleven :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 10:11pm

Well put.

I actually enjoy columnists putting up "what if?" scenarios, but I hate it when they basically say "if X, Y, Z, A and B happen no one will know what two teams to put in and HA HA HA this proves my whole point that we need a playoff and didn't I write this exact column last year and the year before yes I did but let's not talk about that".

Anyway, with Penn State's loss we've eliminated the chance of someone allegedly getting "screwed". No matter who the third best team is- the last one left out of the BCS Championship Game- that team controlled it's own destiny.

17
by Deadball (not verified) :: Tue, 11/11/2008 - 4:43pm

I don't take it as a lack of faith in Tech, so much. It's just that they have to run a gauntlet that could make even a great team stumble.

21
by Kibbles :: Sat, 11/15/2008 - 8:24am

The Las Vegas Sports Consultants think Oklahoma is a better team than Tech, and the game is in Oklahoma. I don't think it's that surprising that a lot of people think Oklahoma will win it.

I won't be surprised of Tech wins, but I do think Oklahoma is a deserved favorite.