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Nearly inevitable rematch result of SEC's recent history, flawed BCS

The motto sits right at the top of every press release the Bowl Championship Series e-mails to reporters, just above executive director Bill Hancock's name. It reads: "Every Game Counts."

Not this year.

That huge LSU-Alabama game we all watched Nov. 5? Turns out it didn't count, at least not for the Crimson Tide. Based on the current BCS standings and prevailing sentiment, 'Bama did not need to win that day to punch its ticket to this year's national championship game. It may have locked up a title-game berth simply by avoiding a second loss.

The game did count for LSU, at least in terms of its chance to play for the SEC title against Georgia on Championship Saturday. However, that contest might not count against the Tigers if they lose, as it's widely assumed LSU will remain in the top two regardless of Saturday's result.

Welcome to the most anticlimactic regular-season finish in BCS history. Tune in for the Dec. 3 games if you'd like. Or just check back Jan. 9.

The BCS is an easy target again this week, as fans and media laugh and scream about a system in which a team (Alabama) can actually benefit from failing to reach its conference championship game while another (LSU) could get there, lose and fail to suffer drastic consequences. In its defense, the BCS does not pick the national championship matchup; the pollsters do. And the BCS isn't responsible for the rash of upsets that left the sport in this unusual predicament. If anything, voters were looking for any viable alternative to LSU-Alabama II in the days after the first meeting, only to watch Stanford (53-30 loss to Oregon), Boise State (36-35 loss to TCU), Oklahoma State (37-31 loss to Iowa State), Oregon (38-35 loss to USC, its second of the season) and Oklahoma (45-38 loss to Baylor, its second of the season) all flitter away opportunities.

Still, the rematch possibility is a thorn in the side of the BCS' central argument for existence, which is that it's absolutely essential to preserve the sanctity of the regular season. "We have the best regular season in all of sports, and we're seeing that every weekend," said Hancock. "Every weekend I think, 'It can't get any better than this.' And it does."

It won't this weekend. And while one could simply forgive this Championship Saturday anticlimax as a fluky and unprecedented occurrence, the BCS played a central role in how we got here.

It's no secret why LSU is viewed with such universal respect. Having now dispatched three top 10 teams (Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon) and with a chance to knock off another 10-win team this weekend, the Tigers have played the most impressive regular season in recent memory. Last Friday's 41-17 rout of the Razorbacks was a showcase for everything special about this team, from Tyrann Mathieu's momentum-swinging punt return touchdown to the swarming defense that ate Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson alive to the punishing rushing game that racked up 286 yards.

But the story of how Alabama came to be near-universally viewed as LSU's lone viable opponent runs deeper, and it's been five years in the making.

By handing voters the nearly impossible yearly task of deciding on just two championship-caliber teams, the BCS has positioned itself to become a self-fulfilling popularity contest. Five years in a row the SEC champion has been tabbed as one of the participants, and five years in a row that team has validated its selection by winning the big game.

It's not surprising, therefore, that when surveying a field of flawed contenders outside of LSU, those same voters perceive a one-loss SEC team as the next-best thing. The 9-6 score in the teams' first meeting may be voters' stated reason, but in reality the perception is based on past seasons as much as this one.

We've seen defensively dominant SEC teams shut down high-scoring Big 12 teams (LSU over Oklahoma in 2003, Florida over Oklahoma in '08, Alabama over Texas in '09). We know how that turns out. That history makes people leery of an Oklahoma Sate team -- currently next in line in the BCS standings -- that fits much the same mold.

In a similar vein, we've seen both LSU (in '07) and Alabama (in '09) steamroll BCS No. 5 Virginia Tech. We haven't seen No. 4 Stanford face an SEC foe, but we did see speedy Oregon whiz by the Cardinal -- and LSU squashed those Ducks in the season opener. And if you're going to give Alabama flack for failing to win its conference, what of Boise State failing to win the Mountain West?

The only team with a remote chance of passing Alabama at the 11th-hour is Oklahoma State should it beat 9-2 Oklahoma impressively this weekend, though it will take a near-universal about-face from the voters, who currently have the Cowboys fifth. (They're third in the overall standings thanks to the computers.) Bring up this possibility to an Alabama fan, and he or she will of course laugh in your face, pointing out first and foremost that Mike Gundy's team lost to Iowa State.

However, if this were the NCAA basketball tournament, where the committee members speak of teams' "bodies of work," they'd be comparing the following two résumés (assuming an Oklahoma State victory this weekend):

Wins over current BCS Top 25 teams: Oklahoma State: 5, Alabama: 2.

Wins over current BCS Top 50 teams: Oklahoma State: 7, Alabama: 5.

Wins over FBS teams with winning records: Oklahoma State: 6, Alabama: 3.

Conference titles: Oklahoma State: 1, Alabama: 0.

Losses to Iowa State: Oklahoma State: 1, Alabama: 0.

On paper, the Cowboys will have achieved more than the Tide. In real life, however, this is not a debate that's even being given serious consideration (at least yet) for one simple reason: Alabama has a track record; Oklahoma State does not. SEC teams win national championships. Big 12 teams, at least lately, do not. But let's see what happens Saturday night in Stillwater. Voters can be heavily swayed by last impressions. In fact, that's how this whole SEC domination cycle began, back when Florida jumped ahead of Michigan in 2006, warding off a potential Ohio State rematch.

Ultimately, an LSU-Alabama rematch will neither help nor hurt college football. People will watch. They'll accept the result, even if it's a Tide victory that overrides the first meeting. It's happened before (see Florida-Florida State in 1997) and it may happen again.

But the BCS will need to come up with a new slogan, because its current one will soon ring hollow. Here's a simple alteration: "Every game counts ... except when it doesn't."

Michigan fans have been waiting since 2003 to taste victory over Ohio State. When replay officials overturned what appeared to be a game-clinching touchdown by running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, and when Denard Robinson's ensuing apparent scoring run was negated by holding and personal foul calls, the faithful had to wait another agonizing 1:59 before a final stop from the Michigan defense sealed a 40-34 victory. For the rest of us, however, those final minutes were more welcome drama in the first competitive and entertaining Ohio State-Michigan game in five years.

College football is better when the sport's most storied rivalry matters. Brady Hoke has done his part in just one year to put the Wolverines back on solid footing, notching the school's first 10-win season since 2006. With Robinson and Toussaint -- who became the school's first 1,000-yard rushing tandem since 1975 -- both returning next season and with a defense that only figures to get better, the future finally looks bright in Ann Arbor.

"He is us, we are him," center David Molk said of Hoke. "I'd do anything for him."

But the rivalry will really get interesting this week with the expected announcement of Urban Meyer as Ohio State's next coach. The two-time national champion and four-time BCS bowl participant brings instant credibility back to a program that's spent the past year in limbo due to the NCAA investigation that cost Jim Tressel his job. Already, followers of the two schools are dreaming of a future in which Meyer and Hoke stage their own version of Woody's and Bo's Ten Year War.

That's going a bit too far down the road, but Hoke and Meyer figure to soon have their programs back in their old familiar roles of contending for championships -- and no one should be happier about that than Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. It's been an awful 12 months for his conference, as the league's two most recognizable Legends and Leaders -- Tressel and Joe Paterno -- both went down in disgrace. And the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky fallout could devastate that program for years to come.

On Saturday, the conference will host its first championship game in Indianapolis, and while fans of the two teams will no doubt pack Lucas Oil Stadium, a matchup between the BCS' No. 13 (Michigan State) and 15 (Wisconsin) teams isn't likely to whet appetites nationally. The Big Ten needs its two flagship programs high in the polls more often than not, and recent and soon-to-be coaching hires may well accomplish that.

Of course, there is one caveat to the rivalry's next generation. With Ohio State and Michigan in different divisions but still meeting the last week of the season, one may need to beat the other twice in eight days to get to Pasadena or beyond. You know ... a rematch.

USC hammered UCLA, 50-0, Saturday night behind the latest aerial assault from torrid quarterback and potential Heisman finalist Matt Barkley, who passed for 423 yards and six touchdowns. The result was both an emphatic statement that the gap between the two rivals has only grown wider and the latest in a long string of embarrassing losses during Rick Neuheisel's four-year tenure -- a tenure that's almost surely at an end.

Yet on Friday night, UCLA will play for a trip to the Rose Bowl.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott's baby, the league's inaugural championship game, has devolved into a nightmare due to both USC's ineligibility and a befuddling torrent of mediocrity in the South Division. The 6-6 Bruins, who went 5-4 in conference play, locked up their title-game visit to No. 8 Oregon on Black Friday when Utah (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) inexplicably lost at home, 17-14, to 2-10 Colorado. The Buffs had lost their previous 23 road games, dating to 2007. Arizona State (6-6, 4-5), once considered a lock for the title game when it sat at 6-2, was already eliminated by the time it took the field in Tempe on Friday night for what would be its fourth straight defeat, this one 47-38 to Cal.

Some have suggested the Pac-12 could have avoided this scenario by simply allowing the Trojans to play in the title game, but that was never feasible. The purpose of the event is to decide which team earns the league's automatic BCS berth, for which USC is ineligible. In hindsight, however, that'd be no more awkward than the admittedly minimal possibility of UCLA going to the Rose Bowl at 7-6.

Then there's the matter of what happens to the Bruins' bowl prospects if they lose. Technically, at 6-7, they wouldn't qualify. However, an obscure clause in the NCAA's postseason handbook addresses this exact scenario. UCLA can apply for a waiver, which it would likely be granted based on the stated criteria because the Pac-12 won't have enough teams to fill its seven contractual bowl partnerships. A source at a Pac-12 affiliated bowl confirmed this is the case.

But would UCLA even want that bowl berth with a lame-duck coach and a losing record? Would it want the possibility of becoming the first bowl team from a major conference to finish 6-8? (The lone precedent: In 2001, Sun Belt champion North Texas finished 5-6 but was allowed to play in the New Orleans Bowl, where it lost 45-20 to Colorado State.) Oregon may answer that question for UCLA if it delivers its own 50-0 (or worse) shellacking on Friday night.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:

Title game: LSU vs. AlabamaRose: Oregon vs. WisconsinFiesta: Oklahoma State vs. StanfordSugar: Michigan vs. HoustonOrange: Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia

While it's assumed Michigan punched its ticket to a BCS game by beating Ohio State, the Wolverines still need one thing to happen: They need LSU to beat Georgia. If the Dawgs win, they'll automatically qualify for the Sugar Bowl as SEC champions, thus reclaiming the spot the Wolverines would be filling. Not to mention, Michigan hasn't actually attained the Top 14 BCS ranking it needs to be eligible; it's 16th. The loser of Saturday's Big Ten title game between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin will presumably fall behind the Wolverines, moving them to 15th, but the only other team Michigan can viably pass is ... Georgia. So Michigan fans are LSU fans this week.

Meanwhile, the ugly Big East race is down to three contenders, and while 8-3 West Virginia is the projected pick here, the team with the clearest path is actually ... 7-5 Louisville. If Connecticut upsets 8-3 Cincinnati this weekend, the Cards are in. Seriously. West Virginia, on the other hand, needs the Bearcats to win, creating a three-way tie the Mountaineers would win by virtue of highest BCS ranking. Cincinnati makes it if West Virginia loses at USF on Thursday.

• I've been saying it since the spring, but Mack Brown simply wouldn't listen: Case McCoy is his guy. Texas' offense struggled mightily for most of Thursday night's (unnecessary) rivalry sendoff against Texas A&M, but after the Aggies went ahead 25-24 with 1:48 left, McCoy led his team down the field, highlighted by a Colt-esque 25-yard scramble to set up Justin Tucker's game-winning 40-yard field goal. That one will sting in College Station for a long time.

Speaking of which, A&M -- which began the year ranked eighth in the preseason AP poll -- finished the regular season 6-6, brining Mike Sherman's four-year record to 25-25. Best of luck next year against Les Miles and Nick Saban.

• With a spot in the Conference USA championship game on the line, Houston's Case Keenum went 33-of-46 for 457 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in a 48-16 win over Tulsa (8-4). That ups his season touchdown-to-interception ratio to a mind-boggling 43-to-3. If the Cougars had faced just one marquee nonconference opponent -- like Kellen Moore has the past two years against Virginia Tech and Georgia -- Keenum might have won the Heisman. A trip to New York is at least in order.

• Ron Zook has apparently made history. Illinois is believed to be the first FBS team in history to start 6-0, then finish 0-6. The Illini hit rock bottom Saturday with a 27-7 loss to 2-9 Minnesota in which Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray rushed for 167 yards. "I still think they're a much, much better football team than what we've shown, and that's what falls on me," said Zook, who was finally fired Sunday after managing to stay on for seven seasons despite a 34-51 record thanks to that one 9-4 Rose Bowl team.

• Virginia Tech made an emphatic final statement in clinching a spot in Saturday's ACC championship game, thumping previously hot Virginia 38-0. Frank Beamer's team has now won 11 games for the fourth time in seven seasons and will play for its fourth ACC title in five years against Clemson, the team that dealt the Hokies their lone defeat, 23-3 on Oct. 1. "Everybody wants it," said quarterback Logan Thomas. "We know that we didn't play our best ball that day."

• Virginia Tech's opponent heads into Saturday's game on a different trajectory. The Tigers, 9-1 two weeks ago, suffered their second straight lopsided defeat, 34-13 to No. 12 South Carolina (10-2). Tajh Boyd, so prolific for much of the season, passed for just 83 yards while the Gamecocks' previously struggling offense racked up 420 yards. "Historically, Clemson has owned this series," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who's won three straight in the series. "They don't own us now."

• Give a tip of the cap to first-year Stanford coach David Shaw. Sure, he had the luxury of a future No. 1 pick at quarterback, but you don't go 11-1 -- the same record predecessor Jim Harbaugh produced in his final regular season -- by simply blowing a whistle at practice. Andrew Luck did his thing in a 28-14 win over Notre Dame (8-4), but linebacker Chase Thomas did his best Honey Badger impersonation with his fifth forced fumble in a dominant defensive performance.

• Meanwhile, Irish coach Brian Kelly managed to open up a quarterback controversy in the final week of the season. After starter Tommy Rees committed two turnovers in the first half against Stanford, Kelly went with freshman Andrew Hendrix the entire second half. Hendrix went 11-of-24 for 192 yards, a touchdown and a game-sealing pick in a 28-14 loss. Now Kelly faces a month of questions about his possible starter for the Champs Sports Bowl. "Anything's possible," he said.

• Even with Robert Griffin III on the sideline for the second half with a head injury, Baylor (8-3) poured it on Texas Tech (5-7), 66-42, as running back Terrance Ganaway went off for 246 yards on 42 caries. Griffin expects to be back for next week's finale against Texas. Remarkably, the Red Raiders never won another game following their Oct. 22 upset of third-ranked Oklahoma, dropping five straight. "We just haven't been able to stop anybody on defense," said Tech coach Tommy Tuberville.

• It's been a season to forget in College Park, Md., and the final chapter was no less painful. Randy Edsall's team (2-10), which never beat an FBS foe after the season-opener against Miami, jumped to an improbable 41-14 third-quarter lead against NC State (7-5) only to see the Wolfpack roll off 42 unanswered points for a 56-41 win. Maryland defensive lineman A.J. Francis on Twitter afterward (censored): "That's the worst s--- I've ever been involved with in my entire f---ing life."

• And to think, Maryland could have promoted coach-in-waiting James Franklin, who led Vanderbilt to its second bowl berth since 1982 following a 41-7 rout of Wake Forest (6-6). Remember, this team also suffered last-second losses to Arkansas and Tennessee and was competitive in all but two games (against Alabama and South Carolina). "It just shows how hard they've worked," Franklin said of his players. "Same team, basically, that the last two years won four games total." Give that man a raise.

• Can it get any lower for Florida's Big Three? Florida State, Florida and Miami all finished the regular season unranked, with the Seminoles (8-4) the only one to finish above .500. The dispirited 'Canes (removed from bowl consideration days earlier) ended with a 24-17 loss to 4-8 Boston College, while FSU beat Florida, 21-7, in a putrid display of offensive football (neither team cracked 200 yards). At least we're coming up on the one time of year where they still excel: Signing Day.

• It didn't garner the same level of indignation as the Texas-Texas A&M swan song, but Missouri's and Kansas' 120-year-old Border War is also on hold following the Tigers' 24-10 win in Kansas City on Saturday. Of course, it's hard to get too mushy over a rivalry game played in front of nearly 30,000 empty seats at Arrowhead Stadium. The Mizzou fans who did attend showed they're already up to speed on at least one tradition in their new conference. They chanted "S-E-C, S-E-C" at the end.

• Louisiana Tech (8-4) clinched its first WAC title in a decade with a 44-0 blanking of New Mexico State and accepted an invite to the Poinsettia Bowl. The Bulldogs won their last seven games.

• Utah State (6-5), that of the hard-luck 1-4 start (last-second losses to Auburn and BYU and a double overtime defeat to Colorado State), will play in its first bowl since 1997 after winning its fourth straight game, 21-17 over Nevada (6-5).

• Retiring FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger avoided the indignity of a winless final season, as the Owls (1-10) beat UAB, 38-35.

• How's this for classy: Akron coach Rob Ianello, who went 2-22 in two seasons, found out he was fired while driving to New York for his mother's funeral Saturday.

It turns out Arizona AD Greg Byrne was ahead of the curve when he dismissed doomed coach Mike Stoops in the middle of the season. In so doing, Byrne, who last week announced the hiring of former Michigan and West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, was able to beat the pack in the hiring process, which will soon be commencing across his conference and the rest of the country.

The NFL has Black Monday, the day after the regular season when coaches are usually dismissed. There's no such distinction for college football, but the games had not even ended this weekend before the firing squad began en masse. Either gone or reportedly gone since Saturday: Illinois' Zook, Kansas' Turner Gill, Memphis' Larry Porter, UAB's Neil Callaway, Akron's Ianello, Washington State's Paul Wulff, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and, albeit not for another week, UCLA's Neuheisel. Add in Arizona and at least one-third of the Pac-12 coaches will be different next season, including half of the South Division (where second-year USC coach Lane Kiffin will now be the second-longest tenured coach).

Three names figure to come up for some or all of the West Coast jobs: Mike Leach, Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Boise State's Chris Petersen. Leach may make the most sense in Pullman, where the Cougars' rare glory days in the late '90s/early 2000s came with Mike Price running his pass-friendly one-back offense and where Leach's baggage may be less of an issue than at, say, UCLA. Petersen, for his part, has turned down Pac-12 overtures before, from UCLA and Stanford, and may well be content to stay in Boise. But the recent dismissal of athletic director Gene Bleymaier and the school's awkward forthcoming move to the Big East may well change his thinking. Sumlin, working on a 12-0 season, figures to have his choice of destinations.

Meanwhile, there's no obvious candidate for Illinois (if it had canned Zook a year earlier, it could have landed an ideal fit, Jerry Kill, now at Minnesota) and no good read on new AD Mike Thomas, formerly at Cincinnati. Thomas would be smart to make a run at Sumlin, who was an assistant to Joe Tiller at Purdue. Like the Pac-12, the Big Ten is undergoing a massive overhaul with new coaches expected at Ohio State and Penn State as well, all coming just a year after Michigan's transition to Brady Hoke. Your guess is as good as mine as to who lands in State College.

And remember, there are openings already at North Carolina (where Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is considered a leading candidate) and Ole Miss (where Southern Miss' Larry Fedora and Arkansas State's Hugh Freeze keep coming up, but with no sign yet that either hiring is imminent).

It's shaping up to be one of the most far-reaching coaching carousels in recent memory -- and Byrne gets to sit back and watch it all as a spectator.

If Michigan fans thought their seven-season drought against Ohio State was unbearable, they should imagine being a Kentucky fan every time the Wildcats face Tennessee. Starting in 1985, the Vols defeated their northerly neighbor 26 straight times ... until Saturday, when the Wildcats (5-7) sprang a 10-7 upset. And it took the unlikeliest of heroes to finally make it happen.

With top two quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith both sidelined by shoulder injuries, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders turned to senior wide receiver Matt Roark, moving him to a position he last played in high school six days before the game and installing a slimmed-down game plan for him that could basically be described thusly: Kentucky went Denver Broncos on Tennessee. Roark threw just six passes but ran 24 times for 124 yards, including runs of 24 and 26 yards on the Wildcats' lone touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.

"We won the game with a wide receiver playing quarterback," said Sanders. "That's what we did."

According to the Lexington Herald Leader, Sanders gave Roark a wristband with 51 plays, and called them from one sheet rather than his usual six. Obviously, Kentucky's defense needed to do its part, which it did, limiting Vols quarterback Tyler Bray to 15-of-38 completions, intercepting him twice and forcing a fumble. Derek Dooley's team (5-7), which missed out on a bowl due to the loss, scored on a 53-yard Bray touchdown pass with 12:52 left, but never crossed its own 35-yard-line after that.

"Real bad ending to a real bad season," said Dooley, whose popularity in Knoxville is now far closer to Lane Kiffin territory than Phillip Fulmer.

That's not what they're saying in Lexington, where few teams could ever be more pleased with a 5-7 finish. Afterward, fans carried Roark off the field on their shoulders.

"I never expected to do anything like that," Roark said. "This is the memory that's going to be in my head for the rest of my life."

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

LSU vs. Georgia, Saturday (4 p.m. ET): All the credit in the world to the Dawgs for reeling off 10 straight wins since dropping the first two -- but they haven't played a current Top 25 team since those first two. Quarterback Aaron Murray has been on fire lately, but this will be a significant step up in competition.

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The Cowboys have lost the last eight Bedlam meetings. This may be their best opportunity to topple the injury-ravaged Sooners, but their defense will need to produce turnovers and, more importantly, the Cowboys will need to avoid their own. First to 50 wins.

Wisconsin vs. Michigan State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The last one was decided by a Hail Mary. This one may be just as close, since the Spartans are the rare Big Ten defense capable of flustering Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson. But they'll have to slow down touchdown machine Montee Ball, too.

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