By Andy Staples
November 19, 2009

It may seem like the BCS has stacked the deck so high, a team outside the six automatic-qualifying conferences will never play for the national title. But don't give up so easily. That day may come much sooner than you think.

"We're closer than we've ever been," publisher Jerry Palm said Thursday. "It just doesn't look as close as it is."

TCU, currently ranked No. 4 in the BCS standings, has a shot to play for the BCS title, but the Horned Frogs would need a very specific chain of events to send them to Pasadena. Here's how it could happen.

Most obviously, two of the top three in the BCS standings (Alabama, Florida, Texas) must lose. One of those teams is guaranteed to lose when Alabama faces Florida on Dec. 5 in the SEC title game, but BCS experts concur that not all upsets are equal. An Auburn upset of Alabama on Nov. 27 or a Florida State upset of Florida on Nov. 28 won't help TCU if either team bounces back from a loss and wins the SEC title to finish 12-1. "The SEC is revered to the point of being ridiculous," Palm said. In that case, the other team that loses must be Texas.

"I have little doubt that a one-loss SEC champ would still finish ahead of TCU and Cincinnati," ESPN BCS analyst Brad Edwards wrote in a chat session on Monday. "If Texas loses, I think it will be tight between the Frogs and Bearcats."

Cincinnati remains the sticky wicket in any TCU-to-the-title-game scenario. If the Bearcats beat Illinois on Nov. 27 and BCS No. 12. Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, Cincinnati's conference title (Big East), late schedule strength and TCU's out-of-sight, out-of-mind factor could propel the Bearcats past the Horned Frogs, who wrap their season with games Saturday at Wyoming and Nov. 28 against winless New Mexico.

TCU could conceivably get into the title game without a Cincinnati loss, but the prospect becomes much dicier. "Cincinnati might have to lose," Palm said. "I think Cincinnati might be the stronger computer team at the end of the year. They're close enough in the polls now. If they go into Pittsburgh and win -- assuming Pittsburgh is still a top 10 team at that point -- then they may even pass TCU in the poll." Edwards agreed. "TCU can help its cause with two more blowout wins, but the advantage Cincy has is that TCU doesn't play on the final weekend," he wrote in his Monday chat. "You never know what voters might do if the Bearcats are impressive in a win at Pitt without TCU having a chance to answer on that day."

Hugh Falk, who spends way too much time studying polls as the publisher of, explained that fans probably are looking at the wrong numbers when they compare the human poll positions of TCU and Cincy. "I don't know if it's a dirty secret, but a lot of people don't know this," Falk said. "It doesn't matter what rank you are. It matters how many points you get."

When voters choose teams, those teams are awarded 25 points for a first-place vote, 24 for a second-place vote and so on. The BCS formula uses the percentage of points a team receives against the total points possible. This week, No. 4 TCU is one spot ahead of Cincinnati in the coaches' poll. The Frogs are 58 points ahead of the Bearcats. That's a wider margin than the nine-point gap between No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Alabama, but not nearly as large as the 120-point gap between No. 13 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Wisconsin. So if Cincy keeps winning and the point differential shrinks further, the Bearcats -- who are the stronger computer team -- could leap the Frogs in the BCS while still staying behind them in the Harris and coaches' polls.

"It doesn't matter if [TCU] is ranked No. 2 [in the human polls]," Falk said. "It matters if they impress voters so much more than Cincinnati that there's a huge gap in points."

Not for Cincinnati. A loss to Illinois or Pitt would effectively eliminate the Bearcats.

Texas is a different story. A loss Saturday to Kansas or next week to Texas A&M would damage the Longhorns' title chances, but it might not keep Texas from Pasadena. A loss to either Nebraska or Kansas State in the Big 12 title game almost certainly would eliminate the Longhorns, who would have no chance to bounce back in the polls. The BCS formula was adjusted after Oklahoma made the BCS title game despite a loss to Kansas State in the 2003 Big 12 title game, and, more importantly, voters were shamed publicly for allowing a team that didn't win its own conference to play for the national title.

"That's the best-case scenario for someone like TCU or Cincinnati," Palm said. "Because the voters have been reluctant to put someone in the title game who did not win the league."

Remember, TCU won 14-10 at Clemson on Sept. 25. It didn't seem important then, but there is a distinct possibility that Clemson will win its next three games and become a 10-3 ACC champion with a major Heisman Trophy contender (C.J. Spiller) on its roster. Would that give the Frogs a bump?

Not from the computers, Palm said. "You're talking about a couple of games out of about 150 played by TCU's opponents," he said. But, Palm said, a Clemson conference title run could boost TCU in the minds of human voters, who would look favorably at a road win against a conference champ.

Chaos. "We'll get to the point where people have to make a decision," Palm said. "I don't expect that to be a unanimous decision for anybody."

Voters could place TCU or Cincinnati in the title game, or they could split so sharply that a one-loss Texas makes the title game or -- horror of horrors -- we could get Florida-Alabama II in Pasadena. That last possibility is the least likely, but with only about 12 hours between the final whistle of the Big 12 title game and the deadline for poll ballots to be submitted, a lot of voters could lose sleep. Or maybe they won't. Either way could be good or bad for TCU.

If all this sounds far-fetched, don't be so skeptical. Just imagine what you might have said on Nov. 23, 2007 if someone had told you that LSU -- which had just suffered loss No. 2 at home to Arkansas -- would win the 2007 BCS title. Or think about the 2006 Florida Gators, who appeared to have no shot at the BCS title at this point in that season. The UCLA-over-USC upset that sent Florida to the BCS title game was highly unlikely, and it produced the greatest YouTube clip ever filmed in a men's restroom. (It should be noted, the Gators also feature prominently in the greatest YouTube clip ever filmed in women's restroom.)

Who knows? Maybe a group of TCU fans will gather in a men's room on Dec. 5 and watch history unfold. Don't laugh.

It could happen.

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