For 16 seasons, the Bowl Championship Series has determined college football's power structure, utilizing polls and computers to set up the sport's ultimate title game.
This weekend, the much-maligned system takes its final bow, staging an exit reminiscent of its debut.
More BCS controversy? Imagine that!
The No. 1-ranked Florida State Seminoles (12-0) can punch their ticket to the Jan. 6 BCS Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif., by defeating heavy underdog Duke (10-2) in tonight's ACC Championship Game. The case seems clear-cut, although FSU's strength of schedule (66th in the Sagarin Ratings) might partially explain its dominance.
The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0), winners of 24 straight games under Urban Meyer, are FSU's logical opponent if they can fight off No. 10 Michigan State (11-1) and its top-ranked defense in tonight's Big Ten Championship Game. Speaking of schedules, the Spartans are the first top-10 opponent for Ohio State during Meyer's tenure.
The SEC's streak of seven consecutive national-championship teams is in grave danger. The No. 3 Auburn Tigers (11-1) meet the No. 5 Missouri Tigers (11-1) in today's SEC Championship Game, and the league's proponents believe its champion should trump even an unbeaten Ohio State team as FSU's opponent.
Last week, after Auburn stunned top-ranked Alabama 34-28 on the game's final play with a 108-yard return of a missed field goal try, the SEC sentiment rose to new levels.
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs proclaimed it “would be a disservice to the nation'' if a one-loss Tigers team was left out of the BCS title game. Later, in an ESPN radio interview, he said “it would be, quite frankly, un-American for us not to get a chance to go to Pasadena if we're able to beat Missouri, and I believe the same about Missouri.''
The controversy will go away next season, when the College Football Playoff opens with a four-team field, selected by a committee. Or maybe things will get even more tricky.
Who would be the logical Final Four? Conference title teams from FSU and Ohio State, plus the SEC champion, almost certainly.
But the fourth team? Alabama (11-1)? A Big 12 team such as Oklahoma State or Baylor, if they finish 11-1? What happens to a team such as Arizona State (10-2), which faces Stanford (10-2) for the Pac-12 title. Arizona State beefed up its nonconference schedule, facing Wisconsin and Notre Dame (both defeats), but is playing as well as anyone.
“There's always going to be discussion and debate, and that's the beauty of it,'' BCS executive director Bill Hancock said.
This season, as always, beauty might be in the eye of the BCS beholder.
“We've told them we're in this position because of what you've done, and this is the next step that you have to take to reach your goals,'' said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team is at full strength tonight after Thursday's determination that freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy favorite, will not be charged following the conclusion of a sexual-assault investigation.
Meyer wouldn't be drawn into BCS talk, because he said that would be disrespectful.
“I'll have a comment on Sunday,'' Meyer said. “For someone to ask about something (that could happen) after this game, that's cheating my football team. There will be no conversation about what happens after this game until after the game.''
If Ohio State wins the Big Ten and doesn't reach the BCS title game, it wouldn't be the first time for a major conference unbeaten team to be omitted.
Following the 2004 season, unbeaten USC and unbeaten Oklahoma finished 1-2 and headed to the Orange Bowl. Unbeaten Auburn was third and relegated to the Sugar Bowl.
“I have a vote (in the coaches poll), and Ohio State looks like they're ahead of everybody for No. 2, but I'm going to hold back my judgment right now,'' said Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville, coach of the 2004 Auburn team. “They're playing the best team they've played all year long in Michigan State. Whoever wins between Auburn and Missouri, they're going to have a loss. I think the way we have it now in college football, it makes it fun. I think it's going to be a pretty close finish.''
Could a one-loss Auburn or a one-loss Missouri jump ahead of an unbeaten Ohio State?
“We have the top league in college football,'' Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That's really how I feel about it.''
“I think any one-loss team in the SEC, strength of schedule, hopefully that will be taken into consideration,'' Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
It might be convenient to move up the College Football Playoff format by one season.
“If we could do that, it would be great,'' Pinkel said.
No chance of that, though. It's a finale for the BCS, which debuted in 1998. FSU, idle in the final weekend, was elevated to the title game when UCLA and Kansas State were upset as Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden watched in amazement from his couch.
In 2000, one-loss FSU made the title game over one-loss Miami, despite its loss against the Hurricanes.
We have since seen two teams (2001 Nebraska, 2003 Oklahoma) reach the title game without winning a conference title. There was the omission of unbeaten Auburn in 2004. There was one-loss Florida leaping over one-loss Michigan on the final weekend in 2006. And there was one-loss Oklahoma being picked over one-loss Texas in 2008, despite the Longhorns beating the Sooners head-to-head.
Now it's the final act. As we have learned, where there are BCS standings, controversy can't be far behind.