BCS Bowl Projections: The Mechanics of the BCS Winnows the Field Right Now

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

There are a very few teams that have a legitimate shot at getting into the big-money bowls this year. That's because of how the BCS is built

Rather than just seed the bowls this time around, which we'll sort of do in a minute, I wanted to try to illustrate how the mechanics of the BCS work -- how some changes can cause only minor shuffles in the lineup, while others can cause mass upheaval. First, I'll show you some of my work. Here are the matchups I would have come up with depending on whether Oregon or Florida State gets into the title game.

With Florida State going to the BCS National Championship Game

BCS National Championship Game: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Florida St. Seminoles
Sugar Bowl: Auburn Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals / Central Florida Knights
Rose Bowl: Oregon Ducks vs. Ohio St. Buckeyes
Fiesta Bowl: Baylor Bears vs. Fresno St. Bulldogs
Orange Bowl: Clemson Tigers vs. Oklahoma Sooners

With Oregon going to the BCS National Championship Game

BCS National Championship Game: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Oregon Ducks
Sugar Bowl: Auburn Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals / Central Florida Knights
Rose Bowl: Stanford Cardinal vs. Ohio St. Buckeyes
Fiesta Bowl: Baylor Bears vs. Fresno St. Bulldogs
Orange Bowl: Florida St. Seminoles vs. Oklahoma Sooners

(Again, a refresher on the ground rules: The standings as they currently are, with the highest-ranked team being the conference champion except for UCF-Louisville, because the coaches aren't paying attention to anything right now.)

Right now, the main differences that come in the BCS lineup are purely a matter of which host bowl gets disrupted. For the moment, it's a plug and play issue. If Oregon goes to the national championship game, then it will be Florida State in the Orange Bowl playing the Sooners and Stanford in the Rose Bowl to play Ohio State; if it's Florida State, on the other hand, them Clemson ends up in the Orange Bowl and Stanford gets knocked out because the Rose Bowl's traditional pairing is unaffected.

So when it comes simply to who gets to go to a BCS bowl, and not whether a team in the BCS gets to play for the crystal football or not, teams like Clemson and Stanford have the most to lose. The marketing muscle of Oklahoma outdoes Stanford, I think, for an at-large spot; and with the only true at-large spot in this scenario being in the Orange Bowl, Clemson won't go to Miami if Florida State does. No one wants to see rematches in bowl games under the best circumstances, and nobody wants to see that game replayed at all.

But let's get really weird for a moment. Let's say both Oregon and Florida State get defeated, still win their conferences but are passed by Ohio State. Then, things would probably look something like this:

BCS National Championship Game: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Ohio St. Buckeyes
Sugar Bowl: Auburn Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals / Central Florida Knights
Rose Bowl: Oregon Ducks vs. Oklahoma Sooners
Fiesta Bowl: Baylor Bears vs. Fresno St. Bulldogs
Orange Bowl: Florida St. Seminoles vs. Stanford Cardinal

Or, maybe everyone except Alabama and Baylor lose.

BCS National Championship Game: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Baylor Bears
Sugar Bowl: Auburn Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals / Central Florida Knights
Rose Bowl: Oregon Ducks vs. Ohio St. Buckeyes
Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma Sooners vs. Fresno St. Bulldogs
Orange Bowl: Florida St. Seminoles vs. Stanford Cardinal

My point in going through all of that isn't just to throw out scenarios. It's to show this point: Right now, the number of teams who are really vying for a place in the BCS is relatively small. There are probably four or five teams that have a real chance at two or three at-large berths, and most of them need a large shake-up to have a chance to make it.

There are two main reasons for that this year, and they both boil down to the American Athletic Champion being an AQ league. That both gives Louisville or Central Florida a spot right now and likely puts Fresno State or Northern Illinois into the mix.

But there are also some structural causes. Barring something extraordinary, the Sugar Bowl is going to take an SEC team to replace Alabama if the Tide go to the national championship game. The Rose Bowl is going to take a Pac-12 team if Oregon goes to the national championship game. (They can't replace Ohio State with another B1G team, because the B1G is such an epic pile of disaster that there's no one left for them to take. Michigan State still has to gain three spots to even be eligible for an at-large berth.) And the Orange Bowl is highly likely to take an ACC team to replace Florida State if the Seminoles are in the title bout. These bowls are tied to conferences and don't let those conference ties go when they go looking for replacement teams.

Meanwhile there's also the two-team rule at play here: The Orange Bowl currently can't take an SEC team if Alabama goes to the BCS title game and Auburn goes to the Sugar Bowl, as much as it might like an LSU-Oklahoma or Missouri-Clemson matchup, for example.

So while there are technically three or four "at-large" spots in the BCS bowls, there are in practice only one or two in most years. And the teams that can fill those spots are restricted by the per-conference cap. When you have the structural issues collide with this year's AQ / non-AQ situation, the field becomes pretty static.

To give you an example of how much those things matter, let's do one more scenario. Alabama loses to, say, LSU -- then goes on to win the SEC Championship Game while everyone else wins out. Louisville wins the American and ends up ahead of the non-AQ leader, which ends up ranked outside the Top 12.

BCS National Championship Game: Oregon Ducks vs. Florida St. Seminoles
Sugar Bowl: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Oklahoma Sooners
Rose Bowl: Stanford Cardinal vs. Ohio State Buckeyes
Fiesta Bowl: Baylor Bears vs. Louisville Cardinals
Orange Bowl: Clemson Tigers vs. Auburn Tigers

I could just as easily see LSU heading to the Orange Bowl. Suddenly, it would be a much wilder and wide-open field. And the games that are here look at least a little different than any of the above scenarios. Yes, the teams are largely the same, but plug in LSU for Auburn and things look even more different. Of course, in this scenario, Miami would not be available to the Sugar Bowl, much as it might like an Alabama-Miami fight, because of ... the two-team rule.

So the far-out scenario is still pretty tough to break for other teams. The only thing that will really change things is if the conference leaders in the Top 6 lose games that cost them the conference championships.

Perhaps even more than a better championship game, the playoff system will help by largely keeping these decisions out of the hands of parochial bowls and putting them in the hands of people who have at least a bit broader view of what's best for the game. That would be a novel way to structure the postseason, at least for college football.

All that said, the top scenarios are where things stand at the moment in the system we have now. If we get a better field in the near future this year, it will be because of an upset. The good news about this is that the BCS has generally been straightened out by November upsets in the past; there's no reason to think that will be any different this year.

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