For South Carolina and Missouri, the primary goal of the last few weeks of the season is to win the SEC East and get their chance at Alabama or Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. But depending on how the remainder of the season plays out, the loser of the division could get a heck of a consolation prize: an at-large berth in the Sugar Bowl. How?
First, let's make something clear, because it's something we all know but tend to forget when we get into the heat of the season: BCS bids are not decided entirely based on merit. In fact, there are some BCS pairings that appear to have no basis in merit at all. (Hello, Virginia Tech-Michigan Sugar Bowl.) BCS bids are largely based on who's eligible; the marketing power of those eligible teams; and the gauzy notions that bowl executive have about which teams have "momentum" and will have excited fan bases. Whether the fan bases are actually excited does not really enter the equation; whether bowl executives think that a fan base is excited is all that matters.
So if Missouri or South Carolina wins the SEC East but loses the title game, does that mean it has probably earned a second BCS berth if one is coming the SEC's way? Yes. But earning that second bowl berth and actually getting it are two separate things. (If you're wondering why Georgia is absent, it's because if the Dawgs makes the title game and lose, there's almost no chance they would have the No. 14 ranking they need to be eligible for the BCS.) And either the Tigers or the Gamecocks would face a long history of SEC Championship Game runners-up who missed the BCS.
|Year||SECCG Loser||Bowl||Other SEC in BCS (champs in bold)
|2002||Arkansas**||Music City||Georgia (Sugar)|
|2003||Georgia||Capital One||LSU (Sugar)***|
Florida (BCS NCG)
LSU (BCS NCG)
|2008||Alabama||Sugar||Florida (BCS NCG)|
|2009||Florida||Sugar||Alabama (BCS NCG)|
Auburn (BCS NCG)
LSU (BCS NCG)
Alabama (BCS NCG)
Alabama (BCS NCG)
*The Sugar Bowl served as the national championship game in 1999 under the old BCS format
**Arkansas went to the SEC Championship Game in lieu of Alabama, which faced a postseason ban
***The Sugar Bowl served as the national championship game in 2003 under the old BCS format, but LSU qualified
****Florida was an automatic qualifier under a rule allowing the No. 3 or No. 4 team in the BCS rankings to earn an automatic bid in some circumstances
*****My apologies for all of the asterisks. But this is the BCS that we're talking about
That's a long track record of the SEC Championship Game loser failing to make the BCS. Only twice in the 15-year history of the BCS has the runner-up gone on to play in one of the major games, both of those instances being during the epic Alabama-Florida clashes in 2008-09. An open-and-shut case ... if only it were that simple.
But it's not. See, across that 15-year span, only four times was an eligible runner-up snubbed by the BCS bowls. For example, in 2012, Georgia was in the Top 14 and was left out of the BCS -- but only because Alabama was in the title game and Florida won the automatic berth based on its ranking; the two-team rule meant Georgia couldn't go.
In most of the other cases, the losers of the SEC Championship Game did not have a high enough ranking to qualify for an at-large place in the BCS. And since the series expanded to five games, the only eligible SEC runner-up to not get a BCS invitation was Arkansas in 2006. (The other eligible snubees were 1999 Florida, 2001 Tennessee -- which deserved to miss the BCS after choking away a national-title shot by losing to LSU in the SEC Championship Game -- and 2003 Georgia.)
This year, the biggest question might be whether the SEC West or SEC East team wins the SEC Championship Game. If Alabama gets to the title game and loses to Missouri or South Carolina, the Tide is almost a mortal lock to get the SEC's second spot in the BCS.
If Auburn gets to Atlanta and wins the game, things could get really interesting -- that likely puts the Tigers in the Sugar and gives the Orange Bowl a shot at an SEC team. Again, Alabama likely gets that spot based on its marketing power and reputation. If Auburn gets to the conference title game and loses, things are a mess -- but Alabama is probably still in the driver's seat. Alabama also has the edge in any game that includes Georgia getting to Atlanta and winning or losing, with the possible exception of the Dawgs beating the Tide. Nobody is going to pass up a Nick Saban-led Alabama team right now, so we all might as well get used to it.
However, if Alabama goes to Atlanta and wins, things get more interesting. And in some ways, I think that South Carolina would have a slighter better chance at getting the at-large spot if it missed the SEC Championship Game -- but only slightly.
First, there's a lot of talk about Texas A&M's chances for a BCS at-large berth, and the Aggies are definitely in the running ... as long as they win one of their last two games (at LSU, at Missouri) and remain in the Top 14. The Top 14 threshhold is often discussed, but a team also has to have nine wins in order to qualify under BCS rules, so if the Aggies lose to both kinds of Tigers, they're out.
If South Carolina misses out on the SEC Championship Game, it's because one of three things has happened: Texas A&M has lost to Missouri, which could imperil the Aggies Top 14 ranking even if they beat LSU; Georgia defeated Auburn, potentially starting a two-game skid for Auburn; or both.
To be really comfortable with this scenario, South Carolina would likely need A&M to lose both its remaining games -- just to be on the safe side -- and have Auburn lose its remaining SEC games. That would eliminate the Aggies and make Auburn an unattractive candidate regardless of its ranking. (Teams that are on two-game losing streaks don't go to BCS games.) Then, if Alabama buzz-saws Missouri in the SEC title game, the Gamecocks would become a very attractive candidate for the Sugar Bowl -- as long as it wins the remainder of its games -- and perhaps the only attractive candidate from the SEC.
But South Carolina also faces a problem that none of the other potential at-large candidates would confront: Any game with Central Florida, which would currently be the likely opponent in the Sugar Bowl, would be a rematch of a game that wasn't all that great the first time around. (Dramatic, perhaps, but not great.) Would the Sugar Bowl take Northern Illinois or Fresno State and South Carolina to avoid a rematch and get the Gamecocks? Unless they're backed up, maybe not. (If the Huskies and the Bulldogs both lose, it's a new game.)
Missouri's chances are a little more uneven. If Mizzou isn't in Atlanta, it's almost certainly at least in part because Auburn beat Georgia. And there's a better-than-even chance that the other other Tigers lost to Texas A&M. If Auburn lost narrowly to Alabama, it would probably be a more attractive candidate to the Sugar. The same is likely true of a nine- or 10-win Texas A&M that won its season finale over Mizzou.
That's good news for the at-large candidacies of Auburn and Texas A&M, of course. Both of them are very much alive in this, provided that they do the things necessary to stay eligible.
Of course, if Missouri or South Carolina gets to the SEC Championship Game, there is one way that the division winner can clinch a place in the BCS. They can beat Alabama. The route that involves losing the division might prove a little bit easier.