Oregon faces what looks to be its toughest test of the regular season when it plays at Stanford tonight. It's the de facto Pac-12 title game, and if the Ducks make it through unscathed, it's likelier than ever that they run the table.
Alabama has a similar situation when it hosts LSU on Saturday. No disrespect to Auburn or Missouri/South Carolina/Georgia, but LSU is probably the toughest opponent that Bama has left to go. While AU and possibly the eventual East champ are better than anyone Oregon will face between next week and December, I still think that Saturday is the biggest test the Tide will have the rest of the regular season.
If both of those teams make it through this week, then an unlikely SEC team will be thrust into the national championship discussion: Tennessee.
Yes, the Volunteers of Knoxville who may or may not even make the postseason are going to be in the spotlight to a degree as the season winds down. It's very simple as to why: they're the sole common opponent between Alabama and Oregon.
College football's lack of connectivity between conferences is one of the top intellectual rationales behind holding a playoff. The only rationale behind it in reality is of course money, but when so few good teams play good teams from other leagues, you have to scrape by with what you can get. The only other common opponent among teams in the BCS top four is Cal, which played both Oregon and Ohio State. It's also a 1-8 team that is so bad as to be useless for comparison's sake.
But Tennessee is hanging in there and will be in the discussion, especially if it pulls out its last two games (Vandy and Kentucky) and becomes bowl eligible. It won't just be a common opponent of the Crimson Tide and Ducks; it'll be a common bowl eligible opponent, no matter how marginally that modifier came to be.
The problem with that, as I see it, is that Tennessee just isn't that good. I know what you're going to say. Yes, its schedule is truly brutal. Yes, it's been hampered now with Justin Worley missing time down the stretch.
Here's the thing about that second one. It's a lesson learned from the Tennessee-Florida game that no one but Gators and Vols fans actually watched, and if anyone remembers anything from it, it's the Yakety Sax comedy of errors that produced nine combined turnovers. You see, Butch Jones benched Worley for the beginning of that game. Even with Worley healthy, the team just isn't where it wants to be. As we learned in that first half against UF, it really doesn't have an alternative to go to. That's why I told anyone who would listen that UT had no shot against Missouri last weekend, potential MU hangover be damned. If Joshua Dobbs really could fill in well enough, he'd have been the guy they turned to in Gainesville. Instead, that start went to Nathan Peterman. There is nothing this year behind the top guy on the Vols' quarterback depth chart.
With Worley, Tennessee is mediocre. Sometimes mediocre beats good, and we call that an upset. Without Worley, it's awful. When one not-even-all-that-great player makes such a big difference, it's just not that good a team.
No matter. Tennessee will come up plenty down the stretch if we have more than two undefeated teams for a while longer. I expect analysts, writers, and even a few voters to go over the teams' schedules with a fine toothed comb, and certainly the one decent common opponent will factor in greatly.
Should Bama and Oregon survive and advance, prepare to hear more times than you'd care to that Oregon beat an SEC team this year. Prepare to hear about how Oregon beat Tennessee by more than Bama did from the lazier talking heads out there, despite the obvious caveats about pace, style, and philosophy that apply.
Prepare to hear, well, a lot more talk about Tennessee football than you've heard all season long. The team that won the first BCS championship will play a role, albeit a much different one, in the crowning of the last.