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An In-Depth Look at Various SEC and BCS Scenarios

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George Will was only famously quoted as saying serious people take seriously probabilities, not possibilities, and with that logic in mind, the harsh truth of the matter for Alabama fans is that, for all of the possibilities that can be conjured as hypothetical matters, the odds are well against them coming to fruition in the aggregate such that Alabama finds itself in New Orleans in the second week of January. For all of the hopes and wishes, the more likely scenario is that losing the Game of the Century proves to be an irreversible error, and Alabama finishes the season 11-1, second in the SEC West, and facing a team such as Boise State or Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

With that splash of cold water in the face, for the sake of argument and covering the crimson outlook from every perspective possible, we'll nevertheless analyze the various BCS and SEC scenarios which would work to put Alabama back in Atlanta and, perhaps, New Orleans. Two obvious insights from the beginning here, Alabama must win all of its remaining games, and Stanford and Oklahoma State must both lose; both are absolute requirements, not mere options. We'll forgo discussing the former, but let's start analyzing the latter:

Stanford and Oklahoma State Must Both Lose

There is no practical scenario whatsoever -- i.e. one that does not involve LSU losing to either Western Kentucky or Ole Miss -- that results in Alabama reaching the national championship game without both Stanford and Oklahoma State losing between now and the first week of December. Unless both of those things happen, you can simply ignore anything that follows below and start booking travel reservations for New Year's Day.

So what is coming in the weeks ahead for both Stanford and Oklahoma State? We'll look at each in turn.


Stanford has three regular season games remaining, and likely a fourth on the first Saturday of December in the form of the Pac-12 Championship Game, all of which take place in Palo Alto. The biggest obstacle is clearly this weekend against Oregon, and given the weakness of the Pac-12 South that game is for all intents and purposes the de facto Pac-12 Championship Game. Oregon comes in at 8-1 and has faced little resistance since dropping the season opener to LSU, and this game figures to be a tight one either way. Oregon won last year in Eugene 52-31 thanks in large part to 388 yards on the ground, but Stanford comes into this game as a narrow favorite and has been better against the run to date. LaMichael James looks back at full strength after a nasty looking elbow injury, while Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu will miss this game after sustaining a concussion last weekend against Oregon State.

Even with a win over Oregon, however, Stanford has a three legitimate tests remaining and cannot simply go on cruise control immediately thereafter. The following weekend brings Cal, a middling Pac-12 team but nevertheless Stanford's biggest rival and a program which features a longtime head coach who may be fighting for his job. A win is likely, but assuming such would be premature. The regular season finale brings Notre Dame, currently sitting at 6-3. The Irish had a tough start to the year thanks to near laughable red zone woes, but they have won six of their past seven games (including a 31-13 romp over Michigan State), and in any event they will be one of the biggest challenges on the entire schedule for the Cardinal.

Assuming a win this weekend against Oregon, Stanford will clinch the Pac-12 North and will earn a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game. However, that game currently does not look to be a major obstacle. The current leader and arguably best team in the Pac-12 South is USC, but the Trojans are not eligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions. In real terms Arizona State and UCLA are tied atop the Pac-12 South with 4-2 conference records with three conference games each remaining. UCLA holds the tiebreaker here thanks to a surprising 29-28 victory last Saturday over the Sun Devils, but with the Bruins still having a game left against USC the division favorite may still be Arizona State. For what it's worth, Stanford dismantled UCLA with ease, 45-19, last month and would be a heavy favorite in a rematch, so perhaps we should hope for Arizona State to prevail. In any event, do keep in mind that unlike other major conferences, the Pac-12 Championship Game is played on the home field of the team with the best overall conference record, which in this case would be Stanford, so the Pac-12 Championship Game would be played in the friendly confines of Palo Alto and not at a neutral site.

Oklahoma State

With a 9-0 record after narrowly surviving a 52-45 shootout against Kansas State, Mike Gundy and company have three games remaining on the regular season schedule, and thanks to the recent implosion of the Big XII no longer have to navigate through a potential Big XII Championship Game appearance the first weekend of December. The Pokes will end their season with road trips to Texas Tech and Iowa State before facing Oklahoma in Stillwater.

While currently ranked second in the BCS, Oklahoma State arguably faces a tougher road than even Stanford. A complete lack of an even semi-effective defense is clearly their Achilles Heel, and only once this year have the Cowboys given up fewer than 24 points. That figures to be a major concern this weekend as they travel to Lubbock to take on Seth Doege and the pass happy Red Raiders. Tommy Tuberville did not scrap the Air Raid after taking over for Mike Leach and Tech is generally highly productive on the offensive side of the ball. While they have posted two terrible performances in the aftermath of their upset over Oklahoma, Texas Tech looks to present a legitimate challenge this week in Lubbock. After Texas Tech, Oklahoma State then makes the road trip to Iowa State, where an upset looks unlikely, though in fairness this is a better team than they have been in years past.

The season finale in Stillwater against Oklahoma will obviously be the most difficult test and with little doubt is the most likely possibility for an Oklahoma State loss. That game could arguably the biggest game in Oklahoma State football history, and while they may be a slight favorite the fact remains that the Pokes haven't won Bedlam since back in 2002 when Les Miles was on the sideline. The game figures to be a shootout either way and forty points (or more) will likely be required to win in what will be a glorified track meet. Season-ending injuries to star OU wide receiver Ryan Broyles (torn ACL) and starting tailback Dominique Whaley (broken ankle) will make this difficult for the Sooners, though most believe Oklahoma has better depth and more overall talent throughout the roster than Oklahoma State.

If Stanford and Oklahoma State Lose, Then What?

While it would come as no major surprise if one of either Stanford or Oklahoma State found its way through the regular season unscathed and unbeaten, by the same token it would not qualify as a major surprise if either dropped a game down the stretch. Both teams still have some formidable opponents ahead of them, and while both look like relatively strong squads neither look to be near the level of shear dominance that can almost assure victory.

So what happens if Stanford and Oklahoma State both lose? The short explanation is that all hell would break loose, intense debates would rage, and Alabama would be given renewed life. Even so, for Alabama, it would be far from a foregone conclusion to say that a rematch with LSU would occur and in truth the path to New Orleans would still be highly complicated and in no way guaranteed.

While Alabama is currently ahead of both Oklahoma and Boise State in the BCS standings, the human element of those standings is highly volatile and in turn that makes the overall BCS calculations also volatile. Short team leads notwithstanding, teams currently below Alabama would almost certainly make a serious charge at 'Bama and the gaps would narrow accordingly. For better or for worse, with a rematch looking more and more imminent, several voters will recant, denounce the notion of a rematch and a team that has not won its own division reaching the national championship game, and they will respond by voting teams like Boise State and Oklahoma higher in the polls.

Assuming Alabama and LSU win all of their remaining games, can 'Bama hold off a charge from a 12-0 Boise State team? Can Alabama hold off a charge from, say, an 11-1 Oklahoma team, Big XII championship in tow, coming off a win over an undefeated #2 in-state rival in a difficult road environment? Or, could Oklahoma State lose a squeaker to Oklahoma and still finish up ahead of the Tide? Furthermore, could a 12-1 Pac-12 champion Oregon or Stanford possibly jump past Alabama?

While most 'Bama fans want to assume that their beloved Tide would automatically vault back into the second spot in the BCS standings with losses by Oklahoma State and Stanford, the reality of the matter is that is by no means a guaranteed outcome, and to the contrary 'Bama might face its greatest difficulties here as opposed to getting Oklahoma State and Stanford to lose in the first place. Again, there will be a major backlash in many areas against a rematch, and at the most 'Bama would squeak out a trip to New Orleans by the smallest of margins with everyone biting fingernails on the day of the BCS Selection Show.

Accordingly, style points in the next three weeks will be very important. 'Bama needs to unequivocally state its case that it is, with no doubt whatsoever, at absolute worst the second best team in the country and that a rematch should be given, regardless of the previous loss to LSU and the lack of division or conference titles. If 'Bama aimlessly wallows to sloppy victories against Mississippi State and Auburn, the odds are that the Crimson Tide have little chance of finishing in the top two of the final BCS standings regardless of what happens in Stillwater and Palo Alto.

'Bama needs to win and win in impressive fashion in the final three weeks to have a chance. Style points figure to be highly meaningful, and as much as many Alabama fans will be sickened by the thought, the Tide needs Auburn to win and win big this weekend in Georgia. A win by UGA would clinch the SEC East for the Bulldogs and only serve to strengthen Boise State's case, while Alabama will get far more credit for a road win on national television against an 8-3 team ranked, say, 18th in the country as opposed to an unranked 7-4 team coming off a loss.

Can 'Bama Still Reach Atlanta?

Though the odds look very long as of this writing, it should be noted that Alabama has not been eliminated from SEC West contention and with a win this weekend against Mississippi State cannot be eliminated until November 26th at the earliest, when Arkansas travels to Baton Rouge to take on LSU.

Again, though, the odds are very long. What 'Bama really needs is for Ole Miss to somehow upset LSU in Oxford on November 20th, as a win by the Rebels would mean Alabama could take the SEC West outright with a win over Auburn and an Arkansas victory over LSU. Of course, though, there is almost no chance of that happening and indeed an upset of that magnitude would likely qualify as the biggest upset in the modern history of the SEC. Welcomed or not, any expectation involving Ole Miss somehow upending LSU is tantamount to expecting to finance your retirement with scratch-off lottery tickets and potato chips vaguely resembling Richard Nixon.

Assuming the inevitable with an LSU victory over Ole Miss, 'Bama then needs Arkansas to win games the next two weekends against Tennessee and Mississippi State. If Arkansas drops one of those games, they fall to at best 6-2 in the SEC West, and thus even with a victory over LSU in Baton Rouge, 'Bama and LSU would be in a two-way tie atop the SEC West with 7-1 overall records in the conference, at which point LSU would advance to Atlanta as a result of their win last weekend in Tuscaloosa.

Barring the Ole Miss South Rises Again scenario, the only real opportunity for Alabama to reach Atlanta is through a three-way tiebreaker atop the SEC West. In effect, Alabama would need Arkansas to beat LSU in Baton Rouge, and have all three teams finish tied atop the SEC West with 7-1 conference records. The division tiebreakers would then ultimately turn on BCS standings, at which point the two teams with the highest BCS rankings would be tied and the two-way tiebreaker would then be resolved by the head-to-head match-up. In other words, 'Bama needs Arkansas to beat LSU, and then have both Alabama and Arkansas finish ahead of LSU in the BCS standings after the final week of the regular season. Doing so sends 'Bama to Atlanta as a result of the Tide's week four victory over Arkansas in Tuscaloosa.

Again, what are the odds of all of this? Very low. Arkansas should have no problem beating both Tennessee and Mississippi State, and 'Bama should knock off both Mississippi State and Auburn, but realistically what are the odds that Arkansas beats LSU bad enough that the Bayou Bengals drop behind both the Tide and the Hogs in the BCS standings? I suppose the timing of a loss at home on the final weekend of the season could seem particularly damning to many voters and could thereby result in a larger-than-normal fallout, but even so the odds pretty low of that happening. And, again, that assumes that Arkansas can beat LSU in the first place, which is far from a foregone conclusion given their inability to protect Tyler Wilson and their typical defensive struggles.

Final Thoughts

The good news for Alabama is that, despite the histrionics, there is a great deal of football left to be played and several key contests remain. With a month of football still ahead of us, it should be understood by all that it would take very little to detonate a BCS powder-keg and that the possibility of that happening is a very real one. The problem, though, is that the Armageddon scenario could bring as many as seven or eight teams into BCS contention and there is no guarantee whatsoever that Alabama would be the ultimate benefactor, and given that the Tide will receive almost no sympathy from the voting community the odds are likely even slightly against 'Bama reaching New Orleans even if all else goes up in flames.

Many people in the past five days have spoken at length about 2007, but what people often fail to mention is that the shocking turn of events in 2007 is anything but usual. In truth, 2007 was an anomaly of the most absurd variety, featuring something which had never been seen before and which may never be seen again. Anyone legitimately expecting a recurrence of that outcome is simply inviting disappointment, and again the far more likely scenario is that the loss to LSU is an irreversible error from which 'Bama can never recover. Some hopes remain, but those hopes are exceedingly thin, and will erased entirely unless a physically and emotionally spent Alabama team can quickly recover this weekend in Starkville. All Alabama can do now is return to form, win against Mississippi State, and return home with the hope that the rest of the world burns in the next four weeks.