— The first Bowl Championship Series standings are out, finally giving some shape to this season’s stretch run. There are 10 unbeaten teams — and 12 one-loss teams — remaining in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Here are five themes to ponder, juggle and debate as another defining weekend approaches.
1. Boom (or bust?) for Big 12
For an unprecedented fourth time, the No. 3-ranked Oklahoma Sooners (6-0) are No. 1 in the initial Bowl Championship Series standings.
Take that for what it’s worth. Only twice in the previous 12 BCS-era seasons has a first-week No. 1 team gone on to win the national championship (1999 Florida State, 2004 USC).
Here’s the bigger picture: What’s good for Oklahoma is definitely good for the Big 12. If the Sooners fall Saturday night at unbeaten/unproven No. 18 Missouri (6-0), the conference’s best national-title opportunity goes away.
We’re not long-term believers in unbeaten/unproven No. 17 Oklahoma State (6-0). No. 14 Nebraska (5-1) blew its chance by losing against Texas. Meanwhile, the No. 22 Longhorns (4-2) are just fighting to stay relevant.
Which brings us back to Oklahoma.
Few picked the Sooners as a national-championship hopeful in the preseason. Why should they? Last season was a mess. Quarterback Sam Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham, arguably the team’s top two offensive performers, were injured. The offensive line was in mix-and-match transition. And after the season, it was farewell to NFL-in-waiting stalwart defender Gerald McCoy (along with Bradford and Gresham).
But the experience was immeasurable for players such as quarterback Landry Jones.
You couldn’t judge Oklahoma by last season’s record.
My hunch in August: If the Sooners could navigate an early season non-conference schedule that looked like a BCS computer’s dream dinner date — Florida State, Air Force and Cincinnati – there were definite possibilities.
Now it has happened.
The Sooners have improved each week, weathering some shaky defensive performances against Utah State (341 yards passing) and Air Force (351 yards rushing). The Sooners dispatched Texas, then put everything together with last week’s 52-0 stomping of Iowa State (when Jones went 30 of 34 for 334 yards in a no-sweat performance that looked like practice).
The right chips fell when top-ranked Alabama and Ohio State were upset on consecutive weekends.
So here are the Sooners, back again, trying to reach their fifth BCS title game under coach Bob Stoops. It’s very realistic to imagine Oklahoma running the table. The biggest obstacle figures to be the regular-season finale against Oklahoma State and its ridiculous array of offensive talent (Justin Blackmon already is making everyone forget about Dez Bryant, isn’t he?).
Beyond that, we might be granted a sentimental journey in the Big 12 championship game — Oklahoma vs. Nebraska, once the greatest rivalry in college football, now marginalized and forgotten because of the league’s realignment into divisions.
It would be one for the road before Nebraska heads to the Big Ten, again changing the game’s landscape.
And if that happens, there’s no question how the overall league partisans would perceive that matchup.
What’s good for Oklahoma is definitely good for the Big 12.
2. Tigers, Tigers, burning bright
You don’t need much buildup for No. 6 LSU (7-0) at No. 5 Auburn (7-0) this season.
Actually, you don’t need much buildup for LSU-Auburn in any season.
It has become a classic SEC West matchup — LSU leads the all-time series 24-19-1 with 21 meetings being decided by a touchdown or less — and now it has a direct bearing on the national-championship race.
It’s also a series where practically every memorable game is remembered by a nickname.
A few favorites:
3. SEC slingshot?
Maybe Not This Time: For a one-loss SEC team, it’s never over until it’s over. LSU (2003), Florida (2006), LSU again (2007, this time with two losses) and Florida again (2008) each rebounded from a midseason defeat to not only reach the BCS championship game, but win the national title.
So there is No. 7 Alabama (6-1), the defending national champion, sitting at No. 8 in the BCS standings. Potentially unbeaten LSU (Nov. 6) and potentially unbeaten Auburn (Nov. 26) remain on the schedule. Then there’s the prospective SEC championship game, always a showcase in which voters can again be reminded of the league’s enduring strength.
One problem this season: For the first time ever, the SEC East winner could stumble into Atlanta with a 5-3 conference record (that would be assured with another slip by No. 19 South Carolina, which still must face No. 21 Arkansas and Florida, among others).
And if South Carolina fades out of the picture, Alabama would miss the opportunity to avenge its only defeat.
Don’t count Alabama out of a national-title defense. Plenty of things must happen to clear the path. But the road will be even more difficult due to an in-flux SEC.
4. Big Ten is anybody’s guess
The Big Ten’s biggest game looks to be on Oct. 30: No. 8 Michigan State at No. 13 Iowa, a matchup of the only two teams with unbeaten records in the league.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
There are questions galore.
(Bow your head, by the way, for the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry. Iowa leads the all-time series 42-41-2, but the schools won’t play in 2011 or 2012 because they have been placed in different divisions with the new-look Big Ten).
OK, enough questions.
Here’s an answer: We believe the Iowa Hawkeyes will emerge from this jumbled mess. Iowa has the other heavyweights (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State) all at home. Don’t be stunned if Iowa wins out and heads to Pasadena, where it hasn’t played since the 1990 season.
5. Frogs are nobody’s prince
Another one of those only-in-the-BCS scenarios might be building for the No. 4 TCU Horned Frogs (7-0).
TCU has a pair of respectable non-conference victories, beating Oregon State and Baylor.
Saturday, it faces a very good team from Air Force (5-2). On Nov. 6, the Frogs could be meeting another unbeaten team in Utah.
It’s no stretch to suggest TCU could finish 12-0 again.
And it’s no stretch to suggest that it once again would be on the outside, peering through the glass ceiling, as two other teams play for the national title.
We could mention a similar plight for No. 2 Boise State, of course, but let’s stick with TCU here.
Last season, had that final second been allowed to tick away in the Big 12 championship game, permitting Nebraska to nail down its victory against Texas, TCU probably could have been elevated to the title game. It was that close.
The Frogs are winning big, but not running up the score, defeating their last three Mountain West Conference foes by a combined 103-3 margin, even while employing liberal player substitution.
TCU is fifth in the BCS standings. What must it do to improve its standing?
Barring a flurry of additional upsets, there’s not much TCU can do.
Back-to-back 12-0 regular-season finishes, but no opportunity to play for even one national title? What would that say about this BCS system?
So much more can happen. It’s too early for Coach Gary Patterson to start screaming.