Posted: Wednesday December 1, 2010 12:56PM ; Updated: Wednesday December 1, 2010 1:55PM
Stewart Mandel

Why Auburn can't afford to slip on Championship Saturday; more mail

Story Highlights

Three reasons TCU will play for the BCS title if South Carolina beats Auburn

If we had a plus-one, Wisconsin would beat out Stanford for the fourth spot

Adding the Horned Frogs is a win-win for TCU and the Big East conference

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Cam Newton led Auburn to a 35-27 win over South Carolina on Sept. 25.
Cam Newton led Auburn to a 35-27 win over South Carolina on Sept. 25.

Watching ESPN's Sunday night BCS Countdown has been both maddening and morbidly fascinating. The show's experts spend about five minutes breaking down the actual BCS standings, then 40 minutes saying how they would rank the teams. And their methodology seems to change by the week.

Case in point: For weeks, Kirk Herbstreit had served as the show's lone advocate for mid-majors Boise State and TCU, playing the role of reasoned foil to Craig James' "Gosh golly, the linebackers in those other leagues are just bigger" shtick. But then a funny thing happened. After Boise State lost last week, Herbie decided to revaluate the Horned Frogs and decided -- eh. He moved 11-1 Stanford ahead of TCU to No. 3 in his rankings. Co-panelist Rod Gilmore was even harsher, ranking TCU sixth.

Both were OK with the prospect of Boise State moving into the title game a week ago, but now that the focus has shifted to TCU, the one-loss teams right behind the Horned Frogs suddenly look more enticing. It's puzzling. While I think the world of Stanford, the Cardinal already had their shot at Oregon. And the difference in schedule strength between TCU (76th in Sagarin) and Wisconsin (71st) is negligible.

There's really only one one-loss team with a reasonable case to trump TCU should the occasion arise Sunday -- and that team doesn't yet have a loss.

What happens if South Carolina beats Auburn, and for the sake of argument, it is on a last-second field goal? Does TCU automatically get the bump up to the championship game? Auburn would still have at least five wins (Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina) on par with TCU's lone signature win (Utah). Would we really punish a team that ran the table against such a markedly better schedule just because it lost a rematch to a top 20 team it's already beaten?
-- Brian, Brookline, Mass.

For all the reasons Brian just mentioned, I think Auburn would have a very legitimate case that it was still one of the two most deserving teams even if it lost to South Carolina. (I can't say the same for Oregon if it were to lose to 5-6 Oregon State.) After watching the Tigers rally from a 24-0 deficit on the road to beat their bitter rivals and complete a 12-0 regular season, I immediately tweeted: "I don't care if Oregon wins 50-0 tonight. Auburn should be No. 1." The Ducks wound up beating Arizona 48-29, and Auburn did rise to No. 1 in the BCS standings, albeit by a .002 margin. My comment wasn't a knock on the Ducks, who may well be the better team, but an acknowledgment that Auburn's overall body of work is superior to Oregon's and everybody else's.

But here's why Auburn won't -- and shouldn't -- stay above TCU if it loses Saturday: It would require making at least three special exceptions for the Tigers.

For one, every time a ranked team has lost a game this season, it has dropped more than one spot in the polls (usually much more than one spot), especially when losing to a lower-ranked team. Auburn isn't facing a top five team Saturday; it's facing the BCS' No. 19 team. In any other week, it would be punished for losing this game. Why should this week be different?

Secondly, recall that back when the standings were still more heavily weighted toward the computers, two teams (2001 Nebraska and 2003 Oklahoma) made the championship game despite losing their last regular-season games -- and the public was livid. The formula was altered in large part to avoid such a recurrence. (Granted, both were blowouts, not last-second losses.)

And finally, while it's not an official BCS rule, voters have made it abundantly clear that they feel a team shouldn't play for the national championship without having won its conference championship. It's why Florida leapfrogged Michigan on the last Sunday in 2006, LSU jumped Georgia in '07 and Oklahoma passed Texas in '08. The strange but true reality is that Auburn would have had a better chance of finishing in the top two had it lost to Alabama and turned around and won in Atlanta than by winning the Iron Bowl but losing the last game. It's really that simple: You can't lose your last game. Period. So in a way, TCU benefitted both from Boise State losing and Auburn winning last week.

Many of you also e-mailed this week asking the inevitable steroid-sized edition of Brian's question, which is: What happens if both Auburn and Oregon lose. I'm afraid I must plead the fifth, because I don't know, and I'm not sure I want to know. I only know that whatever the result, my inbox the next day will be excruciating.

OK, now that the fourth undefeated team has dropped out of the picture, how does the Mandel Plan look for this year? It would be a cluster ****. Wisconsin, Stanford, Ohio State, Michigan State, and you could make an argument for others. Who would be the "deserving" fourth team in the plus-one playoff?
-- Kirk, Ridgefield, Wash.

Admittedly, the Mandel Plan is a much harder sell in years when there isn't a clear-cut top four, but frankly, that's probably going to be the case more often than not. The goal of a plus-one is to prevent full-on injustices like undefeated Auburn not getting a shot in 2004 and to give a team like TCU a chance to prove itself on the field. Someone's still going to get left out, but better the argument shift from undefeated teams to teams that took their fate out of their own hands once they lost a game. An eight- or 16-team playoff would actually be more controversial. Can you imagine the pool of candidates for the two at-large spots in an eight-team playoff (by my count, at least seven this year) or the five at-large spots in a 16-team bracket (this year, anywhere from nine to 12)?

In the Mandel Plan, Wisconsin is actually the fairly easy choice for the fourth spot, for much the same reason mentioned in the Auburn answer above: It won its conference's automatic berth, while Stanford, Ohio State and Michigan State -- the other remaining one-loss major-conference teams -- did not. The fact that the Badgers emerged from a convoluted three-way tiebreaker is the Big Ten's problem, not ours, and it will be moot by next year when the Big Ten begins hosting a championship game. In fact, as of next season, all six BCS conferences will finally have either a championship game or a full round-robin schedule, which should help facilitate even more clarity.
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