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The motto sits right at the top of every press release the Bowl Championship Series e-mails to reporters, just above executive director Bill Hancock's name. It reads: "Every Game Counts."
Not this year.
That huge LSU-Alabama game we all watched Nov. 5? Turns out it didn't count, at least not for the Crimson Tide. Based on the current BCS standings and prevailing sentiment, 'Bama did not need to win that day to punch its ticket to this year's national championship game. It may have locked up a title-game berth simply by avoiding a second loss.
The game did count for LSU, at least in terms of its chance to play for the SEC title against Georgia on Championship Saturday. However, that contest might not count against the Tigers if they lose, as it's widely assumed LSU will remain in the top two regardless of Saturday's result.
Welcome to the most anticlimactic regular-season finish in BCS history. Tune in for the Dec. 3 games if you'd like. Or just check back Jan. 9.
The BCS is an easy target again this week, as fans and media laugh and scream about a system in which a team (Alabama) can actually benefit from failing to reach its conference championship game while another (LSU) could get there, lose and fail to suffer drastic consequences. In its defense, the BCS does not pick the national championship matchup; the pollsters do. And the BCS isn't responsible for the rash of upsets that left the sport in this unusual predicament. If anything, voters were looking for any viable alternative to LSU-Alabama II in the days after the first meeting, only to watch Stanford (53-30 loss to Oregon), Boise State (36-35 loss to TCU), Oklahoma State (37-31 loss to Iowa State), Oregon (38-35 loss to USC, its second of the season) and Oklahoma (45-38 loss to Baylor, its second of the season) all flitter away opportunities.
Still, the rematch possibility is a thorn in the side of the BCS' central argument for existence, which is that it's absolutely essential to preserve the sanctity of the regular season. "We have the best regular season in all of sports, and we're seeing that every weekend," said Hancock. "Every weekend I think, 'It can't get any better than this.' And it does."
It won't this weekend. And while one could simply forgive this Championship Saturday anticlimax as a fluky and unprecedented occurrence, the BCS played a central role in how we got here.
It's no secret why LSU is viewed with such universal respect. Having now dispatched three top 10 teams (Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon) and with a chance to knock off another 10-win team this weekend, the Tigers have played the most impressive regular season in recent memory. Last Friday's 41-17 rout of the Razorbacks was a showcase for everything special about this team, from Tyrann Mathieu's momentum-swinging punt return touchdown to the swarming defense that ate Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson alive to the punishing rushing game that racked up 286 yards.
But the story of how Alabama came to be near-universally viewed as LSU's lone viable opponent runs deeper, and it's been five years in the making.
By handing voters the nearly impossible yearly task of deciding on just two championship-caliber teams, the BCS has positioned itself to become a self-fulfilling popularity contest. Five years in a row the SEC champion has been tabbed as one of the participants, and five years in a row that team has validated its selection by winning the big game.
It's not surprising, therefore, that when surveying a field of flawed contenders outside of LSU, those same voters perceive a one-loss SEC team as the next-best thing. The 9-6 score in the teams' first meeting may be voters' stated reason, but in reality the perception is based on past seasons as much as this one.
We've seen defensively dominant SEC teams shut down high-scoring Big 12 teams (LSU over Oklahoma in 2003, Florida over Oklahoma in '08, Alabama over Texas in '09). We know how that turns out. That history makes people leery of an Oklahoma Sate team -- currently next in line in the BCS standings -- that fits much the same mold.
In a similar vein, we've seen both LSU (in '07) and Alabama (in '09) steamroll BCS No. 5 Virginia Tech. We haven't seen No. 4 Stanford face an SEC foe, but we did see speedy Oregon whiz by the Cardinal -- and LSU squashed those Ducks in the season opener. And if you're going to give Alabama flack for failing to win its conference, what of Boise State failing to win the Mountain West?
The only team with a remote chance of passing Alabama at the 11th-hour is Oklahoma State should it beat 9-2 Oklahoma impressively this weekend, though it will take a near-universal about-face from the voters, who currently have the Cowboys fifth. (They're third in the overall standings thanks to the computers.) Bring up this possibility to an Alabama fan, and he or she will of course laugh in your face, pointing out first and foremost that Mike Gundy's team lost to Iowa State.
However, if this were the NCAA basketball tournament, where the committee members speak of teams' "bodies of work," they'd be comparing the following two résumés (assuming an Oklahoma State victory this weekend):
Wins over current BCS Top 25 teams: Oklahoma State: 5, Alabama: 2.
Wins over current BCS Top 50 teams: Oklahoma State: 7, Alabama: 5.
Wins over FBS teams with winning records: Oklahoma State: 6, Alabama: 3.
Conference titles: Oklahoma State: 1, Alabama: 0.
Losses to Iowa State: Oklahoma State: 1, Alabama: 0.
On paper, the Cowboys will have achieved more than the Tide. In real life, however, this is not a debate that's even being given serious consideration (at least yet) for one simple reason: Alabama has a track record; Oklahoma State does not. SEC teams win national championships. Big 12 teams, at least lately, do not. But let's see what happens Saturday night in Stillwater. Voters can be heavily swayed by last impressions. In fact, that's how this whole SEC domination cycle began, back when Florida jumped ahead of Michigan in 2006, warding off a potential Ohio State rematch.
Ultimately, an LSU-Alabama rematch will neither help nor hurt college football. People will watch. They'll accept the result, even if it's a Tide victory that overrides the first meeting. It's happened before (see Florida-Florida State in 1997) and it may happen again.
But the BCS will need to come up with a new slogan, because its current one will soon ring hollow. Here's a simple alteration: "Every game counts ... except when it doesn't."
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