Posted: Wednesday October 31, 2012 11:15AM ; Updated: Wednesday October 31, 2012 5:59PM
Stewart Mandel

Breaking down potential BCS title race developments; more Mailbag

Story Highlights

Of the BCS favorites, Notre Dame could have the hardest time making title game

If 'Bama falls, one-loss SEC team unlikely to pass unbeaten K-State, Notre Dame

Plus: Oregon schedule, overlooked Heisman candidates, Auburn's next hire, more

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Notre Dame's Cierre Wood
After running past Oklahoma, Cierre Wood and Notre Dame have games remaining against Pitt, Boston College, Wake Forest and USC.
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The Mandel Initiative Podcast
USC quarterback Matt Barkley discusses the Trojans' season to date and their upcoming matchup with Oregon. Stewart and Mallory preview the big Week 10 games.

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Care to revisit the four-undefeated team question? Or are you sticking with 100-1 odds?
-- Michael Weldon, Bahrain

It was admittedly easier to be flippant about the possibility of four BCS title contenders finishing unbeaten a few days before Notre Dame played Oklahoma. I still believe at least one if not more of these teams will get upset at some point, because that's what happens in November, and apparently probability experts agree with me about the one percent odds. On the other hand, it would be so ironic if four major-conference teams went undefeated for the first time in the BCS era just months after the BCS finally agreed to a four-team playoff. So let's address this thing.

So it looks like we're heading towards BCS-geddon once more. With the very real possibility that three or all four of Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame will be unbeaten at the end of the season, which team would be likeliest to miss out on the title game? If that happens, what are the chances that the ensuing uproar causes the powers that be to go to a playoff system a year early? What would they have to do to make it happen for 2013?
-- Joe K., Washington D.C.

In the days since Notre Dame smacked down Oklahoma, I've seen a lot of comments to the effect that there's no way an undefeated Notre Dame team would be left out of the championship game. Actually, the exact opposite is the case. Notre Dame is the likeliest of the four to miss out, for one simple reason: It's the lowest-ranked of the group in both human polls.

Since the BCS went to its current formula in 2004 (66 percent polls, 33 percent computers), the final top two in the BCS have mirrored the final top two in the polls every single year. And that includes three recent seasons (2008, '09 and '11) when the polls and computers disagreed on the No. 2 and No. 3 teams. The formula is specifically rigged to avoid situations like the one that occurred in 2003, when USC finished No. 1 in both polls but No. 3 in the BCS, with the computers serving as window dressing for what is essentially the same old traditional poll. And the computer numbers are particularly meaningless in late October because the teams have not played their full schedules yet.

For example, many Oregon fans are freaking out because the Ducks seem stuck at No. 4 in the BCS standings. Chip Kelly's team is second in both human polls but just fifth in average computer rating, whereas K-State and Notre Dame are tied at No. 1 in the computer ranks. However, the Wildcats and Irish have already played most or all of their toughest games, whereas Oregon's hardest stretch is only about to begin. Over the rest of the season the Ducks will play at least three games against current BCS top-20 teams (USC, Stanford and Oregon State). Meanwhile, K-State will face No. 23 Texas and No. 24 Oklahoma State, while the Irish will play three nobodies and then the Trojans. If Oregon wins out, it will close most or all of that computer gap, rendering it moot.

So any shakeup in the Alabama-Oregon-K-State-Notre Dame hierarchy (which, it should be noted, was established even before the season began) would have to come either from one of the unbeatens losing or from the pollsters reconfiguring their order -- and the latter would require something extraordinary to happen. If the voters were going to move K-State above Oregon, they would have done so after the Wildcats' rout of West Virginia. Notre Dame's best chance passed after it beat Oklahoma. The voters would need to intentionally drop the Ducks -- and why would they do that if Oregon keeps winning against what will now be tougher competition? While the voters have made 11th-hour readjustments in the past (moving Florida above Michigan in 2006, LSU above Georgia and others in '07), those came after conference championship game wins by the beneficiaries. Oregon is the only one of the three that might play in a conference championship game.

So in sum, Alabama and Oregon still control their own destinies, though Kansas State could make things awfully close for the Ducks. And Notre Dame, the team that for decades received constant -- sometimes unwarranted -- adulation from the pollsters, is finally proving itself legitimate yet is in the worst shape of the four because ... it's not getting enough love from the pollsters. And again, all of this will almost certainly become moot when someone loses unexpectedly. Case in point ...

Stewart: A history lesson. In 2002, 8-0 Notre Dame had just won a big game at No. 11 Florida State and then, on the first weekend in November, lost at home to lowly Boston College. Fast forward 10 years to 2012, 8-0 Notre Dame just defeated No. 8 Oklahoma and head into November undefeated. Do you see a similar letdown against lowly Pitt?
-- Robert, Columbus, Ohio

Props to my colleague Bill Trocchi, a Notre Dame fan who last week pointed out to me the similarities between that Florida State game and this year's Oklahoma game. In both cases, most of the country assumed the Irish's luck would run out. As it turned out, in both cases, Notre Dame notched its most impressive win to date. And kudos to my friend and Notre Dame alum John Walters, who way back on Sept. 18, prior to the Michigan game, came on my podcast and predicted the Irish to finish 10-2, back when that notion seemed preposterous. He also made an interesting observation that continues to hold true: Notre Dame, going back to last year if not further, seems to play better on the road than at home. I don't know if it's the distractions of a home weekend in South Bend or simply a coincidence, but the Irish often come out flat at home (Purdue, BYU), whereas they couldn't have been sharper last weekend in Norman.

So yes, I think a letdown this week is possible. But let me say this: The 2012 Irish are not the 2002 Irish. That team definitely had a smoke and mirrors feel to it. Their quarterback, Carlyle Holiday, was converted to receiver the next year. I don't see that happening with Everett Golson. That defense, while statistically solid, produced a handful of low-round draft picks. This defense has at least two surefire first-rounders (Manti Te'o and Stephon Tuitt) and likely several other high-rounders. Also: Pitt is not very good. That "lowly" BC team in '02 went 9-4. The Panthers already have four losses, including to FCS Youngstown State. A win over Notre Dame would be a gargantuan upset. But if there's one thing I've learned in 14 years of covering the BCS, as soon as you say, "That will never happen" ...

So here's the scenario: Alabama loses a game, thus assuring the SEC champion finishes with at least one loss. Two teams out of Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame finish unbeaten. Is the SEC's reputation enough for its champion to jump an unbeaten power-conference champion (or Notre Dame) and land in the title game?
-- Brian, Cincinnati

You'll get your answer soon enough if LSU upsets the Crimson Tide this weekend. It would be interesting to see just how much the voters reward the Tigers. On the one hand, beating not just the No. 1 team in the country, but a team that's looked all but invincible in its first eight games would seemingly deserve a bigger bump than one spot. On the other, this sport has always placed a premium on going undefeated (unless of course you play in the Big East, which, based on Louisville's ranking, the voters are treating as a de facto mid-major), and it's hard to imagine any one-loss team jumping an undefeated Pac-12 team, Big 12 team or Notre Dame.

Six straight national championships have certainly earned SEC teams a lot of mileage with the pollsters. As evidence, note that 7-2 South Carolina remains ahead of 8-0 Louisville in the AP Poll and, in all polls, ahead of 6-1 Oregon State and an Oklahoma team that's two losses came to the current No. 3 and No. 4 teams. But I don't think voters would feel comfortable leaving undefeated Oregon, Kansas State or Notre Dame out of the title game if they don't have to. Excluding the SEC champ would of course cause an uproar of unprecedented proportions in the South and considerable delight everywhere else. But the truth is, we should all be rooting for the SEC champ to make it, whether it's undefeated Alabama or, if the other unbeatens all get mowed down, one-loss LSU, Florida or Georgia. There will be an unavoidably empty feeling if the team that ends the SEC's streak does so in the polls rather than on the field.

Now that Notre Dame has beaten Oklahoma, there is the very real possibility that Notre Dame could play Alabama for the national championship. Given that a lot of people hate both schools/conferences, which one would be the fan favorite?
-- James G., Gilroy, Calif.

Given the level of SEC animosity and envy right now among fans of other conferences, coupled with Nick Saban's lack of popularity pretty much anywhere outside the state of Alabama, I think we can safely assume it will be the first time in modern history that America roots for Notre Dame -- excluding the final scene of Rudy.

Did Oregon lose big time this weekend despite scoring 70 points? Will the computers now look askance at what were once the Ducks' two most important upcoming games, USC and Oregon State?
-- Dave Kiffer, Ketchikan, Alaska

I've been a bit confused by all the e-mails I received like this one. You do realize Oregon also played the two teams (Arizona and Washington) that won those games, right?
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