Posted: Sunday November 18, 2012 10:10PM ; Updated: Monday November 19, 2012 11:49AM
Stewart Mandel

SEC's favorable scheduling has put league back in control of BCS fate

Story Highlights

SEC may be criticized for late-season scheduling, but strategy is paying off in BCS

'Bama, Georgia control title fate; Johnny Manziel leads Heisman race after upsets

Plus: Renewed realignment; UCLA takes charge in L.A.; NIU's Jordan Lynch; more

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Alabama's Eddie Lacy
While Oregon and Kansas State lost, Eddie Lacy (42) and Alabama routed FCS Western Carolina to reenter the BCS title discussion.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The reasons behind the SEC's string of six straight BCS championships have been well documented. Schools like Alabama and LSU pay their coaches handsomely. Their backyard is the most fertile recruiting region in the country. The league's exposure on both CBS and ESPN is unmatched.

Give all due credit to Nick Saban, Les Miles, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. But the conference also knows how to game the system. Its scheduling strategy, mocked by many, is in fact pure genius.

Saturday was the most chaotic, season-altering set of games in 2012, and the SEC played almost no part in it. In fact, if you didn't watch a single SEC game Saturday (and why would you, with such offerings as Alabama-Western Carolina, Auburn-Alabama A&M and Texas A&M-Sam Houston State?), you were no less entertained or informed. LSU's dramatic 41-35 win over Ole Miss was the lone exception, and even there, the biggest highlight was Les Miles' postgame press conference.

And yet, despite seven conference teams facing FCS foes, one team (Missouri) losing to a 5-5 Big East squad (Syracuse) and another firing its coach (Tennessee's Derek Dooley) for losing to Vandy, no conference had a better weekend than the SEC. By the end of Saturday night, after Baylor stunned BCS No. 1 Kansas State, 52-24, and Stanford took out BCS No. 2 Oregon, 17-14, in overtime, the SEC had all but assured itself another spot in the BCS title game. One of its players had also taken firm control of the Heisman Trophy race.

Mike Slive was presumably hunkered down in his Birmingham bunker chuckling at the whole thing.

It was only a week ago that Texas A&M upset then top-ranked Alabama, a game that served the dual purpose of both endangering the SEC's national title streak and vaulting Aggies star Johnny Manziel into the Heisman discussion. Both the Tide and looming SEC championship game opponent Georgia needed help to get back into the BCS driver's seat by having two teams from the trio of Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame lose, just as Manziel needed Wildcats star and Heisman frontrunner Collin Klein to slip up.

Well -- it's all happening. All the SEC teams and Manziel had to do was dispatch their respective mid-November cupcakes, then go home and watch their competition unravel from the comfort of their couches.

In the latest BCS standings, the 11-0 Irish are now the nation's No. 1 team, the first time they've reached that height in 19 years. On Saturday in Los Angeles, they will play for their first-ever BCS title game berth against tattered rival USC, now 7-4 following a 38-28 loss to UCLA, a game after which star quarterback Matt Barkley left with his right arm in a sling. Lane Kiffin announced Barkley will miss this week's matchup with a sprained shoulder. Win, and Notre Dame is in.

Right behind the Irish are a trio of one-loss SEC teams: Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Barring collapses this week by the Tide (against 3-8 Auburn) or Bulldogs (against 6-5 Georgia Tech), those two will stage their own BCS championship play-in on Dec. 1 in Atlanta.

For the Tide, it's as if the A&M game never happened. It took just one week for Nick Saban's team to move back into the top two following a loss, breaking last year's record of two weeks. For the Dawgs, it's as if their 35-7 demolition at the hands of South Carolina on Oct. 6 never happened. Since then, they've defeated one top-10 foe (Florida) while dispatching of 2-9 Kentucky, 5-6 Ole Miss, 3-8 Auburn and FCS Georgia Southern to seize control of their national championship fate.

And if the Irish fall this weekend, the Gators, who face 10-1 Florida State on Saturday, are sitting there ready to take Notre Dame's place in what would be a second straight all-SEC national title game. The fact that they have not left their state since Oct. 13 and needed a last-second blocked punt to avoid overtime against Louisiana-Lafayette is of no hindrance to their chances.

Many in other parts of the country will lambast those SEC schools for scheduling nonconference lightweights in November. On the contrary, they should be commended for their genius. There were 106 FBS vs. FCS matchups in 2012, so save the sanctimony. The SEC schools simply chose to play their games a couple months later than everyone else, and look how well that strategy paid off.

For instance, back in September, while the rest of the country was playing in traditional early tune-ups, Florida was beating Texas A&M, Tennessee and Kentucky in consecutive weeks to jump from No. 23 to No. 11 in the polls. When the Gators upset No. 4 LSU on Oct. 6, they assured themselves a season-long spot in the top 10. Then the Tigers got themselves back in the mix by beating South Carolina, which ensured Alabama received its rightful adulation upon beating LSU with a last-minute touchdown. Meanwhile, Georgia re-elevated its stock by beating Florida, which by then had notched another quality win over the Gamecocks, ensuring neither the Tide nor Gators ever fell too far.

And now, with their hardest work behind them, the SEC teams can sit back and watch the conferences with more work to do cannibalize themselves. On Saturday, 8-2 Stanford beat 10-0 Oregon on the Ducks' home field, in overtime -- a nearly identical result to 9-0 Alabama's home loss to 7-2 Texas A&M a week earlier. But now, Alabama is back in control of the BCS race while Chip Kelly's team fell to No. 5 in the standings.

Shouldn't have played that Tennessee Tech game so early, Oregon.

The most unwanted realignment move yet?

When Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2010, its fans couldn't wait to kiss the Big 12 goodbye. Ditto for Texas A&M when it joined the SEC, and for West Virginia when it joined the Big 12. Generally speaking, it feels good to be wanted.

In the latest case of realignment madness, however, the overwhelming reaction from Maryland fans upon learning Saturday of their school's planned move to the Big Ten was one of disapproval.

On Monday, Maryland's Board of Regents approved the school's move from the ACC to the Big Ten and the $50 million buyout that comes with it. A press conference is scheduled for Monday afternoon. It's expected the Big Ten will quickly add Rutgers in order to get to 14 teams.

MANDEL: Maryland, Rutgers Big Ten rumors spark realignment madness

In the meantime, more than 70 percent of respondents to a Washington Post poll asking whether Maryland should join the Big Ten voted "No." In a similar Baltimore Sun poll, more than half tabbed the possibility as "a bad move." And it didn't take long for a "Keep UMD in the ACC!" Facebook group to appear. Meanwhile, you don't need a poll to find out how Big Ten fans feel about the possibility of adding two traditionally irrelevant football programs. Unless you're a Ohio State or Michigan alum living in New Jersey or Maryland, there's no upside to this whatsoever.

We've seen no shortage of awkward marriages in realignment these past two years, but this may be the first move where the few individuals spearheading it may be among the only ones that actually want it to happen.

Financially, adding the two schools may well prove a boon for the Big Ten. Realignment is almost entirely about television sets, and as SI's Pete Thamel reported, the Big Ten Network stands to reap as much as $200 million more per year (which gets distributed among the schools) if it can land on basic cable in major East Coast markets like New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. As Thamel notes, however, that's no sure thing, with the East Coast's general apathy toward college sports in general and toward those two football programs, in particular.

THAMEL: Potential TV windfalls driving Big Ten's latest expansion efforts

But the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein notes that commissioner Jim Delany is a keen follower of demographics. While the population continues to gradually shift away from the Midwest, it's booming on the East Coast. Delany may consider the move an important step toward solidifying the conference's future.

He is going to have quite the job selling these additions to his league's fans, though, many of whom are only now begrudgingly coming to accept the Leaders and Legends divisions. Just as Maryland president Wallace Loh has to convince his basketball-crazed alums why they should be fine parting ways with Duke and North Carolina, Delany must tell Michigan fans they'll be making fewer trips to Madison in the future, but that Piscataway really is lovely in November.

Have we reached our breaking point on this stuff yet?
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