A week ago, it seemed like we were headed for yet another messy and controversial year in the BCS, as it appeared three power-conference teams would finish with undefeated records. But then, Auburn beat Alabama on a fantastic kick return, leaving Florida State and Ohio State as the only undefeateds. It seemed like the BCS would make a peaceful exit on a rare year in which circumstances conspired to make it seem like a less terrible system than it actually is. Nevertheless, college football fans find themselves in yet another heated BCS debate. Auburn fans are arguing that their team should get a berth in the title game, despite finishing with one loss. Their argument hinges largely on conference strength, saying that Ohio State had a much easier time making it through their schedule undefeated, and is thus less deserving of a shot at the title than Auburn. However, I would argue that if OSU finishes undefeated, it still deserves to go the title game ahead of Auburn.
Just to get this out of the way, I will make one concession to Auburn fans: their schedule is harder than Ohio State’s. Even though their non-conference schedules are similar, Auburn’s conference schedule has more ranked teams, and I’m willing to bet their teams would have a better collective record if I calculated it. Auburn’s loss is also to LSU, a quality team that is currently ranked in the top 15 in at least one poll.
But that alone is not sufficient to convince me that Auburn should jump Ohio State and play for the title. First of all, the Buckeyes have gone undefeated in a power conference for two straight years (they were ineligible for a bowl game last year due to sanctions stemming from players’ accepting illegal benefits). No, the Big Ten is not the conference it once was. But that doesn’t mean it has no good teams. Wisconsin has had several nine and ten-win seasons lately, and Northwestern & Michigan are programs on the rise. Given the parity in college football these days, any team can beat any other on any given Saturday, and it takes real talent to win 24 consecutive games. That’s something that Auburn can’t even come close to claiming.
In addition, OSU will also get a chance to add to their strength of schedule when they play Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game. MSU is a bit of a one-dimensional team, with lots of defense but little offense. They still sit tenth in the nation, though. A win over MSU would mean that the gap between OSU’s and Auburn’s strength of schedule would narrow and wouldn’t necessarily be as clear of an advantage for Auburn.
Ohio State has also put up solid stats this year, further weakening the argument that they’re a paper-tiger team that has taken advantage of a weak schedule. They currently are second in the nation in rushing yards, third in points scored, and 18th in points allowed, suggesting a well-rounded team that dominates on both sides of the ball. Auburn boasts similar stats (5th, 18th, and 31st in the three above categories, respectively), but the difference between the two teams is not great enough to justify elevating a one-loss team above Ohio State.
Given all the above, I’m not sure the gap between the two teams is as yawning as Auburn/SEC supporters would have us believe. I’m not sure a neutral-site game between these two teams would necessarily result in an Auburn win, given that they needed a considerable amount of luck to win their last two games, against Alabama and a banged-up Georgia team that probably is only ranked because it’s in the SEC. Both teams have a similar makeup, with bruising rushing attacks and defenses, so that game would likely be an instant classic. But if both of them finish undefeated, I think an FSU-OSU matchup would help the BCS go out with a bang.