On either side of midnight on the East Coast this past Saturday, two upsets shook up the BCS Standings and served as a reminder that college football’s regular season is the best in all of sports.
Just before midnight in East Lansing, Michigan State completed a Hail Mary pass on the game’s final play to beat previously undefeated Wisconsin, 37-31. An hour or so later, Texas Tech broke unbeaten Oklahoma’s 39-game home winning streak, defeating the Sooners 41-38 in a shocker in Norman.
I heard of Michigan State’s improbable late-game heroics from the public address announcer as I walked out of Stanford Stadium — having just witnessed the undefeated Cardinal’s stellar performance against the Washington Huskies — as he enthusiastically relayed the news to the departing crowd. Before the advent of the BCS, the P.A. announcer’s elation might have seemed a bit strange, as fans generally didn’t pay too much attention to games in other regions back then. But Stanford was No. 8 in the BCS Standings going into last weekend, and Wisconsin was No. 6. So the Badgers’ loss meant that the Cardinal would likely move up. (They did, to No. 6.)
Yet despite such shared excitement from coast to coast, some observers have taken exception to the BCS’s relatively exacting standards for college football’s elite teams. Those very standards, of course, are what makes every regular-season game so meaningful and therefore so capable of yielding great drama.
In Tuesday's Oklahoman, Jenni Carlson somewhat strangely lamented, “The BCS places a premium on perfection.” Well, that’s true — and it’s why every game in college football matters. She added, “Oklahoma and Wisconsin are extremely good football teams. And after Saturday, neither has much of a shot anymore of playing for a national championship, much less winning one.”
But this claim — at least as it pertains to Oklahoma — is clearly false. The Sooners dropped only to No. 9 in the BCS Standings, with a month and a half to go. They’re still the highest-ranked 1-loss team in the BCS computer rankings — including the computer rankings that I run with Chris Hester, the Anderson & Hester Rankings. (The BCS Standings are made up of three components — the Harris Interactive Poll, the USA Today coaches’ poll, and the average of six computer rankings — with all three parts being weighted evenly.) Oklahoma is ranked No. 7 in the computers as a whole — and No. 8 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings (behind Stanford, which trails Oklahoma in the overall computer average). So, despite the Sooners’ home loss to a previously unranked opponent, they are hardly buried at the back of the pack.
Furthermore, over the next six weeks, Oklahoma will play teams that are currently ranked No. 16 (Texas A&M), No. 8 (Kansas State), and No. 3 (Oklahoma State), in the BCS Standings, and the BCS computer rankings reward teams for winning games against tough opponents.
On top of all that, two pairs of teams that are currently ranked ahead of Oklahoma in the BCS Standings — No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, and No. 6 Stanford and No. 7 Oregon — will play each other in the coming weeks. In other words, if the Sooners win all of their remaining regular-season games, it’s a mathematical certainty that at least four of the teams currently ranked above them will lose (two to OU, two to each other).
With 174 poll voters and six computer rankings involved, no one knows how the final BCS Standings will play out. But there is little question that an 11-1 Oklahoma would have an excellent shot of finishing in the top two in the Anderson & Hester Rankings, if it keeps winning.
Wisconsin, which dropped to No. 15 in the BCS Standings, could potentially finish in the top 10 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings, but Wisconsin’s schedule isn’t nearly as difficult as Oklahoma’s. The Badgers have played only the 99th-toughest schedule to date (their non-conference foes have included South Dakota and UNLV), they lost on Saturday to the highest-ranked team they’ve played (Michigan State is No. 11 in the BCS Standings and No. 19 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings), and they aren’t scheduled to play a team in the current top 15 the rest of the way (although they could potentially play one in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game). The Badgers needed that game in East Lansing, which is a large part of why it was so compelling.
Still, four years ago, a 2-loss LSU team went to — and won — the BCS national championship game. In other words, stranger things have happened. And even if Wisconsin doesn’t end up going to New Orleans (the site of this year’s title game), the Badgers are still very much in contention for the Big Ten championship and a trip to Pasadena.
Meanwhile, several more top-flight matchups will take place this weekend: Oklahoma (6-1) at Kansas State (7-0); Stanford (7-0) at USC (6-1); Michigan State (6-1) at Nebraska (6-1), and Clemson (8-0) at Georgia Tech (6-2). The week after that, BCS No. 1 LSU will travel to Tuscaloosa to play No. 2 Alabama. It’s hard to recall a regular-season game in any other sport that’s been as highly anticipated as that one.
Yes, college football’s regular season is extraordinary — and that’s largely by design. Really, no other sport’s regular season even comes close. Just don’t tune out before the season’s end, or before midnight.