With two weeks to go in the college football regular season, the big-picture questions eventually will narrow and grow larger within the same context.
The first big question: will a non-automatic qualifier such as Boise State or TCU play for the BCS Championship? I think so. I don't see Auburn winning two games, and I think both Boise State and TCU have enough street credibility to get at least get in the game. Although I think Wisconsin is better than either squad, both are undefeated and this is the year of the underdog in college sports.
The second question: can either Boise State or TCU gain entry in another BCS bowl besides the title game? I doubt it. Considering one of them earns a bowl nod, that allows for just three at-large spots remaining. The Rose Bowl, which would have to take Boise State or TCU if neither qualify for the title game, won't give up its traditional Big Ten/Pac-10 match-up if it's not forced to do so. It's difficult to imagine the Big Ten would advocate for a non-BCS school to take the Pac-10 spot at the Rose Bowl.
"We’ve tried to shape some of the changes, but I think that the key word has been to sort of rely and appreciate and recognize the great traditions we have and to build on those," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told me in September. "We’re appropriate to pivot toward innovation and change that makes sense for us. Not for anybody else, but for us. So that the Rose Bowl tradition makes sense for us, but also makes sense for the college community and the Rose Bowl to be involved with the BCS. Not so that we could have a playoff, but because we wanted to preserve the bowl system. We thought that was the best way to do that.
"We’ll see whether or not long term if that works, but that was our thinking at the time and it continues to be our thinking."
Bowl games are more than just good games among good teams on television; it's a business designed to put fannies in seats. Schools from non-automatic qualifying conferences would struggle to sell their ticket allotment. For the Rose Bowl alone (based on last year's numbers), that would amount to 34,346 tickets. The Sugar Bowl already had to take its non-BCS medicine with Utah and Hawaii in recent years (let alone Cincinnati from the Big Least last year).
Somebody has to take the Big East champion, and the Big Ten and SEC are almost guaranteed two BCS slots. That leaves one spot open, wrestled among the Pac-10, Big 12 and loser in the Boise State/TCU beauty contest loser. If it comes down the Rose Bowl, don't expect it to accommodate any other school than Stanford.
As for Iowa, it still could earn a Capital One Bowl bid, but only if Michigan State loses Saturday at Penn State. It's possible the Big Ten could push for Iowa if the SEC sends Alabama to the Orlando-based bowl. It's a high-profile bowl game pitting the two most powerful leagues in college athletics. If the Big Ten office thinks Iowa could compete better against Alabama (or LSU, Arkansas, Auburn, etc.), and Iowa finishes within one game of Michigan State in the Big Ten standings (per the Big Ten's contract with the Capital One Bowl), then don't be surprised if the Hawkeyes jump Sparty to the Capital One Bowl. When it comes to SEC-Big Ten match-ups, nobody in the Chicago-area office wants to be embarrassed. Iowa may not win, but it will compete. With Michigan State, you just don't know.
If that doesn't happen, I could see Iowa sliding to the Arizona desert. The Outback Bowl could opt for Penn State because any game could be Joe Paterno's last as coach. The Gator could pick Michigan and its electrifying native Floridian Denard Robinson at quarterback. Iowa may be the better team and may sell more tickets, but Penn State and Michigan are more high-profile for the above reasons. The Insight Bowl moved up the bowl chain for both the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences, and it's outside the NFL Network. The game does start at 9 p.m., which creates tons of problems for scribes like myself. But I'm not going to stress out too much today about something that may not happen.
Here's a look at my latest bowl projections:
BCS CHAMPIONSHIP: Oregon vs. Boise State
- I just can't imagine Auburn beating Alabama and South Carolina in back-to-back weeks. Boise's upcoming win against Nevada will vault the Broncos past TCU and into No. 2 in the BCS standings
ROSE: Wisconsin vs. Stanford
- Do you really think the Granddaddy of Them All will forgo its Bog Ten/Pac-10 tradition if it's not forced to?
SUGAR: Auburn vs. Ohio State
- Auburn will lose to Alabama, then beat the Gamecocks to earn the Sugar Bowl nod; no bowl will refuse an 11-1 Ohio State team or its fans
ORANGE: Virginia Tech vs. Alabama
- The Orange Bowl Committee will consider TCU for about two seconds, then invite Alabama (unless LSU beats Arkansas this weekend)
FIESTA: Nebraska vs. West Virginia
- This is the one bowl that would take TCU, but can't because it's required to take a Big (L)East team
CAPITAL ONE: Michigan State vs. LSU
- I see Michigan State losing at Penn State and the committee strongly considering Iowa but declining; if LSU beats Arkansas, then Alabama goes here
Penn State vs. Florida
- It's hard to imagine a bowl turning down an opportunity to skip a chance at hosting Joe Paterno's last game
GATOR: Michigan vs. South Carolina
- The Wolverines might not be available to the Gator any other year so now's the time to swoop for the Gator Bowl
INSIGHT: Iowa vs. Oklahoma State
- Great match-up this far down in the pecking order; only problem is its 9 p.m. start
TEXAS: Illinois vs. Texas
- I wouldn't be shocked if a 6-6 Texas vaults higher than this if the Longhorns upset Texas A&M
TICKET CITY: Northwestern vs. Baylor
- This 4-hour, uptempo informercial is sponsored by the private college association
COTTON: Oklahoma vs. Arkansas
- It's too bad these schools aren't in the same conference; how did that happen again?
PEACH (OK, Chik-fil-A): North Carolina State vs. Mississippi State
- Two of the more surprising programs this year provide background noise at many New Year's Eve parties
MUSIC CITY: Clemson vs. Georgia
- This game would sell out at either campus but who knows if the Nashville stadium is half-filled for a bowl game
LIBERTY: Central Florida vs. Tennessee
- The Volunteers get here if they beat Kentucky for 150th straight season
ALAMO: Arizona vs. Texas A&M
- Now that the Alamo Bowl moved up the pecking order, everybody will remember it next year
HOLIDAY: Missouri vs. Washington
- It's possible Washington could be the Pac-10's fourth and final bowl team. Yuck
PINSTRIPE: Kansas State vs. Notre Dame
- A city so nice, the Irish will play there twice
CHAMPS: Florida State vs. Syracuse
- Plenty of Syracuse grads live in Florida (as do FSU alums)
MEINEKE: North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh
- Nice turnaround for the Tar Heels after losing several NFL-caliber players earlier this season; as for Pitt, well, how did you drop this far?
SUN: Miami (Fla.) vs. Texas Tech (Pac-10 fill-in)
- Nice landing spot for the Sun and Texas Tech
BBVA COMPASS: UConn vs. Kentucky
- More people would watch if it was a basketball game
LAS VEGAS: TCU vs. Nevada (Pac-10 fill-in)
- TCU lands here if it doesn't gain a BCS spot; it would be too bad if the Horned Frogs face a 7-5 non-BCS patsy instead
LITTLE CAESAR'S: Toledo vs. Miami (Ohio) (Big Ten fill-in)
- Toledo is basically a Detroit suburb, and these teams did not play this year
KRAFT: BYU vs. Northern Illinois (Pac-10 fill-in)
- BYU would replace Nevada, if the Wolfpack move to the Las Vegas Bowl
GODADDY: Temple vs. Troy
- I'm sure somebody will watch it for the commercials alone
ARMED FORCES: UTEP vs. Army (Mountain West fill-in)
- It's only fitting that one of military academies play in the Armed Forces Bowl
MILITARY: Maryland vs. East Carolina
- Pretty much a home game for the Terrapins
INDEPENDENCE: Georgia Tech vs. Air Force
- Every old-school Wing-T coach will beam with pride that their offense is making a return
HAWAII: Hawaii vs. Tulsa
- Why can't the Big Ten make this is a mid-level bowl?
POINSETTIA: San Diego State vs. Navy
- This game should draw a crowd in San Diego with probably a 50-50 split
ST. PETERSBURG: South Florida vs. Southern Miss
- Will the bowl turnout exceed the Rays' average attendance this year?
NEW ORLEANS: SMU vs. Florida International
- If you squint your eyes and hum, it's the Sugar Bowl
HUMANITARIAN: Ohio vs. Idaho
- Which one of these states grow corn again?
NEW MEXICO: Utah vs. Fresno State
- Winning teams receive Steve Alford's autograph