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
ROSE: Wisconsin vs. Stanford
SUGAR: Auburn vs. Ohio State
ORANGE: Virginia Tech vs. Alabama
FIESTA: Nebraska vs. West Virginia
CAPITAL ONE: Michigan State vs. LSU
Penn State vs. Florida
GATOR: Michigan vs. South Carolina
INSIGHT: Iowa vs. Oklahoma State
TEXAS: Illinois vs. Texas
TICKET CITY: Northwestern vs. Baylor
COTTON: Oklahoma vs. Arkansas
PEACH (OK, Chik-fil-A): North Carolina State vs. Mississippi State
MUSIC CITY: Clemson vs. Georgia
LIBERTY: Central Florida vs. Tennessee
ALAMO: Arizona vs. Texas A&M
HOLIDAY: Missouri vs. Washington
PINSTRIPE: Kansas State vs. Notre Dame
CHAMPS: Florida State vs. Syracuse
MEINEKE: North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh
SUN: Miami (Fla.) vs. Texas Tech (Pac-10 fill-in)
BBVA COMPASS: UConn vs. Kentucky
LAS VEGAS: TCU vs. Nevada (Pac-10 fill-in)
LITTLE CAESAR'S: Toledo vs. Miami (Ohio) (Big Ten fill-in)
KRAFT: BYU vs. Northern Illinois (Pac-10 fill-in)
GODADDY: Temple vs. Troy
ARMED FORCES: UTEP vs. Army (Mountain West fill-in)
MILITARY: Maryland vs. East Carolina
INDEPENDENCE: Georgia Tech vs. Air Force
HAWAII: Hawaii vs. Tulsa
POINSETTIA: San Diego State vs. Navy
ST. PETERSBURG: South Florida vs. Southern Miss
NEW ORLEANS: SMU vs. Florida International
HUMANITARIAN: Ohio vs. Idaho
NEW MEXICO: Utah vs. Fresno State