Before the Southeastern Conference's unprecedented run of seven straight crystal footballs, America's top college football conferences basically were considered equal.
Once Florida and LSU decimated Ohio State in a pair of Bowl Championship Series title games in 2006-07, the narrative was set. The SEC became the unquestioned kingpin of college football, and the Big Ten was its whipping boy. Throw in a mediocre ACC, a pair of title-game losses by the Big 12 and a grounded high-flying offense from the Pac-12 in 2010, and the SEC solidified its case as the sport's absolute ruler.
First among equals, the SEC gained that right. In 2011 the SEC won the national argument that its one-loss divisional runner-up (Alabama) was more deserving than a Big 12 champion (Oklahoma State) that lost in double overtime on the road at a bowl team. Last year the SEC's one-loss league champion (Alabama) trumped all other one-loss teams (Oregon, Kansas State) in the BCS title-game race as well. There was no Big Ten argument because unbeaten Ohio State was ineligible. All was good in SEC land.
This year is different. When Auburn shocked Alabama on Saturday, it set the stage for the greatest debate in college football history. Should a once-beaten SEC champion trump an unbeaten champion from a fellow automatic conference simply because it's from the SEC? Does the league's inarguable prowess and tradition (plus a consistent dose of braggadocios) automatically give it a birthright for a BCS title shot? We're about to find out.
Auburn Athletics Director Jay Jacobs began a public relations war over the weekend calling his team's (or Missouri's) potential exclusion from a BCS title game "a disservice" to college football. In an ESPN interview he called it "un-American" if an SEC champion doesn't qualify for the BCS. His target is No. 2-ranked Ohio State, which has won 24 straight games.
Auburn has a big, fat 35-21 loss to LSU from earlier in the season. Headline News' "Rivalry Express" was there, so it's documented. LSU finished 9-3 and struggled to beat 3-9 Arkansas in the season finale. Aside from its impressive win against Alabama, Auburn blew a 37-17 fourth-quarter lead against Georgia and needed a miracle to pull out the victory.
There's no doubt Auburn produced the season's two most exciting and riveting finishes and the nation's greatest turnaround from 3-9 to 11-1. But should a national overreaction to incredible finishes, a monumental reversal in fortune and competing in the nation's best conference vault Auburn over an unbeaten league champion? Should we all overlook the LSU loss because, hot damn, it's the SEC?
Ohio State has no such blemish. It survived on the road 42-41 at its biggest rival, a 7-5 Michigan squad that clearly played over its head. But how is that any different from Auburn completing a shocking 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 against an equally middling Georgia squad?
As for body of work, Auburn beat 6-6 Mississippi State on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left and rallied past 6-6 Washington State for a 31-24 win. Only Michigan and 9-3 Wisconsin (31-24) played within a score of Ohio State this year. Auburn had six such games.
But the SEC is better, right? Against BCS opponents this year (along with Notre Dame and BYU), the SEC was 11-7 while the Big Ten finished 10-8. There was only one game between the leagues, and 11-1 Missouri beat 5-7 Indiana 45-28. Over the last 10 years, the SEC owns a 16-13 bowl record against the Big Ten. They'll compete against one another at least three times this bowl season.
Missouri has posted its own terrific turnaround from 5-7 to 11-1. Not too bad for a squad nobody thought could make the transition from the Big 12 and compete in the SEC. Missouri has perhaps a better argument than Auburn. Its only loss was in overtime to 10-2 South Carolina. But both Missouri and Auburn have the same problem: one loss. Ohio State and Florida State are unbeaten; the SEC powers that were a combined 8-16 in 2012 are not.
If Ohio State or Florida State slips up this weekend, which is certainly possible for Ohio State against Michigan State, then the SEC champ deserves a shot at the BCS title. The SEC has earned "first among equals" chair at the BCS table. Next year in a four-team playoff, the SEC will have a virtual automatic bid to the final four. But the current system rewards perfection. If the SEC believes it owns a birthright to the BCS title game, regardless of the designated criteria, college officials should have mandated the league an automatic title slot before the season. But of course that didn't happen.
Why? Because that would be un-American and a true disservice to college football.
BCS CHAMPIONSHIP -- Florida State vs. Ohio State
ROSE -- Michigan State vs. Arizona State
ORANGE -- Clemson vs. Alabama
SUGAR -- Missouri vs. Central Floirda
FIESTA -- Oklahoma State vs. Northern Illinois
CAPITAL ONE -- Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
OUTBACK -- Iowa vs. LSU
BUFFALO WILD WINGS -- Nebraska vs. Texas
GATOR -- Michigan vs. Georgia
TEXAS -- Minnesota vs. Texas Tech
COTTON -- Auburn vs. Baylor
PEACH -- Texas A&M vs. Duke
MUSIC CITY -- Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech
LIBERTY -- Vanderbilt vs. Rice
COMPASS -- Mississippi State vs. Syracuse (American replacement)
INDEPENDENCE -- Pittsburgh vs. Oregon State (SEC replacement)
HEART OF DALLAS -- North Texas vs. Arizona (Big Ten replacement)
LITTLE CAESAR'S -- Toledo vs. Maryland (Big Ten replacement)
ALAMO -- Oregon vs. Oklahoma
HOLIDAY -- USC vs. Kansas State
PINSTRIPE -- Houston vs. Notre Dame (Big 12 replacement)
RUSSELL -- Louisville vs. Miami
SUN -- Stanford vs. Virginia Tech
BELK -- Cincinnati vs. North Carolina
MILITARY -- Marshall vs. Boston College
LAS VEGAS -- UCLA vs. Fresno State
KRAFT -- Washington vs. BYU
NEW MEXICO -- Washington State vs. Colorado State
BEEF O'BRADY -- Middle Tennessee State vs. Western Kentucky (American replacement)
POINSETTIA -- Utah State vs. Ball State (Army replacement)
HAWAII -- East Carolina vs. San Diego State
POTATO -- Boise State vs. Buffalo
ARMED FORCES -- Navy vs. UNLV
GODADDY -- Bowling Green vs. Arkansas State
NEW ORLEANS -- Tulane vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey recorded 11 tackles, including three for loss, forced a fumble and deflected a pass. ... Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson threw six touchdown passes and compiled 428 yards of total offense. ... Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen registered 13 tackles, including two for loss, and three quarterback hurries. ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner threw for 451 yards and four TDs. ... Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde ran for 226 yards and a TD.
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah ran 23 times for 85 yards and a score. ... Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis caught 12 passes for 135 yards. ... Purdue quarterback Danny Etling threw for 485 yards and four touchdowns. ... Minnesota linebacker James Manuel had eight tackles, including a sack. ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns. ...Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns. ... Illinois wide receiver Steve Hull caught 13 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown.
Man this football season flew by and everybody's arms are tired
1. Ohio State (1) 12-0 8-0
- Here's you chance Buckeyes, now do something with it
2. Michigan State (3) 11-1 8-0
- Boasts league's best defense and won every league game by double digits
3. Wisconsin (2) 9-3 6-2
- A disappointing loss with so much at stake for Badgers and Big Ten
4. Iowa (5) 8-4 5-3
- Four losses were to opponents who are a combined 44-4
5. Minnesota (6) 8-4 4-4
- We'll know next year if Gophers are ready to compete for league title
6. Nebraska (4) 8-4 5-3
- Each of its four losses came by double digits
7. Penn State (7) 7-5 4-4
- Once this program gets out of NCAA purgatory, watch out ... if Bill O'Brien is still the coach
8. Michigan (8) 7-5 3-5
- Where was this offensive performance every other week this season?
9. Northwestern (9) 5-7 1-7
- Not sure there's a team this millennium with more hard luck than this year's Wildcats
10. Indiana (10) 5-7 3-5
- No excuses for not reaching a bowl game this year
11. Illinois (11) 4-8 1-7
- Season started with such promise and has little show for it
12. Purdue (12) 1-11 0-8
- Tough year was expected; offseason very important for Coach Darrell Hazell
- Michigan State 11-1 8-0
- Iowa 8-4 5-3
- Nebraska 8-4 5-3
- Minnesota 8-4 4-4
- Michigan 7-5 3-5
- Northwestern 5-7 1-7
- Ohio State 12-0 8-0
- Wisconsin 9-3 6-2
- Penn State 7-5 4-4
- Indiana 5-7 3-5
- Illinois 4-8 1-7
- Purdue 1-11 0-8
- Iowa 38, Nebraska 17 (Friday)
- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41
- Michigan State 14, Minnesota 3
- Penn State 31, Wisconsin 24
- Indiana 56, Purdue 36
- Northwestern 37, Illinois 34
- Michigan State vs. Ohio State, 7:17 p.m. Saturday (Fox)