After a week's worth of thinking and conversing with others on the subject of Oregon’s chances for a Bowl Championship Series berth, here's an attempt to distill it all into a coherent summary.
First and foremost: The BCS is a longshot, as far as Oregon is concerned. By far the most likely end point to all of this is San Antonio, for the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30, against a Big 12 opponent -- probably Oklahoma.
The Ducks had chances to control their destiny, lost them, and so suffer the fate of relying on others for help. Furthermore, that help involves a couple of upsets. Not massive upsets, but upsets none the less.
So, again, keep in mind that the most likely scenario puts Oregon in the Alamo Bowl -- like, a 90 percent chance, off the top of my head (it’s actually closer to 95 under the following scenario, I’m told by a math guy). I can't see the Alamo folks picking three-loss Stanford or ASU ahead of the Ducks, following the Pac-12 title game. (It's possible, though, which would put Oregon in the Holiday Bowl, or even the Sun Bowl.)
Now, to the meat of this post: whom to root for this weekend if you're holding out hope for the BCS. That's pretty simple in my opinion.
On Friday, Bowling Green over Northern Illinois in the MAC championship.
On Saturday, Texas over Baylor.
Also Saturday, Oklahoma State over Oklahoma.
If those three results all go that way, the Ducks have a strong -- though not certain -- case for an at-large bid, perhaps to the Sugar Bowl. But it has to be all three.
All of that is based on a few assumptions. (Here's where things get a little wordy. OK, a lot wordy. But there are a lot of moving parts here.)
Assumption No. 1) The SEC is going to get two of the 10 BCS bids. This is a no-brainer. The winner of the Auburn-Mizzou conference title game is in, and Alabama is a lock for an at-large bid. Mark it down.
(If you want a rooting interest in the title game, go with Auburn. That way a 2011 BCS title game rematch becomes a selling point, if the Tigers are in the Sugar Bowl and it's between Oregon and somebody else to face them.)
Assumption No. 2) The Big Ten is going to get two bids. Ohio State is a lock for one. And I think Michigan State is as well. Either MSU will upset Ohio State on Saturday, and go to the Rose Bowl with Ohio State being an at-large team, or Ohio State will win and make the BCS title game, and Michigan State will be an at-large pick.
If Ohio State makes the title game, the Rose Bowl will want to preserve a matchup between the Big Ten and Pac-12, and will have no problem with an 11-2 Michigan State team as an at-large pick. Even if Ohio State somehow is passed up for a title game shot and is relegated to the Rose Bowl, the Spartans will be attractive to the Orange and Sugar bowls, because of their large, passionate fan base.
I know there's some hope Michigan State could get blown out Saturday and fall out of the top 14 (thus being ineligible for an at-large slot) but I just don't see that happening. Neither the computers nor poll voters will ding them that bad for a loss to the second-ranked Buckeyes, even if it's one-sided. It's not just the number of spots in the standings they'd have to fall, but how much their BCS average (between the human polls and computer rankings) would have to suffer to fall that many spots. It would have to be massive, and that's extremely unlikely.
(By all means, though, root for Ohio State on Saturday. If the Buckeyes lose, the Big Ten is a slam dunk to get two teams in. If they win, and Michigan State is relegated to the at-large pool, it's no longer a slam dunk. It's still a wide-open, nobody-back-on-defense layup, but not a slam dunk.)
Assumption No. 3) Right now this looks most questionable, but I’m sticking by it … The ACC is going to get two bids. Most likely they will be No. 1 Florida State to the title game, and then Clemson to the Orange Bowl, preserving historic ties between the ACC and that game. South Carolina's win over Clemson last weekend was helpful, but not helpful enough, as Clemson didn't fall out of the top 14, and doesn't seem likely to at this point.
If by some freak circumstance Duke beats Florida State this weekend, and the Blue Devils qualify as ACC champs (making my North Carolina-grad wife apoplectic), the Seminoles will be a slam-dunk at-large pick. Either way, that's two ACC teams in the 10 BCS slots. (Still, just to be safe, go ahead and root for Florida State anyway. My wife will thank you, if nothing else.)
Yes, Clemson is publicly politicking for the Orange Bowl, which casts some doubt after their poor showing at the ticket window two years ago. And the bowl organizers seem to be telegraphing some uncertainty, too. There's no doubt an Oregon-Alabama matchup would be very attractive nationally, perhaps attractive enough to get the Ducks to Miami.
But ultimately, the safer assumption is that tradition wins out. Keep in mind that the ACC champ will still play in the Orange Bowl under the new College Football Playoff format beginning next season, when that game isn’t part of the playoff bracket. So that relationship is one both sides will want to preserve.
(You're not hearing about Oregon being a Fiesta Bowl candidate because that's all but impossible. The Fiesta Bowl will get the Big 12 champ and then has the last pick of at-large teams. That will be either Northern Illinois, if they win Friday, or Central Florida, the presumed AAC champ.)
Anyway, bottom line, the 10 BCS slots are almost certain to be filled by the six AQ conference champs (most likely Florida State, Ohio State, Central Florida, Oklahoma State, the Auburn-Mizzou winner and the Stanford-ASU winner) plus second teams from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten (most likely Alabama, Clemson and Michigan State).
That leaves one precious slot. Left to battle it out for that one are Northern Illinois, a second Big 12 team and a second Pac-12 team -- in that order, unofficially.
If Northern Illinois wins Friday, they'll finish both within the top 16 of the BCS standings and ahead of an AQ conference champ (Central Florida). By rule, they would qualify automatically for that 10th and final slot.
If Bowling Green upsets Northern Illinois -- and that figures to be a great game -- then the Big 12 has the best chance of getting the last slot. Should Baylor beat Texas, it will finish 11-1, and it will be very, very hard to justify passing up the Bears.
But it's not enough for the Ducks simply to root for the Longhorns (a 15-point underdog, it's worth noting). Because if Baylor loses and Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State, not only does Texas backdoor its way into the BCS as Big 12 champs, but the Cowboys and Sooners would both be 10-2, just like Oregon. Oklahoma in particular, with its tradition and fanbase, would be in strong position for at-large consideration ahead of the Ducks.
Better, then, to have Oklahoma State win and clinch the Big 12's automatic bid, and have Texas drop Baylor to 10-2. Other potential scenarios involving Oregon and fellow 10-2 teams (Clemson, Oklahoma) aren't as favorable for the Ducks, but it's reasonable to think a bowl would be inclined to pick Oregon over Baylor if each is 10-2.
(Caveat: Under the new playoff format, the Big 12 champ will go to the Sugar Bowl in years that game isn’t part of the playoff bracket. So politics could lead to Baylor being picked ahead of Oregon for that reason. But that’s not nearly as strong a tie as the ACC-Orange dynamic.)
So there you have it. Root for Bowling Green, Texas and Oklahoma State. If all three win, it’s possible Oregon would face the SEC champ in the Sugar Bowl. Also, hold out hope an Alabama-Oregon matchup proves too enticing for the Orange Bowl to pass up.
But keep those reservations for San Antonio, too.