College football’s BCS race comes down to the wire, with Ohio State and Auburn on the outside looking in


Carlos Hyde and Ohio State might be left out of the BCS title game even if they go undefeated. (Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports)

It’s the day Ohio State fans have been anticipating: Rivalry Saturday and its chance to move into the national championship picture.

The unbeaten Buckeyes are stuck at No. 3 in the AP and coaches’ polls and in the BCS standings because of a weaker-than-usual schedule in the weaker-than-usual Big Ten. On Saturday, they need to beat Michigan decisively and hope Florida beats also unbeaten Florida State (unlikely given that the Gators lost to FCS Georgia Southern last weekend) or that Auburn beats unbeaten Alabama (less unlikely but possible given the Tigers’ amazing run since losing to LSU in September). Auburn sits just one spot behind Ohio State in the BCS standings, waiting for a chance to pounce.

The Buckeyes (and Tigers, for that matter) need someone ahead of them to lose, and it doesn’t appear the Seminoles will oblige, at least not this weekend. That leaves the Iron Bowl, where Alabama and Auburn — programs that plain don’t like each other — will clash.

The good news is some of this desperation will be gone after this season. The bad news is some of the drama will go with it — or, rather, that drama will drop to teams ranked fifth, sixth and seventh, knocking on the door of the Top 4.

A year from now we’ll have a playoff — the aptly if boringly named College Football Playoff — and the top four teams will play two semifinals before the national title game determines the college football champion.

This year is a perfect example of the necessity of a playoff. Assuming everyone who is undefeated stays undefeated through this weekend and then in the conference championship games, that leaves three teams with perfect records for two slots. (Actually, we could have four unbeaten teams, but Northern Illinois doesn’t have a shot at the top four, much less the top two.)

Next year, the playoffs — as of today’s BCS rankings — would include Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Auburn. Not bad.

However, that’s next year. This year, Ohio State has to root for losses or at least very poor performances by Alabama and Florida State. The Buckeyes have to win impressively in the Big House, then pummel Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. And that still might not be enough.

But what happens if Auburn upsets Alabama? The Tigers have come on strong since the LSU loss, and by virtue of playing in the SEC, their strength of schedule is going to be tougher than Ohio State’s or Florida State’s. This is the big “what if?” of the weekend. Could the Tigers leapfrog into the national title game if Florida State or Ohio State loses a game?

This year, that answer would be determined largely by computers. Next year, humans will have more of a say in the form of a panel that will help determine the top four teams with the help of statistics — but not a reliance only on statistics. The computer rankings — not the media or coaches’ poll — are seen as unbiased. Computers have no feelings. There are biases among voters on both polls and some coaches who admit they hand off their voting responsibility to underlings. That’s the human element but perhaps not the best example of it.

A panel can take into account all the computer-generated data but also the intangibles. One of these is the unfairness of the early-season polls. Teams that begin the season ranked lower than they should have been find it difficult to climb the poll to one of the premier spots. For instance, Utah began the 2008 season unranked but went undefeated and finished second in the final AP poll. But the Utes, the only unbeaten FBS team in the nation in 2008, could not ascend higher than No. 6 in the BCS standings. Utah also went undefeated in 2004, but partly because they began the season ranked 20th in the preseason AP poll and 21st in the coaches’ poll, the Utes got no higher than sixth in the BCS.

Preseason polls are really pretty worthless in football and basketball, but only in football can they have a detrimental effect on your future and essentially put a team out of the running for the top spots.

Why have preseason polls? They are based on the previous year’s performance and . . . what? Spring games? Why not hold off until, say, Week 4? That way voters are basing their choices on something. The BCS doesn’t start its rankings until Week 9.

This year’s preseason polls both had Alabama as No. 1 and, ironically, Ohio State as No. 2. The Buckeyes remained unbeaten and, on two occasions this season, managed to fall two spots — again, on strength of schedule and the nationwide infatuation with programs like Oregon and Baylor, who do put on a good show. And Auburn? Auburn was unranked after a 3-9 season in 2012 but managed to claw its way to No. 4 in the BCS standings. (Gus Malzahn has to be coach of the year, right?) But this year, No. 4 — or No. 3 — is not enough. So let Rivalry Weekend begin.

For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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