No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) remains atop the BCS standings and will play for the national title after defeating Southern California this weekend to finish the regular season with an undefeated record for the first time since 1988. The Fighting Irish’s opponent, meanwhile, will come from the Southeastern Conference, winners of the past six BCS championship games.
Both No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia maintained their spots in the rankings after blowout victories in rivalry games Saturday and they will face one another in next week’s SEC championship game in Atlanta with a spot in the national championship game on the line.
The matchup will pit the country’s two highest-rated passers — Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s AJ McCarron — and ensures the SEC’s six-year reign atop college football will end only if its champion loses to Notre Dame on Jan. 7 in Miami.
But backed by a suffocating defense, the Fighting Irish will be no pushover for either foe they draw. Notre Dame has gone without a blemish facing an SEC-caliber schedule that featured nine teams with bowl-eligible records.
“We have the pressure at Notre Dame to win every week and I think what we’ve done for them is allowed them to play the game the way you should play it,” Coach Brian Kelly said after potential BCS chaos was averted when his team got past the Trojans with a dramatic goal line stand late Saturday night.
Though the final weekend of the season will be without high drama outside of the SEC title game, it doesn’t mean the 2012 regular season will come to a close without some controversy. One-loss teams such as No. 5 Oregon and No. 6 Kansas State, which plays No. 18 Texas in its regular season finale on Saturday night, could each make cases to play for a national championship over the SEC champion (Georgia won the SEC’s East division by virtue of its win over No. 4 Florida last month).
But neither will play in a conference championship game next weekend and it’s no coincidence that, a year after two SEC teams played for the BCS championship, the league is getting the benefit of the doubt again. The spotlight provided by the SEC championship game has factored into the league’s six-year reign as college football’s best conference.
“Having that one extra game against a quality opponent has made the difference in differentiating them from other teams that have same number of losses,” ESPN BCS expert Brad Edwards said last week. “I think the SEC championship game is a big reason why the SEC has dominated the BCS era the way that it is has.”
There will, however, always be a large “what if” that hangs over this season. Ohio State, ranked No. 4 in the latest AP poll, ended the year with a 12-0 record. After the Buckeyes capped off their undefeated campaign by beating rival Michigan on Saturday, first-year Coach Urban Meyer proclaimed his team “can go and play with anybody in the country.”
But Ohio State is serving a one-year bowl ban as a result of NCAA sanctions related to the end of former coach Jim Tressel’s tenure, and it has left many to ponder whether the Buckeyes would have merited BCS championship game consideration over a one-loss SEC champion by self-imposing a postseason ban in 2011 rather than accept a bid to the Gator Bowl with a 6-6 record.
“At the time we made the decision, we felt confident that we would not receive the bowl ban,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith told reporters earlier this week. “Obviously, when we received it we were shocked and devastated.”
That, though, mattered little to the two coaches that could end up benefiting from Ohio State’s decision. All they were concerned with was an SEC clash that will set the stage for college football’s biggest game.
“That’s something exciting to think about,” Georgia Coach Mark Richt said when asked about the prospect of making the BCS championship game. “But again, SEC championships are hard to come by.”