Is the king dead ... or just on life support?
Alabama's 29-24 home loss to Texas A&M leaves the SEC on the outside looking in at the BCS championship game for the first time since 2005, with No. 2 Kansas State, No. 3 Oregon, and No. 4 Notre Dame all poised to move into the BCS top 3 if they can win their late-Saturday matchups against TCU, Cal, and Boston College, respectively. With no SEC team ranked higher than No. 4 and less than a month left in the season, is there any way for the league to sneak into the top 2 and extend its six-season streak of BCS titles?
There is, and it might not even take the kind of Iowa State-over-Oklahoma State shocker that vaulted Alabama into their rematch with LSU last season. But it will take more than one result that on-paper doesn't look all that likely.
That's one thing it looks safe to rule out: Alabama or Georgia -- which could take over as the BCS standings' top-ranked one-loss team with an upset of the Tide in the SEC Championship Game -- won't vault over the three undefeated teams at the top of the standings without help. Among Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame, two of them must lose for an SEC team to make the BCS top 2.
Maybe in another season an SEC champion like Alabama could make a claim over even an undefeated Pac-12 or Big 12 champion, but this doesn't seem to be that season. Oregon hasn't played a strenuous schedule but has been walloping opponents left and right and seems to have the trust of the pollsters. The Wildcats have faced a fairly rigorous slate and have been nearly as dominant. The Irish have faced the most difficult schedule of all, making up for their numerous close calls. If Oregon had been squeaking by its opponents, or the Big 12 wasn't as strong as it is, or the Irish weren't the Irish, maybe the Tide could persuade enough voters that a one-loss SEC champion should get the nod over an undefeated "other" BCS league champ or Notre Dame ... but as it stands, the Tide simply doesn't seem to be in position to make that push in 2012.
(It won't help their cause that the Tide has been outplayed two weeks in a row, surviving LSU by the skin of the Tigers' red-zone woes' teeth and only narrowly outgaining A&M while losing the turnover battle 3-0.)
All of which means the Tide needs losses from two of the teams ahead of them. A look at their remaining schedules, in BCS order:
No. 2 KANSAS STATE: at Baylor, vs. Texas. The bad news for the Wildcats is even after surviving their trip to TCU Saturday, there's still two more legitimate hurdles to clear before wrapping up a perfect 12-0 season and BCS title berth. The Bears have the nation's No. 1 offense and could explode for 40-plus points anytime against anyone, and are usually better at home; the Longhorns have looked like a different team the last two weeks after thumping Iowa State on Saturday, and will be the most talented team top-to-bottom the Wildcats will face all season.
Still, the Bears haven't ever shown the kind of defense necessary to challenge the Wildcats, and Texas hasn't made a habit of winning games like "at No. 2 Kansas State" of late. Nonetheless, neither is anywhere near a gimme -- and Texas could be the strongest team on any of the three's remaining schedules.
Arbitrary guess at odds of Kansas State loss: 1-in-4
No. 3 OREGON: vs. Stanford, at Oregon State, home for Pac-12 championship game. Assuming a win at Cal, the Ducks probably couldn't draw up a tougher closing pair of games: at home against a Stanford team whose pounding run game has caused them fits in the past, and at a bitter rival that's 7-2 in a bounce-back season and would like nothing more than to upset the Ducks' apple cart.
The Ducks still haven't even been seriously challenged in the Pac-12, though, and if the Cardinal and Beavers each have their strengths, neither has come close to flashing the kind of offensive firepower needed to hang in in the inevitable shootout. As with Kansas State, neither of these is a certain win, but Oregon should make the Pac-12 title game unbeaten. Once there, with the BCS berth on the line, will anyone expect them to lose at home to either UCLA or a USC team they've already hung 60 on once?
Arbitrary guess at odds of Oregon loss: 1-in-5
No. 4 NOTRE DAME: vs. Wake Forest, at USC. Finally, a game one of these teams can take for granted -- the Demon Deacons lost 37-6 to NC State on Saturday and shouldn't be able to hang around for more than a half at Notre Dame Stadium. But the Trojans are a different matter. For all of their troubles in 2012, USC still represents by far the most dangerous offense the Irish have faced, and will be bound and determined to make up for their disappointing season by ruining Notre Dame's.
The silver lining is the Irish have been outstanding on the road this season -- 4-0 (assuming an Irish win over Boston College) and 2-0 at neutral sites -- and at this point, it's silly arguing the Trojans are anything other than what they are, i.e., a good-but-not-great upper-tier Pac-12 team.
Arbitrary guess at odds of Notre Dame loss: 1-in-3
Put it all together, and there's enough uncertainty to assume that one of the above teams will lose. But will the Tide (or the Bulldogs) get the second loss they need?
The answer here is No. There are still plenty of difficult games left on the above schedules ... but none that screams "that's the one they'll lose." Again: if this is any other season where there are only two teams on this list, the Tide could be much more confident about their chances. But without any of the three having a bordering-on-probable loss left, it's long odds.
Which means that when all is said and done, Texas A&M should prove to be the team that finally pushed the SEC off its perch atop the college football world.