Nothing would be more fitting than for the BCS’s final seasons to be mired in controversy. With a month left, college football could be headed right down that road, with four undefeated powers – Alabama, Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon – on a collision course with BCS chaos. At the moment, it looks like perfect material for a four-team playoff, the event we’ll get starting with the 2014 season. For now, we’re stuck with the current system, and while chaos is a strong possibility if three or four of those teams finish undefeated, it’s also possible that the BCS will luck into an ideal situation with two distinguished undefeateds, like 2005’s memorable Texas-USC game. As October ends and we move into the home stretch of November, let’s pause to take stock of the national title race and rank the contenders.
Top 10 wins: None
Top 25 wins: Mississippi State
Solid wins: Michigan, at Missouri, Ole Miss, at Tennessee
Irrelevant wins: at Arkansas, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky
Remaining schedule: at No. 5 LSU, No. 16 Texas A&M, Western Carolina, Auburn
Conference championship game: Yes; in Atlanta, likely vs. Georgia
Why They’ll Win the National Title: Alabama is a powerful, well-oiled machine. It’s trailed for a total of 15 seconds this year -- vs. Ole Miss -- and immediately rectified that anomaly by returning the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. A.J. McCarron has yet to throw an interception. Barrett Jones anchors one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon form a brilliant one-two punch at running back. The defense is rock solid as ever despite losing a ridiculous amount of talent to the NFL last April, ranking No. 1 nationally against the run, against the pass and in points allowed (8.1 points per game, frequently allowed in garbage time). Nick Saban is the best coach in the country. And on and on and on. What more do you want?
Why They Won’t: Alabama hasn’t played a top-10 caliber team yet, so while it’s blown out decent opponents – there’s something to be said for leaving no doubt against the teams you’re supposed to beat – it still hasn’t been adequately tested. The biggest test will finally come this Saturday in Baton Rouge against LSU, although the Tigers’ offense doesn’t look any better than the one that couldn’t cross the 50 against Bama in last January’s BCS Championship.
Predicted Finish: 13-0. One recipe for a championship: great coaching, a mistake-free offense, a big and athletic defense. LSU doesn’t have the offense to beat Alabama, the Iron Bowl will be over before kickoff and, while Georgia’s defense could give the Tide some trouble in the SEC Championship game if it plays like it did against Florida, the Bulldogs have rarely looked dominant as a whole this year. Alabama’s won two of the last three national titles, and until proven otherwise it’s the favorite for a third in four years.
Top 10 wins: None
Top 25 wins: Arizona
Solid wins: at Arizona State, Washington
Irrelevant wins: Arkansas State, Colorado, Fresno State, Tennessee Tech, at Washington State
Remaining schedule: at No. 17 USC, at California, No. 14 Stanford, at No. 11 Oregon State
Conference championship game: Yes; at home site of team with best record, so likely at home vs. USC, UCLA or Arizona
Why They’ll Win the National Title: This is Chip Kelly’s best team, better than the one edged by Auburn in the national title game two years ago. Freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota is a perfect fit for the fastest offense in football, with more explosiveness and better passing ability than his predecessor, Darron Thomas. Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas form the most explosive tandem of running backs in the country. And, while deemed a slight liability heading into the season, the defense is also Kelly’s best. It hasn’t been tested much, but it did shut out Arizona’s high-powered attack that just scored 39 on USC, and it only needs to be decent, given that the offense scores 53.4 points per game despite taking its foot off the gas in the second half almost every week.
Why They Won’t: It would be easy to point to Mariota’s freshman status, and it’s true that he has yet to be tested by a great defense. He’ll face challenges from USC and Oregon State and especially Stanford, so we’ll see. But he’s done nothing to make us doubt his ability. The real problem for Oregon will be once it gets to the national title game, if it gets there. Oregon can score on anyone; how will it fare against a physical and fast Alabama defense with more than a month for Nick Saban to prepare?
Predicted Finish: 13-0. Through two months, the Ducks have played the easiest schedule among the top contenders. However, they can boost their resume significantly down the stretch with games against USC, Stanford and Oregon State, plus a Pac-12 title game. The trip to Los Angeles remains difficult, but this is the most complete and explosive Oregon team we’ve seen, and the Ducks can wear down the Trojans. Alabama and Oregon are the two teams least likely to get upset, and we’ll stick with our preseason prediction of those two at the top, although I reserve the right to change my mind about who will win.
3. Kansas State
Top 10 wins: None
Top 25 wins: at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, at West Virginia
Solid wins: at Iowa State, Miami
Irrelevant wins: Kansas, Missouri State, North Texas
Remaining schedule: No. 24 Oklahoma State, at TCU, at Baylor, No. 23 Texas
Conference championship game: No
Why They’ll Win the National Title: Bill Snyder is a coaching wizard, a man who put the other Manhattan on the football map. What was once arguably the worst major program in America has become a national title contender in two different Snyder eras (1998 behind QB Michael Bishop, and this year behind Collin Klein). Klein is a fantastic QB, a Tebow/Newton type with power running ability in the red zone and improved passing skills, and he has a bullish running mate in 5-foot-7 running back John Hubert, who packs a punch with his compact build and runs over defenders. Throw in a defense that has improved all season led by linebacker Arthur Brown, and Kansas State is a smart, efficient team that doesn’t make mistakes.
Why They Won’t: There’s still reason to be concerned about the Wildcats if they find themselves in a hole, which of course hasn’t really happened yet. Klein has undoubtedly improved as a passer, but this team isn’t built to play from behind. It’s built to control the clock, run the ball all day, force turnovers (fifth in turnover margin) and make opponents beat themselves.
Predicted Finish: 11-1. Kansas State doesn’t have to worry about a conference title game, which means one less chance for a loss but also one less chance to pad the resume with a win against a quality opponent. The guess here is that the Wildcats, who can’t match the overall talent of Alabama and Oregon, slip up once in November. While the attention this Saturday night will be on USC-Oregon and Alabama-LSU, the biggest news may happen as Oklahoma State visits Kansas State.
4. Notre Dame
Top 10 wins: None
Top 25 wins: at Oklahoma, Stanford
Solid wins: BYU, Miami, Michigan, at Michigan State
Irrelevant wins: Navy, Purdue
Remaining schedule: Pittsburgh, at Boston College, Wake Forest, at No. 17 USC
Conference championship game: No
Why They’ll Win the National Title: Alabama may have the only defense better than Notre Dame. Manti Te’o deservedly gets most of the attention – he’s the vocal leader, leads in tackles every week, has five interceptions, etc. – but the entire front seven has been dominant, especially tackle Stephon Tuitt (eight sacks). Notre Dame has been so dominant that it went more than a month without allowing an offensive touchdown and still hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in a game. Nobody can run against the Irish, and nobody can sustain drives. Offensively, the Fighting Irish are inconsistent, but the running game has found life with an LSU-like rotation featuring Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III.
Why They Won’t: The offense is easily the worst of the top four teams, even with a solid running game and a weapon at tight end in Tyler Eifert. Everett Golson has mostly been decent at quarterback, but he’s a freshman who occasionally struggles to protect the ball. And while backup Tommy Rees has been praised for his ability as a “closer” this year, let’s be realistic: He’s led a couple nice drives, but he was a turnover machine last year, and there’s a reason he’s not starting this year. Defensively, again, this unit is one of the nation’s best, but a good passing team could do some damage to the secondary, which makes the season finale against USC potentially interesting, if USC’s line can actually handle Notre Dame’s defensive front.
Predicted Finish: 11-1. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Notre Dame suffer a scare against Pitt but win, cruise against Boston College and Wake Forest, and then see its undefeated season ruined in the last game at USC. A certain segment of pollsters would surely love to bump up Notre Dame, but Oregon and Kansas State both have stronger finishing schedules. Notre Dame gets praised for its scheduling, but unfortunately many of the strong games – Michigan and Michigan State, especially – don’t look as good as once thought. As asked Sunday, can you imagine a national title game that leaves out undefeated Notre Dame? It’s a real possibility, but the bet here is the Irish finally slip up in the season finale at USC.
The Other Undefeateds
Sorry, Big East, but there’s no chance Louisville makes the national championship game, even if the four teams at the top all lose. Realistically, at least one of those teams is going to go unbeaten, and given that the Cardinals are still ranked only 10th in the BCS, it’s too much of an uphill climb. They have a good QB in Teddy Bridgewater, but their best wins are against North Carolina and Cincinnati, and they haven’t won any of their last six games by more than 10 points. This team appears ready for an upset at some point, so let’s give the nod to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome Nov. 10, with another possible loss at Rutgers to end the season. Predicted Finish: 11-1.
Urban Meyer has done an amazing job, and the Buckeyes are well on their way to navigating NCAA sanctions and a weak Big Ten slate to an undefeated record. It won’t mean much, given the lack of post-season eligibility, but there’s still a glimmer of hope that the Buckeyes can get voted No. 1 in the AP poll if everyone at the top somehow loses and Ohio State takes care of business against Illinois (a given), Wisconsin and Michigan. As the Purdue game showed, Ohio State is beatable, but QB Braxton Miller is one of the best players in the country, and a thin defense stepped up and controlled the game last Saturday at Penn State. Still, let’s not count out Wisconsin – its three losses are by a total of nine points – and its solid defense Nov. 17 in Madison. Predicted Finish: 11-1.
Georgia, LSU and Florida
If a current one-loss team makes the national title game, it’s likely going to come from this group of SEC teams. A one-loss Georgia (if it wins out, including the SEC Championship), LSU (if it beats Alabama, wins out and wins the SEC Championship) or Florida (needs a lot of unlikely things to happen) probably needs a loss by at least two of the top non-SEC contenders this year, but if any conference is going to get a one-loss team into the national title game, it’s the SEC, which has won six straight.
National Championship: Alabama vs. Oregon
Rose Bowl: Nebraska vs. Notre Dame
Fiesta Bowl: Kansas State vs. Clemson
Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Boise State
Sugar Bowl: Georgia vs. Louisville
A few explanations: It’s possible the Rose Bowl will have no suitable Pac-12 replacement for Oregon if everyone else has at least three losses. In that case, who could be a more attractive replacement than Notre Dame? Boise State gets an automatic bid if it finishes in the top 16 (currently No. 19), ahead of an automatic bid champion (Nebraska, maybe Louisville). Clemson and its devoted fan base could move into at-large position by beating rival South Carolina and finishing with one loss.
1. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State
The clear favorite, Klein is the best quarterback of an undefeated national title contender – in other words, the No. 1 criteria for people to vote for you. Klein has run for 16 touchdowns and thrown for 12, with only two interceptions. He’s been at his best lately, totaling 11 TDs in blowout wins over Top-25 teams West Virginia and Texas Tech.
2. Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Te’o may actually have a chance to do what Ndamukong Suh should have done in 2009. The Heisman essentially goes to the signature player of a given season, and Te’o has been in the headlines all year, leading the way for a dominant defense that went more than a month without allowing a touchdown. If Notre Dame goes undefeated and Klein’s Kansas State team loses, Te’o – who leads the team in tackles and has five interceptions – has a chance.
3. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
How will voters handle a team ineligible for the postseason? Despite their NCAA sanctions, the Buckeyes are a high-profile undefeated team, and Miller has quickly developed into one of the most dangerous players in football under Urban Meyer. He’s one of 10 players nationally to hit 1,000 rushing yards so far, and he leads the Big Ten with an average of 121.4 rushing yards per game.
4. A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama
McCarron is the perfect quarterback for a Nick Saban team. Not only is he a smarter passer who plays mistake-free football (18 touchdowns, 0 interceptions), but he’s the most talented passer Saban has had at Alabama. His overall numbers normally wouldn’t warrant Heisman consideration, but he’s one of the most visible players in the country and could take a big step forward with a great performance against LSU on Saturday.
5. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
It feels like Oregon should have a top Heisman contender given the gaudy numbers its offense puts up, but the production gets spread around between Barner and De’Anthony Thomas (plus, the starters often play only half a game). Thomas is known for his highlight-reel plays, but Barner is almost as explosive and gets more touches. He averages 6.9 yards per carry with 14 touchdown runs, and he has several high-profile games in the last month.