BCS-bound Alabama and Northern Illinois have Ohio State to thank

Jamie Sabau

Four of five BCS bowls, including the national championship, likely would feature different teams if not for one mistake by Ohio State last year.

If Alabama goes on to defeat Notre Dame to win back-to-back BCS championships, the first person Nick Saban should thank, upon receiving the crystal, isn't the players, coaches, fans or even God. It's Gene Smith, Ohio State's athletic director, who chose not to volunteer for a bowl ban in 2011 and thus missed out on the postseason this year.

The same goes for Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS. If not for the one fateful decision by the otherwise brilliant Ohio State athletic director, we could be talking about the mother of all BCS controversies.

Where, exactly, would've the Buckeyes been ranked in the final BCS standings if they weren't serving a postseason ban and therefore ineligible to be included in the rankings? Would their 12-0 season have trumped Alabama's 12-1 that's blemished by a home loss?

The answer is, it's way too close to call. (But that's excluding a necessary Ohio State victory over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, which would only have strengthened Ohio State's position.)

The Crimson Tide finished the regular season a solid No. 2 in the final BCS standings, with a comfortable margin over No. 3 Florida, which did not qualify for the SEC title game. The Gators beat the Tide pretty handily in the computers (.960 to .910), but they weren't much of a threat because they were fourth in both polls behind Oregon.

If Ohio State were in the picture, we would've had an entirely different story.

If Ohio State had taken its bowl ban last year, we could've had:

  • BCS national championship: Notre Dame vs. Ohio State (Ohio State finishes ahead of Alabama)
  • Rose Bowl: Stanford vs. Florida (Ohio State to title game means Rose gets first pick)
  • Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Oklahoma (NIU falls to No. 17, making Oklahoma eligible)
  • Fiesta Bowl: Kansas State vs. Oregon (Sittin' pretty)
  • Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Louisville (No NIU)

In the final computer rankings, the Buckeyes were ranked second, third, third, fourth, fifth and 10th in the six ratings the BCS uses. Tossing out the high and the low, Ohio State would've scored .890 on the computer component, exactly the same as Alabama and both behind Florida's .950.

Wait a minute, didn't Alabama finish at .910 in the official BCS standings?

Ah, that's true, but because Ohio State was ineligible, every team ranked behind it in the standings got to skip up a spot. For example, on Anderson and Hester's rankings, Ohio State was second, Florida third and Alabama fifth. But due to the Buckeyes' ineligibility, Florida was slotted No. 2 and Alabama No. 4 in the final BCS standings.

With computer scores dead even, wouldn't Alabama trump Ohio State anyway because of its placements in the polls?

That is the $20 million question that probably can never be answered.

Ohio State was not included in either the coaches or Harris polls, as per BCS rules governing ineligible teams. But the Buckeyes did rank No. 3 in the AP poll, behind Notre Dame and Alabama. There's a significant gap between the Tide (1,424 points, .949 percent vote share) and Buckeyes (1,302, .868), as well as Florida (1,279, .853).

But would that gap be shrunken significantly if Ohio State were eligible? While the AP voters gave Oklahoma its split title in '74, the Sooners were the last and only team to win a national championship while serving a bowl ban. And it was in a different time, when very few teams played in bowl games anyway. In 1993, probation-shackled Auburn finished the season unbeaten but was fourth in the final AP poll, behind three one-loss teams.

It easily can be conjectured that Ohio State was punished by the AP voters for being on probation. Without that stigma, the Buckeyes would've been much more competitive in the polls. Ohio State also had three common opponents with No. 1 Notre Dame and performed comparably except one - they both won close games against Michigan and Purdue and while OSU took a squeaker against Michigan State, ND blew out the Spartans.

We would never know if Ohio State would've beaten out Alabama for No. 2 in the final BCS standings, but we do know:

  • Had Ohio State finished No. 3, it would've marked the first time that an unbeaten BCS conference team lost out on the championship game to a one-loss team.
  • Had Ohio State finished No. 2, it would've ended the SEC's stranglehold on the BCS title game after winning six consecutive.
  • Ohio State would've finished no lower than third in the final standings.

We also know this: Ohio State will not finish No. 1 in the final AP poll, therefore creating a split national championship, even if Notre Dame loses in the BCS title game, leaving OSU as the only unbeaten team. There simply is no precedent of voters vaulting a team ranked No. 3 (or lower) to the top spot after the second-ranked team defeated No. 1 in a bowl game. If Alabama wins, it'll be the consensus national champion.

If that were the case, Saban would have to thank Smith for not self-sanctioning last season's 6-6 team that lost in the Gator Bowl to Florida and leaving this year's unbeaten squad at the mercy of the NCAA. For the BCS, it got to breathe a sigh of relief as its biggest controversy this season was over the piddly matter of Northern Illinois being in the Orange Bowl, not who should be playing in Miami in the game that really counts.

So what would the BCS picture look like had Ohio State been eligible and made up the ground to pass Alabama for No. 2? Here's one more wrinkle: It would certainly knock Northern Illinois out of the top 16 and a BCS bowl.

The Huskies finished at No. 15 with a razor-thin margin (.0012) over Nebraska. They'd drop to No. 16 simply due to Ohio State being eligible. And even if Ohio State had beaten Nebraska as badly as Wisconsin did, it's just about a lock that the Huskers would've ended up ahead of the Huskies too. That would drop NIU from No. 15 to No. 17, and therefore out of the BCS race.

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