Six years ago, Louisville's football program was looking up at Southern Miss, aspiring like the rest of Conference USA just to the match the annual success of the league's most consistently dominating school. As of two minutes ago, when searching for Louisville among the standings, SMQ still instinctively goes to C-USA first.
As of this Sunday, Southern Miss is playing an utterly ignorable and barely relevant game in an empty stadium on Sunday night, while Louisville is basking in the glow of its most important ever win with the eyes of the college football world all over it on an unrivaled national stage. And now this:
Updated BCS Standings (11-05-06)
1. Ohio State (0.9865)
2. Michigan (0.9709)
3. Louisville (0.8907)
4. Florida (0.8017)
5. Texas (0.7998)
6. Auburn (0.7814)
7. Southern Cal (0.7449)
8. California (0.7330)
9. Notre Dame (0.7316)
10. West Virginia (0.5742)
Some corresponding questions:
Does Louisville deserve to play for the mythical championship? This question seems most relevant, as "can Louisville play for the championship?" is fairly foregone - the Cards' standing behind the Big Two, with their strength of schedule only going up with undefeated Rutgers and two other all-but-certain bowl teams remaining, makes them pretty much impossible for any one-loss team to catch as long as U of Hell keeps winning by any margin. As an aside, the answer to the sensible subsequent question - "Can Rutgers play for the championship?" - is almost certainly "No," despite the fact a hypothetically undefeated Rutgers would look no different on paper than an undefeated Louisville (or West Virginia, had the Mountaineers prevailed Thursday). SMQ would argue the Knights should be in a position Thursday to get themselves into the mythical championship race by handling its third-ranked team, but realistically he's very aware hu-man voters aren't going to be able to overcome feelings of inadequacy accompanying the R-spangled helmets at this point regardless the resume. This is moot with a likely Rutgers loss in the next three weeks, anyway.
As for the question at hand, though, check out the Cardinals' resume if it were to make it to 12-0 compared to the potential merits of Ohio State, whose credentials are considered absolutely impeccable (projections are in italics); the "win" over Michigan is certainly not presumed, but only included as such for the sake of the example):
Wins Over Top 10 Teams (based on current polls)
Louisville: One (West Virginia)
Ohio State: Two (Texas, Michigan)
Wins Over Ranked Teams (based on current polls)
Louisville: Two (West Virginia, Rutgers)
Ohio State: Two (Texas, Michigan)
Wins Over Currently Bowl-Eligible Teams
Louisville: Seven (Miami, Kansas State, Middle Tennessee, West Virginia, Rutgers, South Florida, Pittsburgh)
Ohio State: Four (Texas, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan)
Wins Over BCS Conference Teams (including Big East/Big Ten)
Louisville: Ten (Kentucky, Miami, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers, South Florida, Pittsburgh, Connecticut)
Ohio State: Ten (Texas, Cincinnati, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan)
Games vs. Non-BCS/I-AA
Louisville:Two (Temple, Middle Tennessee)
Ohio State: Two (Northern Illinois, Bowling Green)
Combined Record of All Opponents (to date)
Ohio State: 61-55
Average Margin of Victory (to date)
Ohio State: 26.4
Average Margin of Victory vs. BCS Conference Teams (Including Big East/Big Ten)
Ohio State: 26.6
One-score Victories (8 points or less; to date)
Louisville: One (23-17 vs. Cincinnati)
Ohio State: One (17-10 at Illinois)
There's enough there to justify a mythical title existence for SMQ. Especially pay attention to opponents' records and games against bowl eligible teams - this isn't Boise State's schedule, especially when you add in Louisville's next three games. Or do you want to argue Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern are collectively tougher than Kansas State, Cincinnati, Syracuse, South Florida and Connecticut? The records and margins of victory/defeat (and Solon, most convincingly) say decisively otherwise. Hypotheticals (as opposed to projections) aren't worth very much, but it can be admitted Florida or Texas likely would go unbeaten against Louisville's slate. Consider, though, how close every one-loss team now is to having two or three losses. Louisville has played against an almost entirely winning slate, which is just entering its toughest stretch, and is not close yet to having one.
It only looks easy
But perception is a bitch. At least one voter (Fred Cowgill of - surprise! - WLKY-TV in Louisville) thinks the Cards are good enough to rank ahead of Michigan right now, even if folks like Jason Whitlock (his ballot ranks UL 9th, and Texas at No. 2) are understandably too mortified by the Cardinals' defense to give 'em dey props. All three Florida voters on the AP roster have Louisville third, at least three spots ahead of Florida, and all three also rank Texas and Auburn ahead of Florida. Two of the four Texas voters have the Longhorns third and Louisville fourth, but one - Kirk Bohls, the only one from Austin - is another Louisville Lover, with the Cards at No. 2 and Texas fourth. The mysterious Harris Poll agress with the AP and ranks the Cardinals third; its BCS co-conspirators, the "coaches," prefer Texas, and rank Louisville fourth. So results, as usual, vary.
In the spirit of the election season, though, dissenting opinions are not particularly relevant at the moment. If Louisville wins out, barring a fantastic, unfathomable hu-man voter revolt against the Cards, it's in. So all of the following questions presuppose a U of Hell loss:
Does Auburn or Arkansas have a shot?
The assumption is that Florida has a good chance if Louisville loses or the Gators go on an insane warpath through the conference championship weekend. The oddest scenario in SMQ's mind would result in an Arkansas-Florida SEC championship - which awaits end of the current default path - an Arkansas victory in said game, and the subsequent ascension of Auburn into the mythical championship against the Ohio State-Michigan winner. Right now, if Louisville were to lose, that's a very likely scenario - though it requires a Gator defeat, because Auburn's strength of schedule will not allow it to jump a one-loss Florida, head-to-head be damned. Ditto for Arkansas over the Tigers if it runs the remaining table for 12 straight wins, for the same reason ascribed above to Rutgers (an undefeated Arkansas, as opposed to an unbeaten Rutgers, would carry more weight, but not this team with its big opening loss to USC after a 4-7 season. Perceptions from last year and the resulting preseason starting position shouldn't matter, but they do - this effect is working in the favor of Texas, which is six-seven spots higher by the peoples than by the computers, as much as it is working against the "upstarts" which are performing roughly as well). The Gators would have to lose at some point along the way to give Auburn an opportunity to jump them; AU's best chance is to get some help from Tennessee and LSU and wind up in the SEC championship its own self, where its fate is in its own hands.
Auburn's more than willing to help itself...Arkansas, on the other hand, is less humanitarian
The variables in that case, of course, include the strength of schedule boost in store for Arkansas, which can potentially make up the five spots it lacks on Auburn and leap Florida if it beats Tennessee and LSU and then Florida in the SEC Championship, and the lurking presence of Southern Cal, California, Notre Dame and especially Texas. Which brings us to...
Outside of the SEC, which teams ranked 5-10 have the schedule to move up?
The presumption now is that Texas, at fifth, sits in the driver's seat in the case of Louisville and Florida losses. But the Longhorns' remaining schedule consists of "quality" games with Texas A&M and another neutered lamb offered by the Big XII North for the league championship. If the Gators and Cardinals lose, and the 'Horns win those games big enough to keep the hu-man pollsters on their side, that's probably the correct assumption. Auburn may have the opportunity to make up a spot if it sneaks into the SEC Championship and beats Florida more convincingly than it did last time, if that's possible; Arkansas, despite its schedule, SMQ thinks will not get the poll support to make up the gap on Texas' lead unless it is very convincing in three straight big games and the Longhorns are very iffy in one of the matches they need to win going away.
More likely than Arkansas to make up that difference, though, is Southern Cal, which still has Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame and UCLA to vault its already decent strength of schedule through the roof; SMQ guesses, however such factors are determined by the machines, USC's schedule will make its slate among at least the top six in the country in every measure. Any sort of winning in that stretch will be enough to impress the margin-of-victory-blind computers; some combination of convincing wins, a blowout or two, and no more than one tough, close win could be worth enough "style points" for the hu-mans to relent and follow suit. If it wins out, that gauntlet alone could be responsible for getting USC ahead of Texas and Auburn - at least non-SEC Champion Auburn, depending on what happens to the Tigers' postseason, which is based on what happens with Arkansas. Who the Trojans smashed! It's all intertwined.
The hope that exists for Southern Cal probably doesn't for Northern Cal and Notre Dame, unless everybody in front of them loses, even if either of them beats SC handily (they are especially screwed if they both beat the Trojans, or if Oregon pulls that upset). The Bears and Irish are in probably the most clear, and most dire, positions, because neither has the strength of schedule over the last month to make up enough ground to catch Louisville, Florida, Auburn or Texas without every possible grain of help.
Obviously, every team in the mix can't win out, but if every individual team's situation is considered independently of the others, SMQ would rank the chances of appearing in the mythical championship accordingly as follows - any result other than that in parentheses should invalidate an opportunity:
1. Ohio State/Michigan Winner (12-0, Big Ten Champion)
2. Louisville (12-0, Big East Champion)
3. Florida (12-1, SEC Champion)
4. Auburn (12-1, SEC Champion)
5. Southern Cal (11-1, PAC Ten Champion)
6. Texas (12-1, Big XII Champion)
7. Auburn (11-1; No SEC Championship Game)
8. Ohio State/Michigan Loser (11-1, 2nd Place, Big Ten)
9. Arkansas (12-1, SEC Champion)
10. California (11-1, PAC Ten Champion)
11. Notre Dame (11-1)
12. Rutgers (12-0, Big East Champion)
Note Auburn appears twice because it's the only team that doesn't control its own destiny re: a conference championship, and is the only team left with a chance to make it to a mythical championship game without actually playing for its own league's title (Nebraska has managed this before, in 2001, and Oklahoma went in 2003 after a Big XII Championship loss); therefore, the Tigers alone have two scenarios to get in, both of which include them winning out, but each with very different odds depending on what happens to Arkansas. The further down the list you go, obviously, the more convoluted the required scenarios become, and a lot of unpredictable margin of victory has to factored into each one of those hypothetical situations. See, isn't this fun? This is fun. Unnecessary, but fun.