Get ready for a fight to the finish.
Ohio State's loss to Illinois on Saturday assured that there won't be a berth in the BCS National Championship Game clinched on Nov. 17. And looking at the schedules of the new top five teams in the standings, it's almost certain that much of the BCS puzzle will remain scrambled until the final day of the regular season ... maybe even until the day after.
LSU was the weekend's big winner, and it had little to do with the Tigers' bulldozing of overmatched Louisiana Tech. Losses by Alabama and Auburn allowed LSU to wrap up a spot in the SEC championship game, and the more significant loss by Ohio State moved the Tigers into the top spot in the BCS standings with only three weeks to play.
Oregon climbed up to No. 2, followed by the Big 12 trio of Kansas (No. 3), Oklahoma (No. 4) and Missouri (No. 5). Barring a few more upsets (which wouldn't be all that shocking in a year like this), the national championship race is down to these five teams.
And that means Dec. 1 is setting up like an old-school New Year's Day. With LSU playing in the SEC title game, Oregon hosting Oregon State and two of the Big 12 teams squaring off in a championship tilt on that date, there should be at least three matchups of great significance in the waning hours of the regular season. And if the upset bug starts biting, West Virginia's rivalry game with Pittsburgh that day also could be important.
Between now and then, these contending teams should check themselves in the mirror frequently, because style will matter. No team in the top five has established itself so far ahead of the others that it can afford to slop around when facing lesser opposition. Every touchdown or defensive stand could help, since voters will be looking to separate two teams from the pack over the next three weeks.
Perhaps no team has more need to earn style points than Oregon. The Ducks (8-1) have remaining games at Arizona (4-6), at UCLA (5-5) and versus Oregon State (6-4). Simply winning those games will not be overly impressive to voters. With Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri all having the chance to beat at least one top-10 team down the stretch, Oregon might need to win big just to hold on to its No. 2 position.
And even that might not be enough.
If Kansas finishes 13-0, many voters will want to reward the Jayhawks with a spot in the BCS top two, and the second-ranked team is the one that likely would get bounced. And if Oklahoma wins the Big 12 title to cap a 12-1 season, the Ducks still are vulnerable by virtue of having a less prestigious name and a less-challenging closing schedule than the Sooners.
It should be an exciting finish. Teams will need three more wins just to have a chance, and if more than two teams pass that test, we might be holding our breath for the final release of the BCS standings on Dec. 2.
If Texas can win one more game (at Texas A&M on Nov. 23), the Big 12 will be certain to have a BCS at-large selection, whether that be the Longhorns or one of the three teams currently ranked in the top five. The Pac-10 also is in great position to get a second BCS team and should do so if the USC-Arizona State winner can handle a home game against its local rival on Dec. 1.
The SEC has a couple of teams now in position to gain a spot in the Sugar Bowl if LSU vacates that position by advancing to the BCS National Championship Game. Georgia will be a strong candidate if Tennessee wins the SEC East and the Bulldogs beat Kentucky and Georgia Tech to end the season. If Georgia stumbles, Florida could be available to the Sugar (or Orange) by finishing 9-3.
Ohio State's loss probably eliminated any chance of the Big Ten getting a second team into the BCS this season. It appears the only way the conference will have an at-large qualifier is if OSU loses to Michigan, and the odds of the Buckeyes being selected after consecutive losses are extremely slim.
The Big East also seems unlikely to produce an at-large candidate, unless Cincinnati wins the conference and West Virginia finishes 10-2. The ACC's best chance is for Virginia Tech to lose the conference title game, but that wouldn't make the Hokies an exactly desirable option.
That leaves Hawaii and Boise State, ranked 16th and 18th, respectively, in this week's BCS standings. Hawaii's potential to qualify automatically (by reaching the top 12) seems to be dwindling with every week that it fails to gain respect in the computers. Boise State has even less of a shot at the top 12 but should crack the top 16 if it wins out.
Translation: Both teams could be relying on the provision that allows a non-automatic-qualifying conference champion to earn an at-large bid by finishing in the top 16 AND ranking higher than an automatic-qualifying conference champion. For that to happen, the Warriors and Broncos need help this weekend. If Michigan beats Ohio State or Cincinnati beats West Virginia, the opportunity could be there. If neither of those take place, Cinderella might be at home scrubbing the floors during the BCS ball.
Brad Edwards is a college football researcher at ESPN. His "Road to the BCS" appears weekly during the season.