College Football Coverage: How The National Landscape Looks

The road to Pasadena and the BCS National Championship Game on January 6, begins on Thursday night, with the commencement of college football season. TheSportsNotebook has been busy these past three weeks, with a boot camp run of college football coverage, and now it’s time to tie it all together.

We’ve previewed all ten conferences, plus separate looks at the key independents, most notably Notre Dame. I see the landscape breaking down in the following hieararchical fashion…

SEC: I’ve moved SEC football into the same category as I finally did with Mariano Rivera in baseball. I’m done trying to predict when the run of dominance will end. I’ll just wait for the results to tell me.

For now, I think the SEC champion simply has to be in the national title game for it to be credible. Even if the conference champ has one or two losses and there are two unbeaten teams elsewhere. The only exception would be if the league loses a series of key non-conference games. But if the SEC ends up out of Pasadena based solely on members beating up on each other, that would leave the ultimate national champion with an asterisk by their name.

Apparently the SEC is aware of this potential problem and they’ve given Alabama a cakewalk schedule. The Tide will not have to play any of the three powerhouses in the opposite division, those being South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The Tide had the same benefit in 2012, so Nick Saban must have some dirt on the league office that he’s using to exact these benfits.

As long as Alabama wins at Texas A&M on September 14, the Tide are going to finish 12-0. And if they finish 12-0 they likely don’t need to win the SEC Championship Game to qualify for Pasadena. This, for the record, is not something I would condone, but we’ll talk about it more if it actually comes to pass.

Big 12-Pac-12-Notre Dame: You have to look in this group to identify realistic challengers to SEC dominance. The two conferences are the only ones who’ve done enough in significant non-conference games to suggest they can compete with the SEC, and Notre Dame made its mark by beating Stanford and Oklahoma a year ago.

Big Ten-ACC: I’m not saying a champion of this league can’t be a part of the BCS National Championship Game, something Ohio State is the most obvious contender to   do. But we do have to point out, that of the power leagues—the Five Families if you will—these are the two conferences that have consistently been overmatched in bowls the last few years.

And if that should bite Ohio State in the end…well, the Buckeyes got the Big Ten’s problems going when they were killed in national title games by Florida in 2006 and LSU in 2007.

American Athletic-Mountain West: The American Athletic is the conference that used to be known as the Big East. When the conference’s basketball-only members left the league, they negotiated the rights to the original brand.

The caliber of play in these two leagues is pretty comparable—in a good year either one can be as good as the Big Ten or ACC, in a bad year, they can look akin to the lower midmajors. But there is one significant difference in their political clout—the American Athletic still has an automatic spot in the BCS, and the Mountain West does not.

Sun Belt-MAC-Conference USA: The true midmajors. We saw Northern Illinois come out of this group last year and bust the BCS, but it’s unlikely to happen this year. All of these leagues promise exciting races, but none are going to impact the biggest bowl games.

That’s the framework TheSportsNotebook is going to use in our college football coverage for the coming season…unless the non-conference games of September can change the equation.