LITTLE ROCK — Instigating debate, the ESPN moderator asked four panelists if it would be un-American for a one-loss SEC team to be left out of the national championship game.
The sound was off and so was the closed captioning, but reading the question on the TV screen, I wondered if it would be un-American for an unbeaten team from a major conference to be on the sideline when the BCS title is decided on Jan. 6 in Pasadena.
A 108-yard return of a missed field goal has transformed Auburn into the greatest thing since sliced bread. Quickly forgotten is that the Tigers were downright lucky to beat Georgia and lost to LSU by 14. Also note that Auburn defeated Mississippi State by four and Ole Miss by eight — both at Auburn for those who subscribe to the home field advantage — and A&M by four. None of those three teams topped .500 in the SEC. Auburn’s biggest margins were against Tennessee and Arkansas, a combined 2-14 in the league.
Auburn’s 7-1 SEC record in general and the victory over Alabama in particular is remarkable in light of 0-8 in the conference last year and Gus Malzahn and his staff deserve every accolade tossed their way. But an unbiased recapitulation of Auburn’s record says the Tigers found a way, the mark of a champion, but not an entitlement to the national title game because of conference affiliation.
Based on raw scores, Missouri’s 11-1 is more impressive than Auburn’s 11-1. The Tigers beat six SEC teams by 14 to 31 points and A&M by seven. In the loss to South Carolina, Missouri played without starting quarterback James Franklin and Andrew Baggett’s 24-yard field goal attempt caromed off the left upright at the end of the second overtime.
All that said about SEC teams, if Florida State and Ohio State win their conference championship games on Saturday, I’m OK with the Seminoles vs. the Buckeyes in Pasadena. In fact, it is odd how so many people are convinced that Florida State should be No. 1 and doubt that Ohio State should be No. 2.
During the regular season, Florida State won three times when the opponent was ranked in the top 20 — 63-0 over Maryland, 51-14 over Clemson, and 41-14 over Miami. Maryland finished 3-5 in the ACC, Miami lost two after the debacle against the Seminoles, and Clemson fell to South Carolina by 14.
Ohio State defeated Wisconsin and Northwestern when those teams were ranked in the top 25 and beat an Iowa that wound up 5-3 in the conference. Getting past Michigan when the Wolverines missed on a two-point conversion last week was not as fluky as Auburn 43, Georgia 38. Those in doubt about the Buckeyes will get off the fence if they beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, but those who pooh-pooh the Buckeyes will kiss off a victory with an indictment of the Spartans’ defense as overrated.
A spot in the BCS title game is based only on the current season, but a two-year winning streak is impressive even if the Buckeyes beat up on Little Sisters of the Poor every week.
In a USA Today story published this week, Ohio State’s schedule was ranked as the 61st toughest and Florida State’s was No. 66. According to Jeff Sagarin’s formula, Auburn played the 26th toughest schedule and Missouri’s was No. 41.
Understandably, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs are lobbying for a one-loss SEC team in the championship game. If the four-team College Football Playoff was in place this year, Alabama would join the argument that the SEC deserves two spots in the two-week tournament ahead of a one-loss Oklahoma State with an eight-game winning streak that includes routs of Texas and Baylor.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.