Without chaos, it'll be Big 12 vs. SEC in BCS title game

To suggest that the BCS picture is clearing up with four weeks still to play in the regular season might be borderline irresponsible.

But unless things are clouded by a few unforeseen results, it sure seems that the national championship chase is down to two.

Not two teams, but rather two conferences.

A trio from the Big 12 and a pair from the SEC make up the new top five of the BCS standings, and the odds are good the eventual champions of these leagues will play each other for the national title. And while that may sound simple compared to BCS scenarios of recent seasons, the process of determining those conference champions should be quite entertaining.

It starts with the SEC, where the championship game has already been set. It'll be Alabama against Florida at the Georgia Dome in what is shaping up to be the biggest conference title game ever played. If both teams go unscathed over the next three weeks (Alabama hosts Mississippi State and Auburn, while Florida hosts South Carolina and The Citadel before going to Florida State), the SEC championship will be a virtual national semifinal, with the winner advancing to the BCS title game.

If the Tide and Gators can both avoid an upset before then, college football might get a little taste of what a four-team playoff would be like.

A little taste, but not a full taste, because the Big 12's power resides only in the South Division, where a tiebreaker might ultimately change the face of the national championship race. If Oklahoma can close the season with wins over Texas Tech and at Oklahoma State, there is likely to be a three-way tie for the division title between the Sooners, Red Raiders and the Texas Longhorns.

Normally, ties are settled by head-to-head results, but in this case, each of these teams would have gone 1-1 against the other two. That means the tie would be broken by the BCS standings on Nov. 30, with the highest-ranked team on that day advancing to the Big 12 championship game, likely against Missouri.

Therefore, the next-to-last BCS standings of this season could hold just as much national significance as the final standings do. The breaking of the three-way tie would theoretically eliminate a couple of one-loss teams from BCS championship contention and pick one team (if it can beat Missouri) to play for the national title.

The BCS just has a way of providing new drama, even when we think we've seen it all.

USC, of course, is hoping for the more traditional kind of BCS antics -- the late-season upsets.

The Trojans are playing defense as well as any college football team in the past two decades, but because of the relative weakness of the Pac-10, they have little hope of breaking the Big 12/SEC hold on the top of the rankings without a little chaos. Realistically, USC needs either Missouri to win the Big 12 title game, or the eventual SEC champion to lose one of its final regular-season games.

And even that only gives the Trojans a chance, because the computers could still prevent them from climbing over a once-beaten Alabama or a once-beaten tiebreaker loser from the Big 12. The outlook is bleak for SC, but it's brighter than it was this time last week, when Penn State was still undefeated.

In the nonautomatic-qualifying conferences, Utah survived a major brush with BCS elimination by making a late comeback against TCU, and the Utes are starting to separate from Boise State in the chase for the automatic at-large bid. With wins at San Diego State and home against BYU, Utah should clinch a spot in a BCS game and leave the Broncos, if they can also finish undefeated, hoping to be selected for another at-large spot.

Ball State has climbed to 14th in this week's standings but has no realistic chance to break into the BCS without Utah and Boise State both taking a loss.

Brad Edwards is a college football researcher at ESPN. His Road to the BCS appears weekly during the season.