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With a little help, Michigan's BCS chances look good heading into the season's final weekend

Marissa McClain/Daily
Michigan coach Brady Hoke may have guided Michigan back to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2006 season. Buy this photo

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 1, 2011

With his team sitting at No. 16 in the latest BCS standings with a 10-2 record and several marquee wins over the likes of Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, Michigan coach Brady Hoke likes his team’s chances of making a BCS bowl game.

“We’ve done all that we can do,” Hoke said Monday. “Is it deserving? Probably. A 10-win team out of the Big Ten conference, I think that speaks for itself.”

The BCS bowl committees hear Michigan loud and clear. But the Wolverines will need help this weekend if they’re to jump into the top 14 in the BCS standings to become eligible for an at-large selection.

According to two college football experts, if Michigan is in the top 14, it will play in a BCS game, likely the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, La. or the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.

“If they’re eligible, yes. I don’t think there’s any question,” said Dennis Dodd, a college football columnist for CBSSports.com.

“A 10-2 Michigan team? Yes. Coming off a win over Ohio State? Absolutely.”

“Yep, I think so,” said Jerry Palm, a BCS expert who runs the website CollegeBCS.com and contributes to CBSSports.com. “(But) they need a little help, some attrition in front of them.”

Luckily for Michigan, the three teams immediately in front of them in the BCS standings play this weekend, and two of them play each other.

Palm and Dodd agreed that one game was most crucial in determining the Wolverines’ fate: the SEC championship between No. 1 LSU and No. 14 Georgia.

If LSU wins, which is expected, Georgia would drop down in the polls, opening a spot for Michigan to jump up. But if the Bulldogs pull off the upset, the SEC could potentially have three teams in the 10 BCS spots.

“That’s a must,” Palm said of how an LSU win would help Michigan’s chances. “And the reason is because if Georgia wins and the voters are stupid and leave LSU and Alabama No. 1 and No. 2, then the SEC has three teams and there are no open spots for Michigan.”

Dodd contended that if Georgia did win, that wouldn’t necessarily mean LSU and Alabama would stay atop the standings. Both would be one-loss teams, and neither will have won its conference. The pollsters would punish Alabama, Dodd said, for not playing this week and for losing to LSU. Still, a Georgia win would mean one less team falling past Michigan.

It helps that No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin meet in the Big Ten Championship game Saturday — it’s likely that Michigan would jump whoever loses. But speculation has grown that a Spartan loss wouldn’t necessarily drop them past the Wolverines in the polls because Michigan State beat Michigan on Oct. 15. Dodd and Palm don’t consider that an issue.

“It’s what the voters have always done — when you lose, you drop,” Palm said. “They don’t care about head-to-head and stuff like that. They probably don’t even remember Michigan State beat Michigan. They don’t care about stuff like that. If you lose, you drop.”

Added Dodd: “In my experience, that third loss (for Michigan State) is huge. It will be valued by the (BCS) computers more than anybody else.”

Dodd described the “perfect example” to illustrate how Michigan would jump the loser of the Big Ten title game. In 2007, on the last week of the season, then-No. 4 Missouri beat then-No. 2 Kansas. The next week, Missouri was blown out in the Big 12 championship game by Oklahoma. Playing in the title game gave the Tigers an extra loss and cost them a seat in the BCS. Kansas went to the Orange Bowl, Missouri to the Cotton Bowl.

Just like that season, Michigan could be rewarded for being idle while Michigan State and Wisconsin beat each other up.

For Michigan to really be comfortable with a spot in the top 14, it would prefer No. 10 Oklahoma to lose to No. 3 Oklahoma State — the winner of that game would get the Big 12’s automatic spot. And a No. 5 Virginia Tech win over No. 20 Clemson would prevent Clemson from jumping Michigan in the polls — something Palm and Dodd said was a possibility.

No. 17 Baylor could also gain momentum with a win over No. 22 Texas. But with three losses already, Dodd didn’t think Baylor would gain enough momentum to topple Michigan.

Both experts said the broad BCS picture is shaping up nicely for Michigan. The SEC is expected to have two teams — whether it's LSU, Alabama or Georgia. The Pac-12 is expected to have two teams — its conference champion (likely No. 9 Oregon) and No. 4 Stanford, which would be guaranteed an at-large spot if it the idle Cardinal finished No. 3 or No. 4 in the standings.

Then the ACC, Big 12 and Big East are all expected to have no more than one team in the BCS Standings — even if the fifth-ranked Hokies or third-ranked Cowboys lose and compete for the last at-large spot. Why? Michigan’s brand is that much bigger.

“Oh my gosh, yes,” Palm said of picking Michigan ahead of other potential at-large teams like Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State and No. 11 Kansas State.

“There are three teams with better brand power than Michigan. There are three. And Kansas State? Not a chance. It’s Ohio State, Notre Dame and maybe Penn State. That’s pretty much it. Michigan is in a class by itself, with very few peers.”

Once the Wolverines are in the top 14, their destination will most likely be the Sugar Bowl, if LSU and Alabama have a rematch in the National Championship game. If that were the case, the Sugar Bowl would have first pick of the at-large teams having lost its SEC team to the championship game (assuming Georgia loses to LSU and doesn’t punch its own ticket to the Sugar Bowl).

The pool of four at-large bids would then include No. 6 Houston (who guarantees a BCS spot with a win Saturday), Stanford (who is likely to be guaranteed a spot), and the Big East champion, who is also guaranteed a spot. Then one spot would be left for Michigan, and the Wolverines would likely be the first at-large selected, Dodd and Palm agreed, even over a top-five Stanford team.

“They would pick Michigan,” Dodd said. “(The Sugar Bowl is) going to lose their anchor team (to the National Championship). You can’t rely on Stanford at all. They would almost certainly be there.”

Added Palm: “Look, it’s not just their brand. (Michigan’s) going to bring hundreds of thousands of fans. I mean, Stanford’s going to bring hundreds of fans.”

On the off chance Georgia wins and LSU and Alabama don’t have a rematch, Michigan could find itself in the Fiesta Bowl, who would then have the top choice of the at-large teams because the Sugar Bowl wouldn’t lose its SEC team.

Before Michigan can be picked, most importantly, it has to find a way into the top 14.

“I guess the best scenario is for LSU to win, and then the Big Ten title game takes care of itself,” Dodd said. “Then, I think they’re in. I think everyone kind of predicts they’ll be in after that.

“At the end of the day, Michigan being back at this level for the first time in years will carry the day. Their brand will carry the day. Overall, I think it looks really good for them, just because two of the three above them are going to lose.”

Simply put, Michigan fans, root for LSU to beat Georgia and hope Michigan hops whoever loses the Big Ten Championship game.

Michigan hasn’t made it to a BCS bowl game since former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr led his team to the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2007. Hoke will find out if he brought the Wolverines back Sunday at 8:15 p.m. when ESPN reveals the final BCS standings and announces who’s playing where.

Palm put Michigan’s chances of playing in a BCS game at “75 or 80 (percent).”

“They need things to go their way, of course, but I like the chances of things going their way,” he said.

“I think it would be 80 percent,” added Dodd. “I’m doing my bowl picks at the end of my column on Friday, and I’m not even thinking about it. I’m just putting (Michigan) in.”