- Marissa McClain/Daily
By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 25, 2011
If Michigan beats Ohio State on Saturday, the Wolverines will play in their first BCS bowl game since the 2007 Rose Bowl. That’s not a fact. That’s my opinion, but it’s nearly a fact if you consider the situation.
It’s not about fairness, or what’s right. It’s about money and Division-I’s winningest college football program.
I’m not here to tell you why this team — the one that looked primed for the Outback Bowl just three weeks ago — deserves anything. All that matters is what the bowls decide is important.
This week, Michigan coach Brady Hoke refused to talk about Michigan’s BCS bowl chances. To play in one of the five most prestigious bowls, the ones that used to be the only ones reserved for New Year’s Day, the ones with the biggest stakes and the biggest payouts — to accomplish that would cap an incredible first season for Hoke.
But he’s focused on Ohio State.
After three top-7 teams lost last week — Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Oregon — the mantra ‘anything can happen’ is their bowls' new slogan. But they all have somewhat similar criteria for picking teams.
“We look at where they’re at in the overall standings,” said Kristen Pflipsen, director of public relations for the Fiesta Bowl. “What kind of matchup we could put together, compelling storylines, what makes the most sense, traveling, all of that.”
“Everything from enthusiastic fan base, star players, history and tradition of the program,” said John Sudsbury, director of communications for the Sugar Bowl. “But the biggest thing we look for is to matchup the best game possible.”
Orange Bowl Vice President of Communications Larry Wahl added another: “Then we want to associate ourselves with those who will help us maintain our brand tradition.”
So how will Michigan make it? In short, there should be nine slots that are filled by the conference champions, and then at-large teams like Alabama and Stanford. Then, in theory, there would one spot left for Michigan.
But let’s dive in.
For the sake of this examination, we’ll assume LSU and Alabama will have a rematch in the National Championship game. And even if that’s not the case, the two of them are likely to be playing in BCS games.
There are also a few more rules regarding the BCS bowls’ selection process that you need to know:
— Ten teams get to play in BCS bowls, six of which are required to be the conference champions from the automatic qualifying conferences — Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, SEC, ACC and yes, the Big East gets an automatic bid. Five of them have specific bowl tie-ins and the Big East is selected — just like at-large teams are. And the Sugar Bowl would have to pick two at-large teams having lost its SEC tie-in to the championship game Here are the tie-ins:
Sugar (At-large, At-large)
Fiesta (Big 12, At-large)
Rose Bowl (Big Ten, Pac 12)
Orange (ACC, At-large)
—At-large teams must be picked from the top-14 teams in the BCS Standings, and no more than two teams from the same conference can play in a BCS game.
—One team from a non-automatic qualifying conference (i.e. mid-major programs), like Houston, Boise State or TCU could get an automatic bid to play in a BCS Bowl game if it meets certain criteria: they must be the highest-ranked conference champion and ranked in the top-16 (usually it’s top-12, but the rule expands it to top-16 because no Big East team is ranked that high).
But there is only one that could get an automatic bid. If Houston wins out, the Cougars would be the seventh automatic team to make it. But if Houston loses, and TCU wins out and finishes in the top-16, then TCU could get the spot. Boise State is out of luck, unless it somehow wins its conference. But the Broncos and Horned Frogs would still be eligible for at-large bids.
—The bowls pick their at-large teams in a pre-determined order. This year’s order goes: Sugar (goes first to replace its SEC team), Fiesta, Sugar (again, in their normal spot), and finally the Orange Bowl.
Two of those spots belong to the Big East and (potentially) one of Houston or TCU or Boise State.
So then there are two spots left.
Open for any team in the top-14 — no requirements, no restrictions, just preference.
“Most people would tell you, if Stanford keeps winning, I think they’re one of those compelling stories because of Andrew Luck,” said Wahl, who was assuming Oregon would win the Pac-12 . “So (Stanford) would get one of those slots.”
Then there is one.
What about Michigan?
“They would certainly get a look, I think, from the Fiesta,” Wahl said. “And then possibly the Sugar, if the option’s still there.”
But Hoke and the Wolverines have work to do. Right now, they are No. 15 in the BCS standings and a win over Ohio State would likely launch them into the top-14.
“With the way that the BCS is arranged, we look at the entire top 14,” Wahl said. “Everybody in that top-14 pool, they’re all deserving to play in a BCS bowl.
“The first thing Michigan has to do is beat Ohio State, which in all likelihood would put them in the top 14. Someone ahead of them is likely to lose.”
On the field, its competition for that last at-large spot would be steep. Depending on the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State outcome, Michigan would be competing with a three-loss Sooners team; if the Cowboys lose, Michigan’s brand would win out.
Boise State is a top-10 team and could get looks. Kansas State is also up there.
I can venture to say all four of those teams are better than Michigan. But that’s not the question; it’s about who has the brand and money-making ability, paired with a talented team. As far as Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia are concerned, sorry, but the SEC has its two spots filled.
In a complete stroke of luck, Michigan would potentially be the only other Big Ten team, besides the conference champion, to be ranked in the top-14. The loser of the Wisconsin-Penn State game would have three losses, and the loser of the Big Ten Championship game would have three losses. Such an offense would keep those two teams out of the top-14. Having missed the championship game may be a blessing for Hoke.
Having Michigan available would be a blessing for the bowls.
“Michigan would be attractive to anybody,” Wahl said. “They’re a great brand. You think they would do well for ticket sales. They definitely would have appeal for a local fan base and they’re a great television brand too. They would definitely be appealing."
From their history together, the bowls and Michigan have built a symbiotic relationship. The bowls want a piece of the unstoppable brand Dave Brandon has built, and Michigan needs a stage to show the world the program Brady Hoke has rebuilt in a single season.
The Rose Bowl is out of the question. And most likely, the Orange Bowl, too, because it has the last pick of at-large teams, so it’ll probably be stuck with the mediocre Big East champion. For Michigan, count on either the Sugar or Fiesta.
Could the BCS Bowls decide to pass Michigan over? Absolutely. In the freak chance LSU doesn't beat Georgia in the SEC Championship game next week, Michigan might not have a spot. In that case, Georgia would be the SEC's automatic qualifier, and LSU and Alabama could potentially play for the National Championship without winning their conference.
But if the Pac-12 and SEC each have their two teams — and only two teams — then Michigan will be the most attractive of any other available top-14 team.
“Michigan, I think, has been a pleasant surprise for everybody,” Wahl said. “I think everybody’s going to have their eye on Michigan-Ohio State, not that they don’t generally, but I think more so because of what it could mean for Michigan. It could put Michigan in that top-14, and it could propel them to a BCS bowl.
“I think they are one of the top-tier brands in college football — there’s no doubt about that.”
—Rohan thinks if Michigan beats Ohio State, it’ll play Big 12 champ Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TimRohan.