- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The BCS title debate isn't necessarily about the teams stating their case at the podium, but the teams standing behind them.
Each contender's schedule, both past and future, is under the microscope. The title hopefuls want the teams they've beaten to then go on to great success.
Which BCS frontman has the best supporting cast?
Alabama can bring five top-15 teams to the stage: No. 15 Texas A&M, which the Tide defeated Sept. 14, as well as future opponents No. 13 LSU and No. 9 Auburn, and possible SEC title game foes No. 8 Missouri and No. 12 South Carolina. The SEC might not be as mighty as its fans and media puppets claim, but the depth up top is still pretty strong.
Oregon doesn't have quite the entourage, but the Ducks can sway votes simply with No. 5 Stanford, a preseason title contender that, despite a loss to unranked Utah, remains ahead of unbeaten Baylor in the BCS standings. The Cardinal are a verified elite program after reaching BCS bowls in each of the past three seasons. The Pac-12's upper class also includes No. 19 UCLA, which has only lost to Oregon and Stanford, and a surging Arizona State squad at No. 22.
Florida State undoubtedly stands out among its ACC brethren after smashing Clemson and Miami in the past three weeks. But the seventh-rated Tigers and, to a lesser extent, the 11th-ranked Hurricanes help Florida State's argument to be in the national championship.
Even Baylor has some support in a mediocre Big 12. The Bears' next three opponents all appear in the BCS standings, beginning Thursday night as No. 10 Oklahoma visits Waco.
And then there's Ohio State. For most of the season, the Buckeyes have stood by themselves, alone and, in this context, lonely at the top. The beleaguered Big Ten has a thriving middle class, but it has done nothing to help Ohio State. A Buckeyes team driven by "The Chase" needed some of its conference brethren nipping at its heels.
Finally, Ohio State isn't running solo. The Big Ten's upper class is emerging, with Wisconsin and Michigan State joining Urban Meyer's Buckeyes.
After a 7-1 start that could be attributed largely to a weak schedule, Michigan State made a splash both regionally and nationally Saturday with a dominant victory over Michigan. The top-ranked Spartans defense has reached another level and likely will propel the team to the Big Ten championship, where Ohio State should be waiting. An offense that stumbled out of the gate has stabilized behind quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and a much-improved offensive line.
Wisconsin is the most overlooked team in the country, still paying the perception price for a Week 3 loss to Arizona State in which officials deprived the Badgers of a chance to win the game. Since a seven-point road loss to Ohio State, the Badgers have won three straight, outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 119-47. Wisconsin has arguably the nation's best running back tandem in Melvin Gordon and James White, a superstar defender in Chris Borland, a top-20 offense and a top-10 defense. This is a really good team, whether or not people want to admit it.
Michigan State and Wisconsin appear at No. 17 and No. 24 in this week's BCS standings. You can make an argument that the Spartans, with a three-point road loss to Notre Dame their only blemish, should be a few spots higher. Wisconsin certainly belongs in the top 20, if not the top 15. Think about how the Badgers would be viewed if they had beaten Arizona State with a short field-goal attempt that never came to fruition.
The Spartans and Badgers might not match Stanford's status, but they can hold their own with many of the other teams mentioned. Ohio State's victory over Wisconsin on Sept. 28 should mean something. And if the Buckeyes beat a potential 11-1 Michigan State team in Indianapolis, that should resonate, too.
"It's big for the Big Ten," first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said Monday. "I don't look at myself as a guru of conferences or teams or anything else, but this is one of the best, if not the best, conference in the country. A lot of people might stick their nose up in the air when I say that or whatever, but to me it is."
The Big Ten's upper class might not look like many thought it would before the season. Michigan was supposed to join Ohio State among the nation's elite, but the Wolverines have had several issues since a Week 2 win against Notre Dame. Nebraska also entered the fall with high hopes, but the inconsistent Huskers are fortunate to have only two losses and need a strong finish to salvage their season. Northwestern, a popular sleeper pick in the Legends division, has imploded since an Oct. 5 loss to Ohio State.
So it's once again Michigan State and Wisconsin, two programs that have reached the Big Ten's first tier more often than not since 2010. MSU likely will win 10 games for the third time in the past four seasons. While Wisconsin's run of Big Ten titles likely will end, the Badgers can reach 10 wins for the fourth time in five years if they win out.
"The Big Ten," Andersen said, "is not recognized enough."
People are starting to notice, but the league's upper class must continue to win. Parity won't help Big Ten perception at this point. It certainly won't help Ohio State.
The Buckeyes must win out, Wisconsin must win out and Michigan State must win out, setting up an attractive title game.
When Ohio State makes its closing argument in the BCS title debate, it doesn't want to stand alone.
58mMax Olson and Brian Bennett