Entering the weekend, it seemed as if California was just two wins away from locking down a spot in a BCS game. With a somewhat comfortable lead over Texas in the polls, the Golden Bears apparently just needed to take care of their own business to keep the Longhorns at a safe distance in the BCS Standings. And with a 41-6 triumph over rival Stanford on Saturday, Cal had every reason to believe it was on the verge of its first Rose Bowl appearance in nearly 50 years.
But even though Cal is undeniably close to realizing that Rose Bowl dream, some less desirable postseason scenarios are also becoming apparent. If the season ended today, the Bears would get one of the two BCS at-large spots by virtue of being the highest-ranked team in the top 4 without an automatic bid. But that crucial position is suddenly being threatened on more than one front.
Although Texas did not play on Saturday, the Longhorns narrowed the margin between themselves and California in the coaches' poll from 89 points to 39 points, despite Cal's 35-point victory. In the AP poll, the Bears' advantage dipped from 108 points to 90.
Who knows what prompted this significant turn of events, but all of a sudden, Texas is close enough to Cal in the BCS Standings that an impressive win over Texas A&M could possibly give the Horns hope of moving up one very important spot. COULD is not the same as WILL, but it's more of an opportunity than Texas thought it had a week ago.
It also needs to be pointed out that Cal still has one more game left to play. The Bears' original trip to Hattiesburg, Miss., was postponed by Hurricane Ivan, and the makeup date is Dec. 4. Southern Miss might not be as strong of a team as it seemed to be in September, but this is still a rare opportunity for Cal to show its stuff on national television. All the Bears can really ask for is a chance to state their case. And Texas can only hope California trips and falls on the national stage.
The simple solution to this new crisis for Cal would seem to be a loss by Texas against Texas A&M. But even that could open the door for an entirely new disaster scenario. The rule that would allow either Cal or Texas to get a BCS at-large spot by being ranked in the top four is contingent upon a spot still being available after a previous rule is applied. That previous rule is the one that allows any team not from a BCS conference to get an at-large bid by being ranked in the final top 6. But it does not restrict the number of teams that can qualify that way.
A loss by Texas would likely move Utah up to No. 5 in the BCS Standings and open the door for either Boise State or Louisville to possibly jump into the No. 6 position. Right now, those teams are very close with Georgia and Miami for the No. 7 spot in the standings. If Utah is ranked fifth in the BCS and either Boise State or Louisville is sixth at the end of the year, then those two teams would get the BCS at-large bids, and Cal -- even if ranked No. 4 -- would be left out of the Bowl Championship Series.
In addition to being a raw deal for the Bears, this would also put the Rose Bowl in the very difficult position of having to choose an opponent for Michigan from among the ACC champion (likely Virginia Tech or Miami), the Big East champion (likely Boston College) and the two non-BCS schools. The Rose Bowl has already taken it on the chin a few times from the BCS, but that would be by far the worst misfortune yet.
In the all-important race for No. 2, things held relatively steady between Oklahoma and Auburn in the polls and computers. Interestingly, both teams swiped some first-place votes from idle USC, but the net result of the weekend's games was that Oklahoma gained a very narrow lead on Auburn in both polls. Combine that with very little change in the computers, and the Tigers are now in a slightly worse position than last week with only one game left to play.
It seems that the pressure is now squarely on Auburn to exceed expectations against Tennessee in the SEC Championship, and given the 34-10 score in the first meeting between those teams, expectations might be fairly high. Realistically, the Tigers will probably need an advantage of at least 20 points over Oklahoma in each poll at the end of the season to cancel out the Sooners' edge in the computers. Even if Auburn turns in a dominating performance in its final outing, that might not be enough to inspire such a swing in the votes unless Oklahoma or USC helps out with an unimpressive effort on Dec. 4. From where I sit, the Trojans-Sooners title game is looking more likely.
Brad Edwards is a college football researcher at ESPN. His Road to the BCS appears weekly during the season.