In no other sport does the schedule play a bigger role in shaping the championship game than in college football.
There might be 10 to 15 teams that begin the season with enough talent to compete for the national title, but who their opponents are -- and the order in which they must be faced -- goes a long way toward determining which two teams are fortunate enough to play for the title at season's end.
Popular opinion says a great schedule is one that offers a realistic opportunity for a team to go unbeaten. But as we've seen in recent years, a schedule can be just as valuable by providing a team a chance to bounce back from defeat.
For the first time in college football history, three consecutive national champions have had at least one loss, and sometimes the losses came when they were least expected. The past two BCS champs (and three of the past six) survived being upset at home by an unranked team -- proof that the popular water-cooler game of predicting wins and losses before the season begins is an even bigger waste of time now than it was 10 years ago.
But if there's a test for this supposed increased parity in college football, it's this season's Florida Gators. Urban Meyer not only has Tim Tebow back along with his entire two-deep defene from last season's title-winning team, but he also has a 2009 schedule that is incredibly friendly by SEC standards.
The Gators do not play Alabama or Ole Miss in the regular season and project to be a double-digit favorite in every game except maybe their trip to LSU on Oct. 10. Even that visit to Death Valley comes after a bye week, and the neutral-site matchup with Georgia on Oct. 31 is preceded by a game against Mississippi State.
Thanks to its superior talent, Florida seemingly could run this table without having to bring its A-game in consecutive weeks. But common sense suggests there will be at least one big test along the way. And even if they fail it, the Gators (as long as they still win the SEC East) could be bailed out by having a conference championship game against (presumably) a highly ranked team from the SEC West.
Big 12 South favorites Texas and Oklahoma might not have the same luxury. Because the North division doesn't figure to have a top-10 team, the Longhorns and Sooners likely have less room for error than Florida does.
At least Oklahoma has the late-season Bedlam game against Oklahoma State on Nov. 28, although that might not be enough for the Sooners if they lose the Red River Rivalry again. Perhaps no national-title contender has a single regular-season game that seems to be more of a must-win than Oklahoma has when it faces Texas on Oct. 17 in Dallas.
Without owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Longhorns, the Sooners probably have about as good a chance of winning the Big 12 as Iowa State does. Texas would have to lose twice in conference play to open the door for OU, unless there's another three-way tie for the South title, and the BCS once again gives the nod to the Sooners.
Considering that two-thirds of the BCS formula is controlled by real people who remember what happened last season, this scenario is a long shot for Oklahoma, at best.
A loss in Dallas wouldn't be good for Texas, either, but if the Horns win there, they still have another extremely important game two weeks later when they travel to Oklahoma State. Just like last year's crucial trip to Texas Tech, this one sets up as the final statement the Longhorns can make because of their weak November schedule. And as was the case a year ago, a loss in that spot could be quite damaging to national title hopes.
Another contender facing the danger of a weak closing schedule is USC, which finishes with home games against Stanford, UCLA and Arizona. That's more of a concern for the Trojans, because prior to that point, they face what is probably the toughest road schedule for any of the nation's top teams.
First, there's the trip to Ohio State in the second week of the season. Then, after a two-week break (aka, the Washington schools), the Trojans play at Cal, at Notre Dame, at Oregon and at Arizona State in a five-game stretch that also includes a visit from Oregon State, which gave USC its only loss last season.
Conventional wisdom says that if you're going to lose, it's best to lose early, but the men of Troy don't want to test that theory with a loss to the Buckeyes.
Ohio State has both the talent and the schedule to have a very strong season in the Big Ten, and a head-to-head edge over USC could make the difference if those teams each have one loss and are battling for position in the BCS standings at the end of the season.
OSU, however, might need to go undefeated to finish ahead of once-beaten contenders from the SEC or Big 12. Since those conferences are generally considered to be much stronger than the Big Ten, an imperfect Buckeyes team is almost certain to be stuck in line behind teams like Oklahoma, Texas and Florida and don't forget about the trio from the SEC West, either.
If Alabama, LSU or Ole Miss can reach the SEC championship game with only one loss and then knock off the Gators, it's hard to imagine that team not having a spot in the BCS title game if no more than one of the other contenders is unbeaten.
Unless, of course, that team is the Crimson Tide, and the one loss came to Virginia Tech, which ends up being the lone undefeated team. Would voters want to see a rematch of the season opener for the BCS title?
That's the fun with these college football schedules. You just never know what might happen.
Brad Edwards is a college football researcher at ESPN. His Road to the BCS appears weekly during the season.