- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Somehow it seems fitting that the final season of the BCS comes down to this.
The SEC -- the conference that so frequently in the bowl selection system's 16-year history has had teams benefit from a higher-ranked counterpart's stumble just before the finish line -- is poised to pull a magic trick once more before the sport moves to a playoff system next fall.
If either unbeaten Florida State or unbeaten Ohio State falter in their respective conference championship games, the winner of Saturday's SEC title tilt -- whether it's No. 3 Auburn or No. 5 Missouri -- will likely play for the BCS crown.
That's the only way that the SEC's unprecedented run of seven BCS titles will have a chance to continue -- probably.
The debate has raged for a week, since Auburn's miracle win against Alabama knocked the defending-champion Crimson Tide off the top of the heap, over whether a one-loss SEC champion belongs in the title game over an undefeated team from a power conference.
Of course, SEC partisans would argue the “power” in power conference is debatable when it comes to either Ohio State or Florida State's league affiliation. And they have a point, as the facts support an SEC-slanted position in an argument that is less scientific than it is emotional.
Even in what is considered a down year for the SEC, Auburn and Missouri will both have played a significantly more difficult schedule than the potential Big Ten champion Buckeyes or ACC-winning Seminoles. According to the ESPN's strength of schedule ratings, Auburn played the toughest schedule of the foursome and the 38th-toughest slate in the FBS. Missouri (45th) was next, with Ohio State (64th) and Florida State (68th) facing significantly smoother paths to reach this point.
The Buckeyes and Seminoles haven't lost, though, which makes it appear extremely unlikely that the SEC champion creeps past either of them as long as Ohio State beats Michigan State and FSU topples Duke on Saturday night.
Should one or both of them lose, that's when things could get especially tricky. The SEC will have a chance to extend its title streak -- this much we know -- but which team(s) will get the title shot(s)?
With a win on Saturday, Auburn seems like a safe bet. But what if Mizzou wins in Atlanta? Will it be Gary Pinkel's Tigers playing for it all in Pasadena?
Or will it be No 4 Alabama, which benefited from higher-ranked opponents' late stumbles in both 2011 (Oklahoma State) and 2012 (Kansas State AND Oregon) to play for the BCS title after late-season losses of its own? Just like this season, Alabama didn't even win the SEC in 2011 before receiving a rematch shot against LSU in the title game, and it's not inconceivable that such an opportunity could arise again.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide has won three of the last four BCS titles, however, and the program has established itself as the best in the game, even if it lost a week ago. Surely it deserves the benefit of the doubt, right? We shall see.
This BCS scenario could turn into another mess, and more often than not, such situations have worked out in an SEC program's favor during the BCS era.
Let's not go counting unhatched chickens just yet, however. None of these hypotheticals will matter -- once again, probably, -- unless one of these unbeaten teams falls on its face.
Forgive those of us in the Southeast for almost expecting it, Buckeyes and Seminoles. If there is anything we will remember about the BCS era, it's that this scenario has existed over and over since the bowl selection series came into existence. And time and again, unbeaten teams have choked away a chance to slam the door on the SEC's title streak.
The door seems closed right now, but it isn't bolted shut. Saturday will determine if the rest of the nation can finally break from its precedent and keep an SEC team from slipping in at the last second.