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Breaking down conference matchups

It all starts with ACC and Big Ten finals

Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)Read more

CHAMPIONSHIP weekend has a history of ruining some BCS title-game plans. Sometimes when you least anticipated it. But the last 3 years, the top two teams in the standings going into the last week have remained there. Just in case, here's a look at the conference matchups and what it all could mean.

Everything obviously starts with the ACC and Big Ten finals. It also might end there, if Florida State and Ohio State both win, even though the SEC winner might lodge a protest. And that game will be over first, so Auburn or Missouri can then park in front of a TV and pull for Duke or Michigan State. The Pac-12 is the undercard, despite the fact that Arizona State and Stanford have real potential for a rematch. And a spot in the Rose Bowl is always a worthy consolation prize. The Cardinal hasn't been to Pasadena in back-to-back seasons since 1970-71. ASU's been there twice, but not in 17 years. Stanford won at home on Sept. 21, 42-28. This time they're playing in Tempe, where Stanford last won in 1999.

But we digress. Much more meaningful stuff will be taking place in Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis. In the ACC, Florida State gets Duke. Try to guess which one was supposed to be there. The Blue Devils, picked to finish last in the Coastal Division, have somehow won eight straight. After they lost by 24 to Georgia Tech and three to Pitt, both at home, where they also beat 6-6 Troy by seven. They've also lost 18 in a row to FSU, or every game in the series.

Wonder if those prosecutors in Tallahassee will have anything to say about Jameis Winston before kickoff?

FSU, picked for second in the Atlantic behind Clemson (which it beat by 37 on the road), hasn't won by less than 14. That was in September. Its average margin of victory is 42. If the Devils somehow find a way David Cutcliffe should just head off into the sunset, because it can't possibly get any better. The Seminoles made it to the first three BCS finals. They won once, in 1999.

In the Big Ten you've got Ohio State and Michigan State. The Buckeyes haven't lost since 2011, when Urban Meyer was a TV guy. In 2 years in Columbus his team has yet to play anyone ranked higher than 16th. MSU is 10th.

The Spartans, who went unbeaten in the conference for the first time since 1966, lost at No. 22 Notre Dame by four and won by 23 at home against No. 21 Michigan, which just came within a late two-point conversion pass of derailing the Buckeyes. MSU can defend, OSU scores. The Buckeyes have won eight of the last nine meetings. The loss was 2 years ago, by three, at the Horseshoe. Last year they won by one in East Lansing. An MSU win guarantees it a trip to the Rose Bowl, where it hasn't been in a quarter-century. Sparty might get there even with a loss. The Buckeyes are thinking slightly bigger.

The real intrigue will come if OSU wins a real close, maybe even ugly game and Auburn drills Missouri. You'd figure the Buckeyes would still get to their fourth BCS final, because unbeaten is unbeaten. They beat Miami in 2002 and got rolled by Florida in 2006 and LSU a year later. Meyer was Florida's coach. He got another ring in 2008, part of the SEC's current 7-year run. By now maybe there should be a rule that an SEC team has to be in the title game. No other Big Ten team has ever made it that far.

Even the folks in Columbus should grudgingly concede that OSU might've had a tough time running the table if its schedule included at LSU and Texas A&M and at home against Georgia and Alabama. And at least three or four SEC teams might've been able to beat Wisconsin at home. Or even Northwestern on the road. Michigan we're not as confident about. Can't you hear those arguments already?

First, though, Auburn has to beat Missouri in Atlanta, which is no minor detail. And if Missouri beats the team that just beat Alabama, maybe it can argue too. Its blemish was by three in double- overtime at home to South Carolina. Mizzou, playing without injured quarterback James Franklin, led by 17 in the fourth quarter.

Auburn and Missouri combined for two SEC victories in 2012. So sometimes you really don't know. Your loser won't even go to a BCS bowl. Alabama will, unless FSU and OSU both go down. Then we'd get an all-SEC final for the second time in 3 years.

The Big 12 hasn't had a title game since 2010. Oklahoma State will win if it beats Oklahoma at home. State, the only team to beat Baylor, has lost nine of the last 10 meetings. The win was 2 years ago, by 34 at home. Last year it went to overtime. If Oklahoma wins, Baylor gets its first BCS bowl bid. The Bears might get an at-large berth anyway, if they beat Texas at home. After losing 16 of 17 from 1993-2009, the Bears have won two of the last three against UT. Last year it was 56-50 Longhorns in Austin.

In the American Athletic, which will have a title game next year, Central Florida is the champion if it wins at SMU. The Knights would have already clinched if Louisville wins at Cincinnati tonight. It appears the champ could draw 'Bama in the Orange Bowl, which sure beats settling for a spot in the Buffalo Wild Wings game.

The MAC, as has been the case for most of November, has the stage to itself Friday evening from Motown, where Bowling Green and Northern Illinois could put on an entertaining show. This is NIU's fourth straight appearance. The Huskies will earn a second straight BCS bid if they win their third straight title. Last year they beat Kent State in two OTs. In 2011 they won by three over Ohio. QB Jordan Lynch can enhance his Heisman Trophy credentials. Bowling Green is coached by Dave Clawson, the one-time Villanova offensive coordinator who soon figures to be landing a BCS job. The Falcons lost in the 2003 final. The last time they won the title was 1992, 5 years before the first MAC title game.

The first Mountain West final would have been more whatever had Fresno State not given up 62 last week at San Jose State. Now the Bulldogs host Utah State knowing that it can't get to a BCS bowl. But QB Derek Carr, who's thrown for FBS-highs of 4,462 yards and 45 TDs, can maybe still pull in a few late Heisman votes.

Oops, almost forgot. Conference USA gets things going on Saturday, with Marshall at Rice. Marshall won five MAC titles from 1997-2002 but none since. Rice got at least a share of six Southwest Conference titles from 1934-57. Its only trophy since then was a shared SWC crown in 1994, with four others at 4-3, because 6-0-1 Texas A&M was ineligible thanks to NCAA sanctions. It happens.