IT'S CHAMPIONSHIP weekend, finally. The closing photo op for any team that's still in contention for one of the four spots in the first FBS playoff, where the most pertinent quandary seems to be whether there's any scenario in which the selection committee would actually find a way to leave out defending national champion Florida State - the lone unbeaten and winner of 28 straight - even if it wins yet one more of those too-close games against four-point underdog Georgia Tech in the ACC title game.
Only the 12 voters in the College Football Playoff Rankings can speculate for sure. Keep an eye out for puffs of gray smoke.
It all starts Friday night with Oregon-Arizona in the Pac-12, which, for the first time, is holding its final at a neutral site (Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., the new home of the 49ers).
OK, so the MAC final actually kicks off earlier. Just figured that most folks who care will be in Detroit, where you have Bowling Green (7-5) and Northern Illinois (10-2). NIU is making its fifth straight appearance.
Oregon's blemish was at home to Arizona (10-2) on a Thursday night in early October, by seven on a late touchdown when its offensive line had injury issues. The Ducks (11-1) haven't won by fewer than 12 since then. Nor have they scored fewer than 42. Marcus Mariota looks like your Heisman Trophy winner. Win and the Ducks are in. Lose and it's yet another near-miss since going to the BCS final with Chip Kelly in the 2010 season. Rich Rodriguez couldn't get it done at Michigan, for whatever reasons. But his Wildcats can move the ball, too. Of course, everyone knows the way to beat Phil Knight's guys is to hold them under 30. You can look it up.
Saturday at noon in Conference USA, Marshall (11-1) hosts Louisiana Tech (8-4). Much later in the Mountain West, Boise State (10-2) hosts Fresno State (6-6). It looked as if Boise or Marshall would be going to one of the New Year's bowls as the most worthy representative from among the five non-major conferences. Then Marshall lost (67-66) to Western Kentucky (7-5). Tech just beat Rice at home, 76-31. The over is 68 1/2. Consider it research.
Boise beat Fresno at home on Oct. 17, 37-27. If Boise loses, there's every chance AAC champ Memphis, even with three losses, could be next in line for a New Year's bowl. Which would be a good thing for Temple, if it wins at Tulane to become bowl-eligible. But that's another story line.
The fun really begins at 4 o'clock, when Alabama (11-1) and Missouri (10-2) meet in Atlanta for the SEC title. For the second straight year, 'Bama's season nearly got torched by Auburn. But the 'Bama that showed up for the second half might win the NFC South. The Tide has looked beatable at times, especially away from Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban is 4-1 in this spot, including two wins at LSU. The loss was to Florida in a 1-2 matchup in 2008, which he avenged the next year in another 1-2 matchup.
Missouri was picked to finish fourth in the East in the preseason poll. South Carolina, which went 6-6, was the favorite. The Tigers lost at home to Indiana in September, which seems impossible. Two games later, they lost 34-0 to Georgia, also in Columbia. Yet here they are, for the second straight December. Last year, they lost to Auburn, 59-42, which is two more combined points than 'Bama and Auburn just put up. They won their last five by 10 or fewer. Not many will give them a chance, which is often the best reason to think they actually might have one.
If not for that improbable field-goal return in last year's Iron Bowl, 'Bama could be going after its fourth straight national title. But if the Tide loses, the SEC - which had four different teams win seven straight BCS finals before finally losing one on a last-minute drive 11 months ago - won't be part of the tournament. Unless maybe it loses by one and Baylor and Ohio State also go down. If that happens, the SEC bangers might need to seek professional help.
At night you have the ACC and Big Ten going against each other. All much-scrutinized Florida State has done is keep finding a way. Apparently, that's not enough. At least it didn't lose at home to Virginia Tech (6-6) as Ohio State did, or by two touchdowns at West Virginia (7-5), as Baylor did. Now it gets Georgia Tech in Charlotte. FSU beat Tech in the 2012 final, 21-15. That's where its win streak began. Tech was picked to finish fifth in the ACC, behind Miami (6-6), Duke (9-3), Virginia Tech and North Carolina (6-6). The Yellow Jackets have won their last five, scoring at least 28 in each. Knowing FSU, it will be tied with 30 seconds to go. Why change at this point? If the Seminoles survive, maybe they will even get a chance to defend their crown. Unless maybe Jameis Winston does something stupid again before the committee makes things official on Sunday.
In the Big Ten, it's Ohio State (11-1) and Wisconsin (10-2) in Indianapolis. We'll never know what might have been had Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett not broken an ankle last week. But we can be pretty sure his replacement, Cardale Jones, isn't as prolific. So even if the Buckeyes win, they might not make the cut. They lost in last year's game to Michigan State. Wisconsin, which lost at Northwestern (5-7) in early October, has Melvin Gordon. And that's mostly been sufficient. The Badgers have lost their last three against OSU, and six of seven. The last 3 years were all by seven or fewer.
The Big 12 no longer has a title game. TCU (10-1), which just passed FSU in moving from fifth to third in the CFP poll, is favored by 34 at home against Iowa State (2-9). Baylor (10-1), which is sixth despite beating TCU at home by three (61-58) on Oct. 11 by scoring 24 unanswered points in the last 11 minutes, figures to have a much tougher time with visiting Kansas State (9-2). If the Bears come up with an impressive win, it will be interesting to see how the committee factors in the head-to-head tiebreaker. That's why they're getting the big bucks.
Among the "principles" the committee lists for "distinguishing comparable teams" are conference championships and head-to-head. Strength of schedule, which favors TCU, is also cited. As well as "other relevant factors such as key injuries that likely will affect its postseason performance." Duly noted.
There have been championship weekends where everything blew up. In 2007, two-loss LSU went from seventh to second in the BCS system and got into the title game, where it beat Ohio State. So maybe it's still not over even for No. 7 Arizona, which would only have to go up three spots to get the fourth seed in the semifinals. Some wannabes just need more help than others. But don't blame the computers if all the questions don't get answered to everyone's satisfaction.
Yo, America wanted something different.
On Twitter: @mikekerndn