Other than Texas and LSU, the college football teams with the best chance of playing for the national championship on Jan. 4 will be more sternly tested in league play than outside their conferences.
Texas has a game at Ohio State on Sept. 10 and LSU is home that same night against Arizona State. In most polls, Ohio State will be in the top 10 and Arizona State will be in the next 10.
Starting the season in the top 10 is almost mandatory for any team with an eye on Pasadena. Auburn was toward the bottom of the top 20 a year ago and, despite a 12-0 record in the Southeastern Conference, could not catch Southern California or Oklahoma for one of the top two spots. In most polls, USC and Oklahoma were 1-2 in the preseason.
Although getting to the top from nowhere is almost impossible, teams can make a big move. In 2003, Arkansas went from unranked to No. 7 with consecutive victories over Texas, North Texas and Alabama before fading.
Auburn’s predicament was a fluke. Rarely are there going to be three league champions with perfect records.
This year, in the coaches’ poll, USC is followed by Texas, Tennessee, Michigan, Oklahoma, LSU, Virginia Tech, Miami, Ohio State and Iowa. Much of the voting is based on last year — only Ohio State won fewer than nine games — and traditional poll staples.
Although once-beaten LSU won the BCS title game after the 2003 season, the other six BCS champions have finished the season unbeaten. By the way, LSU’s title team was a cumulative 192-37 against a non-conference schedule of Louisiana-Monroe, Arizona, Western Illinois and Louisiana Tech.
With that in mind, consider the non-conference schedules of the big boys:
• USC has a vacation in Hawaii and then takes a week off before playing Arkansas because a quick turnaround from the Aloha State can lead to disaster. The Trojans also play Oct. 15 at Notre Dame, a team that could have a large impact on the BCS standings if it could regain some of its lost luster under first-year coach Charlie Weis, and the Trojans also have a visit from Fresno State in November.
• Other than the Buckeyes, Texas will risk its ranking against Louisiana-Lafayette and Rice.
• Tennessee lined up Alabama-Birmingham and Memphis, in addition to Notre Dame.
• Michigan plays Notre Dame in between Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan.
• As some Razorback fans know, Oklahoma is in Los Angeles against UCLA hours before Arkansas-USC. The Sooners also play TCU, which has a home-and-home series with Arkansas in 2008-09, and Tulsa.
• Arizona State is supposed to be behind USC and California in the Pac-10, but LSU’s other non-conference opponents are North Texas and Appalachian State.
• Virginia Tech will step out of the Atlantic Coast Conference to play Ohio, West Virginia and Marshall.
• Miami has a four-game stretch that includes Colorado, South Florida and Temple.
• On either side of Texas, Ohio State is playing Miami of Ohio and San Diego State.
• Iowa will warm up for the Big 10 with Ball State, Iowa State and Northern Iowa.
In addition to Tennessee and LSU, the other SEC schools in line for the league championship game have only an occasional challenge. Florida opens against Wyoming and Louisiana Tech and finishes with the must-play against Florida State. Georgia also has an in-state rivalry at the end, although Georgia Tech is a cut or two below the Seminoles. Georgia opens with an interesting contest against Boise State and beats up Louisiana-Monroe three weeks before ULM plays dead in Little Rock. Alabama’s non-conference opponents are Middle Tennessee, Southern Mississippi and Utah State.
It should be clear that nobody in a power conference is anxious to sign up more than one heavy hitter and that part of the equation for bowl trips is lining up the ULMs of the world.