The thing nobody really notices is Tulsa. Specifically, that Tulsa has a perfect Conference USA record and would, with a win on Friday over Houston, host the Conference USA championship game.
This is because Tulsa scheduled itself into oblivion.
Nobody notices the Golden Hurricane because it lost to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State and for that has been shooed off to the margins, while Houston is 11-0, ranked eighth in the nation and two wins from playing in a BCS bowl game. And people are criticizing Houston's schedule? Welcome to college football.
The thinking goes something like this: Conference USA is not a strong enough league for its champion to be granted automatic qualification into the BCS bowl system, so in order to compensate for that and legitimize their seasons, C-USA teams should play difficult non-conference schedules, such as the one Tulsa played this year, or the one Houston played in 2009, when it beat Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
Ideally, this acts as something of a vetting process for non-automatic qualifying teams who end up with perfect records. But it fails to fully reconcile the most important question of all.
What if you lose?
Tulsa can answer that. The Golden Hurricane played the most glamorous nonconference schedule in the country this year. Oklahoma was No. 1 when it beat the Golden Hurricane 47-14 in Norman, Okla. Oklahoma State was No. 7 when it beat Tulsa 59-33 in Tulsa. Boise State was No. 4 when it beat Tulsa 41-21 in Boise, Idaho. Those teams now have a four losses among them.
And what does Tulsa have?
That schedule was all good and noble, and if for some reason Tulsa wants to go around saying, "We'll play anybody, anywhere, any time" as a way of trumpeting its fearlessness, all it has to do is pull out this season's pocket schedule. But goodwill and nobility aren't part of the BCS formula.
You will hear suggestions in the coming weeks that Houston is undeserving of a BCS bid because it did not play a difficult enough schedule. It has not been vetted. But this is a paradox. The very reason Houston is in this conversation (and Tulsa is not) is that Houston did not play Tulsa's schedule. Unless you think the Cougars were going to win in Norman and in Boise and at home against Oklahoma State, then you're criticizing their schedule for doing exactly what any schedule supposed to do.
"You can't have it both ways," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We are a non-AQ team. You cannot be a non-AQ team and play an AQ schedule."
He's right. If you strip away all the messy rules, there are two basic ways to get into the BCS: (1) Have a very good (but not necessarily perfect) season against major-conference competition, or (2) have a perfect season against mid-major conference competition, which is its own kind of difficulty.
It is not possible to do both, and teams should not be expected to play by two sets of rules.
Which is what Tulsa tried to do. Houston probably is the better team, but it is not difficult to see their situations being perfectly reversed if their schedules were. If the scores in conference play are an indicator, these two teams are similar in quality (if not in style).
This is not meant to detract from Houston's accomplishment, and the point isn't even to make a judgment about whether the Cougars would have beaten OU, OSU and Boise State.
The point is that there is no point in attempting it. Not anymore. That's an outdated insecurity. It died a few years ago, probably when Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
If you want to prove a point by playing the big boys, don't do it in September. Win all your games, and you'll get to do it in January.