Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 10/27/11
The football heaved from the right arm of Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins cuts through the crisp East Lansing air, Wisconsin's national championship hopes hanging ever so perilously in the balance. If Cousins' last-second throw is 2 inches lower on its trajectory, Wisconsin wide receiver and defensive back for a play Jared Abbrederis, waiting with his sure hands at the front of the end zone, bats the ball down at the apex of his leap. An incomplete pass sends an already memorable game to overtime. Instead, Abbrederis whiffs, the 44-yard Hail Mary caroms off a Michigan State facemask in the end zone and into the arms of Spartans senior Keith Nichol -- a quarterback turned backup receiver. He maintains just enough forward progress to fend off two Wisconsin defenders and push the ball past the plane of the goal line. And just like that -- seconds from forcing overtime last Saturday, on a play so close it requires replay officials to determine the outcome -- Wisconsin's dreams for a Bowl Championship Series title game spot are all but gone. Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31. One desperation throw, a bounce off a player's facemask, a last-second touchdown on a fluke play. "That's probably like one in a million," Badgers running back James White says. As last Saturday indicates, all it takes is a single "one in a million" play to send a team tumbling from championship contender toward BCS obscurity. Recent history has shown that, in addition to having the right coach, the right quarterback, the right everything, a fair amount of luck goes a long way in navigating the perils of the BCS landscape for an entire season. Some teams respond masterfully, as Auburn did last season in winning several close games on the way to a national title behind quarterback Cam Newton. Others aren't so fortunate, like the 2007 West Virginia team, which came within one game of reaching the national championship before bad play and bad luck ruined its season in a loss against Pittsburgh. "I don't think there's any question there is luck involved," says Gary Barnett, the coach at Northwestern and later Colorado from 1992-2005. "I think any team who makes it through, if you look back at the people who have won the national championship, there are at least two games where the ball happens to take a crazy bounce in their direction. They survive something that probably nine times out of 10 they might not survive. I think it always comes down to that." Players on this year's Wisconsin team already have learned the hard way about the thin line between perfection and rejection. With Saturday's loss, Wisconsin (6-1) dropped all the way from sixth in the first BCS standings to 15th, almost guaranteeing the Badgers won't play for a national championship. Somewhat inexplicably, Wisconsin trails No. 14 Nebraska, a team the Badgers hammered, 48-17, on Oct. 1. Although Wisconsin is ranked no worse than 12th in any human poll, the series of six computer calculations that determine one-third of the BCS standings lists the Badgers at No. 24 because of a relatively poor strength of schedule. It's enough to make Badgers center Peter Konz sick to his stomach. "I don't deal with witchcraft," Konz says. "I don't dabble in this 'Wizardry of Hogwarts BCS School.' I don't know what that is. What, a computer can sense when a team is hot and emotions? What is this, Terminator 2?" A history of close calls The Badgers and Spartans, of course, aren't the first teams to be involved in a back-and-forth game with the potential to create a seismic shift in the BCS standings. Last season, one week before the SEC championship game, Auburn's national championship hopes were severely in doubt during its annual Iron Bowl game against Alabama. The Tigers, ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings, trailed, 24-0, before Newton led Auburn on a remarkable comeback for a 28-27 victory. It was a game that hinged on any number of costly Alabama miscues. Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, fumbled through the end zone when the ball was poked from behind following a 41-yard catch in the second quarter. Running back Trent Richardson dropped a touchdown catch in the end zone, causing the Crimson Tide to settle for a 20-yard field goal. Later in the same quarter, quarterback Greg McElory fumbled the ball away on a second-and-goal play at Auburn's 8-yard line. Then, the Tigers slowly seized command of the game, making sure any BCS computations would not determine their fate. "The one thing that you can control is your own performance, and that's why there's so much pressure to stay undefeated," says Phil Savage, color commentator for the Crimson Tide Sports Network. "Because as long as you stay undefeated, then you really do control your own destiny, whether you're ranked first or second or fifth. As long as you're unbeaten, you still have a fighting chance to get to that title game." The Tigers demonstrated a knack for pulling out close games -- and remaining undefeated -- all season. Auburn also knocked off Clemson in overtime earlier in the year on the way to a title game it eventually won. West Virginia stood on the other end of the luck spectrum in 2007. The second-ranked Mountaineers entered their game against Pittsburgh on Dec. 1 of that year as 28-point favorites, one victory away from playing in the national championship game. But bad fortune and too many miscues befell the Mountaineers. Quarterback Pat White, a Heisman Trophy candidate, dislocated his thumb in the second quarter and missed much of the remainder of the game. West Virginia kicker Pat McAfee, now playing with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, missed his only two field goal tries in the first quarter, a 20-yard chip shot and a 32-yard attempt. West Virginia lost, 13-9, in a stunning upset that caused the Mountaineers to tumble from second to ninth in the next BCS poll. They responded by drilling fourth-ranked Oklahoma, 48-28, in the Fiesta Bowl, missing out on a spot in the title game. "Like one of my professors years ago said, 'How do you solve problems? You avoid them,' " Savage says. "To avoid the problem of the BCS, you just keep winning all your games." Is it fair? Whether the BCS format is fair depends on who is asked. Although Barnett says he worries that computers have a bigger say in the standings than they should, he adds that the current structure is the best system available without a playoff. If a team wants to push for a national title, it needs to play - and win - as many games against ranked opponents as possible. Wisconsin has been hurt, in part, because its four nonconference opponents -- UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota -- are a combined 13-16. South Dakota, which lost, 59-10, against the Badgers, plays in the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision. "In Wisconsin's case, the preseason schedule just absolutely killed them," Barnett says. "There's no way to control that. And I'm not sure they would try to control it if they could. ... Part of the luck as far as computers are concerned is who your draw is for the first four games. When you play South Dakota, you are taking a chance on getting yourself hurt somewhere down the road. You're going to beat them by a bunch, but it isn't going to help you much. Inflate your stats and hurt you in the computers." Of the 12 regular-season games on Wisconsin's schedule, only three are against opponents currently ranked in the BCS top 25 - Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State - a situation that makes it even more difficult for the Badgers to shoot back up the BCS standings. "It's an awful lot of ground to be covered and not a lot of really highly ranked teams you can beat that will give you some ability to move," says former Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter. "Right now, you're hoping that you have an opportunity to win your championship and maybe have a chance to play a Stanford in the Rose Bowl." Wisconsin has an opportunity to reach the first-ever Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3 for a rematch with Michigan State, although even a victory there isn't likely to put the Badgers back into the national championship conversation. "The computers don't think the Big Ten is as strong as the Big 12 and the SEC," Konz says "It's just the way it is. I'm only here for four to five years. I can't change it." Playing in a particularly strong conference that includes a conference championship game certainly has its advantages. Take, for example, the case of the 2008 Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators. On Sept. 27, 2008, Florida lost an agonizing 31-30 decision at home against Mississippi, thanks in part to a blocked fourth-quarter extra-point try. The outcome dropped the Gators from fourth in the AP poll to 13th. When the first BCS poll was released in October, the Gators were ranked No. 10. In some seasons, it could have spelled the end for Florida's title hopes. Because the loss occurred in Week 4 of the season, however, Florida found itself with enough time to work its way back into the national championship picture. Florida went on to beat ranked conference teams LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, as well as in-state ACC rival Florida State during the regular season before knocking off then-No. 1 Alabama in the SEC championship. The Gators ultimately defeated Oklahoma, 24-14, in the national title game. Wisconsin doesn't appear to have a similar luxury this season, with games against unranked Big Ten foes Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois over the next four weeks. As a result, the final play of last Saturday's game is sure to haunt Badgers coaches, players and fans for years to come given all that was at stake in the BCS standings. "I've never seen it happen that way," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema says. "For it to hit off a guy in the facemask, and another guy's arm and to have our guy's arms around it, is just a perfect storm to get the right result for them. And obviously not for us."
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