The Stanford Cardinal looked like national championship contenders a week ago. After a disappointing showing against Oregon, now they're in danger of falling out of the BCS race altogether. And they might have to root for their conquerors to ensure they somehow find their way back into the race.
There are ten spots in the BCS. Six will be the conference champions of the major conferences (Oregon is likely to capture the Pac-12 spot), leaving four remaining at-large bids. Presuming both teams win out, one will go to one of the non-automatic qualifying schools, either the Boise St. Broncos (currently ranked 10th) or Houston Cougars (currently ranked 11th).
That leaves three spots left. The SEC BCS runner-up (likely Alabama, potentially LSU if they get upset by Arkansas, remotely Arkansas) should take one spot. The Oklahoma/Oklahoma State loser will almost certainly take one of those spots. Either one (perhaps both) will be ranked #3 and #4 and earn an automatic bid.
This leaves us with one bid. Can the Cardinal take the last bid?
If there are fewer than 10 automatic qualifiers, then the bowls will select at-large participants to fill the remaining berths. An at-large team is any Football Bowl Subdivision team that is bowl-eligible and meets the following requirements:
A. Has won at least nine regular-season games, and
B. Is among the top 14 teams in the final BCS Standings.
No more than two teams from a conference may be selected, regardless of whether they are automatic qualifiers or at-large selections, unless two non-champions from the same conference are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the final BCS Standings.
That eliminates a lot of SEC teams. But just remember that a BCS bowl is under no obligation to pick the highest ranked remaining BCS team.
If we get an SEC-Big 12 matchup in the title game (which is what it's looking like barring chaos), the Rose Bowl (who has next dibs) will go the Big Ten-Pac-12 route, the Fiesta Bowl takes the Big 12 runner-up, the Sugar Bowl takes the SEC runner-up, and the Orange Bowl takes the ACC team.
That leaves the Big East champion, the non-AQ with the highest ranking, and one more at-large team. What hope would the Cardinal have?
Well, currently situated above Stanford in the rankings are the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Clemson Tigers. Virginia Tech and Clemson are destined for a matchup in the ACC Championship game, and one of them will lose and inevitably drop behind Stanford if Stanford wins out.
But that doesn't matter; all that matters is that the ACC title loser stays in the top 14 of the BCS rankings, and they could be picked ahead because Virginia Tech or Clemson would probably sell more tickets and draw better TV ratings to a Fiesta Bowl game than Stanford would. Still, it would be a dead heat between Stanford and an ACC runner-up for that last at-large bid, so it's not out of the question that the Cardinal drop behind them (the Andrew Luck factor looms large).
The bigger nightmare for Stanford is if a Big Ten team sneaks back into the top 14.
Big Ten teams tend to be very attractive options regardless; they have the second largest set of fanbases outside the SEC, and they're always destined to tune in and watch their teams. And you have to imagine that if the Nebraska Cornhuskers (16th in the rankings) or the Michigan Wolverines (18th in the rankings) win out (both of them play each other, so essentially the winner of their matchup) but are still stuck behind Michigan State, they won't have to worry about a loss in the Big Ten Championship game because they won't be in it.
Nebraska or Michigan in the top 14 of the BCS would have a great shot capture an at-large bid simply because they will have the TV ratings/ticket revenue advantage over Stanford by a significant margin, even with the Luck factor in play. Tough break, but that's the way the BCS works. It's a cartel that's designed to invite in the fanbases that would bring in the most revenue for the bowl committees, and Stanford would've had to earn their way by going undefeated. Being a one-loss Pac-12 team may not be enough.
So even though Stanford still has a decent shot at getting to the Fiesta Bowl, they are by no means guaranteed of getting there even if they do win out. Their only way to finish it up? The Oregon Ducks need to keep winning, then get chaos to send them to the title game, and the Rose Bowl would be compelled to take Luck and the Cardinal to keep Pac-12/Big Ten tradition going.
What a fair system the BCS has in place! It might almost make Cardinal fans and the Pac-12 office want to choke to death.