Kevin C. Cox
Florida is almost certainly going to the Sugar Bowl. But whether the Gators face Oklahoma or Louisville depends on ... Northern Illinois?
Florida's all but set for the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans come the New Year, with the BCS rankings likely to install the Gators as the No. 3 team in America and give Florida an automatic BCS berth as a team in the top four from a conference with a champion playing in the BCS Championship Game.
That "likely to install" bit is because Florida has moved in front of Georgia in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, which should seal the Gators as the BCS No. 3 team unless their computer rankings all dip significantly; that "automatic BCS berth" bit is a BCS requirement, and you can read more about it here.
The Sugar Bowl gets to pick first among BCS at-large teams — from a pool of Florida, by virtue of its auto-bid; Louisville, the presumptive Big East champion; Northern Illinois, MAC champion, if it gets into the BCS top 16; and any other non-SEC team in the BCS top 14. (No conference can have more than two BCS berths unless two non-champions are No. 1 and No. 2 in the final poll.) As explained before, that pick being used on any team but Florida would be a little stunning.
But the rest of the selection process is why Florida's opponent is still a little uncertain. It's best to explain this through scenarios, I think.
Scenario 1: Northern Illinois within BCS top 16
Northern Illinois' BCS ranking matters deeply here for two reasons. First, no BCS bowl is going to want to be stuck with the Huskies as a booby prize. That's unfair to Northern Illinois, a very good and exciting team led by Jordan Lynch, the best quarterback you haven't seen an ESPN segment on, but it's a fact that a smaller team's smaller fan base is less likely to sell out its bowl allotment and drop millions in the host city, and it's also a fact that fans of the other team will be less jazzed to see Northern Illinois.
Second, and more importantly: Northern Illinois would eat up one at-large spot that is likely to go to Oklahoma. If the Huskies get an automatic "non-AQ champion + top 16" berth, Florida gets its automatic No. 3 berth, and Louisville gets its automatic Big East champion berth, there is just one slot for another at-large ... and it's very likely to go to Oregon.
The Sugar Bowl would have first pick of the bowls with space for at-large teams, and would likely select local team Florida. The Fiesta would go next, looking for a team to pair with Big 12 Kansas State, and would almost certainly select Oregon. That would leave the Sugar to pick next, of Louisville and Northern Illinois — there's virtually no way the Sugar takes the Huskies over the Cardinals, and so Florida would play Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. This is still unlikely, with the Huskies at No. 16 in the USA TODAY poll and unloved by the computer rankings coming into this week, but it's possible.
Scenario 2: Northern Illinois outside BCS top 16
Without Northern Illinois in the picture, things get a lot clearer. The Sugar still has first pick among Florida, Louisville, and the rest of the BCS top 14 that isn't from the SEC, as a replacement for Alabama, and the Sugar would still pick Florida first. The Fiesta would take Oregon to pair with K-State, the Sugar would take Oklahoma to play Florida and set up the 2008 title game rematch, and the Orange would be able to pair Louisville with Florida State.
Heck, in this scenario, the Sugar could "pick" Oklahoma "first" and still get a Florida-Oklahoma Sugar Bowl: the chance that the Fiesta snags Florida to pair with Kansas State is infinitesimal, because geography makes Oregon the best choice for the Fiesta and history (Florida was outnumbered in a big way in January 2007) makes Florida a poor one, and so the Sugar could secure Oklahoma "first" and not have to worry about the Fiesta poaching it. That part requires maintaining the illusion that this isn't all ironed out behind the scenes already, but that's a fun illusion to maintain, no?
Scenario 3: Northern Illinois within BCS top 16, and the Sugar goes mad
There is a chance that the Sugar could take an automatically in Northern Illinois team before Louisville with its second pick, leaving the Cardinals for the Orange Bowl and putting together a Florida-Northern Illinois Sugar Bowl. But you can imagine the outrage about that, right? The Orange would be getting a better bowl matchup, Northern Illinois would be being fed to the wolves, and Florida fans wouldn't be exactly enthused about seeing the Huskies. That's why this won't happen, despite being possible: Bowls actually do care about minimizing outrage along with exciting people, which is why there won't be a Texas-Texas A&M matchup this year.
This last scenario might remind keen-eyed Florida fans of 2008, when Florida went to the BCS title game, and Alabama got matched with Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. That, I think, is why the Sugar wouldn't put Northern Illinois in New Orleans: Alabama got embarrassed in that game, and the Sugar's SEC ties are more than strong enough to ensure that won't even be a possibility this time.