Auburn, Mizzou guarding against SEC letdownsAuburn coach Gus Malzahn, left, and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel shake hands behind the Southeastern Championship trophy during a press conference the day before the SEC football championship game, at the Georgia Dome, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, in Atlanta, Ga., (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Getz)
ATLANTA (AP) -- Sorry, Southeastern Conference.
You had your chance.
Now, it's out of your hands.
If top-ranked Florida State and No. 2 Ohio State both win on Saturday, they deserve to play for the national title - and no amount of griping from the SEC should make a bit of difference.
The Seminoles have done what they needed to do: win every game.
Ditto for the Buckeyes, even if people want to gripe about the quality of the Big Ten.
Neither No. 3 Auburn nor No. 5 Missouri - the one-loss teams that will meet Saturday at the Georgia Dome for the SEC title - should leapfrog Ohio State if the Buckeyes emerge with a victory in their own league championship game that night.
The SEC has claimed an unprecedented seven straight national titles, and some would have you believe it's almost a birthright that the country's strongest conference (no argument there) should have a representative in the title game, no matter what.
''It's like being in the NFL,'' Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Friday. ''Every week, you have a high-level game.''
''All I know,'' added Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, ''is we've got the best league in college football.''
But this isn't about the best league, it's about the two most worthy teams over the course of the entire season. Under this flawed system (which, thankfully, will be replaced next year by a four-team playoff), if you play in a major conference and win all your games, it takes a pretty compelling argument for a one-loss team to bump you out of a spot in the BCS championship.
Auburn can't make that case.
Missouri can't, either.
Let's start with the Tigers from Auburn. The best part of their resume is last week's remarkable victory over two-time defending national champion Alabama, when they returned a missed field goal 109 yards for the winning touchdown on the final play. If you beat the best, they say, you deserve a chance to be the best.
The Tigers also point to their overall schedule, which included four other games against teams that we ranked in the Top 25 when they played. But Auburn lost 35-21 at LSU - a game that really wasn't that close - and victories over Mississippi, Texas A&M and Georgia don't look quite as impressive in hindsight.
Ole Miss finished 7-5. Johnny Manziel and the Aggies slumped to an 8-4 mark that proved you occasionally need to play a little defense. And the victory over Georgia might deserve the biggest asterisk of all, since Auburn blew a 20-point lead at home and needed the most fortuitous play of the season to pull out the victory: a 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 in the final minute, the ball deflected into the receiver's hands when two defenders ran into each other going for the interception.
Auburn (11-1) could've bolstered its case with an impressive out-of-conference win, but there's nothing persuasive about beating Washington State, Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic and lower-division Western Carolina. Nothing against the remarkable job done by first-year coach Malzahn, who won the SEC West with a team that went 3-9 a year ago and was winless in the SEC, but it's not enough to overtake Ohio State.
On to Missouri.
These Tigers also had quite a bounce-back season, going from 5-7 their first year in the SEC to 11-1 and an East Division title in Year 2. But their case, should they upset Auburn, is even weaker than the other Tigers.
Missouri has played five teams that were ranked when they met, but that includes a victory over Georgia, which was ravaged by injuries when the Tigers pulled off a 41-26 upset between the hedges, as well as wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M (already discussed). Pinkel's team routed a ranked Florida team, but that means nothing after the Gators staggered to a 4-8 record. Which brings us to the Tigers' only loss - a 27-24 setback to South Carolina in double-overtime.
Missouri led 17-0, at home, entering the fourth quarter. If the Tigers had protected that lead, we'd be leading the call for them to play in the BCS championship ahead of Ohio State. But they didn't. And that's a big strike against Mizzou, which also played an extremely weak non-conference schedule: Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State.
Let's consider Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have 24 consecutive victories since Urban Meyer took over as coach, their biggest selling point. The biggest knock against them is a weak schedule.
Their only major-conference opponent from outside the Big Ten was lowly California (1-11). The Buckeyes beat a couple of ranked teams, but a 31-24 victory over Wisconsin is the only one that still looks impressive. They also won at Northwestern, which was 16th at the time but tumbled to a 5-7 finish.
Ohio State does deserve kudos, however, for a 63-14 blowout of a respectable Penn State team, not to mention a 34-24 triumph over rapidly improving Iowa. Critics of the Buckeyes say they should've blown out Michigan in what was a down year for the Wolverines, instead of needing to stop a two-point conversion to preserve the victory last week. We're willing to be a bit more lenient when they were on the road, facing their biggest rival.
So, if Ohio State beats a very good Michigan State team Saturday night in the Big Ten championship, the spot in Pasadena should belong to them, no matter what happens in Atlanta. If not, the winner of Tigers vs. Tigers gets it. (We won't even mention Florida State, which has no chance of losing to Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship; the Seminoles can go ahead and make their Pasadena plans.)
There should be no complaints.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963