Baylor fans might have to work up a paint job for Auburn, Florida, Michigan or USC before the season's done.

Staff photo— Jerry Larson

Several times this season, as Floyd Casey Stadium public address announcer Derek Smith has announced other college football scores, a distinct murmur has emanated from the Baylor crowd.

It’s the sound of nervous commotion buzzing forth, as the following thought settles over the fans: “OK, cool, now what does that mean for our Bears?”

It’s also a previously foreign noise to Waco. Caring about how another team’s win or loss affects the BCS rankings, and thus how it affects Baylor, has never mattered. Sure, as college football fans, Bear backers may have taken interest in this score or that one over the years. (Along with a special delight whenever Texas A&M loses). But such interest was superficial at best. It never really mattered.

Until now. Welcome to national relevance, Baylor— where scoreboard-watching is as passionate a diversion as the games themselves.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave all your life, you know that college football isn’t just about what happens on your field. It’s about what happens at all the other fields across America. And what fat guys with laptops, as well as the laptops themselves, think about what happens on those fields. (Incidentally, if you had been living in a man cave all your life, you’d at least have access to satellite TV).

That’s why if you’re a Baylor fan, you’re all of the sudden an Auburn fan, too. And a Florida fan. And a hearty supporter of the Michigan Wolverines and USC Trojans. Why? Because you’d love to see them knock off Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Stanford.

Such games matter because, in some cases, it’s the only way Baylor can play for a national championship.

Now, know this: We’re not debating whether Baylor would deserve to play for a national title if it won out. If you’re asking me, I’d love to see all the undefeated and highly-ranked one-loss teams in college football compete in something called a playoff tournament at the end of the year. It’s been done in other sports, to great fanfare and TV ratings. Alas, that’s neither here nor there. I first clang that bell more than two decades ago, and there’s little point in re-ringing it now.

What we’re left with, at least until next season, is a bunch of teams wrestling (and arguing) for two spots. For the upstart Baylor Bears to earn one of those coveted spots, a lot of other things have to happen.

First off, Baylor can’t lose. One loss, and the Bears are done. Perhaps not eliminated from playing in the Fiesta Bowl (which would still be cool, right?), but a one-loss Baylor team would have no prayer of punching a ticket to the BCS title game in Pasadena.

And that’s, of course, a lot to ask. Art Briles’ team is fully capable of doing it, but winning all the games on one’s schedule is never easy. I’ve stated all year that Baylor’s most challenging, SAT-style test will come at Oklahoma State on Nov. 23. A slip-up in the conference opener at West Virginia notwithstanding, the Cowboys have found their rhythm, looking a lot more like the team many in the media expected to see when it tagged OSU as the preseason Big 12 favorite.

Hard water to swim

Historically, the Bears haven’t been able to swim freely in Stillwater, either. Baylor’s last win there came in 1939 — was that before the invention of the forward pass? —– and under Briles they’ve lost by an average score of 49-19 at Boone Pickens Stadium.

But at least their own scoreboard is within the Bears’ control. To reach Pasadena, Baylor needs a lot of other dominoes to fall, and has no way of knocking them over.

Stanford may be one of those dominoes, and it may not. Clearly, Stanford possesses a rugged team that flies in the face of the froo-froo West Coast stereotype. The Cardinal have beaten five ranked teams already, including No. 3 Oregon, though I think the Pac-12 is slightly overrated. Certainly if a one-loss Stanford squad remains ahead of unbeaten Baylor in the BCS race going forward, the Bears will have a legitimate gripe. (Though it should be noted that an undefeated Big 12 team has never not played for the national title in the BCS era).

Ohio State could be a problem, but if Baylor keeps winning (especially impressively) some poll voters will probably take notice that the Buckeyes have looked slightly less dominant in a slightly weaker league. It’s always dangerous to play the comparative score game, but let’s do it anyway. The Buckeyes struggled to put away Buffalo in Columbus, leading by just 10 points in the third quarter before separating for a 40-20 win. A week later, Baylor scored four touchdowns in each of the first two quarters on its way to a 70-13 win over those same Bulls.

Still, Ohio State has the pedigree of a traditional college football power. So if Baylor fans want to see a crack in the Buckeyes’ record, they should throw their support behind Michigan in the Big House or maybe Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

If anyone has truly matched Baylor in sheer overpowering dominance, it’s the top two teams in the country. Alabama absolutely looks the part of a two-time defending national champion. Nobody except Johnny Football has been able to make the Crimson Tide defense look mortal, and the Fightin’ Sabans still won that game, too.

A Nov. 30 trip to in-state rival Auburn won’t be a cakewalk and the Tide would probably face another top 10 team in Missouri in the SEC championship game. (No, I can’t believe Mizzou is that good, either). But given the SEC’s lofty (and deserved) status as the premier college football conference in the country, even a one-loss Alabama team could potentially block Baylor’s path to Pasadena, like an elitist night club bouncer.

Then there’s Florida State. Behind redshirt freshman QB Jameis Winston, the odds-on favorite to hear his name called the Downtown Athletic Club, the Seminoles have eviscerated all challengers. FSU’s margin of victory compares favorably to Baylor’s (40.0 for FSU, 45.6 for BU), and the Seminoles picked up the signature win of the college football season thus far with their 51-14 bloodletting at Clemson.

So if Jimbo Fisher’s guys keep winning, they’ll play for the national title. Baylor’s best shot at taking FSU’s place probably rests with Florida in the Swamp or Miami in the ACC title game. (And we saw how Florida State quieted Miami a week ago. Hurricanes? More like a light breeze).

So, Baylor can control its national championship fate, but only to a point. It still needs help elsewhere.

Ever since football’s dawn, the scoreboard has been the great equalizer. Surely you’ve witnessed this scene before: A defensive back, playing for a team down by three touchdowns, delivers a stinging lick to some receiver coming over the middle, then chirps over his fallen prey with full-throated hubris. The receiver rises to his feet and points to the scoreboard. After all, it tells the more complete story.

Now Baylor will be following that story closer than ever.