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Breaking down the BCS championship matchup; more mail

Photo:

Nick Marshall and Auburn won their final nine games to secure a spot in this year's BCS championship.

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and ESPN's Joe Tessitore review Championship Saturday, discuss Florida State-Auburn and speculate on the pecking order of the six Heisman Trophy finalists.

Let's begin with this.

Hi Stewart. Thanks for the Mailbag. When was your first notion that Auburn was a national championship game contender?
-- Fred Goforth, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

After the Tigers beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. While it's not unusual for a "surprise" team (based on the preseason rankings) to go on a national title run, never before have I underestimated anybody so late into the year as I did Auburn in 2013. And I know I'm not alone. Now, as we head into a unique championship game between two very different teams that had very different seasons, it's possible we're still underestimating the Tigers.

Or, are we overestimating Florida State?

Instead of seeing a BCS championship matchup between Florida State and Ohio State, with their respective cupcake schedules (as you exposed in a recent column), we get a least one team that has played a legitimate slate. Is this going to turn out like Notre Dame against Alabama last year? Yes, Florida State is very good, especially with Famous Jameis. But why all the gushing given its lack of quality competition?
-- Mark, Charlotte, N.C.

Now that Auburn has made the BCS championship game, everyone is talking about the "athletes" on Florida State's defense and how they match up well against Auburn's run game. Last I checked, Alabama and Missouri have some pretty good athletes on defense, too, and both were unable to slow down Auburn's attack. While Florida State has dominated its schedule this season, is it fair to say that it will be in for a shock against Auburn's front five and backfield?
-- Stephen, Huntsville, Ala.

Comparing Florida State in 2013 with Notre Dame in '12 is ludicrous. The Fighting Irish were a very good team that went undefeated against a tougher schedule than they were given credit for, but they weren't bursting at the seams with elite athletes. From a pure talent standpoint, the Seminoles are on an entirely different level not only from that team, but also, in my opinion, from any other team in the country this season, Alabama included. In fact, the 'Noles are the team many assumed 'Bama would be, only with a redshirt freshman at quarterback instead of a fifth-year senior. Florida State has NFL-caliber players at nearly every position -- and they're not just the upperclassmen. Two of the Seminoles' most impressive defensive players in the victory over Duke last Saturday were safeties Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews, both true freshmen. Florida State's receiving corps (Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin) is ridiculous. Telvin Smith and Lamarcus Joyner are outstanding. The Seminoles have landed top-10 recruiting classes in each of the past four years, and it shows in the depth of their roster.

MANDEL: Final season of BCS brings questions, not controversy; Overtime

Florida State definitely boasts more athleticism on defense than did Missouri and, at worst, is a push with Alabama. But there's credence to Stephen's notion that the 'Noles haven't played anybody in the ACC that could prepare them for the type of relentless rushing attack they will face against Auburn. Florida State's best opponent this year was Clemson, a top-15 team that runs an up-tempo offense much like Auburn's. But the Tigers were primarily a spread passing team. Boston College, with Andre Williams, more closely resembles Auburn, but the Eagles didn't have a speedy quarterback like Nick Marshall to further vex a defense. It's not Auburn's offnse that should have the 'Noles concerned, though. Jameis Winston and his offensive line have not faced a pair of defensive ends as talented as Dee Ford and Carl Lawson.

Those are all reasons why Florida State might be in for a surprise. The Seminoles' 42-point average margin of victory is why those reasons still might not matter.

Hi Stewart. Is the Pac-12 commissioner fuming right now? The Pac-12 was considered at least the second-best league and gets only ONE BCS berth, while the crappy Big Ten, ACC and, to a lesser extent, Big 12 all get two? What a joke. I guess the Pac-12 should have only played eight conference games and had only two or three good teams to ensure higher rankings for those teams to get into BCS games.
-- Ian, San Francisco

I'd imagine this season has brought a harsh dose of reality for Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. He has worked tirelessly to raise the league's exposure -- East Coast media junkets, better deals with ESPN and Fox, high-profile Thursday night games, the Pac-12 Networks -- only to find the conference running into the same issues it has throughout the BCS era. Some are unfixable. At the end of the day, Oklahoma and Clemson are going to BCS bowls instead of Oregon because of conference tie-ins, and because those schools are considerably closer to their respective bowl destinations. Eugene is 2,500 miles from New Orleans. While I don't doubt that Ducks fans would have traveled en masse for a game against Alabama, it's unrealistic to think they'd match the numbers of Oklahoma's fan base.

It's also telling that such a star-studded league did not produce one of the six Heisman finalists. As Jon Wilner pointed out, Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey -- every bit as deserving as Boston College's Williams, in my opinion -- played seven of his 12 games after 10 p.m. ET. Having lived and worked in both New York and California, I can confirm that East Coast bias, while largely unintentional, is very real. It's a time zone thing.

BOWL SCHEDULE: Matchups, dates for every 2013-14 bowl game

Still, as Ian notes, some of the Pac-12's issues are self-inflicted. The league chooses to play nine conference games while others play eight, and most members schedule tough nonconference slates. Unlike some other places, Arizona State and USC won't sell out their stadiums for games against Chattanooga.

As I've written before, however, the league could benefit significantly from next year's system, and not just in the playoff. This year, the Pac-12 has three BCS-eligible teams (Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State) and landed just one BCS berth. Next year, if the selection committee ranks Oregon ahead of Oklahoma and both are still available after all the various contract spots are filled, they would place the Ducks in one of the big-six games before the Sooners. Simple as that.

With everyone so happy about the end of the BCS and the beginning of playoff next year, would you please turn back the clock to 1991 and put the teams, as they finished this year, into the bowls that they would have gone to then? Please also don't forget to eliminate the conference championship games that were not in existence in '91. Maybe a little reminder of what we had before the BCS would make people appreciate it for what it was.
-- Steve Spatks, Yuma, Ariz.

This is always one of my favorite exercises, but it's also become increasingly difficult due to conference realignment. I can't eliminate league championship games because that would mean ignoring the existence of divisions, and then how do you determine who the SEC champion would have been? But I will account for the fact that the Southwest Conference still existed and the Cotton Bowl was on equal footing at the time.

My best guess:

• Rose: Stanford-Michigan State
• Orange: Florida State-Alabama
• Sugar: Auburn-Ohio State
• Cotton: Baylor-Oregon
• Fiesta: Arizona State-Oklahoma

Sorry, I think I unintentionally disproved your theory. I'll take the 1991 version.

C'mon. What really was your third-best bowl? It couldn't really have been the we-are-overrated Orange Bowl. Maybe top 10, but No. 3? Seriously?
-- Adam, San Francisco

Really? The Ohio State-is-overrated meme is carrying over from the BCS standings to my just-for-kicks bowl rankings? Change the channel.

Photo:

Jameis Winston is regarded as the Heisman Trophy favorite after leading Florida State to a 13-0 record.

Stewart, it sure looks like Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is the hands-down Heisman Trophy winner on the field, but didn't you mention an ethics/integrity component to the award? The state attorney in Tallahassee did not charge Winston, but much of the scenario sure looks seedy and tends to reinforce a lot of the negative stereotypes about today's "privileged" athletes. What say you, sir?
-- Paul Hlad, Durham, N.C.

There's some confusion about this subject. The instructions on the Heisman ballot indicate that people should vote for "the most outstanding college football player in the United States." The only stated guidelines are that the player must be an enrolled student and in compliance with NCAA eligibility rules. Nothing is mentioned about integrity or ethics.

However, on its official website, the Heisman Trust publishes a mission statement that says the trophy "annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." It's an admirable but incredibly vague and Pollyannaish notion that a certain segment of voters dutifully attempt to uphold nonetheless. You'll see that this weekend, when a sizable chunk of voters leave Winston off their ballots entirely. And that's their prerogative.

Personally, I'm not comfortable assessing the integrity of a 19-year-old kid I've never met and who was never charged with a crime. I read the investigation documents. There was certainly no shortage of seediness. But with the prosecutor declining to press charges, who am I, as a sportswriter, to moralize about a college kid's character? I tweeted out something to that effect earlier this week and got lambasted by people who viewed that as a "weakness" on my part, with some suggesting I should give up my vote if I'm not willing to judge a 19-year-old's integrity. First of all, you would think we learned from the Manti Te'o story that we don't truly know any of these players off the field, good or bad. But secondly, if the Heisman Trust doesn't want their award tarnished by integrity concerns, then they should add more specific language as to what does or doesn't disqualify a candidate. Until then, I fulfilled my duty and voted for the most outstanding player who, to the best of my knowledge, is enrolled and eligible.

ELLIS: Heisman Watch: Could Jameis Winston win by a historic margin?

Why didn't Bryce Petty make it to New York? He finished with more than 4,000 total yards, 41 total touchdowns and only TWO interceptions. He had a higher passer rating than Jordan Lynch, Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron while leading Baylor (BAYLOR!) to its first conference title in 33 years! If a blowout loss to Bowling Green doesn't disqualify Lynch and four losses don't disqualify Manziel, then a blowout loss at Oklahoma State shouldn't hurt Petty, either.
-- Clayton, Waco, Texas

C'mon. You're applying far too much logic. This is the Heisman race. I had a lengthy discussion on my podcast this week with Joe Tessitore -- who spends his free time analyzing the regional breakdown from the 1974 Heisman vote -- about how each candidate got to New York. While there are many different ways to get there, from gaudy stats (Williams) to national championship contention (Winston) to career achievement (McCarron), the single most important factor is timing.

With the exception of household names like Manziel and McCarron, most players only get a few opportunities to make a statement in front of a large national audience. Petty had his chance on Nov. 23 at Oklahoma State. Manziel and Marcus Mariota lost on the same afternoon, and the field behind Winston was suddenly wide open. But Baylor got crushed. Petty was ineffective for three quarters, and at that point there was no recovering.

Contrast that with Auburn tailback Tre Mason, the ultimate good-timing candidate. If Mason had run for 304 yards against Missouri on Sept. 21, instead of Dec. 7, he would have garnered far more attention throughout the season. But had he run for 132 yards in a loss (as he did at LSU on Sept. 21) in the SEC title game, he probably wouldn't be going to New York.

Due to the Heisman's new iron-fisted policy against revealing our ballots before the ceremony, I can't tell you how I voted. But I will say there were about 10 different players I seriously considered for the No. 2 and 3 spots, Petty among them. I tried my best to hit the reset button -- to not fixate so much on the games that were just played -- and review everyone based on the entire season. I don't know how other voters approached the process, though. The Heisman has increasingly become a week-to-week horse race. One particularly good or bad performance can override the other 11 or 12.

CAMPUS UNION: Cast your ballot in SI.com's 2013 Heisman Trophy reader poll

Stewart, it seems that the state of Alabama owns college football. It is going for five straight national championships. Three of the six Heisman finalists (Winston, McCarron and Mason) have Alabama connections, and if they both win their bowls, Auburn and Alabama will finish No. 1 and 2 in the final polls.
-- Leslie Gates, Atlanta

Clearly, Paul Finebaum is pulling the strings.

Stewart, I enjoyed your article on Chris Petersen and why it was time for him to move on. But is he the next big thing? Or is he another Dan Hawkins, the previous Boise State coach to bolt to the big time and who ended up failing miserably? What makes Petersen different than Hawkins, and what makes you think he will succeed at Washington?
-- Michael Koltuniak, Plymouth, Mich.

Obviously you never know for sure, but Hawkins and Petersen are polar opposite personalities who walked into vastly different situations. Hawkins, a great guy who was extremely unorthodox, and who admitted that he was an NAIA coach at heart, went to a Colorado team that was just a couple of years removed from a recruiting scandal that all but destroyed the Buffaloes' program -- after which the school was leery of placing too much emphasis on football. Petersen, who cut his teeth in the Pac-10, goes to a Washington program that just spent $280 million renovating its stadium and football facilities, and which did not hesitate to immediately make him the highest-paid public school coach in the Pac-12. The Huskies are all-in on football, so Petersen, who inherits a talented roster, could not have asked for a much better situation. He does not have to rebuild in the slightest.

Furthermore, while Hawkins deserves ample credit for elevating Boise's still nascent FBS program in the early 2000s, those Broncos did not compete at the highest level of the sport. Petersen showed time and again that he could win head-to-head against higher-profile programs in spite of their considerable advantages. He's a significantly more proven commodity. But now he'll have to do it every week.

Few would dispute Petersen's X's-and-O's acumen. Ultimately, the question is whether he can recruit the more sought-after prospects who USC, Oregon and Stanford all want, too. That's an unknown. But Petersen has at least one surefire selling point. Every kid at that level thinks he's going to the NFL. Petersen produced four first-rounders during his Boise tenure, and 10 picks in the past three drafts -- twice as many as Washington during the same span. So I think he'll do OK.

Thanks goodness liberty, justice and Michigan State prevailed, and our nation was spared from the atrocity of seeing a BCS championship game without a representative from the SEC! I, for one, am sick of the paranoia over people's favorite teams potentially being left out of the national championship before all the games have been played. Stewart, any chance we can have a Mailbag moratorium on "Could my favorite team get left out of the playoffs?" questions until at least mid-November next season?
-- Brian Miller, Goshen, Ind.

Oh, it's going to be so much worse next season. With the BCS, at least you could reasonably predict how the standings would fluctuate. There's no precedent with the selection committee. EVERYBODY's favorite team is in danger.

As a Big 12 fan looking for more national respect, I'm frustrated that automatic tie-ins sent Baylor to the Fiesta Bowl and Oklahoma to the Sugar Bowl (and not vice versa). Bob Stoops deserves credit for getting 10 wins out of this highly flawed Sooners team, but they can't hang with Alabama. A healthy Baylor would be much better equipped to give 'Bama a run. I fear that the Sugar Bowl result will reinforce prevailing notions that the Big 12 is average even if the Big 12 has a positive bowl season otherwise. Is this fear justified?
-- Andrew, Houston, Texas

It could be a pretty rough bowl season for the Big 12. Three of its six teams are double-digit underdogs (Oklahoma vs. Alabama, Texas vs. Oregon and Texas Tech vs. Arizona State). But your question also demonstrates why bowl records are an imperfect measuring stick. Only in the BCS can the team that wins the conference (Baylor) draw a weaker bowl opponent (UCF) than the runner-up. And if Oregon landed an at-large berth instead of the Sooners, then every Big 12 team below the Bears would be playing a lesser opponent than they are now.

Hey Stewart, preseason predictions are, at best, a crapshoot. But you deserve some props for your "Surprise Team" (Florida State) and "Flop Team" (Florida) selections in the preseason Crystal Ball.
-- Wayne S., Russellville, Ala.

Well look at that. If only I'd taken it one step further and put Florida State in the championship game, I'd look like a genius right now.

And if I'd thought to put Auburn in there, I'd probably go ahead and retire on top.

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