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Making sense of a wild set of BCS bowls; more mail

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Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight (9) torched Alabama in a stunning 45-31 victory in the Sugar Bowl.

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and Bruce Feldman from CBS Sports take a break from BCS title game festivities to review the New Year's bowls and look ahead to Florida State-Auburn.

Greetings from beautiful Newport Beach, Calif., media headquarters for Monday's BCS National Championship Game. You couldn't ask for a lovelier setting ... to stare at out the window while writing.

Regardless, I'm glad I decided to add a second Mailbag this week because, man, those first few BCS games gave us just a little bit to talk about.

Stewart, although the championship game has yet to be played, has this been the best season for the BCS? Great games leading up to a national championship game where most everybody agrees we are getting the two best teams.
-- Mitchell, Rochester, N.Y.

Through the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar bowls, this has been by far the most entertaining set of pre-championship BCS bowls since before the system expanded to five games. The craziest part is that two of them -- UCF-Baylor and Oklahoma-Alabama -- involved 17-point underdogs throttling their opponents. Well done, BCS. You're not going down without a fight.

Remember when Utah whipped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and many observers (yourself included) largely dismissed the result because Utah didn't seem that good in the regular season, and couldn't actually be better than Alabama? Will Oklahoma receive the same treatment? If not, why?
-- Guy, Naperville, Ill.

You may recall back in my ranking the bowls column I jokingly alluded to the legacy of that 2009 Sugar Bowl, in which the Alabama/SEC company line was that the Crimson Tide "didn't get up" for that game and the result had little to do with Utah's performance. Even though they were undefeated, the Utes played better in that game than they had against any decent opponent all season. I would argue that Oklahoma -- whose 36-20 loss to Texas now ranks among the top-five most inexplicable results of '13 -- did much the same thing. Quarterback Trevor Knight's previous season-high passing total was 171 yards. He threw for 348 and four touchdowns against the Tide. The Sooners had a decent but hardly overwhelming 27 sacks during the regular season. They took down AJ McCarron seven times, including the game-sealing forced fumble by Eric "Don't Call Me Ted" Striker. It was a masterful performance by coach Bob Stoops' team in its biggest victory since the 2000 national title game.

But this time, I'm not making any excuses for Alabama. On the contrary, I'm kicking myself for getting sucked in by the hype and not trusting my instincts. You could see the cracks, beginning with the Crimson Tide's ugly 35-10 win over Virginia Tech in Week 1. But they were two-time defending national champs, and they just kept on winning.

ANDERSON: In Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, a star is born for Oklahoma

Still, they had an obvious Achilles' heel in their cornerbacks, a weak spot that was first exposed by Texas A&M. At the time, we collectively chalked up their play to "Oh, that's just Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans, they do that to everybody." The issue surfaced again in the first half against LSU's excellent receivers, but then 'Bama rolled in the second half and everyone quickly forgot. Also, the Tide turned in six straight suffocating performances in September and October; looking back, they came against five awful teams and Ole Miss. We also completely underestimated the impact of the season-ending injury to safety Vinnie Sunseri.

Oklahoma's coaches clearly watched the tape and said, Man, we can throw the ball on these guys. And they did, again and again, with a freshman quarterback with four starts to his name. This is why most of us love watching -- but absolutely loathe trying to predict -- bowl games. The truth is, you can't predict ANYTHING.

Hi Stewart, I think more people would be excited about an Oklahoma-Alabama matchup if it happened in early September instead of in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, which, like most of the bowls other than the championship game, has become an afterthought.
-- Dave, Columbus, Ohio

Sent six minutes before kickoff.

Bonus Mailbag? I'm on board. Stewart, it seems one of the arguments people are making in favor of Auburn is that the Tigers have done well in close games. Isn't that actually a good reason why they will lose? I'm pretty sure nobody is saying 2001 Miami wasn't very good because it only won one game by 10 points or fewer.
-- Josh Valentine, Tallahassee, Fla.

It's not that Auburn's close games are somehow a reflection of their strength. It's that the Tigers -- who have now written the book on pulling out dramatic, last-second victories -- might hold an advantage over Florida State if the game comes down to the fourth quarter. The Seminoles, having routed all 13 of their opponents this season, have no such experience in tight games. We saw something similar in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday. Stanford was fairly dominant in all 11 games that it won this season, but it lost in the three contests that came down to a final possession. I could predict exactly how it was going to end as soon as the Cardinal took over deep in their own territory in the final minutes. A last-minute comeback simply wasn't in their blood, whereas Michigan State had recently emerged from a four-quarter contest against a very good Ohio State team in the Big Ten title game.

Florida State just completed one of the most dominant regular-season runs of the BCS era, but many are now dismissing the Seminoles due to the ACC's bowl struggles (3-6 heading into Friday's Clemson-Ohio State Orange Bowl). I don't buy that. Even that 2001 Miami team you referenced had one miraculous escape against a so-so Boston College team. Quite frankly, the more I study this game, the more I think it may be the biggest mismatch in BCS title game history. For crying out loud, it's the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback going against the SEC's No. 14 passing defense. That's unbelievable. Still, just when you think one team couldn't possibly beat the other, Knight outplays McCarron and Oklahoma hangs 45 points on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

STAPLES: After seeing father's fame, Auburn's Tre Mason ready for his turn in the spotlight

I'm a Michigan fan feeling conflicted about Michigan State winning the Rose Bowl. Good for the Big Ten. But it hurts that it's MSU. My brother-in-law is going to rub this in my face for the next year now. What does Michigan need to do in order to be better than MSU and get back to the Rose Bowl? Is Brady Hoke the right coach for Michigan? (And if not, who is?)
-- Rob, Hudsonville, Mich.

I know the Wolverines suffered through some rough years under Rich Rodriguez, most notably a 3-9 campaign in 2008. But I'd imagine this season was more frustrating than just about any other. Hoke was supposed to be the coach to lead Michigan back to Big Ten and national prominence. Instead, the program badly regressed. Meanwhile, little-brother-no-more Michigan State not only continued its recent mastery of the Wolverines, but it also achieved a national breakthrough unlike any in the school's recent history. With coach Mark Dantonio and renowned defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi both re-upping, there's little reason to think that the Spartans -- who are now the winningest team in the Big Ten over the past six seasons -- won't remain an annual title contender. Michigan, on the other hand, just lost to Kansas State 31-14 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

What's interesting about the contrast between the two programs is that it really underscores the importance of evaluation in recruiting. Michigan State built a 13-1 Rose Bowl champion with classes ranked in the 30s or 40s nationally. Some of its biggest stars, such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard, were once no-name recruits. Conversely, Hoke's biggest calling card to date has been his ability to lure high-profile national prospects like quarterback Shane Morris, running back Derrick Green and 2014 commit Jabrill Peppers. While many of Hoke's players are only now beginning to contribute, no one who watched the Wolverines play this season would guess that their roster was overflowing with former blue-chippers.

Hoke was the right coach at the time of his hire because a large portion of the fan base craved a true "Michigan Man" after RichRod's polarizing tenure. Whether Hoke is the right guy moving forward will depend on if he's willing to do some soul-searching about his staff and his program. I still believe he can be successful, but starting next season, he'll be in the same division as both Dantonio and Urban Meyer. Things aren't going to get easier.

Photo:

Bryce Petty and Baylor looked on in disbelief as UCF rolled to a surprising 52-42 win in the Fiesta Bowl.

As a Baylor fan, it pains me to see the way the Bears succumb to pressure on the road and in big games. Is the only way to get over this hump to have prior experience and have been there before?
-- Brandon Marx, Fayetteville, Ark.

First of all, give credit to quarterback Blake Bortles and UCF for a phenomenal year and a spectacular Fiesta Bowl performance. I definitely did not see that coming. I was sky-high on the Knights midway through the season following their near-miss against South Carolina on Sept. 28 and their big win at Louisville on Oct. 18. It was clear that they were a legitimately good team. Late in the year, however, they nearly lost to two awful opponents, Temple and USF, and I figured they'd peaked too soon. It turns out that the team that peaked too soon was Baylor.

In the end, the Bears' backloaded schedule did them in. For one thing, all those 70-point explosions against overmatched early-season foes generated unreasonable expectations. But it also left them severely untested heading into the most critical part of their schedule. Baylor imploded at Oklahoma State, failed to return to dominance in wins over TCU and Texas and then delivered its worst defensive outing to date against UCF in Glendale. There's definitely truth to what you're saying. Often, the hardest step for a formerly downtrodden program to take is the last one. It took Michigan State seven years under Dantonio to finally wipe clean its longtime history of collapses. Duke has had memorable breakthroughs the past two years only to lose both bowl games in devastating fashion. As long as Art Briles stays, though, I fully expect the Bears to keep building. Performances like the Oklahoma State blowout and the Fiesta Bowl debacle should become less common with each passing year.

RICKMAN: Blake Bortles, UCF beat Baylor to secure landmark BCS victory

So, I guess you can now answer the question from your Big Ten season preview. Yes, the Spartans CAN complete a pass and also win the Rose Bowl. GO GREEN!
-- Bryan P. McNamara, New Cumberland, Pa.

Isn't it amazing what you can accomplish by coupling a competent passing game with a suffocating defense? Hopefully, Will Muschamp watched the Rose Bowl and took notes.

Count me among the many who thought Texas A&M would crush Duke. Was the Blue Devils' very good showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl a testament to the undervalued strength of the ACC (stop laughing now)? Or was it just a good game by coach David Cutliffe's team?
-- Tex Camden, Philadelphia

To me, the Chick-fil-A Bowl had two primary takeaways. It reconfirmed that Cutcliffe (with an assist from Florida-bound offensive coordinator Kurt Roper) is an absolute coaching stud, and it served as a reminder that Texas A&M's defense is truly horrific. When I talked with Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder both during the spring and early in the season, it was clear that he knew he wasn't working with a full deck. Still, he was hopeful that some of A&M's younger players would grow up as they gained experience. As it turned out, the safeties who repeatedly blew their coverage assignments throughout Tuesday's clash with Duke were actually veterans. That defense couldn't stop anybody all season. The Blue Devils, who have greatly enhanced their talent in recent years, exploited it.

All the kudos to Johnny Manziel for coming through with one last dazzling performance. But it's a shame for Duke that the game ultimately hinged on two Anthony Boone interceptions -- huge, redemptive plays for the Aggies' defense, which, if nothing else, never stopped fighting.

ELLIS: Johnny Manziel rallies Texas A&M past Duke in thrilling Chick-fil-A Bowl

Stewart, I propose that from here on out, we refer to Ole Miss as "The Idiots Who Fired David Cutcliffe." Thoughts?
-- Dave Erickson, Austin, Texas

That's harsh, but true.

Stewart, what do you think attendance will look like at the semifinal games next year? For example, say you're a fan of a Big Ten team that makes it to the playoff. Next year, you would have to go to the Sugar or Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, followed by a trip to the title game on Jan. 12. That seems like it will be extremely expensive. It will be nearly impossible for the average fan to travel to both. If it were me, I'd probably save my money and hope that my team goes to the title game rather than go to the semifinal.
-- Gautam, Chicago

This is something I've been curious about ever since the earliest plus-one discussions surfaced many years ago, and it's something we'll find out soon enough. Much like the current bowl games, attendance may vary from year to year depending on the teams involved and their relative proximity to the location. My hunch is that only the Rose Bowl -- which currently allots more than 50,000 tickets to the schools (compared with 35,000 for the other BCS bowls) and sells out every one of them -- is in real danger of seeing a drop-off. I actually think more fans will make it to the semifinal bowls than the championship site.

For one thing, there's more time to plan for the first game -- nearly a month in most years. For the title game, you've either got to book early and risk losing hundreds of dollars if your team loses or scramble on 10 days' notice to find tickets, flights and hotel rooms. Secondly, the semis fall on a holiday, whereas the championship will require missing at least two days of work. And third, tickets to the title game will be considerably more expensive and likely lower in supply. The championship might become like the Super Bowl, where sponsors and companies entertaining clients buy up large swaths of seats.

The biggest reason why it probably won't be a problem, though, is that a school doesn't need 40,000 fans to travel to two games; it needs 80,000 to travel to one. That's still fewer than the number that attend home games at Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Texas and many other places. So I don't think attendance will be a problem for the bowls in the years they host a playoff game; it's the other years that could get ugly.

What is your prediction for Brett Hundley's decision? Does he stay at UCLA or head to the NFL? His performance in the Sun Bowl showed what pure talent and athleticism he has, but it also highlighted that his passing could still use improvement. Am I correct in saying that no other school's 2014 season rides so heavily on one player's draft decision?
-- Alex M., Berkeley, Calif.

That's definitely an intriguing question, and probably one of the more difficult decisions a high-profile guy will have to make this year. Hundley could certainly benefit from another season on campus, but I'll be mildly surprised if he doesn't go. He'll be highly sought after once NFL teams get a close look at him, based in large part on that athleticism. When scouts watch the tape, they'll see that Hundley made his share of mistakes, but he also performed admirably given he was playing behind a young, injury-riddled offensive line that could barely protect him against top-flight defenses.

It could be a nerve-wracking week or so in Westwood, as the faithful wait on Hundley's decision. But at least they can no longer sweat Texas' reported interest in Jim Mora. He withdrew from consideration. And obviously, the latter may have a direct impact on the former. Expectations will be enormous for UCLA in 2014 if Mora has another year with Hundley.

Exactly four losses again for Bo Pelini. Are the Cornhuskers in danger of falling from your "Kings" group?
-- Dave, Hangzhou, China

It's starting to become the most impressive streak in sports: 9-4, 10-4, 10-4, 9-4, 10-4, 9-4. Props to Pelini for keeping Nebraska afloat after such a dismal end to the regular season. His Cornhuskers got a much-needed Gator Bowl win over an SEC foe (Georgia). The first two Kings and Barons columns were released five years apart, so let's not go moving teams up or down the ladder again quite yet.

Michigan State beats two top-five opponents to the end the season. If Auburn beats Florida State on another miraculous fluke, the Spartans will have the same record as the BCS champion. Why shouldn't they share the national championship? We'll never know who is really better between the two, and it would be a perfectly fitting end to the BCS era.
-- Andrew, Nashville

You're right, we'll never know. And that's a shame. Still, if Auburn beats the 'Noles, it will have rolled off three straight wins over top-five foes, two of which were ranked No. 1 at the time of the game. No need to share.

Fortunately, starting next year, a team like Michigan State will get its chance on the field. The four-team playoff will eliminate any what-ifs ... well, sort of. I'm guessing at this time next season, I'll be receiving emails along the lines of, "11-2 Michigan State has the same record as Auburn, which just beat No. 1 Florida State in the semifinal. Why shouldn't the Spartans get the same chance? We'll never know who is really better between the two. College football needs to expand the field to eight teams."

MANDEL: Michigan State wins 100th Rose Bowl Game in old-school fashion

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