Wednesday October 28th, 2009

Ever since the BCS adopted its current formula (two-thirds human polls, one-third computer rankings) in 2004, the weekly standings releases have been largely anticlimactic. Generally, the BCS standings mirror the AP and coaches poll, plus or minus a couple of decimal points here or there.

I noticed quite the hubbub last Sunday, however, when Iowa -- seventh in the AP poll, eighth in the coaches -- suddenly showed up at No. 4 in the latest BCS standings, boosted by its consensus No. 1 ranking in the computer component. We entrust computers to protect our credit card information, deliver important documents and identify potential dating partners -- but to evaluate football teams? Now that makes us leery.

In this week's College Football Overtime, I tried to explain why exactly the machines love them some Hawkeye. Simply put, Iowa's played a stronger schedule than everyone else. (Its opponents have combined for a 38-22 record; by comparison, Florida's and Texas' have combined for a 26-24 mark, Alabama's 28-29.) And the BCS doesn't allow its computer ratings to take victory margin into consideration, so that 15-13 win last Saturday weighs no more or less than would a 30-13 beating.

But most people don't want to hear it. The Big Ten stinks! The Hawkeyes barely beat Northern Iowa! Do you really think they could beat anyone else in the top 10? I'm not saying one should necessarily trust the computers more than the voters or his or her own two eyes; I do, however, think it unwise to summarily dismiss the legitimacy of the 8-0 Hawkeyes. Here's why:

Is it just me, or does the 2009 Iowa Hawkeyes' season seem eerily similar to Ohio State's 2002 national championship season? -- Larry, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Iowa still has a long way to go to before being mentioned in the same breath as that Ohio State team -- in fact, before that can happen it will need to beat Ohio State on the road YoNov. 14 -- but the parallels certainly exist. Much like these Hawkeyes, those Buckeyes played an old-school, often unsightly brand of football. Like Iowa, Ohio State endured an inordinate amount of last-minute escapes. But here's the most important shared trait of all: A large majority of the county refused to believe they were the juggernaut their record indicated. They were "the Luckeyes," and not until that final Ken Dorsey pass fell incomplete in Tempe did most deem them legitimate. (Except in Miami, where referee Terry Porter will forever live in infamy.)

When Ricky Stanzi completed that last-second pass to Marvin McNutt against Michigan State last Saturday night, it actually reminded me of a similar moment from that '02 Ohio State season: Craig Krenzel's 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on a last-minute fourth down to win a 10-6 game at Purdue. Compare the two teams' schedules and you'll see a lot of similarities: Both needed a last-second defensive play to survive a heavy underdog early in the year (Iowa over Northern Iowa, Ohio State over Cincinnati), both scraped out low-scoring wins over Penn State in which the key play did not come on offense and both overcame second-half deficits at Wisconsin.

There are, however, some pretty notable differences. For one, the Buckeyes delivered two early nonconference routs that helped boost their credibility: A 45-21 win over Texas Tech in the now-defunct Pigskin Classic and, more impressively, a 25-7 win over eventual Pac-10 champ Washington State, ranked 10th at the time. Iowa, to its credit, beat 5-2 Arizona, currently tied for second in the Pac-10, but that game went virtually unnoticed at the time.

And then there's the personnel. While most failed to appreciated it at the time, that Ohio State team was incredibly talented. Amazingly, all 11 defensive starters and two nickel-backs were drafted, as were seven offensive starters (not including two-way starter Gamble) and kicker Mike Nugent. I'm no draft expert, but my guess is this Iowa team will wind up producing half that many. Stanzi is an underrated prospect, and the Hawkeyes clearly possess a whole bunch of big-time defensive players (defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns, safety Tyler Sash, linebackers Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds, cornerback Amari Spievey), but they don't have any elite skill players on the level of Maurice Clarett (pre-meltdown) or Jenkins, especially now that leading rusher Adam Robinson is out for the season.

Which brings me to the most important element of all: The Big Ten of 2009 is not the Big Ten of 2002. Ohio State went 8-0 in a conference that was arguably the toughest in the country that season. Four teams (OSU, Iowa, Michigan and Penn State) finished the regular season in the top 12. Five won bowl games. Two league players (Iowa's Brad Banks and Penn State's Larry Johnson) were Heisman finalists, and future NFL first-rounders included Charles Rogers, Braylon Edwards, Lee Evans, Dallas Clark and Robert Gallery.

Compared to those '02 Buckeyes, the '09 Hawkeyes are playing against significantly watered-down competition. However, the same may well be true nationally. Contrary to preseason speculation, '09 Florida has not looked remotely like '02 Miami. Nor has anyone else. The Hawkeyes aren't the most talented team in the country, but, at least according to the BCS computers, they've delivered the best results.

In reference to your assessment of the Heisman race and Tim Tebow being nowhere to be found ... when did the season end? I missed it. -- David Alfonso, Largo, Fla.

Aren't you being a bit harsh on Tim Tebow? After all, Dan Mullen was his coach and mentor for the past three years and was very familiar with all the nuances of the Florida offensive scheme and Tebow's own tendencies. Can't you instead credit Mullen's absence for Tebow's frustration? -- Bill Schultz, Overland Park, Kan.

Let me be clear. I don't believe Tebow has suddenly morphed into a crappy quarterback. My only contention is that he should not currently be mentioned as a Heisman candidate for this season.

While Tebow's yardage production (232.1 per game) hasn't dropped all that much from last season (244.2), in SEC play he's thrown just three touchdowns while committing six turnovers. As is usually the case with quarterbacks, it's not all on him, and I could list any number of contributing factors. His offensive line has played poorly. His inexperienced receiving corps is decidedly average. Florida's play-calling, particularly in the red zone (where the Gators are struggling miserably), has been extremely questionable. And let's not forget the elephant in the room: that concussion. While Florida's medical staff has deemed it safe for him to play, he could still be suffering after-effects.

At the end of the day, Florida is still 7-0 with plenty of time to work out its kinks. Tebow may well turn up his game another notch over the stretch run. What bothers me, however, is that much of the media is essentially holding open a spot for him in New York, regardless of his actual production to date. At this point, any Heisman voter/watcher who still has Tebow in his top five (and apparently, there are plenty who still do) is plain being lazy, because there are any number of players around the country who have been much more "outstanding" (the defining criteria of the award) this season. Like...

Is Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh still a Heisman candidate? How could he not be? Despite two straight losses in, the man is utterly dominant. -- Chris, Omaha

He absolutely, positively should be -- but the Huskers' horrific offense isn't exactly aiding what was already a long-shot bid to become the first defensive tackle to win a Heisman. Presumably, you saw that Nebraska suffered a humiliating, eight-turnover performance in a 9-7 home loss last week to Iowa State in which the most memorable image came after the game. What you wouldn't know unless you watched the game live or took the time to examine the box score was that Suh recorded eight tackles, a sack, three quarterback hurries and, much like Alabama's Terrence Cody, two blocked kicks.

These are absurd statistics for an interior linemen, but Suh's been doing the same thing all year. He leads his team in tackles (44), tackles for loss (10), sacks (four), quarterback hurries (12) and pass breakups (seven). By point of comparison, Cody, no slouch himself, has recorded 17 tackles, five tackles for loss, no sacks, one quarterback hurry and two pass breakups. That's not an indictment of Cody; most defensive tackles do their best work anonymously. But it shows just how ridiculously dominant a player Suh has been.

But obviously, it's going to be much harder for him to gain traction now that Nebraska has three losses and is completely off the national radar. The same is true of another eye-opening standout from a three loss team ...

Hey Stewart, after watching C.J. Spiller's amazing performance against Miami on Saturday, I was wondering how his stats compared to those of Desmond Howard (1991 winner) and Reggie Bush's (2005) seven games into their Heisman seasons? -- Kevin, Charleston, S.C.

Good question. Spiller, who amassed a school-record 310 all-purpose yards against the 'Canes on Saturday, currently averages a national-best 207.9 all-purpose yards per game. He's returned there kickoffs for touchdowns as well as a punt, and, perhaps most impressively of all, he's scored at least one touchdown of 60-plus yards in every game he's played this season.

I did some digging for you, Kevin. Believe it or not, Bush's production through seven games in '05 was nearly identical -- 203.1 per game. Howard's was a more modest 159.9, though he'd already racked up 14 receiving touchdowns. Both played their most memorable games toward the end of the season -- Bush's monstrous night against Fresno State (294 rushing yards, 135 kickoff yards, 68 receiving yards) and Howard's career-defining 93-yard punt return against Ohio State. For Spiller to have a chance, he'd probably need to produce a few more Miami-type games, and the Tigers would need to win the ACC championship game with at least one huge Spiller play.

I know you hate people whining about bad calls, but if Terrence Cody doesn't get flagged for excessive celebration at the end of the 'Bama-Vols game, shouldn't the SEC retroactively award UGA the game I won against LSU? I mean, fair is fair. -- A.J. Green, Athens

Hey A.J. Thanks for writing in. Glad to see you're a Mailbag reader. Naming you to our Midseason All-America Team last week didn't happen to prompt this e-mail, did it?

I regret to inform you, however, that the difference between your admittedly unwarranted flag and the non-call on Cody for removing his helmet is that there was no time left on the clock after the end of the play, therefore there was no "next play" onto which to tack a penalty. I can understand your confusion, however. Lane Kiffin didn't seem to know or care about this technicality during his now-standard postgame gripe-fest. Maybe you read his comments. Some advice: don't. Quite frankly, I'm not sure at this point whether he knows any football rules.

I know I'm a homer, but stuff like this really has me scratching my head about the rankings. Oregon's one loss came in the first game of the year on the road against a top 10 team. USC's one loss also came on the road, but against an unranked Washington team that the Ducks obliterated, albeit missing their starting quarterback. Heck, even LSU has a gripe here, having only lost to Florida but joining Oregon on the outside looking in at all the undefeated teams. But there's USC and its blemish record ranked No. 4. What gives? -- Brian, Salem, Ore.

As you can imagine, I get a gazillion e-mails just like this every week, but for some reason this one caught my attention. As a detached observer of the polls, you'd be hard-pressed to find fault with Brian's logic as to why the Ducks should be rated higher than the Trojans. Even Pete Carroll agrees. But here's the problem with a question like this: It fails to acknowledge that most pollsters do not start with a blank piece of paper each week and rank 25 teams. Most pollsters use their previous week's ballot as a launching point for the next one. Sometimes, there's no particular stat or argument that explains why one team is ranked above another. More likely, it's a matter of chronology.

So in this case, to understand why USC is currently ranked fourth and Oregon 10th in the AP poll, our best bet is to simply retrace the voters' steps.

Preseason: USC enters the year ranked fourth, Oregon 16th.

Sept. 3: The Ducks lose on opening night at No. 14 Boise State and the whole country sees a display of offensive ineptitude. Between that and the LeGarrette Blount incident, Oregon makes the worst possible first impression. The Ducks fall out of the poll the next week.

Sept. 19: A week after winning at Ohio State, the Trojans lose at Washington, itself one week removed from a 15-game losing streak. The voters respond by dropping USC nine spots, from third to 12th, which, while harsh, is still less than they dropped Oregon for losing to a top 15 team.

Sept. 24-26: Four teams ahead of USC -- No. 4 Ole Miss, No. 5 Penn State, No. 6 Cal and No. 9 Miami -- all lose on the same weekend, allowing the Trojans to immediately jump back up to No. 7 (they also pass idle Oklahoma). Oregon, on the strength of an unexpected 42-3 rout of Cal, jumps back into the poll at No. 16.

Oct. 3: USC also clobbers Cal but stays in the same spot. The Ducks move up another three spots (bypassing Penn State and Oklahoma State) after clobbering Washington State.

Oct. 10: No. 4 LSU is the only top 15 team to lose this weekend (to No. 1 Florida). USC passes the Tigers, moving up one spot to No. 6. Oregon stays at No. 13.

Oct. 17: No. 4 Virginia Tech and No. 7 Ohio State lose. USC beats Notre Dame and moves up two spots to No. 4, leapfrogging Boise State. Idle Oregon moves up a spot to No. 12.

Oct. 24: No. 4 USC beats Oregon State and holds down its same spot. Oregon crushes Washington for its sixth straight win and moves up two spots to No. 10.

So there you have it. The short answer: USC started much higher than Oregon, both took big tumbles following their losses and both have since climbed back up. This weekend they'll play each other and render this entire topic moot.

I've noticed experts projecting both Boise State and TCU receiving at-large berths to a BCS bowl game, but only one is guaranteed a spot. If bowls are determined by ticket sales and revenue generating capability, it is difficult imagining the BCS bowls selecting a second mid-major. Would a 10-2 BCS conference team make more financial sense than an undefeated mid-major? -- Todd, Mission Viejo, Calif.

It's not going to happen. If you recall, the same exact scenario took place last season with Utah and Boise State, both of which were undefeated. The Utes got the automatic berth because they were ranked higher (No. 6 vs. No. 9), while the Fiesta Bowl opted for 10-2 Ohio State over the 12-0 Broncos (who went on to face TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl). The only difference this year is that the two teams being mentioned are already ranked that high in late October (TCU is No. 6, Boise is No. 7), which, depending on the amount of attrition above them, means we could be talking about two top five teams come early December.

But the bowls have to protect their business interests (particularly in this economy), and there aren't too many scenarios where a BCS game would draw higher ratings and attendance by voluntarily taking one of these teams. Fans of non-BCS teams and/or BCS critics don't want to hear it, but the numbers don't lie. Utah-Alabama earned a 7.8 rating last season; Texas-Ohio State 10.4. True diehards (like those of you reading this column) are going to watch the Fiesta or Sugar bowls no matter who's playing, and many of you might prefer to watch Boise State than Penn State. But the fact remains, brand-name schools buy more tickets and draw in more casual viewers.

Do you still think that "bad calls just happen" and the SEC's interest in having Florida continue to win is just a coincidence, when this time, they had a replay showing the clear fumble by Dustin Doe, but still refused to allow someone to threaten the SEC's money train? -- Mike Lilley, Frisco, Texas

You guys just aren't going to let this go, are you?

It's been a bad year for officiating, both in the SEC and elsewhere, but there has been bad officiating for as long as there's been football. And the replay officials, in my opinion, are worse than the guys on the field. It's one thing to miss a live call in real time that occurs with no warning; it's another for a bunch of guys standing around a television monitor to watch that Doe replay over and over and still not overturn it. We've seen this time and again since the sport implemented replay. The guys in the booth, whether by instruction or out of respect to the guys on the field (the replay guys are usually retired refs themselves), tend to be extremely conservative about overturning calls.

But do I think they're all in cahoots to protect Florida? Sorry -- I'm not that cynical. If that's the case, somebody went rogue on that Chris Leak fumble call against Auburn a few years back.

Is Pitt for real? Or did it just devour a USF squad that is in the middle of its typical swoon? I am waiting for a Notre Dame beatdown before giving them any cred -- and it would have to be a beatdown. -- Matt, Gainesville, Fla.

I watched a lot of that game and Pitt, now 7-1, looked pretty good. In fact, the Panthers looked like the team I was expecting to see last year, with all those highly rated Dave Wannstedt recruits from the past five years finally playing like seasoned vets. For one thing, you can't ask for a more balanced offense. Give a ton of credit to new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., who's helped transform quarterback Bill Stull from mediocre and job-insecure to the nation's third-ranked passer. Whether it's the play-calling or Stull's improved decision making, he always seems to be throwing to the right spot, and Jonathan Baldwin and Dorin Dickerson catch everything in their sight.

And the beautiful thing is, Stull still doesn't have to carry the load because he's got one of the most productive running backs in the country behind him. It's amazing how quickly freshman Dion Lewis has asserted himself as a bona fide star.

Defensively, that lineup is comprised almost entirely of juniors and seniors like end Greg Romeus, tackle Mick Williams, linebacker Adam Gunn and cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel. That's a lot of playmakers. However, it's this side of the ball that remains my biggest concern about the Panthers. Quite frankly, they haven't faced many explosive offenses. And in the one game they did lose, NC State's Russell Wilson tore them to shreds. Wilson's a great player, but the Wolfpack are 3-4 and Wilson hasn't played like that since. It's a cause for concern, because Pitt is going to face two pretty darn good quarterbacks, Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike, in the weeks ahead.

Come on Stewart. Do you really believe that TCU won that game [last weekend]? BYU handed them the game on a silver platter. They know that the Mountain West can't get back to the BCS and back to the legislature without TCU going undefeated. They gave them the game. How else to explain a team that hasn't thrown the ball all year coming up with 200-plus yards passing? Maybe you should start investigating TCU's win a little closer. -- Dan Nelson, Melba, Idaho

Apparently conspiracy theorists aren't exclusive to the SEC.

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