The dirty little secret of the much-reviled BCS -- the part its keepers always boast but its haters refuse to accept -- is that it's helped make the sport's regular season more compelling.
Case in point: Last Saturday morning in Eugene (which, incidentally, is now officially my favorite college town; be sure to eat at Beppe & Gianni's), I sat in my hotel room watching the first half of the Indiana-Iowa game. A group of Oregon fans in the room next to me were apparently watching, too (the walls were thin). And there was no mistaking for whom they were rooting. Cheers went up every time Ricky Stanzi threw an interception. Shouts of "FUMBLE!" rang from the room when Amari Spievey coughed up a punt return.
In the old days, no one outside the Midwest would have given two hoots about an Iowa-Indiana game. And while 80 percent of the people reading this will be infuriated by what I'm about to say, that'd also be the case in an eight- or 16-team playoff where the Big Ten champ would get in regardless.
This is why, for the past three years or so, I've relentlessly campaigned for the BCS to adopt a plus-one format. Doing so would appease nearly all the big-wigs' primary concerns -- the bowl system and existing calendar would stay intact, regular-season stakes would not be impacted -- while giving two more teams a crack at the title. Admittedly, some seasons are better suited for a plus-one than others (though far more than for the current system, under which two undisputed teams have emerged just three times in 11 years), but this particular season is shaping up perfectly.
Under the Mandel Plan, the No. 1 and 2 teams would host semifinal games in their regular bowl destinations. Just like today, two bowls would lose their host champions, only they'd be the No. 3 and 4 teams. A new bowl would be added to the lineup (most likely the Cotton) to maintain 10 BCS bids. And the championship game would take place a week after the last scheduled bowl. (Next year's game in Glendale, Ariz. is scheduled for Jan. 10; mine would be on the 12th.)
To create my hypothetical lineup, I used this year's existing schedule and the current BCS standings, dropping only Alabama -- playing the role of SEC runner-up -- from No. 3 to No. 5. The selection process worked mostly the same way, too: The bowls that lost champions got first choice of replacements, while the remaining at-large order went 1) Cotton, 2) Orange (whose champion was not in the top four), 3) Cotton. The two semifinal games appear in bold.
• Jan. 1 Rose: No. 8 Oregon (Pac-10 champ) vs. No. 11 Penn Sate (replacement)
• Jan. 1 Sugar: No. 1 Florida (SEC champ) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (Big East champ)
• Jan. 2 Cotton: No. 5 Alabama (first at-large) vs. No. 6 TCU (third at-large)
• Jan. 4 Fiesta: No. 2 Texas (Big 12 champ) vs. No. 3 Iowa (Big Ten champ)
• Jan. 5 Orange: No. 10 Ga. Tech (ACC champ) vs. No. 12 USC (second at-large)
• Jan. 12 title game: Sugar Bowl winner vs. Fiesta Bowl winner
In addition to providing more clarity, the Mandel Plan would also allow greater access to the title game for non-BCS teams. Realistically, there will be fewer than four undefeated teams ahead of TCU and Boise State come season's end (we've never had more than three from the Big Six, and even that happened just once, in 2004), and voters would be far more inclined to move the Horned Frogs or Broncos into the top four than they currently would the top two. (TCU is already No. 4 in the coaches poll.)
I'm sure I will now be deluged with 800 e-mails picking my proposal apart, but keep one thing in mind before you hit send: There's at least a glimmer of hope the Mandel Plan could become reality (the SEC and ACC are already open to a plus-one), whereas any larger playoff proposal -- no matter how many political action committees form to support it -- still has a 0.0 percent chance of getting adopted any time soon.
And now, onto the mail...
This is in regards to who should be ranked higher, Boise State or Oregon. If your fellow writers don't consider ACTUAL head-to-head play as the ultimate measuring stick, when are we going to start ranking college football teams by the schools' hockey team records?-- Mike Albright, Pittsburgh
Mr. Mandel: The Broncos have beaten one team with six wins or more: Oregon. Meanwhile, the Ducks are the only team in the country other than USC to have three victories over FBS teams with six wins or more (Utah, Cal and the Trojans). The quality of Oregon's victories now exceeds that of Boise State's to the point that it offsets the head-to-head result from two months ago.-- Michael Kurtz, Roseburg, Ore.
From the moment Oregon started piling it on USC, I had a feeling this would become a primary topic of debate in Mailbag land, and sure enough, I logged on Monday to find a sea of e-mails like these awaiting me. But despite Oregon fans' many attempts to persuade me, I remain squarely on the head-to-head side. Michael makes a valid point up until he uses the phrase "offsets the head-to-head result." Seriously? We're supposed to now believe that the game we all watched on Sept. 3 never happened?
As a former AP voter, the single most frustrating part of the job was that in most cases, you're trying to compare apples to oranges. The teams play in different conferences, face differing degrees of nonconference strength and often play drastically different styles. The single most helpful factor is actually getting to see the two teams play each other.
Yes, Oregon has gotten infinitely better since losing to Boise. And yes, I've heard all the excuses: It was Chip Kelly's first game, the offense wasn't in rhythm yet, yada, yada, yada. Well guess what: It was the Broncos' first game, too. They didn't play particularly well, either, yet still won convincingly. Any assumption that the result would be different if the teams met again is purely speculative and based largely on a blind assumption that the Pac-10's best team must be better than the WAC's best team. But if I recall correctly, the same two teams met last season at Autzen, with the same result. Sorry, Ducks fans. You lost.
OK, so if you lie to the NCAA you get suspended for a year (Dez Bryant), but if you try to intentionally blind someone by gouging them in the eye (Brandon Spikes) you sit out half a game. It sounds like the NCAA justice system needs some major work.-- Bryan Gallatin, Houston
Reason No. 2,747 the NCAA has an image problem: Almost no one understands what it does. Think of the NCAA as the federal government. It sets up rules and regulations and goes about haphazardly enforcing them, but most day-to-day issues (like Spikes' incident) fall to the local authorities. The only reason the NCAA got involved with Bryant was due to concern he might have jeopardized his eligibility. During the course of the investigation, he broke one of its other rules. Personally, I think Bryant's punishment is absurdly severe, but because the NCAA's enforcement division is so powerless, it tends to go overboard in the few instances it actually gets to enforce one of its rules, often viewing the offense as an excuse to "send a message."
While there are literally hundreds of pages in the NCAA compliance manual outlining what a player can eat, from whom he can or cannot accept a ride, in how many high-school all-star games he can participate -- all falling under the "eligibility" umbrella -- not a single page addresses eye-gouging, sucker-punches, DUIs, marijuana possession or any other sort of personal misconduct. That falls to the schools, with the conferences occasionally getting involved in particularly unsportsmanlike acts. The precedent for in-game transgressions (like in the Big Ten earlier this season) tends to be one game.
By suspending Spikes for a half, Urban Meyer unavoidably set himself up for ridicule, but it's hard for me to get too indignant about it. Meyer is hardly the first coach to put wins and losses ahead of discipline. It reminds me of the time his predecessor, Ron Zook, suspended Channing Crowder for the season opener against Middle Tennessee State, but when a hurricane caused Florida to reschedule the game for mid-October ... Zook rescheduled the suspension. The reality is, if Meyer suspends Spikes for the Vandy game and the Gators wind up losing because of poor linebacker play, nobody's going to be patting him on the back saying, "That's OK, at least you sent a message about sportsmanship." He's getting paid $4 million to win championships, end of story.
On a related note, after reading all sorts of venomous Spikes e-mails, I found it interesting that the one guy who would seem to have the biggest gripe with Spikes, Georgia running back Washaun Ealey, doesn't think he should be suspended.
As a proud LSU alum and an ardent believer of your prognostication, please provide me a template for the path that results in the Tigers playing USC in a bowl game. We want this matchup, we deserve this matchup and we have been salivating for this opportunity since USC attempted to highjack our 2003 national championship. Given USC's second regular-season loss, this seems like more of a possibility than ever!-- Ian S., Dallas
Indeed, I can authoritatively say no fan base is more obsessed with a team to which it has no conference or geographic connection than LSU's with USC. You would think it might have dissipated after the Tigers earned their second BCS championship two years ago, but no dice. Prior to last weekend, I was getting tons of incredulous e-mails from LSU fans as to why the Trojans were ranked higher than the Tigers. I even got one this week preemptively griping about USC's possible BCS inclusion over LSU's.
So I'm all for a USC-LSU bowl game if for no other reason than to shut up some of these people. If and when that happens, I would certainly hope that L.A. resident/Tigers diehard/2009 Mailbag Crush Katy Mixon gets to administer the pregame coin toss. But, unfortunately, it's going to be hard to pull off. To reach the BCS this year, LSU will either need to beat Alabama this weekend or, if it loses, win out and hope the SEC title game loser sustains a second loss. In either event, the Tigers would likely play in the Sugar Bowl.
But landing USC as their opponent will be nearly impossible. Besides the fact the slumping Trojans will probably need to win out, the Sugar Bowl has last pick of at-large teams this year. I can't imagine both the Orange and Fiesta bowls passing on 10-2 USC in favor of the Big East champion or TCU/Boise State, both of which will be guaranteed a berth. Sadly, this entirely one-sided rivalry may have to go unresolved for yet another year.
Challenge! Do you have instant replay? Boise State dominated Oregon the past two seasons. Go watch the tape. How can anyone rank Oregon higher? Is this figure skating judging?-- Tony Pecora, Bozeman, Montana
Let's be honest. The only difference between college poll voting and figure skating judging is that football teams at least provide some data (scores) to work with. Though it would be interesting to watch both Jeremiah Masoli and Kellen Moore attempt a pirouette.
Stewart, I'm an admitted Penn State homer, but am I crazy for thinking Daryll Clark is getting stiffed in the Heisman talk? His 2,306 yards and 23 TDs (18 throwing, five running) are well above Tim Tebow's marks (1,874 yards, 18 TDs) and on pace with the golden boy, Jimmy Clausen (2,261 yards, 19 TDs). Shouldn't the quarterback of a one-loss team with those numbers get some chatter? And for the love of all that is holy do not mention strength of schedule -- Florida has played all of one team this year and that was LSU.-- Wes Kendle, Middletown, Del.
Well I can't entirely disregard strength-of-schedule since every objective rating system disagrees with you (Sagarin ranks Florida's schedule 27th, Penn State's 83rd; CollegeBCS.com, which mimics the RPI formula, ranks Florida's No. 7, Penn State's No. 40). But regardless, Clark's larger problem is that he laid an egg in the Nittany Lions' biggest and most-watched game to date, going 12-of-32 with three interceptions against Iowa. Say what you want about Clausen, but he's only thrown two picks all season and actually performed well in Notre Dame's two losses.
Personally, my Heisman stance hasn't changed in recent weeks. If I had to cast a ballot right now, it would go to a defensive player, most likely Ndamukong Suh (despite his penchant for hitting parked cars) or Eric Berry. And if we're talking quarterbacks with big statistics on one-loss teams, you can't top Houston's Case Keenum -- 72 percent completions, 3,293 yards, 25 TDs and five INTs. He's in my top three as well.
Do you think Mark Richt is on the hot seat yet in Athens? I know he has managed to win a ton of games in his career; however, it seems to me that his teams lack discipline, constantly underachieve and have an inability to win the big game. All of these factors can usually be attributed to poor coaching.-- John Brock, Toronto
I've noticed an interesting trend when it comes to the Richt "hot seat" discussion. Whereas a teams' own fans are usually the first to turn on a struggling coach, in this case, nearly all such speculation is coming from outside the state of Georgia (and in John's case, outside the country). Perhaps it's because we've seen other SEC schools, like Auburn, abruptly turn against previously successful coaches. But Georgia is different. For one thing, its AD, Damon Evans, is one of the sharpest guys in the profession; he'd never make a knee-jerk reaction off one bad season. And most sensible Dawgs fans, while incredibly frustrated with the current team, still revere Richt, who rescued the program from 20 years of mediocrity and boasts an 86-26 record and two SEC titles.
Right now, most fans are understandably directing their angst at Richt's coordinators, Mike Bobo and Willie Martinez. Richt isn't dumb. He knows he will have no choice but to part ways with at least Martinez after the season to show the faithful he's serious about making changes. And he'll definitely be facing pressure to return Georgia to SEC title contention next year. Florida will be Tebow-less (and most of its defensive starters will be playing on Sundays), leaving the East open to challengers. And the one thing Richt absolutely can't afford is for the new kid in town, Lane Kiffin, to win the division before he does. If that happens, then you could legitimately put Richt on the hot seat.
There are two fantastic safeties this year in Eric Berry and Taylor Mays. We had a recent debate in which I said neither one was as good as the late Sean Taylor. Please help us settle this -- if you can only take one, which one is it.-- Jason Childs, Lehi, Utah
The Berry-Mays argument is a no-brainer. Berry is having another fantastic season. True to his word, Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is using him all over the field, and while Berry came into the season most known for his run at the NCAA career interception return yardage record (sadly, he's still stuck at 0 on the year), whenever I watch the Vols I notice Berry far more often stuffing an opposing runner. Mays, unfortunately, has not had a great year. Mind you, USC uses him differently, restricting him almost entirely to a rover role, but his pass coverage has been shoddy and opponents have broken several long plays where Mays took the wrong pursuit angle. He's an incredible athlete and, as we've seen, an extremely hard hitter, but I'm no longer convinced he's an elite safety.
You know who is? Texas' Earl Thomas. He has six interceptions (two of them for touchdowns) and he'll be giving Berry a run for his money when it comes time to announce the Thorpe Award winner. Iowa's Tyler Sash (six interceptions, including that ricochet return against Indiana last week) isn't far behind.
As for the Sean Taylor comparison, that's almost impossible to quantify. Like with Berry and Mays, safeties play different roles in different defenses. And while Taylor was a supremely gifted athlete, I'm not sure you could definitively say he became the standard bearer for that position. What about Ed Reed? Or Troy Polamalu? I don't know whether Berry is better than those greats, but he certainly belongs in the discussion.
As a Sun Devil alum, I can't stand to see our football team down or playing inconsistently, both of which seem to happen every two or three years. Right now my Devils have a senior QB (Danny Sullivan) starting his first season, which means that next year there will be another steep learning curve for another new QB. I've heard some rumblings that perhaps the college game has passed Dennis Erickson by. Any thoughts on this, or is it just an overreaction?-- D. Padilla, Cincinnati
It's possible. I certainly thought that, three years into his tenure, Erickson would be fielding a far more productive offense. That's always been his specialty. The frustrating thing about this ASU team is that it has the kind of high-caliber defense that keeps it in almost every game, but an erratic and mistake-prone offense has limited the Devils to four wins. Last week's Cal game was emblematic of their season. Heading into the final three minutes, they'd held the Bears to 334 yards. But ASU, as has been its custom, committed four turnovers and 11 penalties, couldn't run the ball (82 yards) and, clinging to a 21-20 lead with 5:46 left, couldn't gain a first down, giving the ball back to the Bears, who promptly drove down the field for the game-winning field goal.
Erickson has tried to stick by Sullivan, but working backup Samson Szakacsy into the mix last week shows even he's losing patience. I'm guessing he also realizes his offense's limitations. He hasn't had an adequate rushing game since he's been there. The problem could be recruiting. It could be conservative or outdated play-calling. Whatever the case, he needs to shake things up in a hurry, because the rest of the Pac-10 -- from Stanford to Arizona to Oregon State to Oregon -- is only getting better.
So let me make sure I have this straight. You and Andy Staples both write stories for the college football preview, and Andy's is better than yours. But seven weeks into the season, you write a piece worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, and Andy is just mucking around, doing OK, but nothing special. And your editor says, "Sorry, you can't win the prize because Andy wrote a better story than you did the first week." (And, of course, everyone improves at exactly the same rate.) Isn't that the argument for continuing to rank Boise State ahead of Oregon? Why play the rest of the games if Week 1 becomes sacred?-- Jeff, Chicago
Props to you, Jeff. What better way to convince the jury than to make the issue personal. Are you by chance a lawyer?
But unfortunately for your analogy, neither Andy nor the Broncos have been "mucking around" this season. In fact, I'd go so far as to say Andy's gem-to-clunker column ratio has been right up there with Kellen Moore's 24-to-2 TDs-to-interceptions. (I'll let someone else try to quantify mine; just as long as it's better than Greg Paulus'.) As for your question, "Why play the rest of the games if Week 1 becomes sacred?" ... Well, why play Week 1 if we're just going to toss it out eight weeks later?
In the press box before the Oregon game last week, Chris Dufresne of the L.A. Times said something so profound -- I only wish I'd come up with it myself -- when he called the BCS "fantastically flawed." Another reader, Matt from Baton Rouge, La., wrote "the Boise-Oregon debate represents everything that is wrong with college football," before adding, "don't get me wrong -- I love it."
Now -- just imagine how much more fantastic and lovable this "flawed" sport would be under the Mandel Plan.