Wednesday November 11th, 2009

I'm pleased to report the Mailbag audience met last week's proposed Mandel Plan with overwhelming approval. In embracing a more modest and, most importantly, more realistic model for improving college football's postseason, Mailbag readers have proven yet again to be more informed and more reasoned than ... well, their neighbors and co-workers. That said, several of you offered suggestions for various tweaks or improvements, which I'll address later in this column.

But forget the postseason for a minute. Unfortunately, this particular season has become increasingly aggravating for those of us who relish the sport's regular season. It's hard to say with a straight face that "every week matters" when the pollsters inexplicably drop Oregon six spots behind USC a week after the Ducks clobbered the Trojans. Or that "the season is a playoff" when Kansas State has a clearer path to the BCS right now than Boise State.

This year's national title race has been, to put it bluntly -- boring. Something feels missing, in spite of the fact six undefeated teams remain in play at such a late point in the year. That something: "big games." Florida and Alabama remain on course for an epic season-ending showdown, but to this point each has played just one conference foe (LSU) currently ranked in the BCS Top 25. The Tide, to their credit, also played Virginia Tech. However, two weeks from now, during what should be the season's "stretch run," the Gators will host Florida International, while Alabama will play Chattanooga. Yawn.

Yet those two have nothing on Texas.

It looks probable that one of the teams in the national championship game will only have one win against a currently ranked team (Oklahoma State). In fact, that team may make the championship game with ZERO wins over currently ranked teams if the Cowboys lose to Oklahoma. Erase preconceived notions about strength of schedule. How can this be explained? -- Brandon C, Boise

It's true. Due to a strange confluence of events, the Longhorns -- despite playing in one of the nation's perceived "power conferences" -- could wind up reaching the BCS Championship Game with one of the weakest schedules of any recent participant. In the latest Sagarin ratings, Texas' schedule strength ranks 52nd nationally. And unlike Alabama (No. 25) and Florida (No. 42), which will benefit from playing each other, Texas' schedule likely won't look any stronger come season's end. Using Jerry Palm's expanded BCS ratings at CollegeBCS.com, we can see Texas' remaining opponents rank 75th (Baylor), 69th (Kansas) and 65th (Texas A&M). Its most likely Big 12 title game opponents, Nebraska and Kansas State, rank 31st and 43rd.

Only one team has made the BCS title game toting a Sagarin schedule rating outside the top 40: Ohio State (53rd) in 2007. As you may recall, that team was criticized all season for "not playing anyone" and decried by many as undeserving of its spot. The main reason you're not hearing that about Texas is because the 'Horns aren't coming off a 41-14 title-game butt-whipping the year before, as the Buckeyes were that season. On the contrary, Texas went 12-1 in a very tough conference last year, brought back a Heisman runner-up quarterback and has mostly dominated its opposition as predicted. Personally, I have more confidence in Texas right now than Florida or Alabama. After a slow start, Colt McCoy and his receivers are clicking like last year, and the 'Horns' defense has been impregnable.

But I'm willing to admit I might be reading too much into a blowout of UCF.

Obviously, the 'Horns have no control over the strength of their conference. It's not their fault annual archrival Oklahoma is enduring its worst season in a decade; that divisional foes Texas Tech and Oklahoma State both lost to Houston; that Nebraska suddenly has a defense but no offense; or that Kansas and Missouri have returned to their pre-2007 state. They do, however, control their other four opponents -- Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, UTEP and UCF. In fairness, Wyoming was an 11th-hour replacement for Arkansas, which postponed the second half of a home-and-home that began last season. Still, it's a shame Texas' potential 2009 title season won't feature a defining moment like Vince Young's last-minute touchdown pass at Ohio State in 2005.

Here's what's particularly interesting, though: You may have noticed the 'Horns are ranked just fifth by the BCS computers (as opposed to second in the Harris and coaches polls). As of today, Texas' schedule strength is actually lower than TCU's (47th), according to Sagarin. We've long assumed a non-BCS team could never play for the championship because it plays a weaker schedule than those from the Big Six, but at least one objective measuring stick says the Horned Frogs have actually played tougher competition so far than the Big 12's top team. Someone ought to tell Mack Brown.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves, I asked Palm to project the remaining undefeated teams' final computer standings based on their remaining opponents' schedules. "Texas would come out on top," he said, followed by Cincinnati and TCU. While the Bearcats (whose schedule currently ranks 67th) will benefit from remaining games against No. 12 Pittsburgh and No. 25 West Virginia, the Horned Frogs' score will suffer from season-ending games against No. 80 Wyoming and No. 117 New Mexico.

As a result, few will have reason to complain about the 'Horns' anticipated ascension should they win out. But barring a dramatic Thanksgiving-night escape at Texas A&M, theirs could go down as the most unmemorable 13-0 regular season imaginable. At least under the Mandel Plan, they'd face one more worthy adversary.

I understand your comparison of Notre Dame with Stanford and Northwestern, but when you stated the Irish will never sport a loaded, athletic defense like Florida or Alabama, could it be not as much a "Notre Dame" limitation as it is a "Charlie Weis" limitation? It is no secret that Weis found his fame as a very good offensive coordinator. Would the Irish be able to ascend back to the ranks of the elite with a head coach capable of bringing balance to the force? -- Samuel, Woodbridge, Va.

There's certainly truth to that assessment of Weis. While he purportedly reevaluated his role after the 2007 season and tried to become more of a true head coach, his most noted attribute remains that of an offensive tactician, and we've yet to see proof of his overall leadership. But that doesn't change the larger point I was making about why Notre Dame, regardless of its coach, may never return to the level of Florida or Alabama.

Nobody disputes that Weis is a great offensive coach who's recruited some mega-talented offensive players. But college football is a different sport than it was in the Irish's heyday. For one thing, you don't have to be a brand-name school, nor necessarily recruit SuperPrep All-Americas, to field a powerful offense. Just look at Cincinnati. Or Houston. When Notre Dame plays Connecticut in two weeks, I highly doubt Weis' team will exceed the 711 yards the Bearcats gained against the Huskies last weekend. Likewise, if Notre Dame played Oklahoma State next week, it wouldn't necessarily score more points than the Cougars' 45. As those schools and others like them have shown, all a coach needs is the right quarterback and a few great athletes to fit his system.

Weis has done just that with guys like Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, and I have no doubt he could keep the pipeline flowing if given the opportunity. But to field a nationally elite defense in today's era, you need 11 Floyds and Tates. Look at the teams currently atop the national defensive rankings: Texas, Florida, TCU, Alabama and North Carolina. Those happen to be five of the fastest defenses in the country, loaded with athletes across the board. And none of them deal with the same stringent academic requirements as Notre Dame (nor does its most logical geographic counterpart, Ohio State).

The last time the Irish won a national title, in 1988, most college offenses were still run-based attacks that defenses could counter simply by being more physical. Today's offenses are built on speed, not brawn, and the best defenses are even faster. Like I said Monday, it's not that Notre Dame can't attract top-flight defensive players (see Manti Te'o), but it's unrealistic to think a selective private school in Indiana will be able to stockpile them in the same manner as, say, Alabama, which is not only ideally located but can sign 35 guys and run off the ones that don't qualify. A more realistic comparison: Boston College, a Jesuit school that's been a consistent winner this decade. The Eagles annually produce solid defenses with occasional NFL-caliber standouts (B.J. Raji, Mathias Kiwanuka, Chris Hovan), but, like Notre Dame, will never be confused with USC.

Hi Stewart, I'm a diehard K-State fan, but I have to know ... was the team always better than what the media thought and just needed a good leader in the coaching position, or is Bill Snyder really Houdini reincarnated? -- Todd Searls, Broomfield, Colo.

Snyder has certainly made me look like an idiot. I said at the time that his rehiring reeked of desperation, and I wrote off the Wildcats as a long-term reclamation project when they opened the season by losing to Louisiana-Lafayette (as I assume most people did). But the ultimate sign of a good coach is when his team gets better throughout the course of a season, and here we are in early November looking at the very realistic possibility that K-State might play for the Big 12 title.

Obviously, these are not yet the Ell Roberson-Darren Sproles Wildcats, but they do exhibit many of the staples of Snyder's earlier teams. His defense is typically salty (20th nationally against the run), and his offensive star, not for the first time, is a juco transfer, running back Daniel Thomas. By no means is K-State a juggernaut. And the main concern I raised in my column last November still remains: What is K-State's long-term plan once Snyder re-retires? That aside, there's no denying that for a fan base that was so divided last year and a school that endured so much embarrassment last summer over its financial indiscretions, Snyder has provided the perfect shot in the arm.

I love the Mandel Plan. But I have to ask how you would deal with two teams from the same conference finishing in the top four, as happened last year with OU and Texas? -- Scott, Edinburgh, Scotland

In a four-team scenario, I have no problem with that. Theoretically, it could happen this year if the voters decided the Florida-Alabama loser should not fall out of the top four, but it would be counterproductive if the Gators and Tide immediately played a rematch in one of the semifinal bowls. In fact, we might invoke a selection committee to avoid just such situations.

Incidentally, a little update: Assuming that wouldn't happen, your updated plus-one bowl matchups (with Iowa now out of the picture) are No. 1 Florida/Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl and No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. And hey, if the Bearcats lose at some point, there could be room for Boise State as well. Orrin Hatch would sleep better at night.

I'm sure I'll not be the only one to ask this, but the only problem I see with your plus-one plan is this: What if No. 1 is Ohio State and No. 2 is USC? Would they meet in the Rose Bowl as semifinalists? Otherwise your plan makes perfect sense. -- Daniel Hopkins, Lancaster, Ky.

Good question. Under our selection rules, only the No. 1 team would remain in its host bowl. The No. 2 team (in this case USC) would move to a different bowl where the No. 3 team does not have a geographic advantage. If the Rose Bowl objects, we will politely remind it that under the current system, it would lose both teams.

Stewart, how unappreciated are the service academies? Navy and Air Force both regularly field competitive teams, with Navy always posing a potential upset. Do fans and journalists really appreciate that virtually none of these players are going to play in the NFL and are beating teams full of pro prospects? Or that upon graduation, they are going to war? -- Luke Fleeman, Tulare, Calif.

I can't speak for other fans and journalists, but I'll confess to regrettably overlooking the service academies at times. The Navy story, in particular, is remarkable. The Midshipmen are in the midst of their greatest run of success since the 1950s. As we've all seen by now, Paul Johnson is a heck of a coach and deserves hefty credit for resuscitating that program. What's amazing, however, is that Navy suffered no drop-off following his departure to Georgia Tech, and in fact is fielding its best team of the modern era this season under Ken Niumatalolo.

From that first game against Ohio State, you could see what a special talent he had in quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who was the catalyst yet again in last week's Notre Dame upset. And the most refreshing element of watching a Navy game is seeing just how disciplined the players are. I suppose that should be expected of service academy students, but it's still such a rarity in big-time football. The Midshipmen lead the nation in fewest penalties per game (3.9). They've also run the ball 602 times and lost just six fumbles.

Meanwhile, it's good to see Air Force back to its winning ways under Troy Calhoun following a brief drop-off toward the end of Fisher DeBerry's tenure. The Falcons are 6-4, but their four losses have all come to likely bowl teams (Minnesota, Navy, TCU and Utah), and all by a touchdown or less. And for the first time in a while, there's real hope at Army, where first-year coach Rich Ellerson has proven to be a great fit. With games against VMI and North Texas the next two weeks, there's a good chance the Black Knights will have five wins going into the Navy game.

The WAC commissioner [Karl Benson] stated last week that Boise State, with help from ESPN, has been trying to find a high-profile BCS team to host a 2011 game with the Broncos but have been turned down by about 10 teams. Do you think Boise State can continue building its program under such conditions? BSU won't be able to meet the Pac-10 academic infrastructure requirements in the near future, and the Mountain West has stated the Broncos are not welcome. So do the Broncos go independent, or do they just stay in the WAC and waste away once Chris Peterson gives up and leaves? -- Mike Wallis, Portage, Ind.

First of all, while I don't doubt Boise has trouble landing marquee opponents, I wouldn't take that Benson quote at face value. As you may have read, the WAC has gone into full-on spin mode in hopes of placing the Broncos in a BCS bowl this year. The conference has even hired a p.r. firm to help elicit sympathy. So the timing of his "turned down by 10 teams for 2011" spiel seems highly suspicious. First of all, just a few months ago, Virginia Tech agreed to face the Broncos in Washington D.C. next season, so why are they suddenly panicking about 2011? Meanwhile, Benson conveniently neglected to mention that the school is seeking a $1 million guarantee. That's a steep price to pay for an opponent that's by no means a "guarantee."

That said, I can imagine it's incredibly frustrating for Boise State to deal with its unwanted BCS ceiling, for all the reasons Mike mentioned. Going independent is not a viable option. Its best bet is either to hold out hope for a Mountain West invite (which may happen if the conference falls short in its current attempt to become an automatic qualifier) or, essentially, become like the Gonzaga of football. The Broncos are building a level of national respect that belies their conference affiliation. Whether or not Boise earns a BCS berth this year (and I think it's still possible), Petersen's team is going to be in an even better position next year when it returns all but two starters AND plays both Virginia Tech and Oregon State in its nonconference schedule.

Depending on how they finish out this season, it's not inconceivable the Broncos would enter 2009 as a preseason top five team with realistic hopes of a national-title bid. As TCU is showing right now, that last poll barrier is coming ever closer to falling.

Why are you reluctant to use the word "playoff" to describe the Mandel Plan? It is a four-team playoff. Are people reluctant to call such a system a "playoff" for fear that, like the NCAA basketball tournament, the number of teams in the playoff might be increased? -- Dan Scanlan, San Francisco

Bingo. I am forever haunted by Mike Tranghese's snarly words during the BCS commissioners' April 2008 press briefing in Ft. Lauderdale shortly after rejecting Mike Slive's proposal: "It looked like a playoff, smelled like a playoff and felt like a playoff." Or Jim Delany: "There's never been a professional or collegiate playoff that stopped at four teams." The architect of the Mandel Plan is willing to sign a contract pledging that the field will not be expanded for at least 20 years. If breached, the contract would require me to spend the rest of my life watching football on the standard-definition monitors employed by SEC replay officials.

Is the designation of "playing on or after New Year's" officially meaningless? It used to be great watching 10 great teams play in the Rose, Fiesta, Cotton, Sugar and Orange Bowls. Now we have sixth- and seventh-place conference teams playing in this time slot. Does the bowl committee not regulate when bowl games can be held? -- Chris Baker, Tucson, Ariz.

Only one entity determines when these games are held: television. And sadly, yes, that tradition is almost entirely dead. To me, the devaluation of New Year's Day has been the single biggest negative by-product of the BCS. It started when ABC took control of the four major bowls in 1998 and, since it couldn't air them all on the same day, moved one to Jan. 2 and the title game to Jan. 3 or 4.

When the BCS added a fifth bowl and Fox took over in 2006, the network spread out the games even further, in part to work around its weekend NFL broadcasts but also to add buildup to the stand-alone title game. In the meantime, ESPN began exerting its influence on the rest of the bowl lineup. For one, it's created several of the newer, third-tier bowls (PapaJohns.com, St. Petersburg, etc.) that have helped increase the total from 22 to 34 over the past decade. Needing windows to show them, it started moving a couple (GMAC, International) into that extended period before the title game (now there are eight). But most of all, it has enabled some of the higher-profile games on their air (Chick-fil-A, Capital One, Outback, etc.) to generate larger payouts and exposure than two more traditional New Year's games (the Gator and Cotton).

Whatever sanctity still remained of Jan. 1 officially went down the toilet last year when the Gator Bowl -- relegated to third choice of ACC teams and fourth choice of Big 12 teams -- selected 7-5 Clemson to face 8-4 Nebraska, and the Cotton Bowl moved to Jan. 2. This year, there are as many games being played Jan. 2 (five) as Jan. 1, though that's primarily due to the fact the 2nd is a Saturday. Next year you'll see a real change. With ESPN regaining the BCS rights, the Gator Bowl moving from CBS to ESPN and the new Dallas Football Classic potentially entering the mix, I've heard from knowledgeable sources that the network plans to treat the morning and afternoon of Jan. 1 as one big lead-in to the Rose Bowl, showing overlapping games on its various channels. The good news is, there will be more New Year's Day football. The bad news is, more mediocre teams will get to claim they played in January bowls.

I am so routinely critical of your BCS vs. playoff stance that I have to acknowledge and apologize for an earlier e-mail goof in which I failed to remember that you DID include Cincinnati in your plus-one playoff. Good for you. That's still beside the point, and you're still wrong. -- Robert, Conroe, Texas

OK -- so not everybody was on board with the Mandel Plan.

Sometimes I think your skull must be like the skin on a potato. You seem to slowly absorb things through some kind of osmotic process, so now you're keen on a "plus-one" concept. This, I suppose, is some sort of half-baked solution that would serve as an inferior substitute for a college football playoff. As a journalism major, you published a book that took several hundred pages to explain why we don't have a college football playoff when a business major could have explained the reasons why in 30 seconds during an elevator ride. You're a menace, Mandel. -- Bucky Badger, Badger Den, Wis.

So Bucky is a business major, eh? Who knew?

But wait -- I thought you weren't allowed to speak in that costume? Would have to be a very quiet elevator ride. Don't worry: I'll read to you.

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