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Season's best race, Michigan's coaching conundrum, more mail

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm no fan of conference championship games. They work in the SEC, where the game always sells out and we can usually count on an elite team emerging from each division. The Big 12's edition, on the other hand, has produced such recent classics as Oklahoma 42, Colorado 3 (2004), Texas 70, Colorado 3 (2005) and Oklahoma 62, Missouri 21 (2008).

And then there's my all-time personal favorite, the 2006 ACC championship in which Wake Forest topped Georgia Tech, 9-6, in front of a few thousand friends, family and masochists.

With that in mind, you'll understand why it took me about three seconds to settle on an answer to this question:

Which conference race have you enjoyed most this season? The impending conference-title showdowns in the SEC and Big East, Ohio State's late surge to reclaim the Big Ten title or the Pac-10's round-robin battle royale incorporating half the conference?-- Todd, Mission Viejo, Calif.

The Pac-10's -- and it's not even close.

Obviously, I'm excited for Florida-Alabama and Cincinnati-Pittsburgh, but those conferences morphed into two-team races weeks ago. Everything leading up to those final battles has become anticlimactic. Meanwhile, Iowa and Ohio State played an unofficial conference-title game last week that neither team's coach appeared interested in winning. Georgia Tech ran away with its side of the ACC, and this weekend 6-5 Kansas State will be playing for a spot in the Big 12 title game. (Though the Nebraska-K-State game is not without stakes -- if the Wildcats lose, they won't go to any bowl game because they beat two I-AA foes.)

The Pac-10 race, on the other hand, continues to fascinate. Even at this late stage of the game, four realistic contenders remain, all of them solid, exciting teams, and all of them still with meaningful games to play. This weekend, No. 11 Oregon (8-2, 6-1) visits Arizona (6-3, 4-2) to determine which team takes over the conference driver's seat, while No. 14 Stanford (7-3, 6-2) hosts Cal (7-3, 4-3) needing a win to remain in the mix (the Cardinal won't fare well in most tiebreaker scenarios). On Dec. 3, No. 20 Oregon State (7-3, 5-2), the creeping dark horse, visits Oregon for a potential winner-takes-all Civil War; that is, unless Arizona (which already beat Oregon State) topples the Ducks this weekend, in which case the Wildcats may be playing for roses two days later at No. 22 USC (7-3, 4-3).

If you got lost somewhere in the above paragraph, check out Seattle Times columnist Bud Withers' complete breakdown of all possible scenarios, including an Armageddon six-way tie.

To me, this is college football at its finest -- a competitive, high-stakes race in which every game and every week has consequences. Unfortunately, it's become an increasing rarity. The Pac-10 makes a season like this possible by going against the grain and playing a nine-game, full-league round robin. Imagine if this was the Big Ten, and this happened to be the year Oregon and Arizona didn't meet. Or the league split into two divisions, and Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford all played in the "North."

Unfortunately, the very thing that makes this year's Pac-10 race so exciting is probably hurting the conference more than it helps. By playing an extra conference game, half the teams in the league are guaranteed an extra loss, and one less nonconference game means one less chance to schedule a creampuff and inflate records. That makes the league unlikely to earn a second BCS berth (it hasn't since 2002), which, sadly, means there's really no incentive for other leagues to copy its model.

Stewart, it seems to me Michigan needs to go ahead and admit it made a bad hire in Rich Rodriguez and bring in alumnus Jim Harbaugh before he is snapped up by another "big name" school. Two years may not seem like enough time to gauge a coach, but I just get the feeling Rodriguez is not the guy for that job -- not that he's a bad coach, just not a good fit. Your thoughts?-- Rich, Nashville, Tenn.

I agree, he's not a good fit. From nearly the day Rodriguez arrived in Ann Arbor, a significant faction of Wolverines fans simply hasn't liked him, whether because he's not a "Michigan Man" like Les Miles, or because he runs that new-fangled spread offense, or because he's got a "twang." Throw in all the backlash from West Virginia, the lawsuits, the potential NCAA infractions, and it's clear there was only one way he could have won people over: to start winning, and in a hurry. That has not happened.

That said, I'm still 90 percent certain he'll get another year. AD Bill Martin has been outspoken in his support, albeit in sometimes bizarre context. (Paul Johnson? Not a good comparison. Though SI appreciates Martin's readership.) Martin has already announced he's retiring next September, and I doubt he or school president Mary Sue Coleman will want to stick his successor with a brand-new coach not of that person's choosing. Furthermore, many of Michigan's present problems can be directly attributed to the high amount of attrition that occurred during the transition from Lloyd Carr to Rodriguez. Another coaching change would only prompt more defections.

As for Harbaugh, there's no doubt he'd be a great hire, but I'm hearing the Michigan brass hasn't yet forgiven him for taking shots at his alma mater's academic standards two years ago. However, if this time next year Michigan still sits in the bottom half of the Big Ten, a call will almost certainly go out to one of its own -- if not Harbaugh, then the formerly coveted Miles, who, in SEC life-span years, may well have worn out his welcome at LSU by then.

I know there are all kinds of politics involved in the BCS shuffle, but isn't it worth it to all concerned to have TCU play the SEC title-game loser? It would quiet the congressional interest by providing a legitimate test for the non-BCS conference team, would be very easy for media types and Fox to promote and is the right thing to do morally and ethically.-- Topgun Tex, San Diego

Well first of all, that's exactly the same matchup Utah got last season, and it hardly quieted the politicians; if anything, it empowered them. Personally, I would love to see TCU play Florida or Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. I think it would be fascinating, and it would be a far better measuring stick for the Horned Frogs than playing Boise State or Iowa. The problem is that in this year's selection order, the Sugar Bowl has last choice of at-large picks, and it's looking increasingly likely the Horned Frogs won't be available.

Barring a loss by Texas, the Sugar and Fiesta bowls will have first choice of replacement teams; the Sugar will almost certainly take the Florida-Alabama loser, while the Fiesta, as the Big 12's partner, will either take Oklahoma State if it qualifies; Penn State or Iowa (to sell tickets); or TCU. The Orange Bowl then has first choice of at-large teams and figures to take whichever of the two, TCU or Iowa/Penn State, the Fiesta doesn't. Even if the Orange passes on TCU as well in favor of the Big East champ, I'd be shocked if the Fiesta doesn't then snap up the Horned Frogs with the second at-large choice.

We're talking about the No. 4 (possibly No. 3 by then) team in the country. Brand name or not, the Frogs are going to be a coveted commodity. I just hope they get a worthy opponent; if not Florida/Alabama, then hopefully undefeated Cincinnati or one-loss Georgia Tech or Pittsburgh. Even if Boise State gets in, too, I don't think it serves anyone for those two to meet in a bowl for the second straight year.

Is this year's USC team similar to the 2007 Florida Gators who took their lumps breaking in new players on their eventual path to glory? I want to believe so, but that Florida team didn't lose by five touchdowns at home. Will SC be better next year?-- Rob, Syracuse, Utah

USC fans better hope that's the case, but as of now I don't think it's a valid comparison. First of all, that Florida team fielded an eventual Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. Matt Barkley may one day be as productive as Tim Tebow, but as of now he's regressing. Secondly, that Florida team played almost entirely with freshmen and sophomores on defense, guys like Joe Haden, Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham and Major Wright, who were getting their first real taste of college football. They did struggle at times, especially in their bowl game. However, in the Trojans' case, the new defensive starters are primarily guys who have been in the program for a while. All but two of USC's defensive starters are in at least their third year there, including an all-senior secondary, so it's not like we're talking about "raw" talent.

The Trojans' demise this season reminds me more of Miami circa '04 and '05, when, after years of dominance, chinks in the armor started to show. The 'Canes had a lot of big-time recruits that never panned out; that may be what USC's going through for the first time under Pete Carroll. Let me be clear: I do not envision the Trojans plummeting like Miami did. Carroll is not Larry Coker. But nor do I think Carroll will be able to just shrug off this season as a blip and have the Trojans right back in national-title contention next season. He can right the ship, but it won't be a quick fix. For the first time, he's got some real holes to address.

Tim Brewster has officially lost the Gophers fans that were behind him and everyone is calling for him to be fired. The majority of fans want the U to go after Tony Dungy, as he is a passionate alum and is technically available. Do you see Brewster being fired, and do you think Dungy would accept the position if offered to him?-- DJ, Richfield, Minn.

DJ: How about you agree to admit you were drunk and/or emotional when you wrote this, and I'll agree not to rename it "Minnesota/Ole Miss Syndrome."

I've always enjoyed reading your columns, but I think your recent article on OSU winning its fifth straight Big Ten title was a bit over the top. How can you be so negative toward success? This team looked like a middle-tier Big Ten team after losing to Purdue. If anything, Tressel should be commended for pulling in the reigns on Pryor and beating two good football teams.-- R.J., Columbus, Ohio

I read your article about Ohio State's win over Iowa. Why waste your time on all those words when you can just write "I HATE OHIO STATE AND THE FACT THEY'RE IN A BCS GAME AGAIN!" It probably would have saved you and your readers a lot of time.-- Mike, Reynoldsburg, Ohio

I love you, Buckeyes fans. I really do. After both the USC and Purdue losses this season, you inundated me with e-mails lambasting Tressel's play-calling, screaming for the offensive coordinator's head, the quarterback coach's head and, in some extreme cases, even Tressel's head. Around the two-minute mark of Saturday's Iowa game, when it became abundantly clear OSU was content to play for overtime, many of you in attendance began openly booing the guy. But then Iowa did the same thing, the Buckeyes played terrific defense in overtime, Devin Barclay hit his big kick and, all of sudden, it's back to "Lay off our beloved leader, you snotty, Buckeye-hating Web columnist."

First of all, I hold no ill will toward Ohio State. It's actually one of my favorite places to cover a game. The stadium is breathtaking. The band is phenomenal. And there's a McFlurry machine in the press box! You can't beat that. During the height of Buckeye/Big Ten-bashing in 2007 and '08, I was one of the few national writers who dared to defend Ohio State and the conference from all the blanket characterizations people were making based on a couple of bad losses. But I simply can't do it anymore. Saturday's game was the final straw.

If any doubt remained as to why most of the country holds the Big Ten in such low regard, the last three minutes of that game removed it. With a Rose Bowl berth hanging in the balance, neither coach made any attempt to win the game. If they could have played for the tie, a la Notre Dame in 1966, they just might have. Iowa, bless its heart, fielded not a single threatening offensive playmaker, yet managed to take the game to overtime in large part because Ohio State's most dangerous playmaker, Terrelle Pryor, spent most of his night handing off the ball. To his credit, Tressel's strategy paid off, but I've sat in that same press box twice before -- against Texas in '05 and USC earlier this year -- when the exact same strategy backfired. Fortunately for him, Iowa didn't have a VinceYoung, or even a Joe McKnight.

But Tressel may have the ultimate opportunity to shut up myself and his other assorted critics. If the Buckeyes face Oregon in the Rose Bowl, it will be the ultimate clash of contrasts -- the staid Tressel against wild and wacky Chip Kelly, the spread-option versus the Power-I, Pryor versus Jeremiah Masoli. If Tressel can win that, he and the Big Ten will win back a lot of respect. Until then, wake me when he decides to pass on third-and-nine.

Is the loser of the Pitt-Cincy game really going to end up in the Meineke Car Care Bowl? Really??-- John, Chicago

If Notre Dame finishes 7-5, most likely.

The Gator Bowl has first choice of Big East teams after the BCS, but it's also allowed to select Notre Dame once over a four-year period that ends this season. This is the bowl's last chance to get the Irish for the foreseeable future since the Gator is switching to an SEC-Big Ten matchup next year, and it's long been assumed the bowl will take advantage of it. The next Big East bowl after that is Meineke.

That said, the Gator knows how it will look publicly if it bypasses an 11-1 Cincinnati or 10-2 Pittsburgh team in favor of a 7-5 Notre Dame team (contrary to what's been published some places, there is no formal rule preventing this), and the bowl's president, Rick Catlett, has expressed concern recently over the fact the Irish would be coming into the game on a backslide and possibly without their coach. So the Irish are no longer a given. But I think come Selection Sunday, the Gator will realize that even a downtrodden Notre Dame is going to bring a lot more fans and a lot more TV cachet (especially for a ND-Miami or ND-Virginia Tech matchup) than Cincinnati or Pittsburgh.

And hey, Brian Kelly may wind up coaching in the game either way.

Hey Stewart -- PLEASE tell me you were joking in your Nov. 15 column where you quoted Jim Tressel as saying that his team can take a couple days off this week because Michigan has no defense!-- Chad Hartness, Middletown, Ohio

No sir, I was dead serious. I snuck into the Buckeyes' locker room after the game and saw the whole scene. He said it, and then he ripped off his sweater vest, drank a glass of raw eggs, clenched his biceps and shouted: "HEY RICHROD -- WHATCHA GONNA DO WHEN TRESSELMANIA RUNS WILD ON YOU?!"

Stewart, most everyone (including you) keeps assuming Boise State is going to end its regular season with a perfect record. However, the Broncos have to play a very tough Nevada team who has pretty much rolled through its WAC schedule. I think BSU could very easily end its season with a loss to Nevada. Have you seen Nevada play yet?-- Mike, Rockville, Md.

The Wolf Pack have been hot recently, no question. They put up 70 on Idaho, 62 on San Jose State and, most impressively, 52 on Fresno State. But let's not forget, this is the same team that got shut out by Notre Dame and got waxed at home by Missouri. I mean no disrespect to Colin Kaepernick and Luke Lippincott, but their dominance has a lot to do with just how big a drop-off there is with the rest of the WAC. If the game was in Reno, I'd give Nevada a fighting chance, but knocking off Boise on the Smurf turf? Not likely.

Are you trying to give the Wolverines a little bulletin board material? Absolutely NO WAY did Tressel make the statement attributed to him in "Looking Ahead." And after the meltdown the Bucks overcame in the last quarter against Iowa, no OSU fan with common sense should utter or even agree with such nonsense! Say it ain't so, Stew!-- Gary Line, Hobe Sound, Fla.

OK, OK, I'll leave you with an actual, true story from Saturday.

After the postgame interviews had ended, a few other writers and I trekked back to the other side of Ohio Stadium to get back to the press box. As we were walking down the concourse (alongside the bathrooms and the concession stands, etc.) toward the elevator, a car started coming toward us -- driving right in the middle of a stadium concourse.

We stepped to the side, and as the red, Toyota Venza drove past, we looked into the passenger-side window and saw ... coach Tressel, munching on a turkey sandwich.

A triumphant coach, literally riding off into the night. In a Venza.

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