Wednesday November 25th, 2009

There are so many things for which to be thankful this holiday weekend. Family. Friends. The sight of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer back at the coffee shop on last week's Curb Your Enthusiasm finale.

And best of all, most of us can be thankful (at least this season) we're not fans of one of the following teams.

A great number of traditional powers -- Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida State, Oklahoma and my own Georgia Bulldogs -- have stumbled badly this season. Obviously Oklahoma and Georgia came into the preseason ranked highest, but I think all expected at least a Top 25 ranking and bowl trip. Is this just another example of parity or a simultaneous coincidence of bad coaching? Who do you think bounces back next year? -- Michael Brazeal, Athens, Ga.

This isn't as rare an occurrence as you think. If you look back over the course of this decade, there's only one BCS-conference program -- Texas -- that hasn't suffered at least one season of five or more losses. At the start of the decade, USC, LSU and Penn State were complete non-factors. So was Alabama until Nick Saban came along. Miami went from BCS title game to Humanitarian Bowl in four years. Even Florida had its dark period under Ron Zook. It's just a reality of the sport today: No program is immune from a downturn. The question is, which of the aforementioned teams are just having a rough year, and which are facing a longer-term problem?

The Irish and Seminoles likely face more rough sledding ahead as they go through coaching transitions, and Michigan is already in the midst of its own turbulent transition period. But the real interesting cases are Oklahoma and Georgia, two programs that, previously under their current coaches, had little trouble reloading from year to year.

Excluding their debut seasons, Bob Stoops' lone "down" year prior to this was an 8-4 season in 2005, while Mark Richt's was a 9-4 campaign in 2006. In both cases, their teams were starting freshman quarterbacks (Rhett Bomar for Oklahoma, Matthew Stafford for Georgia), and in both cases, their teams got better as the season progressed (OU beat a 10-1 Oregon team in the Holiday Bowl while the Dawgs beat 10-2 Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl). Not so this year.

While injuries were a viable excuse for Oklahoma's early struggles, they don't justify a three-point output against Nebraska on Nov. 7, or explain last week's debacle at Texas Tech. For the first time, Stoops has some real deficiencies on his roster, most notably the offensive line, which is admittedly inexperienced but hasn't improved. The good news is, quarterback Landry Jones has shown promise at times and is only a redshirt freshman; the bad news is, OU's defense could lose stars Gerald McCoy, Jeremy Beal and Travis Lewis to the NFL. But there's little evidence to suggest Stoops' recruiting has suddenly gone in the toilet. My guess is this season will turn out to be an aberration, and OU will be back to contending for a BCS bowl next season.

I'm not as sure about Georgia. The Dawgs may well have talent, but they're terribly undisciplined. Remarkably, they rank 119th nationally in turnover margin and 116th in penalties per game. Chalk that up to plain old bad coaching. Richt will undoubtedly be fielding new coordinators next season, and unlike Oklahoma, he'll be breaking in a new quarterback as well (presumably redshirt freshman Aaron Murray).

Richt is also dealing with much the same problem as recently deposed SEC coaches Phillip Fulmer and Tommy Tuberville: His competitors are catching up. Florida has separated itself considerably under Urban Meyer. Georgia Tech, which Richt beat each of his first seven seasons, is now a BCS contender. Tennessee -- which has blown out the Dawgs two of the past three seasons -- is quickly beefing up its talent level under Lane Kiffin. And Auburn, with whom Georgia wages a whole lot of recruiting battles, now employs its own renowned recruiter in Gene Chizik. Georgia may be considerably better next season, but so, too, could its primary rivals. I wouldn't expect a quick fix in Athens.

The top three teams -- Florida, Alabama and Texas -- all play huge rivals this weekend, and all three of those rivals (Florida State, Auburn and Texas A&M) are having off years. If you had to rate the three games in order of potential upset, who would you give the best shot? -- Eladio Cruz, Brookline, Mass.

None of them seem particularly plausible, but if I had to rank their likelihood:

1) Auburn over Alabama: The Tigers benefit not only from playing at home, but also from coming off a bye week. That doesn't necessarily give them an edge health-wise (Alabama had a de facto bye last week against Chattanooga), but it gave offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn an extra week to come up with some wacky new formations to throw at the Tide. Having said that (sorry, Jerry), it's still hard to envision Auburn's offensive line protecting Chris Todd or its defense matching the physicality of Mark Ingram and Co. Chance of upset: 35 percent

2) Texas A&M over Texas: Kyle Field is always a tough venue for visitors (the 'Horns lost there two years ago to an A&M team so bad it still fired its coach afterward), and a short week always benefits the home team. But that's about all I can say in the Aggies' favor. Their defense is atrocious, and Colt McCoy is not. Chance of upset: 15 percent

3) Florida State over Florida: The FSU blog Tomahawk Nation uncovered a remarkable stat this week: This year's 'Noles boast both the ACC's best offense AND worst defense since the conference expanded in 2004. Tim Tebow should have a field day with that defense, and Brandon Spikes and Co. should make E.J. Manuel's life fairly miserable for three hours. Chance of upset: 1 percent

I was reviewing the bowl alignments and noticed that the SEC and Pac-10 don't have a bowl game where they can square off. The SEC has two games against the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12, one against the Big East team and one against Conference USA. Any thoughts on why the Pac-10 and SEC don't have a bowl game together? -- Carson, Frisco, Texas

Believe me, I'd love to see it too. Generally speaking, the SEC and Pac-10 have been the two most entertaining conferences this decade (some years more than others), and there's an undisputed disdain between both sides. The problem is geography. No bowl east of Texas is going to partner with the Pac-10, whose fan bases don't generally travel in droves even within their region, much less across the country. And there's no logical reason for the SEC to go play a bowl in California when there are any number available closer to home.

What's truly amazing is that the two leagues have yet to meet in a BCS game. In fact, the last SEC-Pac-10 bowl matchup of any kind, according to my own personal research, was Washington's 34-7 victory over Florida in the 1989 Freedom Bowl. It looks like we're just going to have to keep settling for the sporadic regular-season matchups -- which, in the 2000s, the Pac-10 won 11-9.

Hypothetically: If Clemson beats Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, and Oregon wins the Pac-10, would that make TCU and Boise State the only conference champions to beat another conference's champion? -- Wood, Ft. Collins, Colo.

Correct. Think Craig Thompson and Karl Benson might bring that up at the next BCS hearing? There is one other similar possibility, however: If Cincinnati beats Pittsburgh and Oregon State beats Oregon, the Big East champion Bearcats will have a victory over the Pac-10 champion Beavers.

Oh wait -- my original statement is incorrect. If Florida wins the SEC, it has a victory over Sun Belt champion Troy.

With Charlie Weis' departure at Notre Dame a foregone conclusion, everyone seems to be mentioning Brian Kelly as his eventual replacement. But seeing as how in recent articles, you've pointed out that Notre Dame isn't able to stockpile defensive standouts and that it doesn't take much in this day and age to field a high-powered offense, wouldn't the Irish be better off targeting a defensive guru like TCU's Gary Patterson? -- Matt, Spartanburg, S.C.

I'm kind of torn on this one. I think Kelly is easily one of the five to 10 best coaches in the country (I thought that even before this season) and will be a tremendous boon to whatever program eventually plucks him from Cincinnati. But you're exactly right -- Notre Dame would be replacing one offensive guru with another. Obviously, the major difference is that Kelly has distinguished himself as a head coach, whereas Weis was an unproven former coordinator -- but the fact remains, offense has not been Notre Dame's crux. The school needs a coach who is a) a great motivator, b) a great recruiter and c) able to produce an elite defense in spite of the restrictions I previously discussed.

In terms of A and B, Kelly is a no-brainer. As for C, though, you couldn't ask for a better candidate than Patterson. TCU doesn't have the luxury of plucking four- and five-star recruits, yet the Frogs consistently field a fast, athletic defense thanks to Patterson's creative penchant for identifying offensive playmakers who he can turn into defensive standouts. Case in point: Jerry Hughes, a high school running back turned All-America defensive end. I see no reason why Patterson couldn't do the same in South Bend.

It just comes down to what Notre Dame wants most in a coach. Keep in mind, for all the assumptions being made about Kelly, not a single Notre Dame official has actually indicated interest in him, or anyone else. As of now, the link is entirely media-driven, a product of both Kelly's coaching prowess and his East Coast Irish-Catholic heritage. I highly doubt Notre Dame would really base its coaching hire on religion, but I believe the school will place great emphasis on the coach's personality and salesmanship, due to the extremely public role of the job. In that department, the charismatic, politically trained Kelly may have the edge over not only Patterson, but nearly every other coach in America.

Stewart, I took your advice and rented the first season of Eastbound and Down and I've got to say, you were absolutely right. That show is great! I literally sat down and laughed the entire time. And you made a brilliant choice on the Crush this year. Gotta love those southern girls! -- Matt, Lubbock, Texas

Indeed, it's been a good year all around for the members of the Crush sorority. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is having a banner year, both in the ratings and on the screen. ("Does your cat make too much noise?") It's been nice to see Sweet Dee getting some bigger storylines. Meanwhile, Jenna Fischer's profile soared dramatically following The Office's epic wedding sequence. And Katy got her moment in the sun, albeit briefly, on Two and a Half Men (sorry, no clip).

Of course, our favorite LSU belle probably wasn't in such a good mood last Saturday. She's once of the nicest people I've ever spoken to, but I wouldn't blame her if she had a few choice words for Les Miles. Eastbound and Down fans know exactly what Kenny Powers would say in that situation, but I can't print it here.

If Pitt beats Cincinnati, is there any chance for a Fiesta or Orange Bowl featuring Pitt vs. Penn St.? -- Kevin, Soldotna, Alaska

I've been getting a lot of these e-mails lately, presumably from Panthers and Nittany Lions fans clamoring to reignite the schools' discontinued rivalry, but it's not going to happen. For one thing, the Orange Bowl (which will host the ACC champ) and the Sugar Bowl (which will take the Florida-Alabama loser) are off the table, so it would have to be the Fiesta. And the folks there don't exactly have fond memories of Pitt's last trip there in 2004.

Of more relevance is the fact that while a Penn State-Pitt game would assure a 99 percent Nielsen share in the state of Pennsylvania, it would bore the rest of the country to tears. (Though it appears they'd have at least one eager viewer in Alaska.)

Stewart, there's a smaller story I've been following for the past few weeks, and low and behold it's come to fruition. If 5-6 Army beats Navy on Dec. 12, it becomes bowl eligible. However the bowl selection show takes place six days earlier. Is a bowl really going to sit around wait to see if Army wins? -- Rick J., Columbus, Ohio

Kudos to you, Rick. You managed to stumble upon the very dilemma currently facing the EagleBank Bowl in Washington D.C., which has a preexisting agreement to take the Black Knights should they become eligible. But the game also has a contingency arrangement to take a Conference USA team should Army lose. So yes, some C-USA team (in my latest projections, Marshall) will have to sit around and wait an extra week to find out whether or not it's going bowling.

For the most part, I think it's wonderful that Army-Navy organizers moved the game back a week. It's one of the sport's greatest traditions, but in recent years it got largely overshadowed on Championship Saturday by all the other games with BCS implications. This year, more fans will presumably get to watch, especially since it leads in to that night's Heisman ceremony.

Hey Stewart. You said on Monday, "If Oklahoma State wins, the Fiesta, as the Big 12's partner, would almost certainly take the Cowboys to replace Texas, and either Boise State or Iowa/Penn State would be left out." Does this mean Boise State fans will be rooting for the Sooners to win the Bedlam Game? I wonder how Sooners fans feel about that. -- Clark Moreland, Midland, Texas

Indeed, there should be no bigger Oklahoma fans this weekend than the good people of Boise. Crazy, right? But I suppose it's a win-win for Sooners fans. Either they beat their archrival, or they finally get revenge for the Statue of Liberty.

Which is worse: Charlie Weis' overall win percentage while at Notre Dame or your college football pickoff winning percentage for this year? -- Mike, Juneau, Alaska

Uh oh. I have a feeling it's going to be close.

Weis: 35-26. Winning percentage: .574.

Mandel: 68-52. Winning percentage: .567.

Charlie's got me by a nose. I'll be the first to admit, I've had a rough year in the prognostication department. But I do have one big advantage going for me down the stretch: I'll still be around for bowl season.

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