Wednesday December 9th, 2009

After poring through 1,087 unread e-mails, I now know I'm not a very popular man in Austin, Texas. And apparently I'm not among the 99 percent of the population that seems to feel the TCU-Boise State Fiesta Bowl is nothing short of a crime against humanity.

But this being America, I know I the have a right to defend myself. Some of you are coming after me like a scorned Swedish supermodel.

Why would you call Texas vs. Alabama a mismatch based on the work of one day? Not once, but twice Alabama had to have a miracle to win a game against Tennessee. On one Saturday the Tide played out of their minds and won. On the same day, Texas didn't have its best game and still managed to win. Shouldn't we all be looking at the WHOLE body of work rather than the outcomes of one day? -- Randy Fant, Lubbock, Texas

Randy is absolutely, 100 percent correct. However, he also affirmed the very point I was making. If you look at the two teams' bodies of work, there's a gaping disparity.

It's true that Alabama had its own "one second left" moment with Terrence Cody's blocked field goal in its 12-10 win against the Vols. The Tide even had to produce a last-minute touchdown drive to beat Auburn just a week before the Florida game. If these were the only tough games Alabama played all season, I would have far less confidence in the Tide than I would Texas. However, from their 498-yard day against Virginia Tech to their fourth-quarter explosion against LSU to, you know, throttling the defending national champions, I'd say Alabama's produced more championship-inspiring moments than unsettling scares.

Conversely, Texas' closest thing to a "statement" victory was a 41-14 win at Oklahoma State, a team that lost its last regular-season game 27-0. If the Longhorns had some equivalent to Alabama's Florida win -- or even its Virginia Tech or LSU wins -- I'd be more likely to chalk up the Nebraska game as a fluke. As it is, the Longhorns basically faced two elite defenses the entire season, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and Colt McCoy and the offense struggled miserably against both. (I'm more willing to throw out the Texas A&M shootout as an aberration because Texas' defense has been solid in every other game.)

I've covered enough championship games to know anything is possible. While I will proudly note thatI correctly pegged the Texas-USC upset in 2005 and aptly prophesized pretty much every aspect oflast year's Florida-Oklahoma game (though I did overshoot on the score), I never saw 13-2 (Oklahoma-Florida State), 55-19 (USC-Oklahoma) or 41-14 (Florida-Ohio State) coming. And believe me, I'd love nothing more than to see another epic, double-overtime classic, or another transcendent performance from a Texas quarterback.

But as long as I'm being honest (because I certainly don't need anyone coming at me with a 9-iron), I can't escape this sneaking suspicion that the 'Horns are in much the same boat as Florida. They were the two prohibitive title favorites coming into the season, but once the games began, it became increasingly evident that Florida had some serious flaws. Its offense wasn't explosive. It had trouble protecting Tim Tebow. It committed too many penalties and turnovers. It was still able to roll off 12 straight wins largely on superior talent, but once the Gators finally ran into a comparable opponent, all those flaws got exposed at once (and their defense inexplicably melted down.)

Unfortunately, Texas may be in for the same awakening. Over the first half of the season, when McCoy didn't look like McCoy, we heard all about how he was sick, his receivers were inexperienced, etc., etc. They kicked it into gear after the Oklahoma game, but then they get to Nebraska and all those same issues came back. Quite frankly, Texas' offensive line and non-Jordan Shipley receivers aren't impressive. Unlike Florida, it was fortunate enough to play a team with its own share of flaws (like the utter lack of a competent offense) in its conference title game and emerge victorious. Unfortunately, like Florida, it now gets Alabama.

Come on Stewart: Don't you think there were some backroom deals the BCS worked out to get the Fiesta Bowl to take both TCU and Boise State? Now no other BCS-conference school has to worry about being embarrassed by a non-BCS school like Alabama and Oklahoma and the BCS won't have to listen next year to how an outsider is as good as one of their own. TCU and Boise State playing Georgia Tech, Iowa, Cincinnati, or Florida would have been much better games. -- Bob, Brunswick, Maine

Yeah ... you're really an idiot. Matching TCU and Boise State is a sign of respect? The whole season, everyone's been questioning whether these two teams, especially Boise State should be ranked so high compared to the regularly top-ranked teams (i.e., the BCS conferences). So the BEST way to determine that is to have TCU and Boise State play an AQ-team, not each other! -- Reid, Honolulu

While I believe the Fiesta Bowl's intentions were pure, there's probably nothing I can say here that will change the minds of all you conspiracy theorists. The Fiesta Bowl turned itself into a major bowl due almost entirely to a renegade approach and its CEO, John Junker, is probably the last guy in the business who would sabotage his own game for the sake of others, but I'm sure that's not going to sway anybody. But the argument I simply cannot accept -- that I really, truly can't believe I keep hearing -- is that these teams would be better served facing Georgia Tech or Iowa than each other.

First of all, let's analyze the situation in a realistic context, not some fantasyland where the BCS would suddenly adopt a playoff (or even The Mandel Plan) sometime in the next three weeks. Under the actual system we have, the best possible matchups for TCU and Boise State would have been against Cincinnati and Florida. I can't argue that. But realistically, that never could have happened. Cincinnati, in the bowls' eyes, was the least desirable team in the group. The school didn't travel well to the Orange Bowl last year, wouldn't realistically bring more than 10,000 fans to Arizona (Boise and TCU have both already requested additions to their 17,500 allotment) and may well be without its coach.

Therefore, the only realistic matchups available to these teams were TCU-Georgia Tech and Boise State-Iowa -- or TCU-Boise. They got the better game. Where there seems to be a real disconnect between myself and most of you is this notion that the non-AQ teams would "earn respect" by beating any possible AQ team. Anyone who believes that is still stuck in 2006. If Boise State beating Oklahoma was an earthquake and Utah crushing Alabama was a hurricane, TCU beating Georgia Tech would be like a steady drizzle.

Look at how much respect these teams have already gained just in the past 365 days. A year ago, Utah went undefeated and still finished behind five one-loss teams. A year later, TCU went undefeated and came within one second of playing for the national title. I'd say the Horned Frogs are pretty respected. And Bob's line about "everyone's questioning" Boise State's ranking -- who's "everyone?" The only time the Broncos' ranking ever came into question was after Oregon crushed USC, and those arguments were coming almost entirely from the state of Oregon.

Considering Boise State beat the Pac-10's champion, what more would it prove by beating the Big Ten's runner-up? Considering TCU went on the road and beat ACC division champ Clemson, what exactly would a win over that league's other division champ affirm? If anything, I would expect TCU to beat Georgia Tech, and I would expect Boise to beat Iowa. But I don't know who will win TCU-Boise, which is a pretty telling sign right there that it's a better game.

Idaho Statesman columnist Brian Murphy put it best: "[The Fiesta Bowl] treated the Horned Frogs and Broncos just like any other team, opting to put together the best matchup and ignoring the programs' small alumni bases and newcomer status. In other words, they treated them as equals, which is all the non-BCS teams and their fans ever wanted."

If the Orange Bowl had the third pick (after Sugar and Fiesta picked their replacement teams) -- why did they pick Iowa? It seems like at least one undefeated team should have been available. Did they think Iowa would be a better game, do they travel better, or do bowls sometimes help each other out some? -- Mark, Atlanta

Because Hawkeyes fans travel well. End of discussion.

So just to recap, the Fiesta Bowl went for the better team while the Orange Bowl went for the $$$, and the Fiesta is the one taking all the heat. Go figure.

Did I see correctly? A defensive player (Ndamukong Suh) was nominated for the Heisman Trophy? I'm stunned. Are the voters realizing that the best player in football is sometimes on defense? -- Jonathan Fusfield, Washington D.C.

It's amazing, isn't it? Just think, over the past three years we've seen one, and now possibly two of the most longstanding and archaic Heisman-voting barriers come down. It only took 71 years, but finally an underclassman won the thing (Tebow), followed by yet another one (Sam Bradford). And now, based on the latest projections, a defensive tackle is right in the thick of it.

What happened? Did somebody write a book in 2007 that implored voters to rethink their criteria? (And was it Chapter 3?)

I first jumped on the Suh/Heisman bandwagon after his stunning Thursday night performance against Missouri and remained fairly loyal the rest of the way. In the weekly top-five ballots I submitted to's Chris Huston, I had Suh No. 1 four times and in my top-five seven of the last nine weeks. But much like Huston predicted to me in an interview for this October column about non-traditional candidates, Suh inevitably faded from my radar due to the simple fact that defensive tackles don't jump off the box score every week like quarterbacks and running backs.

Heading into last weekend, I tweeted that my top five were Toby Gerhart, McCoy, Golden Tate, Mark Ingram and Kellen Moore, but that I would remain open to all possibilities. When someone wrote back lamenting Suh's exclusion, I replied: "I love Suh. He has a golden opportunity: Sack McCoy a few times."

How's 4 1/2 for you?

Suh's performance last Saturday (12 tackles, 10 solo, seven for loss) was so astounding that he probably jumped from getting a handful of token votes to possibly finishing in the top three. It's truly a landmark moment. With all due respect to Gerhart, who led the nation in both rushing yards (1,736) and touchdowns (26), you could still argue that others at his position (Ingram, Dion Lewis, Ryan Williams) were in the same ballpark. You can't say that about Suh. He was unquestionably the most dominant defensive player of not only this season, but the past several seasons. He finished atop my ballot, followed by Gerhart and Ingram. But I'm guessing Ingram, on the strength of his own showcase performance against Florida, will take home the trophy.

Did you hear about Alabamacanceling classes for THREE DAYS for the national championship game? Doesn't this action by Alabama show the lie of administrators who argue against a playoff because it would cause students to miss too much class time? By my estimation a playoff would cause the football team (110 students) to miss four to six days. This action causes 30,000 students to miss three days. C'mon. -- Robert, Gainesville, Fla.

There are any number of legitimate arguments the Bill Hancock-Ari Fleischer spin machine can make against a playoff. The purported academic effect is not one of them. In fact, it's the single most hypocritical and patronizing talking point espoused by a group of schools that all willingly participate in the NCAA basketball tournament, which, when you throw in conference tournaments before that, keep players out of class three to four days a week for as many as three to four weeks, including finals week at quarter-system schools. (And what happens if they go to 96 freaking teams??)

And yet they keep on throwing it out there, now via social media. What a stunner that the Alabama/canceled class story hasn't merited a Facebook link yet.

For all the BCS haters, could you please publish what the bowl matchups would have been under the previous system? -- Sam, Atlanta

I know I've done this in past years, but it's a lot tougher this year because teams like TCU and Cincinnati didn't finish in the top four very often in the old bowl system. And that's not to mention, would this be Southwest Conference-era TCU or Mountain West-era TCU? Since Texas was also in the SWC, I'm going to treat the Horned Frogs as a bowl free agent for the purposes of this hypothetical.

Rose: Ohio State vs. Oregon

Orange: Nebraska vs. Florida

Sugar: Alabama vs. Georgia Tech

Fiesta: TCU vs. Boise State

Cotton: Texas vs. LSU

I tried to find a place for Cincinnati, but the Big East didn't come along until the early '90s when we were already into the Bowl Alliance/Coalition era. Under the old, decentralized system, I don't think one of these five would have taken them. The Orange Bowl, with its Big 8 ties, would have snapped up Nebraska, and with no two-teams-per-conference limit, the Cotton would be free to take LSU.

As Tim Tebow is heading to New York as a sentimental Heisman finalist, is there any merit to comparing the "Tim Tebow is the greatest college football player of all time" story from last offseason to ESPN's premature "Is this USC team the best team ever?" campaign in 2005? Tebow is great, but looking at the way things have gone, it all seems a bit premature in retrospect. -- Ben, Madison, Wis.

I don't think there's any question his legacy was tarnished a bit this season. That may seem a tad unfair, considering the guy still won another 12 straight games, ranks eighth in pass efficiency and produced another 3,272 yards of offense (slightly more than he had through 13 games last year) and 31 touchdowns (down from 42 last year and 55 his Heisman season). But clearly he wasn't quite the same dominant player, and he couldn't "will" his team to a title this time.

Obviously, that's not all on him. All you had to do was turn on a television Sunday and watch Louis Murphy's game-winning touchdown against the Steelers or Percy Harvin's 101 total yards for the Vikings to know why Tebow and Florida's offense were less dynamic this season. But as I watched him closely during the SEC title game, I noticed a lot of the same things Florida followers had observed during the season: He seems more indecisive, he sometimes misses open receivers and, remarkably, his already unconventional release seems to be coming from an even lower trajectory. It makes you wonder just how much the departure of Dan Mullen affected him.

At the end of the day, we're still talking about a guy with two national titles, a Heisman and two subsequent top-five finishes; a 34-6 record; the most total yards and touchdowns in SEC history; and a chance to finish with the second-highest career passer rating (170.4 as of last weekend) in FBS history. (Bradford's 175.6 will break the current record of 168.9). Any debate about all-time great players has to include Tebow, but last impressions carry a lot of weight.

Stewart, how surprised are you by the instant success Nick Saban has had at Alabama? Saban is certainly a great coach, but this is the first time he has ever won 10-plus games in consecutive seasons, and outside of the '03 title, his record at LSU was solid, but not spectacular. Did his NFL stint make him a better coach, or has the synergy of success-starved Alabama and no-nonsense Nick just been a match made in heaven? -- Michael Stadler, Palo Alto, Calif.

I always figured he'd eventually reach this point, but I'm surprised it happened so quickly. It is, as you said, a match made in heaven. With all due respect to LSU, its football history prior to the start of this decade primarily consisted of Billy Cannon, Billy Cannon and Billy Cannon. What you consider his "solid but not spectacular" record (.750 winning percentage) was tied for the school's highest of any coach in 100 years, and he led a program that had been largely nationally irrelevant for 40 years to one national title and helped pave the way for another.

So clearly, the guy could coach and recruit with the best of them, and now you hand him the keys to one of the sport's all-time storied teams -- and, most importantly, give him complete autonomy over every last facet of the program -- and it seemed almost inevitable he'd get them to this point. I'll admit, I don't think I fully grasped his coaching persona while with LSU. Like so many others, I got caught up in his "angry" side perhaps jaded by his job-hopping. But listening to him talk throughout this season, there's no question in my mind: He's the Bill Belichick of college football.

There are plenty of great coaches out there, each with their own unique approach. Pete Carroll has won a lot of games being the "fun" guy, Urban Meyer the "competitive" guy, Jim Tressel the "fundamentals" guy. Saban, like Belichick, is the "cerebral" guy. As I listened to his postgame remarks following the Florida win, you could tell that he's literally broken down championship football -- not just the X's and O's, mind you, but all the other elements -- into an almost clinical process. If you were to sit him down right now, he could tell you in intricate detail, every minute step of how Alabama got from Point A (his arrival) to Point B (playing for a national title). Just be forewarned that it's not necessarily scintillating stuff. It would probably bore you to tears, actually.

While I'm happy to see that more African-Americans are being hired in college football, I think it is important to keep in mind that African-Americans only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. These new additions (Virginia's Mike London, Louisville's Charlie Strong, Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart, Memphis' Larry Porter) brings us to just under 10 percent of college coaches, which should be considered great, even if the majority of football players are African-American. -- Mike, Chicago

I don't think there should be any "target" percentage of minority coaches the sport should be trying to reach, and even if there was, I don't think it should be based on that of the general population. According to a 2008 survey by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 30.6 percent of FBS assistant coaches are black. That leads to obvious questions as to why so few black coaches have risen to the top of their profession. And that in turn creates added scrutiny over schools' interview processes.

Obviously, schools should be free to hire whoever they deem the most qualified candidate. However, thanks to the work of groups like the BCA and more media coverage of the issue, more black candidates are actually getting interviews, and some of those interviews are now leading to jobs. The trend the past couple of years has been extremely encouraging, and hopefully it continues that way.

I wouldn't bother coming back to Texas after writing off the 'Horns. You may be right about the outcome, but that doesn't make it any less forgivable. -- Patrick, Ft. Worth

I'm sorry. I really am. If I were to give you some money out of my wallet ... would that help ease the pain?

You're welcome here in Austin anytime. Come by on January 8th and we'll get you fitted for your dunce cap. -- Owen, Austin

As long as I get to eat at Trudy's while I'm there, I've got no problem with that.

One question: Are Greg McElroy and Julio Jones roommates? No? Texas 70, 'Bama 0. -- Andrew, Dallas

I'm not aware of the Alabama tandem's current living situation, but I'll look into it and get back to you. I will say, McCoy and Shipley may have an unfair advantage. They get to go fishing together. The one time 'Bama's guys tried that they got in trouble.

What a jerk-*** article. Welcome in Austin? Sure. Don't choke on a mouthful of brisket, though, because no one here is going to remember the Heimlich. -- Bob B., Austin, Texas

Now that's just cold.

Just so you know, Austin happens to be one of my top-three favorite college towns (along with Eugene and Baton Rouge). Mack Brown is one of the classiest guys in the sport. And I've made clear my appreciation for McCoy.

But I'll be sure to chew carefully.

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