Wednesday December 30th, 2009

I'll remember this past weekend for the rest of my life. It marked a wonderful milestone in my life, and it served as a testimonial to the ever-eventful sport I cover.

With a long, holiday weekend in store and only a handful of second-tier bowl games on the calendar, I seized the opportunity to do something I'd been awaiting for months: I got engaged. The proposal took place on Thursday night. On Saturday night, my now-fiancée and I were in a cab headed to a celebration dinner when my phone started buzzing.

Urban Meyer had just stepped down.

That night, poor Emily got a sneak preview of the rest of her life: Sitting across a table during what was supposed to be a romantic dinner while I fielded calls and texts coordinating our coverage. (Thankfully, Andy Staples took care of business until I could enter the fray the next morning.) But the craziest thing of all is that I'd originally planned to propose that night. If not for a bad case of jitters that caused me to pull an audible two nights earlier, the ring might still be hiding in my file cabinet.

All because of a coach who, as it turned out, didn't resign after all.

When coach Meyer announced his resignation, I was struck with the idea that here was a coach putting his priorities (his family and his own health) in order. But now it seems like he just said: "No, wait, my team is more important," (which is part of the reason that he has the health problems he does). As long as he's still the coach -- even on hiatus -- he'll still have the pressure to perform. Will he really step away to get better? -- Dave Kiffer, Ketchikan, Alaska

I know as a journalist I'm supposed to remain detached from the story, but after watching Meyer's press conference Sunday, I'll admit: I'm deeply concerned for the guy. I've spent quite a bit of time around Meyer, whether one-on-one in his office or covering his games and press conferences. He's usually upbeat, cocksure and commanding. But the guy who sat on the dais Sunday looked nervous, confused, beaten down and every bit the 20 pounds lighter (if not more) that's been reported.

The immediate reaction by most fans and media was to ridicule Meyer for "flip flopping," for seemingly turning on his family and for putting Florida's program in limbo. I can't bring myself to do it. The man is obviously sick and in need of help. His abrupt reversal Sunday morning (purportedly based on one "spirited practice") was undeniably bizarre, but it was also the product of a mind that seems truly and deeply conflicted.

He's torn because he doesn't want to let down either of his "families" -- the one at home, or the one in the locker room. He wants to get healthy for the sake of his wife and children. He's apparently contemplated stepping down for months, if not years. But he's also carrying the burden of the consequences that would come from that decision: A new coach would possibly tear down everything he's built; those on his staff might lose their jobs; his players might get lost in the shuffle. For him, the "leave of absence" may be about peace of mind. He can step away knowing his own hand-picked replacement (Steve Addazio) is in charge, that the program won't get overhauled and that the door remains ajar for him to return.

Medical professionals would tell you he made the right choice. Someone who's plagued by poor stress management is going to have that problem no matter what job he holds, and leaving or changing jobs is often an even greater source of stress. But the question becomes, what is Meyer going to do with this time off (beyond whatever medical procedures he may be facing)? While it's admirable to want to spend more time with one's children, watching a few volleyball or little league games isn't going to "fix" him. And if he winds up calling the office every morning to check up on recruiting, then he might as well not take the break at all.

Meyer is dealing with some deep-rooted issues (the sources of which were abundantly clear in S.L. Price's magnificent and now eerie Sports Illustrated profile). He needs professional help if he ever hopes to truly get better. But those very issues are also behind a machismo persona that may make it difficult for him to accept that help -- the same way it's difficult for him to walk away from his team. Is it possible to be a good football coach and a good father? Absolutely. Many coaches do it. But the primary source of Meyer's stress isn't his job; it's his disposition. He's been very candid about his "self-destructive" ways. We can only hope he uses this time to properly address them.

Could you ever imagine Nick Saban or Pete Carroll giving the press conference the Colts' head coach did on Sunday? He said a "perfect season was never our goal." Institute playoffs for FBS schools and this is what you'd get. -- Tyler, Davis, Calif.

Ding, ding, ding. While the BCS' p.r. machine was wasting its time Monday nit-picking the details of Dan Wetzel's proposed 16-team playoff, the most compelling argument it could possibly make -- the very antithesis, in fact, of the BCS' new "Every Game Counts" slogan -- had just been uttered in Indianapolis. How insulting was that? Imagine being a Colts season-ticket holder, paying thousands of dollars a year for your seats, just to show up and watch your team not try to win.

Now -- imagine Alabama not trying to beat Auburn.

I've been making this case for years, but playoff zealots don't want to hear it. That's because playoff zealots refuse to acknowledge that the regular season as we know it would change irreparably in the face of a playoff. Just like the NFL, everything would become secondary to that playoff -- even rivalries. Alabama was playing for a national championship in this year's Iron Bowl, but even if the Tide had been 7-4, the game would have been every bit as important, if not more so, because it would essentially be their Super Bowl. In a 16-team playoff, however, that game becomes almost a nuisance if the Tide have already locked up their division. As much as Alabama fans hate Auburn, in a playoff world, beating the Tigers would become far less important than being in peak form for the SEC title game and playoffs. If you're Saban, and you know you're in the playoffs anyway, why not rest Greg McElroy in the second half?

The BCS is putting a lot of energy right now into fighting back against playoff proponents, but it seems to me it's picking the wrong battles. How the teams are selected, where the games are played -- these are issues, sure, but they're no less manageable than the BCS' current headaches. For all its pontificating, the BCS has yet to demonstrate to the masses just how radically a playoff would change the sport.

For instance, my colleague Andy Staples and others recently extolled this admittedly creative video-game simulation, which demonstrated how a 16-team playoff and a scaled-down bowl lineup could simultaneously coexist. In it, Florida, Alabama and LSU all made the playoff while 8-4 Ole Miss got elevated to the Sugar Bowl. "How badly would the folks in New Orleans love the Rebels, who haven't played in the Sugar since 1970?" wrote Andy. "Rue Bourbon would turn into The Greauxve." But he's assuming Ole Miss fans would still give a flying hoot about the Sugar Bowl. Once there's a playoff, it becomes the only goal of every major program in the country. Once a team is eliminated from contention, its fans' only interest would be next year's recruiting class. The bowls would go kaput.

Having said that, considering all the empty seats we've seen in most bowl broadcasts thus far, considering Brian Kelly didn't deem the Sugar Bowl an important enough event to stick around for and considering schools lost a staggering $15.5 million in unsold bowl tickets last year according to this excellent San Diego Union Tribune expose, the bowl system isn't doing itself any favors these days, either. (Though it's personally doing me a favor by getting me out of 20-degree New York for 65-degree L.A. this week.)

Stewart, every year I enter a bowl pool, and there's one factor in bowl games that I've tried to master: The "want to be there/letdown" factor. How can one gauge it? Last year I put my highest confidence points on Alabama to beat Utah in the Sugar Bowl, and the Tide looked like they didn't even want to be in the stadium. By the same token I picked Ole Miss to upset Texas Tech last year for the same reasons and was right. Is this "want to be there/let down" factor generally true, or is it just my imagination? -- Brian Stewart, Snellville, Ga.

It's absolutely true, but it's also inconsistent, which makes predicting the non-championship bowl games a complete crapshoot (as my mediocre record so far shows). Case in point: The BYU-Oregon State Las Vegas Bowl. If that game took place on a Saturday in October, I highly doubt it would have been so one-sided. The Beavers' offense hadn't played that poorly all year. But the Cougars were coming off a dramatic season-ending win in their rivalry game, while the Beavers were coming off a crushing defeat in theirs. I have to think that affected both teams' preparation.

But Pittsburgh was playing under much the same circumstances against North Carolina and still prevailed. One wouldn't have been surprised if USC rolled over in the Emerald Bowl, but quarterback Matt Barkley actually looked sharper than he had in months against Boston College. The moral of the story: Flip a coin. I might try it next year.

Stewart, you are 0-4 so far in predicting bowl games. Is there a systemic reason for that or is it just a mere coincidence? -- Saad, Islamabad

It was pretty amusing to read some of the e-mails that poured in during the first week of bowl season. You guys sure love to rub it in. I'd love to give you some scientific explanation for why I was so wildly off on Wyoming and Middle Tennessee State, but the simple truth is I'd seen those teams play as often as most of you.

Tim Tebow over Vince Young for player of the decade??? You have got to be kidding me!!! Young went 30-2. Tebow is 34-6. Young was invincible and even left one season on the table to head for the NFL. Tebow has proven to be very beatable. Good, but not nearly on the level of VY. -- Gil, Austin, Texas

As an SC fan, I think it's cool that you named the Trojans the best program of the decade and I don't want to sound selfish as a result, but I've still gotta ask: Don't you think it's weird that you had ZERO Trojans on your All-Decade Team? (Besides Reggie Bush as an all-purpose guy.)

I must have done a decent job on the All-Decade Team, because there were surprisingly few complaints. But these were the two most common (shocker: People think Tebow is overrated), so I'll address them both.

First of all, my intent was to honor the most accomplished player(s) at each position. Much like Grant Wahl, whose college basketball team elevated three- and four-year stars (Tyler Hansborough, Shane Battier) over arguably more talented one-and-done guys (Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony), I looked at players' entire careers. Vince Young, at his peak, was the most dominant player I ever covered, but people forget that he didn't truly blossom until about midway through his second season. In his first two years, he threw 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

In terms of a career award, the much tougher choice was between Tebow and Matt Leinart, the latter of whom had a better record (37-2), won two national titles as a starter and also won a Heisman. In terms of actual production, however, Tebow has a higher career passer rating (168.5 to 164.5), more total yards (11,699 to 10,679) and more total touchdowns (141 to 109).

Speaking of which -- Leinart was just one of several USC players that barely missed the All-Decade cut. I didn't set out trying to allocate by team in any way, and I was surprised myself when I realized afterward that Bush was the only Trojan. But remember, you're dealing with a very small sample size (27 players) and position restrictions (with all due respect to Duke Robinson, we needed a guard). If you made a list of the top 200 players of the decade, it may well include 15 Trojans, and no one would deem that a "slight." One of those would probably be Dwayne Jarrett, an unquestionably exceptional college receiver. But was he better than Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree? Not quite. And my editors wouldn't let me go with a spread offense.

What makes you an expert on college football when you have only predicted one bowl game correctly through Dec. 25? -- Brent, Ohio

The only "experts" at predicting games are in Vegas -- and they started 1-5, too.

Stewart -- Now the talk against the Mountain West is lack of depth after the top teams. Yet couldn't you argue that same lack of depth for a number of the BCS conferences? There really isn't much to them outside of their top teams, either, and this has been the case for generations. -- Peter Shams-Avari, Albuquerque, N.M.

The issue isn't depth within each conference, it's the quality of the Mountain West's second- and third-tier teams versus those of the BCS conferences. The Idaho Statesman laid this out perfectly in a recent article about whether the addition of Boise State would help the Mountain West's cause. (The short answer: Yes, but not enough.)

The three criteria the BCS has said it will use for its current four-year evaluation period (2008-11) are 1) the average of each conference's highest-ranked team, 2) the average number of Top 25 teams and 3) conference computer average. In the first two categories, which involve only TCU, Utah and BYU, the Mountain West currently rates equal to or greater than several current AQ conferences. But in the third, which takes into account the whole league, it still rates a distant seventh. So the key over the next two years will be not only for the "Big Three" to maintain their current level, but for some of the bottom-feeders (New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State) to get a lot better.

Stewart: Congratulations on shaking off your rough start to bowl season and correctly picking five of the last seven games. These things have a way of evening themselves out, but sometimes, in our haste to jump all over you, we forget.

Just kidding. Nobody wrote that. The e-mails stopped showing up after 1-5, which is a shame, because I could have used more positive reinforcement like this:

I looked at your first few picks. You are apparently another off-the-shelf football guru. You are in fact another balding middle-aged idiot, that through your unique formulas has it all figured out. I'd suggest you sell insurance. You look like the guy who's my agent. I can give you his number if you'd like, I think he's hiring. Have a great holiday. -- Paul Raihle, Virginia Beach, Va.

Oh I will. I'm going to go drench my balding head in some of that Pasadena sun.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.