Wednesday October 20th, 2010

As much as we love to criticize the pollsters, there's a valid argument to be made that voters are more "nuanced" today than, say, 10 years ago. It used to be, one team loses, the next team moves up a spot. Rinse and repeat. Today's voters tend to react more fluidly -- albeit not always to our liking -- based on context, schedule strength and other factors.

But are they putting too much emphasis on one particular concept?

It is obvious to me that in this BCS era, THE most important factor in the rankings and especially in getting to the BCS Championship is perceived conference strength. Obviously the SEC is regarded as the strongest conference year-in and year-out and therefore gets the benefit of the doubt (Auburn rated over Michigan State or Missouri; Alabama rated over other one-loss teams, like Arizona). My question is, have the polls become so "conference enamored" that other more important factors are virtually ignored? -- John Moore, Paramount, Calif.

Let's start with the disclaimer that THE most important factor in the rankings is not losing. Undefeated almost always trumps one-loss, one-loss almost always trumps two losses, etc., and while there are some exceptions now (undefeated Oklahoma State and Missouri, which have played weak schedules, are behind eight one-loss teams), those discrepancies will diminish by season's end.

But there's no denying the importance of perceived conference strength, in particular the SEC's, which has been deservedly built up over the past four years. To me, the single biggest turning points of the BCS era were Auburn's 2004 title-game snub and Florida's 2006 title-game rout of season-long No. 1 Ohio State. Prior to '04, the voters really didn't differentiate much between the major conferences, but Auburn's exclusion really started the "S-E-C, S-E-C" rallying cry from that league's constituents, who screamed to anyone and everyone about how much tougher their league was than the Pac-10 or Big 12. Two years later, 12-1 Florida got in over 11-1 Michigan due in part to that growing reputation, then bolstered it by throttling the Big Ten's much-hyped champ. LSU benefited from that enhanced reputation a year later to get into the game over several other two-loss teams, and so on and so on.

The problem, of course, is that relative conference strength is not static. It changes from year to year, and only now are the voters starting to recognize that maybe the SEC isn't all that this year, that the Pac-10, for one, may be stronger and deeper. But because Alabama started No. 1, and because Florida somehow stayed in the polls through last week, and because Arkansas inexplicably rose into the top 10 in September based on little besides conference affiliation, the perception is that Auburn, LSU and 'Bama play a tougher conference schedule than Arizona or Stanford, when really we have no idea if that's true.

I wish the voters would put more emphasis on nonconference results. If they did, Arizona, which beat Iowa, would be a lot higher than 18th in the BCS standings. But here's where the SEC is a bit crafty. It starts playing conference games as early as the second week of the season, so its teams get a boost in the polls simply by beating each other. In other leagues, it's inevitable that nonconference results from four games in September will eventually get trumped by eight conference games in October and November. So at this point, the Wildcats' more recent loss to Oregon State has a bigger impact than that Sept. 18 win over Iowa. Mind you, Alabama lost to South Carolina the same day Arizona lost to the Beavers, yet remains 10 spots higher. But the Tide's was an SEC loss, so clearly it's more forgivable.

Hi, Stewart. I know Mike Leach is the top name for any coaching vacancy, but do you think his pass-heavy system, which relies heavily on run-after-the-catch to be successful, could win games in the cold and wet weather of late October and November in Big Ten country? As you mentioned, Minnesota has a new stadium, and it doesn't have a roof like the old one. -- Brent, Memphis

I think the notion that a team can't run a passing offense in cold weather is a bit antiquated at this point. Is there any quantitative evidence to support it? With the possible exception of a monsoon or a blizzard, I think most players in this day and age are highly trained enough to handle the ball in adverse conditions. And as we saw last week at Nebraska, players can just as easily drop wide-open touchdowns when it's 70 degrees and sunny.

Recruiting is a more legitimate concern. At Tech, Leach coached in a state so deep with high school talent that even if Texas and Texas A&M signed better classes, Leach still had access to plenty of athletic but overlooked in-state kids, many of whom probably fit his system better than the four- or five-star guys. And spread-passing offenses are the norm across the state. At Minnesota, he'd have to recruit more regionally and nationally, going head-to-head with schools like Iowa and Wisconsin while playing against teams like Ohio State and Nebraska that, much like Oklahoma and Texas, will always have better players. I think he'd be able to lure quarterbacks and receivers, but linemen would gravitate toward the more physical teams, and elite defensive talent will always be hard to land. The latter will be true for any prospective Minnesota coach, though, not just Leach.

A sort of consensus has grown around the Gators' downfall: namely that their offense just does not fit their quarterback (or perhaps vice-versa). If that is indeed the case, what do you think Urban Meyer would give to have Cameron Newton at the helm instead of John Brantley? And I know the "what ifs" are always difficult, but I can't help but wonder if -- in the Gators' case -- one man truly could be the difference between the Gators I once knew and hated, and the confused mass of orange and light blue I see nowadays. -- Judson Crump, Mobile, Ala.

I'm sure Meyer would love to have the 2010 version of Newton. A lot of teams would. But none of us know what kind of player Newton looked like on the practice field in 2008, nor do we know whether, given another year or two of development, he would have moved back ahead of Brantley on the Gators' depth chart. (Remember, he was ahead of Brantley when both were freshman before a 2008 injury.) It's also too simplistic to assume that Florida's offense would be cooking right now if the Gators simply subbed Newton for Brantley. Obviously, they'd have a more effective QB-run game, but that wouldn't solve everything. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Florida's offense stinks right now because it doesn't have enough good players.

It's time for Gators fans to stop living off the recruiting rankings and start accepting the fact that Florida is sorely lacking in offensive talent. In particular, its offensive line is atrocious. I'm puzzled, because it's a veteran unit full of players who helped win 26 games the past two years. But they're not controlling the line, which means Florida's average-to-begin-with running backs (with the exception of Jeff Demps, who's been limited by injury) have no holes to run through and Brantley rarely has time to throw downfield. When he does, he's throwing to mostly underachieving receivers (Carl Moore being the one exception). I'm not saying Brantley isn't without faults, but he's shown promise. Most everyone else looks like a bust to this point.

Meyer has said that Florida will be making changes during the current bye week. He did the same thing in 2005, after a similarly sluggish start, and Chris Leak and the Gators were more productive the rest of the way. It will be interesting to see what those changes are. It might be time to rely more heavily on change-of-pace QB Trey Burton, make Omarius Hines a more permanent fixture in the running game and, most importantly, strip down the playbook so Brantley is only asked to do what he's most comfortable with.

How do you have time to write articles between all your Gator bashing? -- Marc Stephens

I work on them between Florida touchdowns. It gives me a good two to three hours of uninterrupted work time.

As you have made clear, you fully expect that Oregon will fall to a minimum of one of its conference foes. In your opinion, which of Oregon's remaining foes should it be most concerned about? -- John Dillon, Gilde, Oregon

When the conference's eighth- or ninth-best team, UCLA, is capable of beating Texas, the short answer is: It could happen any week. (Though I don't give the short-handed Bruins much of a chance Thursday night in Eugene.) From a pure X's and O's standpoint, the most worrisome foe is Arizona. The Wildcats are one of the few teams with the defensive speed to contain LaMichael James and Co., while their controlled passing game can give any opponent fits. As you may recall, last year's game between the two was a double-overtime thriller that Arizona very nearly won in regulation. But the fact that this year's game is at Autzen Stadium may negate the upset possibility.

Strange as it may sound, Oregon's most worrisome game may be Oct. 30 at USC. To be clear, the Ducks are the better team, but it will basically be USC's Super Bowl. With no championship or bowl aspirations of their own, the Trojans' greatest possible achievement this year would be to avenge last year's blowout in Eugene and crush Oregon's national-title hopes. I realize I may be wrong about all of this. It may be that the Ducks are just that much better than the rest of the Pac-10. Remember, I'm the guy who told you back in April to forget about Jeremiah Masoli because Oregon was still very much the team to beat. I just think the league is too deep to run the table.

Hi Stewart, I'm curious (truly, no edge here) about whether you were writing in 2004 about the importance of defense for championship hopefuls. Did you believe, as all Auburn fans did, that an Oklahoma team that was giving up 35 to Okie St. and Texas A&M had no chance against an offense as good as USC or Auburn? -- John Barrow, Pittsburgh

As a matter of fact: I did (though not quite as emphatically).

After watching the Texas-Nebraska game, I was struck by how fluid Texas' playcalling was. But, of course, they were mostly running the good ol' spread that has brought UT so much success this past decade. Where does Greg Davis rank among offensive gurus? I rarely see him mentioned as an innovator of the spread, or zone-read, and yet it seems that he has provided two of the best expressions of those sorts of offenses with Vince Young and Colt McCoy and Co. I ask mostly out of curiosity because most Longhorns fans would rather grumble than praise him (myself included). -- Greg, Brooklyn

It's pretty baffling. I actually spoke on a panel at a Texas alumni event in New York right before the season, and as soon as I said the words "Greg Davis," people started booing. Are you kidding me? Are first impressions that hard to change? Davis was an understandable scapegoat when Chris Simms failed to live up to the hype and Oklahoma kept beating the 'Horns -- but that was eight years ago. Since that time, Texas has produced two of the most dominant quarterbacks in history -- two completely different players, mind you -- which wouldn't have happened without Davis. I don't necessarily consider him a "guru," because most of the spread and zone-read elements he employed were imported from elsewhere, but he did an excellent job of molding his offense to those players' strengths and keeping opponents off-balance with his play-calling.

Obviously, this year got off to a rough start, in part because the 'Horns got away from what they did so well the past eight years. But I had a feeling Davis would use the bye week and come back with some wrinkle against Nebraska, and he did. Using Garrett Gilbert as a runner clearly caught the Huskers off guard at the outset, and it brought back many of those same delayed draws and misdirection plays that worked so well with Young and McCoy. Now, having said that, Gilbert and the offense didn't do a whole lot in the second half, and this is by no means an explosive unit. Much like Florida, Texas inexplicably lacks firepower at the skill positions right now. But we began to see a new identity take hold in Lincoln, and I'm not surprised, because Mack Brown's teams often gain steam after the Oklahoma game. Guess who plays a big role in that?

Your suggested four-way tie at the top of the Big Ten is impossible, since Iowa still plays both Wisconsin and Ohio State. After those two games, at least one of those three teams will have two Big Ten losses. -- Keith Williams, Chicago

I never said it had to be those particular teams. Where's your respect for 2-0 Purdue?

(Just kidding. You're right. I goofed.)

Hey Stewart. I am a big proponent of a playoff. I am trying to figure out the impact of Boise State possibly being in a national-title game. If they make it, I am afraid that the BCS people will say "Look, see, even Boise can get in the national title game, so there is no more crying needed about a playoff." Yet I could see the presidents of a one-loss Oregon or Alabama or Ohio State screaming about a Boise or TCU getting in and crying out to their fellow BCS colleagues that a playoff is needed. If Boise or TCU makes it in, which of these two sentiments do you think is more likely to be voiced? -- Bryce S., Orting, Wash.

The former. Over the years, lots of coaches, ADs and presidents from lots of "snubbed" teams have cried out to their fellow colleagues, and all it's resulted in is more and more extensions of the current system. In fact, a Boise State or TCU appearance would help take the political heat off the BCS honchos, who could turn around and say, "Look, we told you, the system is perfectly fair." As I wrote on Twitter, every year, people try to dream up the most chaotic scenario possible in the hopes of blowing up the BCS. Folks, we've had 12 years of every mind-numbing scenario imaginable, from Nebraska (2001) and Oklahoma (2003) getting in despite blowout losses the week before, to Miami (2000) and Texas (2008) getting edged out by teams they beat on the field, to USC/Oklahoma/Auburn in '04 to the jumble of two-loss teams in '07, and none have caused any significant change besides tweaking the formula and adding a fifth BCS game.

The only "scenario" that will motivate presidents and commissioners to mess with the current system is if you, the fans, stop caring about college football -- and obviously that hasn't happened. Now, if TCU and Boise State BOTH made the game? The TV ratings might just be so embarrassingly low that ESPN would step in and demand a change. But for the same reasons that matchup would be so unappealing to fans, voters -- who themselves are fans at heart -- aren't going to let it happen. Jerry Palm says there's only a 10 percent chance Boise even makes it, so I don't know why we're even pondering either possibility.

Except, of course, for the fact that it's a 100-percent possibility in my world.

Do you know how a Big East fan can send a "Get Well Soon" card to Eric LeGrand? Last year's tragedy at UConn, and now this nightmare at Rutgers ... regardless of our intense rivalries on the field, we are all brothers in life. -- WVU California Bear, Palm Springs, Calif.

Rutgers fans, West Virginia fans and any other fans who read the awful news of LeGrand's paralysis can send him get-well wishes here.

We all love watching football, but with it comes the scary reality that all those 18- to 23-year-olds who provide us our Saturday entertainment are forever a play away from a potentially life-changing injury.

Get well, Eric. Our thoughts are with you.

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