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Give Gene Chizik some credit for Auburn's success; more Mailbag

The general rule of thumb is that deserved or not, the head coach is always the first person lauded or lambasted for a team's triumphs or tribulations. In the case of Auburn's surprising 8-0 start and No. 1 spot in the BCS standings, however, some observers are looking to credit everyone but head coach Gene Chizik.

Stewart, with Iowa State's upset of Texas this weekend, Paul Rhoads has notched a second victory over a major opponent in just his second year there. When Gene Chizik left Iowa State for Auburn, there was talk that he wasn't really as bad a coach as his 5-19 record may have indicated there because it's just that difficult to succeed at Iowa State. My question is, how much of Chizik's success at Auburn can be attributed to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and dynamic playmaker Cam Newton? Are we going to see Auburn sliding back into mediocrity once Malzahn inevitably leaves for a head-coaching position and Newton departs for the NFL?-- Wayne S., Russellville, Ala.

It's way too early to make any long-term projections about Chizik's tenure at Auburn. All I know is that to this point, he's done everything Tigers fans could have hoped for (even this guy). Would the Tigers be 8-0 right now without Newton and Malzahn? Of course not. Malzahn is one of the most innovative offensive minds in the country, and Newton's arrival is the single biggest reason the Tigers have gone from a 3-5 SEC team last year to a 5-0 team this year. But the head coach isn't generally the one designing or calling the plays. And Auburn is hardly the first team to achieve success because of its star quarterback.

As the CEO of a major college program, the head coach's two most important responsibilities are assembling and managing his staff and recruiting great players. To this point, Chizik gets an "A" for both. He had the foresight to recognize that Malzahn, then at Tulsa following a brief and controversial stint at Arkansas, did in fact have the acumen to succeed in the SEC. Meanwhile, in a very short time, Chizik turned Auburn into a force in the recruiting world, landing a top five class last season. Note that the three most talented players on Auburn's roster -- Newton, defensive tackle Nick Fairley (a juco transfer) and freshman tailback Michael Dyer -- were all members of Chizik's two recruiting classes. They wouldn't have signed if they didn't like what the head coach was selling.

All that said, Chizik technically hasn't accomplished anything yet. Ultimately, Auburn fans won't measure him by 8-0 starts. They'll want to see victories over Alabama and SEC titles -- starting this year. Whether he can achieve and sustain the type of program they demand will depend in large part on his ability to keep making good hires (if in fact Malzahn leaves) and keep recruiting at a high level year-in, year-out. Chizik wasn't at Iowa State long enough for us to get a sense of his long-term prospects. Rhoads deserves all the credit for the Cyclones' successes, but who's to say Chizik wouldn't have had a similar breakthrough? I don't think Auburn will "slide back into mediocrity," because it's rarely been a mediocre program, but it's too early to tell whether we're witnessing the start of a dynasty or simply one particularly special season.

I've been a big fan of the Mailbag for a few years now and enjoy reading your columns on SI.com. I remember you writing an article a couple years back about Gene Chizik having "absolutely no chance of succeeding" at Auburn after being hired away from Iowa State. With Auburn now holding the No. 1 spot in the BCS rankings, do you regret making that statement?-- Daniel, San Antonio

Yes. I guess the one saving grace is that I didn't show up at the airport and boo the AD.

Stewart, you really think LaMichael James can win the Heisman? Only three non-USC players from the West Coast have won the Heisman, and it has been 40 years since that happened. Until they fix the lopsided and disproportionate voting system, no West Coast player, no matter how outstanding, will win if he isn't in Cardinal and Gold.-- Luke Martinez, Tulare, Calif.

False!

I don't know if you've noticed, but the Heisman has been bucking history a lot in recent years. No freshman or sophomore had won prior to Tim Tebow; now three straight sophomores have won it. A defensive tackle from Nebraska and a running back from Stanford were finalists last year. The historic "East Coast bias" you're referring to wasn't a product of any "disproportionate voting system" -- the electorate is divided evenly by region -- as much as the fact that there used to be far fewer games on TV, and USC tended to hog the Pac-10 telecasts.

But this is 2010. Do you really think Oregon is hurting for exposure? I'm guessing every voter from Maine to Montana has watched the Ducks play and is more than familiar with James. He also happens to play for the No. 1 team in the country. I don't know if he'll end up winning it, but if he doesn't, it won't be because he plays for a West Coast team.

You wrote correctly that the Big East stinks, but that wasn't always the case even after the departure of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. So, is the "stinkiness" this year (and some say recent previous years, too) a normal part of your noted cyclical conference strength theory, or is it a sign that the Big East will continue to decline if it doesn't make changes soon?-- Kirk M., Louisville

I've long said the Big East's highs and lows tend to be exacerbated by the league's small size. When West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers all rose into the top 10 in 2006 and stars like Ray Rice, Pat White, Steve Slaton and Brian Brohm were pushing for the Heisman, we in the media were rightfully trumpeting the conference's rise from the ashes; but if the 12-team SEC ever had three good teams and a bunch of also-rans, we'd be ripping it. Four years later, the entire league is struggling. No Big East team is currently ranked, and that might be the case the rest of the season. Obviously, that would never happen in the Big Ten.

It's not a mystery how we got here. Over the past three years, five of the eight teams have undergone coaching changes. That turnover included the departures of the only three coaches (West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez, Louisville's Bobby Petrino and Cincinnati's Brian Kelly) who had led teams to BCS berths since the league's post-2004 reconfiguration. A league can't experience that much coaching turnover without suffering a down period. But that's also the one factor that gives me pause in assuming the league will follow the same cyclical pattern as its counterparts. The Big East is the lone AQ conference coaches treat as a stepping stone to greener pastures. In that regard, it's no different than a mid-major league. If Charlie Strong manages to turn around Louisville, some SEC school will hire him. If Butch Jones brings Cincinnati back to the BCS, he'll probably be in the Big Ten a year later.

It's hard to maintain success with such instability, which means the Big East will inevitably have to make some changes. Some of the schools may need to start investing more heavily in their programs (no small feat in the current economy) to make it enticing for good coaches to stay. But most likely, the league will need to expand. We know the Big East has been discussing just that, with TCU in particular. Even a 10-team league provides greater assurance of having at least a couple of bell cows in any given year to help avoid debacles like this season.

C'mon, Stewart. Applebee's? Going there is bad enough. Admitting to it does not speak well of your overall judgment on other matters.-- Phil Huckelberry, Chicago

Desperate times called for desperate measures, my friend. I don't know if you've ever driven from Auburn to Atlanta, but there isn't a whole lot between them. In fact, I was on I-85 for nearly 70 miles before finding an exit with any sit-down restaurants with TVs. All the while, I was driving about 85 mph knowing there was no way I'd make it all the way to my hotel before the OU-Missouri game ended. I had to exercise some delicate clock-management. All things considered, I think I pulled it off nicely, even if my stomach disagreed.

Speaking of OU-Missouri, in College Football Overtime I opened the floor to anyone who could empirically prove Bob Stoops made the right call by going for two, down nine with 6:06 remaining. Be careful what you wish for ...

Since you asked for an analysis of Stoops' decision based on quantitative probability, I figured I'd oblige. A basic analysis of the probabilities shows that going for it there greatly increases Oklahoma's chances of winning the game.

The probability of successful two-point conversion is around 44 percent, therefore ...

-- If they go for two, the probability of winning is: P(win) = P(2-point successful)*P(overcome 7 point deficit) + P(2-point failure)*P(overcome 9 point deficit) = 0.44*0.09 + 0.56*0.06 = 7.32%

-- If they kick an extra point (assuming that has a 100 percent success rate), they have to overcome an eight-point deficit. The odds of that happening are about six percent.

Going for two, therefore, increases Oklahoma's odds of winning the game roughly 22 percent, from 6 percent to 7.32 percent.

(Note that these probabilities are coming from NFL stats and the win probability calculator on the Advanced NFL Stats site. I would wager that the benefits of an early two-point conversion are even greater in the college game, where teams make the two-point conversion more frequently and where comebacks are more likely.)-- Justin, Boise, Idaho

So there you have it. Now I just need Matt Damon to come in and check Justin's math.

Stewart, big fan of the Mailbag. What more does Robert Griffin III need to do to get mentioned in the Heisman race? He's third nationally in total offense and leading Baylor to its sixth win of the season should be opening some eyes, don't you think?-- Carl, Dallas

He deserves to be in the discussion, but it's hard to open eyes when people haven't seen you. By now most people are aware of Baylor's historic start, and perhaps they've noticed Griffin's gaudy statistics (2,373 passing yards, 67 percent completions, 18 touchdowns, four interceptions). But who outside of Big 12 country has seen him play this season? I try to watch as much college football as humanly possible, and even I've only seen one Baylor game -- a game it lost, to Texas Tech.

As is usually the case as a season progresses, the Heisman race seems to be centering almost exclusively on three players: Auburn's Newton, Oregon's James and Boise State's Kellen Moore. That's not to say someone outside that group can't still break through, but he'll be working at a significant disadvantage in that all three are currently in the thick of the national-title race and therefore taking part in big, nationally-televised games. Griffin's team, while enjoying historic success, does not figure to be in that position. Now, if Baylor beats Texas this week and goes on to reach the Big 12 title game, I could certainly envision him earning an invite to New York. It would be such a big story. But right now it seems like the race is narrowing, not expanding.

How smart do you feel now after correctly predicting the Pac-12 alignmentin June? Try not to gloat too much.-- Kevin Compton, Warrenton, Va.

Nebraska to the Big Ten last December. A Pac-12 title game at the home team's stadium last June. In the words of esteemed singer/songwriter Russell Hammond, I am a Golden God.

(Is that considered gloating?)

I was curious as to your feelings about the Iowa Hawkeyes after Saturday's loss to Wisconsin. Has there ever been a team that had the offense and defense to compete for a top spot only to have the special-teams unit destroy its season? It feels to me like barring the special teams futility the Hawkeyes have shown this year, they may be both undefeated and look better statistically (as they have been routinely giving up field position and leaving points on the field).-- Andrew S., Des Moines, Iowa

Every week I get questions like this one that start, "Has there ever been ...?" I'm not a walking college football encyclopedia; I just play one on the Internet. I'm sure there have been many, many great teams that could point to special teams as their downfall, but no jarring example stands out.

But I can't say I'm entirely surprised by the way Iowa's season has turned out. When people were suggesting this preseason that Iowa had the makings of a possible national title team, I felt more confident they'd go 9-3. And that's despite the fact that I thought they'd have a better team this year than last. The Hawkeyes have some great players, but they're not the type of team that's going to overwhelm people with their talent. It's no secret they won a lot of close, ugly games last season that easily could have gone the other way, and the law of averages suggested they might not be as fortunate this year. That's pretty much what's happened -- they've lost two games in the final minute to teams at a similar talent level.

Iowa can still deliver a big season, and perhaps even win the Big Ten (though it will need help), if it can knock off undefeated Michigan State this weekend. It will be an interesting contrast, though. As mentioned, the Hawkeyes have been plagued by special teams miscues (last week included a missed extra point, a botched snap on a 30-yard field goal attempt and a successful Wisconsin fake punt). The Spartans, on the other hand, have arguably made better use of special teams than any team in the country, winning the Notre Dame game on a fake field goal, executing a momentum-changing fake punt against Northwestern last week and making 13 of 14 field goals.

My advice to Iowa: score a bunch of touchdowns so you don't have to worry about it.

I was going to wait until after LSU beats Auburn to tell you what I think of you and all your sportswriter pals picking my Tigers as your second-half flop team, but that would imply I didn't have faith in my team. So here you go: LSU 27, Auburn 14. And I am going to refrain from calling you nasty names. I am taking the high road. You know how you have disrespected us. You have to live with yourself, not me.-- Russell, Ormond Beach, Fla.

I respect your courage and dedication and your most noble restraint with regards to the nasty names, so I will return the favor by printing this e-mail with no disparaging response.

Just read you so called "experts'" second half opinions and can't wait to see every one of you dine on some delicious crow in three weeks. Picking LSU to flop is ignorant. They will shut down Cam Newton this week and beat Auburn. (I could throw for three TDs on Auburn's secondary). ... Save this email so I can say "I told you so."-- Bryan, New Orleans

I saved it for this guy.

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