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Why Auburn can't afford to slip on Championship Saturday; more mail

Watching ESPN's Sunday night BCS Countdown has been both maddening and morbidly fascinating. The show's experts spend about five minutes breaking down the actual BCS standings, then 40 minutes saying how they would rank the teams. And their methodology seems to change by the week.

Case in point: For weeks, Kirk Herbstreit had served as the show's lone advocate for mid-majors Boise State and TCU, playing the role of reasoned foil to Craig James' "Gosh golly, the linebackers in those other leagues are just bigger" shtick. But then a funny thing happened. After Boise State lost last week, Herbie decided to revaluate the Horned Frogs and decided -- eh. He moved 11-1 Stanford ahead of TCU to No. 3 in his rankings. Co-panelist Rod Gilmore was even harsher, ranking TCU sixth.

Both were OK with the prospect of Boise State moving into the title game a week ago, but now that the focus has shifted to TCU, the one-loss teams right behind the Horned Frogs suddenly look more enticing. It's puzzling. While I think the world of Stanford, the Cardinal already had their shot at Oregon. And the difference in schedule strength between TCU (76th in Sagarin) and Wisconsin (71st) is negligible.

There's really only one one-loss team with a reasonable case to trump TCU should the occasion arise Sunday -- and that team doesn't yet have a loss.

What happens if South Carolina beats Auburn, and for the sake of argument, it is on a last-second field goal? Does TCU automatically get the bump up to the championship game? Auburn would still have at least five wins (Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina) on par with TCU's lone signature win (Utah). Would we really punish a team that ran the table against such a markedly better schedule just because it lost a rematch to a top 20 team it's already beaten?-- Brian, Brookline, Mass.

For all the reasons Brian just mentioned, I think Auburn would have a very legitimate case that it was still one of the two most deserving teams even if it lost to South Carolina. (I can't say the same for Oregon if it were to lose to 5-6 Oregon State.) After watching the Tigers rally from a 24-0 deficit on the road to beat their bitter rivals and complete a 12-0 regular season, I immediately tweeted: "I don't care if Oregon wins 50-0 tonight. Auburn should be No. 1." The Ducks wound up beating Arizona 48-29, and Auburn did rise to No. 1 in the BCS standings, albeit by a .002 margin. My comment wasn't a knock on the Ducks, who may well be the better team, but an acknowledgment that Auburn's overall body of work is superior to Oregon's and everybody else's.

But here's why Auburn won't -- and shouldn't -- stay above TCU if it loses Saturday: It would require making at least three special exceptions for the Tigers.

For one, every time a ranked team has lost a game this season, it has dropped more than one spot in the polls (usually much more than one spot), especially when losing to a lower-ranked team. Auburn isn't facing a top five team Saturday; it's facing the BCS' No. 19 team. In any other week, it would be punished for losing this game. Why should this week be different?

Secondly, recall that back when the standings were still more heavily weighted toward the computers, two teams (2001 Nebraska and 2003 Oklahoma) made the championship game despite losing their last regular-season games -- and the public was livid. The formula was altered in large part to avoid such a recurrence. (Granted, both were blowouts, not last-second losses.)

And finally, while it's not an official BCS rule, voters have made it abundantly clear that they feel a team shouldn't play for the national championship without having won its conference championship. It's why Florida leapfrogged Michigan on the last Sunday in 2006, LSU jumped Georgia in '07 and Oklahoma passed Texas in '08. The strange but true reality is that Auburn would have had a better chance of finishing in the top two had it lost to Alabama and turned around and won in Atlanta than by winning the Iron Bowl but losing the last game. It's really that simple: You can't lose your last game. Period. So in a way, TCU benefitted both from Boise State losing and Auburn winning last week.

Many of you also e-mailed this week asking the inevitable steroid-sized edition of Brian's question, which is: What happens if both Auburn and Oregon lose. I'm afraid I must plead the fifth, because I don't know, and I'm not sure I want to know. I only know that whatever the result, my inbox the next day will be excruciating.

OK, now that the fourth undefeated team has dropped out of the picture, how does the Mandel Plan look for this year? It would be a cluster ****. Wisconsin, Stanford, Ohio State, Michigan State, and you could make an argument for others. Who would be the "deserving" fourth team in the plus-one playoff?-- Kirk, Ridgefield, Wash.

Admittedly, the Mandel Plan is a much harder sell in years when there isn't a clear-cut top four, but frankly, that's probably going to be the case more often than not. The goal of a plus-one is to prevent full-on injustices like undefeated Auburn not getting a shot in 2004 and to give a team like TCU a chance to prove itself on the field. Someone's still going to get left out, but better the argument shift from undefeated teams to teams that took their fate out of their own hands once they lost a game. An eight- or 16-team playoff would actually be more controversial. Can you imagine the pool of candidates for the two at-large spots in an eight-team playoff (by my count, at least seven this year) or the five at-large spots in a 16-team bracket (this year, anywhere from nine to 12)?

In the Mandel Plan, Wisconsin is actually the fairly easy choice for the fourth spot, for much the same reason mentioned in the Auburn answer above: It won its conference's automatic berth, while Stanford, Ohio State and Michigan State -- the other remaining one-loss major-conference teams -- did not. The fact that the Badgers emerged from a convoluted three-way tiebreaker is the Big Ten's problem, not ours, and it will be moot by next year when the Big Ten begins hosting a championship game. In fact, as of next season, all six BCS conferences will finally have either a championship game or a full round-robin schedule, which should help facilitate even more clarity.

Stewart, Any chance the guys in colored blazers can get together in a backroom and politely beg, bribe, etc. TCU to go to Glendale and let Stanford go to the Rose Bowl. It's an apples to apples swap, don't you think?-- Scott, Pasadena, Calif.

The sole reason the rule was put in place this year requiring the Rose Bowl to take a non-AQ replacement team was due to grumbling from the other bowls that they were constantly getting stuck with the non-AQs (the Fiesta has hosted four, the Sugar two) but that the Rose never did because it has two conference partners. So no, I don't think one of the other bowls that lobbied for the rule to begin with would suddenly let the Rose off the hook the first time the scenario came up. Not to mention that in 12 years, the BCS has yet to let a pair of games swap teams.

I'm confused -- how does TCU's move to the Big East help them? Last time I checked, last year's undefeated Big East champ Cincinnati had less of a shot of playing for the national championship than TCU does playing in the Mountain West. Does the Big East really offer that much more money, even over the long term?-- Mark Gribbin, Richmond, Va.

It's not about the national title, but the fact that even with a second straight 12-0 season, TCU had no assurance of a BCS bowl invite this year until Boise State lost to Nevada. In the Big East, TCU could hypothetically go 9-3 or 8-4 and be guaranteed a berth, as the conference's champ will be this year. And that BCS berth is worth $21 million to the conference, whereas the Horned Frogs' berth this year will net the Mountain West about half that. TCU will also now share in the Big East's considerable performance-based NCAA tournament revenue ($23 million last year, compared with $4 million for the Mountain West).

When this potential move was first reported a few weeks ago, I found it kind of clunky. But having had more time to study it -- including a few minutes spent on MapQuest realizing TCU will be traveling no further to Rutgers (1,536 miles) and Syracuse (1,543) than it would future MWC foes Boise State (1,583) and Fresno State (1,536) -- the move is a no-brainer for both parties. In the BCS system, the difference between AQ and non-AQ status is the difference between having two legs and one. It's a game-changer for TCU's athletic department, and it gives the Big East a football program that will bolster its depth and compete for its championship fairly regularly.

How can Ohio State make a BCS bowl when it does not have a single signature win during the season?-- David Kay, Lake Charles, La.

Because 25,000 Buckeyes fans are going to show up in New Orleans, book hotel rooms, stay out 'til 4 a.m. on Bourbon Street and help fill the stadium. That, and the fact that an Arkansas-Ohio State game will draw much bigger TV ratings than, say, Michigan State-Missouri.

Bowls are businesses.

Ding Dong, the Pretender is dead, the Pretender is dead!-- Brandon, New Orleans

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA... :GASP: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! What's next you Boise State apologist? (See what I did there?) -- Danny, Houston

Yep, I knew those were coming. I could print 20 more just like them, but fortunately a few people e-mailed with a more levelheaded take on the Broncos' demise.

Stewart, I'm no fan of Gary Danielson's self-appointed role as SEC mouthpiece any more than you are, but wasn't last night's Boise-Nevada game pretty much what he's been talking about? Danielson's point during the Iron Bowl broadcast was that a top-tier team from a non-AQ conference doesn't typically have to go on the road to face opponents with equal top-tier talent and an equal will to win during their conference season (as was plainly the case in Tuscaloosa on Friday), and that if they did, they wouldn't boast the gaudy win/loss records that Boise and TCU have over the past few seasons. If Boise had to face four teams like Nevada in its conference every year (two at home, two on the road) they would still be a great program, but probably wouldn't have the record to argue for a spot in the title game.-- Beau, Oklahoma City

Both Beau and Mr. Danielson are absolutely correct. Two undefeated teams went on the road last Friday and played their toughest conference games of the season. Auburn rallied from a huge deficit and showed the heart of a champion. Boise folded like a house of cards. One overtime road loss against a top 20 team does not negate the Broncos' dominance over their previous 24 ½ games, but it had been more than two months since a team went out and punched the Broncos in the mouth like Nevada did in the second half, and missed field goals or not, Boise didn't rise to the occasion. Of course, had the Broncos held on to beat Nevada, I'm sure Danielson would have chalked it up as just another win over a Little Sister of the Poor rather than a road win over a top 20 team with a standout four-year quarterback and a record-breaking offense.

As for the larger point, no one (not me at least) ever suggested that Boise would dominate year-in and year-out in a conference like the SEC. This happened to be a particularly special team, built around a core of three- and four-year starters, which had consistently proven itself against top-flight competition. That's why I deemed it a viable national title contender. Having said that, I also deemed Alabama a national title contender right up until its second loss, but the Tide never did put it together this season. My guess is if this Boise team had played an SEC schedule, it would be sitting in much the same place as 'Bama, another team that had the pieces but came up a little short.

I was in Reno last Friday night, and while there were 70,000 fewer people than there were in Tuscaloosa that day, it was also 30 degrees with a 26 degree wind chill, that damned cannon kept going off and Nevada's defense was playing out of its mind. A lot of good teams would have lost there that night -- though probably not Auburn, which is why it's still in the hunt and Boise is not.

Why doesn't Boise just join the Big 12?-- Dale Craig, Pryor, Okla.

Well, because conference realignment doesn't work like Little League baseball. You can't just show up at Big 12 headquarters with your application form and say, "Sign us up." A league has to invite you first.

Why does an AD need to hire a search consultant? Isn't it the AD's job to find coaches? Even I could tell Kirby Hocutt to contact Mark Richt, Dan Millen or Gus Malzahn. What is Chuck Neinas bringing to the table? Did he get Hocutt the job at Miami?-- Frank De Lucia, Baltimore

As a matter of fact, Neinas was Hocutt's first boss, back at the now-defunct College Football Association in 1995.

Neinas works as a go-between. Supplying a list of potential candidates is only one part of it. For all we know, his list is exactly the same as the one Hocutt had in mind. But whereas Hocutt is only now beginning the process, Neinas -- who knows which jobs are most likely to come open -- presumably spends his entire year networking, gauging the temperature of various candidates, putting out feelers and, when the time comes, arranging phone calls and interviews so that the AD isn't left chasing an uninterested candidate. There's also the hope that the search will be conducted discreetly, but that part never seems to work out.

At the end of the day, it's still the AD (and ultimately the president and/or board of trustees) who makes the final call. With that in mind, and knowing that hiring a head football coach is arguably the most important decision an AD ever has to make, hiring a search firm is like a security blanket, allowing an AD to show his bosses that he was as thorough and thoughtful as possible. While $50,000 may seem like a lot, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the $2-3 million salary a school will end up paying its coach, so an AD might as well do everything in his power to make the right hire.

Stewart: With Auburn jumping Oregon in the BCS standings this week and playing the stronger opponent on Saturday, we know that they will get to wear their home uniforms at the BCS championship. Oregon will presumably show up in their "road" uniforms, but do we seriously have any idea what they would wear?-- Kevin, Boulder, Colo.

Personally, I'd be in favor of the all-white stormtrooper get-up the Ducks sported against USC, which made them look even faster than they already are. But I imagine they'll come up with something entirely new for the occasion.

ARE YOU REALLY SERIOUS? I have always thought the BCS system was stupid now I think it is TOTALLY TOTALY CORRUPT! How in the world does Auburn move to No. 1? They almost lose, barely survive by ONE POINT and they are REWARDED FOR THAT???????????????. I was waking up and had the TV on and LITERLALLY shot out of bed when I heard that Auburn was GIVEN the No. 1 spot! I was NOT intending on getting up at 5 a.m. but when I heard that I was suddenly WIDE AWAKE it was so shocking. Yet it shouldn't be, like TV the EAST COAST BIAS shows up again.-- Pat, Grant Pass, Oregon

My goodness. I haven't seen anyone that worked up over two ten-thousandths of a decimal point since these guys.

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