Wednesday January 12th, 2011

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Another season is in the books and another SEC school took home the crystal trophy. Suffice it to say, the conference of sundresses and slacks is gradually destroying my long-held beliefs about cyclical conference strength. One could justifiably argue the league had a down year this season (5-5 in bowls, a terribly mediocre East Division) -- and yet there Mike Slive was on the podium again Monday night.

What's more impressive? The fact that the SEC has won five straight BCS titles or that four different teams did it? -- Rudy Dyck, Kingsville, Ontario

Both are impressive, obviously, but the second part is far more telling.

Any one program can get on a hot streak and take home trophies for its conference, but that doesn't necessarily reflect the strength of its league. Florida State played in each of the first three BCS championship games, but no one was singing the ACC's praises. USC won two national titles and played for a third from 2003-05, but most viewed the Pac-10 as a one-team league.

Competitive depth has been the SEC's self-trumpeted calling card the past several years, and at this point it's hard to argue. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports first tweeted this amazing stat late Monday night: The SEC has had as many schools (four) win national championships in the past five years (Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn) as the Big Ten has in the 74-year history of the AP poll (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State).

That's not an entirely accurate comparative measure, seeing as there's only been an official championship game the past 13 years, but the larger point holds true: In most leagues, one or two programs generally stand apart from the others. In the SEC during the BCS era, those four plus Tennessee and Georgia have all competed at an elite level at some point. Florida was a 13-1 team last year that lost a bunch of key players and took a step back, but in stepped Auburn, an 8-5 team in 2009 that added two huge difference-makers (Cam Newton and Nick Fairley) to a veteran core and went 14-0. It shows that much like in the NFL, there's very little difference in the talent level between the teams in the upper half of the SEC, and in a given year, whichever one has a Tim Tebow, Glenn Dorsey, Mark Ingram, Newton or Fairley can rise to the top.

Of course, there are some other less laudatory factors behind the SEC's success as well.

The past two national champions (Alabama and Auburn) have signed more players in their respective four-year cycles than any other schools in college football. Is this at all an advantage, Mr. Mandel? If your conference is winning, what incentive does a conference commissioner have against curbing this practice? -- Simon, San Diego

Of course it's an advantage -- not the overriding reason Alabama and Auburn won national championships, but certainly a factor in those programs' turnarounds. When you sign more players than your opponents -- from 2007-10, Auburn signed 119 players, Oregon 100 -- you can afford to take more chances in recruiting, some of your mistakes aren't as impactful and you can more easily trim the dead weight off your roster. Now, those four-year numbers predate the SEC's 2009 rule that set the limit per signing class to 28 (previously there was no limit), but it's still three more letters-of-intent than scholarships a school can offer and not the same hard cap under which Big Ten schools, among others (including SEC member Georgia), choose to operate.

The oversigning issue is finally starting to get more media scrutiny, starting first and foremost with the invaluable site oversigning.com. Right now you can go on there and see a real-time count of which schools are currently most over their "budget" for 2011. Surprise, surprise: Alabama is at the top of the list once again, currently committed to 12 more players (including verbal commitments) than the 85 scholarships it has to provide. Over the spring and summer, a few veteran backups will quietly transfer, a few will suddenly be deemed medical hardships (they get to keep their scholarships but can no longer play and don't count toward the limit) and perhaps a few incoming players will be asked to grayshirt. This goes on year after year and no one seems inclined to do anything about it.

On the other hand, one could argue that as long as it's within the rules, schools like Alabama and Auburn would be stupid not to sign every recruit possible. Coaches like Nick Saban and Gene Chizik are ultimately measured by how many games and championships they win, not how many upperclassmen they keep on scholarship. Ohio State's Jim Tressel is one of the staunchest proponents of not overpromising scholarships, but that doesn't seem to win him any sympathy when his team loses to Florida or LSU. Personally, I'd like to see the NCAA and/or conferences step up with some more stringent rules -- Randy Edsall, then at UConn, once made the logical suggestion that schools not be allowed to sign a player until he's been admitted academically -- but I've heard of no such plans.

Hi Stewart, I have no horse in the race, so to speak, when it comes to the national championship. Having watched two poorly prepared teams play a sloppy, mistake-filled, and ultimately unsatisfying game, isn't it clear that TCU should be the national champion? I think the Frogs would have convincingly beaten either team Monday. -- Jeff, Baltimore

It's certainly possible, but there's only one way to find out, and unfortunately it's not happening. Unless they play on the field, we have no idea whether TCU would beat Auburn. It's not like Oregon proved an unworthy opponent. The game came down to a last-second field goal. The Ducks' defense wasn't nearly as dominant this season as the Frogs', but it did a fine job containing Newton. The game came down to the fact that Auburn's defensive line beat up a very good Oregon offensive line. I'm not sure TCU's o-line would have fared any differently.

As for the "sloppy, mistake-filled" part: That's not exactly a new phenomenon to BCS championship game, and like many of you, I'm getting extremely frustrated with it. Give all the credit in the world to those teams' defenses and the way they performed Monday night, but those were not the Oregon and Auburn offenses we watched for 12-13 weeks. That was not Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton or Heisman finalist LaMichael James. The prolonged layoff plays such a disproportionate role in the way these title game play out. Note that it's not necessarily true of the other BCS games. TCU, Stanford and Ohio State looked just fine. It's something about the title game itself -- in large part the intense buildup and media attention these guys deal with for 37 days -- that makes it almost impossible for them to truly shut out the "distractions" and stay in top form.

I'm not a playoff guy, but I might take one at this point just to bring some more natural flow to the season.

Do you think the up-tempo aspect of Oregon's offense is overhyped? In the last two bowl games, against very physical Ohio State and Auburn teams, they could not crack 20 points. I am not suggesting it is a bad style, but perhaps its "wild success" is somewhat a result of the design of Pac-10 defenses. -- Rick Ueltschy, Louisville, Ky.

The up-tempo offense got the Ducks to the title game, so I'd say they've got a pretty good thing going. But as I've said all season, even the most potent offense you could possibly dream up can be stopped by a capable defense. Oklahoma's 2008 offense, which Florida held to 14 points in the title game, was another prime example. Tempo can only get you so far if you can't block the other team's defensive linemen, and that's been the case for the Ducks in both bowl games under Chip Kelly.

One thing that stood out to me during this game, however, was that Oregon didn't run at its truly rapid tempo for much of the game. One of the few times the Ducks did, in the second quarter, they marched right down the field for a touchdown and two-point conversion. They ran four plays in 45 seconds and gained 93 yards (81 on the Darron Thomas pass to Jeff Maehl). But they couldn't keep it going the whole night, I would assume in large part because of the beating Thomas and the Ducks' linemen were taking from Fairley and Co. It's hard to hurry up and run to the next spot when you're lying on the ground.

What was the deal with players slipping in the national championship game? I've never seen anything like it (except the Rose Bowl with TCU's cleats). Was the field that bad, or did both teams show up barefoot? -- Kevin Brunson, Collierville, Tenn.

It was the first thing I noticed when I went down on the field before the game -- it seemed damp and kind of loose, almost like it had rained. Only the field was brand new sod under a closed roof installed just a week earlier. A Fiesta Bowl official told me the likely culprit was condensation. The sod was made of rye grass, which apparently retains water more than some other forms. Because of the drastic daily temperature changes in Phoenix this time of year (it's 65 or 70 during the day but as low as 25 or 30 at night), the building heats up during the day and cools down at night, creating much the same effect that causes dewy grass when you walk outside in the morning.

I will say this: Andy Staples and I went back down a few hours after the game to shoot videos with Maggie Gray, and while waiting for the crew to set up, I ran a 40* -- in Dockers -- with no slippage whatsoever.

* Actually I pulled up somewhere between 15 and 20. And no, it was not timed. Mercifully.

Stewart, with the coaching hires that Texas has made thus far, what kind of things do you think we should expect from the 'Horns in 2011? Do you think one offseason is enough to wipe the slate clean and finally rid ourselves of the conservative (possibly prudish) offense we've all grown to love/hate (more hate than love) in Greg Davis' tenure? -- Jose, Fort Worth, Texas

Mack Brown gets an A-plus for both Bryan Harsin (offense) and Manny Diaz (defense). They're both great young coaches who will inject new blood into the program, appeal to recruits and perhaps rejuvenate Mack a little bit. But Texas still needs players. Mack is putting undue expectations on Harsin if he thinks he's going to come in and turn Texas back into an offensive juggernaut overnight (though fans can at least look forward to some of those Boise State trick plays).

Harsin will face some key decisions right off the bat this spring, mainly whether he thinks he can develop the guys on hand or needs to go with a youth movement. It remains to be seen whether Garrett Gilbert can still turn into an upper-echelon Big 12 quarterback. He looked far from it this season. Perhaps Harsin can turn him into the next Kellen Moore, or perhaps he'll take a closer look at one of last year's freshmen. But the bigger question to me is what he'll do about Texas' running game. There simply were no special backs on that roster last year, which means the Longhorns' 2010 fate may come down to whether incoming five-star freshman Malcolm Brown can become their Marcus Lattimore.

Stewart, I was wondering if you could clarify something for me. My understanding was that USC had restrictions on the number of recruits it could take (20, pending its NCAA appeal). However a cursory look at the number of kids planning to commit to USC this coming year shows 23. Am I misunderstanding USC's penalties or have they figured out a way around the recruiting restrictions? -- Michael, Cleveland

The latter -- though it's perfectly legal and will only work this year. Scholarships are based on the academic calendar, not the football calendar. Because USC only signed 18 players last year, 14 of whom enrolled last fall, it can count its nine early enrollees in the current class toward the 2010-11 school year. Should the original ruling stand, the 15-player limit goes into effect in 2011-12 and will include all players that enroll this fall (which may include some recruited walk-ons). It still can't go over the NCAA-imposed 75-scholarship limit for its overall roster.

For the second time in as many days I have heard someone say that Urban Meyer is heading to Ohio State to replace Jim Tressel, and now an ESPN columnist has a blog about it. What gives? -- Pearce C., Baton Rouge, La.

That would certainly be news to Tressel.

I assume the people you're referring to were speculating Meyer might replace Tressel one day in the distant future, not tomorrow. I could definitely see that. Meyer, an Ohio native and former Buckeyes assistant, would be a perfect fit for that job, and I've been told by someone who knows him well he'd be interested -- but not right now. Personally, I hope he has a long tenure at ESPN because his and Nick Saban's analysis of the national championship game was spectacular. If he can resist the coaching itch for another four or five years until Tressel's ready to retire (if he's ready to retire), that'd be one heck of a transition.

Based on comments from BCS and conference officials, it seems like there is zero likelihood of a playoff any time in the next eight years. Is this right? For me, this was the year things tipped and I became more of an NFL fan than a college fan, but it doesn't even seem like declining ratings would lead these boneheads to change the system. Eight more years? -- Kevin, Washington D.C.

Eight more years -- at least.

I could write a book about this, or I could simply put it to you in the simplest explanation possible: None of the people with the power to make it happen (the six BCS commissioners and their schools' presidents) seem remotely interested in a playoff right now. If anything, sentiment has swung back more firmly toward the status quo since 2008, when the SEC's Slive pushed his plus-one proposal at the BCS meetings.

Slive has been relatively quiet since, possibly in part because the BCS has been very good to his league. Jim Delany was pretty outspoken last month that he's done "giving" for a while. (He introduced the phrase "BCS defense fatigue.") We didn't even have the customary publicity-seeking university president or attorney general go on a playoff crusade this year (unless you count Mark Cuban, which I don't). While ratings for four of the five BCS bowls were down in ESPN's first year of coverage, the championship game did a 16.1, which, given the lack of a national brand like Ohio State or Texas, was significantly higher than the officials I spoke to beforehand were expecting.

In speaking to various insiders during the week, I did notice no shortage of gripes about various other BCS elements, most notably the disastrous Oklahoma-UConn Fiesta Bowl matchup, low ticket sales at the Orange Bowl and the late start date of the title game. I would expect some tweaks when the next contract comes up again in 2014, but until then -- the "boneheads" are happy.

Well, another SEC domination for the national title, five in a row. Now can we stop hearing about this Pac-10 and how it is a good conference? They have been humiliated in the only two games that have ever mattered, this game, and the Vince Young Texas game against USC. What a soft and pathetic league! Auburn didn't even play well, and still dominated like every SEC team will against the weak West Coast. I doubt anyone even watched out there, they are terrible fans and it's a terrible conference. War Eagle!!!! -- Terry, Birmingham, Ala.

Congrats to your Tigers, Terry, but isn't that piling on a bit excessive? It also insinuates that the Pac-10 began playing football in 2005.

No questions, just a comment from a slightly disappointed yet mostly spirited Oregon alum. I am so proud to be an Oregon Duck today, after what was a national championship for the ages. The defenses were better than advertised, and offensively Auburn simply "out Oregon'd" Oregon. I simply wanted to comment on how enjoyable a game it was to watch. Congratulations to Auburn on being a deserving champion. Congratulations to Oregon on being a close and deserving runner-up. -- Jeremy Bloom, Huntington, W. Va.

Now that's how it's done.

It's been a wild year, folks, from conference expansion to AgentGate, from Boise State-Virginia Tech to Little Giants, from the Iron Bowl to All The Tostitos. I hope the Mailbag helped keep you company on the ride. See you in the spring.

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