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Big 12 realignment dust has yet to completely settle; more Mailbag

Last month, a Mailbag reader asked me why I don't seem to enjoy discussing realignment as much as some other writers. Well ... you're looking at it.

I turned in this week's edition of the Mailbag Tuesday night with a whole bunch of expansion-related questions and answers. All were rendered moot by the Pac-12's decision to stay put. Good thing I checked one last time before going to bed. For the past month, I've been proceeding with extreme caution, warning people that superconferences weren't as imminent as they seemed. But after the ACC's super-sleuth raid last weekend, and based on seemingly reliable sources, I had conceded by Monday that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were absolutely, positively going to the Pac-12.

So shame on me for briefly forgetting that absolutely no one knows definitively what's going on with realignment -- including the parties directly involved in it.

Wow. No Pac-16. As a Buffs fan I'm elated to still be free from Texas. Now what? The Big 12 takes BYU, the SEC thinks about a 14th member, and the Big East ... does what?-- Dan, Washington D.C.

Yeah, I don't know. Wish I could help.

Oh, is that not what you want to read?

The one thing I can affirm with absolute confidence is that the Pac-12's decision was a result both of Larry Scott's hard-line refusal to allow Texas to keep its network and/or horde any extra revenue and of too few league presidents signing off on taking only the Oklahoma schools. That created a gigantic ripple effect nationwide, with several players realizing they no longer had leverage and several others suddenly becoming empowered.

The immediate issue that will affect all others: What the heck will the Big 12 do now? The league has apparently been saved from the brink of extinction yet again, but it can't possibly continue in its current form. No one trusts anyone. Oklahoma apparently wants Dan Beebe's head. (And fake Dan Beebe is none too pleased about it.) It also wants the league to adopt equal revenue sharing, which it absolutely, desperately needs. Will Texas actually jump on board? Until that league stitches the pieces back together I can't imagine BYU or any other team of note being eager to sign on.

Meanwhile, talks of a potential Big East-Big 12 leftovers merger may now be on hold, which is bad for the Big East. That league could be down to five football members if UConn and Rutgers follow Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC. (Though they purportedly reaffirmed their commitment to the Big East on Tuesday night.) The Big East will now be looking to pick up scraps (Navy as a football-only member is apparently a real possibility) while hoping TCU doesn't get cold feet.

Personally, I would recommend the Big 12 and Big East still pursue some sort of merger. Neither league is stable in its present form, and a conference of 10 teams or fewer is always going to be in danger. TCU, Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia would fit in just fine in a league of mostly Midwest and Southwest schools (think the old Metro Conference). But I'm guessing Texas and Oklahoma wouldn't go for it -- and they're clearly still running the Big 12.

Is it possible that the SEC, which started this whole round of craziness by adding Texas A&M, doesn't pick up a 14th school that is a good fit for it? It seems that the ACC schools are all locked into their league, the SEC has no interest in any of the Big East schools, and Mizzou could always head toward the Big Ten if that league expands. What are the best options for the SEC?-- Jonathan Davis, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Amazingly, the SEC is one of the parties that will lose leverage if the Big 12 now stays intact. The good news is it can finally rubber-stamp A&M's addition. The bad news is, it had clearly zeroed in on Missouri as the 14th team even though chancellor Brady Deaton had been working to keep the Big 12 together. With Tuesday night's news, I think Mizzou stays too. Really, did anyone ever think Mizzou was a logical fit for the SEC? The league has already turned down West Virginia. Its next best bets are Florida State and Virginia Tech, and the ACC brought in new schools last weekend because of that very threat. My sense is the Hokies weren't high on the SEC's list. Florida State would make more sense, but that would mean abandoning its previously held opposition to adding schools from its existing states.

Now, there is one grand-slam move the SEC could still make: luring Oklahoma. Now that David Boren's preferred landing spot out West has evaporated, the SEC may suddenly be more appealing. (Previously, the school was dead-set against it.) But taking OU requires taking Oklahoma State, too. That would leave the SEC needing a 16th team, presumably Missouri -- in which case Mike Slive becomes the guy who killed the Big 12. I don't think he wants that. So long story short: Don't be surprised if the SEC stays at 13 for now. The league know as well as anyone that we'll probably be going through this whole charade again a year from now.

I know we've been spending all of our time thinking about the possible demise of the Big 12, but has anyone noticed that the conference is 23-2 so far, including 5-2 over BCS-conference foes, plus a win against TCU?-- Al Caniglia, Belmopan, Belize

I've noticed. I've also noticed that despite having only 10 teams, the Big 12 currently has the most AP Top 10 teams (three) of any conference and is tied with the SEC for the most Top 25 teams (five). Eight of its 10 teams sit in Jeff Sagarin's Top 50, a higher percentage than all but the SEC (10 out of 12). At the risk of suffering bodily harm on my trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend, I'll ask: Is it worth at least considering the possibility that the Big 12 might be this season's toughest conference?

To be clear, the SEC is still No. 1 in the computer ratings and boasts nearly identical numbers to those cited in Al's e-mail: 22-4 overall, 4-2 against BCS foes. But as of now, it appears the slimmed-down Big 12 only has one unquestionably bad team (Kansas), while the SEC has at least two (Ole Miss and Kentucky). Vanderbilt is off to a hot start, but realistically is no better than Kansas State or Iowa State. Auburn's defense is a mess, Tennessee is hurting and Florida and Georgia look a lot like Texas and Missouri: encouraging works in progress.

But the big difference between the two leagues is that Big 12 teams have to play everybody now. SEC teams don't. That can be both a positive and a negative. On the one hand, no school in either league will face a tougher path this season than LSU, which is about to face its third ranked foe in the month of September alone and still has Alabama, Arkansas and Florida ahead of it. But which of these two schools has the tougher slate: Oklahoma, which just beat top five Florida State and beginning this week will play a conference slate that consists of No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Texas A&M, No. 17 Baylor, No. 19 Texas, Missouri, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Iowa State; or South Carolina, which plays just two currently ranked conference foes (No. 14 Arkansas and No. 15 Florida), along with Georgia, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee before finishing out of conference with No. 21 Clemson?

At best, it's a wash.

Great call on that upset of Texas, Stewart. You should become a weather forecaster.-- Kevin, San Angelo, Texas

I'd consider it, but only if it were a studio job. I'd rather take flack for whiffing on an upset pick than report from the middle of a hurricane.

Season ends today. Please explain why Kellen Moore doesn't win the Heisman. Feel free to use any and all facts you need.-- Brian, Boise

He'd have my vote. No disrespect to Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, but Moore has played against two respectable opponents (yes, I consider Toledo respectable) and absolutely shredded both of them. Moore has been doing this for four years now, but astoundingly he's managed to get even better despite losing his top two receivers from last season. Moore, quite simply, is the Drew Brees of college football. He's the most accurate downfield passer I've seen in 12 years covering this sport. He's completing 79 percent of his passes, up from 71.3 percent last year, and since his sophomore season he's got an 82-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That's absurd.

But the season doesn't end today. Much like last year, Moore and the Broncos are about to fall off the radar for a couple of months. Luck will start playing more meaningful games, Griffin may keep putting up ridiculous numbers (he currently has eight touchdowns and eight incompletions) and Russell Wilson has a huge showcase game in two weeks against Nebraska. Marcus Lattimore, Trent Richardson and countless others will contend as well. But Luck and Moore began the year with the most name recognition, and I expect they'll be in it until the end. I just hope if it comes to that, the Heisman voters pick based on who had a better college football season, not who has the higher draft stock.

Rick Neuheisel is a dead man coaching. His teams are hardly ever competitive against legit teams, and judging by his team's performance thus far I can't imagine UCLA finishing above .500 in the Pac-12. I am sure there is a logical explanation for the this, but why is it college football coaches are rarely fired during the season?-- Jason, Ankeny, Iowa

Actually, coaches get fired during the season every year, though usually not until their team is officially out of bowl contention. Two semi-recent exceptions: Florida firing Ron Zook on Oct. 25, 2004, following a humiliating loss to Mississippi State (the Gators were 4-3) and Clemson axing Tommy Bowden on Oct. 14, 2008, with the team sitting at 3-3.

I'm similarly pessimistic about Neuheisel's chances -- and whatever those are, divide them by 10 to get Houston Nutt's odds of another year at Ole Miss -- but firing the coach three games into the season sends a terrible message to the players. UCLA hasn't even begun Pac-12 play yet. As far as the Bruins are concerned, they can still make the Rose Bowl -- and if Richard Brehaut suddenly switches bodies with Matt Barkley, they just might. My guess is Neuheisel will be given every chance to turn things around, but getting to any bowl game (which would require a 5-4 league mark) will take some miracle work.

I'm sure you won't print this, but I'm calling you out, along with Andy Staples and Mark May, as Texas haters. I guess you all now know how intelligent your "expert" analysis of the Longhorns has turned out to be. Nothing further needs to be said.-- Randy, Baumont, Texas

Do you feel better now that I printed it?

Interesting how you picked Notre Dame over Michigan State. We Spartans feel like Rodney Dangerfield. Make sure you mention that you were wrong after the game.-- Bill, Marshall, Mich.

Do you feel better now that I printed that?

Stewart: I am sure this question won't hold the same weight as some others you receive but I consider you the foremost expert on college football and as such I must know your opinion. In between victories I have graduated high school and college, climbed the ranks through three advertising jobs, moved out of my parents' house, and got married. By all accounts it has been a good nine years. It has also been a very difficult nine years. So ... is this the year Army finally beats Navy??-- John L, New York

For the first time in those nine years, it's definitely a possibility. I have several Northwestern alumni friends who made the trip to West Point last weekend only to watch Trent Steelman -- Army's 28-game starting quarterback -- run all over the Wildcats. The Black Knights ran for 381 yards in that game. But Navy hasn't exactly regressed post-Ricky Dobbs. The Midshipmen went down to South Carolina and played neck-and-neck with a very talented Gamecocks team. If the game were played today Navy would still be the favorite, but the gap is certainly closing.

Any truth to the rumors that when negotiating with conferences to broadcast games, ESPN snuck in a clause allowing it to come up with stupid names for random weeks of football, i.e., Road Test Weekend?-- Nick, Little Rock, Ark.

Not that I'm aware of. Network executives were too busy dreaming up ways to alienate an entire conference to the brink of extinction.

I'm a current grad student at Mississippi State and Illinois alum. After watching the Bulldogs get beat last week, I had a nice surprise seeing Illinois get to 3-0 and crack the AP Poll. With the current disarray of the Big Ten and newcomer Nebraska leading the pack, what are Illinois' chances of a Big Ten title?-- Micah R., Starkville, Miss.

Of all the many wrong preseason predictions I surely made, none was more off base than my read on the Illini. My instinctive pessimism regarding anything Ron Zook touches got the better of me.

It turns out that despite losing Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget to the NFL, Illinois appears to have its best defense in years. It was quite stunning to watch the Illini completely suffocate Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler (six sacks, two interceptions) a week after he seemingly threw the ball at will against a respectable Missouri defense. Throw in the athletic Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback and the Illini certainly have a lot going for them.

But talking about the Big Ten title requires talking about Illinois' division (without naming it of course). Unfortunately for Illinois, it's in the one with Wisconsin. While the Badgers haven't faced the stiffest competition so far (UNLV, Oregon State and Northern Illinois), they've crushed all three teams, and the backfield trio of Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and James White is just plain terrifying. If the Illini were in Nebraska's division I might give them a shot of reaching Indianapolis. The Huskers and every other team on that side have looked vulnerable to date. The Illini do get Wisconsin at home, but they have to visit Penn State and Ohio State before that. Not that those teams are particularly scary right now.

Case in point...

So Colorado is being paid $1.4 million to go to Columbus and lose. But will it? Ohio State is not exactly strong this season, and the Buffs are showing signs of semi-competency.-- Dan, Washington D.C.

It's certainly not a "guarantee" game, but the Buckeyes are still 15-point favorites. Ohio State lost at Miami because the Hurricanes had comparable talent but far more experience, a problem the Buckeyes are going to run into several more times over the course of the season. Colorado, on the other hand, is experienced but nowhere near as talented. I don't expect Joe Bauserman to turn around from last week's two-completion game and throw for 300 yards, but I do expect the Buckeyes to perform better at home. And they'd better, because the Buffs and Indiana may be the only true gimmees left on Ohio State's schedule.

You're right about your mini-preview of Ohio State-Miami. Miami surely isn't Toledo. Toledo's better! Bucks by double digits.-- Jason, Uhrichsville, Ohio

That's just unfortunate for everyone.

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