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Risk outweighs reward of tough nonconference slate; more mailbag

Apparently "four" is the magic number when it comes to how many games are played before people start getting worked up about the polls. In what I've come to expect will be a yearlong recurrence, I received a bunch of e-mails this week about various' teams current position.

This one was the most interesting.

Stewart -- just last week, you commented on FSU's sharp drop in the polls after its loss to Oklahoma and used it to support the position that "there's so little incentive for teams to schedule tough opponents." Do you still stand by that comment after LSU's jump in the rankings due to its impressive September? Don't you think scheduling some tough nonconference opponents would really help a team like Wisconsin? Wisconsin looked dominant on all sides of the ball but has played cupcakes. If Wisconsin had just completed the September that LSU completed I suspect that they would be in your projection for the national championship game.-- CJ Davis, Kansas City, Mo.

It was nice to see AP voters reward LSU for its ambitious schedule (I can only assume the coaches went to bed early), but it really didn't help the Tigers in any meaningful way. They started the year No. 4, and even if they had scheduled two directional schools instead of Oregon and West Virginia, they would almost assuredly move into the top two if they won out (especially since one of those wins would come over preseason No. 2 Alabama), and would even stay in fairly good position if they and everyone else lost at some point. As for Wisconsin, agreed, the Badgers would be getting a lot more buzz right now if they'd played anyone of substance the first month, but that can change in a hurry with an impressive win over No. 8 Nebraska this week.

My point is, the way the polls work, the risk far outweighs the reward when scheduling tough out-of-conference games, and that's unfortunate. It's been shown time and again that ultimately, all that matters is going undefeated. In 2007, Kansas got to 11-0 and No. 2 by beating Central Michigan, Southeast Louisiana, Toledo, Florida International and no Big 12 team that finished better than 7-5. Similarly, Texas Tech rose to 10-0 and No. 2 following its big win over No. 1 Texas, while playing a September slate of Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and UMass. In other words, if you play in a BCS conference and win all your games, the voters will eventually reward you, no matter the schedule.

Mind you, most teams do not schedule based on their national championship hopes. Games are scheduled well before you know what kind of team you'll have in a given year. In the case of Wisconsin, Bret Bielema's goal at the beginning of any year is to get to the Rose Bowl, and the UNLV game holds no bearing on that. What would be interesting to see is what happens if, say, Oklahoma and Wisconsin finished the season as the only undefeated teams. Say LSU loses to Florida, and falls behind the Badgers but rebounds to win the rest of its games. Do the voters look at their respective schedules and move the Tigers back ahead of the Badgers for No. 2 at the end of the season? Or does going undefeated -- no matter who it's against -- trump all? Because until the day a team's nonconference schedule directly affects its title hopes one way or the other, schools will continue to load up on patsies, consequence-free.

Alabama and LSU may be the two best teams, as you say, but not by a "considerable" margin.-- Bill, Tulsa, Okla.

Ah, but I didn't say they were the two "best" teams. I said they're the most talented --- and they are. Not that this is a revelation, considering Nick Saban and Les Miles have been stockpiling five-star recruits for few years (with, of course, the help of some deft oversigning), but these are easily two of the most loaded defenses I've seen in person -- right up there with some of Miami's great teams in the early 2000s and Pete Carroll's best defenses at USC.

If the NFL draft were held today, Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, tackle Josh Champan and safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester would all be among the first players selected at their positions. (And running back Trent Richardson will probably go higher than all of them.) LSU's defense is younger and therefore harder to project, but that in itself is telling. Sophomore cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has already accomplished more in 17 games (90 tackles, seven forced fumbles, five sacks and three interceptions) than many corners do in their careers. Fellow sophomore Michael Brockers is already one of the most dominant D-linemen in the country, and there's little to no drop-off from him to six or seven other Tigers linemen. Certainly Oklahoma has its share of stars, too, (quarterback Landry Jones, receiver Ryan Broyles, defensive end Ronnell Lewis and linebackers Travis Lewis and Tony Jefferson among them), but not the same overall level of elite NFL-caliber athletes.

Having said that, "most talented" doesn't always equate to "best." So many other factors -- chemistry, experience, coaching, luck with injuries -- go into a championship season. Auburn and Oregon weren't the two most talented teams in the country last season. Arguably Alabama was, and it lost three games due in large part to inexperience and poor play on the road. I don't expect the same issues with this team, but you never know. And while LSU has already passed enough road tests to know it has no such concerns, consistency and injuries are always potential concerns. We're still more than three months from learning the nation's "best" team, but as I wrote Sunday, Nov. 5 will most likely determine the SEC's best team -- and it's up to Oklahoma and the rest of the field to prove that the SEC's best isn't the nation's best this year.

Help! My fanhood has been questioned. My friends and I are LSU fans. They have been talking about LSU being No. 1. I pointed out that LSU was No. 1 in the AP and tied for No. 2 in the coaches poll. If my friends were going to claim that LSU was No. 1, then they had to acknowledge that USC was co-champions in 2003 because the Trojans were No. 1 in the AP in 2003. As LSU fans we don't acknowledge a split championship. They then mocked my loyalty to LSU. Can I say that LSU is No. 2 (tied) and still claim to be an LSU fan?-- Chris Anderson, Shreveport, La.

Absolutely not. You're putting logic ahead of fanhood. But you do raise an interesting point. In acknowledging that LSU is No. 1 this week, LSU fans are unwittingly validating that USC was also No. 1 after the final games were played that 2003 season. It's the same poll. Either both were true or neither.

Can Maryland please fire Randy Edsall now? We gave him a shot and he lost to Temple. The only thing he brings to the table is discipline, and if discipline was everything Navy and Army would win every year. How long are we going to have to endure this failed experiment? WE WANT MIKE LEACH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!-- Menzo Lowery, Landover, Md.

You see, Chris: That's fanhood.

Stewart, how good could the Washington Huskies be with even an average defense? Keith Price has been impressive, he's accurate and runs Steve Sarkisian's offense better than Jake Locker. But the Husky defense is terrible. Sure, they survived a few games this year, but this team just doesn't seem to improve defensively at the same rate as the offense in Year Three for Sark, Nick Holt & Co. What gives?-- Brian, Vancouver, BC

It's no secret Tyrone Willingham left the cupboard pretty bare three years ago (the Huskies, lest we forget, went 0-12 the year before Sarkisian took over), and we knew it would take time to bring the talent level back up to par. It's easier to upgrade an offense quickly, which you can do in large part just by adding a few talented skill players (mainly Price and running back Chris Polk), than it is a defense, which really needs all 11 positions to be solid AND, in most cases, experienced. It also doesn't help that Washington had to replace some of its best players from last year's defense (linebacker Mason Foster, defensive end Cameron Elisara and safety Nate Williams). It's not like the program is yet at a point where it can easily reload.

But I do think it's reasonable to at least expect continued progress from one year to the next. The Huskies have actually trended downward, from 79th nationally in Sarkisian's first season to 108th in total defense so far this year. Last year's defense couldn't stop the run. This year's defense is getting torched through the air, which is not a good sign going into a conference schedule that will include dates against Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Nick Foles, Darron Thomas and the Pac-12's current highest-rated passer, Washington State's Marshall Lobbestael. Obviously there's a lot of time left to shore things up, and the coaches believe their players are making fixable mistakes. But if come season's end this is still one of the conference's worst defenses, Sarkisian will have to think hard about his loyalty to defensive coordinator Holt, who Sarkisian worked with under Carroll at USC but has not demonstrated his mentor's same prowess just yet.

Stewart: How can the Big East not vacate the Syracuse win and give it to Toledo? They not only admitted the on-field officials made a mistake, but the replay officials made the same mistake. That is what they are there for, to correct questionable calls on the field. Does Toledo have any other recourse?-- Jeremy, Cleveland

I'm afraid not. The MAC petitioned the Big East, which checked with the NCAA, which relayed on Monday that according to Rule 1, Section 1, Article 3, Paragraph b of the 2011 NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations book, "By rule, once the game is declared over the score is final and there is no recourse to reverse an outcome." Of course we do know one way they could get the outcome changed after the fact: Uncover that one of Syracuse's players took extra benefits.

Stewart, I couldn't help but notice that there were two "Dan from Washington D.C." questions in the most recent Mailbag. The first Dan identifies himself as a Colorado fan, and the second question is about Colorado. Coincidence? My instincts tell me no -- this fellow is the one in the same Dan! Has this rare double ever been achieved before? What gives? Take us behind the scenes of the "Making of the Mailbag"-- Mike, Melbourne, Fla.

While I have no Mailbag archivist to go to for 100 percent confirmation, I do believe it was a first, and it shows how unusual last week was. The "making of the Mailbag" usually begins either Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning when I go through the inbox and copy and paste about 10-15 possible candidates for the week. In doing so, it would be almost impossible not to notice the same name and e-mail address showing up twice. However, as I wrote then, I had to scrap about 40 percent of the version I completed Tuesday night when the Pac-12 announced at 11:18 p.m. EST that it was no longer considering expansion. First thing Wednesday morning, I pulled out the first good question I saw about the latest developments, admittedly without paying a lick of attention to who sent it.

So kudos to Dan, who, it should also be noted, helped his chances considerably by writing short, concise (and interesting) questions. Let that be a guide to all you aspiring e-mailers out there. But generally speaking, I prefer to spread the wealth. Especially when you read something like this.

I've been reading your mailbag since 2001 and I've written in at least a half dozen times and you have never published my questions. Shoot, I even bought your book a few years ago. South Carolina has a great team but a major question at quarterback. Given that Steve Spurrier is a quarterback guru, how do you explain the consistent lack of talent at the quarterback position at South Carolina and do you think it will cost us the SEC East?-- John, Williamsburg, Va.

The Spurrier-quarterback drought is one of life's unexplainable mysteries -- but I'll throw out two theories. The simplest explanation is that the Ball Coach has hitched his wagon for four years to a guy, Stephen Garcia, who has all the physical tools but clearly lacks the mental wherewithal to put it all together, no matter how much coaching you give him. Spurrier has tried on numerous occasions to give Connor Shaw a shot, but the sophomore simply isn't ready. Both were highly rated recruits, so either he misevaluated them or simply failed to develop them.

Or, here's a more radical thought: Maybe Spurrier, while certainly a quarterback enthusiast, isn't necessarily the quarterback guru we always thought? Maybe his teams' rabid passing success at Florida was more a product of the offense that he ran -- which at that time was revolutionary by SEC standards -- than the quarterbacks themselves. Consider that of all the guys that threw for all those yards in Gainesville, only two, Shane Matthews and Rex Grossman, saw significant playing time in the NFL. It's probably going a little too far, because you don't get that much consistency for a decade-plus without good coaching, but the sport has changed considerably from 2001 to 2011.

And yes, poor quarterback play will eventually cost the Gamecocks a couple of games. Whether it's enough to cost them the East will depend more on what Florida and Georgia do the rest of the way.

Stewart: In the Toledo news conference the athletic director let it "slip" that the Big Ten and MAC officials in the Ohio State-Toledo game got letters of reprimand. Remember -- two penalties for 13 yards on Ohio State, 14 penalties on Toledo.-- Ed Maher, Bowling Green, Ohio

So you're saying this wasn't just an isolated, stupefying officiating breakdown at Syracuse, but that in fact there's a multi-conference conspiracy afoot against Toledo?

This is getting interesting.

Thus far, Clemson is a huge surprise, not the least of which is to its fans. The Tigers face a tough matchup this Saturday, one of your games listed to watch. If Clemson wins at Virginia Tech (always a tough venue, and one the Tigers have struggled at lately) and goes 3-0 through this rather brutal stretch of Auburn, FSU and Tech, how do you see them finishing out the year?--Bryan, Raleigh

If Clemson wins at Virginia Tech, it can certainly win the ACC. I'm going to stop short of saying the Tigers will "probably" win the ACC, because 20 years of evidence tell us not to believe that until Dabo Swinney is actually hoisting the trophy, but considering they already have a leg up on FSU in their own division (the rest of which brutally stinks) and considering they will have beaten what most believe is the best team in the other division, you've got to like their chances.

That being said ... I don't really like the Tigers' chances in Blacksburg. While we don't have a true gauge of the Hokies after four games against weak competition, it's safe to say David Wilson is capable of going off against the Tigers' 90th-ranked rushing defense, while the Hokies' defense looks like it's back to its old dominant ways. But then again, Tajh Boyd ripped apart a pretty darn good FSU defense, and this is a much different Clemson offense than the Hokies have previously faced.

If Clemson does pull it off, I'm going to have to do the unthinkable: Start thinking about a possible replacement for Clemson-Ole Miss Syndrome.

Stewart, a while back you wrote an article on how the NCAA could be improved if the players were robots. Given Robert Griffin III's season stats so far, and the fact that he was born on a military base in Japan, I'd say the robot era has already begun.-- Hayden Murphy, Waco, Texas

My gosh, you're right. Lord help us all if he becomes self-aware.

The Big East admits it made a mistake on the extra point call in the Toledo-Syracuse game. What stops Toledo from suing the Big East for damages if Toledo goes 5-7 and misses out on a bowl game? It's all about the money, right?--Jeremy, Warren, Mich.

Now you're talking. Sue an officiating crew for malpractice.

Of course, as we learned from Death to the BCS, most schools lose money on their bowl trips. So even if a jury found in Toledo's favor, for compensatory damages, it might order the school to write the GoDaddy.com Bowl a check for unsold tickets.

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