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Rash of undefeated teams could cause BCS crisis; more Mailbag

Every year, people start freaking out about the possibility of some end-of-season BCS nightmare pretty much as soon as the games begin. My response is usually the same: Get back to me in early November.

Based on what we've seen so far this season, however, I'm making an exception. You have every right to start panicking/salivating about an excess of undefeated teams -- because I am, too.

We all know how much you loathe the hypothetical "what if..." type questions early in the season. But each week seems to reinforce the fact that there is a distinct separation between four teams and their remaining opponents. History says it won't happen, but right now there is a strong possibility we'll see Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Alabama/LSU all being undefeated at season's end. Your thoughts?-- Andrew Zucker, Sandusky, Ohio

I don't think it is unreasonable to think either Alabama or LSU, either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, Wisconsin (or Michigan?), and Clemson can all finish the season undefeated. Maybe Stanford, too. Are we potentially looking at 2004 all over again? I can't picture any of those teams being unworthy to contend for the national championship if they finish the season undefeated. If 2004 couldn't change the BCS to a plus-one or other system, could 2011?-- Joshua, Anchorage, Alaska

This is as top-heavy a season as I can remember. Oklahoma, LSU and Alabama are probably the most talented and complete teams we've seen since Florida's 2008 title team. That doesn't mean they're immune to upsets, especially if they suffer injuries between now and season's end. But as of today, it's a safe bet that either or both the Nov. 5 LSU-Alabama winner and the Dec. 3 Oklahoma-Oklahoma State winner will finish undefeated.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is quite clearly the class of the Big Ten, even with two other undefeated teams (Michigan and Illinois) in its conference. Andrew Luck is such a machine that Stanford is realistically looking at a two-game season (Nov. 12 vs. Oregon and Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame). And we know Boise State will be in the mix, too. I'm not yet ready to go to the bank on Clemson going 13-0, mainly because the ACC is proving to be much deeper than I expected, so I'll leave the Tigers out of this discussion for now.

We had one season like this before, when five teams finished undefeated in 2009, but there was a pretty clear separation in perception between Alabama/Texas and Cincinnati/TCU/Boise State. The Oklahoma/USC/Auburn situation in '04 was far more controversial because there was a perfectly valid argument that the SEC champion Tigers were every bit as deserving, if not more so, than the Sooners and Trojans. If a similar scenario unfolds this season, I don't think there will be much debate over the two most worthy teams. The SEC and Big 12 champs will have completed far more rigorous schedules than Wisconsin, Stanford or Boise State. But two undefeated major-conference teams getting left out would cause the biggest BCS firestorm to date.

To this point, no individual season has caused any real impetus for major BCS change. The political and financial motives behind the BCS generally trump the on-field results. However, if you're among the many rooting for change, the above scenario is pretty much your dream come true. The two leagues that have been most adamantly opposed to a plus-one are the Big Ten and Pac-12. So imagine if both leagues' champions (in this scenario, Wisconsin and Stanford) got jilted -- after winning the conference championship games their leagues implemented in part to avoid this very scenario, no less. Admittedly, it would make for one heck of a Rose Bowl, which would very much please Jim Delany; but here's guessing Larry Scott would not take the slight lightly, especially if a plus-one would have given both teams a chance. Remember, there was already the first hint of a changing sentiment in those conferences following their joint ADs meeting this summer.

And now that I've pushed aside 12 years of reasoned caution on all things BCS, here's guessing one of the aforementioned teams gets upset this weekend.

Will the lack of success Utah has had so far in the Pac 12 and TCU's two losses so far have an indirect effect on Boise State's championship aspirations? The two (one former and one soon-to-be-former) recent mid-majors most often in the same conversation as BSU are struggling playing major competition. Do you think voters see this and assume the same would happen to BSU if it played decent teams every week?-- Craig, Charlotte, N.C.

Obviously, TCU's losses have a direct impact on Boise because they devalue what was supposed to be the Broncos' biggest conference game. The Horned Frogs are no longer ranked and might not be come Nov. 12. As for the "guilt by association" thing: Call me naive, but I think we're past that at this point. Save for a few loons here and there, most college football fans and voters generally recognize at this point that Boise can play with anyone. They've even come to acknowledge that there's more to the Broncos than Kellen Moore. The Broncos currently have the No. 1-ranked defense in Football Outsiders' schedule-adjusted efficiency ratings, right ahead of Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma.

Boise's problem is the same as always: schedule. It doesn't play nearly the same quality opponents as the teams ranked above it, which means it needs all the teams above it to lose. As I just wrote, I don't see that happening this year. The fact that there could be so many undefeated major-conference teams bears far more relevance to the Broncos' national title hopes than does Utah's inability to hold on to the ball.

Hey Stewart, I know Oklahoma killed Texas, but I don't think this game radically told us about how good OU really is, unlike say the 2000 Red River Shootout. Your opinion?-- Sam, Chapel Hill, N.C.

I assume you're insinuating that this year's Texas team is not on the same level as the teams OU crushed in 2000 (63-14) and 2003 (65-13), en route to the BCS title game. I wouldn't dispute that. Still, this was exactly what the Sooners needed to quiet the Alabama-LSU talk for a week. It was a complete performance by a veteran team that knows exactly what it needs to do in every situation.

At this point, we're basically numb to the exploits of Landry Jones and his receivers. For me, the takeaway was how elite this Oklahoma defense is -- easily its best since at least '03. Young Texas quarterbacks or not, notching eight sacks and three defensive touchdowns is quite a feat. From Travis Lewis to Ronnell Lewis to Frank Alexander to Jamell Fleming, that defense is loaded with playmakers. Combine OU's clinic against its archrival on a neutral field with its gutty 23-13 win in an incredibly hostile atmosphere in Tallahassee and it's hard to dispute this team is championship material.

But if Oklahoma and Alabama met on a neutral field today, the Tide would still be my pick.

Welcome to the West Coast -- although moving from New York to Santa Clara will be a bit of a culture shock. Don't let anyone tell you any different: You live in the suburbs now. Also just a warning, if you thought Cal fans felt you were biased against them before, just write a few columns about how great Stanford is and how happy you are to be able to cover them more now that you live in Santa Clara.-- Bill, Oakland, Calif.

Thanks for the welcome. To be honest, it's hard to believe I still lived in New York just a week ago. My wife and I have fully immersed ourselves in suburban living. We drive our Prius to the supermarket and actually buy more groceries than we can carry. We have two -- two! -- bathrooms. And I'm writing this column from a Starbucks, where I actually had my choice of open tables. I've been sitting here for two hours and have yet to see a homeless guy use the bathroom. It really is a different world.

As for football ... I'm really looking forward to covering more Stanford games now that I live 20 minutes from its stadium. I think the Cardinal are really great.

Let me get this straight: You're defending a player taunting an opponent because he's a punter and wouldn't know the rule? So, two questions: In what universe is taunting some sacred part of football that must be defended? And, what other player, besides punters and place-kickers, should have more time to learn the rules?-- Richard Koffarnus, Moberly, Mo.

I was surprised how many people wrote in this week in defense of the controversial taunting rule that cost LSU punter Brad Wing his touchdown. To be clear, I'm not "pro-taunting." I support sportsmanship as much as the next guy. But I do wonder whether I somehow missed the great taunting epidemic that infiltrated college football in recent years to the point where it necessitated such an extreme penalty. The infamous Miami Cotton Bowl charade was 20 years ago. I can't remember a college football Saturday in the last five years where I thought to myself: Man, these kids today with their touchdown taunting are out of control.

The part about the punter not knowing the rule was a joke, but still, I hardly think he's the villain in this. Put yourself in his shoes. You're a punter. This is the first and probably last time you will experience the thrill of running into an end zone in front of 90,000 screaming fans. Not only that, but you're outrunning an entire defense full of four- and five-star athletes. You turn and see the last two of those defenders failing to reach you. At that exact moment, no, I would not expect Wing to think to himself: "I better not say or do anything inflammatory right now or the refs may blow this play dead right here at the eight-yard-line." If that makes me a taunting enabler, so be it.

Can we officially rename Ole Miss/Clemson Syndrome "Arizona Syndrome" now? You have to admit that Arizona almost makes Ole Miss and Clemson look like Texas and USC from historical success perspective, thus firing Mike Stoops after what he's done for the program is especially egregious. Come on Stew, at least let Ole Miss off the hook.-- Justin, Columbia, S.C.

You can certainly question the timing of Stoops' dismissal, but I have absolutely no problem with the decision. Stoops took the program to three mid-level bowl games in eight seasons, getting crushed in the last two. I don't think it's unreasonable for Arizona fans to expect the Wildcats to contend for a BCS berth at least once in an eight-year span, especially with USC down. They never came close, and now they're back at the bottom of the Pac-12 (albeit in part due to a rash of injuries). Also, don't discount the role Stoops' maniacal sideline antics played in his demise. They've always made a certain contingent of Arizona fans uncomfortable, but it was hard to complain when things were going well. When you're 1-5, that's another story.

When Arizona fires a coach less than a year after winning 10 games and producing a No. 1 draft pick, as Ole Miss did to David Cutcliffe, then it will merit consideration for a syndrome.

Now that you are in Santa Clara, why not get out and learn about the Pac-12 instead of dwelling so much on teams in the Big Ten? You might want to start with OREGON!-- Erle Hall, Sacramento

Oregon, you say? Is that the team with the wacky play-cards and the cool-kids uniforms? I've heard a little about them. I'll go up to Eugene this weekend and investigate. In the meantime...

In a year of strange stats, would anyone have thought that Penn State would be 5-1, undefeated in the Big Ten, ranked fourth nationally in total defense, but not be in the Top 25? Is the Penn State defense and running game enough to overcome the QB issues for a 10-win season?-- Walt Schmidt, North Ridgeville, Ohio

Penn State is starting to remind me a little bit of last year's LSU team, minus the crazy endings. It seems inconceivable that a team can keep winning with such horrendous quarterback play (a highlight from Saturday: Matt McGloin driving the Nittany Lions 90 yards only to throw a pick in the end zone), but it can if the other team can't score, either. Props to defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. I don't how he keeps doing this every year without losing his mind. Anthony Morelli? Really? That's the best you've got? Meanwhile, his octogenarian boss keeps going to news conferences and saying of McGloin and Rob Bolden: "Both of them deserve to play. It's hard for me to tell you which one would be better, but right now, I'm satisfied with the way the two kids have played." (Cue Bradley, fist in mouth to keep from screaming).

It's not realistic to think Penn State will be as dominant defensively every week as it was against Iowa, but no one's going to march up and down the field on the Nittany Lions, either. Even Alabama stud Trent Richardson had to work hard for his 111 yards. But 10 wins would require beating two of the following three: 6-0 Illinois, 5-1 Nebraska and 5-0 Wisconsin. There's also a road game at Ohio State that could well be decided by a 3-2 score. Nine wins seems like a more realistic ceiling, but the defense will have to keep playing out of its mind.

Hey Stew. At what point does Missouri become the crazy-stalker girl who is sure you made eye contact with her and have always desired her? Is it time for the conferences to take out restraining orders? (But don't worry Mizzou, your old loser boyfriend will still take you back).-- Johnny, Austin

This may come as a shock, but I didn't run into a great deal of crazy-stalker admirers during my bachelor days -- but yes, that's pretty much the perfect analogy.

Missouri is a fine school, one that's produced some very good journalists -- and Jon Hamm. Gary Pinkel has done a remarkable job with the football program, winning at least 10 games in three of the past four seasons. But Missouri fits the SEC about as well as Stephen Garcia would a dry county. The SEC is about 90,000 seat stadiums and rabid fan bases. A ranked Mizzou team had 13,000 empty seats at its opener. The SEC is about fourth-generation Alabama and Ole Miss alums in khakis and sun dresses. Mizzou is in the Midwest, where the folks like their hoodies. The SEC is about parking your RV at the other team's stadium five days before the game. Columbia is a 16-hour drive from Gainesville. And no disrespect to Pinkel, but those 10-win seasons came in part thanks to being a member of the now-defunct Big 12 North. In the SEC Missouri would likely join the West, with Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU. Enjoy the BBVA Compass Bowl.

And yet, there are apparently a bunch of powerful people in the state of Missouri who think this is a wonderful idea. Or, as one anonymous school official told the AP: "That's what's left," now that it's abundantly clear the Big Ten isn't interested. That was a regrettable thing to say without being guaranteed the votes from the SEC. And while many at the school are surely loving the attention Missouri is getting right now from making the Big 12 wait indefinitely on a decision, the Big 12 won't prosper or suffer either way. Its future was ensured the day Texas and Oklahoma agreed to sign over their grants of rights.

I don't think we've reached restraining-order territory yet, but I wonder how many times Missouri has had to ask, "So you'll call me, right?"

Now that you are relocating to the West Coast, do you think you will find the time to write more than two sentences per year on Arizona State?-- David Armata, Chicago

You're in luck: I'll be writing an entire column from the ASU-Oregon game this weekend.

I make no promises beyond that.

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