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Tide better team, but Cowboys may deserve title shot; more Mailbag

To properly follow along in this week's Mailbag, you'll need to first read my College Football Overtime column from Sunday, specifically the Alabama/Oklahoma State résumé comparison near the bottom of Page 1.

Ready? Let's go then.

Stewart, the BCS was designed to do one thing: Pit No. 1 against No. 2. Do you actually believe that Oklahoma State is the second-best team in the country or are you just against two teams from the same conference playing for the title? Why are you so against Alabama playing LSU in a rematch when the Tide's only loss is to No. 1 LSU by three points in overtime and not to an unranked Iowa State team?-- Jay, Chelsea

Do you think that the BCS championship game should feature the two BEST teams or the two most DESERVING teams? I think most people would agree that Alabama would probably beat Oklahoma State in a head-to-head matchup. But, given your breakdown of Alabama and Oklahoma State's résumés, it seems like Oklahoma State would be more deserving (provided it beats Oklahoma).-- John, Los Angeles

Like most, I believe Alabama is the second-best team in the country. But John hits on a key point I've been talking about for years: When it comes to the BCS, there IS a difference between best (purely subjective) and most deserving (more quantitative). In recent years the pollsters seemed to be moving more toward "most deserving" with their final ballots, like jumping Florida from No. 4 to No. 2 in 2006 and LSU from No. 7 to No. 2 in '07. The point of my column Sunday was not to advocate for one team over the other, but to express my frustration over the slew of columns I read last weekend declaring the season over and the title matchup decided when there's still a set of games remaining, including a very important one between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. How can we declare an outcome before the results are final?

That said, this is not a case of the NCAA selection committee sitting in a room discussing the respective merits of potential at-large candidates. It's a set of Coaches' and Harris Poll voters who, in theory, aren't actually picking the national championship matchup. They're voting in a weekly poll in which the last edition just happens to help set the title game. Obviously, they're aware of the consequence of their votes, which is precisely why there's so much 11th-hour shuffling on those final ballots. I do believe that if the Cowboys beat the Sooners impressively on national TV on the final night of the season to capture the Big 12 title (no certain thing when OU leads the series 81-17-7), we'll see some of that movement. But considering Oklahoma State currently trails Stanford and Virginia Tech in the polls in addition to Alabama, it would take a LOT of movement to close the gap entirely.

I understand why the polls stand where they do. We haven't seen Mike Gundy's team play since it lost at Iowa State. During the time since, Alabama routed Auburn and Stanford and Virginia Tech closed in impressive fashion. And I certainly understand the adulation for 'Bama, because I've been on that bandwagon all season. The Tide's defense is out of this world, one of the best this sport has seen in many years. One could say the same of Oklahoma State's lethal offense, but it's been my experience that a dominant defense trumps a dominant offense nine times out of 10. While the overwhelming majority of the public is anti-rematch, there's no rule against such a thing, and it's not the voters' responsibility to preclude one. By no means should they elevate any available team simply to avoid LSU-Alabama II.

But as I wrote Sunday, the numbers show there IS a valid alternative (provided Oklahoma State wins Saturday night), which one could easily argue fits the "more deserving" bill. It's not just that Alabama failed to win its conference. It's that none of those columns I read about the LSU-Alabama coronation bothered to note that the Crimson Tide have beaten just three -- repeat, three -- teams with winning records. Meanwhile, if Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma, it will be an 11-1 major-conference champ that beat five current BCS Top 25 teams (compared to Alabama's two) yet is being automatically dismissed. Of course, 'Bama did not lose to 6-5 Iowa State. Its sole defeat was against the consensus No. 1 team. To many, the Cowboys' loss is a deal-breaker, and understandably so. But if you evaluate the teams' complete bodies of work over 12 games rather than one, it's pretty eye-opening.

I'm not ready to say Oklahoma State should be in the game instead of Alabama. For one, it still has to play its toughest foe of the season this weekend and could well lose by three touchdowns. For another, instinct tells me Alabama is the better team. Of the LSU-Oklahoma State possibility, I've heard people say, "Why would you even want that? It would be a 25-point blowout." They might be right. But if the Cowboys win Saturday, they may have done more to earn the opportunity to prove us wrong than 'Bama has done to earn the chance to try again.

It's my understanding that you can't have three teams from the same conference qualify for the BCS bowls. If Georgia beats LSU, thus qualifying for the Sugar Bowl, can LSU still play Alabama in the national championship game if they are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 after the SEC championship game?-- Ross Freeman, New York

The scenario Ross describes is the only way in which three teams from the same conference can earn BCS bids, because the SEC champion is guaranteed that Sugar Bowl berth AND the No. 1 and 2 teams play in the title game no matter what. I'm not sure the founders ever envisioned it becoming an issue.

Am I the only Buckeye fan who is a little on the fence about the Urban Meyer hire? I'm worried about his long-term prospects. One of the things that we (the fans) got used to with Tressel was the fact that we always knew he wasn't going anywhere (insert NCAA infraction joke here). With Meyer, I don't get the same feeling, whether due to health or maybe some other job interests him in three or five years. I will have a hard time enjoying the 10-2 or 11-1 years again with the feeling that it could all be over in a blink of an eye. Maybe I should stop worrying and just enjoy the ride.-- Chris B, Hamilton, Va.

I don't blame you for worrying. We're dealing with a very unusual situation here, where a potential Hall of Fame coach in the prime of his career suddenly walked away from one of the top programs in the country -- not for another coaching job, but because of apparent burnout. Health issues initially played a part, but seem to be resolved. While I don't think you have to worry about Meyer leaving for another job, who can say whether he'll go through the same issues three years from now, five years from now, etc.

I will say, I'm a little sensitive to Meyer's situation. Some of you may recall I took a brief sabbatical from SI.com a couple of years ago. I was only gone five months, but just having the opportunity to step away from the only way of life I'd known for more than a decade made me realize how much I loved it and missed it. (I remember attending the Big East tournament in the upper deck and looking down at my colleagues on press row with envy.) I came back reinvigorated and full of new ideas, and I'm guessing Meyer will do the same. The guy's a coach. It would be naïve to think he was going to spend the next 10 years in a broadcast booth or attending little league games. That doesn't guarantee he'll remain with the Buckeyes for the next 10 years, but I don't think you could say that about any coach in the country right now, either.

Am I right in thinking that not inviting Kellen Moore to the Heisman ceremony would be a travesty? This is a kid has won more games than any other NCAA quarterback, had incredible stats and has beaten marquee teams throughout his career. If Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy can get "lifetime achievement" invites their senior years, why not Moore?-- Daniel, Washington D.C.

I feel bad for Moore. If not for a missed field goal last year, he might have played in the Rose Bowl. If not for a missed field goal this year (though this time he didn't do much on the last drive himself), he'd almost certainly be playing for the national championship -- and if that were the case, he'd probably be going to New York. I realize what I just wrote doesn't sound fair, but that's how things work.

It's just such a crowded field this year. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Case Keenum and Trent Richardson are all virtual locks to get invites, and all have done as much if not more than Moore has this season. The final spot is probably going to come down to Montee Ball (if he has a big night in Saturday's Big Ten championship game) or Matt Barkley. The first is shattering touchdown records; the second has stats on par with Moore's against a tougher schedule. Moore is also a victim of his own success. He's thrown for 3,194 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions -- all impressive -- yet he's not going to match his yardage from last season (3,845) and already has more picks than last season's six. But lest we forget, Moore did get a trip to New York last season. He got to experience that. And I don't think falling short this year will lessen his legacy in the slightest.

If Virginia Tech thoroughly beats Clemson this weekend, why shouldn't the Hokies be playing for the national title?-- Trevor, Kalamazoo, Mich.

When the second-highest rated team you've beaten to this point is Arkansas State, you're not going to the national title game.

In terms of available resources vs. job expectations, what is the worst coaching job in college football?-- Ron, Indianapolis

Two words: Ole Miss. I feel bad saying that because I've made cracks about that fan base's deluded expectations before, but in all seriousness, it's a graveyard job. Despite residing in a small state, despite constant struggles to recruit elite athletes who qualify academically, despite one of the smallest football budgets in the conference (slightly more than Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and about half of Alabama's) and despite playing in a division with three of the past five national champions, two of the Rebels' past three coaches (David Cutcliffe and Houston Nutt) have been fired within two years of Cotton Bowl appearances.

Nutt's program was obviously trending downward, but even in a solid state, the Rebels were never going to keep winning nine games every year. And a couple of 7-6 seasons probably would have scored Nutt maybe one extra year. The next coach will be given a year or two to rebuild, then expected to contend for a New Year's bowl, all while the SEC adds two more schools to recruit against and implements stricter rules about oversigning (which Ole Miss leans on as heavily as anyone) and the NCAA stiffens academic entrance requirements (which means even fewer kids will qualify). Personally, I'd ask for a contract that at least allows me to partake in the Grove before games to help ease the misery.

How come Montee Ball is not in the Heisman discussion despite his stellar numbers? He has more yards on less carries and nine more touchdowns than Trent Richardson.-- Patrick, Rochester, N.Y.

I think it speaks to what the Heisman has become over the past 10-15 years: an award tied directly to the national title race. If Ball were producing the exact same numbers for a 12-0 team instead of a 10-2 team, he'd not only be leading the Heisman race, he'd probably be garnering discussion as one of the all-time greats. Barry Sanders' 1988 season has long been regarded as the gold standard for running backs, and while Ball is nowhere close to Sanders' yardage, he's now scored more touchdowns in a season (34) than any player in history aside from Sanders. He's five away from tying Sanders, albeit with the benefit of extra games. Usually NCAA records help vault a Heisman candidacy, but in this case it seems only to have gotten Ball into the discussion.

That's not the only reason, though. For one thing, Wisconsin has another record-star, quarterback Russell Wilson, who's on pace to break the NCAA pass efficiency record. Obviously Wilson garnered the bulk of Wisconsin's buzz upon his arrival, and the school launched an aggressive Heisman campaign on his behalf, perhaps at Ball's expense. There's also the notion that Ball may be a "system running back," since we're numb at this point to Wisconsin running backs putting up big numbers. I'd argue Ball is having an exceptional year even by Badgers standards. And last but not least: Trent Richardson is a heck of a running back. He might not be exactly on par with Ball statistically, but he's in the same ballpark, while playing in bigger games and popping off more SportsCenter highlight plays. As I said before, it's a crowded field. They're both worthy candidates. One advantage for Ball: He gets an extra showcase opportunity Saturday night against Michigan State.

How can you put Michigan ahead of Michigan State when State beat Michigan?-- Jane Pallas, Dowagiac, Mich.

Yep, two weeks later, I'm still getting these e-mails.

What happens if Southern Miss upsets Houston this weekend? As long as Southern Miss and TCU stay below No. 16 in the BCS standings, there would probably be no bid to a non-AQ school -- or would Boise get an at-large invite to the Sugar?-- Doug W., Natick, Mass.

I must admit, I had not considered this possibility until seeing this e-mail. I just assumed TCU would get in to the Top 16, but if Baylor beats Texas this weekend, it's not going to happen. I do think Boise would get the call in that situation. Assuming Georgia doesn't upset LSU, the Sugar, needing to sell tickets, would probably still take Michigan to replace the SEC champ. The Fiesta would go next and take Stanford. Then it's back to the Sugar, which would likely have the following choices: 11-1 Boise, 10-2 Kansas State, possibly 10-2 Oklahoma State (on a two-game losing streak) and the Big East champ. Boise is a bigger national draw, and would have a higher national ranking, than any of the other possibilities.

All this will be moot, though, because Houston is going to beat Southern Miss by four touchdowns.

What is the relationship between a bowl game and the venue in which it is played? I'm asking specifically about the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which is predicted to host yet another Auburn-Clemson game. The two not only played earlier this season but also open next season in Atlanta. Can the Georgia Dome folks influence who the bowl picks?-- Charles Roberts, Birmingham, Ala.

Actually, the bowl and its executive director, Gary Stokan, run both events, and I'm surprised myself they seem to keep floating Auburn-Clemson as the most likely matchup for the very reason you mention. Do we really need to see three Tiger-fests in less than 12 months? Do their fans want that? I doubt it. But it also looks like Auburn will be the only viable choice for the bowl's SEC slot, unless it takes 6-6 Florida, and the other ACC choices aren't appealing. I'm projecting 8-4 Florida State to avoid the rematch/prematch, but the 'Noles played there last year, and it's well known the Champs Sports Bowl desperately wants to pit FSU and Notre Dame.

Of course, the only way Clemson is even available is if it loses to Virginia Tech on Saturday, which would give it a three-game losing streak that might turn off bowl organizers.

In 1916, Cumberland College lost to Georgia Tech 222-0. Is that how bad you think LSU would need to lose to Georgia and/or Alabama in order that the Razorbacks "finish at least 10 spots higher than LSU in the final poll?"-- Kevin Allison, Plano, Texas

I knew these e-mails would pour in, deservedly so, as soon as last Friday's game ended. Kudos to Kevin for getting creative and not just cutting and pasting that quote.

In your August 10, 2011 preseason Mailbag, you wrote: "Mark it down here: The Razorbacks will finish at least 10 spots higher than LSU in the final poll." What do you have to say for yourself now?-- Bryon McDonald, Houston

I love Les.

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