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All-SEC title game could pave way to plus-one system; more Mailbag

Every time there's been some sort of controversy over the final BCS outcome (read: most seasons), people have inevitably asked me: "Is THIS the nightmare that finally cracks the BCS?" And of course I always reply: "No. The thing's been a train wreck for 13 years. Why do you think this year would be any different?"

Well folks, I don't want to get your hopes up, but ... that year may finally have arrived.

Being a 'Bama fan I am glad that the Tide are in it, but Mike Slive tried to push for a plus-one in 2008 and got shot down by every conference except the ACC. If the conferences had to vote today on it, do you think that the Big 12 and the Pac 12 would vote in favor of it? It would have been nice to see LSU vs. Stanford and 'Bama vs. Oklahoma State.-- Shawn Stroud, Montgomery, Ala.

It's amusing that Slive, the commissioner whose conference least needs an expanded bracket, was the one who proposed the plus-one (with the backing of ACC counterpart John Swofford). There's definitely some (non)buyer's remorse right now. As Andy Staples reported, Big 12 athletic directors voted informally Monday to throw their support behind a plus-one, and it's no coincidence that the vote came just a day after one of their schools got nudged out for No. 2. Mind you, the Big 12's presidents have the final say. Former commissioner Dan Beebe was actually open to Slive's proposal, but the presidents shot down the possibility last time. They trotted out the same excuse as then Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese: Expanding to four would inevitably lead to eight, which would lead to 16, and we're just going to put a stop to it here and now, gosh darn it.

But in 2008, the commissioners, athletic directors and presidents couldn't have foreseen the way the SEC would take over the sport in the ensuing five years, culminating in this season's intraconference national championship game. While there are countless reasons 'Bama held off Oklahoma State for No. 2, it largely boils down to this fact: The SEC has won the thing so many times and against so many conferences that it's achieved nearly unconditional benefit of the doubt when compared to other leagues. SEC teams have beaten high-powered Big 12 and Pac-12 offenses and run roughshod over physical Big Ten defenses. No matter how drastically Oklahoma State's body of work trumped Alabama's, voters simply couldn't embrace the possibility that the Cowboys were a better football team than the Crimson Tide. There's too much history that suggests otherwise.

It's already become a given that the SEC champion will earn a spot in the Big Game every year until someone beats it ... but two SEC teams? If you're the commissioner of another conference who places any priority whatsoever on giving your member schools an opportunity to compete for championships, you have no choice at this point but to support expanding to four. This year's outcome may be an anomaly, but we've still reached a point where five other conferences are now competing for one available spot. Going to a plus-one creates opportunities for two or three other leagues to prove themselves against the SEC's best.

The commissioners have a lot of issues to address before negotiating the next BCS contract (including the possible elimination of automatic qualifiers and the likely addition of a fifth bowl) before they even get to the plus-one. But we may finally be reaching a point where plus-one supporters outnumber opponents. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany remains the chief opposition. I don't think he views the national championship as a particularly important priority. He's perfectly content with a season like this one, where his conference gets 10 bowl berths and two BCS bids, his league's championship game is exciting and Wisconsin plays in the Rose Bowl. But the Big Ten does everything in lock-step with the Pac-12, which is why Larry Scott could be the key swing vote. If he sees a way to improve his league's access to the title game while still maintaining its Rose Bowl relationship, he and his presidents just might go for it. And if they do, the Big Ten might have no choice but to follow. Keep your fingers crossed.

Stewart, Mark Blaudschun at The Boston Globe and Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times want a true plus-one in which everybody plays in their traditional bowl games (Big Ten, Pac-12 to the Rose; SEC to the Sugar, etc.). Then the top two teams that survive the bowls play for the national championship. This is what I want too. It's better than The Mandel Plan. It's simpler than The Mandel Plan. Plus, the bowls regain their luster and relevance.-- Scott Saxton, LaSalle, Ontario

I respect the heck out of both those guys, but they're being wistful for a bygone era. Now that the sport has created the first vestige of a bracket by staging a 1 vs. 2 game, it's never going back. And believe me, by pitting 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3, The Mandel Plan is going to provide better games. Here's what it would look like this year: (Read last month's column for a primer or refresher on the selection process.)

• Dec. 31 Cotton: No. 7 Boise State vs. No. 8 Kansas State• Dec. 31 Sugar: No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 13 Michigan• Jan. 2 Orange: No. 1 LSU vs. No. 4 Stanford• Jan. 2 Rose: No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 10 Wisconsin• Jan. 2 Fiesta: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma State• Jan. 9 title game (New Orleans): Fiesta Bowl winner vs. Orange Bowl winner

Note that this plus-one uses solely the BCS standings. In my ideal world, there would be a selection committee to choose the semifinal participants, and that committee could well decide that Oregon, as Pac-12 champ, deserves Stanford's spot against LSU. If so the Cardinal would move to the Rose Bowl.

Stewart, everyone is arguing the Oklahoma State or Alabama controversy at the moment, but isn't the bigger crime with the BCS system this year the Virginia Tech affair? If the system insists that the BCS rankings are used to determine the 1-2 matchup, shouldn't it also force the other BCS bowls to invite teams based on said rankings instead of allowing them to invite whomever they want, rankings be damned?-- Mark L, Baltimore

I've made my displeasure with the Sugar Bowl's decision well known, but no, I don't think bowls should be forced to take certain teams. They're still independent businesses under pressure to sell tickets, raise sponsorship dollars and maximize television audiences, and they should take the teams they feel will best help them achieve that. In fact, they're already under too many restrictions as it is, which is why the Sugar Bowl came within a game of having Houston forced on it and the Orange Bowl got stuck with No. 23 West Virginia.

Still, considering how much criticism the bowl business has faced over the past 14 months -- from the publication of Death to the BCS, to last year's Sugar Bowl/Tattoo Five debacle, to the Fiesta Bowl corruption scandal -- it's mind-boggling that bowl execs keep making decisions that open them up to even greater backlash. The public does not want a Michigan-Virginia Tech matchup. I've seen and heard that quite loudly since Sunday night. It would, however, eat up a chance to watch Denard Robinson go against Kellen Moore. Boise-Michigan would have been arguably the most appealing matchup outside of the title game. But the Sugar Bowl committee probably still views Boise as a second-rate outfit. The Sugar brass are either completely out of touch with the public's interest, or they just don't care. And that is the BCS' biggest problem.

I am curious as to why you are so upset about Virginia Tech being selected to the Sugar Bowl, and yet you seem to have no problem with Michigan getting selected. Michigan is behind Virginia Tech in the Harris, Coaches', as well as the computers (the only objective piece of the BCS) and yet you are OK with Michigan getting selected and not Virginia Tech?-- Mark, Lynchburg, Va.

That's a fair point. Because it had been so well known for so long that the Sugar intended to take Michigan with its first choice, I fixated more on the second choice. But I also understand, from a business standpoint, the appeal of Michigan, which is one of the biggest brands in the sport. Virginia Tech has established itself as a solid brand too, but it's also been in a BCS game three of the past four years, and none of those games drew stellar TV ratings. There isn't the same public appetite for the Hokies as the Wolverines. And in terms of selling tickets, Virginia Tech fans will no doubt travel en masse to New Orleans, but so would Kansas State fans or Boise fans. It's not like one has a clear advantage over the others.

Also: I don't care what the polls say. At least Michigan beat a current Top 25 team (Nebraska). At least it beat a semi-notable nonconference opponent (Notre Dame). At least it finished its season strong (winning three straight) rather than losing its last game 38-10. You brought up computers before? Do you know that the highest-ranked team Virginia Tech beat in the Sagarin ratings is No. 45 Georgia Tech? It's astonishing. But by all means, yes, let's all gather around our TV sets Jan. 3 to watch this game.

Enough with the Virginia Tech bashing. VT and Michigan beat the same number of ranked teams: one.-- J.D. Bolick, Denver, N.C.

Technically, they're all ranked somewhere. It's just that Michigan's is in the Top 25.

Does the Big East's expansion signal that the AQ concept will continue past the 2014 BCS contract renewal? Or is the Big East just taking teams because it needs to try to stay relevant, AQ concept or not.-- Andrew, Warren, Mich.

While the Big East remains hopeful of maintaining its AQ status, I'm sure the league (and, presumably, the schools joining it) realize it's a long shot. The conference came within one Cincinnati upset of sending a 7-5 Louisville team to the Orange Bowl. Whatever the new structure, I can't see a scenario in which the Big East is considered to be on equal footing with the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and ACC.

But the Big East's remaining football schools (Louisville, Cincinnati, Connecticut, USF and Rutgers) have invested substantial amounts of money in their programs and needed to do something bold to stay afloat. So too have most of the schools they're taking in (Boise State, UCF, etc.). What may have started as a fight to gain/preserve AQ status is now primarily about television revenue. The Big East's contract goes up for bid next year, and the hope is that with a recognized brand, an East Coast presence and now a reach into Texas and California, the schools will be able to fetch significantly more money than they would have in Conference USA or the Mountain West -- money they'll then promptly blow on cross-country flights and extra nights in hotels.

Everywhere I read about Montee Ball needing two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl to break Barry Sanders' record. Barry Sanders had five touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl that did not count toward his season total. What gives? When did bowl stats start counting in season stats?-- Jesse Couch, Grimsby, Ontario

The NCAA started counting bowl stats in 2002, which, along with the addition of the 12th regular season game and conference championships, helps explain why players seem to be breaking season or career records every other week. In the interest of fairness, the NCAA should really keep separate records for the pre-bowl stat era, and maybe even the 11-game era. A four-year starting quarterback today gets to count as many as nine to 12 extra games over the course of his career.

That doesn't diminish Ball's achievement. Give the man his due for 38 -- 38! -- touchdowns in a single season. But let's not forget that Sanders scored 39 in 11 games, 44 in 12. Those marks will never be touched.

Not to date myself, but Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl = payback for what happened in 2000, when the Hokies were 10-1, ranked No. 5 in the BCS heading into Michael Vick's last game, and got jumped by Notre Dame (which proceeded to get obliterated by Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl). Ironically we blew out Clemson in the Gator Bowl that year. We're even in my book.-- J Walczyk, Raleigh, N.C.

Fair enough. Since that time, however, the Hokies have gone to four BCS games and now boast a 1-4 record. How much longer is this payback going to drag out?

Stewart, UCLA's list of head coaching candidates seems to be dwindling. Who is an off the radar, little-discussed candidate that UCLA should look at pursuing?-- Garret, Sacramento, Calif.

Indeed, unless Dan Guerrero has a surprise up his sleeve, it seems the Bruins may be headed toward their own Derek Dooley. But here's one for you: Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Why is no one giving this guy a look? Yes, the Ducks' offense is primarily Chip Kelly's brainchild, but Helfrich has been running it for the past three years, and Pac-12 defenses have yet to find a way to stop it. UCLA plays in a conference that is quickly loading up on renowned offensive minds with the addition of Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez; it's got to do something to keep up. Why not import the league's most successful offense?

Helfrich, 38, has worked at three current Pac-12 schools (Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon) and at one point was the youngest offensive coordinator at a BCS school. His star is on the rise, and if Arizona State can't make things work with June Jones, I'd bet it places a call Helfrich's way (if it hasn't already). So that's my suggestion to Guerrero, not that he's listening to me. I think he's going through a Rolodex of fired NFL coaches as we speak.

LSU has played for the BCS National Championship the past three times the game has cycled to New Orleans (2003 vs. Oklahoma, 2007 vs. Ohio State, 2011 vs. Alabama). Coincidence or are Cajun voodoo powers are at play here?-- Scott Davis, Chattanooga, Tenn.

The first was coincidence. Les planned the others all along.

Alabama has the opportunity to win the national championship while winning just four games against FBS teams with a winning record. What's the last team to win against such a record? Without looking, I'll guess the BYU team that beat a 6-6 Michigan team to win the national championship in the 80s.-- JG, Kendall Park, N.J.

That '84 BYU team did in fact beat four, all of them from the WAC or Missouri Valley conferences. In the BCS era, the lowest was six by LSU's 2007 team, which should not be surprising since that team had two losses. Most champions usually beat eight or nine foes with winning records. Keep in mind, though, that Alabama's number could go up to seven if Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt win their bowl games.

By the way, the Tide's 2009 title team set the BCS-era record with 10.

Why isn't 7-5 Western Kentucky in a bowl when a bunch of 6-6 teams are? I thought the rule was 6-6 teams only get to go bowling if there are no other teams with better records left.-- Dan, Washington D.C.

That rule did exist as recently as two years ago, but Beebe of all people led the charge to repeal it, much to the delight of bowl execs, who will always prefer to take a 6-6 Big 12 team over a 7-5 Sun Belt team. But WKU was a particularly galling omission. It would have been the school's first bowl trip, and to make matters worse, it was snubbed at the expense of 6-7 UCLA. Eric Adelson wrote an excellent piece on the Hilltoppers' heartbreak.

Mr. Mandel, I am new (legal) citizen from foreign country, learning English and American sport. Please explain me how team can be national champion but not conference or division champion. In my country thing like this do not happen.-- Chartah Varhta, Akron, Ohio

I can't possibly explain it, but this may be the most insightful summation of the BCS I've ever seen.

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