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Realignment, playoff talk dominate Mailbag; plus, some actual football

The obvious downside of going with an every-other-week schedule for the first few Mailbags is that there's always the possibility of big news breaking in between editions. Fortunately, all that's happened since May 9 is one of the nation's most prestigious programs openly flirting with a new conference, numerous developments regarding the forthcoming playoff format and two major conferences deciding to start their own bowl game.

Phew. Business as usual.

Do you think FSU will move to the Big 12? Better yet, do you think it should move? With the Big 12 champ now playing the SEC champ, the ACC has essentially become an afterthought in the national title (even more so than it already was).-- Bret, Tallahassee, Fla.

There are plenty of good reasons for Florida State to join the Big 12 if that conference decides to expand again, but I seem to be in the vast minority of people who fail to see why the new Big 12/SEC bowl is one of them. The announcement was symbolically significant for the reasons I wrote about last week (mainly because it gives those leagues an ally for the current playoff posturing with the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl contingent), but as best as I can tell, it did not tangibly affect the ACC in any way.

The ACC hasn't played the Big 12 champion in a bowl since 2000, the SEC champion since 2004. It's not like it lost something there. There's nothing preventing the league from continuing its relationship with the Orange Bowl, if that bowl so chooses. And most importantly: The bowl deal doesn't make it any harder or easier for Florida State (or Virginia Tech, or Miami) to claim a spot among the Football Four in a given year. If the 'Noles go 13-0 or even 12-1 against their typical schedule (which always includes Florida and the past two years included Oklahoma), they're going to be in the mix just as much as the Big 12 champ. Remember: Florida State finished in the top four (post-bowls) 14 straight seasons from 1987-2000, the last nine of those while playing in a nine-team ACC.

For many people, the Big 12/SEC news cemented the notion that there's now a dividing line between the four strongest conferences and everyone else. Since the ACC has been the fifth- and sometimes sixth-strongest conference for most of the decade, this is not a new development. But in the realignment circus, if enough people begin to believe something's true, then it might as well be. Florida State President Eric Barron last week had the audacity to employ facts and reason to dampen the Big 12 buzz, but the effect lasted just a few days before the Big 12/SEC news riled everyone up again.

Ultimately, FSU should make its decision based on whether the financial gain and increasingly stable leadership of the once-dysfunctional Big 12 outweighs the clunkiness and added expense of sending its basketball team to Stillwater, Okla., on a Monday night. Perhaps the school will decide it's no longer possible in today's climate to be a true national football power in a basketball-centric league. Whatever the case, it should not base the move on access to the national title game. If anything, the 'Noles have a better chance of getting to the playoff from the ACC than they would competing against Texas and Oklahoma every year.

Over the years, you have been a huge defender of the college football regular season, so I am surprised that you don't favor a playoff featuring conference champions only. No other proposed playoff plan puts as much emphasis on the regular season. LSU-'Bama last year was exciting primarily because we knew the loser was probably out of the picture. The rematch felt so dirty because it betrayed that memory of believing that everything was on the line in the first game. So ... why the change of heart regarding the importance of the regular season?-- Mike Nicholas, Kenosha, Wis.

Like the commissioners, you're making a knee-jerk reaction to an incredibly fluky, once-in-14-years scenario. If Oklahoma State or Boise State makes a field goal, or if the first LSU-Alabama game is a 27-24 heart stopper rather than a 9-6 snoozer, my guess is we're not even having this debate. In the rush to endorse any idea that might curb the SEC's recent dominance, we've endorsed several misconceptions, including the notion that a playoff restricted to conference champions better protects the regular season. In reality, it could make parts of the regular season more important, but others less so.

In 2009, for example, Florida clinched the SEC East on Oct. 31. Under the conference champs method, the Gators' entire month of November would have been rendered meaningless, since beating undefeated Alabama in the SEC title game would have ensured its playoff spot. And what about early nonconference games? We get excited for a game like this year's Alabama-Michigan opener in part because it could have ramifications that last the entire season. In Mike's preferred model, if both winner and loser go on to win their conferences, the game might as well have never happened.

The other argument is that limiting the pool to conference champions reduces the impact of subjective polls and rankings, but the sport is still going to need some mechanism to rank the respective champions. And if we select Jim Delany's idea of protecting conference champs in the top six, then we go from a regular season that builds toward a showdown of No. 1 vs. 2 to one where the biggest storyline the last weekend could be whether the Big East champ finishes sixth or seventh. Thanks, but I'll pass.

If protecting the regular season is truly the goal, then college football should follow the English Premier League's model and not have a playoff at all. But if having a playoff is the goal, the single most important priority should be the integrity of the bracket. The more conditions are put on the participants, and the more needlessly complicated the process gets, the more room there will be for inevitable backlash. The polls aren't going away. There's always going to be a general consensus as to the national hierarchy, and the first time No. 6 gets in but No. 3 doesn't ... back to the drawing board we go.

This isn't a new position of mine, as you'll see in this week's Mailbag 10 Year Anniversary Flashback.TM

I found this in the Dec. 9, 2003 Mailbag:

How apropos! The wheel just keeps on spinning!-- Julie Glover, Shreveport, La.

The Sooners didn't exactly help my argument that year, did they?

What team that missed a bowl last year is poised for a breakout season? Secondly, what bowl team from last year do you expect to tank this year?-- Johnny D., Strongsville, Ohio

Wow. A question about actual football. Those still exist?

Breakout team: Washington State. The Cougars haven't posted a winning record since 2003 and went 4-8 last year, but as you may have heard, they recently hired a well-known coach prolific at both winning shootouts and shooting bears. With a choice of talented quarterbacks in Jeff Tuel or Connor Halliday and an overlooked receiving corps led by Marquess Wilson (82 catches, 1,388 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2011), the pieces are in place for Mike Leach's team to shred largely mediocre Pac-12 defenses. The Cougars themselves may have the worst defense in the league, but they'll pull out enough 48-44 games to get to at least seven wins.

A more under-the-radar pick: San Jose State, which improved from 1-12 to 5-7 last season under coach Mike MacIntyre and is now one of the better teams left in the depleted WAC.

As for which team I expect to "tank," that depends on the parameters. If the sole criterion is a team that went to a bowl game last season and may have a losing record this year, I'll go with Penn State. New coach Bill O'Brien is saying all the right things, but there's no way a program can go through everything the Nittany Lions have and not take a significant step back. O'Brien doesn't have a quarterback on the roster capable of becoming his new Tom Brady, and the defense, long Penn State's bedrock under coordinator Tom Bradley, is undergoing both a schematic and personnel overhaul, particularly in the secondary. A slide from 9-4 to 5-7 (or worse) is entirely conceivable.

As a Tennessee alum it has been a tough four years since Phillip Fulmer was let go in 2008. I don't think most can fully understand the difficult rebuilding job Derek Dooley has been tasked with, given the recruiting failures of late in Fulmer's career and the player attrition under Lane Kiffin. Derek Dooley had two heartbreaking loses to LSU and UNC in 2010 and injuries decimated the roster in 2011. However, the Kentucky loss at the end of the season and coaching changes in the offseason really changed the perspective on him. What are your expectations for Tennessee this year and do you think Derek Dooley will be the Vols' coach next year?-- Matt, Atlanta

It seems Dooley is to Tennessee what Ron Zook was to Florida and Rich Rodriguez to Michigan: a guy who's already lost too much support to ever recover. For all the reasons you mentioned, I've tried not to rush to judgment on Dooley after just two seasons, but the guy simply hasn't done anything to engender confidence. He's a Nick Saban disciple who shares his mentor's control-freak tendencies, but all it's gotten him so far is a 28-34 record at two schools. He's got a Les Miles-like oddball personality, but that tends to go over better with the fans when a team is winning 11-12 games, not five-six. And losing seven assistants in one offseason, including several in seemingly lateral moves (defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox left for the same job at Washington), is not a ringing endorsement of the boss.

It's possible Dooley will still be the coach next year, just because the return of a healthy Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter along with Da'Rick Rogers gives the Vols a powerful passing attack that should get them back into the 7-5 or 8-4 realm. But I highly doubt Dooley will be the guy to lead Tennessee back to national glory. That will be up to the program's Urban Meyer or Brady Hoke, who comes in and reaps the benefit of Dooley's recruiting.

Within this wave of Mailbag nostalgia, where does putting Minnesota No. 9 in your 2004 preseason poll rank in your tenure? Even as a 20-year season ticket holder, I thought you were nuts.-- John, Bemidji, Minn.

Deluding America into believing the Gophers were a top 10 team is on me. But going 7-5 with Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney in the same backfield is on Glen Mason.

With the second season of the Al Golden-coached Hurricanes drawing near, how do you think the program is progressing from the Randy Shannon era, and will the U ever return to becoming an annual top 10 team? Is the program heading in the right direction, or will it continue to be stuck in mediocrity?-- Ken, Miami

Golden is doing all the right things, but this coming year could be pretty unseemly. In fact, the 'Canes would have been my answer to the earlier "tank" question if they hadn't banned themselves from a bowl last year. Golden inherited a roster thin in certain areas and it only got worse when six of his best underclassmen (led by running back Lamar Miller, receiver Tommy Streeter and defensive lineman Olivier Vernon) declared for the draft. Golden is left with a team that could still be OK on defense but has almost no experience at the offensive skill positions, a mildly accomplished quarterback in Stephen Morris and a woefully thin line. This isn't nearly the rebuilding job Golden took on at Temple, but by Miami standards it is.

The good news is that Golden just brought in a terrific recruiting class and got an early look at nine enrollees this spring. Expect Golden to go with a full-on youth movement and play many of these guys right away. But then there's the Nevin Shapiro cloud. No matter how well Golden recruits and develops, the NCAA could come in at any time and drop crippling sanctions that slow the process even further. I do think Miami can become a top 10 team again -- kids still want to play there because they know the legacy of the 'Canes getting guys to the NFL -- but it could be quite a few years before it gets there.

Love the Mailbag. Quick question: Every time I see talk about Big East teams leaving for either the Big 12 or the ACC the only two mentioned are Louisville and UConn. Being an alum of Cincinnati, which has had three 10-win seasons in four years plus made the Sweet Sixteen in basketball, I was wondering why neither of those conferences seem to look at Cincinnati. Are we closer to Memphis in stature than Pitt?-- Randy Adams, Fort Thomas, Ky.

The same thing that limits Boise State's possibilities in realignment hurts the Bearcats as well: their stadium. Nippert is a cool place to watch a game, but it only seats 35,000. Good luck convincing Texas to play there every other year. And while the program has enjoyed great fan support over the last four or five years, there was a long history of apathy before that. As a former resident I remember well the days of forcing basketball season ticket holders to buy football tickets and buy-one-get-one-free promos at Skyline. It will probably take a more sustained track record of success and support before a league like the Big 12 gives UC a look.

If the ACC implosion many are already predicting does occur, I could see that conference tapping Cincinnati as a replacement, but by then, who knows whether the Big East or ACC would be more appealing. I'll leave that to all you 16-team superconference enthusiasts to figure out.

"Program Pecking Order" was easily my favorite Mailbag answer, and I doubt I'm alone. Can you revisit this answer and let us know what five years and numerous realignments have done to your list of Kings, Barons, Knights and Peasants?-- Chris C., Forest Hills, N.Y.

This isn't the first request of this nature. I've gotten more e-mails over the past few years asking me to revisit that column than any Mailbag I've ever written. So yes, I will be doing a 2012 update, but I'm waiting for things to slow down a bit first. Which of course means it might not happen until 2015...

Speaking of figures from Mailbags past, former West Virginia coach Bill Stewart took his share of criticism in this space, but he was without a doubt the sunniest person I've ever encountered on this beat. Both when I met him for the first time in August 2008 and in subsequent conversations, it seemed like I'd happened to catch him on the happiest day of his life -- which may well have been true, since he was living a lifelong dream coaching the Mountaineers.

On Monday, Stewart, 59, died from a heart attack suffered while playing golf, an incredibly sad and unfair ending for a man who so thoroughly enjoyed every day. Please join me in offering condolences to his family and the West Virginia community.

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