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Champions model could turn unique sport into NFL clone; more Mailbag

While I'm certainly accustomed to writing things that elicit a split opinion or incense one particular fan base/region, my oft-repeated assertion that a four-team playoff should consist of the four best teams, conference champions or not, is proving particularly unpopular. I'd estimate 80 percent of you disagree, which is genuinely baffling to me since I've long considered this a no-brainer.

At first I chalked it up to SEC backlash, but that's an unfair generalization. I get that there's a general mistrust in the polls and computer ratings, but it's pretty clear the BCS standings as we know them are going away. One particular e-mail helped me better understand the source of the disconnection.

Why are you so firmly in the "top four" camp? This is a unique concept in sports in this country. Can you think of other formats where the playoffs are determined solely by choosing the top four teams? In every other sport, you have the division or conference champions, and perhaps a few wild-cards duke it out. Why deny college football fans that excitement?-- Ian Jacobs, Washington D.C.

It all comes down to that one word: unique. All this time, I was under the impression that our collective passion for college football went hand-in-hand with its unique quirks. Yes, it drives us crazy at times, but what would college football be without all those oddities -- Top 25 polls, the spread-option, the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Signing Day, War Eagle -- exclusive to the sport? The answer, of course, is that it would be the NFL, but with less talented, unpaid players. Yet what Ian and many, many others (including Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott) are saying is that they WANT the sport to be more like the NFL. That saddens me. Why would we want to turn such a vibrant sport into a clone?

But here's the rub: No matter what method the sport ends up using to select and seed the playoff, the polls aren't going away. Fans will still scour the latest AP poll on Sundays and hit up Andy Staples' Power Rankings on Tuesdays. We'll still see numbers in front of the teams' names during game broadcasts and on the ESPN ticker. Many people say they'd be fine with restricting the field to conference champions because doing so would let the teams qualify by a defined process, but I just don't buy it. There will still be polls, which means we'll still know the general pecking order nationally, which means we'll all be up in arms the first time a perceived inferior team gets in over a more accomplished team.

Case in point: LSU and Georgia last year. The Tigers had by far the most impressive regular season in the country. But what if Georgia had upset them in the SEC title game? Would the Dawgs, 10-2 and ranked 14th going into the game, suddenly be entitled to one of those four spots? Would we really be comfortable leaving out 12-1 LSU (which played an extra game that 11-1 Oklahoma State didn't have to) while including the 11-2 Oregon team it clobbered earlier in the season? I doubt it, and this is precisely why it should be the top four teams. We don't know what unforeseen scenario will arise in a given season, making it dangerous to put preexisting conditions on the field. As I wrote last week, there'll barely be a difference most of the time, and as I wrote Monday, I'm fine letting a selection committee decide those four teams.

What I'm not fine with is this budding conformist movement to strip college football of its most identifiable traits. We're already losing century-old rivalries (Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri). We're killing off entire conferences. It seems only a matter of time before many established bowls go the same way. Many fans are perfectly fine with all of that, so long as they get a more definitive national champion. I'm all for more clarity too, so long as we can achieve it without sterilizing the sport in the process.

Since it's obvious the campus site proposal for the semifinals of a potential playoff is dead, in your opinion, who was actually backing the plan? Was it just the Big Ten throughout the entire process or were other conferences like the Pac-12 behind the proposal? Why did it die so easily, or why did the Big Ten give up so easily?-- Sarah, Denver, Colo.

The Big Ten was certainly its leading proponent, and the Pac-12 was initially on board as well. From what I understand, a subcommittee of the 12 commissioners spent a couple of months exploring a playoff model staged outside of the bowl system and brought the results back to the larger group in April. Around that same time, another subcommittee charged with examining the model inside the bowl system came up with the anchor-host idea. Once it became clear that model was the leading candidate, and that the Rose Bowl would get the chance to host its regular conference partners in a semifinal, the Pac-12 had less motivation to push for campus sites, seeing as its champion would be close to home either way. From what I'm hearing, though, that anchor-host plan is no longer a sure thing, with the Big 12/SEC bowl throwing a wrench in things.

There's not one overriding reason the Big Ten reversed course, but it's probably a combination of several factors. For one, it saw the Rose Bowl becoming marginalized if the semifinals were pulled out of the bowls entirely, and like it or not, the conference will always be mindful of the Rose Bowl's interests. Secondly, the Big Ten saw campus sites were a losing cause politically. The majority of conferences opposed the idea, in large part because home field is too significant an advantage to afford a No. 2 seed that might barely be more deserving than a No. 3 seed. And finally, all the conferences got spooked once they realized the logistics involved. These would not be normal home games, but rather two of the biggest sporting events of the year, with the potential of being played in a 40,000-seat stadium and/or a rural college town. Obviously the average fan watching at home could care less about those issues, but these guys are hyper-conservative when it comes to change. As we learned this week, the Big Ten's presidents would still rather not have a playoff at all.

So how long do you think it will take college football to come full circle and go back to just bowls and the national championship determined by multiple, if conflicting, polls? I'm predicting 2025 or so.-- James, Fremont, Ohio

I could see that. Split national championships, once considered an abomination, suddenly become chic. More realistically, though, I see a 96-team playoff, with a winner's and loser's bracket and a best two-out-of-three once it gets down to 32. Players who declare for the draft get replaced in February by incoming freshmen.

Did you watch the Oregon Ducks' spring game? Is there a quarterback controversy brewing? The backup (Marcus Mariota) looked better than the projected starter (Bryan Bennett). Will it turn into the 2006 Gators with Chris Leak starting but fans start calling for Tebow when things do not go so well for Leak?-- Jeff Hostetler, Gainesville, Fla.

I did watch a good chunk of the spring game and was very impressed by Mariota. The redshirt freshman looks like the most dangerous runner to play quarterback in Chip Kelly's offense since Dennis Dixon back in 2007. But I also saw Bennett play in actual games last year when Darron Thomas was hurt, and he, too, was noticeably fleet footed (though not as fast as Mariota). Both seem like adequate passers, though Bennett did not have a good spring game. My main takeaway was not that this is some problem for Oregon but rather: wow. Despite losing Thomas and LaMichael James, that offense is going to be even scarier with a true running quarterback, Kenjon Barner and the electrifying De'Anthony Thomas, who will contend for the Heisman this year or next.

Obviously, Kelly has a tough decision to make between Mariota and Bennett (who still left spring as the presumed frontrunner), but Kelly has done pretty well to this point. And a look at Oregon's joke of an early schedule explains why he'll probably avoid any controversy. It could be October before the Ducks see an opponent that could realistically test them (though that game against Mike Lech in Seattle could be entertaining). The only way there's a controversy is if the starter struggles, and it's hard to imagine either guy struggling against Arkansas State or Tennessee Tech. So by the time Oregon plays any meaningful games, that starter should be pretty well entrenched.

Hey Stewart. What would you say was the BOLDEST prediction offered by a Mailbag reader? (It may have come some time in the summer of 2007).-- Kevin Weis, Tryon, N.C.

I'm not sure we can call it a prediction, per se, but asking if Appalachian State could beat Michigan was certainly the boldest upset premonition to appear in these parts. Of course, I promptly blew it off at the time and came to regret it after Armanti Edwards set foot in the Big House.

Props to you, Kevin, and thank you kindly for that Mailbag 10 Year Anniversary FlashbackTM. Keep 'em coming.

Stewart, who are your top five breakout players this year? The guys who are not on the national radar but will generate some great highlights this year.-- Weber, Chicago

The problem with a question like this is that there are many more than five candidates, and, by the definition of breakout, plenty more I don't even know about. So I'll throw out five and then wait to hear from you about all the other names I unforgivably excluded.

1. Oklahoma receiver Trey Metoyer. Not only did the five-star recruit and early enrollee make an immediate impression this spring, but with Bob Stoops indefinitely suspending three returning receivers, Metoyer has no choice but to step up and become a go-to guy right off the bat.

2. Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon. Another early enrollee, he'll get his fair share of carries, and possibly even become the Tide's primary rusher (though Eddie Lacy is the top guy going in) in place of Trent Richardson.

3. USC defensive tackle George Uko. The one concern about an otherwise loaded Trojans lineup is its interior line, but those who attend practice regularly rave about the 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore, who became part of the rotation last season and will start this year.

4. Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk. To this point, the Oregon transfer is known primarily for his link to the infamous Willie Lyles. But it looks like Seastrunk has found a home at Baylor, where he'll step in for Terrance Ganaway and provide a big-play threat in Art Briles' reloading offense.

5. Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The 6-6, 242-pound redshirt freshman could be the elite receiver and difference-maker the Seminoles have been missing for years.

Stewart: Not having a conference championship requirement for the playoff is like not requiring each contestant in Miss USA to be from a different state. Should we just have the 50 hottest and most talented women in the competition, even if they're all from Los Angeles or New York? I would say no. Sure it makes it harder to get to the finals if you're from California, but then maybe hot women will move to different states to get a better chance and we'll have a geographically more balanced higher level of competition. Isn't this a better outcome overall?-- Brian M., Singapore

It absolutely is ... for the male population of Bangor, Maine. Another big winner: The self-tanning industry.

As a Wyoming alum, should I be that sad Boise State is leaving the Mountain West for the Big East? Yes, my conference gets a better TV deal with Boise, but the bulk of the televised games will feature Boise, not UW, and to get it to stay, BSU would have taken the lion's share of the revenue. Now, my team, maybe in a worse time slot, gets three nationally televised games and has a better chance to win the conference and go to a bowl, which helps my recruiting. Am I nuts, or is this a half-empty, half-full scenario?-- Scott C., Portland, Ore.

Seeing as Boise will end up spending a grand total of two years in the Mountain West, I wouldn't be too torn up about it. The prior defections of Utah, BYU and TCU were far more damaging, in my opinion, because the conference was just starting to build credibility nationally. Now, if you're a Wyoming fan, you might as well set your sights on trying to become the next Boise State.

Some program has the chance to fill that void and become the conference's flagship program, and while Air Force (if it doesn't defect, too), Nevada and Fresno State have more recent history of success, any program can make the same climb as Boise with the right coach and institutional support. Granted, it's going to be harder after two rounds of realignment that widened the perceived chasm between the SEC/Big Ten/Big 12/Pac-12/ACC and everyone else. And there will no longer be thresholds that guarantee a Mountain West team a spot in a major bowl game, the way the BCS did. But for Wyoming, just winning the conference would be a major step at this point, and Boise's departure removes a significant impediment.

Stewart: Avid reader of your columns. I have an idea that would never in a million years be allowed by the NCAA/school presidents: The selection committee to pick the four playoff teams should be a Las Vegas casino. They know more about football than the football coaches, and they would be totally unbiased.-- Chris G., Melrose, Mass.

I couldn't agree more. Absolutely no one is more skilled at rating teams than the Vegas oddsmakers, and their livelihood depends on being completely unbiased. But as you know, casinos have absolutely no place in college athletics, unless of course it's to host a conference basketball tournament or football media days.

Sept 27, 2003 ... any idea the significance on this date? Well let me help you. That is the last time Texas Tech played a nonconference game against another BCS-conference opponent. How is this possible?-- Jason, Ankeny, Iowa

And in that game, the Red Raiders knocked off Eli Manning-led Ole Miss, 49-45, in Oxford. Maybe the school decided to quit while it was ahead.

That's pretty astounding, but it's worked out well for Texas Tech. In 2005, it played FIU, Sam Houston State and Indiana State, won nine games and played in the Cotton Bowl. In 2008, it played Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and UMass, started 10-0 and advanced to No. 2 in the BCS standings. Had Tech finished undefeated, I have no doubt it would have played for the national championship. The way the BCS and bowls work today, there's really no incentive to play tough nonconference games, especially if the primary goal is simply to get bowl eligible. The most encouraging thing about the current playoff negotiations is the universal desire among the conferences to emphasize schedule strength. While Texas Tech is rarely a national title contender, perhaps postseason reform will incentivize a scheduling change. But as long as fans keep turning out for the cupcake games, it might not.

Did you really just write this? "It's also a disservice to the [Big Ten], which has actually been a leader in innovation, from popularizing the spread offense in the late '90s and early 2000s ..." Who in the Big Ten runs or ever ran the spread offense? I don't think you have a clue about college football.-- Greg Liss, Chicago

Well let's see. Joe Tiller brought the spread to Purdue in 1997, and the school has been running it ever since. Northwestern has been running it since 2000. Michigan ran it under Rich Rodriguez. Penn State ran it with quarterbacks Michael Robinson and Daryll Clark. Ohio State will now be running it under Urban Meyer.

I'm not sure you have a clue what the spread offense is.

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