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Contract bowls mean return to free-market system; more mail

When I wrote an extra-long Mailbag last week filled entirely with questions about the newly announced playoff, I didn't realize I'd get back a whole new round of playoff-related questions.

Whoops.

Obviously the hoopla over such a seismic change wasn't going to vanish overnight, but my hope is that this holiday week will provide a nice interlude, after which we can start discussing the 2012 season (as opposed to 2014) in earnest. I even snuck in a couple such questions this week. In the meantime...

If the Rose (Big Ten-Pac-12), Orange (ACC) or Champions Bowl (Big 12-SEC) releases a conference champ to play in the semifinals, will they automatically replace that champion with the No. 2 team from that conference, regardless of ranking, or will there be some minimum ranking necessary to qualify as a replacement?-- Gerry Swider, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

This was the main question to emerge from my podcast interview with Bill Hancock and accompanying column last Thursday, and understandably so. We're coming off 14 (soon to be 16) years of BCS rule, where the bowls and conferences essentially signed over their access arrangements to the larger group. The respective BCS bowls had conference partners, but they still had to comply with BCS rules about selection order, minimum rankings, etc. Now, with the elimination of the AQ/non-AQ concept, we're in a way moving back to the more decentralized, free-market pre-BCS days, when conferences are free to make their own deals with individual bowls.

So when you hear the term "contract bowl" to describe the Rose, Champions and Orange bowls, it literally means those games have their own contracts with individual conferences. Hence, if they lose one of their contracted champions to the playoff, they can replace that team with any other team from that partner conference, minimum ranking be damned. The BCS is not dictating which conferences get these contracts. There's nothing stopping one of those bowls from signing the Big East or Mountain West, but realistically it's not going to happen. Not everybody's going to like it, but that's life in a free market.

Where it gets truly confusing, though -- and where one might argue things really aren't that deregulated -- is that these bowls will still have a connection to the three other "access" bowls and, obviously, to the playoff itself. If, say, the Rose Bowl is hosting a semifinal one year and the Big Ten champion doesn't make the playoff, that team still has a protected spot waiting for it in one of the other three bowls. "If you give up your contracted bowl to have a semifinal, then your champion would have a berth in one of the other games," Hancock said of those conferences. However, if in the same scenario that champion did make the playoff, no bowl would be obligated to take a second Big Ten team, and it might not even be possible, as those de facto at-large spots would be determined by the selection committee's rankings.

If we go by the BCS standings -- not a precise exercise, since the committee wouldn't necessarily replicate those rankings -- there would have been nine of these protected "contract" champs that ranked 13th or lower since 1998: five from the ACC (2002 and '05 Florida State, '09 and '10 Virginia Tech, '11 Clemson), two from the Big Ten (2000 Purdue and '04 Michigan), one from the Pac-12 (1999 Stanford) and -- brace yourself -- one from the SEC (2001 LSU). We can't say for sure how many sub-top 12 replacement teams would have made it without knowing the semifinal rotation, but using the BCS' top four each year as the playoff field, there could have been as many as 13 -- or almost one per year. At the time I wrote last week that, "it's possible, though not automatic, that the six games will pit the top 12 teams," I hadn't yet compiled that data. A more accurate description would be "it's possible, though highly unlikely..."

Stewart, the scenario you describe in your "Six-bowl premium package" article would have LSU playing two teams it already played and beat during the regular season (Oregon and likely Alabama). Isn't this the very thing this new world order is supposed to avoid?-- Mikey V, Winter Park, Fla.

Contrary to popular belief, the commissioners did not hold 100-plus hours of meetings for the primary purpose of avoiding postseason rematches. I'm not sure there will be any such mechanism in place. There's no controlling who the best four teams are in a given year or whether, in the case of LSU and Oregon, those teams happened to schedule each other that season.

People wanted a playoff because "that's what they do in every other sport," right? Well, last year's 49ers-Giants NFC Championship Game was a rematch. All three Final Four games last April (Kansas-Ohio State, Kentucky-Louisville and Kentucky-Kansas) were rematches. And of course last year's Big Ten (Wisconsin-Michigan State) and ACC (Clemson-Virginia Tech) championship games were rematches. No one complained. To be fair, I do think people will more easily accept rematches when the teams aren't being voted straight into the championship game, and when they have to beat at least one other team from another conference. The LSU-Oregon/Alabama possibility from last season would be incredibly rare.

But if it happens, so be it. If you're going to do a playoff, do it right, and don't go manipulating brackets for the sake of avoiding rematches.

Stewart, tell me what you think of this scenario and which teams would make the four-team playoff. From the SEC West, LSU and Alabama finish 12-0 and 11-1, respectively. From the SEC East, Florida loses only to LSU during the season and Georgia loses only to Florida. That would match LSU-Florida in the SEC Championship Game, where Florida exacts revenge on the Tigers. Therefore, you have four SEC teams with one loss with Florida the SEC Champ. All-SEC playoff in 2014?-- Johnny P., Spanish Fort, Ala.

Again, this scenario stems from a world where every season is just like 2011 (or a world where the SEC exists on its own island). I can't answer that question without knowing the rest of the field. What are the records of the other major conference champions? What kind of nonconference schedules did these four teams play? Which teams did they miss from the other division (which, in a 14-team conference, could be significant)?

The committee is supposed to use conference championships as an unofficial tiebreaker in close situations, so Florida would be the most likely choice of the four, and perhaps LSU would get a nod too (though it remains to be seen whether the committee will penalize teams that lose their last game). Unless every other major conference champ has two losses, I can't imagine the two non-division winners having a chance.

Do we know for sure that the NCAA will authorize this 14th game for the two finalists?-- Tom Carrera, Portland, Ore.

It's a formality, since the same NCAA member schools that agreed to this playoff are the ones that would vote to pass such a rule.

With the latest revelations that Penn State administrators, at the request of the AD and after consultation with Joe Paterno, knew about Jerry Sandusky and did nothing to report it, shouldn't they be under the NCAA penalties to the maximum possible? With the e-mails coming out now, how does this university escape Death Penalty sanctions?-- Doug Norman N, Cartersville, Ga.

I happened to see the CNN e-mail story live last Friday evening. Even after the grand jury report, even after months and months of leaks -- including hints of what those e-mails contained -- the extent of just how devious this cover-up was did not truly hit home until I saw the actual words on the screen: Graham Spanier noting the trio could potentially "become vulnerable for not having reported it;" the admission that they knew about the prior 1998 investigation of Sandusky; their deliberately sinister choice of language, never using "Sandusky" or "Second Mile" to avoid FOIA detection; and of course, the astounding revelation that they were in fact on the cusp of reporting Sandusky until a conversation with Paterno changed Tim Curley's mind. It's hard to believe only a couple of weeks ago I questioned whether these guys were really trying to protect the football program. While not yet knowing exactly what Curley and Paterno discussed, they were either protecting Paterno's program (and their jobs), or, even worse, trying to protect Sandusky himself.

And yet at no point while watching in horror did I think to myself: The NCAA really ought to do something. I realize this is a sports website, and thus my readers are apt to look at this through a sports prism, but I'm with Andy Staples on this one: NCAA bylaws are irrelevant here. The men at the center of this are facing possible jail time; the university is under investigation by the Departments of Education and Justice and could face severe accreditation and funding consequences; the school is looking at untold millions in settlements to the victims. And yet, there's this puzzling sentiment out there that justice won't truly be served unless an organization that's now spent four years and counting on the Boise State CouchGate sanctions flexes its punitive muscle.

Those calling for the Death Penalty say the Penn State football program should be punished for protecting and enabling a pedophile, yet the people they'd actually punish are the 100-plus current players who were 8 years old when this happened and the hundreds of other athletes whose scholarships depend on football revenue; the other opponents on Penn State's schedule who would be left to play one less game; and all those Nittany Lions fans whom you may deem guilty of worshipping a false idol but who had nothing to do with Sandusky's crimes. I realize most NCAA sanctions affect innocent parties, but this isn't the same as telling kids they can't play in a bowl game. This is telling them that if they want to keep playing college football, they need to pack their bags, say goodbye to their friends and go find another school that will take them (obviously no guarantee). Try to keep that in mind when throwing around "Death Penalty." But more importantly, ask yourself this: What possible relief would NCAA sanctions provide for Sandusky's victims?

With the latest news out of Penn State, more people are postulating that the NCAA could/should step in and come down extremely hard on the athletic program. If Penn State was in fact hit with the Death Penalty, would the Big Ten look to kick it out as a football member and tempt Notre Dame with its spot?-- Rob, Seattle

Is there really nothing you guys can't bring back to conference realignment?

Now that we have a playoff to conclude the regular season, do you think it's time to finally move the Heisman ceremony back to January after the championship has concluded? With stats now counting in bowl games (and playoff games), I say that handing out the Heisman in early December is akin to handing out the AL MVP on Labor Day.-- Micah Hart, Atlanta

I've long been a proponent of waiting until after the bowls to award the Heisman, if for no other reason than getting one more chance to see the top players face an elite opponent from another conference -- and in some cases, face each other. I think we can reasonably assume that had that been the case in the BCS era, Ken Dorsey would have topped Eric Crouch in 2001; Larry Fitzgerald probably would have beaten Jason White in '03; Vince Young would have topped Reggie Bush in '05 (conveniently avoiding at least one controversy); and Tim Tebow would have won his second trophy in 2008 (he finished third behind Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy but had the most first-place votes before beating Bradford in the national championship game).

The flip side is that such a change would probably make it next to impossible for someone from outside of those top four teams to win the Heisman. The regular season would become a distant memory by the time of the semifinals and title game. Even if another top contender had a big bowl game, it wouldn't be viewed with the same import as someone's playoff performance. For instance, Robert Griffin III probably wouldn't have had any chance last year, even with his entertaining Alamo Bowl shootout. The winner would almost certainly have been the playoff participant who performed the best from a group including Trent Richardson, Tyrann Mathieu, Brandon Weeden or Andrew Luck/LaMichael James. That's why the AL MVP analogy isn't entirely appropriate; while Major League Baseball and the NFL wait until after the postseason to announce those awards, the voting takes place at the end of the regular season.

I take slight offense to your characterization of Michigan State having "historic success" at the moment. I would posit that MSU has simply gotten closer to its historic baseline. Of the original 10 members of the Big Ten, Michigan State is easily the third-best (albeit a distant third) in history and prestige. It took far too long, but Michigan State isn't fluky good right now, just finally maximizing its potential.-- Justin Bailey, Marietta, Ga.

Michigan State had never won 11 games in a season prior to 2010 and had never notched back-to-back double-digit wins prior to the past two seasons. Don't make me rename Auburn/Clemson Ole Miss/A&M Syndrome again.

I noticed Washington opening against San Diego State with former Oregon State QB Ryan Katz. I would guess that transfers rarely succeed (there was usually a reason it did not work out at their prior school), but was wondering your thoughts. In this question, let's exclude "graduate waiver" transfers like Russell Wilson. The one success that comes to mind is Troy Aikman at UCLA (from Oklahoma). Can you think of others?-- John, Anchorage

The flameout rate is certainly high, but while Aikman may be one of the few wildly successful transfers, I don't think San Diego Sate is counting on Katz to be the next Aikman. I think the Aztecs would be plenty happy if he were merely the next Nick Foles (Michigan State to Arizona), Ryan Mallett (Michigan to Arkansas), Colt Brennan (Colorado to Hawaii), Max Hall (Arizona State to BYU) or Jevan Snead (Texas to Ole Miss). And those are just transfers from the past five years. Katz is a bit unique in that, unlike the others, he actually started for a year in a major conference (even facing Washington once already) before falling out of favor. (Then-freshman Sean Mannion supplanted him last year.)

But there will be several similar cases to keep an eye on this year. Former Notre Dame starter Dayne Crist figures to be the guy for Charlie Weis' first Kansas team. SMU gets the ex-Longhorn Garrett Gilbert, the rare quarterback who played nearly an entire national championship game and the following season before transferring; and two-year Wyoming starter/New Mexico Bowl MVP Austyn Carta-Samuels becomes eligible at Vanderbilt, though he'll be hard-pressed to beat out incumbent Jordan Rodgers. Other, less-experienced transfers who figure to get the call: Connor Wood (formerly of Texas) at Colorado; Cody Green (formerly of Nebraska) at Tulsa; and Tyler Gabbert (formerly of Missouri) at UCF.

Stewart, love your work. Love Ohio State. Love E. Gordon Gee as the president of the University. But please, out of kindness for a nice old man and the world in general, just stop quoting him on football.-- Michael Hagesfeld, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

And deprive the world of quotes like "little sisters of the poor" and "over my dead body"? That'd be like telling Seth MacFarlane to stick to television. They're both far too entertaining (Gee when he talks football, MacFarlane when he creates a foul-mouthed pothead teddy bear).

I grew up a Duke fan, yes, even during football season, and having just graduated from law school at Duke, I've now witnessed almost two decades of football futility. David Cutcliffe is now entering his fifth season and has made Duke far more competitive than it was under Ted Roof, Carl Franks and Fred Goldsmith. Can Duke reach a bowl game for the first time since the Clinton administration?-- Grayson Lambert, Columbia, S.C.

Mark it down: Duke WILL reach a bowl game for the first time since 1994.

The Blue Devils lost their last seven games last season, but they held Virginia Tech to 14 points and narrowly lost to bowl-bound Wake Forest (24-23). They return 17 starters, including third-year quarterback Sean Renfree, Cutcliffe's latest protégé/project who's had eight 300-yard passing games. And most importantly, the Blue Devils play in a very unimposing division (Miami figures to struggle, North Carolina is going through a coaching change and even the Hokies seem vulnerable). If Duke can score nonconference wins over FIU, North Carolina Central and Memphis and split the foursome of Miami, UNC, Virginia and Wake Forest, then it needs just one big upset (Clemson? Georgia Tech?) to go bowling.

If that doesn't put you in a good mood heading into the holiday, I don't know what will. (Actually, I do. A foul-mouthed pothead teddy bear.)

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