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Unbeaten Ohio State could create rankings controversy; more mail

In writing College Football Overtime each Sunday, I do my best to touch on every notable game of the weekend somewhere in the column. Last week's Ohio State-Nebraska game somehow slipped through the cracks, save for a somewhat dismissive note about Braxton Miller's Heisman chances. As you can imagine, Buckeyes fans were none too pleased with that presentment.

In hindsight, I may be subconsciously downplaying Ohio State to some degree because, to me, it feels like its games don't really count due to its postseason ineligibility. But apparently America does not agree. Saturday night's game drew more TV viewers (5.1 million) than the seemingly more important West Virginia-Texas (4.6) and Georgia-South Carolina (4.0) games played at the same time. So I shall ignore no more.

Stewart: What are the Buckeyes? Are they an over-ranked, above-average team that beats up on a more heralded version of the MAC, or are they a good team stuck in a bad conference?--Eric, Columbus, Ohio

What are the chances of a split national title this year? How appropriate, in the last years of the BCS, that Ohio State could go undefeated and everyone else could end up with a loss.-- Kent Preston, Kelso, Wash.

What are the Buckeyes? Even Urban Meyer would admit they're still a work in progress -- and that's scary. If Ohio State is, as it appears, the best team in the Big Ten this season, what's going to happen next year and the year after when Braxton Miller is an upperclassman and Meyer starts playing with his own recruits?

You do have to take into consideration the quality of competition. There isn't a single other top-20 team in the Buckeyes' conference. Nebraska's defense, which got torched by UCLA and allowed Wisconsin its first decent offensive output of the season, is clearly terrible. Still, 63 points is a big number (even if Meyer did tack on one last unnecessary touchdown at the end) given Ohio State's injury-laden backfield and inconsistent, somewhat butter-handed receiving corps. But Meyer has always been adept at playing to his quarterback's strengths (save for that one dreadful year with John Brantley at Florida), and in Miller's case, that means running him over and over until a defense proves it can stop him.

The Buckeyes faced one of the two best defenses they'll see all season a couple of weeks ago at Michigan State, and they gutted out a 17-16 victory. Miller's toughest test will likely come Oct. 27 at Penn State (which says everything you need to know about the Big Ten this season), as the Nittany Lions completely shut down Northwestern's dynamic Kain Colter last weekend, and unlike the Spartans, have a quarterback of their own (Matt McGloin) who can cause problems for an opposing defense. Win that one, and Ohio State will likely get to at least 10-0.

And if that happens, things could get interesting in the AP Poll. If the teams above them lose, there's no reason to think the Buckeyes can't rise to No. 1, at which point the split national title possibility becomes a legitimate conversation. However, the Buckeyes' season will end Nov. 24 after only 12 games. Other contenders will go on to play a 13th (in a conference championship) and a 14th (in the BCS Championship Game) game, both against the type of high-caliber opponents Ohio State will not see in this year's Big Ten. Therefore, even if the BCS title game winner has a loss, it would almost certainly be more deserving of the No. 1 ranking Jan. 8 than an undefeated but insufficiently challenged Buckeyes squad.

So in the preseason you could not figure out why Florida was even ranked in the Top 25, and now you consider their No. 4 ranking "laughable" after a game in which they physically beat LSU at their own game? How many other teams could have done that to LSU? Sounds like someone is not paying attention.-- L.G., Falls Church, Va.

Just as Andy Staples apologized this week to NC State fans for an unflattering comment in a previous column, I'd like to tell the many, many Florida fans who e-mailed me: You're right. "Laughable" was a bit harsh. It was not my intent to lambast the Gators, which have more quality wins than most other teams in the country, have a star running back on their hands in Mike Gillislee and have yet to allow a point in the fourth quarter, a stat that's simply unbelievable. While Florida is deserving of its top-10 ranking, my point is its newfound status as a national championship contender is largely a byproduct of the SEC echo chamber.

You know how it works. LSU started the season ranked No. 1 or 2 (I myself had them winning the national championship), and despite numerous warning signs since the preseason that things are awry in Baton Rouge, the Tigers remained a national championship contender in the media's eyes. In reality, LSU is a deeply flawed offensive team that may well wind up with three or four losses. As you may have noticed, Auburn, now 1-4, is awful. LSU beat the Tigers 12-10. Clearly, LSU is not what we thought it was. Yet we're to believe Florida ground out a victory in a Gladiator-style SEC bloodbath.

Contrast that to the game I attended last Saturday, where South Carolina nearly shut out a highly explosive Georgia offense. Now that's a legit top-four team. If the Gators beat the Gamecocks Oct. 20, then I'll shut up for good.

Stewart, you have always hated on Florida State. Did you go to Florida? FSU will beat Florida, which is ranked high and you never know.-- Morgan, Jupiter, Fla.

Jeez, I can't win either side of this rivalry.

Stewart, what do you make of Nick Saban's concerns for the safety of players trying to defend no-huddle offenses? Whining? Legitimate gripe? Strategic genius? My take: Other schools had to adapt to the dominance of SEC defenses by moving to the no-huddle spread offense. If that now gives them any type of advantage then the SEC needs to coach up a defensive scheme to stop it.-- M. Kurtz, Winston, Ore.

I'm in the minority that thinks he had a perfectly sensible point -- but unfortunately that doesn't fit our preferred narrative of Saban. Certain coaches are so painted into a box (Lane Kiffin is a jerk and/or unqualified for his job, Urban Meyer's a hypocrite for going back to work, Les Miles is crazy) that virtually anything they say or do, the public will find a way to view it through that particular lens. Saban is widely perceived as a grumpy curmudgeon, so when he made those comments about the no-huddle, people tripped all over themselves to portray him as the old-school Saban telling all these new-fangled offenses to "get off my lawn."

Let's think about this for a second. Do you really think a smart coach like Saban -- who is constantly looking for even the slightest competitive edge -- would summarily dismiss a potentially advantageous wrinkle? If he thought it might help Alabama, don't you think he'd install the no-huddle tomorrow? His own mentor, Bill Belichick, has done just that. I love watching fast-paced offenses as much as the next guy, but he's absolutely right about the injury factor. My only gripe is that he overcomplicated the issue by talking about substitution patterns. All he had to say was, the more plays teams run, the more opportunities for injury. And if every team in the country starts running 90 plays a game instead of 60, that's a lot more injuries across the board. That doesn't necessarily mean we should outlaw the no-huddle. But then, he didn't say that, either.

I'm assuming no non-AQ team will make it to the top 12, but if Boise State (or any other non-AQ) were to make it into the top 16 and be ranked ahead of every Big Ten team except for Ohio State, does that give them an automatic bid based on the sanctions against Ohio State?-- Trent, Layton, Utah

Yes, there is a lot of football left, but you've brought up the prospect of Ohio in the BCS a couple of times. Which bowl game is most likely to get saddled with an outsider?-- David L., Cincinnati

I hadn't thought about that notion, but yes, with the possible exception of Michigan (which reentered the AP Poll this week after making a mockery of my Upset Special), it seems unlikely any Big Ten team not named Ohio State will finish in the top 16, which means the conference will factor into a BCS rule usually associated with the Big East. (Side note: The Big East, with three undefeated teams, is not getting nearly enough credit this year. At the very least, it's better than the ACC, which has to be particularly pleasing to the folks in Providence.) The rule states that the highest-ranked non-AQ champion is guaranteed a berth if it finishes in the top 16 and ahead of the champion of an AQ league. Ohio State will not be the Big Ten's champion this year.

As for the second part, while I keep half-jokingly referring to 6-0 Ohio's BCS prospects, the Bobcats' chances aren't looking too bright. For one thing, they're still buried at No. 31 in the Coaches' Poll, but more notably, I don't like their chances of finishing undefeated after close calls against 0-6 UMass and 1-4 Buffalo. The more realistic candidates are Boise and, in particular, newly ranked Louisiana Tech, which has a huge game this week against Texas A&M. The Orange Bowl has last choice of at-large teams this year and thus would seem the most likely candidate to get "saddled with an outsider." But that might change if the team is undefeated Louisiana Tech, which consistently scores 50 points per game. The Sugar Bowl, with the second choice, would face tremendous pressure to take the in-state team.

So how many years in a row does the ACC have to disappoint before the preseason "ACC Will Be Good!" articles go away? The conference hasn't had a true national title contender in November since Florida State in 2003.-- Sean, Washington D.C.

I must have missed the rash of "ACC will be good" articles this preseason. Were you exclusively reading www.theacc.com?

Stewart, in the West Virginia-Texas game, there were 10 fourth downs. WVU punted once. Texas punted once. WVU went for it five times, and Texas three. Is this the sign that the punt is not long for the college game? Could abandoning the punt (like Mike Leach often does) be the next evolution in football?-- Bob Forrester, Lancaster, Pa.

Coaches becoming more aggressive on fourth down is definitely a growing trend. Last week against Northwestern, Penn State went for it on fourth down six times, converting five. Bill O'Brien has already attempted 20 fourth-down conversions in six games, USC has attempted 16, Missouri 15 and Oregon and Arizona 13. Mind you, many of these are decisions to forsake long field goals, not punts, but it fits with the larger trend I wrote about last week. The older generations of coaches who believed in playing it safe, conserving field position, trusting your defense, etc. (embodied by Jim Tressel, among others) is gradually giving way to coaches like Chip Kelly or Dana Holgorsen, whose whole philosophy is attack, attack, attack. Suddenly easing up on fourth-and-two from the 50-yard line doesn't jibe.

And in many cases, the decisions are statistically prudent. If an offense is averaging five or six yards per play, why wouldn't a coach have faith that he can pick up three yards on fourth down? Studies in the NFL have shown that coaches are far more risk averse on fourth down than the probabilities say they should be, presumably for fear of losing their job if a risky decision backfires. That's partially our fault as fans. Some of the perceived "gambles" coaches take on fourth down aren't actually gambles at all, statistically speaking. They're smart. But we're conditioned to view nearly every aggressive fourth-down call as something controversial. I don't anticipate college coaches unilaterally abandoning the punt, since risk does outweigh the reward for a large chunk of the field, but I expect to see more and more aggressive fourth-down management.

I love my Mountaineers and a sickening thought kept running through my head after the Texas game. In 2007, with the best team West Virginia had in years, one win away from playing for the national championship, WVU lost and subsequently lost its homegrown, hometown hero coach (Rich Rodriguez) to another school (Michigan). How likely is it that coach Holgorsen goes to another school (say Arkansas) if WVU does not make it to the BCS Championship Game? I really want to enjoy this year while I can, but I cannot help but feel -- even with the move to the Big 12 -- that WVU is still a stopping point for other jobs.-- Dave, Beckley, W.Va.

Dave, you were obviously deeply scarred by the RichRod experience. And there's no question, Holgorsen could be quite sought after this offseason thanks to his offensive acumen. But a lot has changed since 2007. For one, West Virginia has gone from a Good Ol' Boy puppet of an athletic director (Ed Pastilong) to one of the savviest ADs in the entire country (Oliver Luck). Luck and Holgorsen have a great working relationship, and the former is going to do whatever it takes to keep the latter happy. Second, the move to the Big 12 is huge. As long as WVU remained in the Big East it would always be in danger of losing its coach. Now, there's no other conference that's an obvious step up from the one WVU is currently in. Arkansas may be able to pay more, but would Holgorsen's ability to compete for a conference and/or national championship greatly increase from where it is now? No. Furthermore, Holgorsen is comfortable in the Big 12. It's a league he knows well, with a recruiting base (Texas) he knows well.

When Mack Brown retires, then start panicking.

Your omission of even mentioning a significant Ohio State victory in a weekend review of college football -- a victory unusual in its scope because of the final score and the opponent -- seems like a journalistic statement in and of itself. I'm curious what that statement is.-- Andrew, Cleveland

"Whoops?"

So, Charlie Weis, in all of his infinite wisdom, gave his seniors the day off from practice last Sunday to "develop younger players for the future." Is this the worst coaching move of the season? Or does Gene Chizik already have that honor locked up?-- Tom, Princeton, N.J.

I will refrain from the absolutes (other than to specify that Chizik's worst decision of the year came last January), but Weis' move -- and the fact he advertised it -- just reinforces what I've believed for five years: The guy just doesn't get college football. He's too cerebral. On an intellectual level, his decision makes complete sense. This season is obviously a lost cause. Why not spend one harmless practice focusing on the younger guys? Because of the message it sends; that's why. They're college kids. They're not thinking about the future. They're thinking about winning the next game. But Weis is unabashedly telling them (and the media) that he's more concerned about the 2013 season than the 2012 campaign. That should really get their blood pumping. It's also a slap in the face to those seniors, even if they probably viewed the day off as a reward.

I don't blame Weis for continuing to return to the college game even though the NFL clearly suits him better. He obviously views it as a more desirable lifestyle for him and his family. The better question is, why do athletic directors like Kansas' Sheahon Zenger keep falling for the same trap? This phenomenon isn't exclusive to Weis. This week, Georgia Tech fired defensive coordinator Al Groh; this is the second time in four seasons he has been dismissed by an ACC school. Groh was an NFL head coach. He obviously knows his Xs and Os. But, like Weis, he seemed unable to connect with his college players.

While we're on the subject, Charlie, it's not the student paper's job to root, root, root for the home team -- though I understand your frustration. Not every school has as friendly a media partner as Notre Dame on NBC.

Ohio State hater. You need us more than we need you. Next year when we are at the top I hope Coach Meteor tells you to stick it. OSU national champions.-- Jeff, Lima, Ohio

The one person I'm absolutely sure has not given thought to the amount of Ohio State coverage in College Football Overtime is Coach Meteor.

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