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Breaking down potential BCS title race developments; more Mailbag

So...

Care to revisit the four-undefeated team question? Or are you sticking with 100-1 odds?-- Michael Weldon, Bahrain

It was admittedly easier to be flippant about the possibility of four BCS title contenders finishing unbeaten a few days before Notre Dame played Oklahoma. I still believe at least one if not more of these teams will get upset at some point, because that's what happens in November, and apparently probability experts agree with me about the one percent odds. On the other hand, it would be so ironic if four major-conference teams went undefeated for the first time in the BCS era just months after the BCS finally agreed to a four-team playoff. So let's address this thing.

So it looks like we're heading towards BCS-geddon once more. With the very real possibility that three or all four of Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame will be unbeaten at the end of the season, which team would be likeliest to miss out on the title game? If that happens, what are the chances that the ensuing uproar causes the powers that be to go to a playoff system a year early? What would they have to do to make it happen for 2013?-- Joe K., Washington D.C.

In the days since Notre Dame smacked down Oklahoma, I've seen a lot of comments to the effect that there's no way an undefeated Notre Dame team would be left out of the championship game. Actually, the exact opposite is the case. Notre Dame is the likeliest of the four to miss out, for one simple reason: It's the lowest-ranked of the group in both human polls.

Since the BCS went to its current formula in 2004 (66 percent polls, 33 percent computers), the final top two in the BCS have mirrored the final top two in the polls every single year. And that includes three recent seasons (2008, '09 and '11) when the polls and computers disagreed on the No. 2 and No. 3 teams. The formula is specifically rigged to avoid situations like the one that occurred in 2003, when USC finished No. 1 in both polls but No. 3 in the BCS, with the computers serving as window dressing for what is essentially the same old traditional poll. And the computer numbers are particularly meaningless in late October because the teams have not played their full schedules yet.

For example, many Oregon fans are freaking out because the Ducks seem stuck at No. 4 in the BCS standings. Chip Kelly's team is second in both human polls but just fifth in average computer rating, whereas K-State and Notre Dame are tied at No. 1 in the computer ranks. However, the Wildcats and Irish have already played most or all of their toughest games, whereas Oregon's hardest stretch is only about to begin. Over the rest of the season the Ducks will play at least three games against current BCS top-20 teams (USC, Stanford and Oregon State). Meanwhile, K-State will face No. 23 Texas and No. 24 Oklahoma State, while the Irish will play three nobodies and then the Trojans. If Oregon wins out, it will close most or all of that computer gap, rendering it moot.

So any shakeup in the Alabama-Oregon-K-State-Notre Dame hierarchy (which, it should be noted, was established even before the season began) would have to come either from one of the unbeatens losing or from the pollsters reconfiguring their order -- and the latter would require something extraordinary to happen. If the voters were going to move K-State above Oregon, they would have done so after the Wildcats' rout of West Virginia. Notre Dame's best chance passed after it beat Oklahoma. The voters would need to intentionally drop the Ducks -- and why would they do that if Oregon keeps winning against what will now be tougher competition? While the voters have made 11th-hour readjustments in the past (moving Florida above Michigan in 2006, LSU above Georgia and others in '07), those came after conference championship game wins by the beneficiaries. Oregon is the only one of the three that might play in a conference championship game.

So in sum, Alabama and Oregon still control their own destinies, though Kansas State could make things awfully close for the Ducks. And Notre Dame, the team that for decades received constant -- sometimes unwarranted -- adulation from the pollsters, is finally proving itself legitimate yet is in the worst shape of the four because ... it's not getting enough love from the pollsters. And again, all of this will almost certainly become moot when someone loses unexpectedly. Case in point ...

Stewart: A history lesson. In 2002, 8-0 Notre Dame had just won a big game at No. 11 Florida State and then, on the first weekend in November, lost at home to lowly Boston College. Fast forward 10 years to 2012, 8-0 Notre Dame just defeated No. 8 Oklahoma and head into November undefeated. Do you see a similar letdown against lowly Pitt?-- Robert, Columbus, Ohio

Props to my colleague Bill Trocchi, a Notre Dame fan who last week pointed out to me the similarities between that Florida State game and this year's Oklahoma game. In both cases, most of the country assumed the Irish's luck would run out. As it turned out, in both cases, Notre Dame notched its most impressive win to date. And kudos to my friend and Notre Dame alum John Walters, who way back on Sept. 18, prior to the Michigan game, came on my podcast and predicted the Irish to finish 10-2, back when that notion seemed preposterous. He also made an interesting observation that continues to hold true: Notre Dame, going back to last year if not further, seems to play better on the road than at home. I don't know if it's the distractions of a home weekend in South Bend or simply a coincidence, but the Irish often come out flat at home (Purdue, BYU), whereas they couldn't have been sharper last weekend in Norman.

So yes, I think a letdown this week is possible. But let me say this: The 2012 Irish are not the 2002 Irish. That team definitely had a smoke and mirrors feel to it. Their quarterback, Carlyle Holiday, was converted to receiver the next year. I don't see that happening with Everett Golson. That defense, while statistically solid, produced a handful of low-round draft picks. This defense has at least two surefire first-rounders (Manti Te'o and Stephon Tuitt) and likely several other high-rounders. Also: Pitt is not very good. That "lowly" BC team in '02 went 9-4. The Panthers already have four losses, including to FCS Youngstown State. A win over Notre Dame would be a gargantuan upset. But if there's one thing I've learned in 14 years of covering the BCS, as soon as you say, "That will never happen" ...

So here's the scenario: Alabama loses a game, thus assuring the SEC champion finishes with at least one loss. Two teams out of Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame finish unbeaten. Is the SEC's reputation enough for its champion to jump an unbeaten power-conference champion (or Notre Dame) and land in the title game?-- Brian, Cincinnati

You'll get your answer soon enough if LSU upsets the Crimson Tide this weekend. It would be interesting to see just how much the voters reward the Tigers. On the one hand, beating not just the No. 1 team in the country, but a team that's looked all but invincible in its first eight games would seemingly deserve a bigger bump than one spot. On the other, this sport has always placed a premium on going undefeated (unless of course you play in the Big East, which, based on Louisville's ranking, the voters are treating as a de facto mid-major), and it's hard to imagine any one-loss team jumping an undefeated Pac-12 team, Big 12 team or Notre Dame.

Six straight national championships have certainly earned SEC teams a lot of mileage with the pollsters. As evidence, note that 7-2 South Carolina remains ahead of 8-0 Louisville in the AP Poll and, in all polls, ahead of 6-1 Oregon State and an Oklahoma team that's two losses came to the current No. 3 and No. 4 teams. But I don't think voters would feel comfortable leaving undefeated Oregon, Kansas State or Notre Dame out of the title game if they don't have to. Excluding the SEC champ would of course cause an uproar of unprecedented proportions in the South and considerable delight everywhere else. But the truth is, we should all be rooting for the SEC champ to make it, whether it's undefeated Alabama or, if the other unbeatens all get mowed down, one-loss LSU, Florida or Georgia. There will be an unavoidably empty feeling if the team that ends the SEC's streak does so in the polls rather than on the field.

Now that Notre Dame has beaten Oklahoma, there is the very real possibility that Notre Dame could play Alabama for the national championship. Given that a lot of people hate both schools/conferences, which one would be the fan favorite?-- James G., Gilroy, Calif.

Given the level of SEC animosity and envy right now among fans of other conferences, coupled with Nick Saban's lack of popularity pretty much anywhere outside the state of Alabama, I think we can safely assume it will be the first time in modern history that America roots for Notre Dame -- excluding the final scene of Rudy.

Did Oregon lose big time this weekend despite scoring 70 points? Will the computers now look askance at what were once the Ducks' two most important upcoming games, USC and Oregon State?-- Dave Kiffer, Ketchikan, Alaska

I've been a bit confused by all the e-mails I received like this one. You do realize Oregon also played the two teams (Arizona and Washington) that won those games, right?

With the Heisman talk heating up, who are the players that won't win, but if they played at a different school would be in the discussion? For example, Jordan Lynch, the quarterback at Northern Illinois, has 1,185 rushing yards, 1,984 passing yards and 32 total touchdowns for an 8-1 team. If he put up those numbers at most major conference schools he'd be up for the Heisman.-- Keith, Oxford, Miss.

No question, where you play makes a world of difference. Case in point: Johnny Manziel. Texas A&M's quarterback is certainly fun to watch. He's putting up big numbers. But I'd contend that the only reason he's still showing up on Heisman lists is he plays in the SEC. Just two weeks ago, LSU picked him off three times and limited him to 27 rushing yards. Manziel also posted modest numbers against the only other elite defense he's faced against Florida. But as soon as he went out and lit up hapless Auburn last week, he started showing right back up on the Heisman radar. If he's a candidate, why isn't Arizona's Matt Scott, who sits one spot above Manziel at No. 2 nationally in total offense and just put up 469 yards in an upset of USC? Because he plays for Arizona, that's why.

Lynch obviously fits the bill, too. He's rushed for at least 100 yards in all but one game and has a 17-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Unfortunately, he's doing that for a MAC school. But the No. 1 guy in this overlooked category has to be North Carolina running back Gio Bernard. He's No. 3 in the country in rushing (132.9 yards per game), No. 1 in punt returns (20.8 yards per return, including last week's game-winning touchdown against NC State) and yet I've barely heard a peep about him. Bernard suffers from three hindrances. First, he was injured and missed two games. Second, he plays at a predominantly basketball school. And most of all, his 6-3 team is ineligible for the postseason. (And unlike Ohio State, he's not on national TV every week.) The good news is, he's only a sophomore, so perhaps this year can be a launching pad to a December 2013 trip to New York.

This past Mailbag all three of the e-mailers you made fun of were from the Southeast (Florida, North Carolina and Georgia) and of course verifies their perception that you dislike the SEC. However, I also noticed all three e-mailers were named Greg. I'm concerned that you have a problem with people named Greg who like the SEC and live in the Southeast. Glad my name is Bill.-- Bill Baldwin, Clemson, S.C.

Man, I would just steer clear of the name Greg in your inbox.-- Chris, Charlottesville, Va.

Strangely enough, I did not notice this coincidence until the Mailbag had been published and people started alerting me to it. I've always been terrible at remembering names. Apparently it's because I gloss over them the first time.

Hey Stewart, everyone seems to accept the probability that Auburn is going to fire Gene Chizik. But the question I ask everyone that no one can seem to answer is: Who would they hire in his place? Kirby Smart? Charlie Strong? I love Auburn, but I'm not sure we can make a splash hire. Your thoughts?-- Paul Crane, Atlanta

There aren't a lot of splash hires to be had out there this year. The two candidates who fans of teams with impending coaching changes seem to be most enchanted with are Bobby Petrino and Jon Gruden. The former was fired last spring for hiring his mistress to work for the football program; the latter has never been a college head coach (but does say "that guy" with a certain flair). If Strong were to take an SEC job, it would probably be Arkansas, and I can't imagine Smart would be keen on going head-to-head with his current boss 365 days a year.

I'll say the same thing I said a few weeks ago: Somebody is going to hire Iowa State's Paul Rhoads and look very smart for doing it. Why not Auburn, where Rhoads worked for one (albeit disastrous) season as defensive coordinator in 2008? It's probably going to take a couple of years for Auburn to right that offense (i.e., recruit a quarterback), but there's defensive talent in that program for the next coach to work with. Rhoads is a fantastic defensive coach. I could see where Auburn fans would be leery of hiring a second straight Iowa State coach, but this one is 23-23, not 5-19. And hey, he won a lot of those games with Chizik's leftovers.

In light of the Marcus Lattimore injury and increased awareness in player safety, do you think college football will ever make a rule change about tackling below the waist? I know it's hard to control such a fast game, but if we are going to protect players' brains we might as well protect their legs, too.-- Nate, Columbia, S.C.

Obviously, anything that can be done to prevent an injury as horrific as Lattimore's should be examined. However, I'm not sure what you're suggesting is realistic. From the beginning of the sport, players have been taught to tackle low. We're already trying to wean them away from tackling high. That doesn't leave a whole lot of room in between, and in fact, what makes Lattimore such a special runner is that he's so hard to wrap up. Realistically, the best hope of bringing him down is to do so below the waist, but obviously, as we saw, that can also result in injury.

Officials should clearly be on the lookout for defenders that intentionally go after a player's knees. I don't think that's what happened here. I think it was just a freakish and unfortunate consequence of a sport that revolves around 11 incredibly strong and fast players trying to run over or keep from being run over by 11 other incredibly strong and fast players. It's the side of football that we all subconsciously compartmentalize to some degree, because if we focused more on the dangers these players subject themselves to on an every-play basis, we'd have a lot harder time enjoying our favorite sport.

Hello Stewart. I have to tell you something that has been on my mind for the last five years. It's not my intention to question your intellect, but I guess that's what I am doing. Do you remember when you used to do the Power Rankings? On Oct. 16, 2007, you rated USF No. 1. I understand that you may not have necessarily believed USF would finish No. 1, but really, you ranked them above LSU and Ohio State. If it is your job to evaluate the present, then it is clear that you should have ranked Ohio State No. 1 on that day, fully knowing that Ohio State was better than USF.-- Mike, Cleveland

We all have our regrets. I'm sorry you've been carrying one of mine around for five years.

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