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Unbeaten Louisville still searching for national respect; more Mailbag

Much (electronic) ink has been spilled here already about Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame, and there's likely much more to come in the weeks ahead. But did you know there's another undefeated team out there that's technically eligible for the BCS championship? Really? Tell me more.

I have a question about (wait for it) the Louisville Cardinals. They've got a good chance of finishing undefeated, as long as they end up beating one-loss Rutgers. In the past, when a Big East team went undefeated, they'd at least be near the discussion for a national championship. This year, however, Louisville is not on the radar at all. Does the conference's current perceived strength have to do with an impending exodus of Big East teams that hasn't happened yet?-- Billy, Montreal, Quebec

It's true, Louisville (9-0) has gained absolutely no traction in the national championship conversation, starting the season No. 25 in the AP Poll and, over the course of 10 weeks, moving up just 14 spots to No. 11. The Cardinals sit at ninth in the BCS standings, behind the SEC bloc of Georgia (8-1), Florida (8-1), LSU (7-2) and South Carolina (7-2). Meanwhile, at this same juncture in 2009, Big East peer Cincinnati, unranked in the preseason, was 9-0 and fifth in the BCS, behind only other undefeated teams (and ahead of one, Boise State). And back in 2006, Louisville rose as high as No. 3 when it started 8-0 before losing to unbeaten Rutgers, which rose to No. 6 following the victory.

So it would seem Louisville is being treated as a mid-major, which gives credence to Billy's theory. While the Big East is still an AQ conference as of now, it's been drilled into our brains since the playoff discussions last spring and summer that the league will no longer be considered one of the Big Six going forward. Is Louisville being preemptively punished as such? Perhaps. Clearly, the Big East has lost a lot of luster not just since its Ray Rice-Pat White-Brian Brohm glory days, but also over the last three years, since Brian Kelly's Bearcats came within a last-second Texas field goal of possibly playing for the national championship.

In reality, the voters are actually being kind to Louisville, given its schedule. The Cardinals have two wins of any note, over 6-3 North Carolina and 6-2 Cincinnati. The rest of their schedule has consisted of 1-9 Kentucky, 3-7 Missouri State, 2-8 FIU, 0-9 Southern Miss, 4-5 Pittsburgh, 3-6 USF and 3-5 Temple. Their cumulative opponents' record is a putrid 28-56, and it's not as if Louisville has dominated that slate, either. Five games have been decided by one score. As a result, Jeff Sagarin's ratings (the ones that include margin of victory) rank Louisville all the way down at 44th.

Essentially, Louisville has gone the entire season without playing the kind of "wow" game that causes voters to take notice, and the Cardinals aren't helped by the fact that their two best Big East foes, Cincinnati (against Toledo) and Rutgers (against Kent State), both lost to MAC opponents. All due credit to Charlie Strong, Teddy Bridgewater and Co., but their résumé is no better than Hawaii's was in 2007. The Big East tag isn't hurting the Cardinals; it's giving them a shred of legitimacy. But they could at least lay the groundwork for a serious run next season if they reach and win a BCS bowl.

Stewart, do you think this week's matchup between Alabama and Texas A&M could give us an idea of what an Alabama vs. Oregon title game would look like? Obviously, Oregon is the standard bearer for hurry-up offenses and has even better athletes than A&M, but both feature a dynamic running quarterback, very good starting running backs and receivers who can gain yards after the catch. Your thoughts?-- Corey, Waverly, Iowa

This weekend's game might offer some clues as to how Alabama defends a running quarterback and deals with tempo, but you can't use it as a true barometer for how the Tide would defend Oregon. That's for one simple reason: The Ducks are a much better team than A&M. Even if you give the nod at quarterback to Johnny Manziel over Marcus Mariota, which is a tough call unto itself, the Ducks have better running backs, better receivers, better tight ends and a better overall offensive line (though the Aggies have two tackles, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, with better NFL prospects than any individual Oregon offensive lineman).

One thing that's really jumped out at me after covering two Oregon games this year: Chip Kelly's offense has gotten bigger and more physical up front over the last two years. The scheme and the tempo that served as equalizers earlier in Kelly's tenure are almost ancillary to the Ducks' talent now. Case in point: According to ESPN Stats and Info, Barner gained 261 of his 321 yards against USC before contact. That's insane. Oregon just kept running the same stretch play, and both the Ducks' linemen and their receivers kept sealing the end. Texas A&M hasn't reached that level of dominance yet, as evidenced by its Florida and LSU games, though Manziel and his teammates execute that offense well and create opportunities in open space, much like Oregon does. Ultimately, however, talent is tougher to account for than scheme. Alabama probably still has more of it than Oregon, but it's not the discrepancy it used to be.

Since neither A&M or Texas is going to a BCS bowl and both have possible nine-win seasons looming, isn't it likely that the Cotton Bowl would seriously consider keeping the rivalry alive and match up Texas and A&M? If they brought that rivalry, thought to be dead, to Dallas Jan. 4, they could put 100,000 people in Cowboys Stadium. Since you don't have that in your bowl projections, what do you think would keep it from happening?-- Matt McClearin, Dallas

I got that question far more than any other in response to Monday's projections. And it's definitely a possibility, and one that could bring more attention to that game than any non-BCS bowl in recent memory. But a few things have to happen. For one, Oklahoma either needs to get pulled up to the BCS or finish with the same record as the Longhorns. Passing up a 10-2 Oklahoma team for a 9-3 Texas team that the Sooners beat 63-21 would not be well received in Big 12 country. Similarly, the Aggies certainly need to finish at least 9-3 (which seems likely) given there could be multiple 10-win SEC teams available, most notably LSU.

But ultimately, the deciding factor may be exactly the same one that ended the rivalry in the first place: spite. These teams will face each other eventually, especially with the forthcoming SEC-Big 12 Sugar Bowl deal announced Tuesday, but this year may be too soon. There's still a lot of bad blood. While it's technically the bowl's call, it's not going to do anything to alienate one of its most important partners, and my guess is DeLoss Dodds and Co. want no part of such a matchup if it can be avoided. I could be wrong. Maybe they'll welcome it. But keep in mind, the matchup doesn't affect the schools' financial windfall either way. They get a set payout. It's the bowl that wants to sell as many tickets as possible, and while I think LSU-Texas would sell out Jerry World, A&M-Texas would sell out in about 47 seconds.

Army beats Air Force for the first time in seven years and it doesn't even get a mention in College Football Overtime? You are covering COLLEGE football right? How about a little coverage to the small guys when something BIG happens?!-- Paul, Atlanta

Yep, I dropped the ball there. The service academies have gotten several mentions this year (including Navy's win over Air Force Oct. 6), so of course the Black Knights deserve a shout-out. And I'm sure no one was happier about Army's milestone than SI associate editor and West Point alum Mark Beech.

Can Oregon State make the Rose Bowl even if it gets beaten by Oregon? Don't the Beavers need to be ranked in the top 14 to be eligible to be selected? Is that possible with two losses? I mean, they are not in the SEC.-- Jeff, Portland

The stars might not align this year for Notre Dame in the national championship. However, with Oregon State and Stanford having Oregon left on their schedules, could the Irish be smelling roses this year for the first time since 1925?--Patrick, San Francisco

There's a lot of skepticism out there that the Pac-12 will produce a second eligible team, and you can certainly envision a domino scenario that supports it. Stanford beats Oregon State this week, then loses to Oregon, which beats UCLA in the Pac-12 title game to ensure everybody finishes with three losses. But make no mistake, any team that ends the year 10-2 is going to be in the top 14, no questions asked. There's not as much fluctuation in the BCS standings the later it gets in the season. USC, for example, only fell two spots after last week's Oregon loss. A 10-2 Oregon State team would not plummet for losing to Oregon. And even then, three losses might not be a deal-breaker. At least two three-loss teams have finished in the top 14 in four of the past five years, including 2008 Rose Bowl participant Illinois.

So as of now I'd bet the Pac-12 fills that spot in the Rose Bowl. If not, then yes, absolutely, pack your bags for Pasadena, Irish fans.

Mr. Mandel, how close are the elite programs in college football to the level professional teams are at? Would Alabama beat bottom feeders in the NFL or is the talent gap still too great for all 22-plus starters?-- Niko, Vancouver, British Columbia

Let me put it to you this way: Not all of Alabama's starters will become NFL players. On the worst team in the NFL, even the last backup was good enough to become an NFL player. So no, the talent gap is not remotely close.

Hypothetical: Miami beats Virginia this Saturday and Duke loses to Georgia Tech, locking up the ACC Coastal title for Miami. You are the Miami administrator tasked with making the decision the following week about whether to self-impose another bowl ban and remove the 'Canes from ACC contention and their first-ever Coastal crown and ACC championship game. Do you?-- Sean Murrell, Jacksonville, Fla.

That's a toughie. First of all, I'm not a huge fan of the way Miami has handled these decisions, either last year or this year. If you think a voluntary postseason ban is merited, just do it before the year. It still counts whether the team actually becomes eligible or not. As it stands now, the 'Canes are waiting to see whether the players earn a berth, then taking it away from them. That hardly seems fair, especially this year, now that the recent players associated with Nevin Shapiro are gone. Also, I'm not privy to what the NCAA has or has not corroborated in its investigation and whether it's possibly uncovered more potential violations that have yet to be revealed.

However, based on the extent of allegations in the Yahoo! report, I do think the school is looking at a multi-year bowl ban. On the one hand, I can understand why the program might want to put that punishment in the past as soon as possible and lessen the burden on future teams. On the other, Miami has been in the ACC for eight years and has yet to reach the championship game. Do you really want to pass on that opportunity? This is not the same situation as Ohio State AD Gene Smith taking a Gator Bowl bid last year at the expense of this year's 10-0 Ohio State team. Miami has a chance to play in a BCS bowl for the first time in nine years. I say, play.

I know the USC-Oregon game was fun to watch with all the points scored, but has a team ever given up 50 points in a regular-season game and played in the BCS title game?-- Joel Steiner, Reynoldsburg, Ohio

Yes. In 2001, Nebraska lost to Colorado, 62-36, in its regular-season finale. Also, in 2007, LSU gave up 50 points in a loss to Arkansas, though that was in triple overtime. The difference, of course, is that Oregon won the game in question.

If Ohio State wins out, Urban Meyer will be the subject of an interesting piece of trivia. Meyer has won two national championships, and his teams will have gone undefeated twice. How many of the national champions were also undefeated? The answer, of course, is neither. My question is: Has any other coach, at least in the modern (post-1950) era, coached two undefeated teams that did not win at least a share of the national championship?--Alex Sarabura, Toronto, Ontario

Meyer's is a unique situation in that it involves three different schools, but he's got nothing on Joe Paterno, who coached four undefeated teams that did not claim a national championship (1968, '69, '73 and '94). Paterno finally won his first title with an 11-1 team (1982), though he did have one undefeated national champ in 1986. Arizona State's Frank Kush had two such teams in 1970 and '75. And more recently, of course, there's Boise State's Chris Petersen (2006 and '09). But the coach who most closely parallels Meyer might be Dan Devine. He had undefeated, unrewarded seasons at Arizona State (1957) and Missouri (1960) and won a national title at Notre Dame (1977) while going 11-1.

What in the world has happened to Jeff Tedford at Cal? I used to defend Tedford, but after finally going out to a game this past Friday, I can no longer do that. How is it that some coaches like Tedford or Gene Chizik at Auburn can go from amazing to awful so quickly? Has the game passed them by? Was their success mostly due to assistant coaches or rare blue-chip athletes that have moved on? Or were we all just suckered into thinking that they were great when they never were?-- Moneer, Berkeley, Calif.

I wouldn't put Tedford and Chizik in the same category. In his six years as a head coach, Chizik had one truly successful season. Few outside of the Auburn-Opelika metro area were sucked into thinking he was great, and his downfall, while precipitous, is not entirely surprising. Tedford, on the other hand, rescued a program from the ashes (improving Cal from 1-10 to 7-5 his first season) and, while he never won a national championship, he turned the Bears into the Pac-10's most consistent team outside of USC for about a six-year stretch. From 2003-08 the Bears went 32-19 in conference play, which makes their recent downward spiral (9-16 in conference play the past three seasons) all the more puzzling.

Tedford and Chizik do share one commonality: They both signed notable juco transfer quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers at Cal, Cam Newton at Auburn -- in their second seasons. For Tedford, Rodgers' development from an unrecruited high school quarterback into a first-round NFL draft pick bolstered his status as a certifiable quarterback guru, but he's never come close to finding and developing another star since. Amazingly, Cal has not had a quarterback rank in the top half of the conference since Nate Longshore in 2006. So that's obviously one big factor. But even more significantly, Tedford has been hurt by staff turnover and some poor hiring decisions along the way. He's had six different offensive coordinators in the past eight years. As a result, the offense has lacked identity. Quarterback Zach Maynard has never developed. And that's why Tedford finds himself on the verge of a possible 3-9 debacle. (Cal closes with Oregon and Oregon State.)

I, for one, am sick of the Oregon Ducks and their "look at me" uniforms and excessive culture headed by Nike. I love the underdog role as opposed to the way they do things in Eugene. They waste money, and in Manhattan, we are resourceful and intelligent. We do more with less. Just one of the many reasons I hope the human voters do the right thing if both teams remain unbeaten.-- Brad, Manhattan, Kan.

You might not be able to sway the voters, but perhaps you should contact Billingsley and Colley about adding a resourcefulness and intelligence component to their formulas. But be careful what you wish for. In the NCAA's most recent Graduation Success Rate statistics, Oregon had a 64 percent mark, while K-State checked in at 58 percent. Maybe stick to resourcefulness.

You're dead to me, Mandel. You used to be objective about Notre Dame -- now you're a hater. No way Kansas State should be ranked higher and you know it. EVERY week ND plays for the "Super Bowl" against teams who make their college career by beating ND. I'm going to read ESPN from now on.-- Jason, Cincinnati

I'm sorry to have disappointed you, but just for the record, I have no say in the BCS standings. Perhaps you should contact Massey or Wolfe about getting an "every week is the Super Bowl for Notre Dame" component added to their formulas.

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