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Putting Texas A&M's breakthrough season in perspective; more mail

Following his team's 37-17 win over Mississippi State last Saturday, LSU All-America defensive end Sam Montgomery found himself answering questions about a team and a quarterback that had played three hours earlier.

"What was the feeling you got when you heard that Alabama had lost?" asked a reporter.

"Johnny Football," said Montgomery. "That's the first thing that popped in my mind."

Montgomery then went on to extol the virtues of Texas A&M's freshman sensation. "He's a quarterback and he's the leading rusher in the SEC! Heisman. Give it to him."

The SEC has won six straight national titles, yet the biggest story in the league right now involves a team and a player that were eliminated from championship contention weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the Mailbag questions have come pouring in.

Hey Stewart, what does Texas A&M's play in the SEC say about the strength of the Big 12? This is a team that was an occasional spoiler but rarely relevant in the Big 12 title race, and hung with Florida and LSU before upsetting almighty Alabama. Also, where would you project the Aggies in the Big 12 standings if they had never left?-- Dave, Md.

Texas A&M's competitiveness in the SEC so far confirms what many of us had already suspected: The Aggies grossly underperformed in the Big 12 relative to their talent level under Mike Sherman. Granted, a first-year player, Johnny Football, has been the catalyst for their success, but lest we forget, A&M had a first-round draft pick (admittedly a questionable one) at quarterback last year in Ryan Tannehill. And Johnny Football isn't doing this alone. He plays behind a pair of projected first-round tackles (Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews). He throws to an accomplished veteran receiver (Ryan Swope). The defense is led by a projected first-round defensive end (Damontre Moore). Yet these same guys combined to go 4-5 in the Big 12 last season.

To be clear, I'm not saying the Aggies should have performed better because the Big 12 is an easier league. On the contrary, you could make a case as to why either conference is tougher. In the SEC, A&M has had to face three top-10 teams (Florida, LSU and Alabama), whereas in the Big 12 it would've faced one such squad (Kansas State) and a second that's close behind (Oklahoma). On the flip side, given the SEC's unbalanced schedules, it's possible to play half your conference games against complete deadweights (Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky), where with the Big 12's depth and round-robin format, there's only get one true gimme (Kansas). Even 5-5 Iowa State and 4-5 Baylor are no pushovers.

So to answer the last part of Dave's question, Kevin Sumlin's Aggies would probably be about where they currently are (8-2) in either conference. On the one hand, Johnny Football would not have faced defenses in the Big 12 of the caliber of Florida and LSU's, both of which neutralized him in the second half. On the other, A&M's pass defense is shaky (79th nationally), as you may recall from the Louisiana Tech game, and it's faced just two top-40 passers in SEC play, Alabama's AJ McCarron and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson. In the Big 12 this season, it would've faced five of the top 20 (Kansas State's Collin Klein, Texas' David Ash, Texas Tech's Seth Doege, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Baylor's Nick Florence).

It's possible Johnny Football would have even gaudier stats in the Big 12, but his team would likely have the same record. The difference is, those results would've come with scores closer to 54-49 than 24-19.

Alabama hasn't lost very often over the last five years (only seven times), and when it does, it often seems to be against a top-notch quarterback who can run the ball. Tim Tebow (in 2008), Cam Newton (in '10) and Johnny Manziel (last Saturday) come to mind. Even Jordan Jefferson (who I wouldn't quite describe as top-notch) played no small part in LSU victories in '10 and '11. Do you think that a running quarterback is a particular weakness of Alabama's defensive scheme and something that any blueprint to roll back the Tide must include?-- Jon O, Palatka, Fla.

It's definitely an interesting thread, but I'd be careful not to draw too many conclusions, other than that Manziel and his predecessors showed that Nick Saban's defense is in fact mortal. Quarterbacks who are both dangerous runners and genuine passing threats are tough to defend, period. It's not like numerous defenses had better success against those players you mentioned. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a defense out there that's demonstrated a consistent ability to shut down otherwise prolific running quarterbacks. LSU's may come the closest. Besides having two exceptional defensive coordinators under Les Miles (Bo Pelini and John Chavis), the Tigers usually have a stout front four that's well suited to keeping a scrambling quarterback in the pocket. However, even Newton had one of his most memorable long runs against LSU.

A more interesting trend to watch with Saban's teams going forward is how they defend against dreaded no-huddle offenses. The way A&M started so quickly Saturday was very reminiscent of the 2009 Sugar Bowl, when Utah came out with a surprise no-huddle attack and seemed to catch the Tide off guard, scoring three first-quarter touchdowns. The Tide hadn't faced too many true no-huddle teams in between, but with the way that craze has been spreading, they will soon.

Let's assume for a second that Ohio State isn't on probation. Would the Buckeyes still be ranked as they are in the AP Poll, behind two one-loss SEC schools? Could you imagine the reaction in the Big Ten if a 13-0 (assuming they won the title game) Ohio State wasn't anywhere near the title discussion?-- Keith Fisher, North Wales, Pa.

I think the Buckeyes would still fall behind Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame, but no, they most definitely would not rank behind any one-loss teams in the polls. There's undoubtedly been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind aspect to Ohio State's season, and that's especially true now that we're so focused on the BCS standings. Ohio State certainly isn't helped by the fact that the Big Ten is so lousy this year and thus hasn't played in a lot of big national games. But if Braxton Miller and Co. were eligible to play for the national championship, they would be in every single conversation right now and thus bunched together with the other unbeatens.

Mind you, I'm not necessarily saying Ohio State should be ahead of Alabama. The Tide have played a much tougher schedule (No. 14 in Sagarin's ratings) than the Buckeyes (No. 62), and they're 3-1 against Sagarin's top 30; the Buckeyes are 1-0. Put it this way: If the 2014 selection committee were in place this season, it would almost certainly rate Alabama above Ohio State. (Georgia, which has one win of any value, against Florida, and got blown out in its one loss, does not have the same argument.) But we're still in the poll era, and we know how polls work. Undefeated trumps all else -- though apparently not if you're facing a postseason ban.

Stewart, you pick against Nebraska every week. Aren't you sick of being wrong?-- Aaron, Omaha, Neb.

By definition, one might say I'm insane for continuing pick to against Nebraska: I keep expecting a different result.

You are the sole member of the Revisionist Past Selection Committee. Please go through the last several years and show us how this new-fangled playoff/"host" bowls/Group of Five thing would have played out.-- Ben Caire, Golden, Colo.

Instead, why don't I lay out what the system would look like this season, if it ended today, using the BCS standings as the committee's rankings and the highest-ranked team in each conference as its champion? Also, let's assume the Fiesta, Cotton and Chick-fil-A bowls become the three so-called host bowls. (A suggestion to the BCS folks: Why not call them "open" bowls instead?) Mind you, the Rose (Big Ten vs. Pac-12), Sugar (SEC vs. Big 12) and Orange (ACC vs. Notre Dame/SEC No. 2/Big Ten No. 2) have already been announced as the three contract bowls.

And let's assume that in this particular year, the Orange and Fiesta Bowls are hosting the semifinals. So first we fill in those two games.

• Orange: No. 1 Kansas State vs. No. 4 Alabama• Fiesta: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Notre Dame

Then we fill in the other contract bowls, replacing the teams they lost to the playoff if necessary.

• Sugar: No. 5 Georgia (SEC) vs. No. 12 Oklahoma (Big 12)• Rose: No. 13 Stanford (Pac-12) vs. No. 14 Nebraska (Big Ten)

Finally, we fill in the other host bowls, which must include any displaced champion from the semifinal bowls and the highest-ranked champ from the Group of Five.

• Chick-fil-A: No. 6 Florida (at-large) vs. No. 19 Louisville (Group of Five)• Cotton: No. 7 LSU (at-large) vs. No. 10 Florida State (ACC)

Now, compare those matchups to my current projected BCS lineup. Which do you like more?

Oregon's next three games are similar to Alabama's recent three-game stretch. I read that Alabama was one of only four No. 1 teams to ever play three top-15 teams in consecutive weeks, and three of them lost the third game. [Note: 2001 Miami was the lone exception.] With Oregon playing No. 14 Stanford, No. 15 Oregon State and possibly No. 17 UCLA, do you see some cumulative wear and tear catching up to the Ducks in the Pac-12 championship?-- Ben, Golden, Colo.

Wait ... Ben from Golden, Colo., do you happen to know Ben Caire from Golden, Colo.? You guys live in the same town, have the same first name and both read the Mailbag. You two should hang out!

But to your point, you don't have to wait until the end of that stretch; that wear and tear is already happening. I wrote about it Monday, but Oregon's defense is a mess right now. The Ducks' top five defensive linemen were either already hurt or got hurt last week against Cal. A few of them, including star end Dion Jordan, may return as soon as this week, but it's believed starting tackle Wade Keliikipi is out for several weeks. Also in the Cal game, starting safety Avery Patterson -- who replaced preseason All-America John Boyett at the start of the year -- tore his ACL, so Oregon is down to a third-stringer there. In sum, Oregon played most of the Cal game without half of its starting defense.

Can you imagine if LSU went into a game without Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson? That's what happening at Oregon, yet I get the sense most people either don't realize it or are brushing it off because there's so little regard for Oregon's defense to begin with. The sense is, as long as Marcus Mariota and Kenjon Barner (both of whom also briefly left the Cal game with injuries) keep putting up 50 points every week, what does it matter how many injuries the defense sustains? But I'd be concerned. As Ben noted, that's quite a three-game gauntlet ahead, and if a week comes where the offense isn't clicking, any of those teams is capable of exploiting a half-strength Ducks' defense.

Many people are saying the BCS 2.0 news from Monday afternoon forces BYU to join the Big East. I just don't see it. The Big East just went from guaranteed BCS access for its champion to splitting that same access five ways. Sure, the Big East provides more money than independence, but it also likely provides less TV exposure (even with the new contract) and worse scheduling. As a fan, am I crazy for prioritizing an entire season of nationally televised games against historical programs/quality opponents (look at BYU's 2013 schedule) over increased revenue and marginal access to a big bowl game?--Josh, Lubbock, Texas

It's an interesting question, as BYU's situation is almost a microcosm of college football's uniqueness as a sport. If this were almost any other sport -- pro or college -- and I told you the Cougars' status in regard to the postseason, you would be horrified. By 2015, they will be one of just two teams (the other being Army) with no guaranteed mechanism by which to access one of the premier games, besides qualifying for the playoff. If BYU were in the Sun Belt (which makes no sense, but go with it), it would at least go into every season knowing that if it finished ranked the highest of any Group of Five team, it would be guaranteed a spot in one of the premier bowls. If, as in most sports, you believe the sole purpose of the regular season is to best position yourself for the postseason, then BYU should be banging on the Big East's door begging for a home.

However, as Josh points out, what BYU would potentially sacrifice for access to one game may well be outweighed by the value of its previous 12. BYU played at Notre Dame this year. Next year it will host Texas, and in future years it will visit Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan. Should the program trade in those games to face Temple, Memphis and USF? This season, all but three of the Cougars' games are on either an ESPN network, ABC or NBC. While we don't yet know what the Big East's new TV deal will include, it almost certainly won't guarantee that level of distribution. Ultimately, though, BYU may find it's missing out on too much money. The Big East isn't going to get SEC, Big Ten or Pac-12 dollars for its new deal, but its teams are going to get substantially more than BYU gets on its own. And the Big East stands to gain another significant revenue stream if it qualifies a team or teams for BCS 2.0 most years, thus earning a cut of what's projected to be a $500 million a year system. Eventually, it may become a competitive disadvantage for the school to deprive its programs of that pipeline.

I will donate $100 to the charity of your choice if you continue to pick Nebraska to lose.-- Mike, Juneau, Alaska

That's tempting, but it would require my picking the Huskers to lose at home against Minnesota. I may be insane, but I'm not looking to be committed.

Again, please keep picking against Nebraska. This makes four games in a row that the Cornhuskers have won when you pick against them. Two more times and the Huskers are on their way to Indy.-- Doug, Papillion, Neb.

You're not giving me enough credit. I've actually picked against them five times in a row. It's just that no one wrote in to give me flak when Ohio State beat the Huskers, 63-38.

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