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Projecting the bowl lineup with a playoff; sizing up hires; more mail

I've now re-watched Kirk Herbstreit's Howard Beale rant from Sunday night about Northern Illinois' Orange Bowl berth at least seven times. I may even watch it again tonight. It's that mesmerizing. My favorite part: Right after Herbstreit says, "You're going to take Oklahoma out to put Northern Illinois in? Are you kidding me?" At which point he pauses for a beat to collect himself, as if the true horror of it all only set in when the words came out of his mouth.

I'm also preemptively heartbroken for Kirk because he's setting himself up for future disappointment. At one point early on, he says: "Thank goodness we're moving to a new system in 2014." Well, sure, there are a lot of reasons to be excited for the new playoff, but if he's under the impression the new system is going to rid the marquee bowls of freeloaders like Northern Illinois ... well, he hasn't been following the news lately.

How differently would the bowl game lineup be if the current projected playoff system were in place this year? I still see Wisconsin and NIU having gotten into "BCS" games, if not necessarily the Orange in NIU's case.--Aaron Long, Maine

So here's the thing: Northern Illinois is playing in a BCS bowl because of a political compromise between the haves and the have-nots back in 2004. It lowered the BCS qualification threshold for non-AQ champs from top six to top 12 -- or, as is the case this year, top 16 if one of the AQ champs (in this case, Louisville and Wisconsin) are ranked lower. NIU is the first of the BCS busters to get in under that latter clause.

Last month, the BCS commissioners announced a similar deal that provides a guaranteed berth to one of the top six games for the highest-ranked of the Group of Five -- Big East, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt -- beginning in 2014. The bar is actually lower -- there is no minimum ranking.

Using the BCS standings as the selection committee's rankings, and using the same lineup as when I did this hypothetical a few weeks ago, here's what the bowl lineup would look like this year:

• Fiesta: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Oregon

• Orange: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida

• Sugar: No. 5 Kansas State (Big 12 champ) vs. No. 7 Georgia (SEC replacement)

• Rose: No. 6 Stanford (Pac-12 champ) vs. Wisconsin (Big Ten champ)

• Chick-fil-A: No. 8 LSU (at-large) vs. No. 12 Florida State (ACC champ)

• Cotton: No. 9 Texas A&M (at-large) vs. No. 15 Northern Illinois (Group of Five)

So we get fantastic semifinals. Georgia replaces Louisville. But beyond that, the Rose Bowl still has an unranked team, LSU and Texas A&M are playing in the same bowls as they currently are, and FSU and NIU are still in, just not playing against each other. And Herbstreit's Sooners still don't make the cut.

Obviously, the bowls that host the semifinals in a given year will do wonders. In other years, they'll largely become even more marginalized than they are now because with so many contracted tie-ins, it will be nearly impossible to achieve enticing matchups. Kirk is right about one thing, though. On paper, NIU doesn't belong in one of these games. But don't blame the Huskies. Blame the commissioners that keep watering down their own product.

Stewart, is Bret Bielema wise to leave Wisconsin for Arkansas? I understand that the SEC is the focal point of college football for now, and that the road to the national title basically runs through the SEC nowadays. However, is this a good career move for him personally given the security that Bielema must have had at Wisconsin?-- Louie, Pittsburgh

I would call the move risky, but I wouldn't call it unwise. First of all, who am I to question someone for getting a pay raise or wanting to take on a new challenge? Only Bielema could say what his true motivation is here. But to your second point, that security most of us would assume he's built up by taking to Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls isn't quite what you'd think. Badgers fans never universally supported Bielema. In fact, I was flabbergasted by just how much of the immediate reaction to Tuesday's bombshell was along the lines of "good riddance." They questioned his play-calling and his game management. They didn't like his arrogance or his losing to Ohio State. I'm not saying this is representative of all Wisconsin fans, but it's clear he was never going to escape Barry Alvarez's shadow no matter how many consecutive Rose Bowls he delivered.

That Bielema would leave the reigning three-time Big Ten champion for the sixth- or seventh-best SEC program tells you everything about just how wide the perception gap is between those conferences right now. Thanks to Bobby Petrino, Arkansas fans now expect to contend regularly for BCS berths, but so do seven other SEC fan bases, so they'll never all be happy. But whereas Wisconsin fans have apparently become pretty spoiled, Arkansas fans are hungry more than they are impatient. And Bielema got out of the Big Ten just before the expected Urban takeover, which itself may have contributed to future fan angst. There's no reason to believe Bielema won't be successful. And his cockiness may play better in the macho SEC land than it did in the gentlemanly Big Ten. It certainly won't be any easier going against Nick Saban and Les Miles, but if he can make Arkansas competitive, he's got a better shot at the national title in Fayetteville than he did in Madison.

Stewart, Gus Malzahn's hurry-up style of offense is exactly the type of attack that Nick Saban scorns. Do you foresee a much more competitive Iron Bowl next year, or will it take time? In any case, it would seem like the rivalry will become very healthy again soon.-- Foster, Howard, Pa.

I would assume that entered the thought process when Auburn made its decision. Heck, I assume every decision made at Auburn these days starts with the question: "Will this bother Nick Saban?" And Malzahn's style certainly got to Saban the first time they faced each other in 2009. Auburn jumped to a 14-0 lead in that game against an eventual national-championship defense that featured Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody, Javier Arenas and many others, and it eventually reclaimed the lead on a 72-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. The Tigers outgained the Tide that day, 332-291, in a 26-21 loss. And we all remember the 2010 game.

Of course, Alabama crushed Auburn, 42-14, in 2011, but the cupboard was starting to get pretty depleted by then. Obviously, it's even worse now.

So to address your question, I would imagine it will take more than a year for Auburn to make headway in that rivalry. Malzahn needs players. I would assume he'll get more production from the quarterback position, and he'll have some young offensive linemen that could make strides over the offseason. But he needs more skill players and more depth in general. Who knows how long that will take? Still, once the personnel gap closes a little, some of those annual tactical showdowns between Malzahn and Saban could be fascinating.

Hi Stewart. Who is going to have the unfortunate job of telling Kirk Herbstreit that Northern Illinois would be an automatic qualifier in the new system too? I think someone should let him know, but who wants to watch him get all upset about it again?-- Matt M., Chicago

I usually run into Kirk at the BCS championship game. I'll tell him, but I'll be extremely disappointed if his reaction is anything other than (scrunched-up mad face) "Are you kidding me?"

Stewart, the mock selection committee article was a fantastic read. The whole thing reminded me of the movie 12 Angry Men, an exercise in psychology and group dynamics as much as a selection of football teams. How did you get all those athletic directors to agree to do it?-- David Grubin, Phoenix

I read the piece you and Pete Thamel wrote on the mock football selection committee and found it to be a great read. It was very insightful. Having said that, over the years it's been pretty clear that you were a limited-playoff proponent (a plus-one advocate). After hearing the comments by the committee members as to how hard this was, that really begs the question: Is four teams enough?-- Scott, Ann Arbor, Mich.

First of all, thank you to everybody who wrote in with kind words about the article. It was indeed a lot of hard work for both of us, but actually, you'd be surprised how quickly most of the athletic directors signed on. As we quickly found out, people inside of college athletics are just as curious to explore the ramifications of the new system as we are, probably more so because it directly affects their livelihood. You also would not believe how engrossed many of them became. Mind you, over Thanksgiving weekend, they voluntarily conducted research, asked questions, traded e-mails and discussed potential issues with our facilitator, Greg Shaheen. Then they spent nearly two-and-a-half hours on a call when they presumably had many other things on their plates (most notably the ADs from Louisville, East Carolina and Middle Tennessee State). So Pete and I can't thank them enough.

To answer Scott's question, yes, the exercise changed my perspective entirely. I've spent five years pushing for a four-team playoff. I can now see that it will be almost impossible to sustain. The top three (Notre Dame, Alabama and Florida) in this year's selection were pretty clear, but by the end of the call, the members could have swayed me on any of five other teams (Oregon, Kansas State, Stanford, LSU and Texas A&M) for the fourth and final spot. I think the controversy that accompanies these picks will, in some years, exceed that of the current BCS system. Past national championship matchups caused untold frustration, but they were accompanied by a sense of resignation that this is the system we're stuck with, and it's hard to direct anger toward faceless pollsters and computers. Now, there will be a finite number of individuals responsible for making what will often be near-impossible decisions. No one will ever be happy with them, and I just can't imagine the backlash they'll face. So inevitably, we'll move to an eight-team system, which will be a really fun event. Sadly, it will also end the dramatic every-week-is-a-possible-elimination-game regular season as we know it.

With Stanford winning the Pac-12, would SI's mock selection committee still put Oregon in the playoff ahead of Stanford? Stanford beat Oregon on the road and won its division and the conference. Granted the Washington loss wasn't great, but both of Stanford's losses came on the road, including one to the No. 1 team. If the point of the selection committee was to put more emphasis on head-to-head results and conference championships, does last weekend change anything?-- Clay Jeffreys, Atlanta

As much as we tried to get members to work under the assumption that the favorites had already won their title games and hence, Stanford was considered an 11-2 Pac-12 champion, that was the one area that was particularly difficult to replicate. It's hard to take something into account you haven't seen yet. Based on the conversations that took place (granted, over a very truncated time period), my hunch is yes, having actually seen Stanford beat UCLA and advance to the Rose Bowl, the members likely would have taken the Cardinal over the Ducks for the very reasons you mention. It would be tough to dismiss Oregon given that the Ducks were so dominant for so long, but the fact that Stanford played Notre Dame on the road and took the Irish to overtime worked in its favor, as it gave the committee a point of comparison. Personally, if I were selecting now, I would choose Stanford myself.

Wow -- Kirk Herbstreit is a real snob. He's upset that NIU qualified for a bowl game? Why didn't his favorite Big Ten team make the playoffs? Oh yeah, they were banned by the NCAA.-- Dick Keefe, Xenia, Ohio

Just think -- if Ohio State had been eligible, it would have bumped NIU down at least one spot in the standings, and Nebraska, by nature of losing to 12-0 Ohio State instead of 7-5 Wisconsin, probably would have stayed above the Huskies rather than finishing .0012 behind them. This is all Herbstreit's alma mater's fault.

What do you make of attendance at last weekend's conference championship games? Other than the SEC's sold-out game, the ACC (around 30,000, according to ESPN's Heather Dinich), Big Ten (41,260) and Pac-12 (31,622) games appeared to draw half-full stadiums. I'm sure the conferences aren't worried because they have their TV money, but you have to admit it doesn't look good watching a "championship" game on TV with an empty stadium.-- Matt, Manassas, Va.

You're seeing the very reasons why the Big Ten and Pac-12 were resistant to start a championship game for so long, and why the Big 12 leaders are not jumping at the chance to restore one. There are too many variables in play. The SEC's game is a fantastic event. Frankly, it's what a bowl game should be. It's sold out every year, the atmosphere is incredible and the league does a great job of turning it into not just a football game, but also a celebration. It helps that it's staged in a central location (Atlanta) to which nearly all the schools' fans can drive, but beyond that, it's an event that every school's fans circle on their calendars. Even if the national championship were at stake, it's not like Alabama or Tennessee fans would never miss the chance to see their team in Atlanta. But what the Rose Bowl is to most Big Ten and Pac-12 fans, the SEC title game is to its fans.

Still, you can't manufacture that tradition elsewhere, especially given the fluky circumstances that hurt two of this year's games. Florida State fans are not going to flock to Charlotte to watch their team play a 6-6 opponent. Wisconsin fans spoiled by consecutive 11-win seasons weren't itching to see their 7-5 team (though maybe they would have if they knew what was coming). The Pac-12 anticipated this challenge and smartly chose to use home venues, but Stanford -- which has trouble filling its stadium for a regular game -- is not an ideal place to stage a game at 5 p.m. on a Friday, particularly on six days' notice. Ultimately, these are made-for-TV events. FOX is paying a reported $24 million a year for the Big Ten's game. I've covered many early-round NCAA tournament games played in half-empty arenas. It's the same deal. The leagues make some money off spectators, but they make much more from viewers watching around the country.

Stewart, the students at NIU are going to be thrilled with the Huskies getting to participate in the Orange Bowl as their first major bowl appearance. You have mentioned multiple times that one of your seminal undergraduate experiences was attending Northwestern's 1996 Rose Bowl after so many years of anguish in Evanston. What advice can you give to NIU's students and alumni as they display their Huskie Pride down in Miami?-- Nick, Geneva, Ill.

First of all, I would say if there's any way possible to get there, go. I know it's not cheap. It's really cool that the school is picking up the tab for students' tickets, but flights and hotels won't be easy. But whatever you've got to do -- cram eight people into a room, sleep on floors, maybe even road trip (it's only 21 hours) -- it's worth it.

And, if by chance the Huskies win, please, do not break out the "OVER-RATED" chant. Instead, just soak in your victory over the preseason national title favorite -- at least according to a certain ESPN analyst.

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