Reassessing the BCS title landscape; more Mailbag

Wednesday September 25th, 2013

Ty Montgomery (7) and Stanford overwhelmed Arizona State in the first half of last Saturday's matchup.
Jed Jacobsohn/SI

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and ESPN's Joe Tessitore discuss Alabama and Ole Miss, Texas' woes, early Heisman Trophy contenders and much more heading into Week 5.

After covering a game in each of the season's of the first four Saturdays, I'm very much looking forward to plopping down on the couch this weekend and taking everything in: LSU-Georgia, Wisconsin-Ohio State, Ole Miss-Alabama, Oklahoma-Notre Dame and more.

I'm also hoping Week 5 will provide some much-needed insight into the national landscape, because quite frankly, the first four weeks of the 2013 campaign haven't taught us a whole lot.

Really? After four weeks of the season, you still have both Stanford and Alabama as your BCS title game picks? Given the level of play from both teams, I'd guess that neither of them will be in the title game.
-- Brian Maguire, Portland, Ore.

I'd be highly surprised if both of my preseason title game picks actually make it, because I'm fairly certain that has never happened before. But I'm also not one to overreact based on early results unless some team is blatantly exposed (Texas) or quite clearly better than expected (Baylor and Washington). The first four weeks of the season were mostly void of landscape-altering upsets. The preason AP Poll's top-10 teams are a combined 29-4, with three of the four losses coming to fellow top-10 squads. (The one exception: Florida's loss to Miami in Week 2.) No. 6 LSU and No. 8 Florida State are the only current top-10 teams that weren't ranked in the top 10 to begin with, and they hardly qualify as surprises. So far at least, the teams most expected to contend for the national title have done very little to suggest they won't.

I will say that through three games Alabama does not look like a No. 1 team. It has yet to deliver a truly dominant performance, with the offense struggling against Virginia Tech, the defense struggling against Texas A&M and the whole team seemingly sleepwalking through last week's win over Colorado State. That said, the only SEC team that has looked great in every game thus far is LSU. I'm not yet ready to swap the Tide for the Tigers (maybe that will change this weekend), and I'm not likely to believe this year will bring an SEC-free title game until the day the final BCS standings are released.

STAPLES: Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State lead Power Rankings after Week 4

Now, if I had to guess, I'd bet Brian thinks I should replace Stanford with Oregon because the Ducks have steamrolled their first three opponents while the Cardinal ... well, I'm not sure what the Cardinal have done wrong. I was in attendance last Saturday when they took Top 25 foe Arizona State to the woodshed for three quarters before taking their foot off the gas in the fourth. No question, Oregon has been utterly dominant, but at this point I expect nothing less from the Ducks when they face overmatched foes like Virginia and Tennessee. The problem is, we have no way of knowing how the Ducks will respond when they reach the inevitable game against a comparably talented opponent. Last year, that moment didn't come until mid-November against Stanford, and the Cardinal won. Since then, Stanford has only gained more experience on both sides of the ball, while Oregon lost several key defensive players and its savior head coach.

So right now, I have no reason to think this year's result will be different. However, both teams will face legitimate threats from both Washington and UCLA before their matchup. By the time Oregon and Stanford meet on Nov. 7, I all but guarantee you that my title game projection will have changed multiple times.

Are the reductions of the Penn State scholarships more about Penn State being good citizens and trying to make up for past transgressions or the NCAA trying to regain some of its tarnished image?
-- Joe Hoover, Greenville, S.C.

Call me naïve, but I don't think Mark Emmert and the NCAA executive committee would hire someone as distinguished as George Mitchell and have him go through the effort of not only monitoring Penn State's administrative reforms, but also preparing quarterly and annual reports just for show. Of course, it also conveniently allows them to use Mitchell's recommendations as cover in remedying overstepping their jurisdiction in the first place. The fact that these reductions are taking place just more than a year into a four-year sentence suggests NCAA leaders are acknowledging the sanctions were excessive and perhaps caving to pressure from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whose role both Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez specifically mentioned to SI's Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans in their reactions on Tuesday.

Emmert is as image conscious as they come, but I can't imagine he believed this would help the organization's credibility in any tangible manner. If anything, the move has only added to public confusion as to how the NCAA enforces its rules. It's great that Penn State is cleaning up its act, though it's always been unclear what exactly the NCAA expected the school to clean up. The NCAA took the Freeh Report -- which addressed a very specific and egregious criminal situation involving a very small number of people -- and extrapolated it to suggest Penn State was a fundamentally broken institution with an out-of-control athletics culture. That was never the case, or at least not noticeably more so than at any number of other football-crazed universities. So it shouldn't be surprising that Mitchell would find a school that never previously committed a major NCAA violation and annually produces a high graduation rate is complying with an athletics integrity agreement. It is, however, mildly surprising that after going so far out on a limb with his dictatorial sanctions, Emmert is now backtracking just 14 months later. You tell me whether that's positive or negative for his image.

MANDEL: In restoring Penn State scholarships, the NCAA begins to right its wrong

Stewart: The streak is over. After incorrectly picking the winner of the Florida vs. whomever game for the last SEVEN times you've included the game in your picks, you finally got one right. Nice going. But with the loss of quarterback Jeff Driskel, do you think a Tyler Murphy-led offense can beat the likes of LSU, South Carolina, Georgia or Florida State?
-- Jon O, Palatka, Fla.

Thanks. I'm off to a Baylor-esque start with the picks this year. And I chose that label specifically because you could have said the same exact thing in 2006 with an entirely different, yet still accurate, meaning.

While I hate to see any player get injured, I'm not sure the Gators' prospects got significantly worse without Driskel. Murphy looked competent against Tennessee (though I suppose just about anyone would against the Vols' defense), and it's not like Florida was winning with its offense. However, Florida may have suffered a truly costly blow this week with news that star defensive tackle Dominique Easley suffered a knee injury in practice. The Gainesville Sun reported it's a torn ACL, but Gators coach Will Muschamp claims Easley just "tweaked" it. This tweet from the player suggests otherwise. So far Florida's defense ranks first nationally in rushing defense and second in total defense, but it may be tough to maintain that level of success without Easley.

In a best-case scenario, Murphy provides the Gators with a spark, the offense actually becomes a force and Florida wins most or all of those swing games. But if Murphy proves overmatched against an elite defense, I'm guessing offensive coordinator Brent Pease will run the blandest, most conservative attack imaginable with the hope the Gators win every game 12-10. I don't like their chances on the road at Death Valley or Williams-Brice. The Cocktail Party and a showdown with Florida State at the Swamp may be their best opportunities for victories.

Stewart, I am an Oklahoma grad living in Miami. Since 1991, when the Notre Dame-NBC television deal was first announced, I have never watched a Notre Dame game on NBC. I couldn't stand their arrogance and refused to support their sponsors by watching. My quiet boycott has continued to this week. So what should I do when the Sooners visit South Bend on Saturday and the game is televised on NBC? End my boycott for one week? Continue the boycott and just listen to the game on an Oklahoma Internet radio station? DVR the game, mute the sound and skip commercials? Your advice would be greatly appreciated.
-- Douglas Stewart, Miami

Wow. I could understand being put out in 1991 ... but to keep that up until 2013? Who exactly are you boycotting at this point, NBC or Notre Dame? And have you since expanded the boycott to the Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network, Longhorn Network and any other network that's taken ownership of TV rights? If you're still mad at NBC, then I'd say watch the game but get back at it by boycotting another show. Though that might be tough, because at this point I can only name one other NBC show (Parks and Recreation). And if you're boycotting Notre Dame ... well, just think of this as an Oklahoma game against some random team with a leprechaun.

After converting to a more up-tempo offense, Washington is averaging more than 42 points per game.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Football old-schoolers still talk about the read-option, spread and Air Raid offenses as though they're fads and that it's only a matter of time before they fade away, leaving the traditional pro-set offenses to stand the test of time. However, I am seeing a lot of the teams that were put up as paragons of the pro-set going away from traditional alignments and simplifying their offenses. Even 'Bama has been using the now-trendy "package" offenses. Is the traditional pro-set dead in college football?
-- DC Warrior, Tysons Corner, Va.

You threw out a lot of different terminology there, so let me try to sift through it.

If by "pro-set" you mean a team that spends nearly the entire game with two receivers, a running back, a fullback and a tight end, I'd argue that has long been dead not just in college but the NFL. You have to be multiple to have any success against today's complex defenses. Even the most traditionalist coaches incorporate spread components. For example, Stanford coach David Shaw is a Bill Walsh/Jon Gruden disciple to the core. "It's the West Coast passing game with a physical running game," he recently said of his pro-style offense. Watch a Cardinal game, however, and you'll see plenty of plays in which quarterback Kevin Hogan is in the shotgun with one tailback and three receivers. Now, you'll probably never see a Shaw-coached team line up in the spread for an entire game like Oregon or Arizona. The read-option has been around at the college level for at least 15 years now. That's not a fad. You'll likely just continue to see teams merging multiple styles, the way several Mike Leach/Air Raid disciples have added power-running components.

Now, "package" plays are not specific to a certain offensive style. Chris Brown does a great job explaining the concept, but basically, many teams no longer call just a "run" play or a "pass" play. They combine two of them and let the quarterback decide whether to throw or hand off based on the defense. More complex package plays may even include multiple pass routes and a run call on the same play. And then the other trend impacting traditional pro-style offenses is tempo. More and more coaches want to run up-tempo offenses, but to do that you have to simplify your terminology, if not the plays themselves. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was a notable convert this year. You don't have to run it, but, like Stanford, you better have some other edge (multiple formations, shifts and misdirection) that makes things more difficult for defenses.

Stewart, as a fellow native Ohioan I grew up drinking Big Ten Kool-Aid. I've been reading your column for a number of years now and appreciate your thought on the cyclical nature of the game (teams, offenses, defenses, etc.). But after reading Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp's critical article about the conference over the weekend and seeing another year of disappointing performances by Big Ten teams against mediocre nonconference opponents, I am starting to think the Big Ten is not in a cyclical downturn but has been relegated to relevance on par with the ACC.
-- Eric, Pleasanton, Calif.

Conference strength from year to year is still very much cyclical. Few would say that this year's Big 12, for example, is up to the same level it was over the past two seasons. The ACC's upper half looks stronger this year than at any time since it expanded to 12 teams. The Pac-12 is up, too. The SEC seems a bit down as a whole (it is a modest 7-6 against the other AQ leagues), but that's relative, given the league has three or four legit top-10 teams. And the Big Ten may actually be slightly improved as a whole. Its teams haven't suffered nearly as many embarrassing nonconference losses as they did a year ago. The majority were to current or formerly ranked teams (Washington, Arizona State, UCLA, two to Notre Dame).

But we're still talking about a league with only one team you could viably see winning a national title (Ohio State) and no other team ranked higher than No. 17 (Northwestern). That's a far cry from the Big Ten of the '90s and early 2000s, which frequently had two or three top-10 teams and five or six ranked teams. Even if this is just the league coming out of the inevitable down cycle that ensued from recent coaching changes and/or fiascos at flag-bearers Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, an "up" cycle for the conference no longer looks like it used to. For that reason, Sharp has a point when he writes of Big Ten homers: "Isn't ignoring historical patterns and simply hoping for changed behavior, only to be disappointed once again, one of the precursors of delusion?" But hey, Maryland is 4-0, and Rutgers just beat Arkansas. Maybe help is on the way.

Art Briles as the next Texas coach? It's not that we wouldn't want a coach from Baylor, but many of us can't forget he was the coach that voted Texas lowest on the ballot (No. 5) and Oklahoma the highest (No. 1) in the Coaches' Poll when the teams were battling it out for BCS tiebreaker in 2008.
-- Scott R., Dallas

I'm not saying Briles is the only person qualified for the job, but that has to be the dumbest reason I've ever heard to hire or not hire a coach. May you be sentenced to five years of Ron Zook or Derek Dooley as penance.

I saw your thought on Art Briles for the next Texas coach. I think Dabo Swinney would have to be near the top of the list for Texas. As good as everything at Clemson is for him, Texas is still is Texas, and all that it can give is much more than Clemson. As much as I thought Dabo would not pan out, he's really done a good job at Clemson and would have that charm that Texas fans have (until now) loved about Mack Brown. Thoughts?
-- Gareth, Austin, Texas

Sure, why not. Dabo would be a great get. Maybe this will become a new weekly Mailbag segment, the Texas coach I'd hire this week. Last week Briles, this week Swinney, next week ... ???

Hi Stewart! I'm a big fan of the Mailbag and longtime reader, first time writing in. I am sure you are familiar with the new "APU" movement. How long before the NCAA bans players from writing "APU" on their tape/wristbands/anywhere on their uniforms? Do you think this movement can actually make an impact?
-- Ravi, Stony Brook, N.Y.

The NCAA is not going to win any public relations battles if it attempts to suppress athletes' free speech expressions. I can't imagine it will do that. Even if it wanted to, it would be a year before whatever committee that issue falls under actually gets around to doing something about it. And with Emmert reiterating this week that a wholesale governance change is on the way next year, it'd probably get caught in some legislative wormhole.

As I wrote in College Football Overtime, the only way this movement will have an impact is if either mass numbers of players start participating or if numerous high-profile players (Johnny Manziel, Tajh Boyd, Marcus Mariota, etc.) take up the cause. Then it becomes a much bigger story. While I respect the efforts of the National College Players Association, its cause is too broad to be effective. I'd pick a specific issue -- cost-of-attendance scholarships, for example -- and rally support behind that. Certainly, plenty of athletes every year suffer mistreatment as a result of various NCAA policies. Georgia offensive lineman Kolton Houston, one of the figures involved in last week's protest, is a prime example. But are all college athletes? Those who advocate pay-for-play might say yes, but there are plenty of folks who think four or five years of a paid college education, first-class training and lavish facilities are a pretty good deal. And that includes most of the players themselves. Most are perfectly satisfied with their college athletics experience, which will make it tough for APU organizers to attain mass participation.

I'm a Spartan, and biased towards them, so let's get that out of the way. Re-watch all the pass interference calls from the Michigan State-Notre Dame game and tell me the ND receivers weren't engaged with the DBs before the ball got there.
-- Chis, Rapid City, S.D.

Someone didn't get last week's memo.

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