How would playoff criteria apply to this year's BCS race?; more mail

Wednesday October 23rd, 2013

Quarterback AJ McCarron (10) and unbeaten Alabama are ranked No. 1 in the initial 2013 BCS standings.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Grantland's Holly Anderson recounts her trip to see Florida State's blowout win in Death Valley. Stewart and Holly discuss Jameis Winston, "SEC depth" and more.

You knew this was coming. We've reached the point of the season, especially with the BCS standings now in play, where people are starting to get playoff-itis. The new system is so close, but not here yet, and boy is that too bad. After all, how great would it be to see (using the current standings) Alabama-Ohio State AND Florida State-Oregon?

Alas, we can only dream. But we can also start applying next year's criteria to this year's race.

Stewart: The playoff system next year is supposed to take reputation, legacy, etc., out of the equation and look at teams and their strength of schedule more objectively. If that were done by the poll voters this year, would Alabama be ranked No. 1, or is its ranking based on its past success? I don't hear much debate about its ranking, but who has 'Bama played other than a defenseless Texas A&M squad and a Virginia Tech team that struggles against mediocre competition in its conference?
-- Chris Bode, Scottsdale, Ariz.

I'm inclined to say yes, the Crimson Tide would be No. 1. If the complaint is they haven't beaten anyone except for a pair of current Top 25 teams, both away from home, well, that's one more win over a Top 25 foe than any other undefeated team has. Florida State's blowout victory at Clemson may be more impressive than any one win on Alabama's schedule, but the 'Noles haven't played any noteworthy opponent outside of that. And the Tide have won their five other games by a combined score of 201-16. I'm not sure what else you could ask of them.

Now, if someone wants to say subjectively, hey, I think Oregon is the best team in the country -- or Florida State or Baylor for that matter -- I have no problem with that. But the sentiment I keep hearing about the new system is that we want the committee to move away from the eye test and place more emphasis on actual résumés and data. The BCS computers, which theoretically do not take into account past success (the formulas are secret, so who really knows?), have Florida State No. 1 by a very small margin over Alabama. Perhaps a committee sitting down and ranking the teams from scratch would agree in light of the Seminoles' dominance against Clemson, but it's not like Alabama would be fifth.

STAPLES: Alabama, Oregon top latest college football Power Rankings

In an ideal world, however, there would be no rankings at all. As I wrote last week, my one big complaint about the plan for the new committee is that it will start releasing regular rankings around this point in the season. That's contradictory to the entire notion that this system will be different than the BCS, because now, as is the case with Top 25 polls, the committee will have a starting point. And things change. For instance, my answer to this question might be completely different in two weeks, even if Alabama beats Tennessee 59-0 on Saturday. By that point, Oregon will have played top-12 foes UCLA and Stanford, and Florida State will have faced off with top-10 foe Miami. Alabama fans will go ballistic if the committee ranks the Tide No. 1 in the first public release, and then, without them losing, downgrades them to No. 3 two weeks later.

The best way to strike legacy, past success, etc., from the equation is to wait until all the games have been played. But that, of course, isn't fodder for a weekly television show.

It is finally over; Miami can breathe again. Two-part question: Do you agree with the Committee on Infractions' decision to lightly punish The U? And now that the shackles are off, is the sky the limit for Al Golden? The job he has done in spite of the NCAA mess has been phenomenal. I can only imagine what he will be able to do with this freedom. Thoughts?
-- Josh B, Deltona, Fla.

I don't see how the committee could have doled out any more heavy-handed sanctions at this point given the miscues in the NCAA investigation. That's not to say Miami should have gotten off scot-free, nor did it. A two-year postseason ban is significant, no matter which party initiated it. And the state of limbo the program operated under for more than two years was a punishment unto itself.

If we're going to nitpick, however, I'd question why there were no vacated wins. Penn State vacated 13 years of victories for a scandal that didn't involve a single football player. Miami had eight years' worth of ineligible players and vacated nothing. But vacated records are largely an empty punishment anyway, so it's not really a big deal either way.

And yes, the sky is the limit for Golden. He's a terrific coach. The 'Canes have improved each year under his direction. The playmakers have been there on offense for a couple of years, but this season the defense is stepping up and both sides are exhibiting a more physical presence. I'm not sure Miami is really the seventh-best team in the country, but that will resolve itself. Either the 'Canes upset Florida State on Nov. 2 and legitimize themselves, or they lose and drop down a bit. As for the overall direction of the program, there's no way to quantify how the investigation did or did not impact recruiting the past few years. Golden recruited pretty darn well, and I assume his classes will only get better. Miami's biggest challenge will be retaining Golden. He's been extremely loyal to date, but as we well know, a couple of pretty tempting jobs are about to become open.

MANDEL: Miami case shows how much perception of the NCAA has changed

How has Missouri gotten to be so good? Are we seeing the end of a multi-year process that would have culminated here if it was still in the Big 12? Or has the move to the SEC allowed it to recruit higher-caliber players who have moved it to the top in an otherwise down SEC year?
-- Ben, Tampa

There's a little bit of revisionist history going on as pertains to Missouri. The Tigers were pretty successful during their last five seasons in the Big 12. They were ranked No. 1 in the country at one point late in the 2007 campaign. They won at least 10 games three times in four years from 2007-10 and captured two division titles. They started 7-0 as recently as 2010, beating No. 1 Oklahoma that year and rising to No. 6 in the BCS standings. (Three years later, Mizzou is 7-0 and No. 5 the same exact week.) So it's not like this has come from totally out of nowhere, though it's certainly surprising given last year's 5-7 effort.

One concern many (including me) had was whether coach Gary Pinkel's offensive system would translate to the SEC. But in doing so, we did not account for two things. One, of course, is that nearly the entire SEC has stopped playing defense in 2013. But Mizzou is also not the same team it was during the Chase Daniel era. It does not throw the ball 40 or 50 times a game. More notably, its enhanced recruiting profile following that memorable 12-win season in '07 allowed Pinkel to upgrade his talent on defense. Over the past few years the program has become an assembly line for elite defensive players. Ziggy Hood (2009), Sean Weatherspoon (2010), Aldon Smith (2011) and Sheldon Richardson (2013) were all first-round NFL draft picks. This year's team boasts midseason All-America selection Michael Sam and a couple of other impressive defensive linemen.

The one thing that was missing for Mizzou in the Big 12 was a conference title. We'll see if that changes in the SEC. It's worth noting at this point that the Tigers have played just three conference games. One thing is for certain, though: Missouri is quickly becoming the ultimate rebuttal to "If [insert non-SEC team] had to play an SEC schedule ..."

MANDEL: Upset-heavy Week 8 leaves the SEC looking vulnerable; Overtime

Stewart, do you think Oregon, Florida State or Ohio State could go through the SEC without a loss? If Alabama takes a loss, should it or any other one-loss SEC team jump an undefeated?
-- Derek, Baton Rouge, La.

Oh. I see we're still playing that game even this year.

Ohio State's Bradley Roby (1) was ejected from last week's game for a hit on Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Andrew Weber/USA Today Sports

Has there ever been a rule that has negatively affected games more than the targeting rule? I think the idea is noble, but misapplying the rule can (and has) changed the outcome of games, which obviously affects bowls, championships, etc.
-- Carlos, Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.

Well, proponents of the targeting rule would be the first to tell you that impacting game results was a perfectly acceptable and expected consequence of the rule's installation. The goal is to deter players from making certain kinds of dangerous hits, which is exactly why the penalty is so severe. While coaches can lecture players all they want about how an impending rule change will affect them, seeing is believing. Not until the targeting penalty took affect and players started getting ejected was the deterrence truly felt.

But now that we've seen it in action, I certainly hope the rules committee will do a serious reevaluation of targeting this offseason.

First of all, the fact that a targeting ejection can be overturned but the 15-yard penalty remains is one of the stupidest ideas in a long, long time. In the fourth quarter of last week's Georgia-Vanderbilt game, for instance, Bulldogs linebacker Ramik Wilson was called for targeting on what would have been a fourth down stop. The ejection was overturned, but the Commodores were awarded a drive-saving first down and went on to score a touchdown to climb back within one score. Meanwhile, I watched replays of two of Saturday's more controversial ejections, those involving Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby and Georgia defensive end Ray Drew. Roby's call seemed pretty clear-cut. He launched himself into a defenseless player and made contact with the head. Drew's call was tackier, as he basically just pushed the quarterback with his hands. But he did draw contact with the head, which by strict definition fits the rule.

With the wording of the rule designed to cover all bases, some plays are getting included that don't jibe with the word "targeting," seeing as there's no malicious intent. I'd like to see officials place more emphasis on intent. Then again, that's even more of a judgment call than we already have.

Does getting waxed at home by the No. 5 team in the nation constitute "pulling a Clemson?" Or is "getting Clemsoned" characterized by losing to a significant underdog? I need some clarity on the definition here.
-- Dave, Washington, D.C.

I wanted an authoritative ruling, so I contacted The Solid Verbal co-hosts Dan Rubenstein and Ty Hildenbrandt, who got the word "Clemsoning" added to Urban Dictionary in 2011. This particular result was so vexing that even Rubenstein and Hildenbrandt initially disagreed. "Absolutely not a Clemsoning since the game was against Florida State," said Hildenbrandt. Countered Rubenstein: "At the root of Clemsoning is there being a huge letdown after expectations are risen, typically against a lesser opponent. The fact that the game's outcome was so unexpectedly lopsided, especially at home, almost plays into the spirit of Clemsoning." Ultimately, they decided it was a "half-Clemsoning."

STAPLES: Florida State looks like dominant 'Noles teams of past in rout of Clemson

I think that part of the reason for the backlash surrounding Condoleezza Rice's presence on the playoff committee is that people are starting to realize that college football did nothing to fix the most controversial aspect of its postseason. Everybody hated the fact that opinion polls (both human and computer) were responsible for deciding which teams "earned" the right to play for the BCS championship. The new format merely swaps out the old polls for a smaller collection of opinions. Won't this continue to be an issue until college football adopts more objective criteria for playoff berths?
-- Joe Halverson, Jacksonville, Fla.

I suppose it will ... but what playoff system do you envision for a sport with 125 teams that won't involve a group of people selecting the participants? I understand the frustration, but the FBS is not neat and symmetrical like the 32-team NFL. Even if the playoff field expanded to eight and gave automatic bids to the five power-conference champions, someone would have to select the three wild-card teams. I suppose you could go with a 10-team field consisting solely of conference champions (the top six would get first-round byes), but just last year there were 11 leagues. In a few years, there could be nine. And what about the independents? Plus, as much as some people think they'd be fine with a system of only conference champions (because it eliminates the subjectivity), would you really prefer an event that -- using the highest-ranked team from each conference in the current BCS standings -- would include the nation's No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 17, 18, 20 and two unranked teams while excluding five top-10 teams?

Barring a drastic reduction in the number of teams or conferences sponsoring football, there will NEVER be a fully objective method for staging the postseason. The closest thing would be using computer ratings, but as it is now people generally wig out whenever the BCS computers differ from the pollsters, and there would never be one universally agreed-upon system. So as long as it's subjective, the question is, would you rather rely on a panel of coaches and sportswriters who can't possibly see all the teams play, are often beholden to preseason and previous week's rankings and -- in the case of the Coaches' Poll -- often make no effort to hide their conflicts of interest? Or would you rather rely on a committee of educated people who watch film, study data, have a formal recusal policy and sit together in a room for the specific task of ranking the teams? I'm going with the latter.

MANDEL: Condoleezza Rice discusses her role on the playoff selection committee

Good to see that Clemson is still Clemson.
-- Rob Sansing, Parsippany N.J.

Incorrect. Clemson will still be Clemson if it proceeds to lose three of its final five games.

Is Auburn now Alabama's biggest threat? What are the chances that Auburn beats 'Bama? And has Gus Malzahn already locked up coach of the year awards?
-- Dennis, Auburn, Ala.

Malzahn will almost certainly be in the running for coach of the year awards. He has taken mostly the same players (the quarterback notwithstanding) who couldn't win a single SEC game last year and turned them into a team that can beat a top-10 foe on the road. From an X's and O's standpoint, LSU remains Alabama's biggest threat. No team is likely to out-power the Tide as Les Miles' squad did in the 2011 regular season, but a quarterback and receivers who can challenge Alabama's battered defensive backs might just do the trick. Cue Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.

Still, the Iron Bowl may prove the better chance of an upset simply because of the circumstances. Auburn will likely be a prohibitive underdog, at home, against its hated rival. It will play with house money. Alabama, on the other hand, is the two-time defending national champion, which, by that point, could be just a few wins away from winning its third straight title. All the pressure will be on the Tide. And Malzahn, as we know, has gotten the better of Nick Saban before.

It would be fantastic for nearly everybody if the Iron Bowl turns into a play-in game to get to Atlanta. That was not even the case in their classic 2010 matchup.

I may be seeing this through garnet-colored glasses, but does the rest of the country think the "follow the Clemson team from the locker room to the bus to ride around the stadium like it is Elvis" before the game routine is just plain silly? I couldn't imagine turning on the TV to watch, for example, a Pac-12 game between Stanford and UCLA and seeing a team load buses to drive around the stadium. Thanks, I'll hang up and listen to your answer.
-- John, Charleston, S.C.

Funny, I had a similar thought on Saturday night. Don't get me wrong, Howard's Rock is a fantastic tradition. And the first time ABC did this, before the Georgia game in Week 1, I found myself getting pretty pumped up. This time, however, because I didn't get home from the UCLA-Stanford game until the start of the second quarter, I watched the segment on my DVR already knowing what was about to happen to Clemson. So as I watched these big linemen in full uniform squeeze onto the bus -- and then pile back off just two minutes later -- I wondered whether Clemson was just exhausted from the whole boarding-the-bus thing. Meanwhile, Jameis Winston was just chilling in his locker room the whole time with a bottle of Powerade. He didn't have to be anywhere until kickoff.

Am I on to something here?

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