NIU, Fresno State and poll-voting tendencies; more Mailbag

Wednesday November 6th, 2013

Jordan Lynch (6) and Northern Illinois hope to bust the BCS for the second consecutive season in 2013.
Chris Anderson/Icon SMI

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and Andy Staples break down Thursday's big Oregon-Stanford and Oklahoma-Baylor showdowns, as well as Saturday's LSU-Alabama game.

Presumably, most of you aren't staying up nights wondering whether Fresno State or Northern Illinois will earn a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. But the pecking order of potential BCS busters provides an interesting window into pollster behavior, which is something that EVERYBODY cares about.

I'm a MAC grad from Ohio and am rooting for Northern Illinois to break the BCS. Why aren't the Huskies getting as much love as Fresno State? The BCS computers seem to like NIU's schedule much better than Fresno State's, but the voters sure don't. What gives?
-- Joe Shovlin, Franklinton, N.C.

You're assuming that voters reevaluate every single team's résumé when they sit down to fill out their ballots each weekend. I'm sure some do, especially in the AP Poll, but at this point in the season, they're far more likely to take the previous week's ballot, factor in which teams won or lost (or had an especially good or bad performance) and rank programs accordingly. So it's instructive to look back and see how Fresno State (No. 17 in the AP and Coaches' polls, No. 16 in the BCS standings) climbed ahead of Northern Illinois (No. 22 in the AP Poll, No. 20 in the Coaches' Poll, No. 18 in the BCS standings) to begin with.

Let's start back in August. Neither team cracked the preseason Top 25, but Fresno State received 36 points in the AP Poll, while NIU got 16. The Bulldogs also received 62 points in the Coaches' Poll to NIU's 19. Fresno, with star quarterback Derek Carr and 16 starters returning from a 9-4 squad in 2012, was a popular dark-horse pick to unseat Boise State in the Mountain West, so the Top 25 votes aren't entirely surprising.

Still, it does seem strange that NIU, coming off a 12-win campaign and BCS berth with quarterback Jordan Lynch (who finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting last season) returning, was so lightly regarded. According to PollSpeak, Fresno appeared on 12 AP ballots, even as high as No. 17, whereas NIU appeared on just nine, all but one of them at No. 24 or No. 25. The Mountain West's superior reputation to the MAC's likely contributed to these voting patterns. Florida State did throttle the Huskies 31-10 in the Orange Bowl. But if we're playing that game, Fresno lost to SMU 43-10 in last December's Hawaii Bowl, too.

STAPLES: Northern Illinois sits at No. 25 in latest college football Power Rankings

Now let's move to this season. On Thursday night of Week 1, Fresno State won a nationally televised 52-51 overtime thriller against Rutgers, an AQ-conference program widely expected to be decent. (It went 9-4 in 2012.) Two days later, NIU won at Iowa 30-27, but the Hawkeyes went an underwhelming 4-8 in 2012. The coverage after the Huskies' victory mostly emphasized that it was a bad loss for Iowa. NIU briefly moved ahead of Fresno in the AP Poll but not in the Coaches' Poll, where, on Sept. 15, the Bulldogs became the first of the two to crack the rankings. The next Friday night, Fresno edged Boise State 41-40 in another nationally televised nail-biter and promptly moved up to No. 23 in the Coaches' Poll and debuted at No. 25 in the AP Poll. NIU thumped Purdue 55-24 a week later and finally entered the Coaches' Poll, but a spot behind the Bulldogs. The order has remained the same ever since.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that Rutgers (4-3) isn't particularly good and Boise State (6-3) is far from a vintage Chris Petersen team. NIU's road win at Iowa (5-4), while hardly a Top 25 victory, is probably the most impressive of the three. Neither Fresno nor NIU has played a quality schedule, but the Huskies have been more dominant against the foes they've faced. I do wonder if the voters would reorder the two teams if they started with a blank canvas today.

Of course, I also wonder whether they would reconsider ranking either of the teams at all, considering that in Jeff Sagarin's true ratings (which factor in margin of victory), NIU checks in at No. 46 and Fresno State comes in at No. 50. By comparison, FCS North Dakota State is No. 34.

The University of Michigan has played 1,261 football games dating back to 1879, and last Saturday, Michigan State held the Wolverines to their lowest rushing total ever, -48 yards, mostly by camping out in Michigan's backfield. Weighing the Spartans' performance against the not-so-dominant competition they have faced, how good do you think Michigan State's defense really is? How would you compare it to Alabama's, for example?
-- K. Promislow, East Lansing, Mich.

The Spartans' defense is pretty darn good. Anyone with a set of eyes could see that on Saturday. According to Football Outsiders, only one team since 2000 (2011 national champion Alabama) has held opponents to fewer yards per game or yards per play in a season than Michigan State has through nine games (210.2 per game, 3.47 per play). Every opponent the Spartans have faced has notched a lower offensive output than its season average, most by considerable margins. On average, foes are posting 18.1 fewer points and 174 fewer yards per game. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi's unit has been playing at a high level for three seasons now, but it has elevated its play a few more notches this year. Credit the emergence of sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun (6.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries), who brings some serious speed off the edge. Veteran linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are also exceptional.

However, the only true way to know whether the Spartans' unit is on the same level as Alabama's would be for Michigan State to play the Crimson Tide. I thought Notre Dame had an "SEC-caliber" defense last year, and then it faced Eddie Lacy and 'Bama. Much like Michigan State this year, the 2012 Fighting Irish didn't face many potent offenses during the regular season.

ELLIS: Could a surprise contender emerge as a late-season Heisman candidate?

While hardly an exact science, you can get a pretty good sense of a defense's talent based on NFL draft projections. It's a lot harder to disguise deficiencies on defense than it is on offense. Alabama will probably have two or three players selected in next year's first round (linebacker C.J. Mosley, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and possibly linebacker Adrian Hubbard). I'm not currently seeing any Spartans listed in that range, though Dennard and Bullough are projected as second- to third-round picks. Calhoun, a third-year sophomore, has yet to register on most boards.

So I'm inclined to say no, Michigan State's defense is not on the same level as Alabama's. But there's not another defense in the country I'd say with certainty is better.

Will Muschamp has had three years to rebuild the Florida program, and he's fast approaching Ron Zook levels. The offense's production has taken a free fall from sixth in 2009 (Tim Tebow's last season) to 111th this year. In Zook's worst year, 2004, the offense ranked 46th. The Gators may very well finish the regular season at 6-6 (assuming they beat Vanderbilt this Saturday). Muschamp's three-year record at this point is 22-12. Ron Zook's after the same number of games was 20-14. How much longer will Muschamp be given to rebuild?
-- Ron Thompson, Lecanto, Fla.

As long as you're making Muschamp-to-Zook comparisons, here are a couple more: Zook's SEC record at the time he was fired was 14-7. Muschamp's mark is currently 13-8. Muschamp is currently 0-3 against rival Georgia. Zook went 2-1.

In his defense, Muschamp is less than a year removed from an 11-win campaign and a BCS bowl berth. It was admittedly a strange 11-win season, as Florida kept beating top-15 teams despite the complete absence of a passing game. But Zook never came close to winning 11 games. I can't imagine that Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley would give Muschamp the ax after this year (though all bets are off if the Gators lose to Vanderbilt and finish 5-7). More likely, offensive coordinator Brent Pease and another assistant or two will be labeled as scapegoats, and Muschamp will go into next season squarely on the hot seat. That's unfortunate timing, given Florida picks up Alabama on its 2014 schedule.

Much of Florida's misfortune this season is a result of an inordinate number of key injuries, another reason Muschamp deserves another year. But even before quarterback Jeff Driskel went down, it was clear the Gators were well on their way to another year of offensive ineptitude. Muschamp has had three years to recruit playmakers and establish some sort of discernible offensive identity. To date, I'm not seeing either.

From day one, I've thought Muschamp's hothead persona may not fit a head coach at such a high-profile program. Nick Saban or Urban Meyer wouldn't get into a shouting match with a fan after a disappointing loss. But ultimately all that matters to fans are wins and losses, and for one season at least, Muschamp proved he's plenty capable of winning. I assume he'll get another year to right the ship.

I noticed that you failed to mention Tajh Boyd's record-breaking day against Virginia in this week's College Football Overtime. The Clemson quarterback went 24-of-29 for 377 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran for a score and broke Philip Rivers' ACC career record for touchdowns (115) with 116. Just a nod would be nice.
-- GL, Atlanta

Congrats to Tajh, and apologies for the oversight. I sometimes forget Virginia is still in the ACC.

Carlos Hyde and Ohio State likely need one of the other undefeated teams to lose to climb in the polls.
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMI

You are telling me that if the top four teams win out and Oregon moves back to No. 2, Ohio State wouldn't get to play the other undefeated team (Florida State)? If I were a Buckeyes fan, I would root for everyone to win and for Oregon to slip to No. 3. It might not be the BCS championship game, but it would set up a matchup that's impossible to ignore. Could this get some consideration?
-- Joe S., Hollidaysburg, Pa.

I assume Ohio State fans are rooting for the other undefeated teams to lose, but wow, it had not occurred to me that the Rose Bowl could theoretically pit No. 3 Oregon against No. 4 Ohio State (in the Rose Bowl's 100th anniversary game, no less). Can you imagine the furor this would incite? You'd essentially have two semifinal games with no championship for the winners. How much would ESPN or Fox have to pay to persuade the commissioners to let them play another game a week later? I'm sure the Rose Bowl stadium is available. A playoff is already planned for next year. Or conversely, wouldn't it be a wonderful sendoff for the BCS if that scenario somehow resulted in a split national championship?

None of that will happen, of course, because those four teams will not all go undefeated. I would go so far as to say there's a 90 percent chance that at least one of current unbeatens loses, and a 60 percent chance that at least two of them fall. Just don't ask me to predict which ones they are.

STAPLES: Baylor coach Art Briles and that punk offense in Waco

Stewart, your projection pitting Notre Dame against Northern Illinois in the Motor City Bowl was intriguing, but it left me wondering about the logistics of a Notre Dame selection. Would the Little Caesars Bowl fall behind the Jan. 1 Heart of Dallas Bowl in the selection order, given that game also missed out on a Big Ten team? Or does that go out the window when the tie-in can't be filled?
-- Matt M, Chicago

There is no formal process for filling those at-large spots. Notre Dame would basically pick whichever bowl it deems the most appealing. In recent instances, former coach Charlie Weis chose to take the 6-6 Irish to the Hawaii Bowl in 2008, at a time when he just so happened to be recruiting Manti Te'o. The school was also a free agent in 2010, allowing it to fill the Pac-10's spot in the Sun Bowl opposite Miami. It's still too early to know what this year's options will be, but among the openings that existed in my first projections, playing a possibly ranked and undefeated Northern Illinois team at an NFL venue just over three hours from South Bend seemed far more desirable than facing a Conference USA team in Dallas or St. Petersburg, or the No. 3 MAC team in Idaho, or a Mountain West team in San Diego. However, if the Big 12 fails to fill its spot in the Pinstripe Bowl, New York probably becomes a no-brainer option.

Notre Dame fans aren't sweating any of this, of course, because they know the Irish -- hey look, they're ranked! -- are going to win out and reach the BCS.

Listen, do us all a favor and don't ever post a Notre Dame question or comment in your Mailbag ever again. Just let Notre Dame fans be. Let us question the latest polls and talk among ourselves about college football for better or worse. We're doing fine without you and your snarky comments from legitimate questions. Leave us alone. Notre Dame fans don't need you.
-- Mike S., Chicago

Whoops. Too late.

Your hypothetical 2014 bowl projections had the top-ranked 11 teams plus the highest-ranked "Group of Five" team filling the 12 spots. The highest-ranked "Group of Five" team will be an automatic qualifier, but must the six bowls take the 11 other highest-ranked teams? Or may they invite a better-drawing, lower-ranked team?
-- Gerry Swider, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

One of the reasons I added that section to Overtime is to hopefully start educating people now about how next year's bowl-selection process will work, because things will be radically different. Those big-six bowls won't pick the teams like the BCS bowls currently do. The selection committee will place the teams using their rankings. After the semifinals are set and the various contractual obligations are met, the committee will go right down the list and place the next-highest team in one of those games, taking geography, opponent and desire to avoid rematches or repeat visits into consideration.

To me, this is an extremely underreported aspect of the new system, as it should (theoretically) create much better matchups in the top bowls than the current system. (It may also be that I'm among a small minority who still cares about these things.) Mind you, seasons like next year, in which the Rose and Sugar bowls host the semifinals, will likely be cleaner than most. In a year when, say, the Rose Bowl loses both the Big Ten and Pac-12 champs to a semifinal somewhere else, it gets to pull in replacements from those leagues regardless of their rankings. In that case, you might have the top nine -- not top 11 -- and three lower-ranked teams. Long story short, these matchups will mostly be determined -- brace yourself -- by merit.

MANDEL: Lessons in toughness: The rise of Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy

Stewart, there are three BCS championship-winning coaches currently on the market. What are the odds any team would take a chance on Jim Tressel, Phillip Fulmer or Gene Chizik? Is Fulmer's age more of a factor than Tressel's involvement in a scandal? Was Chizik ever a good coach in the first place?
-- George, Montgomery, Ala.

Of the three, Fulmer seems the least likely to return. He's now 63, five years removed from coaching and hasn't garnered serious attention from a school since Louisville's search three years ago. (It's believed that Arkansas discussed its emergency opening with him following Bobby Petrino's ouster, but there was no guarantee of a long-term position.) Chizik, 51, is more plausible because he has a lot of years ahead of him and remains so close to the sport, but I have to imagine Auburn's marked turnaround as soon as he left has not helped his stock. Maybe he could get a Sun Belt-type job or return to being a high-level defensive coordinator. It would help if an AD listens to Sirius XM, because Chizik comes off as very knowledgeable on the air. (And full of personality -- who knew?)

Still, much like my 90 percent hedge earlier in this column on an undefeated team losing, I'll put similar odds on Tressel eventually returning to coaching. I just don't know if it will be next year. At this point, time has provided some distance since TattooGate, and Tressel has made some inroads restoring his reputation through his work at Akron. And he was one of the best coaches in the sport at the time he left.

The problem, however, is his NCAA show-cause order remains in effect through 2016, and that penalty requires him to sit out the first five games and any postseason games of his first year back. That's a difficult way to kick off a new tenure. A school may be willing to endure that in exchange for the long-term glory Tressel could bring to a program, but I doubt that school would be, say, Nebraska. But what about Miami (Ohio), which just so happens to have an opening? Think that might be worth it (especially since the RedHawks, currently 0-9, aren't likely to go bowling next year)?

Stewart, Clemson CANNOT be ACC No. 2. They can't win their division. The ACC championship game will be a Florida State-Miami rematch. One of those teams will be ACC No. 1, and one will be ACC No. 2. Why are you incapable of comprehending a simple mathematical fact? Does your hatred of Miami shut down your prefrontal cortex?
-- Mark Cleary, North Miami, Fla.

Math is admittedly not my strong suit, but given the explanatory paragraph that includes ALL CAPS right above the chart in my piece, I assume reading comprehension is not one of yours.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.