Does Oregon have a perception problem?; more mail

Wednesday November 13th, 2013

Marcus Mariota and Oregon's BCS title hopes were likely dashed in a 26-20 to Stanford last Thursday.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders joins Stewart to talk BCS pecking order, Pac-12 outliers and the true ranking of Fresno State and Northern Illinois.

If you watched College GameDay last week, you saw Alabama fans take particular glee in rubbing Oregon's 26-20 loss to Stanford in Ducks fans' faces. Two days after that result, one fan held up a sign that simply read "LOL," with the Oregon logo replacing the "O." Sure, Ducks fans brought this on themselves with those "We want Bama" T-shirts, but the underlying message -- that Oregon embarrassed itself -- seems a little harsh for a loss on the road to the No. 6 team in the country.

Did we just witness the wave break for Oregon football? Although the Ducks will probably continue to go to BCS bowls, will anyone outside of Oregon consider it a contender to win a national championship in the next few seasons, given the pattern of the Ducks losing to big, physical teams?
-- BB, Oregon City, Ore.

Whether it's fair or not, it's already clear this is exactly what is going to happen. While Oregon is 54-8 since 2009, its recent seasons have had a feast-or-famine-type feel. It seems the Ducks either beat opponents by 30 points or get shut down, with very few variations. The losses do share a common theme: A foe with a talented defensive front controls the line of scrimmage and prevents Oregon's normally frenetic offense from establishing a rhythm. Examples include losses to Boise State (19-8) and Ohio State (26-17) in 2009, Auburn (22-19) in '10, LSU (40-27) in '11 and Stanford in '12 (17-14) and '13 (a very deceiving 26-20). This year's defeat to the Cardinal was perhaps the most extreme in the way Stanford dominated the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Now comes the part where I tell you such sweeping generalizations are simplistic and misguided. You know what else those Ducks' opponents had in common? All but two were ranked in the top 10 at the time they played Oregon. No program is going to sweep every top-10 team it faces. In fact, the Ducks are 6-4 against top-10 foes dating back to the start of Chip Kelly's tenure, a mark that includes BCS bowl victories over Wisconsin and Kansas State -- neither of which is a finesse team. Stanford played the same smashmouth style it does today in 2010 and '11, only with Andrew Luck at quarterback. The Ducks beat those teams 52-31 and 53-30, respectively. Some will say Stanford must have come up with some magic scheme to solve the Ducks' offense. And Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason has played a big part, to be sure. However, Stanford's defense is simply much, much better than it has been in years past.

STAPLES: Oregon falls to No. 6 in latest college football Power Rankings

Oregon's perception problem stems from the fact that it hasn't won a BCS championship, losing on a last-second field goal in its only appearance, nor has it scored a signature nonconference victory. And by "signature nonconference victory," I mean "it hasn't beaten a highly ranked SEC foe." Mind you, every team in the SEC besides Alabama has lost more games than Oregon from 2009-13. In plenty of LSU or Georgia's losses, for example, those teams got beat up front. But we don't view each loss as a referendum on their style of play.

The best thing that could happen for Oregon at this point is to play an SEC team in a BCS bowl, and there's only one realistic scenario under which that could happen. Both Fresno State and Northern Illinois would need to lose, thus freeing up an at-large spot. That would allow the Orange Bowl to take a Big Ten or Big 12 team and push the Ducks into the Sugar Bowl. Otherwise, it's already evident that fans and voters will be more hesitant to jump on Oregon's bandwagon next year even if it gets off to another 8-0 start and steamrolls it competition by 30 points every week.

Perception, unfortunately, is usually reality. Ask those "slow" 2006-07 Ohio State teams that now have umpteen players in the NFL.

I keep hearing the logic that since Johnny Football is having a better season this year than he did last year, he therefore must win the Heisman. One could argue that other contenders "lost" the Heisman last year, which resulted in Manziel winning it. But setting that aside, should voters compare Manziel's 2013 season to his '12 effort? Or should they compare his '13 to other contenders this year?
-- Carlos, San Antonio

It's instructive to compare Manziel's 2013 statistics with last year's to better understand his performance. Last season, he wowed voters more with his running ability than his passing talents. This year, he's not running as often. Manziel rushed for 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns in '12, putting him among the top 25 nationally in rushing average (108.5 yards per game). He's not even in the top 100 this season, averaging a more modest 61.1 yards per game. But that's directly because he's a more confident passer now, and he stays in pocket longer. As a result, his completion percentage (from 68 percent to 73 percent) and his yards-per-attempt average (from 8.5 to 10.5) are both up.

Through 10 games last year, Manziel had thrown for 2,780 yards with 18 touchdowns. Through 10 games this year, he's at 3,313 with 31. The one knock is that his interceptions are up. He had nine all of last season, and he has 11 already this season.

ELLIS: Where does Johnny Manziel land in this week's Heisman Watch?

But the two numbers that really stood out by season's end in 2012 were his SEC-record 5,116 yards of total offense and his 47 total touchdowns. Manziel is currently on pace for 5,101 total yards and 50 scores. Long story short: He's a better all-around quarterback during his redshirt sophomore campaign.

To answer your question, voters should absolutely judge him relative to this year's field, which is unquestionably stronger than it was last year. Manziel's top two challengers in 2012 were a linebacker (Manti Te'o) and a gritty quarterback (Collin Klein) with modest production. This season's field is loaded with uber-talented quarterbacks. Baylor's Bryce Petty and Florida State's Jameis Winston are more highly rated passers than Manziel. Oregon's Marcus Mariota stumbled last week, but he still has that impressive goose egg in the interceptions column. Alabama's AJ McCarron is a 69 percent passer for an undefeated team.

Right now, I have Winston slightly ahead of Manziel, but Johnny Football still has two regular-season games left against ranked foes (LSU and Missouri). Win both, and I all but guarantee he takes the trophy. Lose even one, however, and he could be done. Ultimately, if Manziel wins, I don't think it will be for his stats. There's a prevailing sentiment (which I share) that he simply does things on a football field that other players can't.

Last week, the media almost universally predicted that AJ McCarron would "make a run" at the Heisman if he had a great performance against LSU. Sure enough, 179 passing yards and three touchdowns later, he's somehow the new threat to Winston and Manziel to take home the trophy. There's no debating McCarron is a very solid quarterback who does a great job helping Alabama win. But the Heisman? I can't see it.
-- Jonathan Dennis, San Antonio

I actually predicted before the season that McCarron would win the Heisman, because of exactly the type of sentiment that's now surfacing in some corners: He's 9-0, he might lead his team to three straight national championships and he consistently plays well in big games. Shouldn't it be his turn? If someone believes McCarron is truly the most outstanding player in the country, that's his or her prerogative. But if we're reverting to the archaic Ron Dayne/Eric Crouch-era career achievement movement, count me out. I've got nothing against McCarron. He does exactly what he's asked, and he does it exceptionally well. But you'd have a hard time convincing me that a guy who ranks 42nd nationally in passing yards (2,041) and 21st in passing touchdowns (19) is having the best season of any player in the country.

Additionally, as my colleague Andy Staples wrote on Saturday night, he's not even the best player on his own team. If Te'o was a Heisman finalist, why not C.J. Mosley?

Is the media underestimating Alabama? Sure, the Crimson Tide don't have first-round-caliber cornerbacks, but they still lead the country in scoring defense and held LSU to 52 second-half yards last Saturday. Is there any evidence that Florida State could stop Alabama's offense? The Seminoles haven't played a team with a real power-running game.
-- Jason R., Chapel Hill, N.C.

By "the media," I assume you mean me. And you make a valid point about Florida State's inexperience against a true power-running team. The 'Noles' defense hasn't been as dominant against the run as it has against the pass. In its one "close" game to date (a 48-34 win over Boston College on Sept. 28), the Eagles' Andre Williams, the nation's leading rusher, ran for 149 yards on 28 carries. Miami's Duke Johnson carried 23 times for 97 yards before leaving with an injury on Nov. 2. If Florida State has one potential area of vulnerability, that would be it.

To be clear, I'm not underestimating the Tide. Alabama is Alabama. It's still the team you absolutely do not want to face on Jan. 6. But up to this point in the season, I do believe the 'Noles have been even more dominant.

As a big fan of your work, let me remind you of something: Don't attempt to answer a question that you don't need to. Don't argue whether Florida State or 'Bama is No. 1 when the answer is irrelevant. And when you answer Florida State, you discount Nick Saban and open the door to making yourself look foolish in two months.
-- Brandon, Charlotte, N.C.

It wouldn't be the first time.

Bryce Petty and Baylor are fifth in the BCS standings, but they have a few high-profile games remaining.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Baylor is currently No. 5 in the BCS standings, just .0071 behind Stanford and .0308 behind Ohio State. Assuming all three win out, does Baylor jump both? And the question that has really bugged me for a long time: Why is Stanford's loss to a horrible Utah team not hurting it, while Kansas State's loss to Baylor last year and Oklahoma State's loss to Iowa State in 2011 eliminated them from BCS title contention?
-- David Nobles, Midland, Texas

Let me answer your second question with one word: timing. Oklahoma State in 2011 and Kansas State in '12 lost in mid-November. They didn't have time to distance themselves from bad losses and move back up the polls. Stanford, on the other hand, lost to Utah on Oct. 12, giving it plenty of opportunities to climb back up the rankings. That happened after it posted quality wins over UCLA (currently 13th in the BCS standings), Oregon State and Oregon. And by the way, Utah may be 4-5, but it's far from "horrible." That's particularly the case at home, where the Utes lost in overtime to Oregon State on Sept. 14, by a touchdown to UCLA on Oct. 3 and by one point to Arizona State last week.

Still, a loss is a loss, and the fact that Stanford has managed to remain the highest-ranked one-loss team speaks to its overall body of work. The Cardinal have played the nation's second-toughest schedule, according to Sagarin (No. 1: Utah), and have beaten three BCS top 25 teams (Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon) and five in the expanded top 40 (Washington and Oregon State). Of the current top-five teams, only Alabama can claim anything similar. The Tide have two top 25 (Texas A&M and LSU) and two top 30 (Virginia Tech and Ole Miss) wins.

MANDEL: Bowl projections: How will this year's BCS picture shake out?

As for Baylor, I wouldn't worry about the Bears passing Stanford if they continue to win. The difference between the two teams is negligible, and Baylor has several remaining games (vs. 7-3 Texas Tech, at 8-1 Oklahoma State, vs. 7-2 Texas) that will significantly boost its computer ratings. But would Baylor pass Ohio State? That's difficult to say. I know I'm supposed to nod along to the universally entrenched talking point that the Buckeyes DON'T PLAY ANYBODY, but Wisconsin, which the Buckeyes beat 31-24 on Sept. 28, is a good bet to finish 10-2. Michigan State, now 8-1, will almost certainly be in the top 10 if it's 11-1 entering a matchup with Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. At that point, would the Buckeyes' résumé be dramatically different than that of Florida State?

Because of the Big 12's round-robin schedule, Baylor's computer rating will improve regardless of which teams win head-to-head league games. But would voters move the Bears ahead of the Buckeyes? Baylor will need to keep winning big, and it may need Oklahoma State to beat Texas this Saturday to set up the possibility of a prime-time showdown on Nov. 23 against a possible top-10 opponent on the road. That could be the Bears' window of opportunity.

Stewart, where do you think UCLA should play Myles Jack? On defense, on offense or some combination of both?
-- Mark, Newport Beach, Calif.

Shoot, I'd play him everywhere: running back, linebacker, tight end, strong safety, maybe even kick returner. Can he kick, too? The guy is unbelievable.

Seriously, though, I would not be surprised to see Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone keep employing Jack as two-way player with sporadic appearances on offense. UCLA's regular running back corps has not been especially impressive this season, with the exception of Jordon James before he went down with an ankle injury. Paul Perkins, Damien Thigpen and Malcolm Jones are all averaging less than 4.5 yards per carry. It may be that Jack is the Bruins' most explosive runner available.

Still, Jack is too good at linebacker to take him away from the defense, and it's unrealistic to think he could be a full-time two-way player. I know Owen Marecic did it for Stanford a few years ago, but he was primarily a blocking fullback. He wasn't running around trying to break tackles all day. Jack could continue to be an impactful situational player on offense, but the coaches need to be careful not to wear him down.

Can't wait to read your article when Alabama claims the BCS title this year after beating Florida State. Hope you are preparing your stomach to eat crow. Roll Tide!
-- Cindi Sherrill, Hartselle, Ala.

IF those two teams wind up playing each other, and IF I pick the 'Noles to win, and IF 'Bama beats the Seminoles, then yes, I will certainly eat crow. I've done it before. But Saban would be none too pleased to see you looking so far down the road. Stick to The Process.

Admit it, you are going to miss the BCS. Since 1998, interest in college football has grown exponentially. The BCS rarely provided the perfect national title matchup, but it created drama and controversy. The next system may be better, but what will you miss the most?
-- Brandon, Austin

Even though the "Every Game Matters" mantra is applied selectively, it's a fact that the regular-season stakes will change in the new system. Case in point: Last Thursday's Stanford-Oregon game was so captivating because it likely knocked the Ducks out of the national title picture. If that game happens under the same circumstances next year, a loss would hurt Oregon's playoff chances, but the Ducks would remain very much in contention. For all we know, the selection committee might prefer one-loss Oregon to undefeated Ohio State.

I still want the four-team playoff, but I'll miss the all-or-nothing feel of individual regular-season games.

I'm terrified to ask this question in advance of this weekend's Nebraska game, but if Ohio State beat an 11-1 Michigan State in the Big Ten championship to go to the national title game ('Bama or Florida State would have to lose), would the Rose Bowl take an 11-2 Spartans team coming off a loss? Or would it select a 10-2 Wisconsin squad to take the Buckeyes' place?
-- Jeff, Grand Rapids, Mich.

That's a no-brainer. Wisconsin has been to three straight Rose Bowls. Michigan State hasn't been since 1988. Your Spartans would go to Pasadena.

It's probably a moot question, though. Florida State has no real challengers left, and, as you know, there is no chance of Alabama losing another football game this century.

Cancel my subscription. I heard your same kind of crap about Notre Dame and Manti Te'o last year before Alabama dismantled the Irish! I refuse to pay for such propaganda from SI any more!
-- Douglas Patterson, Savannah, Ga.

Sir, I hate to tell you, but the article you're referencing was free. But I am certainly a palatable brand of propaganda.

RICKMAN: Barry Sanders Q&A: Talking the Heisman, College Football Playoff and more

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