Analyzing hypothetical BCS Armageddon scenarios; more mail

Wednesday December 4th, 2013

If Florida State and Ohio State both lose, could Auburn and Alabama meet again in the BCS title game?
David E. Klutho/SI

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and Bruce Feldman from CBS Sports relive a thrilling Thanksgiving weekend, preview Championship Saturday and discuss USC's hiring of Steve Sarkisian.

It's hard to believe, but Sunday will bring the last-ever edition of the BCS standings. It's like we're finally breaking up with a girlfriend about whom we've spent most of our relationship complaining, and we're suddenly realizing that we're going to miss her. Well, at least a little bit.

So it's only appropriate that the most popular topic by far in this week's overflowing inbox was not, "Should Auburn pass Ohio State?" Or, "Will Auburn pass Ohio State?" Rather, it was speculation about full-on BCS Armageddon.

I know it isn't going to happen, and I'm not trying to freak anyone out, but if Florida State somehow loses to Duke, Michigan State knocks off Ohio State and Auburn beats Missouri, what happens then?
-- Paul, Fullerton, Calif.

First of all, never say never. On the final night of the 2007 season, No. 2 West Virginia lost at home to 4-7 Pittsburgh and No. 1 Missouri lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. That allowed seventh-ranked LSU to climb back to No. 2. Duke is 10-2, not 4-7 (though the Blue Devils are four-touchdown underdogs in the ACC championship game).

Second, to answer the question ... Iron Bowl II!

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Alabama is currently No. 4 in the BCS standings, slightly ahead of Mizzou. If the Tigers beat Auburn this weekend, and if either Florida State or Ohio State loses, Missouri, as the SEC champion, would leapfrog the Crimson Tide into the BCS title game. But Paul's Armageddon scenario involves No. 1 Florida State, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Missouri all losing, at which point Auburn and 'Bama would ascend to the top two spots.

The craziest thing about that hypothetical? Should it happen, and should sixth-ranked Oklahoma State beat No. 17 Oklahoma to finish 11-1 and become the Big 12 champion, the Cowboys would get shut out of the BCS title game at the expense of the Crimson Tide for the second time in three years. Two years ago, I was adamant that Oklahoma State was more deserving. I'm not sure I'd be so passionate this year -- because I'd want to see Iron Bowl II.

Speaking of which ...

Should Chris Davis' unbelievable 109-yard touchdown return for the win be considered the greatest college football play of all-time given the implications the Auburn-Alabama game had on the BCS title race? Should it surpass even Doug Flutie's Hail Mary? I think so.
-- Justin, Wichita Falls, Texas

I'm always reluctant to weigh in on any greatest-of-all-time debates, as I've only been following college football for about one-fifth of the game's existence. There were surely some crazy, equally significant plays in, say, the 1950s that should enter the conversation, but which I didn't personally experience. So let's refine the question: Was Davis' return the greatest play of my 37-year lifetime?

For as long as I've been aware of college football, the standard-bearer for the game's craziest play has always been the Stanford-Cal ("The Band is on the Field!") ending in 1982 -- The Play. I've seen more replays of that clip than any other, even more than Flutie's Hail Mary to beat Miami in '84. The finish of this year's Iron Bowl should be considered at least an equal to The Play just for its sheer improbability. This was the first walk-off touchdown return of a missed field goal in the history of the sport. But that '82 game pitted the 6-4 Bears against the 5-5 Cardinal. If we're talking "greatest" -- not "craziest" -- then advantage Iron Bowl, simply because of the play's magnitude. In this case, 11-0, two-time defending national champion Alabama faced 10-1 Auburn in a game freighted with SEC and national title implications.

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Flutie's Hail Mary may have won him a Heisman Trophy, but it had no bearing on the national title race. Ditto for Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart's '94 Hail Mary to beat Michigan. Both plays are all-time classics, but Davis' return trumps them. Boise State's Statue of Liberty did not have national title consequences, but it was the closest thing I've witnessed to last Saturday in terms of its drama and its singularity.

So, while I don't think we can truly gauge the place of Davis' dash in the history of college football until the passage of time has given us some perspective, I'm prepared to say yes, "Kick, 'Bama, Kick," is the greatest play of my lifetime. It narrowly edges The Play, Hail Flutie, Boise's Statue of Liberty and, crazy as this may seem, The Miracle at Jordan-Hare only two weeks earlier.

I thought I was the only one who realized that the Auburn-Alabama classic would be almost meaningless to fans of other teams in the playoff system until Rece Davis made that very point on ESPN. No one is going to get excited over seeding. I hope college football fans enjoyed the suspense and drama of this regular season, because they clearly didn't know what they had when they ditched it for a playoff.
-- J.D. Bolick, Lincolton, N.C.

That's a bit melodramatic. In next year's system, the Iron Bowl would have been far from meaningless and the ending no less exciting. But there's no question the stakes would have been lower. Auburn would have kept itself alive in the playoff hunt, while Alabama would have hurt its chances, though it would still be very much in the mix. That's the tradeoff we're making with the new system. It creates an opportunity to settle the Ohio State/SEC champion debate on the field rather than over the airwaves. Selection controversy moves a couple of rungs down the ladder, where the excluded teams aren't as deserving in the first place. In turn, however, if that same exact game ended in the same exact fashion in 2014, the single biggest reason it was so significant -- the season-long favorite Crimson Tide were eliminated from national title contention (barring the Armageddon scenario detailed above) in the span of 14 seconds -- would no longer be an element.

While Florida State has been very impressive this year, couldn't you argue its strength of schedule and quality wins are no different than Ohio State's? Yes, the Seminoles are winning more impressively, but no one seems to want to point out they haven't exactly played anyone either, and a conference championship game against Duke won't help.
-- Matt, Clinton, Va.

You don't have to argue it: Multiple metrics say the Seminoles' schedule has been slightly worse than the Buckeyes'. In Sagarin's SOS ratings, Ohio State's slate is No. 61, while Florida State's is No. 66. Using the BCS' old SOS component -- which CBS' Jerry Palm still compiles -- the Buckeyes' schedule is No. 55 and the 'Noles' is No. 59. And in the NCAA's official rankings, Ohio State's is No. 80 and Florida State's No. 85 -- though you should probably disregard that one since it's based solely on opponents' records and lists Appalachian State No. 1 and UMass, among others, above both the Buckeyes and the Seminoles.

The point is, both teams have played similarly challenging schedules to date, and Ohio State's final opponent is stronger than Florida State's. That's one of many reasons I'm uncomfortable with the Auburn-should-jump-Ohio-State rationale. If that's the case, shouldn't the Tigers jump 'Noles, too? If the answer is no because Florida State has been more dominant, I agree. But for all the nitpicking of the Buckeyes this season, last week's Michigan game was Ohio State's first truly close call of the year.

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All of which goes to show why people really need to wait until the end of the season to evaluate a team's résumé. The Seminoles got a lot of mileage out of beating opponents ranked No. 3 (Clemson) and No. 7 (Miami) at the time those games were played. Now, the Tigers are ranked 13th while the Hurricanes have fallen out of the Top 25. Of course, the Buckeyes have the same problem. Northwestern, a ranked foe at the time it played the Buckeyes on Oct. 5, finished 5-7. Wisconsin, which looked like it might crack the top 10 by season's end, dropped to No. 21 following last Saturday's 31-24 loss to Penn State.

And we still might be overvaluing or undervaluing certain results. Are we sure that Auburn's last-second 45-41 victory at 8-4 Texas A&M on Oct. 19 was significantly more impressive than the Buckeyes' 34-24 home win over 8-4 Iowa on the same day? The Hawkeyes' defense is ranked nearly 100 spots higher than the Aggies'. Who can really say? That's why I'll be curious to see what metrics the selection committee uses to assess strength of schedule in 2014.

Any other time you would like to put Kirk Ferentz on a list of worst anything, feel free. This goes to show you how ridiculous and clueless national writers can be. Ferentz once again showed he is one of the BEST college football coaches in the country and certainly the best man in the industry. Thanks, Stewart.
-- Brent Feller, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Ferentz definitely engineered a nice turnaround this season, going from 4-8 to 8-4, and made me look dumb for including him alongside Lane Kiffin and Charlie Weis in last summer's worst coaches list. But my gosh, you will never see a fan base crow over a coach's 8-4 campaign the way Hawkeyes fans have in my Twitter mentions and inbox since last Friday. I don't know whether to admire their loyalty or ridicule their incredibly low expectations.

I thought you were a moron when you named Kirk Ferentz one of the five worst coaches back in July. I was right.
-- Kevin Kimm, Des Moines, Iowa

Ferentz proved me wrong, no question. But from some of the emails I've received you'd think the guy achieved some Herculean coaching feat, like taking a team from 3-9 to 11-1 or winning 10 games at Duke.

Arizona State has already played one of the nation's toughest schedules heading into this week's game.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Can you give the Pac-12 some props? It still seems like the SEC is considered the best conference until someone else is crowned national champ. However, when you look at the strength of the Pac-12, the depth from top to bottom is brutal.
-- Therence, Tucson, Ariz.

I wouldn't venture to guess which league is "best." After all, how can you when the top teams almost never play each other? (This season, Auburn beat Washington State and Oregon crushed Tennessee. It currently looks like there will be no SEC vs. Pac-12 bowl games.) But as to which conference was tougher this season, that's not even a question. The Pac-12 was as deep as we've ever seen it, and its teams bludgeoned each other right out of the national title race. That's primarily because it not only plays tougher nonconference schedules -- South Division champ Arizona State took on both Wisconsin and Notre Dame -- but its teams also play nine of 11 possible league opponents. SEC teams, by contrast, play eight of 13.

On Saturday, Stanford and Arizona State will add another game against a 10-win foe to what are already the nation's third and fourth toughest schedules, respectively, according to Sagarin. They will also both be playing their sixth game against one of his top-20 teams. That's insane.

Many have said the SEC will benefit the most from the forthcoming playoff system because it will regularly place multiple teams in the field. Instead, it may be the Pac-12 that thrives if its programs are finally rewarded for playing tougher schedules. It probably wouldn't help the conference this year, with every team having two losses. But if scheduling discrepancies remain the same, a one-loss Pac-12 contender that played the five best teams in its conference (as Stanford did against Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Washington) will have a better case than a one-loss SEC team that played just one of the top four (as Missouri did in avoiding Auburn, Alabama and LSU).

As an Ohio State fan I say this as objectively as possible -- Jameis Winston deserves to win the Heisman. He has been spectacular and currently leads the No. 1 team in the nation. But my goodness, what does Braxton Miller have to do to get some love? I'm not saying he should win it, but he at least deserves to be in the conversation, right?
-- Dan, Cincinnati

It's been an unusual season for Miller. He was a household name coming into the season, even the predicted Heisman favorite by many outlets. But once he missed those two early-season games with a knee injury (and perhaps because backup Kenny Guiton performed so well in his absence), he seemingly fell completely off the radar. All the while, a host of other quarterbacks -- Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Bryce Petty, AJ McCarron and now Jordan Lynch -- rose up to become the Heisman challenger du jour. With so many of those guys falling off the map to the point that Lynch, a tremendous player beating up on lackluster competition, has gone from complete outsider to potential runner-up, it's possible that Miller could jump from barely mentioned to No. 2 with a big performance against Michigan State.

That said, while Miller is a great player, his numbers are modest when compared with those of other dual-threat quarterbacks. He ranks 32nd nationally in total offense (265 yards per game), well behind Manziel (third, 368.2), Lynch (fourth, 351.0) and Mariota (ninth, 332.8). In fact, if Buckeyes tailback Carlos Hyde hadn't served a three-game suspension to start the season, he -- not Miller -- would be Winston's most serious challenger for the award. Hyde is averaging 143.3 rushing yards per game (sixth nationally) and 7.8 yards per carry. To put that latter number in perspective, Boston College's Andre Williams averages 6.4 and Washington's Bishop Sankey averages 5.8. The last running back to win the Heisman (Alabama's Mark Ingram in 2009) averaged 6.1. Hyde is an absolute stud, and if he happens to run for 160 yards against the nation's top-ranked rushing defense on Saturday, I might argue he should go to New York even with the three missed games.

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Brady Hoke opts for a two-point conversion rather than overtime. Nick Saban opts for an insanely long field goal rather than settling for overtime. Is this just a coincidence, or do coaches not like the overtime format? I used to think it was quirky and cool, but over the years I have come to hate it.
-- Richard Woodard, Smyrna, Tenn.

I agreed with Hoke's decision. Saban's was more debatable, but it seemed fairly harmless at the time (whoops). More than anything, Hoke and Saban's choices show how little faith each coach had in his kicker were the games to go to overtime, when field goals become critically important. Hoke had already endured one multiple-overtime field goal disaster at Penn State, and that was with regular kicker Brendan Gibbons, who was out against the Buckeyes with an injury. His replacement, Matt Wile, was 1-of-3 on the season and hadn't attempted a field goal all game. Meanwhile, Saban went through his own fiasco against LSU two years ago, and regular kicker Cade Foster was struggling mightily on Saturday. (However, it's unclear why Saban had more confidence in redshirt freshman Adam Griffith, also 1-of-3 on the year, to make a 57-yarder than he did Foster to make a 30-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter.)

I've been harping on it for years, but it baffles me that coaches don't place more emphasis on what is arguably one of the most important positions on the team given the very type of circumstances Michigan and Alabama faced last weekend. Most programs generally recruit one scholarship kicker every two to three years and rely heavily on walk-ons. Go to any football practice, and 90 percent of the time you'll see the kickers off on a side field practicing field goals by themselves, because there's usually no coach on staff with any wisdom to offer. Many kickers train with their own private coach beginning all the way back in high school.

Contrary to popular belief, college kickers are actually much more reliable now than they once were. Still, it's astounding that in the biggest game of the season, the top-ranked team in the country -- with the most extensive recruiting operation and support staff in the sport -- didn't have a kicker its coach trusted to make a 30-yard field goal.

You project Iowa -- which finished 8-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play to finish second in the Big Ten's Legends Division -- to play in the Outback Bowl. One can only imagine how much better the Hawkeyes would have been if they weren't saddled with one of the five worst coaches in college football. Sarcasm intended.
-- Greg Fairow, Portland, Ore.

It's not a certainty that the Outback Bowl will pick Iowa over Nebraska ... though, if anyone on the committee reads this column, the decision should become a no-brainer.

Can you imagine the fan reaction in Gainesville if Florida had half the season to find a new coach and ended up hiring Dan Mullen? That's what Steve Sarkisian to USC feels like to me.
-- Parker, New Orleans, La.

That's a pretty spot-on analogy, although Washington certainly has a higher bar for success than Mississippi State. But USC fans will warm up to the hire pretty quickly. While I remain skeptical of the move, I've certainly been wrong before, especially in the Pac-12, where just two years ago I gave Arizona State and UCLA both "D" grades for their hires of Todd Graham and Jim Mora, respectively. The former is coaching for a conference title this weekend. The latter just landed a big raise.

Would you care to retract your statement from this summer about Iowa's Kirk Ferentz? Coach Ferentz has earned his $3.6 million a year contract through the course of his career. Turning around a team from 4-8 last year to 8-4 this year with some new assistants is by any coaching standards is a great turnaround.
-- Dustin, Marshalltown, Iowa

You know, I'm really trying to be contrite, Iowa fans. But you're making it way too easy to retort with punchlines. You literally just wrote one for me: "Coach Ferentz has earned his $3.6 million a year."

I wanted to apologize for the tweets I sent to you this past Friday regarding Iowa and an apology that I thought you "owed" Iowa fans. While I disagree with your column prior to the season, the tweets I sent your way after Iowa's win on Friday were rude and not indicative of how a person, an Iowan, or a Hawkeyes fan should act, or in this case, write. Thus, my apologies for acting/writing in that manner.
-- Andrew M Wilcox, Leawood, Kan.

OK, OK. How can I be mean to people this nice?

You win, Iowans. Drinks are on me come New Year's. Figuratively, of course, since I'll be in Pasadena and you'll be in Tampa.

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