Sizing up the lack of major upsets, Baylor's prolific start; more mail

Wednesday October 9th, 2013

Ty Montgomery tallied 204 return yards to help Stanford hold off upset-minded Washington last week.
Stephen Lam/Getty Images

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and repeat guest John Walters discuss the Condoleezza Rice controversy, Baylor's absurd offense, Jadeveon Clowney and Breaking Bad.

I thought last Saturday offered the most compelling set of games to date, highlighted by three in particular: Georgia-Tennessee, Ohio State-Northwestern and Washington-Stanford. All were close, back-and-forth affairs involving valiant upset bids by the underdogs against top-six opponents.

But of course, continuing with this season's pattern, all involved the favorites prevailing in respectively unsatisfying finishes.

Where are the upsets at this year? Have we had such a stable top 10 in the past?
-- Al Caniglia, Frankfurt, Germany

It does seem highly unusual to have reached a point where numerous teams have already played half of their regular-season games and we've still yet to see a landmark upset. With the exception of Texas, which select idiots pegged in the preseason as a BCS bowl team, no commonly perceived national title contender has thus far been exposed. Some of this is due to scheduling discrepancies; Georgia, for example, has played three top-10 foes, while Oregon has yet to face a team currently ranked in Jeff Sagarin's top 30. Some leagues, like the SEC and ACC, have teams that have already played several conference games, while others, like the Big Ten, are only now getting started.

But hey, let's give credit where credit is due. Maybe the various prognosticators actually knew what they were talking about. To this point, it appears they've made no obvious whiffs.

Eight of the top-10 teams in the preseason AP Poll remain there through Week 6, the exceptions being South Carolina (now No. 14) and Florida (now No. 17). At this same point last season, preseason No. 1 USC had fallen out of the top 10 (en route to finishing out of the Top 25), as had preseason No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 6 Georgia, No. 7 Florida State (following a loss to unranked NC State), No. 7 Michigan (by then 3-2) and, of course, No. 10 Arkansas, which was then led by John L. Smith. Meanwhile, previously unsung Kansas State and Notre Dame, both future BCS bowl teams, had entered the mix, as had major surprise Oregon State. In 2010, neither of the BCS title game participants Auburn and Oregon appeared in the preseason top 10, but they had made it by Week 7, replacing (among others) eventual 5-7 Texas and 8-5 Iowa.

But you don't have to go too far back to find a possible template for this season. Just two seasons ago, in 2011, there had been some movement -- LSU rising from No. 4 to No. 1; Russell Wilson-led Wisconsin jumping from No. 11 to No. 3 -- but the entire top five and seven of the top 10 remained in place. Like this season, the national title race was starting to coalesce around various conference showdowns: LSU-Alabama, Oregon-Stanford, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. Those games ultimately did matter, but the Ducks (to USC), Sooners (to Texas Tech and Baylor) and Cowboys (to Iowa State) were all eventually upset by significant underdogs. This being college football, I don't expect this season to be any different.

Why is No. 15 Baylor ranked so low? Regardless of whether it has played a good team or not, it has absolutely obliterated every opponent, with starters seldom playing more than a series in the second half. I think every person in America wants to see Baylor play Alabama in the national championship.
-- Chase M, Dallas

There's definitely a too-good-to-be-true sentiment that Baylor is having a tough time shedding, both because it's Baylor (as opposed to a more established power) and because its success has come against such lowly regarded opponents.

Also, because of the aforementioned lack of upsets, there haven't been teams for the voters to conveniently move down in order to move the Bears up. As my podcast guest John Walters said this week, it's completely illogical that 95 percent of AP voters have Louisville ranked ahead of Baylor. That's no knock on Louisville, but the two teams have basically played the same measly schedules. The Cardinals are destroying their opponents, but the Bears are doing something borderline inhumane.

STAPLES: Baylor climbs to No. 10 in latest college football Power Rankings

Think about this for a second. Oregon is pretty much the universal standard bearer for ridiculous offensive numbers, and the Ducks are doing their thing better than ever so far this season, averaging 59.2 points and 630.4 yards. Unbelievable, right? Well, Baylor has topped that by more than 10 points (70.5) and nearly 150 yards (779.5) per game. In fact, the Bears average basically a first down on every play (9.6 yards). They put up 73 points and 864 yards against West Virginia last Saturday, and that's with quarterback Bryce Petty throwing just one pass and running back Lache Seastrunk getting no carries after halftime.

So while it's perfectly understandable to question Baylor's level of competition, I find it hard to believe there are 14 teams better than the Bears. If Baylor gets to its Nov. 7 game against Oklahoma undefeated (which I believe it will), it'll certainly be in the top 10. If it beats the Sooners, it'll add the type of statement victory which voters can no longer ignore. And if it's still averaging 600 yards a game by then? Well, then I don't think every person in America will want to see the Bears play Alabama -- because I don't think anyone in Alabama (save for Auburn fans) will want anything to do with Art Briles' team.

How long before Jerry Kill retires and spares all of us the weekly seizure drama? I know there's nothing anyone can really do about it, but the guy has had five seizures (that we know about) on game days since 2011. At some point, enough is enough, right? I know he's the right guy for the Minnesota job and all, but is coaching really worth dying for?
-- John Simonian, San Francisco

Everyone's a doctor, apparently.

I have no idea what Kill will or should do. Only he and his doctors know what exactly he's going through, which medications he's on and whether his condition is truly life-threatening. (According to the CDC's website and others, in most cases it is not.) I would recommend anyone who's fixated on the poor fans who have to deal with his seemingly unnecessary drama to read this recent column from Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre, whose adult son has epilepsy and suffers from seizures yet "has a wonderful job and is surrounded by caring people who know what might happen and never hold him back because of it."

I have to believe if Kill's doctors told him he was putting his life at risk by continuing to coach, he wouldn't coach. Kill said this summer that he would "walk away if I didn't think I could do" the job. I can't imagine what he's grappling with right now, but I know this: If he does decide to step away, it will be to spare himself, not the rest of us.

GLICKSMAN: Road to recovery: Tracking Antone Exum's ACL rehabilitation

I was watching the UCLA-Utah game and concluded that the Pac-12 has the most geographically diverse locales in college football. You have elevation (Colorado and Utah), cold (Washington State, Colorado, Utah), rain (Pacific Northwest schools) and deserts (Arizona and Arizona State). I can't help but think these distinct geographical features give each school an advantage at home. My question is, what is a bigger determinant of home field advantage: a rabid fan base (noise) or a distinct geographical advantage (elevation/rain/desert)?
-- Todd, San Francisco

It's a good observation, and one you also could apply to the Mountain West, which spans Hawaii and San Diego but also includes Wyoming and Colorado State. To best answer it, I brought in Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertherim, whose 2011 book, Scorecasting, co-authored with behavioral economist Tobias Moskowitz, used extensive data to demystify home-field advantage. Granted, the pair did not directly address college football, focusing instead on the NFL. But they found that none of the traditionally assumed factors -- noise, geography, distance traveled, etc. -- had any correlation to on-field results.

"What we found was the real home/road factor was in the officiating," Wertheim told me. "... In football, the disparity in penalty yards and turnovers favors the home team, though, tellingly, it went down with the advent of replay challenges. Our theory: while there's nothing sinister or corrupt, officials are swayed by the home crowds. They are duty-bound to neutrality, but they are still human. As such, when asked to make snap judgments, they are swayed by tens of thousands of people voicing their opinions. And they are also likely swayed by a [very human] desire to be liked."

Iowa State fans are probably asking themselves why the officials in last Thursday's Texas game didn't want to be liked.

This theory makes sense. While we romanticize the notion that home teams "feed off the energy of the crowd," that's pretty intangible. Crowd noise sometimes causes a team to false start a couple of times, but not for the whole game. And I've chuckled when Big Ten fans go on their "Let's see an SEC team come up and play here in January" rants. Few teams in history have ever lost a game because they were cold. Rain and snow affect both teams. However, I do think there's one factor that may play a bigger role in college than the NFL, and that's the fact that these players aren't pros. They don't travel for a living. In fact, there are many players who have rarely stepped on an airplane or stayed in a hotel before getting to college. The unfamiliarity, the disruptions to their routines and their body clocks may play a bigger factor in college, especially on longer trips. It's not a coincidence that Hawaii has historically played much better at home than on the road.

After the Oklahoma State game last year and the Iowa State game on Thursday night, can there be any doubt that the Big 12 instructs officials to help its premier team in Austin? Two no-calls on clear Texas fumbles on the goal line in the final minute of play, both inexplicably upheld on review? We all know Pac-12 officials are just incompetent, but Big 12 officials seem to have a clear mandate to give Texas a little help whenever needed.
-- Robert Brown, Austin, Texas

See what I mean about conspiracy theories? But hey, even former Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne agrees with this one.

Condoleezza Rice's inclusion on the College Football Playoff committee has sparked plenty of backlash.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Stewart, I have absolutely nothing against a woman serving on the selection committee. However, you say that Condoleezza Rice is a critical thinker. Well, I have a master's degree from Johns Hopkins, I've been watching college football all my life, understand the nuances of the sport and I know a thing or two about making pressure-packed decisions -- I am serving in Afghanistan right now. What makes her different from me?
-- Chip, Kandahar, Afghanistan

First of all, on behalf of everyone reading this column back home, thank you for serving our country.

Based on the résumé you described, you are every bit as qualified as Rice to serve on a college football selection committee. But I'd only say the same of about half the names on the roster. Rice is the only one garnering criticism. Some will say that's because she has never worked in college football. To me, that's like saying the only people qualified to review movies are actors and directors, or the only people qualified to grade English papers are published authors. I'm sure there are untold numbers of knowledgeable college football fans like Chip who could do just as good a job -- if not better -- of evaluating football teams than people who've spent every day of their professional careers inside the sport. No one is asking the committee members to devise game plans or practice schedules. They just have to evaluate data and subjectively form opinions about which teams they believe to be the four best.

Case in point: In the run-up to last year's national title game, a BCS conference coach whose opinion is universally respected suggested to me that Notre Dame would upset Alabama in part because Irish nose guard Louis Nix III would obliterate Crimson Tide center Barrett Jones. Quite the opposite happened. My point is, we could stick 13 of the nation's savviest coaches in a room for a week, have them watch tape of every candidate's games that season and have them select the top four -- and there's no guarantee they'd get it right any more than the names that are out there. By the same token, these are hardly the only 13 names qualified to serve on the committee, but I'm OK with the composition in general.

ROSENBERG: Backlash against Condoleezza Rice appointment is sexist, stupid

Are you starting to get cold feet about the new system like I am? We're about to put a dozen people into a room who have never been paid to pick winners and expect them to suddenly be experts. I respect Barry Alvarez and I think he's a good AD, but he's never been tested in the business of ranking teams. There's an objective way to find this committee: invite dozens of qualified people to pick winners every week, make those picks public, and let the best 12-18 rise to the top each season.
-- Eric, St. Joseph, Mich.

Again, I think you're missing the point of this group's mission. We're not asking them to be gambling handicappers. In fact, they shouldn't be trying to predict future events at all. They should be reviewing 12 to 13 weeks of results and deciding which teams have acquitted themselves the most. If we're being honest, the people who would be most qualified to perform this task are Vegas oddsmakers, not because of their ability to predict games (that's not what they do), but because they have a built-in financial motivation to compile the most unbiased and informed rankings possible. Their power ratings of teams help determine how they set their spreads, which in turn directly impact their sports books' bottom lines.

Of course, that would never happen, due to the seedy associations people have about gambling. The commissioners presumably picked a former secretary of state (Rice), congressman (Tom Osborne) and Air Force lieutenant general (Michael Gould) in part because the appearance of integrity is so important in gaining public acceptance. Ultimately, that's going to be a fruitless task. People will question the group anyway. But, as I did when it was announced, I still believe that a selection committee operating with a clear set of principles and guidelines and transparency in their decisions is far superior to the current system.

Which would you rather have? A small panel of educated people studying and deliberating this specific task? Or a formula in which sportswriters and coaches who see a limited number of teams play each week create an educated guess of a poll in the preseason from which they then move teams up and down, mixed with a set of secretive and mathematically neutered computer ratings?

You seemed to use the Big 12's statement that the call in the Texas-Iowa State game was correct as "proof" that there was no conspiracy. However, who do you think benefits the most from Texas winning? The Big 12 conference!
-- Brad, Dallas

Now I'm confused. How exactly does the Big 12 benefit from 2-2 Texas winning a football game? The only beneficiaries I can think of are DeLoss Dodds, Mack Brown and, if you really want to go full-on conspiracy, ESPN, given its vested interest in the Longhorn Network.

Was the call on the field actually confirmed in Bristol? Oooo.

THAMEL: What happened to the once-dominant Texas athletic program?

Hey, Stewart, longtime reader, first-time mailer. Many around town are comparing Oklahoma's defense this year to that of the 2000 team. With its performance in last week's first half, holding TCU to 11 total yards and no first downs, I'd like to think Mike Stoops has turned the D back in time to something good again. Thoughts?
-- Blake, Norman, Okla.

Blake sent this email before the announcement that Sooners senior linebacker and second-leading tackler Corey Nelson may be lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. That's a tough blow, especially for Nelson, who was thriving in the new 3-3-5 scheme after being misused at times last season. But I don't think the defense will fall apart without him. Oklahoma is playing at a very high level thanks to the change in scheme and the emergence of several disruptive players up front, most notably nose tackle Jordan Phillips (who did not even play against the Horned Frogs), defensive end Charles Tapper and blitzing linebacker Eric Striker. The Sooners are allowing 281.6 yards per game (No. 9 nationally) and 4.7 yards per play (No. 23).

But I'd caution against two things. First, TCU's offense is dreadful (No. 114 nationally). Holding any team to 11 first-half yards and 210 total yards is impressive, but the Sooners' performance the previous week against Notre Dame was a better measuring stick. Second, as Mike Stoops told me in my feature on Oklahoma's defense a few weeks ago, it's unrealistic to compare any defense today to one from the early 2000s, since offenses now are so much more prolific. But this year's Sooners don't need to perform at that level to have a great season. Furthermore, they will not be facing nearly as many powerful offenses in the Big 12 as in years past. In fact, as of now, it's otherworldly Baylor, pass-happy Texas Tech ... and that's about it. If injury-laden Texas scores more than two touchdowns against Oklahoma this week, something's wrong. The Sooners' offense is still hit-or-miss -- but that defense -- if it can survive Nelson's loss, puts the team in the BCS bowl hunt.

A big spot in the fourth quarter goes Ohio State's way. Texas gets the benefit of a phantom non-fumble. Washington is done in against Stanford by a questionable call. Do I smell a conspiracy?
-- Rusty, Cincinnati

Now we're going full-on Oliver Stone, because I can't for the life of me figure out what mystery puppeteer has a mutual interest in protecting Ohio State, Texas and Stanford. Except perhaps Brent Musburger's friends in Montana.

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.