Looking ahead to the inaugural College Football Playoff; more mail

Wednesday June 4th, 2014

Can dynamic quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) and Oregon make a run at a College Football Playoff berth?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It's probably unavoidable in the throes of the offseason, but I've noticed over the past few weeks that the college football beat is drowning in the minutia of ongoing NCAA governance reform. It's important, no question, as is next week's long-anticipated Ed O'Bannon trial. But I'm a little puzzled by the lack of buzz right now about another, more imminent change: the inaugural College Football Playoff. Fans have only been clamoring over it for, oh, at least 16 years. Now it's almost here.

So, too, is major college football's first playoff race.

Stewart, with five major conferences and only four spots in the playoff, which one (or more) of the five power leagues will lack a participant in the first playoff?
-- Brett, Fair Play, Texas

Well, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is apparently convinced that a "minimum" of two SEC teams will make the field on an annual basis. You might want to rewrite the question to say: "Which conference will be so fortunate as to land that one remaining spot that is not already reserved for a 9-3 SEC West team?"

For the purposes of Brett's question, though, I'll assume that only one of the five power conferences gets left out. Besides the SEC, which I'll concede is most likely to place its champion in the field, I'm most confident in the ACC, because Florida State would have to grossly underachieve to finish below the top four. As dominant as the Seminoles were last season, they produced only one 2014 first-round NFL draft pick (wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin). That's because nearly all of their most talented players -- quarterback Jameis Winston, tackle Cameron Erving, receiver Rashad Greene and virtually the entire secondary -- are back this fall. ESPN's Todd McShay included six Florida State players in his early '15 first-round projections, which are admittedly about as accurate as one of his other former first-round honorees, quarterback Logan Thomas. But the 'Noles are loaded, and with a rigorous nonconference schedule (Oklahoma State on Aug. 30, Notre Dame on Oct. 18 and Florida on Nov. 29) and Louisville joining the ACC Atlantic Division, they can likely afford a loss this time.

RICKMAN: Florida State, Alabama headline post-spring Power Rankings

The third conference on my confidence ladder is the Pac-12, which may well be the best league this season behind quarterbacks like Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion. But Pac-12 teams may bludgeon each other out of contention. Still, I'd be willing to bet that the trio of Stanford, Oregon and UCLA produces one entrant among them, with their respectively deep schedules bolstering their cases in the committee's eyes.

That leaves the Big Ten and the Big 12. The former has viable contenders in Michigan State and Ohio State, and Wisconsin should never be overlooked. The Big 12, however, appears to have only one playoff threat in Oklahoma. Baylor could be in the mix, too, but its characteristically weak nonconference slate (SMU on Aug. 31, Northwestern State on Sept. 6 and Buffalo on Sept. 12) leaves no margin for error. The Bears probably have to go undefeated to secure a spot. By contrast, the Spartans have a chance to make a statement at Oregon on Sept. 6, as do the Badgers against LSU on Aug. 30. Ohio State has two potentially decent foes in Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. If I had to guess today, the Big 12 is the league with a champion relegated to the Cotton Bowl.

By not making it a requirement to win one's conference, the playoff is going to ruin college football's regular season. Conferences should be viewed as playoff brackets: If a team cannot win its league, it does not deserve to be national champion.
-- James Lynch, Anaheim

This is a comment, not a question, but I want to address it anyway. I keep hearing this sentiment from fans, and I'm not sure they've thought the whole you-should-have-to-win-your-conference thing through.

While the argument is partially rooted in SEC envy, I think people are largely frustrated that college football's postseason isn't clean and symmetrical like the NFL playoffs are. They want to eliminate any subjectivity from the selection process. News flash: That's never going to happen. For one thing, there are at least five conferences vying for four spots. Someone has to decide who gets left out. Even if the field eventually expands to eight teams, someone will need to determine which of the nearly 130 FBS teams land the wild-card spots. There are no easy tiebreakers like there are in the NFL. How do you break a tie between seven 10-2 teams with virtually no common opponents?

STAPLES: College football's great scheduling debate all about incentive

Regarding the four-team field, for fans who truly believe the committee should only consider conference champions, well, be careful what you wish for. Two years ago, 8-5 Wisconsin was the Big Ten champion due in part to 12-0 Ohio State's postseason ban; 6-6 Georgia Tech played in the ACC title game because of Miami's sanctions; and 9-3 UCLA made the Pac-12 title game. Oh, and 12-0 Notre Dame did not win a conference. Assuming there would have been some dispensation for the Fighting Irish, fans would've been a couple of upsets away from a four-team field featuring No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 2 Alabama, No. 5 Kansas State and projected No. 13 UCLA. You tell me which scenario "ruins" the regular season: the one that rewards the four teams that won their final games or the one that rewards the four teams -- in this case, 12-0 Notre Dame, 12-1 'Bama, 11-1 Florida and 11-1 Oregon -- that played best over the course of the entire season.

Some may disagree, but I'd much rather watch semifinal games in which No. 1 plays No. 4 and No. 2 plays No. 3 than showdowns in which No. 1 plays No. 13 and No. 2 plays No. 5.

Vegas recently released its over-under win totals for the 2014 season. While the wise guys are undoubtedly smarter than I am, a few totals stick out. I would expect Tennessee is in store for more than 5.5 wins, while Notre Dame and Missouri may be a tad overrated at 9.5. Which totals stick out to you?
-- Benjamin Briggs, Mount Laurel, N.J.

Tennessee's total of 5.5 does not surprise me, because while the Volunteers will likely improve in coach Butch Jones' second season, their schedule is brutal. As of today, they would likely be considerable underdogs at Oklahoma on Sept. 13, at Georgia on Sept. 27, against Alabama on Oct. 25 and at South Carolina on Nov. 1. The Vols would be slight underdogs against Florida on Oct. 4 and Missouri on Nov. 22, too. Their opening opponent, Utah State, is set to return dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton, and Tennessee hasn't beaten Vanderbilt in four years. I think I'd take the over, but not by much.

The totals for Notre Dame and Missouri do seem high, though the Irish's is inflated because of their popularity among casual bettors. Notre Dame's schedule doesn't seem to lend itself to 10 wins, but I would have said the same thing two years ago. Missouri won 12 games last year, but after losing defensive linemen Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, among others, the Tigers have a lot to replace on defense.

Two others totals that stand out to me are Penn State's and North Carolina's. The Nittany Lions went 7-5 last season. The effect on their roster from recent scholarship reductions is only going to get worse before it gets better. Yet Penn State's over-under total of 8.5 suggests it might win nine games. I don't see that happening. I feel the opposite way about the Tar Heels. After starting 1-5 last season, Larry Fedora's squad won six of its last seven contests, the sole loss coming in a heartbreaking 27-25 defeat to division champion Duke. Several young playmakers emerged, including dynamic quarterback Marquise Williams. I see North Carolina as a potential 10-win team, making its total of 7.5 seem low -- even with potentially daunting trips to Notre Dame, Clemson and Miami.

College football's overtime rules came into existence in 1996. Will there ever be a day when the broadcast booth does not feel an obligation to use a graphic to show the rules and discuss them at length every time a game goes to overtime? I think we understand them by now.
-- Matt Ebbert, Birmingham, Ala.

I doubt it. There are presumably plenty of casual viewers who don't realize there's a difference between college and NFL overtime. And let's be honest, the college format for determining a winner, while exciting, is pretty darn weird.

Thankfully, we have the World Cup coming up to remind us there are even stranger ways to break a tie. Like bribing a referee. Or going to a shootout.

BYU is in a difficult situation as college football transitions to a long-awaited four-team playoff system.
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Has anyone been more negatively affected by the new playoff system than BYU? The ACC and SEC won't schedule the Cougars because they aren't considered a major program. But the playoff doesn't consider BYU to be part of the "Group of Five" that gets an automatic berth in a major bowl. So, BYU isn't a big program, but it's not a small one, either. How does that work?
-- Josh, Anchorage, Alaska

BYU's bold move to go independent four years ago, which made sense in the 2010 landscape, is proving a huge detriment in '14.

Mind you, BYU as an institution is unique in that its core mission is to spread the message of the LDS Church. Its nationally respected football team provides a means to do that. In 2010, the school was frustrated by the Mountain West's disastrous TV deals at the time, and it felt it would gain more exposure and revenue by striking its own deal with ESPN. That rationale proved accurate. However, I initially felt that BYU might benefit on the field, too. The "non-BCS" label had become unduly stigmatizing for a program that, in terms of history (the Cougars won the 1984 national title and had a Heisman Trophy winner in Ty Detmer in '90) and resources (a 64,000-seat stadium), shares far more in common with Washington than it does with Wyoming. And a BYU team that finished in the top 14 of the BCS standings stood a good chance of earning an at-large berth to a game like the Fiesta Bowl.

But in the new system, it's better to be the champion of the Mountain West -- one of five smaller leagues that will vie for an automatic berth -- than an at-large aspirant. The selection committee's rankings will be used to fill those few open spots, and depending on which bowls host the semifinals in a given year, the cutoff will likely be in the top 10. BYU's only guarantee this year is a trip to the new Miami Beach Bowl.

More threatening are the ACC and SEC's new policies that require members to schedule at least one opponent from a power conference. In recent years, BYU has faced Virginia, Georgia Tech and Ole Miss. The Yellow Jackets already fulfill their requirement annually with Georgia. Others may no longer have room.

The irony, four years later, is that the Mountain West now has its own deal with ESPN. If it had stayed put, BYU would likely get more appearances than any team in the conference but Boise State. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco recently said his league has a scheduling "quasi-alliance" with BYU, and perhaps the school can eventually form a relationship similar to Notre Dame's with the ACC. But that won't help Cougars much in the playoff. The Mountain West circa 2010, with BYU, TCU and Utah, was a much stronger league than the American will be in '14.

Stewart, with news of revenue sharing in the major conferences, why do headlines read "SEC passes out record revenue" instead of "SEC hands out the smallest amount per member school" on nearly every news site? From what I've gathered, the Big Ten is handing out more than $25 million per team, the Big 12 is doling out $23 million per school and the Pac-12 is dishing out $28 million per member. The SEC's figure is just $21 million. I don't get it.
-- Ted, Edmond, Okla.

Do SEC conspiracy theories know no bounds? I hate to break it to you, but nearly every major conference has enjoyed the same "... hands out record revenue" headline in recent weeks. Here's the Pac-12's (for 2012-13) and the Big 12's (for 2013-14). The ACC and Big Ten have not disclosed new numbers, but if and when they do, I guarantee they will be records for those respective leagues.

As for comparing various conferences' numbers, it's not as simple as Ted makes it sound. For instance, the Pac-12's reported $334 million revenue in 2012-13 was indeed higher than any other league's in that year. However, unlike the SEC, which distributes nearly all of its revenue back to the schools, the Pac-12 held back $106 million for expenses, presumably much of it for running its conference-owned network. Therefore, its reported per-team payouts of $19 million-plus were actually lower than the Big Ten's, SEC's or Big 12's ($22 million). Furthermore, these comparisons will all be moot once the SEC Network launches this fall, sending the SEC into a different stratosphere than the other conferences. That is, until the Big Ten negotiates its next contract in '17, which will reset the bar again.

Long story short: The five power leagues are all making a ton of money, and their totals have skyrocketed in a short amount of time. The Pac-12 alone has tripled its intake in the past three years; the SEC has nearly doubled its intake in five. That's why power conferences are pushing so hard for legislative autonomy. They're sick of getting sued over things they could easily pay for if their peers would just let them.

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This offseason Michigan shuffled its defensive coaches and reassigned former linebackers coach Roy Manning to lead the cornerbacks. Manning has played and coached the linebacker position in the past, but he has never coached cornerbacks. He is spending a few weeks with the Chicago Bears to learn more. Is it unreasonable to expect a top-tier program that pays its assistants sizable sums to retain coaches who have expertise -- or prior experience, at the very least -- playing or coaching the position they are expected to teach others?
-- Eric, Pleasanton, Calif.

It's actually fairly common for coaches to work with several different position groups over the course of their careers. If they didn't, it would severely hinder their development, which for most of them includes goals of overseeing an entire offense or defense and, ultimately, a team. According to the linked article, Manning has worked with running backs and offensive linemen in the past. Two years ago, Chuck Martin, a former college safety and now the head coach at Miami (Ohio), went from Notre Dame's defensive backs coach one season to its offensive coordinator the next. That was the year the Irish reached the BCS title game. The notion that a coach must have previously played a position to teach it is misplaced. That's like saying someone can't teach English in high school unless he was an English major in college. Teachers change subjects all the time.

That said, I, too, am fascinated by the process in which a coach learns the nuances of a position so he can then teach it to others. What can Manning learn in a few weeks with the Bears that will suddenly make him qualified to tutor a fifth-year senior who has played cornerback his whole life? Probably very little. Still, coaches emphasize that overall teaching skills and the ability to relate to players are more important than having an encyclopedic knowledge of a given position. Manning doesn't need a master's degree in backpedaling to watch his players, identify areas where they need to improve and then push them to get better. But let's revisit this topic come fall if Michigan's cornerbacks start getting torched with regularity.

Now that Rutgers and Maryland are nearly Big Ten members and the conference has thankfully renamed its divisions, did you keep your promise to never use either of the "L" words to describe the old divisions?
-- Jeff Thuma, Athens, Ohio

I still have to make it to July 1, but, yes, I do believe I have stuck to my pledge to never acknowledge those atrocious names in the Mailbag once they went into effect in 2011. (It was unavoidable in other columns such as College Football Overtime.) Feel free to fact check that for me, dear readers, but I took this as a promising sign.

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