Expansive bowl season has little downside; more mail

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Last Saturday, at almost exactly the same time that Butler took No. 1 Indiana to overtime (and eventually won) in the most eventful college basketball game of the season, Arizona scored two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds of the New Mexico Bowl to stun Nevada, 49-48.

Having switched furiously back and forth between both broadcasts, I'm not sure how the Nielsen ratings would count my household. But when the overnight ratings came in, the football game garnered a 1.9, the basketball game a 1.5. The Utah State-Toledo Potato Bowl played later the same day received a 1.8.

And people wonder why we have 35 bowl games?

Stewart, is there a "right" number of bowl games? I think we can all agree that 35 is too many given 6-6 teams playing in front of sparse stadiums, but teams that went 8-4 or better should get some reward. So what's the right number of bowls?-- Chad, Chicago

My view on this has changed considerably over the years. Five years ago, I would have said cut the number of bowls in half. Get rid of games like the New Mexico Bowl with their embarrassing attendance figures (listed at 24,610 this year) and mediocre teams. Stop cheapening the more prestigious bowls by associating them with these J.V. versions that change sponsors every year. But as I watched Matt Scott and the 7-5 Wildcats wildly celebrate their supposedly "meaningless" bowl win, it reinforced my current feeling, which is: Who exactly are these bowl games hurting?

I still think you should eliminate 6-6 teams. Getting to .500 (and often not even that if you take away an FCS win) should not be an achievement. This year that would have necessitated cutting six games, though three winning teams were ineligible, so say you just cut five. That's no loss, but it's not going to happen. The commissioners briefly discussed revisiting the 6-6 rule last spring during playoff negotiations, but they were rebuffed pretty soundly by their members. Schools want more postseason opportunities, not fewer. A much more feasible change is addressing the one-sided financial arrangements that these games currently make.

You've presumably read numerous stories about teams losing money by playing in bowls, most notably due to unsold tickets. It's ridiculous for bowls to expect Florida State fans to pay $120 for the same upper-deck Orange Bowl tickets that are available for $17.50 on StubHub, and then if they don't, stick the schools with the bill. More reasonably, give the schools a week to sell out their allotment (many this bowl season, including Stanford, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Kansas State, Syracuse, UCLA, Ole Miss and Iowa State, have done just that) before returning the rest, even if that means a lower payout to the team's respective conference. Or, the conferences should cover ALL expenses, lopping that amount off the top of the overall bowl revenue it divides among its schools. No conference or school actually loses money in the bowl system, but it is true (and ridiculous) that 3-9 Auburn may receive a bigger cut of the SEC's pie than 11-1 Florida simply because the former had no overpriced Sugar Bowl tickets of its own to unload.

Once you've addressed those issues, there's no remaining downside I can see to having so many bowls. Players get a mini-vacation, $550 in gift swag and an extra month with their teammates. Coaches get the extra practice time and a recruiting bump. Fans of the participants get to go somewhere for the holidays. And the rest of us get three weeks of college football games on TV, which we've shown by now that we'll happily watch.

Stewart, I'm interested to hear who you believe should win Coach of the Year. I realize Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly both finished unbeaten and did fantastic jobs this year, but I believe it's hard to discount Penn State's Bill O'Brien. He kept the team together after the sanctions, turned Matt McGloin into a decent quarterback and guided a depleted roster to eight wins when most predicted disaster.-- Ben Briggs, Mount Laurel, N.J.

I've always found it difficult to pick one coach who definitively did a better job than every other coach in the country. What are the parameters? Is it the coach whose team did the best, or is it the one who did the best relative to expectations? If you look at recent Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year recipients, they generally fall into one of two categories: A) produced a national championship participant when few expected them to do so or B) pioneered a dramatic turnaround. Either way, the coach is being rewarded for his team exceeding our expectations of how good they would be. Therefore, if you're Nick Saban or Meyer, it's almost impossible to win the award because you're already expected to succeed -- and yet, most analysts consider them to be the two best coaches in the country. Weird, right?

MANDEL: Wisconsin hires a winner in Utah State's Gary Andersen

I recently cast my ballot for Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year, and I went with the following: 1) Kelly, 2) Bill Snyder, 3) O'Brien. No question, O'Brien dealt with the toughest circumstances of any coach in the country, and he did so with grace. His team certainly exceeded my expectations at the time of all the preseason transfers. But does producing an 8-4 team at Penn State merit Coach of the Year? I don't have a problem if someone says yes. But I went with Kelly because he not only transformed a previous five-loss team into a 12-0 team, but he did so with a clearly defined vision, and his play-calling was outstanding in big games like the one at Oklahoma. I will say, my decision may have been more difficult if Stanford's David Shaw had been one of the 10 finalists. To lead the Cardinal to the Pac-12 title the year after losing Andrew Luck, and to do so while changing not only his quarterback but the entire offense midstream, was remarkable. I wouldn't put him above Kelly, but he would have been my No. 2. That would have bumped O'Brien, which is unfortunate because he did a remarkable job.

It wasn't that long ago when news of the Big East basketball schools leaving to form their own league would have rocked the sports world. Now, it barely makes a blip on the radar as we have become so used to conference musical chairs that a few basketball programs moving around seems almost trivial. Are we anywhere near the end of this insanity? And what do you see as the aftershock of this announcement?-- Hayden Murphy, Waco, Texas

I can definitely tell people have become numb to this stuff, and I'm no exception. Last Saturday was a landmark day for anyone, like me, who grew up watching Patrick Ewing play Chris Mullin, or who attended the Big East tournament almost every year while living in New York. Still, the news just kind of came and went. Just two years ago, the 16-team Big East produced 11 NCAA tournament teams and the eventual national champion, Connecticut. Since then, 13 of those 16 programs have either left or announced they will leave, and somehow that national champion is one of the three left standing. It's crazy, and yet, after two years of this nonsense, there's none of the giddiness and intrigue that filled my inbox and Twitter feed back when Nebraska was flirting with the Big Ten or Texas with the Pac-12.

Unfortunately, there is not an end in sight. I expect movement, or at least the possibility of movement, to be a constant backdrop for the next several years. The one thing that could finally put an end to it all is that after the Big East, the Big Ten is the only major conference with a television negotiation pending in the next few years (likely in 2015). Everyone else is now locked up for a decade or longer. I'll believe the Big Ten is staying at 14 teams only if it gets through that next deal without another move, and I'll only believe the ACC and SEC are standing pat if the Big Ten stands pat. We'll also have to see after the first couple years of the new playoff (around 2015 or '16) whether the Big 12 feels having 10 teams is an advantage or disadvantage. In the meantime, the immediate aftermath of the Big East breakup centers around what kind of TV deal the football schools can get, and, related to that, whether Boise State will still come and whether BYU will join it.

In the Sept. 19 Mailbag, I asked whether you thought Notre Dame would not only return to relevance, but win the national championship since this is Brian Kelly's third year at the helm, and every other coach at ND who won a championship (except Knute Rockne) did so in his third season. Your one-word answer: No. I feel sure you still believe 'Bama will win, but what about the return to relevance part? Have you changed your mind, or do you think this year was the exception to the rule?-- Michael, Kennett, Mo.

Where have you been, Michael? I did not forget about that exchange, and for weeks I've been waiting to hear from you or other Irish fans. I've had far less unfortunate predictions thrown back in my face. Of course, I'm not technically wrong yet, but that's beside the point. On Sept. 19, I thought the possibility of Notre Dame winning the national title was still so preposterous as to merit a one-word response.

As for the second part, as I've said before, the Irish were never irrelevant; they just weren't very good. And I do feel fairly confident they'll stay good under Kelly.

Hey Stewart, I see a lot of discussion about how Notre Dame and Alabama generally match up, or which line will win in the trenches. I'm curious what you think will be the most interesting individual matchup in the game. My vote goes to the battle between Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix and Alabama center Barrett Jones.-- Darby Morrisroe, Canton, N.Y.

I'm not sure which I was more disappointed by, that this was somehow the only Notre Dame-Alabama question I received this week, or the fact that Darby already gave away the answer. Of course it's Jones against Nix. The former is the 2011 Outland Trophy winner and a consensus All-America selection. The mammoth Nix (6-foot-3, 326 pounds) did not garner much All-America consideration, but he is generally regarded as one of the key cogs in the Irish's stout defense. Jones is one of the most accomplished college offensive linemen in recent memory, but I'm not sure he performed at quite as high a level at center this season as he did at guard and tackle in the past. It's possible that Nix can win that matchup and, in turn, disrupt Alabama's rushing attack. Of course, 'Bama could render the issue moot and run outside a lot. That strategy certainly worked against Georgia.

STAPLES: Notre Dame's Nix delays NFL to fulfill his mother's dream

The other matchup I'd point to involves a pair of true freshmen, Tide receiver Amari Cooper and Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell (provided that's Russell's assignment). One of the great untold stories of Notre Dame's season is how it could produce such an elite defense despite multiple injuries to the secondary, which forced the Irish to rely heavily on a true freshman cornerback. Russell more than held his own against the likes of USC's Marqise Lee and Oklahoma's Kenny Stills. The difference here is that while Cooper may see fewer balls thrown his way, those throws will likely be deep, in one-on-one coverage, with little chance for safety help. If the BCS title game does turn out to be a close, low-scoring affair like many are predicting, one or two of those big plays could swing the difference (though, of course, the BCS title game almost never plays out as expected).

I wanted to ask your opinion on the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech. Beside the fact that his hiring is bringing together a very fractured fan base, and that this is probably about as close to an apology as any of us alums are going to get for the whole Mile Leach debacle, I was just wondering what your thoughts are for our future and our present?-- Chance Hogg, Cleburne, Texas

For the very reasons you mentioned, this was a home-run hire for Texas Tech. Even if Nick Saban had woken up one day last week and decided he'd always wanted to live in Lubbock, I'm not sure even he could have generated the same level of excitement as Kingsbury's homecoming did. It's really a perfect confluence of events. Many Red Raiders fans have been pining for a return to the Leach era for three years. Suddenly, Tommy Tuberville decides to leave for a Big East job on the exact same day that Kingsbury's protégé, Johnny Manziel, wins the Heisman. Then Texas Tech has an opportunity to hire one of the hot young coaching stars just as he's starting to ascend but before most other major programs would have given him a look -- and it just so happens that the coach is a former star quarterback who was in Lubbock for the dawn of the Leach era.

Ideally, you'd want Kingsbury, 33, to be a few years older and have more than three years' experience as a full-time college coach (two of which came in Conference USA). I have no idea whether he's ready to run a major program or not. But it's not like he's taking over a broken team. If you're going to hire an inexperienced coach, it's better for him to take over a program that already has some talent and is regularly going to bowl games, not one that requires a full-on rebuilding job. And Kingsbury learned under one of the best CEO-style coaches in the sport, Kevin Sumlin. I'd imagine Kingsbury would take a more hands-on approach with the offense. I only hope he puts his own stamp on it, as he did at A&M, rather than trying to emulate exactly what Leach did. Just because he played quarterback for Leach does not mean Kingsbury will be a replica. If anything, he'll probably take more of his cues from Sumlin.

Stewart, I was struck that in SI's 2012 All-America and Honorable Mention team (which I have no doubt is accurate) there isn't a single player from Oklahoma. In the world of Bob Stoops, I can't figure out why this would be the case. The positions are listed are up to 15 deep. Is the lack of a player the result of poor coaching of great athletes, or is it the product of great coaching of not-so-great athletes? Is it substandard recruiting for OU? I can't tell if I should be worried or excited.-- Scott, Lawrence, Kan.

First of all, lest anyone think otherwise, at no point in the selection process do we pay mind to how many players have been picked per school or per conference. We usually don't notice nuggets like this until a reader brings them up. There was one Oklahoma honoree, honorable mention cornerback Aaron Colvin, and I can tell you that several others (quarterback Landry Jones, offensive lineman Lane Johnson, safety Tony Jefferson and punter Tress Way) barely missed the cut. So there wasn't much difference between having one honoree and five.

But yes, it does strike me as uncharacteristic of the Sooners to not even have a second-teamer. Oklahoma was good enough to go 10-2 but lacked the kind of top-flight talent that's become commonplace in Norman. Stoops has been hurt by defections and injuries over the past few years, but there's simply no Adrian Peterson, Tommie Harris or Ryan Broyles on that roster right now. What's interesting is that the Sooners' (relative) talent swoon comes at a time when its rival, Oklahoma State, is churning out stars like Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and Joseph Randle. That's probably not a coincidence.

Stewart, you're getting to be a bigger idiot with each passing day. I'm sure you're probably the reason Montee Ball wasn't first team All-America on SI.com's All-America team. That is a joke because Ball is the best running back in the country! And then to pick Stanford by three touchdowns? That's laughable. SI must be hurting for quality writers because you, sir, are pathetic!-- Jim, Northfield, Minn.

You know what else is laughable? A BCS-bowl team with five losses. But first team or second team, I love me some Montee Ball, and I'm looking forward to seeing him in Pasadena one last time.

Speaking of which, the Mailbag will be taking next week off, and by the time it comes back, we'll be mid-BCS lineup. This year I'm covering three games (Rose, Fiesta and BCS title). Since New Year's Day falls on a Tuesday, we'll push back the next edition to Thursday, Jan. 3. I'm assuming there will be quite a few Alabama-Notre Dame submissions by then.

In the meantime, have a great holiday.