By Stewart Mandel
January 06, 2010

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Well, here we are, on the eve of the game I once proposed calling the "The Granddaddy of All Mismatches." Hopefully those of you familiar with my writing style understand I was being tongue-in-cheek -- but that surely won't prevent a world-record deluge of hate mail streaming in from the state of Texas should the Longhorns prevail Thursday night.

So -- should I be getting nervous?

Has your opinion of the Alabama-Texas outcome changed at all since your original article?-- Michael, Youngstown, Ohio

Well first of all, having already clinched a losing season on my bowl picks, there's no reason for me or anyone else to be confident in my prognostication abilities right now. In the weeks after that article was published, I started thinking more about the matchup and started having some buyer's remorse. Was I reading too much into the teams' last games (remember, that column was written less than 24 hours after Texas-Nebraska)? Was I not giving Colt McCoy enough credit for his potential to deliver a Vince Young-style sendoff? Was I giving Alabama's offense too much credit based off the Florida game, considering the Tide rarely looked that complete for much of the season?

Of course, Mack Brown is now playing up the David vs. Goliath angle on a daily basis (much to Nick Saban's considerable chagrin), and we all know the recent history of widely discounted teams (namely 2000 Oklahoma, 2002 Ohio State, 2005 Texas, 2006 Florida) in BCS title games.

But after being out here a few days, after talking to members of both teams, after boning up on both teams' collective work over the course of the season, I simply can't get over the one glaring issue that makes it hard for me to envision the Longhorns winning: Texas' offensive line.

Obviously, a team doesn't go 13-0 by accident, and the Longhorns' offense played at a high level for much of the season. But the two times they faced an elite defensive front -- against Oklahoma and Nebraska -- they simply could not protect McCoy. The Sooners sacked him four times; the Huskers nine. Now they're going up against an Alabama defense known first and foremost for its endless array of blitzes and ability to disguise them. I don't doubt Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis will be ready with some countermoves (look for McCoy to run more draws for himself), and I know McCoy himself is adept at making quick reads and adjusting accordingly. But at the end of the day, there's only so much he can do if his line doesn't protect him.STAPLES: Texas looks to turn Nebraska nightmare into teachable moment

At Sunday's media session, I spent some time at Texas center Chris Hall's riser. Hall seems like an incredibly nice guy. He had a big smile on his face the entire time he was up there. I wish the guy no harm. But when asked what reason people should have to believe that his O-line will fare better against the Tide's defense than it did against Nebraska, Hall's reply was simply: "If we don't, we'll be in trouble." Then he burst out laughing. It didn't exactly fill me with confidence.

But what do I know? I'm the guy who picked Arizona to beat Nebraska.

Stewart, I thoroughly enjoyed the Boise State-TCU game. The defenses played well. Just because it was not a shootout does not mean it was not a good game. I bet if the game involved UT and 'Bama, it would be considered a "classic."-- Sam Callan, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Boise State-TCU was the worst BCS game ever. I have seen more exciting and more complete teams in high school games in Texas. Boise State needs someone like Florida or Alabama or Texas to punch them in the mouth. Don't give me the Oklahoma game defense. They won that on a trick play, and they won last night's game on a trick play. They are as good for college football as a gun show is for the NBA.-- John Garrett, Round Rock, Texas

No matter what the result had been Monday night, there would have been detractors. If the game had been 43-42, they would have complained that the teams don't play defense. Instead it was 17-10, so now the game was "boring." Was it sloppy at times? Sure. There were penalties. There were turnovers. Both quarterbacks missed open receivers. A TCU player dropped a sure touchdown. But these things happen in lots of games. During the third quarter, when the score was 10-10 and neither team could seem to get anything going, I turned to the writer seated next to me and said: If you played this exact same game but put SEC uniforms on the two teams, Gary Danielson would be telling us "It doesn't get any better than this!"

I'm not naïve to the fact that Boise State doesn't have the same caliber of athletes as Alabama or Texas. Would the Broncos go 14-0 playing an SEC or Big 12 schedule? I highly doubt it. But all the Boise States of the world have ever wanted is a "shot." And something like 70 percent of you think there should be a college playoff. You don't have to beat a team four-out-of-seven in a football playoff, you just have to beat it once. And the way the Broncos played defense Monday night, they could have shut down just about anybody. They held a team that went in averaging 256 rushing yards to 36. That's just unbelievable.

I used to believe a team like Boise was pretty good, but could never beat a big-time team in a championship setting. I can't possibly say that now. Any team that plays tough, physical defense gives itself a chance to win on any given night. In this case, the Broncos' offense wasn't faring much better than TCU's, and it needed that fake punt to provide the spark to get it over the hump. But contrary to John's opinion, I don't think Boise won "on a trick play." Boise won with defense. I guarantee you whoever wins Thursday night's game will do so much the same way.

Stewart, I watched the Fiesta Bowl last night and was impressed by both defenses. Boise State has put on an impressive run over the last couple seasons, of that there is no doubt. What happens, however, to the BCS landscape if say next year, an undefeated Boise (or any other non-AQ team) were to meet up with a powerhouse (whichever one happens to step up next year) and gets absolutely obliterated in a BCS championship?-- Jeremy, Montreal

Well first we have to get to that point. As I wrote Monday night, next season will provide the Broncos a golden opportunity (not that going undefeated and beating Virginia Tech in Washington D.C. is by any means a given). If it happens, and assuming Boise faces a traditional power like Alabama or Texas, it's going to be a watershed moment for the sport one way or the other.

Forget the system for a second. This is about Boise's reputation as a program. The Broncos are in the midst of a remarkable phenomenon similar to what Miami and Florida State did in the '80s: They're building a national reputation out of nothing. By no means is it an exact parallel. For one thing, those teams were independents that played rigorous regular-season schedules; Boise still plays just one or two truly respected opponents all season. The Broncos also lack the advantage Miami had in the old bowl system of being able to play the No. 1 team in its backyard. The Hurricanes' upset of Nebraska in the '84 Orange Bowl gave that program immediate and lasting respect as a truly elite team.

Boise has been climbing the mountain with its Fiesta Bowl victories to the point where it may now get such an opportunity, but so much would be riding on that one game. If the Broncos were to get obliterated, they'd probably never get that opportunity again under the present system. And it would certainly hurt the cause of their brethren pushing for a playoff. It's well and good to say the smaller-conference teams should be able to play for the national championship, but if one of those teams finally gets the chance only to lose 42-10, it could set back that movement many years.

If Mack Brown wins on Thursday does it speed up his retirement clock?-- Andrew Gibbons, Washington D.C.

No, actually, I think it would do the opposite. I know the Will Muschamp arrangement has put that possibility in everyone's heads, but from what I've gathered, that deal (which raised Muschamp's salary to $900,000) was done more so to retain a premier defensive coordinator (Greg Robinson only stayed for one season, Gene Chizik for two) than to prepare for Brown's retirement. If Muschamp's still around when the day comes, Texas will be more than happy to anoint him. More realistically, he's going to be long gone by then because I don't think Brown, 58, is in any hurry to step down.

"I'm going to be around for a while, and Will understands that's good," Brown said at Tuesday's Media Day. "He's a very highly paid defensive coordinator and he's doing a good job with it ... But very honestly the decision was not made for today or tomorrow, it was made for down the road, and he and I are good with that."

If anything, Brown is far more content now than he was when he won the 2005 title. If you think back to that time, Brown had spent most of his first eight seasons carrying the burden of proving he was more than just "Mr. February," that he could "win the big one." He had more than his share of detractors. He also had to have knee-replacement surgery right after that season to alleviate the excruciating pain he would feel after standing on the sidelines for three hours. That following summer, he confided to me and a few other writers in his office that he'd contemplated calling it quits after that title season. But the surgery did wonders for him, his program has never been more stable, and oh yeah, by the way, he just got a humongous raise.

Stewart: Can we let go of the pretense that Cincinnati deserved a shot at the national title? I know the coach left, but to get beaten as badly as they were -- by a team that was pummeled by 'Bama -- does not say much for them. I can't imagine how a game against 'Bama would have been much better.-- Ken Young, Montgomery, Ala.

I feel bad for the Bearcats and their fans that their dream season ended in such nightmarish fashion, both with Brian Kelly's exit and the Sugar Bowl beatdown. But no, they were not a legitimate title contender, and that should have been apparent over the final month of the season when teams like Connecticut and Illinois -- yes, Illinois -- were racking up yards on them.

Cincinnati reminded me very much of Oklahoma last year: A team with an exciting, pyrotechnic offense but a shoddy defense. Just like those Sooners, the Bearcats eventually went up against an opponent capable of slowing down their attack. Perhaps if the Kelly thing hadn't happened, they would have played a more competitive game against the Gators as Oklahoma did the year before, but realistically, Tony Pike was never going to throw for 350 yards against Joe Haden and Co.

The problem is, voters will always put a premium on going undefeated, particularly in a BCS conference. It goes against convention to start dropping a team toward the end of the season without it losing a game, especially when there weren't even any one-loss teams left by the week leading into Championship Saturday. I do think voters recognize the importance of defense, and that's why they had TCU above Cincy in their polls, but it's hard to predict which team the computers would have spit out had Texas lost. It could have been the Bearcats. And it could have been just as ugly.

As a loyal Husker fan relocated to Tucson several years ago, I completely enjoyed the Huskers' domination of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl in person. When viewing the game on my DVR, I heard several comments about the Huskers being a top 10 team next year. I am sure the defense will be fine with Crick and Co. continuing where Suh left off, but the offense never clicked all year like it did in San Diego. Do you think it was the rest and ability to get healthy or the inept Arizona defense that made the Huskers look so good?-- Scott Montgomery, Tucson, Ariz.

I'm sure there will be many articles written in Nebraska over the next eight months about the Huskers' offense looking to carry over its momentum from the bowl game, but that's being simplistic. You don't fix an utterly inept offense in one game. All of the factors Scott listed, plus some new wrinkles the coaches put in (the Wildcat; more designed runs for Zac Lee) probably played a factor in their performance. But the Huskers still need an influx of talent and/or significant improvement at the quarterback position next season if they hope to maintain that type of productivity for 12 games.

Having said that, I don't disagree that Nebraska could be a top 10 team next season, for the simple reason that they weren't that far off from it this year. The Huskers fielded one of the most dominant defenses in the country. If Tyrod Taylor doesn't complete a miraculous last-second heave in Blacksburg or the offense commits, say, half of those eight turnovers against Iowa State -- and certainly if they'd finished the job against Texas -- they'd be sitting in the top 10 right now. While Suh will leave an enormous void, I would expect we'll see Bo Pelini fielding high-caliber defenses on a regular basis going forward. Now he's just got to get the offense up to speed.

The SEC is 5-4 in bowls heading into the National Championship Game. If East Carolina (against Arkansas) and Northwestern (against Auburn) had hit their late field goals, it would be 3-6. Can somebody have the guts to say that with the exception of the top two teams, the SEC was pretty mediocre this year?--Scott, Alpharetta, Ga.

I would agree with that assessment. I've felt that way all year. But does it really matter?

The SEC's reigning status as top dog wasn't the result of Outback Bowl wins. It's all about the BCS, specifically the national championship game. So far the SEC is 5-0 in title games. If Alabama wins on Thursday, the league will have won the past four BCS championships -- with three different teams. Think about that for a second. If you went to a Vegas sports book in the summer and had to choose between betting on "the SEC champion" or "anybody else" to win the national championship, the safer bet would be "SEC champ."

But of course, that could change as soon as Thursday night. Much like the Big Ten circa 2006, right before Florida trounced Ohio State, you can tell that the rest of the country has about had it up to here with SEC hype. And understandably so. I picked up USA Today on Tuesday and there was an ad at the top of the sports section for ESPN's basketball doubleheader of Minnesota-Purdue and Texas-Arkansas. The first game had an ESPN logo next to it; the second an "ESPN on SEC" logo. (Who knew Texas joined the SEC?) But it's hard to criticize when the league keeps dominating on the biggest stage, as Florida did against Cincinnati. If Alabama beats a 13-0 Big 12 team, it will only add to the SEC's aura.

If Texas wins, I expect nothing short of an Ohio State-level backlash. Speaking of...

Well, the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes won -- can we finally tell the talking heads that they can find another league to kick around next year?-- James, Chicago

Both Ohio State and the Big Ten did exactly what they needed to this year to begin restoring credibility. Because of Ohio State and Penn State's early losses, the conference largely flew under the radar this season. There was no national-title contender. But the conference produced some good, solid teams that didn't just win bowl games, but beat four top 15 opponents (Oregon, Georgia Tech, LSU and Miami). It'd be an overreaction to think that the balance of power has suddenly shifted north, but it affirms what I've said all along: These things are cyclical, and the league wouldn't stay down forever. There will always be skeptics, however, until the Buckeyes or another Big Ten team wins another national championship.

If I hear one more person say that LSU would have beaten Penn State if the weather was nice I'm going to puke! The last time I checked, both teams had to play in the same conditions.--Dave, Baltimore

What is that you say? LSU/SEC apologists are making excuses for losing the Capital One Bowl?

Who saw that coming?

So here's the deal, ladies and gents. Thursday night/Friday morning, Andy Staples, Joe Posnanski and I will be bringing you coverage from the BCS Championship Game. On Monday, I'll have one last College Football Overtime, followed by the last Mailbag of the season.

Let's talk then.

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