Separating undefeated contenders from pretenders; more Mailbag

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Stewart: Michigan fan here, but even I recognize that our team is headed for disaster, possibly starting next week. So my question for you is, which of these undefeated teams right now are the biggest frauds? LSU, Michigan, Michigan State or Oklahoma? How would you rank these teams, and how do you predict they will finish their seasons?-- Dan C., Los Altos, Calif.

"Fraud" is such a strong word, don't you think? In fact, in most instances it's a felony. All these teams are guilty of is possibly not being as good as the pollsters currently say they are. So let's rephrase it to "team likeliest to finish the farthest from its current ranking." And let's go in reverse order.

4. Oklahoma (currently No. 6): The Sooners have been sloppy, inconsistent at times on offense and suspect on defense. But they're also 5-0 against a more than respectable schedule (Florida State and Air Force are both ranked, and until this week Texas had been ranked for 10 years). They're going to slip up at some point, but they'll still be in the top 10 by season's end.

3. Michigan State (currently No. 17): The Spartans have been one of the surprises of the season so far due to a formidable rushing attack and an improved defense. Michigan State has a history of second-half collapses, but these Spartans have already beaten what was supposed to be one of the league's top three teams (Wisconsin) and they don't face Ohio State. Ten wins is possible.

2. LSU (currently No. 12): Even the most devout Tigers fan must concede that this team is headed for a fall, what with its utter ineptitude at moving the ball and a daunting remaining schedule (at Florida, at Auburn, Alabama, at Arkansas). Win just one of those three with defense, however, and the Tigers are looking at a 9-3 record and top 20 ranking.

1. Michigan (currently No. 18): Sorry, Dan. At least you know it's coming. Denard Robinson has been spectacular, but the Wolverines are entering the stretch of their schedule where he'll no longer be able to do it alone, and the nation's 102nd-ranked defense is in for a world of hurt. With Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State all to come, 8-4 is probably the best-case scenario. But D-Rob could still win the Heisman. At least you've got that going for you.

The game is over and nothing will change regarding LSU-Tennessee. Too many men on the field for Tennessee is half the distance to the goal. But since LSU's center [T-Bob Hebert] threw his helmet on the field of play, and the game can't end on the defensive penalty, shouldn't the Tigers have been penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, thus running the untimed play from around the 16?-- Travis, Knoxville

This has been a popular question since Saturday's debacle. For a very thorough explanation of the entire officiating sequence, I highly recommend listening to this interview with SEC Coordinator of Officiating Rogers Redding on 790 the Zone in Atlanta. In a nutshell, if the officials had seen and chosen to call the penalty, then yes, that's exactly what would have happened. Given the bizarre circumstances, however, I don't see how they could have enforced it, seeing as everyone (the officials included) thought the game was over. And if you're being technical about it, you'd have to throw the same flag on Tennessee, which had several players run onto the field in celebration before the play was officially dead.

"We are always going to allow that immediate, initial spontaneous burst of emotion," said Redding. "It would be irresponsible of the officials in my judgment to penalize that ... It would be so technical, and so over-officiating to have called anything like that at the very end of this game."

I can't disagree, though it does bring to mind the infamous excessive celebration call last year on A.J. Green and others like it. If Redding wants his officials to allow for bursts of emotion, they better be consistent about it going forward.

Really enjoyed your story on Les Miles. (He reminds me of former Michigan State coach John L. Smith, yet Smith was rarely as lucky or fortunate as Miles has been.) Who is the anti-Les-Miles? The coach who you think is an outstanding game manager, strategist and play-caller who has been repeatedly unlucky or unfortunate in the final outcome of games?-- Peter, Raleigh, N.C.

That's a tough question. No coach in recent memory suffered more bizarre, last-second losses than Minnesota's Glen Mason, but I'd hardly call him an "outstanding" strategist. Chris Petersen is the best in-game coach in the biz, but he's been the furthest thing from "unlucky."

The guy who comes closest to fitting the bill is Bobby Petrino, who may well be the best play-caller in the country (go back and watch the way he so thoroughly frazzled Alabama's defense in the early parts of that game) but hasn't had the overall talent level to pull off a breakthrough upset. He came close against Florida last year and Alabama this year. Plus, I covered two particularly gut-wrenching losses he had at Louisville: The 2004 game at Miami, when Kerry Rhodes let a game-sealing interception slip through his hands; and the Cardinals' 2006 loss to Rutgers, decided in part when William Gay jumped offsides on Jeremy Ito's initial (missed) game-winning field goal attempt. Both were the Cardinals' only losses of the season.

Stewart, first let me say that I think Boise State is an exciting team, and I would much rather see them against Alabama than Alabama against either Ohio State or Oregon. That being said, do you think the outcry over the voters dropping Boise St. from No. 3 is ridiculous when those same voters GAVE Boise State the three spot in the first place? No one EARNS its preseason ranking, and so no one is ENTITLED to keep it.-- Craig, North Buxton, Ontario

I can't argue with that. If the voters who once thought Boise was the third-best team in the country now deem the Broncos the fourth-best team in the country, that's their prerogative. My question: What did the Broncos do to change their opinion? Nothing but go out and beat a bottom-feeder (New Mexico State) 59-0. No question, Oregon looked darn good against Stanford, but generally a team doesn't pass a team above it unless that team loses or looks bad in victory. I guarantee you, if a brand-name team -- say Oklahoma -- had been No. 3 as of last week, and Oklahoma had beaten New Mexico State 59-0, Oregon would still be No. 4 right now.

Obviously, the Ducks will play a far better schedule over the course of the season than the Broncos. At some point, if they kept winning, they would pass them. I just don't see the justification for it happening already when, as I pointed out on Monday, Boise has to this point played a tougher schedule than Oregon. As this Boise State blogger suggested, perhaps the pollsters should just go ahead and ranked the teams based on inevitability.

Question: Was Brick Tamland from Anchorman based on Les Miles?-- Dan, Montgomery, Ala.

Yes! Les loves lamp. And he's not sure what we're yelling about.

Stewart: LOVE YOUR COLUMN. One question that I have is about your bowl predictions, with SEC West teams Alabama and Auburn both in BCS games. If Alabama runs the table and plays for the national championship wouldn't it be the loser of the SEC Championship that goes to the Sugar Bowl?-- Rob Lindsey, Birmingham, Ala.

How do you put Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl over the Horned Frogs? TCU has a good shot of running the table, even with tough games against Air Force and Utah on the horizon. But Arizona still has to face Stanford and Oregon. Do you really think a two-loss Pac-10 team is more deserving than an undefeated non-AQ?-- Katie, Washington D.C.

I've been getting both questions a lot lately, so let's clear them up. First of all, there's no rule that says the Sugar Bowl has to take the SEC title-game loser. In fact, it would probably prefer not to. It didn't have much of a choice the past two years, since Alabama and Florida were both 12-1 teams still ranked in the top five. But if we operate under the assumption that the SEC East champ -- either Florida or South Carolina -- will sustain at least two more losses (including the title game), than the Sugar would be much more likely to take a 10-2 Auburn (or Arkansas, or LSU) team even if it didn't win its division.

As for TCU, I'll just come out and say it: I'm not on the bandwagon. I think the Frogs will lose one of the two games Katie mentioned, at which point a two-loss Pac-10, Big 12 or Big Ten team would get the nod before them. I went with Arizona this week, but who knows, it could be someone entirely different next week. And of course, if Utah goes undefeated, that's another story entirely.

I read an interesting quote from an Oregon player this week [presumably in Andy Staples' column], who stated essentially that Oregon stays in its base offense and continues to run the same plays over and over even when unsuccessful, knowing that the eighth or ninth time could result in a touchdown. Oregon certainly backed up that philosophy by beating Stanford. Yet, Florida fans, myself included, believe that Gators offensive coordinator Steve Addazio has displayed a stubborn inability to adapt his play-calling by repeatedly running John Brantley on options, Jeff Demps on dives, etc. If Oregon runs the same plays and hangs in there to come from behind and rout Stanford, why doesn't this philosophy work for Florida?-- Matt, Gainesville, Fla.

For one, Oregon has better players than Florida. I know that must sound like sacrilege to Gators fans, but there's no LaMichael James in Florida's backfield (nor most teams' backfields, for that matter), no receivers I'd trust as much as Jeff Maehl, and the offensive lines aren't even close. As for quarterback, I have no idea whether John Brantley is better or worse than Darron Thomas because right now he's playing in a system to which he's not suited.

And secondly, Oregon executes its offense as well as any team in the country. It runs its plays at an absurd tempo (2.9 plays per minute), yet rarely if ever lines up wrong, misses blocking assignments or fumbles center-snaps. It's not like the Gators didn't move the ball against Alabama. Florida marched right down the field on its first possession and had drives of 69 and 73 yards in the second half. But the Gators also had four turnovers, missed blocks, dropped passes and more center-snap problems, and Brantley looked utterly uncomfortable running the option.

Bottom line: Chip Kelly has a clear vision for his offense and the talent to make it work. Urban Meyer and Addazio still seem to be figuring out what their identity should be, and they're finding out the hard way that Tim Tebows and Percy Harvins don't grow on trees.

I thought you had renamed "Clemson/Ole Miss Syndrome" to "Auburn/Texas A&M Syndrome." See the Jan. 7, 2009 Mailbag. We Clemson fans kept Bowden and gave him 9.5 seasons before we ran him off and hired one of his assistants. Let's give credit where credit is due!-- Michael Snyder, Ashburn, Va.

Man, I totally forgot about that. Probably because I forget sometimes that Texas A&M exists. You're right, Clemson doesn't really fit the bill anymore, but it's just so much catchier. I might have to stick with the original.

You asked why A&M deserves its $20 million? Because we saved the Big 12, that's why.-- Bob Riley, Houston

OK, then. A&M Syndrome it is.

Stewart, while reading your comments about the offensive woes at LSU and Texas, I could not help thinking about my recurring issue with the Ohio State offense. It seems like OSU lacks a good offensive "system" and only manages to be ADEQUATE on offense by having phenoms like Terrelle Pryor or Beanie Wells on the roster. Even so, they come away from the red zone with three points more often than seven. I think the issue is excessive loyalty on the part of Jim Tressel toward a certain assistant coach (Jim Bollman). Any thoughts?-- Mark Borchers, The Woodlands, Texas

I think that might have been true the past two seasons as Tressel and Bollman struggled to figure out what exactly to do with the young, erratic Pryor. I don't think it's true this year, last week's Illinois game notwithstanding. The Buckeyes are averaging 463 yards per game. They've scored touchdowns on 68 percent of their red-zone trips. Their identity is pretty clear: They're putting the ball in Pryor's hands. I'm a bit puzzled by the decline in production from running backs Brandon Saine and Dan Herron (94 combined yards per game, down from 116.8 last year), but Pryor's is up significantly (277.6, up from 221).

I don't know if you can call it a "system" as much as a "playbook," from which they lean on certain elements from year to year befitting their given personnel. And any offense is going to be better when it has "phenoms." The only time OSU missed a BCS game in the past eight years was in 2004, when it was breaking in a new quarterback (Troy Smith eventually beat out Justin Zwick) and relied on a very average tailback (Lydell Ross). In 2007 and '08 Ohio State struggled at times because of an underachieving offensive line. The new group, along with Pyror, started to come together over the second half of last season, resulting in this year's more Pryor-centric attack. It's not Oregon's offense by any means, but as the Buckeyes demonstrated last year, it's more important to have a defense that can shut down Oregon's offense.

Stewart, I read every Mailbag, and you do an excellent job. My question is why in the world the Pac-10 is getting all this love from the media? Between last season's round of bowl games (2-5) and this year's nonconference play, what legitimate signature victories has the Pac-10 notched that would make it second to the SEC?-- Matt, Green, Ohio

Well first of all, never put stock in non-BCS bowl results for anything, much less assessing a conference the following season. The Pac-10 went 5-0 in bowls the year before (2008), and yet the league was considered so weak that year that 11-1 USC never got a sniff at the national title game. The conference was better last year and went 2-5. Go figure.

The beauty of the Pac-10 is its teams schedule tough out-of-conference games, so we get a better sense of where its teams stand than we do some others. This year, the Pac-10 has gone 10-4 against BCS-conference foes, giving it more such wins than any other conference. Arizona beat Iowa, Stanford clocked Notre Dame and, perhaps most importantly, UCLA went on the road and drilled Texas. That's a pretty good gauge of the league's depth, seeing as the Bruins will be fortunate to finish in the upper half of the conference. Depth is particularly important in the computer ratings, which currently have the league either No. 1 ( or No. 2 behind the SEC (Sagarin).

I may be the only person to notice, but you had a second great pick 'em week in a row. The Iowa State-Texas Tech upset was impressive. You have definitely earned your money the past two weeks. You should come out to Vegas while you are hot.-- Kennon, Las Vegas

Thanks, but it's not so much that I'm hot as there really haven't been a lot of upsets this season. One of these weeks all hell is going to break loose and I'm going to go 4-6. Luck has a way of evening itself out.

Unless you're Les Miles.