Debating Ohio State's claim to top spot in polls; more Mailbag

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So, why is Ohio State a consensus No. 1? You picked on Nebraska's résumé a couple weeks ago, but Ohio State doesn't have a win against a team currently ranked in the Top 25 either. If it's fair to be skeptical of Nebraska, why not Ohio State?-- Scott, New York

Shouldn't we be taking Oklahoma more seriously? A lot of attention is being paid to a lot of other teams, but Oklahoma seems to have the most quality wins at this point (Florida State, Air Force and Texas). With the Big 12 seemingly a bit down, will Oklahoma have a chance to jump some of the teams ahead of it?-- Drew, Boston

First of all, there's a very simple reason why Ohio State is No. 1: The Buckeyes had been No. 2 since the preseason, they've won all their games and the team ahead of them lost. End of story. But I'd hardly call them "consensus." They received barely half (34 of 60) of the first-place votes in this week's AP poll, with four other teams (Oregon, Boise State, TCU and Oklahoma) garnering nods as well. The Buckeyes haven't done anything to merit dropping them, but I won't argue that there are more deserving teams at the present time. In fact, according to Jeff Sagarin, Ohio State has played the 117th-toughest schedule in the country so far (including FCS teams).

Mind you, I didn't hear a single gripe about Ohio State's schedule before Sunday. That may be because no one was focused on the then No. 2 team, or it may be because of what happened to several of its previous and future opponents. Miami, the source of the Buckeyes' signature win to date, got crushed by Florida State. Michigan not only lost its first game, but lost to now 6-0 Michigan State, bringing to light the fact that the Spartans and Buckeyes don't play this year. And Penn State, normally one of the marquee opponents on OSU's schedule, clearly stinks. In August, Ohio State was looking at a schedule that included four preseason Top 25 teams (Iowa, Wisconsin, Miami and Penn State). Now that number's down to two (Wisconsin and Iowa).

If one were to vote for a new No. 1 team based purely on résumé-to-date, it'd be hard to argue against Oklahoma. The Sooners scheduled ambitiously out-of-conference, and are undefeated against Sagarin's No. 15 schedule. That SOS is higher than for any of the other undefeated teams. And OU's 47-17 rout of Florida State looks that much more impressive now that FSU crushed Miami last weekend. But the Sooners' defense has been shaky and they had trouble closing out teams like Cincinnati and Utah State. Because these are humans voting and not computers, they've shown more confidence so far in No. 4/5 Nebraska -- which hasn't played anyone of note, but is blowing people out behind TaylorMartinez's heroics -- than No. 6 Oklahoma, which has looked more mortal while playing a much tougher schedule.

That's why we hear so much talk about "style points." Note that in Sagarin's "politically correct" power rankings -- the version used by the BCS, which leaves out victory margin -- Oklahoma ranks third, Nebraska 10th. In his regular rankings, which do take into account the scores, it's almost the opposite: Nebraska sixth, Oklahoma 12th. As for Ohio State: 15th straight-up, 23rd modified. Clearly, Sagarin's computer hasn't properly taken into account TerrellePryor's improvement.

I can only imagine how many e-mails you have received from rabid Utah fans about the lack of love for the Utes. That said, is there any way you can truly justify Utah WINNING 68-27 over Iowa State and DROPPING in the AP poll? Are the other teams truly that good, or was Utah truly overrated leading into this weekend?-- Scott W., Sandy, Utah

This was a pretty popular topic in the ol' inbox. And no, I can't "justify" the Utes falling from No. 10 to No. 11 following a 68-27 win. But this brings up a common misconception with the polls: Just because your team moves down a spot in a given week doesn't mean 60 voters consciously decided to "drop" it. I highly doubt a single voter looked at his ballot and said, "68-27? Nah, not good enough." Utah was an unintentional victim of the voters' attempt to address the South Carolina-Alabama victory. Obviously, they felt the Gamecocks deserved to move into the top 10, but they didn't feel the Tide deserved to drop out of the top 10, either. (Why they didn't jump South Carolina above Alabama is a mystery unto itself.)

They also moved No. 12 LSU up three spots for winning at Florida, which seems a bit unnecessary, but together, the two SEC teams' moves upward caused the Utes to lose a spot. And while that may seem dumb, it's nothing compared to the reasons why Utah didn't drop in the coaches' poll. Evidently, those voters felt the Gamecocks' proper reward for ending the No. 1 team in the country's 19-game winning streak was to move them all the way up to ... 12th, four spots behind the team it just beat. Meanwhile, LSU was somehow already ninth after the Tennessee game.

Just think: A year from now, when Utah becomes a Pac-10 team, beating a Big 12 team 68-27 -- even with the exact same players -- will probably cause it to move up five spots.

I've been noticing that more teams are using the Nevada Pistol offense either partially or full-time. I was wondering if you thought the Pistol offense was becoming the new "in" offense that everyone will go to (versus say the spread offense), or that teams would use it more like the Wildcat formation as a change-up?-- Brett, Pittsburg, Calif.

As the New York Times wrote this week, the Pistol is arguably the most significant offensive innovation since Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer and Co. spearheaded the first wave of shotgun-spread running offenses in the early-to-mid 2000s. That an old-school pro-style coach like Norm Chow would install it at UCLA is a pretty strong testimonial. An even stronger one, I'd argue, is the fact that Alabama is using it on occasion with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. It shows that a coach like Nick Saban believes he can achieve a power running game out of the shotgun, whereas the Oregon/Michigan-style zone-read schemes are suited more toward getting runners free in space.

Like with the spread-option, I think you'll see more and more teams go to the Pistol over the next couple of years, but my guess is it will more often be as part of a wider package than a full-time offense. That's not an indictment against the Pistol, it's just where the sport is headed in general. As I wrote about this summer, we're going to see more and more hybrid offenses that incorporate both pro-style and spread/Pistol elements. With defensive coaches and players now having spent several years playing against spread offenses, it's becoming harder for teams to rely on it entirely. Coaches have to come up with new wrinkles to stay ahead. One is to push the tempo even faster, like Oregon does. Another is to give the defense as many different looks as possible, as Boise State's been doing for years and Alabama does by mixing in the Pistol and the Wildcat.

After Purdue's victory over Northwestern, Purdue coach Danny Hope said it was for "Boiler Nation." As a Purdue alum and season-ticket holder, I believe Boiler Nation consists of Tippecanoe County and, well, Tippecanoe County. So I'm asking, can you lead the charge against fans, coaches and fellow media members from attaching the phrase '"Nation" to every single fan group? Thank you.-- Matthew Reimer, Zionsville, Ind.

I can see why you'd come to me with this request. I am, after all, a notorious party-pooper, railing against the use of "we" and admonishing fans who root for their hometown team against their alma mater. But Matthew, I've got to tell you -- I'm down with "Nation." If anything, the more obscure the better. During Idaho's bowl season last year, I remember seeing (and perhaps even making) references to "Vandal Nation." And surely Oregon State fans are proud to be part of "Beaver Nation."

The more, the merrier, I say. Although it would certainly be amusing if someone actually drew a physical map of Boiler Nation.

If Randall Cobb were not playing for Kentucky, but instead was on a top 10 team, do you think he would be getting any Heisman consideration right now? I mean, the guy has been absolutely doing it ALL -- four receiving touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns, three passing touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown. Your thoughts?-- Ryan, Lexington, Ohio

There's no question he'd be getting more attention than he does at Kentucky (though the Wildcats do seem to be on TV every week playing against a top 10 team), but the Heisman would still be a challenge. Voters are so enamored with yardage -- rushing yards, passing yards, receiving yards, etc. -- that it almost works against Cobb that he doesn't specialize in one particular area. You won't see him among the NCAA leaders in any particular category besides all-purpose yards (11th, at 165.8 per game), and all-purpose yards couldn't get C.J. Spiller or Percy Harvin an invite to New York. Reggie Bush was a big all-purpose guy, but he was also a traditional running back who ran for 1,740 yards. (Do I have to remove that last sentence from the record books?)

With or without Cobb, this is becoming one of the more stacked Heisman races in recent memory. Each week, I submit my top three candidates "if the award was handed out today" for the poll. This week I had Denard Robinson, Cameron Newton and LaMichael James. I could just as easily have swapped them with Kellen Moore, Martinez and Pryor. Dual-threat quarterbacks make ideal Heisman candidates because they have the ball in their hands so often, and we've got the makings of at least three great ones this year. I doubt anyone's going to be able to run away with it.

I have a Carolina question -- the other Carolina everyone is not talking about today. UNC is a couple of plays from being 5-0. Not to play a fan's favorite game, "What if?" but: What if the Tar Heels were playing at full strength? T.J. Yates is passing the ball like two years ago, Johnny White is running fairly well and they are showing unbelievable depth across the board. Could this team have been what the ACC has looked for: a national title contender?-- Kevin P. Rooney, Columbus, Ohio

I don't know if I'd go that far, but no question, UNC could have been the best team in the ACC and a top 10 team nationally. We knew the Heels had the potential to field one of the best defenses in the country, with projected high-round draft picks (including the dismissed Marvin Austin and permanently ineligible Robert Quinn) all over the field. The big question was the offense, specifically Yates, who's performed far better than expected even without his top receiver, Greg Little (also now permanently ineligible). Obviously the LSU game would have been a lot different, and I doubt the Heels would have lost to Georgia Tech, which means UNC could theoretically be 5-0 and ranked in the top 10 right now.

But don't mistake my analysis for sympathy. Based on the allegations reported so far at UNC, we're looking at one of the most egregious college sports scandals in recent memory. A staff member who's actively recruiting for an agent with whom he has a financial relationship? Not just for the Tar Heels, but for players at other schools? And an academic fraud scandal on top of that? One in which the tutor at the center of it had direct ties to the head coach? UNC better enjoy whatever bowl it goes to this year, because it could be its last for a long, long time.

Stewart, in one of your recent tweets, you mentioned that it seemed like players' helmets were flying off with frequent regularity. This is something that a buddy of mine and I have been noticing for a couple of years now. It seems like it coincided with the switch to the newer helmets that have the vents in the top. Regardless of the cause, it's very noticeable and happens in several games a season. Is it going to take someone getting severely injured before someone addresses this issue?-- Paul Kemp, Birmingham, Ala.

Several games a season? Try several games every Saturday. It used to be a rare novelty when you saw a player's helmet come off during a play, but now it seems almost commonplace.

I've been seeing helmets fly off about four or five teams every weekend, and I'm only watching parts of about one-third of the games played around the country on a given Saturday. During Oregon State's game last weekend, Jacquizz Rodgers lost his helmet during a carry, which, by rule, rendered the play dead, but Rodgers kept moving, so the Arizona defender went ahead and tackled him. I don't want to imagine the consequences had his head hit the turf at full speed.

It's a serious issue, considering the increased awareness and emphasis on the dangers of concussions and other brain-related injuries, but one officials are only beginning to address. In recent articles by USA Today and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, league officials and manufacturers indicated helmet designs are fine, but that some players aren't wearing them properly, perhaps leaving a chinstrap or two unbuckled either for comfort or because it looks cool. But it could just be that we've reached a point where players are so fast and collisions so strong that even a tightly secured helmet can't withstand the force -- another sign of just how dangerous the sport has become.

Helmets have also become a growing concern in the NFL, which instituted new protective rules this offseason and now tracks how often helmets come off during play.

Here are Michigan's yards allowed per game since 2007, Lloyd Carr's final season: 335, 367, 393, 450. The last time Michigan beat a team that finished ranked? Lloyd Carr's final game, against the Tim Tebow-led Gators in the 2008 Capital One Bowl. Stewart, can you give me any hope at all that these trends are going to change in the near future? If not, why on Earth should RichRod still hold his job at the end of the season?-- Jason, Columbus, Ohio

What -- one loss and you're off the bandwagon?

As bad as Michigan's defense has played, it's nothing we didn't see coming before the season. With the amount of attrition that program has gone through -- including losing seven defensive backs that would have played on this team in the last year alone due to injuries, disciplinary reasons, the NFL draft, etc. -- there's simply no way it could stack up numbers-wise. The Wolverines have played as many as five true freshmen on defense at the same time. Talented as they may be, they're going to be limited, and they're going to screw up. Perhaps Rodriguez should have been better prepared for this void. Perhaps he hasn't recruited well enough. Perhaps it's a lot of bad luck. It's probably a little of all of that. The only thing you can do is wait and hope the young guys get better.

As for Rodriguez's job status, even if the Wolverines don't finish any better than 7-5, it seems to me he's now got an ace in his pocket: Robinson. You want to fire the coach? OK. Who are you going to bring in who knows better what to do with a supremely gifted running quarterback? Not Jim Harbaugh. Certainly not Les Miles. Either you're going to need to replace one spread-option guru with another, or you risk squandering the talents of your most electrifying player. It's an interesting Catch 22 to keep in mind if the losses start piling up.

Mr. Mandel, do all of the empty seats at the Coliseum somewhat explain the loyalty of USC fans? Which program in the NCAA has more front-running fans?-- Bobby, Fullerton, Calif.

It's pretty much inherent to any program in a major, pro-sports city. Miami has the same problem. If you're winning national championships, you're the toast of the town. If not ... when does the Lakers' season start? There are plenty of very passionate Trojans fans who are there through thick and thin, but it's not a place like Alabama or Nebraska where the entire community revolves around the local university.

Remember, bye-weeks do help a team prepare. I also remember the last time Alabama lost, and it was 19 games later before another loss. Beware, and may God bless the other teams in their way.-- Karen, Alabama

See what I mean? There aren't a lot of Karens walking around Los Angeles.