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Rematch debate now evolving into offense vs. defense dispute; more

Now, with the divisive LSU-Alabama rematch fast approaching, a new debate has gripped loyalists from both sides: What exactly constitutes entertaining football?

Do you have any thoughts on the contrasts between the Rose and Fiesta bowls (both amazing offensive battles) versus the anticipated defensive slugfest of the national championship game? The Rose and Fiesta were thrilling games. A repeat of the LSU-Alabama 9-6 game would just be depressing.-- Michael Carey, Tallmadge, Ohio

Oklahoma State and Oregon would loose [sic] against a great defensive team. Look at how easily they were scored on. Trading touchdowns is more boring than a close, low-scoring game. Get real OSU and DUCKS.-- Lanny, Jacksonville, Fla.

Before we proceed, let's establish two truths: First, LSU and Alabama both have otherworldly defenses. I don't care what stats you throw at me regarding the quality of offenses Alabama in particular faced; these are two of the most talented defenses in recent memory, and anyone who questions that is grasping at straws. Secondly, I refuse to believe anyone with an iota of interest in football found the Rose or Fiesta bowls boring. Anyone who claims otherwise is an overly defensive Alabama fan who can't spell "lose."

One of the beauties of this sport is that every season is different, and the oddity of 2011 is the vast dichotomy in style between the No. 1 and 2 teams (LSU and Alabama) and those right below them in the polls (Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon). The latter may play a more entertaining brand for the masses, but the former more closely resemble the traditional mold for championship football. And yet, the most memorable championship game of the BCS era was a Rose Bowl with a nearly identical score (41-38) and combined yardage total (1,130) as the one played the other day (45-38, 1,129). I don't remember anyone complaining about the quality of defense in that Texas-USC classic, just fawning over the scintillating performances of Vince Young and Co.

Why does it have to be one or the other? I covered the Oregon-Wisconsin game, and it was a whole lot of fun to watch. I don't know about you, but I like watching great players at their best, so getting to see Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas all do their thing was a treat. As with the Oklahoma State-Stanford game, neither Rose Bowl team possessed an elite defense, which helped allow for the offensive explosion, but I was fine with that. If you temper every great offensive performance by saying "they never would have done that against LSU's or Alabama's defense," then you're sucking the fun out of football. We get it. That's why those teams are playing for the national championship.

However, I also covered the first LSU-Alabama game, and while the lack of scoring was a drag at times, I can certainly appreciate elite defensive athletes making big-time plays. An Alabama linebacker wrapping up a ball-carrier may not be as sexy as Oregon's Thomas busting a 91-yard touchdown run, but it requires just as much talent. I believe the 9-6 score was an aberration -- neither team has played another game remotely like that all season -- but I know if both teams score fewer than 20 we'll hear all the same complaints from outside the Southeast about how "any defense would look good against those crappy quarterbacks." Again, stop being a killjoy. Appreciate LSU and Alabama for what they do so well, just as you appreciate Andrew Luck releasing a throw at the perfect moment or Justin Blackmon reaching high for a touchdown.

There were plenty of bad bowl games to go around this year. The Rose and Fiesta were welcome antidotes, and I'm confident the title game will be, too.

Stewart, you have made it clear through many writings that you believe all things to be cyclical with respect to college football. I believe you, but please prognosticate: How long before the pendulum swings so that winning teams play effective defense? I expect my opinion is a minority one, but personally I am disgusted with games where more than 50 or 60 total points are scored (that is one reason I don't generally watch basketball).-- Scott Steinbrink, Erie, Pa.

As I alluded to before, we'll continue to see year-to-year fluctuation regarding the type of offenses and defenses that compete for the national championship. There will not be defenses the caliber of LSU's and Alabama's every year, and Oklahoma State and Oregon will not keep scoring 50 points a game for perpetuity (though I'd certainly count on the Ducks doing it again in 2012).

In terms of the sport as a whole, though, it's hard to imagine a large-scale defensive uprising, seeing as offenses have been evolving and diversifying for more than a decade. Quarterbacks get more accurate and efficient every year. Schemes get more creative. As we saw the past month or so, schools keep hiring offensive-minded coaches (Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach, Gus Malzahn, et. al.). And most importantly, elite high school athletes want to play on offense. A player like De'Anthony Thomas would have been a college cornerback a decade ago, but now there are offenses like Oregon's that value his skill set.

Remember, only a handful of programs realistically compete for the national championship on a regular basis. Those programs tend to place more emphasis on defense. The vast majority of teams are simply trying to win games, reach bowls, become relevant and, under the right circumstances, rise up and contend in their conference from time to time. For them, flashy offense will always be the easier path.

Just watched the winning kick in OT for the Sugar Bowl. The Michigan kicker took a step before the ball was snapped. Isn't that a false start?-- Kerr, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

In this extremely similar play from last year's Cal-Oregon game, the Pac-10 refs called illegal motion on the kicker. A Pac-12 crew -- one with an interesting definition of "indisputable evidence" -- also called Tuesday night's game.

Stewart, whenever I see people propose the plus-one playoff, they include Stanford and Alabama in their mock plus-one for this year. These are the same people who oppose Alabama being included in the BCS title game because it didn't win its conference. Do you think for a plus-one to be fair, only teams that won their conference should be allowed to be included?-- Reid, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Absolutely not. The notion that the current system is "unfair" is primarily an indictment of the small field of participants and the reality that in many years, there aren't two clear choices. Some won't feel four is enough either, but once you establish a formal bracket, the issue of fairness will shift from the number of teams to the competitive balance of the field. And the bracket loses substantial credibility if you leave out one or more of the perceived four best teams to substitute them with a lesser team just to satisfy a conference quota.

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Every playoff system in sports includes "wild-card" teams that did not win their conference or division. That's because we know some conferences or divisions are deeper than others. In the NFL, the rigid adherence to a divisional structure winds up allowing an undeserving team like the 8-8 Broncos to not only compete for the championship but host a first-round playoff game. The NFL, like the other pro leagues, had to create wild-card spots to compensate for the inevitable disparity between certain divisions in a given year. (This year, three of the four AFC North teams are in the playoffs.) By contrast, a college plus-one would allow for inclusion of two more elite teams while denying any guaranteed access for mediocre champions from lesser conferences, thus continuing to ensure that to win the national championship, a team must excel throughout the entire season rather than simply get hot in January.

Just wanted to say that if (big "if") Virginia Tech wins tonight, I would like to be the first to thank you and all the sports media for providing us with all the bulletin board material and motivation.-- Greg, Fredericksburg, Va.

I tried my best, but it's hard to overcome the law of averages with a third-string kicker -- and Pac-12 refs.

I just read the latest Mailbag, and I noticed the astonishing omission of any discussion of the ongoing Penn State drama. What are your thoughts on the coaching search and if they will be able to convince anyone other than Tom Bradley to take such a radioactive job?-- Jason, Memphis

We may disagree on how to define "drama." I haven't commented on the Penn State search because nothing much has happened, other than a series of media reports anointing a new NFL journeyman the leading candidate only for said journeyman to deny interest in the job within 24 hours. You know things are bleak when the reported pursuit of a guy like Bill O'Brien, whose college coaching career consisted of three unmemorable stints as an ACC offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, qualifies as breaking news.

It's a pretty depressing situation, but hardly surprising. "Radioactive" is a fitting description of the job. The stigma from the sexual abuse scandal is going to haunt the program for many years, particularly since the trials of Jerry Sandusky, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz are only beginning. It's going to be hard to recruit players to Penn State as long as the legal proceedings continue to garner headlines -- and that's on top of the already unenviable task of succeeding a figure who was revered for 45 years. Complicating matters further are an interim AD and a committee comprised of individuals outside of football conducting the search.

My sense is that finding someone to win football game is not nearly as high a priority right now as finding someone of character who can help heal the community. That's admirable, but ultimately fans care mostly about winning. Considering there's a high chance the next guy won't win as frequently as Joe Paterno, prospective candidates know they're a lot better off being the guy who succeeds the guy who replaced Paterno.

Stewart, I read last week about the conference scheduling partnership between the Big Ten and the Pac-12. This strikes me as something that could be a coup for college football, but it's gotten almost no coverage. In fact, the biggest deal that day was the release of the SEC schedule. Why does this story seem to be flying under the radar so much?-- Nate Owens, Olathe, Kan.

It didn't get much coverage because it was announced between Christmas and New Year's, the lightest media week of the year. But it's also not a coincidence the two conferences announced the deal the same day the SEC unveiled its long-awaited (in the South, at least) 2012 schedule. It seemed to me that many fans and writers that had spent that morning dissecting the ramifications of a Georgia-Missouri game quickly changed to discussing and in most cases welcoming the Big Ten-Pac-12 news.

Any initiative that guarantees better nonconference schedules for major programs is a good thing. Since going to the 12-game schedule, the Big Ten's September slate has grown increasingly boring due to an overload of FCS and MAC matchups. We got the occasional Ohio State-USC or Penn State-Alabama games, but far more of Michigan-Delaware State and Northwestern-Towson. Those games won't disappear, but the number of attractive matchups for all 12 teams will increase. Pac-12 teams already schedule tough, but the possibility of some cross-country rivalries is intriguing. And an obvious motivation is that the deal guarantees a better set of game for the conferences' respective television networks.

The obvious downside, of course, is that it could hurt some teams' national title chances, as Oregon found out this year by scheduling LSU. But by 2017 the postseason system could be entirely different. Whatever the format, hopefully teams will be rewarded, not punished, for scheduling tough nonconference games.

Who knew that Pac-12/Big Ten collaboration began with the officials in Michigan's Sugar Bowl win?-- John, Spokane, Wash.

Commissioners do love that "broad-based initiative" phrase.

Now that the SEC schedules have been released, and seeing Missouri-Texas A&M scheduled for the last week of the season (the traditional rivalry week) but with open dates the previous week, why can't that game move up a week so that the A&M-Texas and Kansas-Mizzou rivalries continue?-- Scott, Canton, Ga.

That's not the issue. The jilted schools in each rivalry (Texas and Kansas) simply don't want to play the game, at least not now. If they did, the SEC certainly would have accommodated them. There's also the issue of having to break contracts with other nonconference opponents to add the extra game, but schools do that all the time. The real roadblock is plain old spite.

Mel Kiper stated Landry Jones had the most disappointing season in college football this year. Fair assessment?-- Whitney, Tulsa, Okla.

That's pretty harsh. It seemed like Jones was having a perfectly fine season until he lost his starting running back and, more pertinently, his favorite target/All-America receiver Ryan Broyles. It shows that Broyles made that offense tick more so than Jones, and maybe that's an indictment of some sort, but I imagine few quarterbacks could overcome a loss like that unscathed.

All that said, no other player jumps out to me as an unqualified disappointment. Maybe Vontaze Burfict, who went from preseason All-American to postseason second-teamer, but we knew about his red flags going in. Also, two highly touted ACC defensive ends, North Carolina's Quinton Coples and Florida State's Brandon Jenkins, failed to come close to their 2010 production. But quarterback is a far more visible position, and since both preseason No. 1 Oklahoma and preseason Heisman contender Jones fell well short of expectations, it's easy to see why he'd be viewed as a disappointment. The big question now is whether that perception causes Jones to return for his senior year.

What's the lowest TV rating a BCS bowl has received and will the Clemson-West Virginia Orange Bowl break it?-- David, Fairfield, Ohio

The lowest-rated BCS game was the 2009 Virginia Tech-Cincinnati Orange Bowl (5.4). I doubt Wednesday's game will break it, but if all those angry non-SEC fans I've heard from the past few weeks follow through on their professed boycotts, the BCS championship game just might.

By this time next week, we'll know.