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Meaningful changes in store for BCS; more season-ending mail


Like most of you who live and breathe college football, I woke up Tuesday morning feeling sleep-deprived and a little bit depressed. As I wrote Monday night, Alabama's title-game performance was incredibly impressive, but the end-result made for an utterly unsatisfying season. Meanwhile, TV ratings were down for four of the five BCS bowls. Attendance was down across the board. And worst of all, after covering eight quarters and an overtime of Alabama-LSU field-goals, I was stuck in a crowded Superdome tunnel waiting to get on to the field when Trent Richardson finally scored a touchdown.

But my mood brightened a bit later Tuesday afternoon when I walked down the street to the BCS commissioners' meeting and heard with my own ears as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany -- the BCS' longtime status quo advocate, a man Austin Murphy once dubbed part of the "Axis of Obstruction" -- confirmed that yes, there's something wrong with the BCS, and yes, they really do plan to do something about it this time.

"It's been 14 years, and there's been some success and some controversy ... but as time has gone on, even though we've all acted in good faith to improve it, there's frustration with it," said the Big Ten commish. "It's been an unprecedented period of growth for college football, and I don't think the BCS is disconnected from that success, but at the same time, there are people that think it's weak and it's flawed and can be improved, so therefore we've got to look at it."

Bring on The Mandel Plan.

What changes do you realistically see being made to the BCS? A four-team playoff? Plus-one system? Automatic tie-ins eliminated?-- Thomas Coyne, Detroit

I've gotten ahead of myself before, but it sure sounds like some sort of plus-one is imminent for the next contract, starting with the 2014 season. However, it could take on any variety of forms. While the idea of seeding the top four teams and using two of the BCS bowls as semifinals has long been the most discussed, the commissioners are reexamining the entire BCS structure. Therefore, we could see something as bold as a full-on separation of the championship events from the traditional bowls, with rotating cities hosting a Final Four the same way the NCAA does for basketball. Or the presidents could step in and push for something more conservative, like playing the bowl games as is, then pitting the post-bowl top two in a championship game. Or it could be something we haven't ever envisioned.

Beyond the championship format, however, there are a few near-certain changes. For one, the concept of AQ and non-AQ conferences is all but dead, and surprisingly, a couple of the non-AQ commissioners are the ones pushing for it. It remains to be seen whether that means a return to a truly free-market bowl system, or one that still offers certain guarantees based on teams' rankings. Secondly, the conferences, bowls and ESPN all want to go back to a tighter scheduling window around New Year's, hopefully putting an end to midweek bowls played on Jan. 5. And I would be stunned if Jerry Jones doesn't get his palatial stadium in the mix, either with the Cotton Bowl becoming a new or replacement BCS bowl, or as a semifinal or championship site if the system gets deregulated.

The main takeaway from being at the past several meetings and speaking with people around the sport is that this is not idle talk. For a variety of reasons, be it conference realignment, the declining interest in the non-championship bowls or -- though they won't say it -- this year's all-SEC title game, a lot of people who seemed perfectly content with the current system as recently as six months ago are suddenly receptive to change. There's also a very powerful commissioner, Larry Scott, who was not even at the table the last time a deal was made. He told us Tuesday he plans to listen to the founding commissioners but has "some creative ideas" of his own that he plans to push.

So I do believe we'll see meaningful change. And man do we need it.

I keep hearing everyone say they'd like to see how Oklahoma State would have done against an LSU-Alabama defense. But haven't we seen this before? If the previous five SEC titles showed us anything, its when these "elite" offenses from other conferences run into the defenses of their SEC counterpart, they are held well below their season average. Oklahoma State probably wouldn't have been shut out, but to say they'd score 30-plus is just asinine.-- Steve, Wichita, Kan.

I don't disagree. While I'm sure the game would have produced more touchdowns, LSU or Alabama would have scored the majority of them. And that's because either team would have run the ball down the Cowboys' throat, much the way Stanford did in the Fiesta Bowl, and taken advantage of field position gained from intercepting a few of those 50 Brandon Weeden pass attempts Mike Gundy pledged we'd see.

But that's all a guess -- just like I guessed that Monday's game would be close and would include a few more touchdowns. Oklahoma State earned the chance to prove me right or wrong. Why should results from different schools in past seasons dictate this year's championship? Just because Big 12 or Pac-12 offenses haven't fared well against recent SEC powers means we should stop allowing them in the game? I would have loved to see Justin Blackmon go against Morris Claiborne or Dre Kirkpatrick. But had Alabama shut those guys down in a plus-one semifinal, then gone on to beat LSU in the championship game -- 3-2, 9-6, 21-0, you name the score -- I would feel 100 percent satisfied with the result.

I noticed that Alabama won the BCS. How was the game? I didn't watch, I just saw some blogs and comments that said it was essentially unwatchable. I watched Lethal Weapon 4 instead.-- Eli Cabelly, Portland, Ore.

So you're saying you were so turned off at the prospect of watching an LSU-Alabama sequel that you opted for a movie sequel to a sequel of a sequel?

Hey Stewart, last night I was channel-surfing and I came across a Punt, Pass and Kick competition. It was boring as hell. Strange thing was, all of the kids were wearing Alabama or LSU uniforms for some reason. The LSU kids focused on the punting and some horrible passing. The 'Bama kids were really proficient at kicking. I fell asleep after 10 minutes.-- Karl Simonian, Mission Viejo, Calif.

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I'm not a big fan of the BCS, but I was thinking how similar last night's game was to the men's basketball championship between UConn and Butler. And it doesn't matter if the game was the outcome of a broad tournament, or if the two teams were chosen by an unpopular system -- both are equally disappointing and frustrating to watch. A tournament is not necessarily going to produce more popular matchups or better games.-- Erik W., Los Angeles

I disagree with your specific analogy. The 53-41 UConn-Butler game was a debacle by both teams. All jokes aside, Alabama was phenomenal in all three phases Monday night. Yes, it nearly went the entire game without reaching the end zone again, but it put up 384 yards of offense, committed no turnovers, committed just one late-game penalty and, most notably, held the No. 1 team in the country to zero points and 92 total yards. The game was boring because it was lopsided, not because it was bad football (at least on Alabama's part).

But obviously, no bracket or tournament guarantees competitive or well-played matchups. Had a plus-one been in place this season, we may well have seen two rematches: LSU-Oregon (if the Ducks finished ahead of Stanford for No. 4, as I suspect they would have if this were the system) and then LSU-Alabama. However, people would have been more entertained by the win-or-go-home stakes in the semifinals, and the championship matchup would have been more universally accepted.

There will always be controversy whenever the participants are determined subjectively; it's unavoidable in college football. But a little more inclusiveness helps avoid scenarios like this year's, where a large section of the country feels shut out. You're probably not going to have a year where all four teams are from the SEC, though at the current rate, who knows?

Unsatisfying? Seriously? What a ridiculous article. 'Bama is CLEARLY the best team in the nation ... DOMINATED a LSU team that hung 40 on Oregon and quit trying to score in the fourth quarter.-- Chad, Fairhope, Ala.

That wasn't the unsatisfying part. It was more the first game, where the Tide quit trying to score in the first quarter, then got a mulligan for it.

Congrats to the Tide on their impressive performance. They deserve to hoist the trophy (in the current system), no doubt. But do you think the game would have been any different, if say, there wasn't a 40-DAY layoff? That's my biggest gripe with the system. Why do we need such a long layoff? It basically eliminates all momentum that a team may have gained through a season.-- Aaron, Madison, Wis.

In the six years since the BCS moved to the double-hosting model, the common denominator has been that teams often look nothing like they did during the regular season. You never would have guessed from their previous 12 or 13 games that Oregon and Auburn would play a 22-19 game last year, and you never would have guessed from LSU's dominant regular season this year that Alabama would annihilate the Tigers. Obviously the Tide deserve all due credit, and in fact they had a longer layoff than the Tigers. But it's just an odd situation that helps facilitate clunkers.

Having said that, you don't generally see the same impact on the Jan. 1 (or in this year's case Jan. 2) games. The Oregon-Wisconsin Rose Bowl and Oklahoma State-Stanford Fiesta Bowls both played out pretty much exactly as you would have expected. All four offenses were as crisp as you'd see in midseason, if not more so. That's generally held true of the Rose Bowl almost every year, and the date of the game hasn't changed. Something about that extra week takes a bigger toll, whether it's the challenge of keeping a team focused that much longer, the extra week of media buildup, guys with impending decisions to make about entering the draft or other factors.

One more reason to like a plus-one: We'll get those typically crisp New Year's games, then the teams will turn around and play again a week later just like during the regular season.

Stewart, While Alabama certainly proved it is the better team and deserved the championship, have you ever watched a worse job of coaching than that displayed by Les Miles? I've never seen a team playing in such an important game that was so uninspired, and why did he leave Jefferson in at quarterback?-- Ken, Ft. Collins, Colo.

It wasn't Miles' finest hour, and quite frankly, it surprised me. Going into the game we heard a lot of statements to the effect of, "Oh boy, you give Nick Saban extra time to prepare ..." but if you look back, Miles' track record in big situations was actually better than Saban's. Miles had gone 5-1 in bowls at LSU, all five wins lopsided victories. He'd never laid an egg like Alabama did against Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. That's not to say Miles is a better coach than Saban, but I personally didn't think Alabama had a decided coaching advantage.

But it did. The Tide did a great job of changing things up from the first game. Knowing how tough LSU's rushing defense is, they put trust in AJ McCarron. He got the tight ends involved early, then started doing what few teams dare against LSU: picking at their corners (specifically the Honey Badger). Contrast that with LSU, which from the outset seemed determined to ride Jordan Jefferson and the option, which the Tide were clearly prepared for. Why Miles didn't pull Jefferson after the brutal shove pass to Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley is baffling. I know there's concern with Jarrett Lee throwing interceptions, particularly under duress, but it was obvious even at 9-0 that the Jefferson game plan wasn't working. I don't know if Lee would have fared better, but why not even try?

Bobby Hebert would sure like to know.

Is Les Miles on the take? I cannot figure out any other explanation for last night's play calling, personnel decisions or overall game plan. Fire Les Miles!-- M. Antoon, Baton Rouge, La.

You knew that was coming.

Stewart, seeing how West Virginia crushed Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and TCU won the MWC and finished in the top 15, can you give a grade to how the Big 12 did by replacing Texas A&M and Missouri and getting West Virginia and TCU?-- Joshua Z, Nashville, Tenn.

It depends on your metric. The Big 12 lost a huge fan base and great tradition with Texas A&M, both far more entrenched than TCU's, and it's losing a school in the heart of its (former) geographic footprint (Missouri) for a school nowhere near its other members.

But in terms of football, today, I'd say the conference upgraded. Mountain West or not, TCU has firmly established itself as a top 15 program under Gary Patterson. The Frogs will contend in the Big 12 from the go, which is more than A&M had done in the past 13 years. West Virginia and Missouri have been fairly comparable programs the past few years. The Tigers had become a regular contender in the former Big 12 North, which is about equivalent to what the Mountaineers were doing in the Big East. While their Orange Bowl performance was spectacular, remember West Virginia was barely a Top 25 team going into the game.

Having said that, the Mountaineers carry some cachet from having won three BCS games in the past seven years (Mizzou hasn't been to one), and you've got to like their future prospects under Dana Holgorsen. Having coached at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, he'll have some pull in Texas recruiting circles. WVU could also contend in the Big 12 immediately, which could make for a very interesting race next season with Landry Jones returning to Oklahoma and Texas likely continuing to improve while the Cowboys try to reload.

Pitiful lack of journalistic objectivity. Guess you just can't get past that you have been on the LSU bandwagon all year and had pre-crowned them as the "Best in College Football" in your past articles: Any chance that you will be restored to objective reporting, without bias, in the future?-- Charlie Couch, Huntsville, Ala.

Alabama's spot in the national title race got magically restored after the LSU loss, so I'm sure there's hope for me, yet.

Stewart, why does everyone keep bashing the Big East when it is evident that the bashing should start with the ACC? I hate West Virginia but they thoroughly destroyed Clemson, moving the ACC's BCS record to a fantastic 2-13. I admit that the Big East has some issues but I just don't understand why no one seems to mention the ACC in the same issue.-- Jim, Louisville

I'm done with the ACC. Finished. Kaput. For years I've been saying "Just wait, they're about to turn the corner." I actually predicted before the season that this would be the year the ACC finally got that coveted second BCS berth. And when it finally happened, at-large team Virginia Tech gave a valiant effort, but champion Clemson gave up the most points ever in a bowl game in the least-watched BCS bowl by a mile. Why do we keep putting ourselves through this charade?

But bowl season wasn't completely empty for the conference. Florida State beat Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl, assuring an 11th straight year of the 'Noles being crowned "back" in August.

While depressing, isn't it fitting that the 2011 college football season -- wracked as it was by scandal and conference realignment -- finished with a non-division winner capturing the national championship in a painful-to-watch title game?-- Geoff, Washington D.C.

I don't think "fitting" is appropriate. A lopsided championship game or frustrating matchup is pretty trite compared to some of the actual horrors that touched college football in 2011, most notably those involving Jerry Sandusky. That put a lot of things in perspective for a whole lot of people, to the point where it's hard to believe in hindsight we got so worked up about Ohio State players' free tattoos

But there's no question 2011 was the most unpleasant year the sport has seen in my lifetime. There were certainly plenty of memorable games (Michigan State-Wisconsin, Oklahoma State-Iowa State, USC-Oregon among them) and thoroughly enjoyable players (RG3, Andrew Luck, Trent Richardson, Montee Ball, Kellen Moore, Justin Blackmon and many, many more). Unfortunately, the Penn State nightmare, the various NCAA scandals and an anticlimactic national title race obscured all of that.

But the good news is, it's a New Year, and reading Andy Staples' way-too-early preseason Top 25 has already got me excited for 2012. But for now, it's time to recharge the batteries.

The Mailbag will go on its usual offseason hiatus, returning in the spring. Thanks as always for all the questions this season. Some college football seasons are better than others, but the readers never disappoint.