By Stewart Mandel
November 28, 2012

Millions of Americans dropped billions of their hard-earned cash at malls and department stores over Thanksgiving weekend. College athletic directors did much the same thing -- only they didn't get a flat screen or an iPad in return.

Hi Stewart. Sometimes even the loveliest brides don't look so good after the wedding-day hangover wears off (Gene Chizik, Jeff Tedford, etc.). Auburn is now on the hook for more than $11 million to its former coach and assistants. Cal may spend more than $7 million. Do you foresee a reversal in the ridiculous buyout trend?-- Sam, Fairchild AFB, Spokane, Wash.

In short -- no, not a chance. Very soon, if not already, money will no longer be a factor in whether a school hires or fires a coach, because most major-conference programs now have access to more money than they could possibly know what do with. In the case of Cal, AD Sandy Barbour said the perennially cash-strapped program will pay the $6.9 million remaining on Tedford's contract though "intercollegiate athletics-generated revenue." It's been reported that donors are covering most of that cost, which is not unusual in these situations. But soon, even that might not be necessary. As of two years ago, Cal received less than $9 million annually in conference revenue distribution. Starting with the new deal that kicked in this year, Pac-12 schools will now earn an average of $21 million a year in television revenue alone. That's not even counting BCS and bowl payouts. And beginning in 2014, all FBS schools will get a cut of the new playoff/bowl system that ESPN last week agreed to pay an average of $610-615 million a year to televise, a 340 percent increase from the BCS.

The money in college athletics is rising astronomically -- and as it does, coaching tenures are only going to get shorter. Obviously, coaches have always faced pressure to win, but it's only going to intensify in the coming playoff era. Schools like Purdue and NC State are already saying 7-5 isn't good enough. Everyone wants to play in the big games, but obviously only a handful will in any given year. Whereas in the past it might have been financially imprudent to make a coaching change after just a couple of years -- especially if it meant paying huge buyouts like Chizik and Tedford's -- now there's almost no hindrance. Jon Embree's not working out for you, Colorado? Pay him off and try again. The Heart of Dallas Bowl isn't enough for you, Purdue? Go out and spend $3 million on a big-time coach.

I know I sound like a broken record, but college football is increasingly mirroring the NFL, and this area is yet another example. In the NFL, teams don't give you four years to bring in your own players and right the ship. Expect much the same cutthroat mentality going forward. If a coach is meeting or exceeding expectations, he'll get a big raise. If not, he'll get a golden parachute. And if you're an athletic director who makes a boneheaded hire or two, your friends at ESPN and the other networks will be there to help you bankroll your way out of a bad decision.

How many times have you actually seen a coach work his way off the hot seat? It seems to me that once a coach gets on it, he eventually ends up getting fired. Is Mark Richt the best example of survival, and what happens if he loses on Saturday?-- James G., Gilroy, Calif.

It's pretty amazing to think that just two summers ago, Richt was the undisputed coach on the hottest seat in the SEC. Since that time, six other SEC coaches (Houston Nutt, Bobby Petrino, Joker Phillips, Derek Dooley, John L. Smith and Chizik) have been let go, while Richt will be playing for a BCS championship berth on Saturday. Mind you, Richt was never in legitimate danger to the degree it was portrayed at the time. It seemed a rare instance where a school's own fans were still widely supportive of a so-called embattled coach. But I can think of no other recent instance of a coach successfully engineering such a dramatic mid-tenure turnaround. The closest comparison would be Oregon State's Mike Riley, who brushed off consecutive losing seasons (including a 3-9 record last year) to go 8-3 this season, but the beloved coach never actually reached hot seat territory.

Reaching the BCS title game has been the one milestone that's eluded Richt in his 11 seasons, and therefore Saturday is a potential legacy-changer. But I can't imagine his actual job status would be affected either way. Georgia is not the favorite against Alabama. Bulldogs fans will be disappointed if they lose and perhaps frustrated at the missed opportunity. But it's hard to hold an 11-1 regular season against someone. Richt must feel pretty confident about his future. In complete opposite fashion of the trend I discussed earlier, last summer Richt agreed to a contract extension that significantly lowers the school's buyout with each subsequent year. So while he seems perfectly safe now, I would not recommend a return to 6-7 in 2014, as it would cost Georgia a paltry $1.6 million to part ways with him.

I am hoping that the mention of your alma mater increases the chances of getting an answer. This season looks like a script from Revenge of the Nerds. Four renowned schools with higher academic requirements -- Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt -- are a combined 39-9, and Duke qualified for a bowl for the first time since the 1990s. Do you think this is an anomaly or are the more academically capable athletes starting to gain an advantage with the increased sophistication of offenses and defenses?-- John Michel, Villa Park, Calif.

Indeed, this is the first time in history that all five schools have reached a bowl in the same season, and with the exception of Duke, it's not like success came out of nowhere. Obviously, Notre Dame is in its own category historically, but we now just accept it as normal that Stanford contends for a BCS berth and Northwestern annually reaches a bowl. Vanderbilt is currently a better football program than Tennessee, and no one seems particularly surprised. And now a school that's tied for the highest graduation rate in the country -- Notre Dame -- is playing for the national championship. The nerds truly have won.

As much as I'd love to conjure some grand correlation between SAT scores and offensive efficiency, really, it's entirely about the coaches. All five schools hired not just outstanding coaches, but guys who "get" their respective schools. David Shaw (Stanford) and Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern) are alums and former players. Brian Kelly is an Irish-Catholic from the Northeast who grew up rooting for Notre Dame. While James Franklin has no ties to Nashville, the media-savvy coach keenly rebranded longstanding doormat Vanderbilt as a buzz-worthy program from day one. And Duke could not be more fortunate to have a coach of Cutcliffe's pedigree. He's won at the highest level in the SEC, as has most of his staff, but he seems more comfortable at a small private school than he ever did at Ole Miss.

It's all about making the right hire -- which is why so many schools are out there right now trying to find their own Kelly or Franklin.

I remember last year there was a big push to have Oregon ranked ahead of Stanford even though the Ducks had two losses, because one came to the No. 1 team (LSU) and Oregon beat Stanford head-to-head. The argument was the Ducks shouldn't be punished for scheduling a tough team as opposed to a patsy. This year the situation is exactly reversed. Stanford has two losses, but one came out of conference to the No. 1 team (Notre Dame), and the Cardinal have the head-to-head win against Oregon. As a Cal fan, it truly pains me to ask, but shouldn't Stanford be getting the same treatment?-- Brett, Chicago

Wow. It's EXACTLY the same scenario.

To refresh, Stanford-Oregon became a hot topic during last summer's playoff negotiations, specifically, the "conference champs vs. top-four teams" debate. Several of the commissioners (including Larry Scott) pointed out how unfair it would have been had Stanford (No. 4 in the final BCS standings) edged out Pac-12 champion Oregon (ranked No. 5) solely due to the Ducks' loss to LSU. I contended that had an actual playoff spot been at stake, the voters would have taken that into account and flipped the two.

Yet here we are a year later with the teams in virtually identical, albeit reversed, situations, and I'm not as confident the voters would do the same. For one thing, the two teams aren't next to each other in the standings. Oregon is No. 5, while Stanford is No. 8. It's possible the Cardinal will move up a spot should they beat UCLA on Friday and watch No. 6 Kansas State lose to Texas, but I can't see the voters moving 11-2 Stanford above a 10-2 LSU team with losses to No. 2 Alabama and No. 4 Florida. The Cardinal, by contrast, lost to 7-5 Washington. But as we now know, it won't be the voters deciding this thing in 2014; it will be a selection committee. And as I've written previously, the committee won't be beholden to previous polls or the one-loss trumps two-loss philosophy. Oregon, Stanford and LSU would all garner serious consideration.

It seems you've become more out of touch with football in the South since your move out West. I'm fairly certain you missed all but one Florida game you picked. Has there ever been a team you had a worse feel for than this year's Gators squad?-- J.W., Tampa

No, I cannot remember a team that more consistently confounded me. Though if anyone in the country correctly predicted that Florida would not only beat Florida State but also score 37 points, by all means, present yourself. I'll turn over my stock portfolio to you.

What happened to you since you got married and moved West? You are a sad reflection of your former self. Did you really say Florida is "laughable" and its offense "putrid?" Will you man up and apologize?-- Bob Larson, Wake Forest, N.C.

I apologize. But what's with all the West Coast jabs? I live 20 minutes from Stanford and got most of its games wrong, too.

Please Stewart, do me a favor. Pick against the Gators in their bowl game.-- Martin, Montreal, Canada

I can't make any promises before I know the opponent -- especially when the possibilities currently include Louisville, Rutgers and Kent State.

Can you honestly say that there are not at least 10 other quarterbacks who could take Johnny Manziel's spot and still lead Texas A&M to a 10-2 record? There is no way you could substitute Manti Te'o with any other player in the country and still have an undefeated Irish team. If voters watched games instead of highlights, the Heisman race would be no contest.-- Mike Rodriguez, Milwaukee, Wisc.

Hey Stewart, do us a favor and post all of Manti Te'o's stats and explain again why he's on your Heisman ballot. So he's got a lot of picks, which is strange for his position -- what about all those other stats they put linebackers on the field for? You know, tackles, TFLs, sacks, forced fumbles and what-not?-- Dave, Atlanta

And there, in a nutshell, is why it's so difficult for a defensive player to win the Heisman.

I vehemently disagree with Mike's notion that Manziel is so easily replaceable. The guy makes plays no other quarterback in the country can make, and few could have pulled off what he did that Saturday in Tuscaloosa. I suppose it's possible A&M could plug in, say, Marcus Mariota and still go 10-2, but I'm not going to cast my ballot based on a hypothetical fantasy. I'm dealing with reality, where Manziel has quantifiable, highly impressive stats. My one hang-up (and why I haven't made any final decisions) is his four-turnover performance in A&M's second-biggest game, against LSU. But that's a high standard to hold against someone, especially seeing as no quarterback all season excelled against the Tigers' defense.

Meanwhile, I've received many missives from Notre Dame fans lobbying on behalf of Te'o, and almost none of them cited statistics. Te'o's are very good (103 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions), but, other than the interceptions, they're not otherworldly for a middle linebacker. With Te'o, we're being asked to focus almost entirely on his intangibles -- his leadership, his integrity, his perseverance -- and his impact on Notre Dame's undefeated season. I get that. I've watched him closely in person, and there's no denying his importance to that team. But no one can definitively say he's had a greater impact on the Irish's national title bid than, for example, Jarvis Jones (10.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss) has had on Georgia's. Manziel's 4,600 yards of offense, on the other hand, speak for themselves.

I have a hard time getting behind any of the mid-majors in the Top 25. Kent State lost to 2-10 Kentucky by 33 points, Northern Illinois lost to a terrible Iowa team, Utah State lost to 7-5 Wisconsin, Boise to 6-6 Michigan State and San Jose State lost its two toughest games (Stanford and Utah State). Why do any of them deserve to be ranked over a 9-3 major-conference team?-- Kyle, Memphis

There's certainly no equivalent this year to Boise State beating Georgia or Virginia Tech, and unfortunately, those early-season games are all we really have to go by (save for Kent State's Oct. 27 win over Rutgers) in speculating how these teams stack up nationally. Still, I think those early results can be a bit deceiving. Northern Illinois lost to Iowa by one point three months ago. Clearly, the Huskies got better from there (that was Jordan Lynch's first career start), and the Hawkeyes sure seemed to get worse. The outcome would probably be much different today. But is No. 19 NIU (11-1) better than No. 21 Michigan (8-4)? I doubt it. And my man crush for Dri Archer notwithstanding, it requires some serious suspension of disbelief to think the same squad that lost 47-14 to the SEC's worst team is now the 17th-best team in the country.

On the other hand, I think you're shortchanging Utah State and my SJSU Spartans. The Aggies are legitimately good defensively, ranking 11th nationally in the schedule-adjusted yards per play stats on They lost by two points at Wisconsin and 6-3 at BYU while defeating both 10-2 San Jose State (49-27) and 9-3 Louisiana Tech (48-41). They're a Top 25 team. The Spartans are probably appropriately on the fence, but if you're going to give weight to opening-week performances like NIU's, you have to commend SJSU for losing by a field goal at Stanford. I would take either of those two teams over Boise State this year.

As a lifelong resident of 29 years, how about those Spartans?!-- Charles, San Jose

As a 14-month resident of the town bordering San Jose, I could not be prouder. Unfortunately, I must reluctantly confess I never made it to a game.

The Big 12 has shown amazing depth this year with 90 percent of its teams now bowl eligible, but the league will have nothing to show for it because, for the third year in a row, it will not compete for a national championship. If the Big 12 is trying to establish itself as the second-best conference behind the SEC, shouldn't it start getting to the national championship game more often?-- Jason, Ankeny, Iowa

Well, for the past two years, the only thing the Big 12's teams have done wrong is lose late in the season. If Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State on Oct. 18 last year instead of Nov. 18, it would have played LSU instead of Alabama. Kansas State would have had a tougher time overcoming a blowout loss to Baylor, regardless of the timing, but that result showcased the conference's depth more than anything else. Baylor may be the league's eighth-best team this year (it's hard to say, because the standings are pretty jumbled), and it's capable of blowing out a potential top-five league champion. The SEC's eighth-best team this year is Mississippi State or Vanderbilt. They're not putting a scare into K-State if the teams met.

Ultimately, though, we judge conferences by the teams at the top, and no other conference comes close this year to the SEC's big six.

As a lifelong Colorado Buff fan I just want to say to you, Stewart, dang it, why did you have to be so right?!-- Matt, Denver

Thanks for bringing up a rare moment of prophecy on my part. But more importantly, if Embree's hire was so blatantly misguided that a sportswriter could see it from 2,000 miles away (I still lived in New York then), why couldn't AD Mike Bohn see it? And better still, why is Bohn -- who also hired Dan Hawkins, and who on Monday staged a tremendously awkward exit press conference -- now getting a shot at a third coaching search? It sure seems there should be more tangible accountability for the AD than an Internet coaching grades column.

Why do you hate the Big Ten if you are an alumnus? Why can't you write articles as intelligent as Andy Staples? Why are you still around?-- John, Camp Hill, Pa.

To your first point, it's only fair seeing as I already hate every other conference. To your second point, did you mean to say Andy writes more intelligently? To your third point, I'm just sticking around to see how this whole realignment thing plays out. So you're stuck with me for ... a really long time.

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