Mailbag: Alabama-Clemson ranks here among best BCS/playoff title games

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — I’m writing this from an outdoor table at a veranda as I try to soak in just a few more precious hours at the heavenly J.W. Marriott Camelback Inn, the media headquarters we spoiled writers enjoy whenever the championship game is in Arizona. Coincidentally, I’ve begun a campaign to move the championship game permanently to Arizona.

It’s always bittersweet the morning after a title game, but especially this year, because that Alabama-Clemson game was so darn fun.

Hi Stewart, As a neutral observer, this year’s title game was pure gold – great offense, good defense, big plays, the best QB performance in a losing effort in decades, and a Nick Saban onside kick. Taking a step back, how would you rank that game among the 18 CFP/BCS title bouts? I’m not suggesting it’s Texas-USC, but is it on par with Ohio State-Miami?

— Nicholas Nelson, Paradise, CA

Agreed on all counts — I enjoyed it tremendously. Strange as it sounds talking about a 14-0, No. 1-ranked Clemson team, there was very much a David vs. Goliath undertone to the matchup, what with Alabama having been there, done that, and Clemson a relative newcomer to the stage. So with Deshaun Watson playing the way he did against a previously dominant Tide defense, when the Tigers took a lead into the fourth quarter, you could sense the tension in the stadium. It felt like a national championship game should.

And then that onside kick. Just wow.

I can’t put it in quite the same class as Ohio State-Miami or USC-Texas because first of all, the underdogs won, and second, the teams they beat came in on 34-game winning streaks. Even had Clemson won, it would not have felt nearly as shocking as those two did.

But I’ll put Monday night’s game No. 3, even above the last-second Florida State-Auburn game two years ago, because it was so-back-and-forth; because we got stellar performances both from established stars (Watson, Derrick Henry, Shaq Lawson) and unexpected heroes (O.J. Howard, Adam Griffith, Kevin Dodd); and because a surprise onside kick of all things will likely go on to be the most lasting memory from the game.

Hi Stewart. As I sit here after watching Alabama definitively establish that it was the best team in the country this season, I’m struck by the fact that if it wasn’t for Arkansas’ crazy 4th and 25 lateral play against Ole Miss that Alabama wouldn’t have played in the SEC championship. Under the selection committee’s criteria, there’s a good possibility that Stanford could have made it into the playoff ahead of the non-SEC champion Tide. Is this a sign that the committee needs to rethink its strong focus on picking conference champions?

— Alex, New York, NY

It would have been fascinating to find out, though I don’t think it would have come down to Alabama vs. Stanford. If Ole Miss had gone on to win the SEC championship game against Florida — and given how badly the Gators had deteriorated by that point, I’d consider that more likely than not — the committee would have been dealing with an 11-2 SEC champion Ole Miss team that beat 11-1 non-champion Alabama head-to-head. Given that both conference championships and head-to-head results are two of the four official stated criteria, it’s hard to imagine Jeff Long going on national TV and saying they took Alabama instead because, well, we think the Tide are better than Rebels.

In hindsight, maybe I should have thrown Bret Bielema a shred of credit for Nick Saban’s fifth national championship.

Even so, no, I don’t think the committee should devalue conference championships, because otherwise, what’s the point of even keeping the standings? I know the committee likes to emphasize that these are the “four best,” not the “four most deserving,” but if they’re being honest with themselves, it’s the latter. Was Iowa ever truly one of the four best teams in the country, as was the case for two weeks in November? No, but the Hawkeyes deserved it at the time. Was Ohio State one of the four best teams in the country by season’s end? As much as I loved needling Buckeyes fans last week, yes, they were, but they did not do enough to deserve a spot in the final four.

And if Alabama had failed to crack the playoff field because it lost to a team that went on to win the same conference … oh well.

I’m not one who believes the playoff should include only conference champions, nor do I feel it necessary to expand the field just to make sure all the Power 5 champs get a spot. But if you throw out that element altogether, you’re basically back to the highly subjective polls/BCS model. We can never be sure the four teams are definitively the four best teams, but I at least like knowing there’s a tangible justification behind the selections.

Why is winning a national championship in a 15-game schedule harder than in the old 12-game schedule?  Either way, there is one champion per season. (Granted, the 12-game era sometimes produced split championships). Although it is harder to go undefeated in a longer season, I don’t see why it is harder to win a championship – there are more chances to slip up along the way but also more chances to recover from it.

— Jeff, King of Prussia, PA

You’re getting a little too existential on me with the “either way, there is one champion.” Yes, you are correct that statistically, the odds of winning a national championship relative to the rest of the field do not change based on the number of games played. But as it pertains to the particular topic at hand — Nick Saban, winning four national championships in seven years — I can’t speak for the math, but I assume it’s infinitely more difficult for one coach/team to win more frequently the longer the season, for a multitude of reasons.

First and foremost is the wear and tear on the players. Without diminishing Alabama’s status as the best team this season, it’s no coincidence that the Tide also enjoyed considerable fortune on the injury front. Remarkably, 21 of the 22 starters on their Week 1 depth chart against Wisconsin were in the exact same spot going into Clemson. Receiver Robert Foster — who freshman star Calvin Ridley overtook — suffered the lone season-ending injury. Kenyan Drake, who had the kickoff-return touchdown Monday, missed a stretch of the season. That’s it. Who knows whether Notre Dame, TCU or Baylor might have been playing in Arizona on Monday had they enjoyed that same degree of fortune.

And then there’s the matter of having to play three extra games against highly ranked teams — conference championship game, semifinal, title game — than national champs a generation ago. I don’t care how good you are, you’re not going to win all those games year after year, and in fact the Tide didn’t last season with a comparably talented team. In theory, today’s system stacks the odds heavily against winning championships on a regular basis, but so far, Saban and Alabama have defied that.

If the The Heisman Trophy was awarded after the bowls, then wouldn’t Deshaun Watson win it? Wouldn’t that be the case most years? Is that why they award it pre bowls?

— Dan Klobucar, Osseo, Minn.

Wait, didn’t we just hold a re-vote last week and give it to Christian McCaffrey? He only got to keep the trophy for a week?

I’m on record as saying the Heisman winner should not be decided until after the bowl games, because they provide the first opportunity since September to see guys play against the best competition from the rest of the country. But the risk with that is the Heisman might become limited to participants in the national championship game. Voters are already inclined to weigh what they saw most recently, and in this case they’d be seeing the most important games of the season.

Having said that, Derrick Henry actually won the national championship, and we’re now saying he’d be downgraded to third after playing two more games, the latter of which he ran for 158 yards. If Watson had beaten Alabama, no question he would have won it. As it is, I still think McCaffrey wins if the vote were held today, followed by Watson, then Henry. The really interesting test case would have been last season. Marcus Mariota would have still won it, but how high would Ezekiel Elliott have finished? He wasn’t even All-Big Ten after the regular season, but he might have risen as high as Heisman runner-up.

In which case, we would have gone from having the bowls carry no weight in the Heisman race to a disproportionate amount.

Stewart, I think I remember you predicting the playoff was the beginning of the end for the bowl system as we knew it. Don’t the New Year’s Six ratings numbers this year point to that? I know the games were blowouts, but the Fiesta, Rose, and Sugar were on New Year’s Day, traditionally college football’s version of Super Bowl Sunday, and had high-profile teams. Might this be the new normal of interest in these non-playoff games?

— Mike, Arlington, Va.

Indeed, I touched on that in my playoff postmortem story Tuesday. The playoff is already having exactly the effect I anticipated, perhaps even quicker than I expected. I underestimated just how badly the first New Year’s Eve semifinals would backfire, and that contributed to the anticlimactic effect a day later. But end of day, the No. 1 goal in this sport for decades and decades — reaching the best bowl game possible — is now second to reaching the playoff. So it’s no surprise the other bowls are experiencing an accompanying decline in interest.

Even when the playoff inevitably expands to eight teams, the bowls won’t go away, because there are still 120 other FBS teams that need something to play for. And it’s not like suddenly no one is watching or attending them. The lowest-rated Rose Bowl on record still comprised 13.6 million viewers, and Iowa fans couldn’t by enough tickets. Nearly 10 million watched Ohio State-Notre Dame. Those aren’t small numbers.

But it was always naïve to think you could create a playoff without eroding the importance of the other games. At this point there’s an entire generation of fans who only know college football as having at the very least a national championship game. It’s my sense that the typical 25-year-old is generally dumbfounded why anyone cares about the Rose Bowl to begin with. And as Nick Saban discussed Tuesday morning, the idea that a playoff team spends a week in one city getting ready for a semifinal, goes home for a few days, then jets off to another city for four days is completely illogical on its face. One day in the not-too-distant future, the playoff will separate completely from the bowl system, at which point those games will officially be viewed as something less important.

Strangely, they both involved Michigan State. Years from now, when someone says “2015 season,” my guess is the first two moments that will come to mind are the Michigan-Michigan State ending and the Spartans stunning Ohio State in Columbus. The first was a Kick Six-level crazy way for such a tense rivalry game to end; the second essentially eliminated the 10-0, defending national champs. Obviously, Miami-Duke was arguably an even more unbelievable sequence than the Michigan dropped punt, but the stakes were so much lower and the utter officiating fiasco that even allowed the play to happen tainted it a bit.

Other games that really stand out include Clemson-Notre Dame in the rain, Notre Dame-Stanford coming down to a last-second field goal and of course, Wake Forest beating Boston College 3-0.

Stewart: Reading "The Thinking Fan’s Guide…" prior to last year’s playoffs, it seemed so obvious to me that New Year’s Eve semifinal games were destined to fail. The commissioners’ self-professed goal to change New Year’s Eve culture smacked of hubris, regardless of whether or not it falls on a work day. Knowing Bill Hancock and company are still singing the "one year doesn’t make a trend" tune, what, if anything, has to happen for things to change?

— Chris Horton, Los Angeles

It’s already happened. ESPN took a bath on this year’s games. It is feeling the wrath from sponsors and advertisers (including a reported $20 million in ad makegoods) and will not be able to charge as much next year. While the network does not have the power to unilaterally change the dates (if it did, this year’s semis would have been on Jan. 2), when you pay $7.3 billion for something, you’ve earned the right to make some demands.

That New Year’s Eve is on Saturday next year, and then the Jan. 1 bowls host the year after allows the commissioners to punt this issue down the road a bit, but I cannot imagine this won’t have changed by 2018-19, when this year’s rotation returns. The question is how.

Even if the Big Ten/Pac-12 (Rose) and Big 12/SEC (Sugar) continue to stand firm in their clash of egos, there are still some creative solutions. One simple one is to break up the Sugar and Rose’s turn in the rotation and pair them with another bowl so you could at least play the semis on New Year’s Day two out of every three years. You could avoid a couple of other conflicts by getting away from a strict rotation. All six bowls still get four semifinals in 12 years, but they’re not necessarily once every three years. The people making these decisions are much smarter than their sound bites sometimes reflect. They can figure this out.

Which team, by your estimation, will be the next Auburn this offseason — the one everyone predicts to be great next year, but falls flat on its face in 2016?

— Brian Stewart, Gainesville, Ga.

Well if we could predict that ahead of time, we wouldn’t grossly overrate said team to begin with.

Speaking of which …

Stewart: Can we stop talking about 2015 already? Immediately after the championship game ended, ESPN was highlighting the 2016 Labor Day weekend games on the ticker: Alabama-USC, Clemson-Auburn, Notre Dame-Texas, UCLA-Texas A&M, LSU-Wisconsin, Florida State-Ole Miss (Monday night) and of course, Baylor vs. The Northwestern State Demons. In your time covering college football, has there ever been a better slate of opening weekend games?

 — Jason, Louisiana

No, not even close. It’s going to be unbelievable. I will not even attempt to pick one of those games to go to, I want to watch them all.

But I think what I’m looking forward to most is some of the insane knee-jerk reactions we’ll all make immediately afterward. Heck, after Week 1 this year, I believed Ohio State was going to field the greatest offense of all time, Josh Rosen was going to win the Heisman as a true freshman and Kyler Murray was going to be Texas A&M’s starting quarterback for at least three seasons. And that was based off just a handful of meaningful games.

Imagine how stupid I’m going to look after these games!

Unfortunately, that’s all still eight months away. For now, I sadly leave behind the Camelback after another enjoyable season to go home, rest up for a few days and soon start mocking up hoops brackets.

Thanks as always for all your questions this season. Don’t think you can start slouching, though. Offseason conditioning begins next Wednesday.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.