Mailbag: SEC’s nightmare playoff scenario, Bama vs. Oregon & more

On Monday I wrote how the playoff has imparted more significance on this stretch of the regular season.

In this week’s Mailbag, you’ll see another side effect: The committee rankings now dominate our conversation of the sport.

Given Mississippi State and Florida State are seen as the “clear cut” top two seeds, isn’t the selection committee going against the notion of playing tough non-conference games? Someone like Michigan State or Kansas State may have been better off not playing Oregon or Auburn and going undefeated and forcing the committee’s hand. Until I see a selection committee ranking where someone is ranked ahead of a school with fewer losses, I’m inclined to believe the committee and process isn’t all that visionary.

 — John, Spokane, Washington

It’s definitely an important storyline to follow. A lot of people around the sport –mainly commissioners and ADs outside of the SEC — have been operating under the assumption the committee will reward teams that play tough non-conference schedules like the basketball committee does. Some schools have already started beefing up future slates accordingly. But the football committee never said it would single out the three- or four-game non-conference portion of teams’ schedules. When the debate raged this summer over whether the SEC should play eight or nine league games, Bill Hancock continually emphasized the committee would evaluate a team’s entire 12- or 13-game schedule. So it may be that we prematurely leapt to some conclusions.

No one could argue Florida State didn’t schedule up this season. Three of its four out-of-conference opponents were Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida. Given their weak ACC schedule, the ‘Noles were smart to challenge themselves. Mississippi State is a different story. The Bulldogs’ date with Tennessee-Martin this week completes a non-conference gauntlet that began with Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. Throw in crossover games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and you’ve got half a schedule that’s basically garbage. However, Mississippi State already has two wins against current top-16 teams, Auburn and LSU, with the opportunity to add two more against Alabama and Ole Miss. No one else in the country would be able to claim that. And given the committee’s job is to determine the best four teams, excluding a team with that many high-caliber victories would be disingenuous.

It seems to me you only start getting penalized once you lose a game, with Baylor the prime example. It’s sitting six spots behind a TCU team it beat, both of them with the same 7-1 record, presumably because of the Bears’ pathetic out-of-conference schedule of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. TCU, by contrast, beat 6-2 Minnesota. Considering how hard it is to go undefeated in college football, whatever your conference, it probably does behoove you to schedule a tough game out of conference to help bolster your case if clustered with other one- or two-loss teams. Then again, Michigan State would be in the top four right now if it had played Central Michigan instead of Oregon.

It will probably take a few years of this system to know for sure whether the reward outweighs the risk of playing a game like that.

Stewart, suppose only one team comes out of the SEC West with one loss. Then let’s say this team loses to a two-loss SEC East champ. If there were a bunch of Power 5 conference champs with one loss, does the SEC get shut out of the playoff?

— Matthew, Merritt Island, Florida

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This seems to be a popular topic following Georgia’s loss to Florida, which ensures that a champ from the SEC East will have at least two losses — and in both Missouri’s (to Indiana) and Georgia’s (to South Carolina and Florida) cases, bad losses. It’s hard to imagine either of those teams is reaching the playoff even if they win out, though Georgia might have a case seeing as it would have to beat Auburn and the SEC West champ to do it. But let’s assume for the sake of this hypothetical that the Dawgs are done.

Two things to keep in mind: One, while nobody believes them, the committee is ranking teams, not conferences. While not oblivious to the ramifications, their decision-making process will not include consideration of how many teams they’re picking from each conference. I went through the mock seminar. It’s true. And two, while conference championships are a factor, they’re not an obligation. Just as important is the committee looking at the schedule each champion played. The imbalance between the two SEC divisions is so vast that an 11-2 West team would almost certainly have a stronger resume than an 11-2 East team. Which might trump both the championship and head-to-head criteria.

The SEC’s worst nightmare should be Georgia or Missouri beating 11-1 Mississippi State — that of the hideous non-conference resume — in the title game. I could see Auburn, Alabama and even LSU getting in with two losses. Mississippi State would be a harder sell. And I certainly can’t see them bypassing the champions of both divisions for another team in the conference.

Hey Stewart, You’re one of the very few college football writers I believe is impartial and objective. Please explain to me who Alabama has beaten to be ranked fifth? Their best win is arguably West Virginia. Everyone else is mediocre on that schedule. It seems like the Alabama name is swaying this vote. TCU and Kansas State should be higher than them and even Michigan State. At least they have a win over a ranked Nebraska team. 

— Mike, location unknown

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With the caveat that Alabama’s ranking really doesn’t matter because it has games ahead against the No. 1 (Mississippi State) and 3 (Auburn) teams, Alabama seems to be the one top-10 team whose ranking is based almost entirely on the eyeball test. Jeff Long said as much. With every other team he’s been asked about in the last two weeks, he’s mentioned specific wins or schedule points. When asked why Alabama is ahead of TCU, he talked vaguely about watching film.

Obviously we want the committee members to watch the games and use their own eyes. And there are plenty of experts (mainly Vegas) who believe the Tide are even better than a No. 5 ranking. I just find it odd that ‘Bama appears to be the only team that fits this profile. The committee members are human. They’re swayed by the names on the jerseys, too.

Stewart, please explain to me how K-State can jump Michigan State with a win against 5-4 Oklahoma State!? If Michigan State was ranked higher last week, what about beating a team with four wins over FBS opponents with a combined record of 9-24 could possibly merit them jumping my beloved Spartans!?

Hi Stewart. My question is what to do at Oregon State. Mike Riley is one of the nicest coaches in the nation but is 1-9 in last 10 conference games. Fans are calling for him to be fired. Am I wrong in thinking firing Riley is a terrible decision? Where could they go?

— Zach, Seattle

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I get why Beavers fans are frustrated. Barring a miracle turnaround down the stretch, this will be the fourth time in five seasons that Oregon State fails to finish above .500 in the regular season. But whenever a school is considering a coaching change, it has to consider the risk. There’s not much risk in Michigan firing Brady Hoke or Florida firing Will Muschamp. Those financially and tradition-rich programs will never be down for long. At Oregon State, the risk of firing Riley, with his 55-46 conference record since returning in 2003, is that the next guy might go 2-10 for eternity.

I’ve always enjoyed my times in Corvallis, but let’s be honest: Take away its highly respected coach with a long history of turning developmental recruits into NFL players, and what can Oregon State offer a recruit that other Pac-12 schools can’t? Almost nothing. It’s so far behind most of the league in resources it’s amazing the Beavers win as much as they do. Meanwhile, Riley has continually turned down overtures from the likes of USC to stay in Corvallis. Even if the school fired him and found a hot-shot replacement who promptly took Oregon State to the Rose Bowl, that guy would be gone faster than Jacquizz Rodgers in the open field.

Long story short: You can run off Riley and hope for the best, but the risk far outweighs the potential, highly improbable reward. So yes, to your question, it would be a terrible decision.

One of the reasons Chris Petersen finally decided to leave Boise State is to get better access to the major bowl games. Under the new system it appears as though Boise State will have more access than many of the Power 5 schools. With the highest-ranked champion from the Group of 5 getting in it seems as though Boise State could be set up on an annual basis. Would you rather see a 13-0 Marshall team that has played a horrible schedule or a 11-2 Boise State team that has wins over a possible 11-1 Colorado State, Nevada and BYU?

— Trent, Layton, Utah

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Now that he’s in a Power 5 conference, I assume Petersen’s goals have changed from reaching a major bowl to reaching the playoff, which will be close to impossible going forward even for a respected program like Boise. Petersen wanted a new challenge and has acknowledged on multiple occasions how much more difficult life in the Pac-12 is than in the WAC and Mountain West. As remarkable as his run was at Boise, leading Washington to a Pac-12 championship and/or College Football Playoff berth sometime in the next five years would be a greater achievement than several 12-1 seasons and Cotton/Fiesta bowl berths at Boise.

As for this year’s Broncos, no question they’re sneaking into the New Year’s Six picture thanks to East Carolina’s second loss, Marshall’s weak schedule and, most importantly, Boise’s win over an increasingly impressive Colorado State team. And let’s not forget, Boise did hang with Ole Miss for three quarters in the season-opener before falling 35-13. Little did we know then the Rebels would rise as high as the top five. But at this point we’re all just guessing whether the committee would value a two-loss team with Boise’s schedule over a potential 13-0 Marshall team.

When Oregon played Arizona, they were ranked second and unranked, respectively. When Alabama played Ole Miss, they were ranked 3rd and 11th, respectively. The current rankings have Oregon fourth, Alabama fifth, Ole Miss 11th and Arizona 19th. I can’t wrap my head around this at all. How are they counting Alabama’s loss to a higher-ranked team as being worse than a loss to a then-unranked, currently lesser ranked team?

— Doctor Brilliant, location unknown

Well, probably because they’re counting all the other games Oregon and Alabama have played, too. But what do I know? I only got my doctorate in Excellent.

Hi Stewart. The farther Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck fade in Stanford’s rear view, the more it looks like David Shaw just rode the crest of an immense wave. Could David Shaw actually just be the next Larry Coker? By the way, this isn’t meant as an insult to Larry Coker, who clearly had a better first four years (.888 vs .780).

— Michael Breitenbach, Denver, Colorado

I love Larry Coker, and that was a ridiculously good run, but I’d give Shaw a better chance of going .888 at Miami than Coker going .780 at Stanford. One was working with a substantially more loaded arsenal than the other.

Stanford’s downturn this season is not completely surprising given the number of standout veterans it lost, but I didn’t think the Cardinal would be quite so inept offensively. Shaw didn’t win consecutive Pac-12 titles — neither of them with Luck, mind you — by accident. The guy knows how to coach. I’m not the biggest fan of his rigidly conservative pro-style play-calling, but that’s not the reason the Cardinal are 5-4.

One thing that has to be catching up to Shaw is the massive staff turnover since he took over. His original coordinators were Pep Hamilton, now Luck’s coordinator with the Colts, and Derek Mason, now the head coach at Vanderbilt. Current coordinators Mike Bloomgren (offense) and Lance Anderson (defense) and D-line coach Randy Hart are the lone remaining holdovers from Shaw’s 2011 staff. Harbaugh and Shaw did such a good job of creating a unique identity for that program, but it’s asking a lot for a revolving door of assistants to maintain it. If Shaw can maintain some continuity this offseason at Stanford, it should help. Beyond that, the Cardinal aren’t lacking for talent or depth at most positions so I’d be surprised if this proves to be more than a one-year hiccup.

I am concerned by your admission in last week’s Mailbag about the reality of East Coast bias. Is it not the responsibility of the AP poll voters, as well as the media members who cover the sport on the national level, to pay just as close attention to the Pac-12 games that end at 2:30 AM as they do to the ACC games that kick off at noon? Even if the AP poll has no direct effect on the CFP rankings, the committee members are not sequestered. Their opinions of teams are inevitably (if only subconsciously) impacted by what’s written by media members such as yourself.

— Frank, Arizona

I’m reticent to paint AP voters with such a generalized brush. I know most take their duty very seriously and watch all the games they can. I know I did when I lived in New York. I can’t say the same about the Coaches Poll. An ACC coach is not going to stay up until 2:30 a.m. for the sake of his ballot (which he’s probably not filling out himself as it is) when he’s getting up at 5:30 to start prepping for next week’s game.

But having lived on both coasts now, I can tell you East Coast bias is very real, and there’s no better example of that this year than Shaq Thompson. The Washington star scored four defensive touchdowns as a linebacker and safety, switched over to running back two weeks ago and ran for 98 yards against Arizona State, then 174 (on 15 carries) against Colorado. If he played in the SEC or Big Ten he’d be garnering Jadeveon Clowney/Manti Te’o-level hype right now. He’s in my Heisman top five. But no one in the eastern or central time zones watches Washington games.

The good news is the committee is definitely watching those late-night games, whether in real time like Long or on their iPads the next day. You can see that in their rankings, where four of the five Pac-12 teams are rated higher than they are in the AP and coaches polls.

Hello Stewart. Longtime fan of the Mailbag. After finally making the jump from FCS, the Georgia Southern Eagles are killing it in in their first year in FBS. The Eagles are also only a combined five points from being undefeated, suffering late road losses to NC State and Georgia Tech. There is now a grassroots movement to grant Georgia Southern bowl eligibility a year early. What are the chances the NCAA grants the Eagles a waiver, regardless of the number of bowl eligible teams at the end of the season? #FreeGSU 

— Wayne, Savannah, Georgia

The Eagles are indeed killing it, alone in first in the Sun Belt. But no, the NCAA is pretty strict about no postseason during the two-year transition period. It’s meant to dissuade schools from making the jump unless they’re truly in it for the long-term, not a one-off payday. UT-San Antonio ran into the same thing last year. Larry Coker’s team went 7-5 in its second transition year but couldn’t play in a bowl, either. So Georgia Southern needs to root for only 77 eligible teams. 

It’s so funny how you reporters just mock people for SEC bias. I guess you guys are so smart and so above the common reader. There actually is huge favoritism for all SEC schools. But I guess you think you are better since you have a great degree from Notre Dame. You know there are a lot of people out here that have degrees just like you. It’s not that hard. You really come of like a smart-ass. By the way, Notre Dame hasn’t played anyone. You are comical.

— Scot House, location unknown

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Congratulations my friend. I’ve been writing this column since 2003 and you are the first reader ever to mock me by invoking a school I did not attend.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.