Mailbag: The first big College Football Playoff debate is already overblown

WP

You know it’s November when Starbucks breaks out the holiday cups – and when we find ourselves once again discussing “wins over teams with .500 or better records.”

Now that the CFB Playoff rankings are released on Tuesday night, how screwed up is your Wednesday Mailbag?

— Trevor K. Portland, Oregon

I’m good. I hold a couple of spots open, and you guys never fail to deliver.

Stewart: As a Washington Huskies fan, should I be ecstatic about the first rankings? Not only does it motivate Coach Petersen's team, but it also follows what you've been pointing out — that the final rankings look nothing like the first ranking.

— Adam Kohler, somewhere

Ecstatic? I don’t know about that. I’d be at least a tad bit insulted — but I do get the rationale. The committee pretty consistently adhered to strength of schedule as its determining factor throughout. That wasn’t always the case in the past; former chair Jeff Long would cite one team’s schedule, then say of another, “We’ve just watched them play and we think they’re very impressive.”

I can’t disagree that Washington’s schedule to this point has been underwhelming, partly of its own doing (Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State), partly not (normally stomping Stanford and Oregon is a major accomplishment.) A&M’s is tougher, even with Prairie View and New Mexico State on there. Sagarin and other formulas say so.

But yes, it’s important to remember that the pecking order in these committee rankings is fluid from week to week. Even if the Huskies and Aggies win the rest of their games, they wouldn’t necessarily remain linked together like this. And it goes without saying, an undefeated POWER CONFERENCE CHAMPION would certainly finish higher than a one-loss NON-CHAMPION.

The primary concern for Washington fans is this: If the committee views the Huskies’ schedule so unfavorably, what happens if (when?) the Huskies lose a game? A one-loss Pac-12 champ with a joke non-conference schedule won’t necessarily beat out a one-loss non-champ. But the good news is, its resume could get a lot better between now and Dec. 4.

Hocutt specifically mentioned that A&M had beaten four plus-.500 teams (Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and … Prairie View?) to Washington’s two (Stanford and Utah). Over their last four games, the Aggies will play just one more, LSU, while Washington will play three (USC, Arizona State and Washington State), plus a possible fourth in the title game.

My guess is we’ll soon forget this was ever an argument.

Stewart: There is a realistic possibility that the Big Ten could have a two-loss champion. If Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State run the table, and Michigan is upset in one of their non-Ohio State games, 10-2 Wisconsin would win the West (tiebreaker over Nebraska), 10-2 Penn State the East (tiebreaker over Ohio State). Could you see the committee selecting the Big Ten champ over a one-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champ?

— Adam Z., somewhere

Yes, I could, though it presents an interesting dilemma. If in this scenario Wisconsin beats Penn State, the Badgers would be 11-2 Big Ten champs, but Ohio State – which beat Wisconsin on the road – would also be sitting there at 11-1. Yes, the committee values conference championships, but I’d have to imagine the Buckeyes – with wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan – get the nod.

Conversely, if Penn State is the champ, it would not have as convincing a case, with Ohio State likely representing its only Top 25 win before the title game and both a lopsided loss (to Michigan) and a loss to a good-but-not-great Pitt team on its resume. The committee already has the Nittany Lions surprisingly high (No. 12), but they might not move much higher in the coming weeks as they play Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan State.

The most plausible two-loss playoff scenario would be if Wisconsin beats 12-0 or 11-1 Michigan or 11-1 Ohio State in the championship game. That could conceivably give the Badgers three wins over Top 25 foes (LSU, Nebraska and Ohio State or Michigan) to counter two close losses to the Wolverines and Buckeyes. They would definitely beat out the Big 12 champ. Washington’s not as certain.

Why is Louisville being given the benefit of the doubt in the polls? The Cardinals have played two decent teams all season (Florida State and Clemson) and lost to one of them, with several very close calls against inferior teams (Virginia? Really?). I realize Lamar Jackson is going to win the Heisman, but as a whole Louisville's resume doesn't stack up with other one-loss teams in the Top 10.

— Carter Mullen, somewhere

Apparently the committee agrees with you.

However, I’m not sure what “several” close calls you’re referring to. Virginia certainly was. The 24-14 Duke game was low-scoring, but the Cardinals never trailed. Outside of those and the Clemson loss, it’s been 70-14, 62-28, 63-20, 59-28 and 54-13. Furthermore, Louisville boasts the nation’s No. 2 offense (7.8 yards per play) and No. 7 defense (4.5 yards per play). Adjusted for opponents, it’s No. 3 in the S&P+ efficiency ratings, behind only Michigan and Alabama.

Long story short, this is a really good team. But it’s probably not going to get much higher than seventh.

Louisville has caught no breaks with its schedule strength. Florida State is the only current Top 25 team it’s beaten, and there’s no guarantee the 22nd-ranked ‘Noles will stay there. Its only notable remaining foe, Houston, has disappointed. Short of a Clemson nosedive that allows the Cardinals to win their division, their resume is unquestionably going to be light, at which point their best arguments will be either their dominance against all those lesser opponents and/or their close loss to Clemson. There will likely be other one-loss teams, and maybe even a couple of two-loss teams, with more compelling cases.

If the message boards are to be believed, Tennessee is imploding, and the masses are out for blood. Do Vols fans have a legitimate gripe with the team's coaching, or is this just one upset and fans need to chill?

— Dan, Washington, DC

Oh, they have every right to be upset. Vols fans were incredibly understanding and patient in buying into Butch Jones’ slow but steady rebuilding process over the past four years. They saw Tennessee’s record improve each year, but with few big wins to celebrate. They saw all those hyped recruiting classes, but had to wait for those recruits to mature. They endured some brutal late-game management the first half of 2015, only to be rewarded with a strong finish.

But this was supposed to be the year when excuses officially gave way to trophies – specifically the SEC East title. Instead, Tennessee is sitting at 2-3 in league play, behind Kentucky, after losing to an offensively challenged South Carolina team with a true freshman quarterback. And now its star running back, Jalen Hurd, is transferring two-thirds of the way through the season.

That’s an implosion.

In Jones’ defense, Tennessee has suffered an ungodly amount of injuries to star defensive players, and that certainly made tough games against Texas A&M and Alabama tougher. But it also took an absurd amount of good fortune – surviving Josh Dobbs’ fumble into the end zone against Appalachian State and throwing a Hail Mary against Georgia – for the Vols to be 5-3, not 3-5.

With a light remaining schedule, Tennessee could still turn around and finish the regular season 9-3, but if it doesn’t include a division title – in the worst division of any Power 5 conference – then Jones will have underachieved.

I offer two choices for your reader’s QB Murderer's Row Challenge: 2008 Kansas: Graham Harrell, Texas Tech; Sam Bradford, Oklahoma; Chase Daniel, Missouri; Josh Freeman, Kansas State; Colt McCoy, Texas … OR … 2008 Colorado: Pat White, West Virginia; Christian Ponder, Florida State; McCoy; Freeman; Daniel.

— Adam, Texas Tech '07

I had a feeling most nominees would involve some 2007-11ish Big 12 teams. In fact, I came up with one of my own.

2010 Texas Tech: Baylor’s Robert Griffin III; Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden; Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill; Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert; Oklahoma’s Landry Jones.

All five went on to become NFL starters (of varying lengths).

Hi Stewart. In the past there used to be a thing called “Clemsoning,” where a promising team lost a game it had no business losing. At some point, I remember you mentioning it should be changed to “UCLAing.” What do you think UCLA needs to do to break out of this rut and reach the elite level Clemson has the last few years? Or do you think that is not a realistic possibility for UCLA?

— Garret, Sacramento, California

Maybe we should rename it Tennessee-ing.

It’s interesting how quickly many UCLA fans have turned on Jim Mora. His first three years there, the Bruins won nine, 10 and 10 games, played in a conference championship game and beat USC every year. UCLA did still blow a winnable game or two each year – most notably a blowout to then 6-5 Stanford in 2014 that cost it the South – but the program still mostly garnered optimism. That no longer appears to be the case, as the Bruins are 6-8 in the Pac-12 since last season.

Last year’s disappointing 8-5 finish was forgivable due to UCLA losing nearly all of its best defensive players to injury. But this year’s 3-5 start cannot all be pinned on QB Josh Rosen’s injury. That doesn’t explain why the Bruins couldn’t run the ball even when he was healthy, or why they’ve yet to field a consistent offensive line since Mora got there. Most perplexing to me was Mora’s decision last offseason to switch from a spread to a pro-style offense, only to ditch it two weeks ago against Utah and have his backup QB attempt 70 – yes, 70 – passes.

Mora has taken a big step backward this season, though he has a golden opportunity to change that Thursday night at first-place Colorado. (Can you believe that sentence?) And certainly UCLA should be better than it has the past two seasons.

But no, sorry to say it, I don’t think it’s realistic for UCLA to become Clemson for any extended period, because it does not have nearly the same support. Clemson underachieved for many years, but it still filled its 81,000-seat stadium and poured money into facilities. It will be hard for UCLA to become a national power playing in a two-thirds full (at best) Rose Bowl, modest facilties and a fan base that cares more about basketball.

Stewart, Let me get this straight. The Big 12 is going to play a complete round robin with 10 teams, not split up into divisions, and then play a championship game between two teams that have already determined their place in the standings? Does this make sense to you? What if the first-place team already beat the second-place team but loses in the championship game? Does their first meeting no longer count? Explain the logic, if you can.

— Scott Saxton, Windsor, Ontario 

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the Big 12 made the right call in June by bringing back the championship game. It risked being at a disadvantage in the playoff system if it stood pat. Through two years at least, the committee has shown it highly values wins over Top 25 opponents. A championship game provides a playoff contender a chance to get one more. In fact it could really use one this year given how few opportunities Oklahoma/West Virginia/Baylor have down the stretch to beat ranked foes.

That is, IF you divide into two divisions like every other league that does this.

A championship game guaranteed to pit the conference’s two best teams is great for TV — imagine 11-1 Baylor vs. 11-1 TCU in 2014 – but could blow up in the league’s face for the playoff. For one thing, it ensures there will never be two Big 12 teams in the playoff. It also means the first-place team will be at much bigger risk of losing than if there were oft-imbalanced divisions. An 11-1 “South” team beating a presumably ranked 9-3 “North” team is exactly the intended effect. But a 10-2 North team knocking off an 11-1 South team may eliminate both.

All of this is undeniably silly given the Big 12 currently has the most sound method for determining a champion of any conference. But it’s on an island in doing so, and other conferences are unintentionally benefitting from having oversized rosters and imbalanced divisions where, for example, Florida gets a resume boost if it beats LSU but doesn’t have to play Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn on top of that. Big 12 teams don’t miss anyone, and now they’re going to have to play a really good team twice.

With Ed Orgeron facing a potential job-earning game this weekend against Alabama, I wanted to ask who you felt was the best interim coach-turned-full-time coach that you recall? USC’s Clay Helton seems to be doing well for now, but Dabo Swinney is the best I can think of. Any thoughts, and just for comparison, the worst that comes to mind?

— Ashley Ryan, Milledgeville, Georgia

We don’t get a lot of interims-turned-full-time in football, probably because the interim stint rarely goes well. Swinney is definitely an exception. It’s interesting that Swinney, like Orgeron, was not a coordinator at the time Clemson promoted him midway through the 2008 season. He was a receivers coach. Most times the AD just defaults to one of the coordinators because presumably they’re the most experienced guys on staff, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re best suited to take over the program. Swinney, as we’ve learned, is a perfect personality fit for Clemson. So is native Louisianan Orgeron at LSU.

Before Swinney, though, two guys who went on to win national championships come to mind. Lloyd Carr became the interim coach at Michigan in the spring of 1995 after Gary Moeller’s drunken debacle, got the permanent job in November and kept it for 13 years. And after going 5-0 as Tennessee’s interim coach in 1992 while Johnny Majors recovered from heart surgery, Fulmer got the permanent job following Majors’ forced resignation at the end of the season. He kept it for 16 seasons.

As for worst – so many candidates. But I’ll go with Bobby Williams, who Michigan State promoted to be Nick Saban’s successor in 2000 for leading the team to a Citrus Bowl win. He went 6-15 in the Big Ten and got fired before his third full season was over. In a full-circle twist, Williams went on to become a Saban assistant again and has been on his staff at LSU, the Dolphins and Alabama since 2004. (He moved to an off-field support role this season.)

Hi Stewart. Sonny Dykes’ criticism of Cal’s scheduling as a “travesty” didn’t resonate with me. Life is tough and imbalance is inevitable, and I’m surprised that the coach’s mentality wasn’t more of “we have to be so well conditioned that we can handle a less-than-ideal schedule.” Does Dykes have a legit beef, and should conferences find a way to make scheduling more “fair” in regards to short weeks, weeknight games, multiple road rivalry games, etc.?

— Navin, New York

Travesty is a strong word, but yes, Dykes had a legit complaint about his team playing a Friday night home game against Oregon followed by a Thursday night road game at USC, with the Trojans coming off a bye week.

Schedules are never going to be completely “fair,” and of course TV exerts considerable influence when it comes to weeknight games. There are any number of logistical headaches to work around. But Cal’s situation was extreme in just how badly it stacked the deck against the Bears.

Forget about whether or not it made it harder to win the football game. Frankly, with that defense, Cal wouldn’t have won with three week’s rest. On top of a short, bizarrely sequenced week, this was during the school’s midterms. So you’re not just disrupting practice schedules, you’re negatively affecting guys’ academics, which the conference supposedly deems important. And I’d argue it’s also borderline unsafe when one team is considerably more rested and better prepared than the other. There’s greater risk of injury.

I would hope in the future the conference makes every effort possible to ensure that the teams in a Thursday night game either both have a bye the week before or both don’t. And to avoid a school playing consecutive weeknight games during midterms or finals.

“Can you recall a team that faced better QB talent in a single season?” 2002 LSU: Ben Roethlisberger, Miami of Ohio; Eli Manning, Ole Miss; Rex Grossman, Florida; Jason Campbell, Auburn; Chris Simms, Texas.

— Will, Dallas, Texas

We’re going to have a tough time topping this one given it comprises guys who went on to make a combined 507 career NFL starts (and counting).

The bar is now set.