Mailbag: Alabama’s ‘luck’ vs. LSU, Spurrier’s barbs, Big 12 and more

Nick Saban has good reason to laugh, as Alabama has gotten the best of LSU in recent seasons.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Earlier this week FOX Sports held a two-day seminar for all of its college football and NFL on-air and production employees. I had the honor of delivering a short presentation to my new colleagues on how the College Football Playoff will work. I think it went over well, though one person said to me afterward that she’d sat through organic chemistry lectures that were easier to understand. Presumably she was referring to the subject matter, not the professor. At least I hope.

It’s not every day that one of the nation’s most popular sports completely reinvents the way it determines its champion. And this being college football, the powers-that-be couldn’t possibly do so with a simple, common-sense format. It had to invent terms like “contract bowls” and “access conferences” and make the thing even more convoluted — though hopefully more exciting — than the BCS.

Not that I mind. It makes for great material.

I’m thrilled to tell you that my book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available exclusively on Amazon. I wrote the manuscript last spring when it became apparent just how much of a learning curve this first season will be as we acclimate ourselves to previously foreign concepts like the selection committee, the semifinal bowl rotation, the placement of teams in the other major bowls, a championship game that’s not itself a bowl game and much, much more. I figured people might find it useful to have a de facto user’s manual they can use either to cram before the season (it’s only 112 pages) or keep by their remote for reference throughout the fall.

The 2014 season will be the most fascinating one in a long time. The ramifications of the playoff will begin to take hold and our entire discourse about the sport will change accordingly. It really is like learning a new language. So if you’d like to get a head start on your friends and be the smartest guy at your tailgate, just click on that link.

And then of course tell your friends, too.

On with the Mailbag.

(Submit Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com)

While LSU’s defense was not up to norm last year, and everyone knows about the high number of early departures for NFL draft, I wonder why LSU doesn’t get the respect it deserves versus Alabama who is more lucky than good regarding schedule and inability to stop the spread. Who shut down Johnny Football the last two years. It wasn’t Oklahoma or Alabama. And who was the only team to beat Auburn in the regular season?

— Eric T, Saudi Arabia

RANKING THE TOP 25 JOBS

LSU’s getting plenty of respect given the fact it’s replacing every key offensive skill player and lost yet another crop of NFL defenders. And I find it curious you’d single out Alabama for trash-talking purposes given the Tide have won three straight against the Tigers, including by scores of 21-0 (in the 2012 BCS Championship Game) and 38-17 (last season).

I believe LSU will contend for the national title … in 2015. The freshmen Les Miles signed this year, most notably gifted running back Leonard Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and quarterback Brandon Harris, have a chance to accomplish something special in Baton Rouge, but it’s asking a lot to depend on them so heavily as true freshmen. LSU will likely be up-and-down on offense this year, and unless it fields one of its vintage dominant defenses, the Tigers may suffer a few losses in a tough division with Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and sleeper Ole Miss.

But I certainly wouldn’t rule them out in any of those games, either, especially that Nov. 8 showdown with the Tide in Death Valley. Perhaps they’ll give you better ammo to trot out than that more-lucky-than-good line.

Hi Stewart. Steve Spurrier came out with comments this week about East Carolina being better than a low-tier Big Ten team. Meanwhile, everyone in the South seems to believe Ohio State plays a soft schedule. It seems Spurrier could be helping Ohio State’s argument — the Buckeyes play Cincinnati (who is picked by most media to win the American over East Carolina), Virginia Tech and an above-average Navy team. Once the season gets going, could the posturing done by a coach regarding their SOS actually come back to bite them if they aren’t too careful?

— Brian C., Gilbert, Arizona

I know as a college football writer I’m contractually obligated to lap up everything the Ol’ Ball Coach says and give thanks for all his great quotes. But really, can we stop reporting every little thing the guy says? He’s a great coach and he’s funny, no question, but personally, I’m over it. Congrats on all the Outback and Capital One Bowl wins, coach, but if I want to hear about the Big Ten’s schedule I’ll talk to someone who’s actually coached in the Big Ten.

Sure, East Carolina is better than Purdue and Illinois. The Pirates are also better than Kentucky and Arkansas. And Iowa State and Kansas. And I’m probably short-changing them quite a few more. Heck, ECU could well knock off the Gamecocks on Sept. 6 if Spurrier’s team proves vulnerable on defense. So I’d worry about beating the Pirates more than whether it helps or hurts their playoff chances.

I get why all the coaches are posturing heading into the first playoff season, but it’s not going to help or hurt them either way because the committee’s not going to give any of it one ounce of credence.

The Big 12 is taking more and more criticism for lack of a championship game. But most years the conference winds up with at least four Top 25 teams. The unranked teams play all four. The ranked teams play the other three and tend to schedule a strong out-of-conference team. Thus, most years almost every team in the Big 12 faces at least four Top 25 teams. Do you think this will make any difference in perceived schedule/conference strength?

— Ric A., Brooklyn, New York

2014 AWARDS PREDICTIONS

I’ve heard from a quite a few coaches in other conferences grumbling about this very thing. And I can understand it. On the surface, it doesn’t seem fair that one of the five major conferences’ champion plays one less game – and thus one less chance to lose – than the others it’s competing with for a playoff spot. I get it. And maybe it will end up burning the league as soon as this year. Certainly if that happens you can count on the Big 12 bringing back its championship game as soon as possible. Remember, the ACC and Big 12 are pushing for NCAA legislation to deregulate the requirements – at least 12 teams and two divisions – for staging a conference title game, just to have the option.

But in reality, if the league is strong, it shouldn’t matter. If the conference is up like it was in 2008, when Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all fielded top 10 teams, or 2011, when defenses had to face first-round quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, then its teams’ 12-game schedules will stack up favorably with everyone else’s 13-game slates. They’ll face as many or more ranked teams, and if the league is deep, it may actually play fewer bottom-feeders than those in a 14-team league.

But if there are only a couple of marquee teams and a bunch of mediocre ones, the lack of an extra game against a quality opponent will hurt. With that in mind, Oklahoma and Texas are already being smart and scheduling future home-and-homes against brand-name programs. The Sooners have Tennessee this year and next with Ohio State, UCLA, Nebraska and LSU lined up down the road. Texas has lined up Notre Dame, USC and Ohio State.

With the release of the USA Today Coaches Poll, the only thing that came to mind for me is, what is the point of even conducting it anymore? I understand the AP will release a poll, but why would coaches agree to spend time doing this if it has no bearing on the playoff? In my opinion it only creates more controversy.

— Ben, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Excuse you. That’s the Amway Coaches poll you’re talking about. Get it right or risk getting cold-calls every day for a year.

For whatever reason, the American Football Coaches Association places great importance on its ethically challenged poll. Rather than phase it out in light of the playoff, the AFCA went in the opposite direction, doubling down with the addition of the new sponsor and insistence that it will continue to name its own national champion and keep awarding the BCS-era crystal football – now known as the AFCA Coaches Trophy, presented by Amway – to whoever finishes No. 1 in the final poll.

There’s of course no scenario where the team that wins the playoff won’t also win that trophy. I do think both the AP and coaches polls will remain relevant over the first half of the season due to tradition, familiarity and our collective thirst for rankings, but the selection committee’s Top 25 will likely become the dominant system once it gets going in late October.

— Robert, Rockville, Maryland

If you’ve read my work for some time you know I’m not hesitant to call out an SEC team whose imbalanced schedule is not SEC-tough. But it works both ways. The Big Ten is playing an eight-game schedule in a 14-team conference, now, too, and Wisconsin happens to be arguably the biggest beneficiary this season.

Do you really want to compare it to Georgia’s? Because I assure you it’s not going to be pretty. Here they are side-by-side, listed from toughest to weakest opponent, using last year’s final Sagarin ratings to remove subjectivity.

Some teams will be better than last year, some will be worse, but when Georgia’s playing four Top 15 teams while Wisconsin’s only such foe doesn’t play in its own conference, there’s no myth to be exposed here. The Badgers’ slate is just bad.

COMPARING 2014 SCHEDULES

Georgia Wisconsin
Auburn (4) vs. LSU (15)
@ Missouri (7) @ Iowa (32)
@ South Carolina (10) Nebraska (38)
Clemson (14) Bowling Green (39)
Vanderbilt (36) Minnesota (58)
Georgia Tech (37) @ Northwestern (65)
Florida (53) Maryland (73)
Tennessee (60) Illinois (76)
@ Arkansas (77) @ Rutgers (100)
@ Kentucky (104) USF (143)
Troy (115) @ Purdue (157)
Charleston Southern (169) Western Illinois (159)

So Alabama backs out of a home-and-home with Michigan State and both LSU and Alabama don’t want to do a home-and-home with Wisconsin. What is the SEC afraid of? How come "neutral site" games can’t be in Chicago or Detroit or Indy? Aren’t those sites just as neutral as Dallas or Atlanta? When are you guys in the media going to start calling the SEC out?

— Lance, location unknown

More of the same, I see.

Well first of all, give LSU a little credit. This year’s Wisconsin game in Houston will be followed in 2016 with the Tigers facing the Badgers at Lambeau Field — which, as neutral-site games go, is pretty darn cool. The reason these SEC powers don’t do a lot of home-and-homes is because there’s very little incentive. The BCS was very good to them, and until the selection committee acts differently, there’s no motivation to change what’s been working.

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But more so, these neutral-site games in NFL stadiums are quite lucrative. Alabama has figured out the model. Instead of giving up a home game every other year, play a neutral-site game and make much more over two years than you would have with a home-and-home.

As for the notion that these schools should start playing more of their neutral-site games up north – that’s up to those cities and venues. Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and even Washington D.C. have been very proactive about brokering these types of games. I haven’t heard a peep from Indianapolis, Chicago or Detroit. If we’re going to keep playing more of these neutral-site games then I’d at least like to see more arrangements like LSU’s and Wisconsin’s, but there has to be interest. Right now it’s coming primarily from the South.

— Joe, Cary, North Carolina

Good one. Hard to believe that’s the same guy who split time in Alabama’s 2011 opener with AJ McCarron.

My favorite football columnist wrote on August 17, 2011 that “the bottom falls out [for USC] in 2013-14.” Are you impressed that USC’s bottom was a 10-win season, even with the coaching drama, what do you expect in 2014-15, and most importantly, how many programs do you think could have survived the absurd NCAA sanctions the way SC has, coming out the other end as a top-15ish team (despite reduced scholarship numbers)?

— Davis S. Eisen, Los Angeles

It turns out I was off by a year. The bottom fell out in 2012-13. Even then, though, the Trojans’ 7-6 debacle in Lane Kiffin’s last full season could not be attributed entirely to scholarship reductions. USC was 6-1 and playing fairly well before its defense imploded en route to a 1-5 finish. Depth has certainly affected the Trojans the past couple of seasons, particularly on the offensive line, which remains my biggest concern for them heading into this season.

Steve Sarkisian’s first team has a promising quarterback (Cody Kessler), good skill players (running back Javorius Allen, receiver Nelson Agholor) and a potentially special defense, but will still run into trouble if the O-line struggles.

To answer the last part of the question, not too many programs could have fared as well as USC has after losing 30 scholarships. Even Miami at its heyday suffered a losing season in 1997 as it recovered from its Pell Grant scandal. Mighty Alabama sunk into a long period of mediocrity following its various NCAA indiscretions in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Credit Kiffin — yes, I said it — for maintaining the program’s recruiting cachet and luring stars like receivers Marqise Lee and Agholor and defensive linemen Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams even after the sanctions were announced.

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I think the Trojans’ preseason Top 15 ranking is about right in 2014. I expect them to make a run at another 10-win season but aren’t quite replenished enough yet to win a very tough Pac-12.

Urban Meyer suggested the NCAA, conference offices or even schools look into supplementing travel expenses for families for bowl travel and/or conference championship game travel, saying it may run families up to $20,000 for three trips and that 80 percent of Buckeyes players’ families cannot afford that. Do you think the NCAA or conference offices will look into it and perhaps remedy the situation, because it does invite improprieties due to lack of funds for travel?

— Jonathan, Westerville, Ohio

You say Oklahoma is rated too high at No. 3 in the coaches poll. When the Sooners win the national championship, will you come to our house and admit that you were wrong?

— Chris and Karen, Charleston, West Virginia

Absolutely.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, 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.