Why a win over Michigan won’t guarantee Ohio State a playoff spot

In the 2014 edition of my annual column grading the various coaching hires, I gave A's to Boise State for hiring Bryan Harsin, Washington for landing Chris Petersen and Penn State for James Franklin. Needless to say, they’ve all worked out pretty well.

Checking in right behind those, with an A-, was Texas for hiring Charlie Strong. Needless to say, I misread that one.

Now 16-20 in three seasons in Austin, Strong sealed his own fate last week in Lawrence, Kansas, even if the school hasn’t announced it. And yet, whomever hires Strong next may well get a similarly lofty grade from me.

Could the best coach for many openings still be employed (but not for long)? I don't see Charlie Strong's name mentioned with any of the big openings, but shouldn't it be? Where do you think he ends up?

— Scott, NYC

I’ve noticed many assume Strong will go back to being a defensive coordinator — no doubt a highly sought-after one. I wouldn’t be so sure. Ron Zook, Charlie Weis and Will Muschamp, among others, got another head coaching job following high-profile flops. And none had accomplished as much as Strong did in his first head-coaching stint at Louisville, where the Cardinals went 23-3 in his last two seasons, routed Muschamp’s third-ranked Florida team in the 2013 Sugar Bowl and churned out a whole bunch of NFL draft picks.

I’m not going to sit here and defend Strong’s Texas tenure. Yes, he inherited a dumpster fire from Mack Brown, and no, he was not widely embraced from the get-go. But the 'Horns should not be 5-6 and losing to Kansas in his third season. His fatal flaw was allowing the outside noise surrounding the program to influence the way he managed. I don’t believe a coach under less scrutiny would make panicky decisions like demoting coordinators mid-season two years in a row and wildly changing offensive philosophy from one year to the next.

For all those reasons, I wouldn’t expect him to land at another job as “big” as Texas. But nor will he necessarily go slinking off to the Sun Belt. He’s still widely respected in the business. He also graduates his players, and his programs have been scandal-free.

Strong would be a good fit at Cincinnati, where Tommy Tuberville is likely down to his last days; USF if Willie Taggart lands another gig; or Cal if Sonny Dykes finally bolts. If none of those prove feasible, maybe he sits out a year and gets something else the next. I’m interested to see where he lands.

Stewart: While beating Michigan is undoubtedly Ohio State’s No. 1 goal this weekend, I wonder if the Buckeyes secretly hope Penn State wins at Michigan State. Sure, being able to play for a championship would be nice, but being able to sit out the last week of the season and not be tested with yet another Top 5 opponent yet STILL be assured of making the playoff must be sweet.  Why take the chance of losing the game and missing out on the CFP altogether?

— Larry, Virginia Beach, VA

Putting aside the reality that every Ohio State coach and player wants to win a Big Ten championship and as competitors would likely welcome the challenge of another top five opponent — I’d still be careful what you wish for.

Yes, it appears likely as of today that the Buckeyes would be in regardless, but nobody can predict for sure how the committee would handle a non-champion’s resume because the committee never dealt with anything like this the first two years of the system. There was no non-champ that came close to matching the resumes of the eight champs that made the playoff. It never had to look at a champion from one conference and a non-champ from another and decide how much weight to give the former. It never had to consider the consequences of allowing a non-champ in from a conference whose champ doesn’t make it.

I think Ohio State would get in no matter the Big Ten title game result. It’s the No. 2 team in the rankings now with a chance to add a victory over the No. 3 team. But remember, in 2014, TCU went from No. 3 to No. 6 on the last weekend in part because the teams around it added a conference championship ring. We can’t say with any certainty how the committee would treat Ohio State if it’s not playing that final Saturday.

If I’m the Buckeyes, I’m rooting hard for the Spartans on Saturday. If in fact they’ve beaten Michigan right beforehand. Because otherwise this whole question and answer was pointless.

I really don't understand how you or others could support a non-conference champ in the playoffs, especially over a conference champ in the same conference (OSU over PSU, hypothetically). I continually hear the phrase “We just want the four best teams.”  If you don't win your conference you are not the best team in your conference.

— Bob, Rockville, MD

A lot of people feel the same way you do, and I’m sure I’ll hear from all of them if that Ohio State/Penn State hypothetical comes to fruition. Here’s my standard counter.

If every conference used the same scheduling model, and all determined their champion with a full round-robin like the Big 12 does, then I’d be all for restricting it to conference champions (presumably with some provision for independents.) Unfortunately, that’s not the reality.

In two weeks, either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State will be crowned the Big 12 champion, having both played the exact same league schedule. We’ll know definitively who was the best team in that league. In the Big Ten, however, each team only plays nine of the other 13 teams. By luck of the draw, Ohio State drew (and beat) 9-2 Wisconsin and 9-2 Nebraska, whereas Penn State got 8-3 Minnesota and 7-4 Iowa. Furthermore, Ohio State went on the road and beat a Top 10 Oklahoma team out of conference, whereas Penn State lost its toughest non-conference game to unranked Pittsburgh.

Hence, in the bloated Big Ten — and the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 — it’s entirely possible for a team that doesn’t win its conference to in fact be the best team in the conference based on their overall resumes. Which is why I’d hate to see the committee ever put a champions-only restriction on “four best.”

Hi Stewart. I just saw where the NCAA is making Notre Dame vacate a couple years’ worth of wins because of academic fraud. I'm all for maintaining academic integrity, but is vacating wins really a punishment?  Assuming there is one, what would be a better punishment for the NCAA to use?

— Philip Allison, Starkville, Miss.

Vacating wins is a pretty hollow measure regardless of what type of infraction. Short of when Joe Paterno briefly had his all-time wins record stripped, nothing tangibly changes. I will forever refer to Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season in 2012, because I saw it happen. Therefore, I fail to see how something so trivial would possibly deter future misbehavior.

I also agree with Brian Kelly and Notre Dame in their protest of the punishment in this particular case. A few players cheated, and they were suspended from school at the time as a result of it. The student-trainer at the center of it is disassociated from the program. Seems like a more than sufficient punishment. Yet despite the fact not a single full-time employee was implicated, somehow the entire Notre Dame program is indicted?

If that’s the case, than the Committee on Infractions better be on the verge of doing the same to North Carolina, where adults who worked for the school orchestrated systemic academic fraud FOR 18 YEARS. I’m not too confident, though, given the school’s lawyers have somehow narrowed the scope of the case to five years and just last month attended a special procedural hearing to argue the NCAA lacks jurisdiction in academic cases.

Apparently it has jurisdiction in Indiana.

I'm a Big Ten fan, but should I be hesitant about the adulation that the conference is receiving this year? With now three teams in the AP top 5 and four in the Top 10, is the conference deserving of such praise? The last time the Big Ten was held in such high regard was in 2006, when Ohio State and Michigan were Nos. 1 and 2. Both wound up getting exposed in their respective bowl games. Are we in for another such rude awakening this bowl season?

— Corey, Big 10 Country

Funny, I had the same thought the other day:

I’ve never been a fan of using bowl results to make sweeping generalizations about conferences, given how arbitrarily most of the matchups are determined, the teams’ varying levels of motivation, and just how much teams change during the three- or four-week layoff before the bowl. A team that goes 10-2 against a strong schedule during the regular season does not necessarily get “exposed.” It may just have drawn an unfavorable matchup.

Having said all that, it’s inevitable that we will all do exactly that. So if, after all this poll love, the Big Ten goes 4-7 come bowl season and/or gets blown out in a playoff game, the league will never hear the end of it.

To be clear, I have no issue with where any Big Ten teams are currently ranked. But I also acknowledge that a small number of early-season games affect teams’ perceptions the entire season.

For example, Wisconsin, unranked in the preseason, garnered a ton of respect by beating then-Top 10 foes LSU and Michigan State in September. The Tigers are now 6-4, the Spartans 3-8. Nevertheless, Wisconsin’s immediate jump in the polls allowed Michigan to take credit for a Top 10 win a couple of weeks later. Ohio State’s big Week 3 win at Oklahoma gave it so much cred that Penn State is now a Top 10 team almost entirely for beating those same Buckeyes.

Mind you, the SEC for years benefited from much the same Top 25 echo chamber. But most years, the SEC, to its credit, backed up that praise in the postseason. It’s on the rejuvenated Big Ten now to do the same.

Hey Stewart. As a Sooner fan, I have been marveling at Dede Westbrook's sensational season. Is he a lock for the Biletnikoff award? Also, do you think Dede or Baker Mayfield has a better shot at an invite to New York as a Heisman finalist?

— Bradley Binder

Westrbook is a lock for the Biletnikoff, though the two other finalists are certainly noteworthy for the seasons they’re having. Northwestern’s Austin Carr (80 catches, 1,170 yards, 12 TDs), a former walk-on, has been by far the Big Ten’s best receiver. East Carolina’s Zay Jones has a ridiculous 151 receptions, nearly 50 more than any other receiver. But Westbrook has been a non-stop highlight reel nearly the entire season, needing just 70 catches to notch 1,354 yards (19.3 per reception). He’s only been held below 100 yards once in Big 12 play.

As for which one has a better shot at New York, that likely depends on how the Dec. 3 Bedlam game plays out. Considering how much recognition Mayfield got last season, finishing fourth in the Heisman voting, and now leading the nation in passer rating (194.7), it’s somewhat surprising how little traction he’s gained. Westbrook to this point is appearing on more Heisman lists mine included. But if Mayfield has a big game against Oklahoma State to clinch the Big 12, it may push him back into the discussion.

Of course, if the Sooners lose, neither may make it.

Stewart: We know that Wilton Speight's left shoulder injury is somewhere between a slight boo-boo and a massively fractured collarbone. Jim Harbaugh is obviously playing games with Ohio State/ The NFL has rules on notifying the media and opposing teams of injuries, but are there any requirements for schools to release accurate injury information?

— Caleb, Columbus, OH

Because college football is so decentralized, it’s up to the conferences and/or schools to set their own policies. The ACC is the only major conference that requires an NFL-style injury report from all teams. There’s no uniformity otherwise. Some coaches, like Alabama’s Nick Saban, are fairly forthcoming with injury details, but most are coy and/or flat-out deceitful. Oregon writers joke that they can see a guy walking out of the football complex on crutches and Mark Helfrich still would refuse to even confirm whether he is injured.

Frankly, the gamesmanship is ridiculous and unnecessary. But it’s not like even the NFL’s policy is for the benefit of the media or opponents. It’s all about gambling — by just going ahead and releasing the information, (theoretically) it staves off individuals trying to glean inside info for their financial gain. (Mostly it just helps Vegas set the line.) Since college coaches generally set the rules that conferences follow, not vice versa, and since college coaches cherish secrecy, no one is trying to force them to be more transparent.

Stewart: The Mountain West Conference has three awesome running backs.  How would you place them for the best running back in the conference and in the nation.

— Dan Nelson, Boise, ID

Indeed, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey (168.6 yards per game), Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols (143.2) and Wyoming’s Brian Hill (140.7) rank second, third and fourth nationally in rushing, behind only Texas’ D’Onta Foreman (186.3). It’s pretty special for any conference, much less a Group of 5 league.

Pumphrey is the most distinguished, as he now trails only Ron Dayne and Ricky Williams on the NCAA all-time rushing list and is now just 271 yards from breaking Dayne’s record, with three games still ahead of him. He’s also considerably ahead of either with 1,855 yards on the season thanks to averaging 6.5 yards per carry despite coming off his lowest output of the season (17 carries for 76 yards) in a loss to Wyoming.

But McNichols is more versatile and arguably more explosive. He’s caught 32 passes for 450 yards. Hill for his part has been remarkably consistent, rushing for 90 yards or more in all but two games and swinging between 119 and 142 over his last four.

Nationally, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook remain the holy trinity in my book. Injuries have obviously hampered Fournette’s season, but McCaffrey (No. 1 nationally in all-purpose yards, No. 5 in rushing) and Cook (No. 7 in both) are still doing their thing. And of course, Texas’ Foreman has become just an epic workhorse (51 carries last week vs. Kansas) for a struggling team.

If we’re drafting running backs I’d take those four first, then Pumphrey, then Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, then McNichols, then Hill.

Hi Stewart: I live in Asia, but I follow NCAA football and basketball closely. Very often I read the term “boosters,” but when trying to Google it, I cannot get a clear definition (they seem to me like super fans, donating to the programs while having the power to urge firing coaches). Could you explain what exactly boosters do and how they are compensated (it cannot just be from seeing their teams win, otherwise there’d be extremely few Kansas football boosters).

— Chenting Lin, Shanghai

I love everything about this e-mail.

Technically, “booster” refers to anyone who donates money to an athletic department, even if it’s $5. If you buy a season-ticket, under the NCAA’s definition, you are a booster. But the type you see referred to in stories about trying to get coaches hired or fired are generally those so filthy-rich they have their names on buildings. Or at least own multiple suites in the stadium.

And yes, their only form of compensation is seeing their team win. The fact that seems incomprehensible to someone in another country just reinforces how out of whack our priorities are over here.

Was Texas just waiting for Jurgen Klinsmann to become available before firing Charlie Strong as their football coach?

— Michael (Washington DC)

Indeed. I’m not a huge soccer follower, but would Texas’ next move be to bring back Mack Brown?