Mailbag: Why the SEC will never dominate the playoff like you feared

Gus Malzahn, Nick Saban and Les Miles won't ALL get into the playoff in the same year.

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SEC Media Days are in full swing this week. I couldn’t be in Birmingham this year, but in following it from afar, it’s apparent that the league’s now two-year national championship drought and abysmal postseason performance last year has done little to dampen hyperbole for the conference. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn referred to the SEC West as "the toughest conference in football, and I don’t think it’s close. It’s a man’s league."

Taking a step back from Planet Myopia …

Will the SEC make everyone’s predictions a reality and field two to three teams in the playoff anytime soon, or will it just be lucky to get one team in with how competitive the league has become?

— Jeff Hostetler, Gainesville, Fla.

Just one year into the system, it’s amusing in hindsight to recall all the outrageous prophesies from a year or two earlier that the SEC would straight up take over the playoff. As I keep telling people, yes, the SEC is still the nation’s strongest conference, but not even its famously provincial fans could argue there’s some massive gap between that league and the Pac-12, for one. Not after going 0-for-5 in its BCS/New Year’s Six bowl games the past two seasons or 0-4 in its Thanksgiving weekend rivalry games with the ACC last year.


But remember, at the time the playoff was coming into existence, the SEC was at the peak of its BCS championship dominance, and for all we knew it was going to continue ad infinitum. Heck, the negotiations that led to the CFP’s inception took place in 2012, just months after two SEC teams, LSU and Alabama, played in the BCS championship game. Pollsters were clearly enamored with the SEC, and so many believed the conference would become even more powerful in the playoff era — which at first appeared to be coming true when the inaugural selection committee rankings last October featured three SEC teams among the top four.

It had long been my hunch, however, that the playoff might do the opposite and level the playing field. Which, in Year 1 at least, is exactly what happened. For one thing, the committee’s emphasis on conference champions makes it more, not less, difficult for the league to place multiple teams in the playoff. And then of course unlike the BCS, where Alabama got voted into the championship game, it now has to earn its way there by beating a quality team in the semifinal. Which, in Year 1, also didn’t happen.

All of this is not to say that two teams from one conference won’t make the playoff (though three is clearly ludicrous). If anything it’s almost certain to happen, perhaps as soon as this year, because last season — where all the Power 5 champs finished with one loss or none — will likely prove an aberration. But the important thing to note is it could happen in any conference, not just the SEC. If a couple results went differently last year we may well have seen both TCU and Baylor qualify from the Big 12. And I’ve previously written about the Ohio State/Michigan State possibility for this year.

Even if Dalvin Cook is legally cleared, can Florida State ever shake the image of these criminal issues, or will this be a stigma that stays with the school for years to come?

— Matt, Louisiana


Well first of all, I’m encouraged by how seriously the school appears to be addressing the issue, most notably the university president himself, John Thrasher, meeting with the entire team. That stands in stark contrast to both Jimbo Fisher and the school’s handling of coverage surrounding Jameis Winston’s various issues, which was essentially: blame the media. In this case, between Thrasher’s lecture and seeing first-hand the national backlash toward two of their teammates (one of them a now-former teammate), I would have to think the message is getting through.

These things tend to go in cycles. A few years ago it was Florida under Urban Meyer that became the poster for football culture gone wrong. Before that, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer got a contest named after him for the Vols’ off-field problems. If FSU players can manage to stay out of trouble for the foreseeable future then the stigma should dissipate, though two elements may make this one harder for FSU to shake. For one, Winston, who garnered the school’s first bulk of bad PR, will likely remain a high-profile figure for years to come, and he’s always going to be associated with FSU. Furthermore, with Johnson and Cook, these were not random police blotter items. They were charges of violence against women, one of which got caught on tape. That part won’t soon be forgotten, nor should it.    

Hi Stewart. In your Media Day predictions column, you characterized the Pac-12’s uncontroversial coaching roster as a "problem." I have to wonder, though, would Larry Scott prefer a soap opera-like atmosphere at Media Days just for the sake of attention? Should Steve Sarkisian bring a kettlebell on stage? Should Chris Peterson decry the unfairness of Oregon landing Vernon Adams? Should RichRod mock Todd Graham’s Britney Spears headset just to attract the eyeballs of East Coasters?

— Frank, Tucson

Yes, yes and yes.


Here’s the thing about college football: With the rare exception of a Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston, the coaches, not the players, create the headlines. That’s just the unavoidable nature of a sport where the stars are there only for a couple of years and speak to the media only on a limited basis. Case in point: I attended last year’s Pac-12 Media Days, where the overwhelming storyline was the abundance of star quarterbacks. Eventual Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and highly-touted-at-the-time draft prospects Brett Hundley and Sean Mannion were all there. And none attracted nearly the attention that Malzahn did this week when, in clear reference to Jim Harbaugh, he proclaimed that a Northern school’s chances of coming into his state and taking a player Alabama or Auburn wants are "slim to none."

Perhaps I’m being too cynical. Not to mention, selfishly, the Pac-12’s near-universally friendly, highly accessible coaches are great for those of us trying to write meaningful articles. But I wouldn’t expect much social media buzz to emerge from Pac-12 Media Days, which, end of day, is what every publicity department is chasing these days.

Hi Stewart, I’m a big fan of your mailbag, and I really enjoyed your bit last week about the top five underachieving teams. You’ve probably already gotten this question, but just in case: Who are your top overachieving teams in the country, based on criteria like recent history vs. the rest of history?

— Jarod Daily, Little Rock, Ark.


I have indeed gotten this request quite a bit since last week, but it’s not as simple to answer as it sounds. Last week’s question asked about the most underachieving programs historically. You can’t really apply that same criteria to overachievers because once a school overachieves for a considerable amount of time, then, doesn’t that just become its expected level of success? For example, Florida was fairly mediocre for most of its pre-Steve Spurrier history, but does that mean it’s overachieved for the past 25 years? Or just finally reached its potential?

I’d argue the biggest overachiever in recent history is Wisconsin. In a state with relatively little high-school talent, the Badgers consistently win 9-11 games a year, contend for conference championships and go to Rose Bowls despite relying on second-tier recruits and developmental prospects. TCU and Boise State fit much the same description, albeit over the past 15 years. And the biggest overachiever in college football at this very moment is unquestionably Baylor. If it were possible to remove yourself from the present day and look at the entirety of the sport’s history, you’d find it absolutely astonishing that in 2015, Baylor is a two-time defending Big 12 champion running the most prolific offense in the sport. But as long as Art Briles is there it somehow makes perfect sense.

Stewart, Can you please strike a different tone than ESPN? It’s nauseating.

— David Swarbrick Jr., location unknown

Can you be more specific? ESPN’s a pretty big company.

Why is 8-5 enough to get Mack Brown fired from Texas and Bo Pelini fired from Nebraska and put Les Miles on the hot seat at LSU, but not enough to get Brian Kelly on the hot seat at Notre Dame?

— Lawrence Dockery, Southaven, Miss.

Note: This is a Mailbag milestone — the first question I’ve ever snagged from Facebook. If you, too, are averse to emails, just "like" my page, and when I put up a request next week leave your question as a comment. Fun, right?


Very rarely does a coach get fired off one season. Mack Brown’s 8-5 record (8-4 at the time of his ouster) in 2013 did not do him in; four straight years of mediocrity did. And Bo Pelini, for the record, never lost five games in a season. But he did lose exactly four for six straight years, with no sign he was ever going to turn the corner.

Brian Kelly, of course, is only a couple of seasons removed from a 12-0 regular season and national championship game appearance — his school’s first in a quarter-century. It’s true that Kelly’s Irish teams have been decidedly average in both the two seasons before (8-5 twice) and after (9-4 and 8-5) that 2012 run. I can see where somebody might question why that one great season has seemingly rendered him immune from criticism over the others. But for one thing, given Notre Dame’s horrendous run of coaches before him (Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis), I would assume most Irish fans still appreciate what they have. Also, Kelly’s success at all his previous stops suggests that 2012 season was no fluke.

I do think 2015 is a crossroads season for Kelly. He’s gotten de facto mulligans the past two — first when Everett Golson’s 2013 academic suspension hampered the Irish offense and then when massive injuries decimated the 2014 defense. This year’s team is experienced, athletic and devoid of excuses. An 8-5 record this time would unquestionably garner some hot-seat chatter. 

Stewart, if Boise State returns to the Boise State of old and Washington remains mired in mediocrity, what will it mean? Will it mean that Bryan Harsin was the brains behind Chris Petersen? Will it mean that success at Boise State simply doesn’t translate elsewhere? Will it mean that Washington no longer has whatever it had as late as the early 2000s?

— Joseph V. Manzo, Coral Gables, Fla.


I don’t think you can say Harsin was the brains behind Petersen — like the way we often said Petersen was the brains behind predecessor Dan Hawkins — because for one thing, those great Boise State teams won with a suffocating defense as much as they did a creative offense. But more to the point, Harsin left for Texas in 2011 and the Broncos kept winning. Petersen was the primary architect behind Boise’s extraordinary 84-8 run from 2006-12, and I fully expect him to elevate Washington over the next couple of years.

If that doesn’t happen, though, it would raise more questions about Petersen than it would either his current or former employer. While Washington has struggled for more than a decade, it’s at no real institutional disadvantage compared with its divisional foes. If anything its location should give it a better chance at success than even Oregon. And while people would inevitably try to correlate Petersen with former Boise coaches Hawkins (Colorado) and Dirk Koetter (Arizona State), who flopped at a higher level, that seems misguided, too. Each of those guys ran the program in their own unique ways, but beyond that, why would Boise be a less likely launching point than Bowling Green (Urban Meyer), Central Michigan (Brian Kelly) or any number of other mid-majors?

Having said all that, Petersen’s personality and philosophy were ideally suited to Boise. There’s no guarantee they will translate at Washington, but I believe they will.

How much can Gene Chizik improve the Tar Heels’ defense? If they get into the top 50 on D, they could be really good, right?

— Kurt Dalton, Fort Worth, Texas

Indeed, Chizik’s move largely got lost in the shuffle compared with Will Muschamp ("the best defensive mind in football") returning to Auburn and John Chavis moving from LSU to Texas A&M. Both those guys are absolutely among the best in the biz and should have tremendous impacts on their new teams. But Chizik was no slouch as a DC in his pre-head coaching days. In fact, he was the defensive coordinator for back-to-back undefeated teams — 2004 Auburn (which led the nation in scoring defense) and 2005 Texas. Mind you, college offenses have changed quite a bit in the last decade, but Chizik worked hand-in-hand with one of the premier innovators out there, Malzahn, as head coach at Auburn from 2009-11.

The difference, though, between Chizik’s situation and those of Muschamp and Chavis is the latter two are walking into programs that regularly recruit top-10 talent. North Carolina does not. The extent of a coordinator’s impact depends heavily on the pieces he has to work with. But the Tar Heels do bring back a couple of proven performers like linebacker Jeff Schoettmer and cornerback Brian Walker, and the unit is not as painfully inexperienced as it was last year. If Chizik can get them to middle-of-the-pack (as opposed to 14th in the ACC) and the offense is as productive as expected, UNC could contend in its division.

Another under-the-radar defensive coordinator hire to keep an eye on — who reader Robert Powell in El Paso, Texas, asked about — is Texas Tech’s David Gibbs. The NFL protégé did a nice job at Houston against some high-octane offenses, and he inherits a fairly experienced, albeit recently underperforming, unit. It’s a similar situation to Chizik’s in Chapel Hill.

Dear Mr. Mandel: Huge fan. Thank you for writing. I’ve been reading your work for a long time. As it happens, I finally graduated law school this year and will have some time this fall to hopefully catch some games in person. I am thinking about going and seeing two to three games in SEC locales this fall. If someone has never been to an SEC game, what stadium do you recommend they start with?

— David, Buffalo, N.Y.

I feel like I always need to answer this question with a disclaimer — you can’t go wrong at any number of places in that conference. There’s no overwhelmingly obvious answer. But as I’ve written before, my favorite place in the country to attend a game is Death Valley at LSU. You’ll get quite the indoctrination, from the uniquely Louisiana food to the live tiger that lives down the street from the stadium to the unique outfits of the Golden Girls. But I’d say much the same of a trip to Bryant-Denny (especially when "Thunderstruck" comes on), Jordan-Hare (when the eagle makes his flight) or Neyland (when the Vols run through the "T.")

I got chills watching all of those videos, by the way. Get thee to a stadium as soon as possible.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for 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