Mailbag: Why four teams are a gracious plenty for the playoff

Well … the playoff worked again.

For the second straight year, my post-Selection Sunday inbox is noticeably absent of the angst and furor that poured in without fail throughout the BCS era. Granted, a North Carolina upset Saturday night would have assured a much messier conclusion and an inevitable deluge of eight-team playoff proposals.

Instead, in a twist I did not see coming two years ago, people are now writing in to defend the present setup.

So, it is that time of year where we are contractually obligated to talk about eight teams vs. four teams in the playoff. I like the four-team system. My fear is that at eight teams, the Art Briles scheduling method becomes the norm. Schedule the cupcakes, win your conference and you are automatically in. There would be less incentive to schedule tough out-of-conference games. Do you still think that the eight-team system is inevitable?  

— Roger, Dayton, Ohio


Putting aside the Big 12’s announcement Tuesday that will now require Baylor to schedule at least one Power 5 foe, I’d guess the opposite. If conference champs are guaranteed berths, it eliminates the risk of losing out-of-conference games and theoretically frees up teams to schedule at will. Since there’d still be at-large berths, you might as well schedule up in hopes of impressing the committee.

That being said, I remain a staunch defender of four teams for the same reason I did before the playoff even existed. Four teams enhances the regular season. Eight teams greatly devalues it.

I saw more than a few people salivating Monday over this year’s hypothetical eight-team bracket, which, using the committee’s rankings, would pit No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 8 Notre Dame; No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 7 Ohio State; No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 6 Stanford and No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 5 Iowa.

No question, those are some great matchups. The problem is how we’d get to them.

Remember that dramatic Stanford-Notre Dame game, which came down to the Cardinal kicking a last-second field goal to make or break both teams’ playoff chances? Meaningless. The Cardinal would get in automatically if they beat USC the next week. The Irish would still get in by not falling that far.

Remember that dramatic Michigan State-Ohio State game, which came down to the Spartans kicking a last-second field goal to dash the defending national champs’ repeat chances? Not entirely meaningless, since it kept Michigan State alive, but far less consequential for the Buckeyes. Ditto Michigan State-Iowa last weekend.

And remember the USC-Notre Dame game back in mid-October? The Irish won 41-31. In a parallel universe where USC holds Christian McCaffrey to about 350 fewer all-purpose yards, the 9-4 Pac-12 champion Trojans would go to the playoff, while a 10-2 Notre Dame team likely would not.

Unfortunately, I do think eight teams is still inevitable, because all tournaments in all sports eventually expand. But I do for the first time now hold out small hope that four teams will hold up for longer than my long-predicted six years.

Stewart, no one is really talking about Oklahoma falling from No. 3 to No. 4 in a negative light because the drop in seeding may be beneficial to the Sooners (just look at the Vegas lines). However, shouldn’t the Big 12 be worried that its one-loss champion once again got jumped in the final rankings by a one-loss Big Ten champion? It appears the committee is saying the tiebreaker goes to the team that played the 13th game.


— Jason, Los Angeles

Definitely, though perhaps not for the reason you think. Last season, Ohio State’s Big Ten title victory gave it a third Top 25 victory to TCU and Baylor’s two and a ninth win over bowl-eligible teams to TCU’s six and Baylor’s five. In other words, the result of the Buckeyes’ 13th game truly pushed its résumé above the Big 12 teams’. This year, even with one fewer game, Oklahoma finished with the same number of Top 25 wins (four) and same number of bowl-eligible wins (nine) as Michigan State. According to Jeff Long, it just came down to the fact that two of the Spartans’ wins were over Top 10 opponents (Iowa and Ohio State). Oklahoma conquests TCU and Baylor were Top 10 teams prior to injury woes.

But there’s definitely something to be said for the negative effect of OU not playing on that final Saturday. That proved especially glaring two days later. Had the season ended a week earlier, there’s no question in my mind that Sooners QB Baker Mayfield would be on a plane to New York this week. His final performance would have been fresh in voters’ minds. As it is, he fell out of sight, and apparently did not appear on enough ballots to garner a call from the Heisman Trust. Their only three finalists all played on Championship Saturday.

So the Big 12 still has some soul searching to do, which got a little trickier recently when the ACC and Big 12’s joint NCAA proposal to deregulate conference championship games ran into unanticipated resistance. The legislation as it stands now would still allow the league to hold a title game with 10 teams, but the Big Ten added an amendment that would still require there to be two divisions, which kind of defeats the purpose. So, Bob Bowlsby’s got yet another mini-crisis to manage.

Stewart — need your help. After the Texas debacle, I agreed to go with the wife to Bogota, Colombia, to visit her family (whom I love) for New Year’s. How can I watch OU (whom I also love and send lots of money to) play in the Orange Bowl from overseas? HELP!

— Jerrad, Sugar Land, Texas

Well, that’s what you get for throwing in the towel on your team after one loss.

Just get a Slingbox. Or enlist a friend who has one. Just make sure they’ll be watching the game, not a New Year’s Eve movie marathon.

If just one game, a 16-6 early-season sleepwalking affair in Evanston, had gone differently for Stanford, we’d be on the other side of the razor-thin line between controversy-free and intensely controversial. What do you think the committee would have done in that case?


— Matt Young, Hillsdale, Mich.

First of all, let’s stop giving Stanford a pass for that loss with all the sleep/body-clock references. Northwestern, an eventual 10-win team that finished 13th in the final committee rankings and No. 7 in the country in total defense, shut down the Cardinal, plain and simple. On the scale of fluky losses this season, it was hardly Texas over Oklahoma or South Carolina over North Carolina.

To answer your question, though, had Stanford won and finished as a 12-1 Pac-12 champion, the committee would have found itself with nearly the exact same scenario as a year ago: an undefeated ACC champ and one-loss champs from the other four power leagues. Their decision would have come down to picking two out of Michigan State, Oklahoma and Stanford to join the Tigers and Alabama. All three would have four Top 25 wins (though two of Stanford’s would be over No. 25 USC), and all four would have nine wins over bowl-eligible teams.

It’s a tough call, but my guess is the Big 12 gets left out again, with Stanford’s 13th data point putting it over the top — in which case, Bowlsby might as well start carrying around a fire extinguisher 24/7.

This year, I feel less confident in top-ranked Clemson — the only undefeated team — to win a playoff game than I do any other team in the field. Last year I also felt less confident about the only undefeated team, Florida State, winning a game than I did any other team in the field. Talking with other college football fans, many feel the same way I do. Why are we so skeptical of undefeated teams?

— Shane Hart, Brookeville, Md.

I don’t think you’re skeptical of undefeated teams; I think you’re skeptical of undefeated ACC teams. Despite the conference’s recent success — particularly against its SEC rivals — it clearly remains fifth out of five in terms of national respect. So when Florida State struggled last year against teams like Louisville and Boston College, many of us read into it (correctly, it turned out) more so than we did, for example, Tennessee putting a scare into Alabama this year.

Mind you, I don’t view 2015 Clemson in nearly the same light I did 2014 Florida State, a talented but flawed team not unlike this year’s Ohio State team. The Tigers haven’t "struggled" with anybody. With the lone exception of an early Thursday night game at Louisville, they handily beat the teams they’re supposed to and earned their wins over three Top 10-caliber opponents. If you stripped the name off the top of its schedule and just looked at the results, I’m guessing you’d probably view Clemson as the clear playoff favorite. But because it’s Clemson, an ACC school and relative newcomer to the national stage, many of us still won’t trust the Tigers until we actually see them hoisting the trophy.

Why is it hard to believe we Utah fans don’t want to play our FORMER rival? We divorced them when we earned a better partnership in the Pac-12. Yes, we still dislike BYU, but we are better than they are and affiliating with them by playing in a bowl game only reinforces the belief of some people (like you, apparently) that we are on the same level. We are not.

— Chris Brown

I could have filled a whole Mailbag with furious/bitter/arrogant Utah fans who tweeted similar sentiments at me when I first reported the Vegas Bowl Holy War was imminent. Fortunately this guy encompassed all of them.

Keep reading.

Stewart: Love your articles and especially the Mailbag. I was blown away to see that South Carolina not only hired Will Muschamp as its new head coach but is also committing five years and $16 million to him. Did that school not notice what happened at Florida this year compared with the past few years before that? I know there are a lot of openings out there, but are there really so few choices that this is where the Gamecocks turn?

— Rylan Ricks, Idaho Falls, Idaho

I’ll say here what I said on The Audible on Monday: It’s the worst head-coaching hire by a power-conference program since Kansas hired Charlie Weis four years ago.

Muschamp is a good guy, but he’s somehow managed to convince the entire industry he’s some coaching savant. Mack Brown once anointed him Texas’ head coach in waiting. Florida AD Jeremy Foley agonized over firing him well past the point that it became inevitable. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn moved mountains to land him the minute he became available. And now, South Carolina AD Ray Tanner — the Gamecocks’ former baseball coach — is convinced that Muschamp is the best man for the job. This despite him flaming out in spectacular fashion at another program in the Gamecocks’ own division. Heck, he even lost three of his four games against South Carolina.

If anything, the salary number you cited is pretty telling. At just more than $3 million a year, it’s actually lower than any of the other SEC public schools paid their coach this season. (Vanderbilt does not disclose its figure, but Derek Mason likely makes less than $3 million.) If that’s all South Carolina was willing to offer, it might help explain its seemingly limited candidate pool. For example, we know Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez turned down a South Carolina offer. Perhaps it was for more than the school offered Muschamp; if not, Rodriguez makes more at his Pac-12 school. Another reported target, Houston’s Tom Herman, managed to land $3 million a year at his own Group of Five school.


All that despite Tanner having nearly two months’ lead time to get a jump. Astounding.

Stewart, hard to believe Utah doesn’t want to play BYU? We’ve beaten them four times in a row and it does nothing for us. What does beating an irrelevant mid-major do? BYU sees this as their Super Bowl, but the game does nothing for us. That help you understand?

— Chris Brown

Absolutely. Since it does nothing for you, I assume if the Utes win, you’ll just shake their fans’ hands and carry on with your day.

With an almost-unprecedented number of Power Five head coaching jobs open over the past month, did Tom Herman and Temple’s Matt Rhule miss out on opportunities to make the jump from lower-tier conferences? Do you really think they want to be at Houston and Temple for the next five or six years instead of programs like Missouri or South Carolina?

— Ken Devine, Denver

They may have found the market to be more lukewarm than most of us assumed. A surprising number of schools this year opted to hire coordinators at major programs rather than rising mid-major coaches. (Or, in USC’s or Illinois’ case, promote the interim coach.) Other than Memphis’ Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech, the guys that did get Power 5 opportunities did so at low-rung programs like Iowa State (Toledo’s Matt Campbell) or Syracuse (Bowling Green’s Dino Babers.) If you’re Herman, why take a job where you’re going to beat your head in just to win six games when you can stay at Houston, make Power 5 money and possibly win 11 or 12 games again next season, at which point a truly big-time program (Texas?) will come calling.

Rhule did flirt with Missouri but recommitted to Temple fairly quickly. The 40-year-old is in a bit different position in that he’s not a coaching journeyman. Save for one season with the New York Giants, he’s been at Temple since 2006. And he’s a Pennsylvania native. I’d imagine he’ll eventually move up, but unlike other typical mid-major coaches, he does not view his current school as a stopover. And like Herman, if he continues to win big at Temple, a truly big-time program (Penn State?) will come calling in a year or two.

Stewart: No, we don’t want to play our "rival" in our bowl. Colorado is our rival.

— Chris Brown


Now even Colorado fans are embarrassed for you.

Stewart, FSU fan here bitter about having to play a Group of Five bowl team for the second time in four years. I’m not saying Houston isn’t a good team, but there is zero excitement to play them. Meanwhile, we killed the Gators in their house, and they get No. 14 Michigan? Any chance the Group of Five arrangement is modified so they have to be ranked higher to get in the New Year’s Six?

— Stephen, Sarasota, Fla.

It’s too bad you see it that way, because I assure you this Houston team is much better than that 2012 NIU team. In fact, if the committee had been in place back then, I’m not sure the Huskies would have even cracked the Top 25. They were a 12-1 MAC team that lost to a 4-8 Iowa team. But, polls. This 12-1 Houston team beat a 7-5 Louisville team, handed 4-8 Vanderbilt a more lopsided loss (34-0) than any of the Commodores’ SEC opponents and beat three Top 25 foes (Memphis, Navy and Temple) down the stretch. But I get that there’s a stigma.

I don’t see the arrangement changing because putting qualifiers on those teams that don’t apply to the others is a sure way to invite the publicity-seeking politicians and litigious attorneys general that hounded the BCS. What would the threshold be? Top 10? Top 12? How do you justify that when No. 16 Oklahoma State — ranked just two spots above Houston, mind you — is playing in the Sugar Bowl? As it stands, CFP organizers can say with a semi-straight face that the highest-ranked Group of Five champ enjoys the same access to the major bowls as all of the Power 5 champs.

My advice: Enjoy the game. Greg Ward Jr. is a whole lot of fun to watch.

Stewart, I was sad to see that the mighty Pac-12 South division co-champion Utah Utes were passed over by multiple bowls and are being forced to play in Las Vegas on Dec 19. To make matters worse, those nasty BYU fans bought up all the non-allocated tickets before the matchup was announced. Luckily, several Utes have banded together and are planning to boycott the Vegas bowl and its sponsors. That ought to make future bowls think twice about passing them over.

— David Holland, St Louis, Mo.

Nice going. The game only sold out within 24 hours.