Mailbag: Why it’s not wrong to love Oklahoma’s Orange Bowl odds

The Orange Bowl may come down to whether Oklahoma's defense can contain Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, the way the Sooners did several productive Big 12 quarterbacks this season.

Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

It’s a well-documented fact that any team that moves up high in the rankings during a college football season does so only because the teams they beat were grossly overrated. No team in the country is worthy of praise. All are products of manufactured media hype.

And apparently this still holds true even after a team has played an entire 12-game schedule and won one of the five power conferences’ championship.

Stewart: I saw in the Mailbag last week that people seem to be wary of Clemson and have so much love for Oklahoma. I saw the Sooners’ game against Tennessee — they were lucky the Vols didn’t know how to finish games. Then Texas shelled OU. Yet the Sooners are considered to have redeemed themselves by beating Baylor and TCU, who were injury-riddled at key positions, and Oklahoma State, which beat nobody. I for one am not buying it. Who can rush the passer in the Big 12 like Shaq Lawson?

— Mark, Cleveland

This may seem hard to believe, but Oklahoma got better over the course of the season. The team that played Tennessee in September and lost to Texas in October was not the same team you saw in November and will take the field in Miami on New Year’s Eve. In fact, the Sooners took a very similar path as 2014 national champ Ohio State. That team, like this Oklahoma team, lost a game early. That team debuted at 16th in the first committee rankings; OU was 15th. Both beat three ranked opponents over the final month. And the Sooners are hardly the only team to face injury-riddled foes. They also demolished that 10-win Oklahoma State team that "beat nobody" 58-23.

End of day, the only team in the country that can definitely say it did better is the 13-0 Clemson team it’s facing.

Mark’s very last point, however, is a valid one — Clemson’s ninth-ranked defense (tied with OU’s at 4.68 yards per play allowed) is unquestionably the best the Sooners have faced. Lawson is an All-American defensive end, Jayron Kearse an All-American safety, Mackensie Alexander a future NFL cornerback, B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware both big-time linebackers. Oklahoma’s offense will present a similar challenge as ACC title game opponent North Carolina, which Clemson held to a respectable 5.2 yards per play, though Baker Mayfield is a more complete quarterback than UNC’s Marquise Williams.

Ultimately, it’s unrealistic to think the Sooners will rack up 550 yards against Clemson, so the Orange Bowl may come down to whether Eric Striker and the OU defense can contain Deshaun Watson the way they did several productive Big 12 quarterbacks. I do wish we had seen the Sooners face Seth Russell and Trevone Boykin rather than Jarrett Stidham, and we’ll find out soon enough whether all those purportedly fraudulent conference foes adequately prepared them.

Stanford players have now finished fourth in the Heisman voting four of the past seven years. It’s absurd and ridiculous the voters can’t be bothered to "stay up late" or at least watch tape of West Coast games. How many of those second-place finishers do you think would have been winners had Stanford played all their games at more "convenient" times for lazy Heisman voters?

— David Wallace, Maseru, Lesotho

Before answering this, I want to make clear that while I had McCaffrey No. 1 on my own ballot, I have no problem with Derrick Henry winning the Heisman. All three of the finalists had a compelling argument for "most outstanding." No one got robbed. Any of them would have been a deserving recipient.

No question, all those late starts — seven Stanford games kicked off at 10 p.m. ET or later — hurt McCaffrey this year. Most of Henry’s big games were heavily watched CBS broadcasts, and in fact the SEC championship game (12.8 million) and LSU prime-time game (11.1 million) drew two of the three highest TV ratings of any game this season. By contrast, McCaffrey’s breakout Thursday night game against UCLA, which kicked off at 10:30 p.m. ET, drew just 1.3 million viewers.

But it’s simplistic to say that McCaffrey definitely would have won if only his games had kicked off earlier. Case in point: The Pac-12 championship game kicked off at 8 p.m. ET, but it aired opposite two other title games — Big Ten and ACC — with playoff implications. So even then, just 2.6 million watched his amazing 461-yard performance.

Meanwhile, two-time Stanford runner-up Andrew Luck hardly lacked for exposure. But in 2010, Cam Newton produced one of the most dominant seasons of any recent Heisman winner, and the next year, Luck’s team lost its biggest game of the season 53-30 (to Oregon). Toby Gerhart in 2009 had arguably the biggest gripe, given winner Mark Ingram did not put up anywhere near the same numbers, but even there, he played for an 8-4 team. (The Cardinal finished 8-5 after a bowl loss to Oklahoma.)

I’ve believed for some time it will take a rare occurrence going forward for any player outside of the four playoff teams to win the Heisman. McCaffrey ran for more yards than anyone in the history of the sport on an 11-2 Power 5 champion and still came up short. What hope is there for the next guy?

All the breathless hype Georgia people are slinging around Jacob Eason got me thinking: When’s the last time a true freshman quarterback at an FBS school led his team to a special season? By "special," I mean "better than nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl game," as that’s what these people are expecting to improve upon.

— Justin Michaels, Atlanta

Even if Eason is deserving of every accolade he’s receiving, it would be impossible to be decidedly more talented than current UCLA freshman Josh Rosen. He came in as mature and prepared as any true freshman starter in recent memory, mostly performed admirably and still came in just 58th nationally in pass efficiency for a team that finished the regular season 8-4. BYU’s Tanner Mangum, who took over in the first game, finished 37th for the 9-3 Cougars.

The guy Georgia fans might look to for inspiration is Chad Henne. As a true freshman starter in 2004 he helped the Wolverines to a 9-2 regular season, Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth. But Henne, that season’s 42nd-ranked passer, also had the luxury of handing off to another future four-year starter, 1,455-yard rusher Mike Hart.

Provided Eason wins the job, he may find himself in a similar situation what with star Nick Chubb returning from injury. I wouldn’t expect him to come in and contend for the Heisman as a true freshman, but given the sorry state of Georgia’s passing game this season — just 12 touchdown passes as a team while playing three different QBs — it should not be that hard to improve upon.

It’s my understanding that coaches can’t comment on recruits by name during this time period . . . Is it OK for a coach to refer to a player by their Twitter handle as Kirby Smart did Tuesday regarding Jacob Eason? It’s beyond me how coaches keep track of all the rules in place today.

— John Hayes, Spokane, Wash.

Eason falls into a loophole because he signed a non-binding financial aid agreement with the school last spring. In doing so, it both allowed the staff unlimited contact with him and to comment on him publicly. Mark Richt had previously done just that.

But to your point on keeping track of all the rules, LSU’s Les Miles got retroactively sanctioned by the SEC last year for commenting on a recruit who signed a financial aid agreement with the school, but subsequently decommitted and signed with Ole Miss. And obviously the FAA did not keep Eason from exploring other schools once Richt got fired.

Recruiting, man — it’s messed up.

What college coaches will be on the hot seat in 2016?

— Dennis P Crawford, Lincoln, Neb.

I take it by where you’re writing from that you want me to say Mike Riley. Hold that thought.

First of all, half the SEC coaches will be on the hot seat in 2016, starting with Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn. That may sound nuts given Sumlin is not far removed from 11 wins and a Heisman Trophy winner, and Malzahn is only two years removed from the national championship game (with a team that went 3-9 the year before). But that’s life when everyone in your division makes at least $4-$5 million. Sumlin is 11-13 in conference play the past three seasons, Malzahn 6-10 the past two. Neither will likely survive another mediocre season.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Butch Jones just got a raise for going 8-4, but it comes with an expectation the Vols win more than that next year. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops needs to get over the 5-7 hump in his fourth season. Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason needs to get to at least 5-7. Arkansas’ Bret Bielema can’t afford another 7-5 or 6-6 finish. And Les Miles won’t likely get another reprieve if the Tigers don’t improve.

Elsewhere, it’s a given Texas’ Charlie Strong is on the hot seat, given the university president now has to reassure potential offensive coordinators. Purdue’s Darrell Hazell and Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre will enter their fourth seasons next year needing to show they have in fact rebuilt their programs. And Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson can’t go 3-9 again.

As for Riley — he’s only in danger if the ‘Huskers finish below .500 again. I don’t see that happening. … Sorry?

Stewart: Navy just beat Army for the 14th year in a row. Have you seen an annual game between two historically even-matched rivals become so one-sided? This isn’t Florida vs. Kentucky or Notre Dame vs. Navy, where one team will always have superior talent. Navy and Army recruit the same players. They are almost the same teams. What has happened?

— Daniel from Houston

They may have been the same team in the 1940s, but not today. Navy established a consistent program beginning under Paul Johnson and continuing under Ken Niumatalolo, whereas Army has been struggling to find its identity. Jeff Monken is the sixth different Army coach who’s lost to Navy during this streak. Army’s had one winning record this century. Navy’s only had one losing season since 2003. If a recruit who qualifies to play for the two were choosing his team solely for football, he’s probably going to choose the one that’s winning.

But obviously, nobody chooses to play for a service academy solely for football, because they’re also committing to military service after football. And those familiar with the academies will tell you it’s no coincidence the programs’ disparate trajectories began not long after 9/11. The U.S. military has been involved in some form of foreign conflict near constantly ever since. While plenty of future Navy and Air Force officers go on to serve in dangerous areas, the Army is more universally associated with combat — which makes it a lot harder to persuade a 17-year-old to sign on.

40 just feels like too many bowl games. As a sportswriter, I assume you’ll need to watch more than you would as a fan. How do you decide if a game is worth watching and are there a couple of under-the-radar games you recommend fans watch over the next couple weeks before the New Year’s Six get underway?

— Matt, Aurora, Ill.

Just because they keep adding bowls does not mean I’m obligated to watch them. I’ve got long-overdue errands to run and "Master of None" and "Transparent" episodes to binge-watch. And then once we get to the meat of the lineup, I’ll be in Dallas for five days of coverage leading up to the Cotton Bowl and not likely in front of a TV at 11:30 a.m. on a Monday. So I just try to pick my spots and watch when I can.

If you read my 1 through 40 bowl rankings, then you can probably guess which under-the-radar games I’m highest on, but they include Las Vegas (Utah-BYU) this Saturday, Boca Raton (Temple-Toledo) on Tuesday, Hawaii (San Diego State-Cincinnati) on Christmas Eve, Sun (Washington State-Miami) on Dec. 26, Russell Athletic (North Carolina-Baylor) and Texas (LSU-Texas Tech) on Dec. 29 and Holiday (USC-Wisconsin) on Dec. 30.

Also, I intentionally booked my Dallas flights on Virgin America specifically for the TVs. I’m fully counting on the Pinstripe Bowl (Indiana-Duke) to keep me occupied for most of a four-hour flight. Don’t let me down, Jordan Howard.

Why do we jump to eight teams; why not six? I never hear anyone mention six! I think Power 5 plus 1 would be great. It keeps the regular season meaningful, while still giving hope to a conference to put two teams in or for a non-Power 5 school.

— Jack, Columbus, Ohio

I think that’d be worse than eight. It’s too messy. The two most important storylines coming down the stretch would be A) the inevitably maddening debate over who deserves that one at-large berth and B) which two teams deserve that coveted first-round bye. Imagine this year if the difference between finishing No. 2 (Alabama) and No. 3 (Michigan State) meant turning around the next week and playing a game against Ohio State or resting up until New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, I assume those two quarterfinal games would be played on campuses. So let’s say Michigan State loses a rematch with the Hawkeyes and Stanford beats Oklahoma. Does that mean the Spartans and Sooners don’t get a bowl trip? Their seasons are over before those of 78 other teams? Or they go on to some sort of fifth-place game at, say, the Peach Bowl? Whatever the case, that format would last one to two years tops before expanding to eight, so you might as well just skip the intermediary step.

Or, you know, just stay at four.

With the Big 12’s new rule requiring all its teams to play one Power 5 opponent, will Baylor finally beef up its schedule? Or, will the Bears just continue to schedule overmatched teams, substituting Purdue for Rice?

— Ryan Naessens, Saginaw, Mich.

Baylor, to its credit, had already begun righting its schedule even before that policy came down. It plays Duke in 2017 and ’18 and Utah in ’23 and ’24. Unfortunately, in the meantime, next year brings more of the same, with Northwestern State, SMU and Rice. Initially Baylor was in talks with Cal to play next year’s opener in Australia, but that game wound up being Cal-Hawaii instead. So if the Bears wind up in playoff contention again next year, they’re going to face all the same backlash they did the past two years.

Where the new Big 12 policy will come into play for Baylor is with current openings on its 2019-22 schedules. But you’re not going to hear criticism from me if it ends up scheduling Purdue. College football is cyclical. Six years ago, Purdue would have taken grief for scheduling Baylor. The Boilers may well be a Top 25 team in 2019. But even if they’re not, at least it shows you’re trying. It’s rubbed people the wrong way that Baylor appeared to be intentionally gaming the system the past couple of years. Unfortunately for the Bears, the system changed.

Stewart, Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, or the wide variety of cookies for Christmas?

— Nick Stepp, Haslett, Mich.

I’ll take pumpkin pie over pretty much any other dessert, any day of the year.

Also, being Jewish, I don’t necessarily eat cookies on Christmas. It’s usually movie popcorn followed by Chinese takeout.

Speaking of the holidays . . . no Mailbag next week. It returns a week later, just in time to preview the semis. Fortunately, you’ve got 24 bowls to keep you occupied between now and then.

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