Forward Pass: Why Florida State is playoff system’s ultimate litmus test

Late Saturday night, after Oregon State finished off its upset of then-sixth-ranked Arizona State, I looked at the cluster of six remaining one-loss Power 5 teams (Oregon, Alabama, Mississippi State, TCU, Baylor and Ohio State) now vying for three spots alongside undefeated Florida State and tweeted out this knee-jerk thought: “If you think the top 4 is a mess right now, imagine if we were still playing for two spots.”

But on second thought, if the BCS standings were still in place, the top two would actually be pretty clear-cut: Florida State, the only remaining undefeated Power 5 team, would be the no-brainer No. 1. Alabama, having just beaten last week’s No. 1 team, would be the consensus No. 2. That’s what both the AP and coaches voters decreed Sunday. There’d be controversy, but not that much controversy.

And yet, based on the selection committee’s messages to this point, I’d be surprised if it says the same Tuesday. Last week the committee bumped one-loss Oregon above undefeated FSU, and the ‘Noles’ latest comeback win over an inferior opponent, Miami, didn’t scream to jump back ahead of the Ducks. Even if that does happen, there’s a decent chance 9-1 Alabama, No. 5 last week before dominating Mississippi State, will be ahead of both.

If so, there will be controversy, but not that much controversy.

Why the different mentality than there would have been just a year earlier? Because the committee’s attention to body of work has changed the way we think about teams. Mainly, we’re paying closer attention to the opponents they’ve beaten. We’re viewing those foes through the prism of 12 weeks of data rather than the way they looked at the time the teams played.

On one hand, there’s a case to be made that Florida State deserves to be No. 1 because it just keeps winning, something no one else besides Marshall can claim. Probably quite a few of the 12 committee members subscribe to that theory themselves.

But just last week, in explaining why the committee as a whole valued the Ducks more than the Seminoles, chairman Jeff Long explicitly mentioned Oregon’s wins over current top-25 teams Michigan State, UCLA and Utah, the latter two on the road. And he qualified the Ducks’ loss based on the fact Arizona was a current top-15 team.

Well, over the weekend, while Oregon enjoyed a bye, all four of its aforementioned opponents won. The Spartans, Bruins, Wildcats and Utes checked in at Nos. 10, 11, 15 and 20 respectively in the new AP poll. Conversely, the two top-25 conquests FSU claimed as of last week, the committee’s then-18th-ranked Notre Dame and 19th-ranked Clemson, both suffered bad losses. The Irish lost at home to 4-6 Northwestern, while Georgia Tech hammered the Tigers 28-6. As a result, both dropped out of the voter polls entirely Sunday and likely will be out of the committee rankings as well.

WEEK 12 WINNERS & LOSERS

Thus, based on the committee’s stated logic last week, it would be contradicting itself to flip the two teams this week, as the only positive change to FSU’s resume was picking up a win over unranked Miami.

As for Alabama, the committee so far seemed to value the Tide mostly via the eye test and just last week had TCU ahead of them. But while the Frogs struggled to beat woeful Kansas, Alabama picked up its long-awaited signature win over No. 1 Mississippi State. Assuming committee members actually watched the game, they know the 25-20 final score belies the fact the Tide controlled the entire game. I could see the committee keeping Oregon above Alabama but not FSU or TCU. The ‘Noles just don’t have enough quality wins and nothing remotely close to a blowout of a 9-0 team.

If my guess holds true — and mind you, we’re all still guessing when it comes to this completely new system — it will mark a radical departure from the BCS-era mentality. Consider that on this same week just two years ago, the top two in the standings were 11-0 Notre Dame and 10-1 Alabama, despite the fact the Irish, much like this year’s ‘Noles, hadn’t beaten any elite opponents and six other power conference teams held the same 10-1 record as the Tide. I recall almost no dissension about that order.

While ‘Noles fans will continue to scream bloody murder about the massive worldwide conspiracy against their team if they’re not No. 1, ultimately all that matters is being in the top four. More upsets like Arizona State’s will likely winnow the field further over the final three weeks, but as of now FSU, Alabama and Oregon probably control their destinies.

As for the fourth spot, Mississippi State may well remain in the top four this week, but I believe the Bulldogs will need to win the SEC (which requires Alabama losing to Auburn) to finish ahead of TCU/Baylor and even surging Ohio State if those teams win out. Mind you, I wouldn’t have said that just two weeks ago, but much like FSU, Mississippi State’s resume is unraveling. The Bulldogs rose to prominence by beating three straight top-10 opponents earlier this season, but now two of those three teams, LSU and Texas A&M, are 7-4 and unranked, and the third, 7-3 Auburn, is down to 16th following consecutive losses.

If the BCS voters were picking the top four, all that would likely be forgiven if the Bulldogs turn around and beat 8-2 Ole Miss, even if they don’t reach the SEC title game. If anything, they’d move back up. But it’s a different system now, one that’s still far from perfect but is certainly more discerning.

GORDON ENTERING RARE HEISMAN TERRITORY

Melvin Gordon’s first hint that he was on his way to a truly remarkable day Saturday against Nebraska came as he looked up at the Camp Randall Stadium scoreboard on his way in to the locker room at halftime.

“I saw I’d run for 200-something yards,” the Wisconsin running back — who at that point had rushed for 238 on 16 carries — told FOX Sports on Sunday. “I was like, OK. We have a whole other half.”

He didn’t even need that long. It took the junior only one more quarter to break former TCU star LaDainian Tomlinson’s FBS single-game rushing record, finishing with 408 yards on 25 carries — a 16.3-yard average. He scored touchdowns of 62, one, six and 26 yards, the last one coming on the final play of the third quarter to put the Badgers up 52-17. It was his last and record-breaking carry of the day. Even though he took a quick bow afterward, Gordon said he did not yet have a clue what he’d just accomplished.

“When I got to the sideline someone said, ‘I think you just beat the record for FBS,” he said. “I had no idea I was closing in on it. I had no idea LaDainian Tomlinson had [the record]. No one shoots for that many yards.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

Gordon’s historic day injected some much-needed buzz into a Heisman race that had, quite frankly, grown stale. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota entered the weekend as the runaway favorite. He’s still the favorite, but with Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott’s campaign on life support following a humbling loss to Alabama, the race looks increasingly like a two-man showdown. But the fact it took a 408-yard day to finally make #GordontoGotham go viral shows just how hard it is for a non-quarterback to gain traction anymore.

Seven of the past eight Heismans have gone to quarterbacks, with Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009 the lone exception. An obvious factor is the sport’s ever-increasing emphasis on the passing game, but it’s more than that. Voters love stats. While quarterbacks’ keep getting gaudier and more sophisticated every year, running backs really have only one stat that wows people — yards. The decline of traditional workhorses has made it harder to rack up that number.

But Gordon is well on his way. On Saturday he reached 1,909 rushing yards, which is already more than that of the past three Heisman running backs — ex-Badger Ron Dayne (1,834 in 1999), USC’s Reggie Bush (1,740 in 2005) and Ingram (1,658). If Gordon runs for a combined 218 yards against Iowa and Minnesota (mind you, he’s averaging 190.9 per game), he’ll eclipse Texas star Ricky Williams’ 1998 clip.

On the final weekend of the season, Mariota will play in the Pac-12 title game on Friday night. Should he have a big game and lead the Ducks into the playoff, it’s going to be tough for anyone to beat him. But Gordon may get to make the final impression if Wisconsin reaches the following night’s Big Ten title game.

Gordon remains skeptical of his own chances.

“The quarterbacks are playing so good, especially Mariota,” he said. “It will be tough. We’ll just see what our games bring us these last two games.”

One final note: There had not yet been a 300-yard rushing game this season prior to Saturday, but amazingly, Gordon’s was one of two in the Big Ten. Chronically overlooked Indiana star Tevin Coleman carried 32 times for 307 yards in a 45-23 loss to Rutgers. His 167.8-yard average is a distant second nationally to Gordon but still higher than any rusher since 2007.

Who says no one runs the ball anymore?

FOLEY MUST NAIL NEXT FLORIDA HIRE

The loss that finally sealed embattled Florida coach Will Muschamp’s fate almost perfectly encapsulated his largely dreadful four-year tenure.

Facing a previously porous South Carolina defense, the Gators managed just 278 yards of offense. Even then, they had ample opportunities to win, but in a characteristic comedy of errors, a Treon Harris touchdown run that would have put Florida up by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter got called back for holding, and the Gamecocks blocked the Gators’ subsequent 32-yard field goal attempt; South Carolina blocked a punt with 39 seconds left; and the Gamecocks even fumbled twice on the play that resulted in a game-tying touchdown with 12 seconds left in regulation.

South Carolina won 23-20 in overtime, ending Florida’s already slim SEC East title hopes, dropping it to 5-4 on the season and sealing AD Jeremy Foley’s decision to finally pull the plug on Muschamp the next morning.

“I was given every opportunity to get it done here and I simply didn’t win enough games,” Muschamp, now 27-20 and 17-15 in SEC play, said in a statement. “That is the bottom line.”

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

Muschamp’s hire seemed perfectly reasonable at the time in December 2010. Texas coach Mack Brown had thought highly enough of his defensive coordinator to anoint him his coach-in-waiting. He’d helped Nick Saban win a national title at LSU and Brown reach the championship game a year earlier. His almost demonic sideline intensity had made him a mini-Internet legend.

But those same traits would soon prove to be a detriment as head coach of an established power. For all his defensive prowess, he could never settle on an offensive identity, and his temper became less endearing as the losses piled up. Outside of one incredibly fortunate 11-1 regular season in 2012, he also didn’t catch many breaks, a la the end of Saturday’s game.

Foley made one of the great coaching hires of the last decade when he plucked future two-time BCS champion Urban Meyer from Utah in 2004, but before and after he’s swung and missed wildly on a pair of unproven former defensive coordinators, Ron Zook and Muschamp. For this hire, he surely knows he needs to go in the complete opposite direction. He’ll be seeking an established head coach with a track record of producing the type of high-powered offenses that Meyer and Steve Spurrier before him once made customary in Gainesville.

Speculation will logically turn toward Meyer’s former UF offensive coordinator, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, but he’s not likely at the top of Foley’s list. Possible high-profile targets include Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (again), Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and even Auburn’s Gus Malzahn. Colorado State’s Jim McElwain, formerly Alabama’s offensive coordinator, would be the logical choice if he attempts the Meyer route of a hot mid-major name.

But Foley can also be unpredictable. Few had even heard of Zook when the AD tapped him to replace Spurrier in 2002 and Muschamp, while more established, did not appear on many media lists. He could surprise us again. Whoever it is, though, Foley desperately needs to get this one right.

THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST

Each week, I’ll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week’s games.

RANKING BEST OREGON UNIFORMS

Peach: Mississippi State (at-large) vs. Marshall (Group of 5)

Fiesta: UCLA (at-large) vs. Ohio State (Big Ten champ)

Orange: Georgia Tech (ACC) vs. Ole Miss (B1G/SEC/ND)

Cotton: Michigan State (at-large) vs. TCU (at-large)

Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Alabama (SEC champ) vs. No. 4 Baylor (Big 12 champ)

Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Oregon (Pac-12 champ) vs. No. 3 Florida State (ACC champ)

The seeding of my four playoff teams is a best guess and could change Tuesday night, but not my predicted four teams. The Baylor-TCU head-to-head debate could get rendered moot on Thanksgiving night. The way the Horned Frogs have played on the road recently, they may well lose in Austin to bowl-bound Texas. Coincidentally, how cool would those two semifinal matchups be offensive style-wise?

Elsewhere, I could have placed Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, but given the likely Mountain Time Rose Bowl pairing in Arizona, the Big Ten would likely prefer its champ there if facing a Pac-12 team. We may finally find out Tuesday whether Marshall is the committee’s current Group of 5 team of choice. The now 10-0 Herd stomped 6-4 Rice, 41-14, on Saturday.

I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …

* Western Kentucky RB Leon Allen. Yes, there was a third 300-yard rusher Saturday. Allen carried 33 times for 345 yards, which, on any other Saturday in almost any other season, would have be an unspeakably high watermark.

* Northwestern RB Justin Jackson. The freshman ran for 149 yards  — his fourth 100-yard outing — as the 4-6 Wildcats exploded for 543 yards in a season-salvaging 43-40 overtime upset of Notre Dame.

* USC. Behind a second straight 200-yard receiving day from Nelson Agholor, the 7-3 Trojans beat Cal last Thursday. If they manage to knock off rival UCLA this week, they may well win the crowded Pac-12 South.

* Arkansas. Bret Bielema’s team ended its 17-game SEC losing streak by blanking LSU, 17-0. It’s not inconceivable for the Razorbacks to upset Ole Miss this week and/or beat Missouri to reach their first bowl in three years. 

* Todd Gurley’s future. The Georgia star’s college career ended almost as soon as it resumed. Gurley’s ACL injury against Auburn will likely hurt his draft stock, another cautionary tale about the perilous shelf life of running backs.

THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE

Memphis’ Justin Fuente. The Tigers went 5-31 in the three seasons prior to Fuente’s 2012 arrival. They’re currently alone in first at 5-1 in the American following a 38-7 win at Tulane and should finish the regular season 9-3 with only a pair of home games against 4-6 USF and 2-7 Connecticut remaining.

THIS WEEK’S COACH ON THE HOT SEAT

Nebraska’s Bo Pelini. Yep, it’s that time of year again. Yes, the Huskers are 8-2, but their penchant for inexplicable implosions in big games continued with Saturday’s 59-24 loss to the Badgers. With 7-3 foes Minnesota and Iowa still to go, plus a bowl game, a seventh straight four-loss season remains in play.

ON TO NEXT WEEKEND

Three games we’re most excited for:

* USC at UCLA (Saturday, 8 ET). This will be UCLA coach Jim Mora’s third game against the Trojans, and Steve Sarkisian will be the third different USC coach he’s faced. He beat both Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron.

* Arizona at Utah (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The Wildcats are one of four teams tied for first in the loss column in the Pac-12 South. The 7-3 Utes check in at fifth place in the division but No. 20 in the AP poll. Take that, SEC West.

* Wisconsin at Iowa (Saturday, 3:30 ET). More Melvin, please.

Three games you shouldn’t miss:

* Kansas State at West Virginia (Thursday, 7 ET). Lost in all the TCU/Baylor head-to-head hubbub is the fact K-State is still tied for first in the Big 12 loss column. But 6-4 WVU has proven to be a tough out at home.

* Missouri at Tennessee (Saturday, 7:30 ET). Mizzou needs to win both this and next week to wrap up the SEC East. A loss clinches it for Georgia. The Vols need one more win to reach their first bowl in four years.

* Louisville at Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 ET). It turns out the Irish’s 6-0 start was a mirage and their suspension- and injury-raved defense is a mess, but that just guarantees more wacky four-hour shootouts.

One under-the-radar gem:

* North Carolina at Duke (Thursday, 7:30 ET). The Tar Heels are 5-5 after surviving Pittsburgh, 40-35, and they’re averaging 36 points per game. Now they’ll try to ruin their rival’s season. Duke still controls its destiny in the ACC Coastal.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. 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.