Mailbag: The playoff’s one crucial problem, Notre Dame and SEC bias

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So Oct. 28 has come and gone with no apparent sign of looting or rioting outside of Jeff Long’s house. That’s a good sign.

Of course, that’s in part because for all the months and months of buildup, the committee’s first rankings were kind of – meh? – on the controversy scale. But there were a few small things that troubled me.

From Tuesday night’s column, you say "you’re going to see ADs rushing to beef up their schools’ future schedules" based on the committee’s emphasis on SOS. While I agree with that to a degree, I also see a problem. It appears that the committee pretty much ordered teams by the number of losses they have. For example, most would agree that LSU (No. 19) is a better team than Utah (No. 17), but Utah’s navigated a thus-far easier schedule to one fewer loss, so they are ranked higher. If this pattern holds, this would mean more teams scheduling weak non-conference opposition. Based on everything you know about the way the committee operates, does this worry you?

— Mike, Ohio

It’s a valid concern. One of the first things Long said in his post-show press conference in Dallas was the decision to put undefeated Mississippi State and Florida State 1-2 was “clear-cut.” While I don’t have a problem with those rankings, I’d hardly call it clear-cut, as I wrote about in dissecting Florida State earlier this week. You could make a valid argument for Auburn above the ‘Noles. I can’t say I’d given much thought to LSU vs. Utah, and I don’t know that “most would agree” the Tigers are better, but they did just beat the committee’s No. 4 team, Ole Miss, and their losses were to Nos. 1 (Mississippi State) and 3 (Auburn), whereas Utah lost at home to 2-6 Washington State.

If I had another crack at that quick-reaction column Tuesday, I might have said the committee truly did stick to its intention to reward strength of schedule, but only after it sorted the teams by win-loss records.

Having said that, just because it fell that way in Week 10 doesn’t mean it will be quite so orderly after Week 15. When the teams have played only seven or eight games, the difference between 6-1 and 7-2 feels more significant than will 12-1 vs. 11-2. You can already see where one of the highly ranked SEC teams with one loss may lose again and still finish higher than one-loss Michigan State or Notre Dame just because they will have beaten more quality foes. The team to keep an eye on is Mississippi State. It’s the only one of those ranked SEC teams that didn’t play a soul out of conference.

Another team to keep an eye on is Auburn. The Tigers still have three remaining games against top-10 teams. If they win two of them on top of a victory over No. 9 Kansas State, and then win the SEC championship game to finish 11-2, will they still be rewarded for playing at K-State, or will they automatically drop below all remaining teams with fewer than two losses? If it’s the latter, then yes, all the talk of beefing up schedules is empty. Why bother if the committee is just going to mimic the pollsters and use number of losses as their starting point?


Stewart, Could you please explain to me the reasoning behind putting Michigan State at No. 8? I have no problem with my Notre Dame squad being behind a long line of SEC squads. However, if Jeff Long is questioning the Irish resume, why not question a Spartan team that has zero quality wins, a SOS rank of 77, and a loss to fifth-ranked Oregon by 19? If that win against Nebraska is a "quality win," color me perplexed.

— Christopher Tamme, South Bend, Indiana

So far it appears the fan base with the biggest gripe is Notre Dame’s, and I don’t know if they banded together on a message board or something but they also seem to have universally zeroed in on Michigan State as their biggest object of criticism. But to me, that just says the committee places more value on who you beat then who you lost to. The Irish nearly won at Florida State and good for them, but they did lose. You’ve got to beat somebody. Notre Dame’s best win to this point is against a 5-3 Stanford team with a non-existent offense. And even that came on a last-second touchdown. I’m not sure why the sarcasm about Nebraska, but that did give the Spartans a win over a 7-1 team.

I’d also note that unlike the traditional polls or BCS standings, where once the pecking order was established there was no way to reverse it, the Notre Dame-MSU thing could change in an instant. For example, if Stanford goes up and knocks off Oregon this weekend, suddenly that win might look better than Michigan State’s over Nebraska. And while the Spartans will get a bump if they beat No. 16 Ohio State on Nov. 8, Notre Dame plays at No. 14 Arizona State the same day. Reason No. 3,347 why it’s silly to get too worked up over these rankings just yet. The committee could come back next week and have Notre Dame No. 8, Michigan State No. 10.

Hi Stewart, is there any reason why the committee didn’t release what their matchups would be for the Orange, Cotton, Peach, and Fiesta Bowls? I’m extremely curious to see what factors they use in determining the participants in those games. Based off the rankings just released, how would you project those games?


— Kevin, location unknown

Yeah, that’d be fun to see, but it’s not in the cards. Here’s how I’d see it playing out:

No. 21 Clemson, the second-highest ACC team, replaces Florida State in the Orange Bowl. No. 5 Alabama, as the highest-ranked team from among the Big Ten, SEC and Notre Dame, would be the Tigers’ opponent.

No. 5 Oregon, the hypothetical Pac-12 champ, goes to the Fiesta Bowl; No. 7 TCU, the hypothetical Big 12 champ, goes to the Cotton Bowl; and No. 23 East Carolina, the highest-ranked Group of 5 champ, makes most sense in the Peach Bowl.

That leaves you with three spots for No. 8/Big Ten champ Michigan State, No. 9 Kansas State and No. 10 Notre Dame. The Spartans wouldn’t go to Arizona for a rematch with Oregon, nor would K-State go to Dallas for an all-Big 12 game. So I’d put the Spartans in the Cotton, the Wildcats in the Fiesta and the Irish in the Peach.


Stewart, What does East Carolina need to do to remain the pick for the Group of 5? Win out? And what are the chances Marshall or Colorado State jumps ahead of them?

— Molly Pierce, Greenville, North Carolina

Yep, win out. Long made it abundantly clear how little respect the committee has for Marshall’s schedule. The Herd aren’t passing the Pirates. CSU, or even Boise, would have a better case than Marshall but I don’t know why either would move ahead of a one-loss East Carolina team. I suppose you might be a little nervous if both Virginia Tech and North Carolina finish worse in the ACC than the team Colorado State beat, Boston College. I’d be curious to know just how far out of the top 25 the Rams were. But their last four opponents are San Jose State, Hawaii, New Mexico and Air Force. Their overall schedule will go down, not up.

If you’re in the SEC, what’s stopping you from an all-FCS non-conference schedule? No downside perceptible. Notre Dame had the #1 toughest schedule going into the fall, lost on a 50-50 call and now the Irish are toast. Why do victories over one-loss teams count more in the SEC? Two-loss SEC teams better drop like a rock.

— David Shearon, location unknown

So you’d like to see Notre Dame given more credit for beating teams like Michigan and North Carolina because they looked tough coming into the year and maybe downgrade the SEC for beating teams like Kansas State and West Virginia that have turned out to be much better than we expected. Got it.

I’m already bracing for six weeks of “SEC bias” cries every time these rankings come out, but as I said on Twitter recently, the best way to eradicate SEC bias is to beat its best teams. This season, Kansas State, West Virginia, Clemson, Wisconsin and Boise all had chances. If even a couple of them win, the rankings would look a lot different.

Stewart, I agree that the officials botched the interception in the Ohio State-Penn State game. However, that was possibly the worst officiated game I have ever seen with bad calls favoring both teams. Has officiating gone downhill, or has the introduction of so many high-def, multi-angle views just led us to recognize more mistakes that were previously going unnoticed?

— Josh, Grove City, Ohio

First, let’s distinguish between the blown replay review of the interception as opposed to bad on-field calls. The Big Ten admitted after the fact that a technology malfunction prevented the replay booth from properly ruling on the interception. The feeds they get from the TV production truck went down and they had access to only one overhead camera angle. It’s 2014! Pull out a phone or an iPad and stream the ABC broadcast, which was showing all the necessary replays. Or, you know, look up at the giant video board in the stadium. These games are too important to too many people to blame something on “feeds.”


As for officiating in general, there’s no logical reason it would have gotten worse. Every conference as well as the NCAA is devoting more time and resources than ever before to training and evaluating officials. So it’s likely that enhanced TV broadcasts have exposed more blunders. Twenty years ago the major networks didn’t have nearly as many cameras at a game, and we were still watching many games on cheaply produced local telecasts. So there’s more scrutiny than ever. I just wish officiating coordinators would exercise a little more common sense sometimes in establishing their protocol. Why are some plays reviewable and not others? If something’s wrong, correct it, end of story.

What has happened to Oklahoma State’s once-vaunted offense? Did injuries and attrition at QB and the O-line finally catch up to Mike Gundy? Does he need to send OC Mike Yurcich back to Shippensburg State? What gives?

I’m not worried yet about some deep-seated breakdown in the Oklahoma State offense. The Cowboys won 10 games and averaged 39 points per contest just last season and beat a top-10 Baylor team 49-17. But eight starters from that unit graduated or turned pro, including quarterback Clint Chelf. His heir apparent, Wes Lunt, transferred to Illinois. The Cowboys’ other experienced QB, J.W. Walsh, went down with injury early this season. This was likely to be a rebuilding year for Oklahoma State even if they did have Walsh, much less with Daxx Garman. Just imagine where they’d be if the electric Tyreek Hill hadn’t come on the scene.

Mind you, I did find it strange that Gundy essentially picked Yurcich out of a phone book when Todd Monken left two years ago. And maybe Gundy winds up scapegoating him at the end of the year. I just don’t think this season is a fair assessment. Remember, with Walsh at the helm, Oklahoma State took Florida State to the wire in Week 1. It then scored at least 37 points in each of its next four games, albeit against light competition. It’s struggling now that the schedule’s gotten harder, but the angst in Stillwater, while understandable, seems like a tad bit of an overreaction given the circumstances.

Do you think if Minnesota had beaten Southern Miss., UAB, South Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn, they would have gone from unranked to No. 1? Or is there an SEC bias?

— Doug, Grand Junction, Colorado

Please, treat this fast-spreading epidemic with the appropriate level of seriousness. It’s !!!SEC BIAS!!!

In all seriousness, I can’t answer such a far-fetched hypothetical.

One would think Dave Brandon has to be somewhat concerned about his job security. A lot has been written about certain coaches being unlikely to go to Michigan because they would not want to work for an AD who involves himself so much in coaching responsibilities. Do you think Brandon would be willing to give the next coach (provided Brandon has enough time left to actually hire the next coach) total control/authority as a means of making a big enough hire?

— John Stoicoff, Lindale, Georgia


Dave Brandon has done many things to engender bad will during his time at Michigan, from raising ticket prices and turning a Michigan Stadium game day into a rock concert to running off longtime athletic department employees to botching the Shane Morris situation and, apparently, sending insulting e-mail responses to Wolverines fans, but the stuff about meddling with coaches has been largely rumor mill material to this point. In fact, shortly after the Morris fiasco, as calls for Brandon’s head started escalating, every head coach in the Michigan athletic department signed a letter of support on his behalf.

To be honest I’ve been largely puzzled by Michigan fans’ obsession with Brandon, who, as a Twitter follower put it Tuesday, is “too arrogant for UM, and we’re pretty damn arrogant.” If the Wolverines were 7-1 no one would give a hoot about the AD’s arrogance. It does seem like he’s not long for the job, but it would be impractical at this point to fire him and have an interim AD hire the next coach. Prospective candidates may be more turned off by the uncertainty over his job security than his personality, but it’s still one of the most prestigious jobs in the country. Short of dream candidate Jim Harbaugh, who I don’t see returning to college, more coaches will be trying to convince Brandon to hire them rather than him trying to convince them to come.

Stewart, why aren’t any of the writers or pollsters remembering we’re in a year where a non-SEC team won the national championship and where SEC teams like Alabama and Auburn scheduled less difficult non-conference games than the non-SEC schools? I thought this year, for once, the SEC brand wouldn’t push teams ahead of schools from conferences like the Pac-12. What else can be said but SEC/East Coast bias reigns in college football.

— Matt St. Helens, Oregon

East Coast bias is unintentional, but real. People aren’t watching Arizona State games that end at 2:30 in the morning. As for !!!SEC BIAS!!! — not sure why you singled out a pair of teams that scheduled West Virginia and Kansas State, both of whom played in BCS bowls since 2011. I accuse you of !!!ANTI-ALABAMA BIAS!!!

TCU and Utah are both in their third season in a Power Five conference and are No. 7 and No. 17, respectively, in the committee’s rankings. Some will argue they needed two recruiting classes to add depth and adjust to stronger week-to-week competition. I posit that they are both solid, well-coached programs that had coincidental tenuous QB situations (Casey Paschal and Jordan Wynn) that led to their downfalls the first two years in their new leagues. What’s your take on their reemergence this season?

— Jack Murphy, Taipei, Taiwan

They’re not exactly parallel. Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, TCU the Big 12 in 2012. And both theories are correct. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham told me recently that it took three recruiting classes for his program to achieve Pac-12 caliber depth. But it’s also no secret that Utah has struggled at quarterback ever since Wynn started suffering from his eventual career-ending injuries four years ago. The Utes likely would have won a few more conference games the past couple of years with better quarterback play, but it’s not like Travis Wilson has been Marcus Mariota this year. Utah is winning with its running game and defense.

With TCU, I don’t think talent was as much of an issue. Gary Patterson recruits to fit his system. Patterson’s big epiphany was realizing you can’t depend solely on your defense when you have to face the caliber of opposing offenses week-in, week-out that you see in the Big 12. So he installed his own Air Raid attack this year. But while Paschal’s demise certainly hurt a couple of years ago, it turns out that his heir apparent was sitting there all along. I’ve rarely seen a quarterback make such a dramatic improvement as Trevone Boykin has this year, but clearly the new TCU offense fits him much better than the old one. Unlike Utah, he’s the single biggest reason the Horned Frogs are now competing at the top of the conference.

Stewart, Did you and the rest of the sportswriters really have to leapfrog LSU over Nebraska this week? Couldn’t you guys wait a couple of weeks until the Huskers lose in Madison. Why does the national press hate us or should I say have no respect for our program. Are we a bunch of arrogant cheaters? We must be as no one in the national press seems to have much regard for our program.


— RJ Wallis, Wenatchee, Washington

Yep, every sportswriter in the country got together this summer and decided to start hating Nebraska.

It was also in that same meeting that we devised !!!SEC BIAS!!!

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for 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