Mailbag: FSU’s red flags, Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame future, Georgia, more

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Let me just start by saying I am NOT a baseball fan. I was a huge one growing up, and I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the 1990 world champion Cincinnati Reds, but I lost interest sometime in early adulthood.

Suddenly spending three hours watching grown men in pajamas walk in and out of the batter’s box to scratch themselves didn’t seem as riveting.

But I do know enough about the sport to make a profound baseball analogy in the following answer.

Stewart, I’ve been rooting for whoever has played FSU since the start of the season, but my objective-minded self can’t erase the ‘Noles’ undefeated status, however shaky that may be. If the current committee was picking only two teams — i.e. the BCS days — do you think they would still have FSU No. 3?

— JM Riley, Starkville, Mississippi

What a great question.

The ongoing argument over Florida State has become college football’s version of “Moneyball.” The selection committee and certain pundits like myself are playing the role of Billy Beane and the “FSU just keeps finding ways to win” crowd is not unlike the old-timer scouts who resisted Beane’s unorthodox methods. To me, it’s just common sense to look beyond the surface of a won-loss record and view the ‘Noles’ repeated inability to dominate their largely mediocre competition as a sign that they’re just not that great. Much like the baseball sabermetrics crowd considers it archaic to evaluate pitchers based on simplistic and/or outdated metrics like W-L and ERA.


But I also understand the blowback, which I’ve found is particularly pronounced among former coaches and players now working in the media. They more than anyone find it reprehensible that you could win all your games and be ranked below someone who lost. And they probably view eggheads like me much the same way many baseball lifers view the “stats geeks.” But hey, the stats geeks say FSU is not even a top-four team much less No. 1. Maybe we’re being generous.

And yet I can’t say with certainty either myself or the committee would view the ‘Noles the same way if this were still the BCS. In fact, I fell on the other side of a very similar case just last season. Remember the great debate heading into Championship Saturday about whether a one-loss SEC champ, Auburn, should jump above an undefeated Ohio State team that played a weak schedule? Michigan State ultimately rendered the subject moot, but going in I was squarely in the “undefeated trumps everything” camp. Now I look back and shudder. I watched in person a Devin Gardner-led Michigan offense roll up 603 yards on Ohio State’s defense and just chalked it up as “crazy things happen in rivalries.”

But I learned my lesson: Don’t ignore red flags. And this year’s FSU team puts up another one every week. If you need a last-second field goal to beat Boston College, you’re probably not going to win the national championship. It only took nearly 80 years of polls and a brand new system to realize, you know what? Undefeated probably shouldn’t be the end-all be-all in a sport where teams from different conferences play drastically different schedules. FSU is not pulling off all those comebacks because “that’s what champions do.” It’s because the teams they’re playing aren’t good enough to put them away.

But of course, with four spots, FSU will still have a chance to get in there and prove me right or wrong. Would I feel as confident saying all this if we were still picking just two teams? Honestly … probably not. I’m evolving with the system. Feel free to join me.

What are your thoughts on Georgia’s playoff potential? Can they get in with wins over Georgia Tech and then Alabama in the SEC Championship Game? And, if so, does Ole Miss need to beat Mississippi State or would the Dawgs jump an 11-1 MSU team?

— Bob, Atlanta

It’s hard for me to fathom that just three weeks after Florida ran for 418 yards on Georgia, we’re talking about the Dawgs as a possible playoff team. But given the fact they’re already back in the committee’s top 10, blew out a top-15 Auburn team and have a chance to add two more big wins, I suppose we have to. I can’t imagine the committee would overlook the fact Georgia not only has two losses but those losses were to a 6-5 South Carolina team and 6-4 Florida. For all the grief Ohio State takes for its Virginia Tech loss, Georgia basically lost the same game twice. However, the Dawgs have a chance to finish the season with wins over four current ranked teams and would be champion of the nation’s most highly regarded conference.

If Oregon, FSU, Ohio State and either Baylor or TCU win out, the most likely scenario here is that the SEC doesn’t place a team in the playoff. The committee is ranking teams, not conferences, and they’re placing emphasis on conference champs. Those conferences’ champs would all have better cases than the Dawgs. But if one or more of those fall, then the committee has a tougher decision, because two-loss Georgia would stack up favorably with anyone else’s two-loss champ. And I do think the Dawgs would get dibs over 11-1 Mississippi State both because of its championship and because of the Alabama win.

All of that will of course be moot if Missouri beats Arkansas this weekend.

I’m a big Notre Dame fan and have a few questions for you. What do you think Brian Kelly’s future is at Notre Dame? Do you think he’s reached a plateau in South Bend and he’ll bolt for the NFL or another high-profile college program like Florida? I think that he has rejuvenated the program quite a bit but he also realizes Notre Dame will only go so far.

— Bobby, Orange County, California


It does seem like Kelly’s been particularly frustrated this season. I was there in August and he was particularly excited about this year’s offense. But then the academic dishonesty suspensions took out several of his best players, and the prolonged disciplinary process and accompanying uncertainty took a toll. Then Everett Golson, the quarterback he was banking on so heavily, turned into a self-destructive turnover machine. And now his defense is just decimated by injuries. Notre Dame may never have been a playoff-caliber team, but Kelly presumably envisioned something better than another 8-4 or possibly 7-5 season. And you can see it in his postgame press conferences.

Kelly may well look elsewhere. Notre Dame is arguably an even harder job today than it was when he got there due to the ACC scheduling alliance and a new more merit-based postseason system. He’s a name I’ve long heard might be in the mix at Florida, but I don’t see him going there. He’d just be trading one set of outsized expectations for another. The NFL piqued his interest enough two years ago to take a serious look at the Philadelphia Eagles’ job, and while he told me before the season that he decided afterward he wants to remain in college, circumstances change. If he leaves Notre Dame, the NFL would be his logical next challenge. The question is whether the NFL is as interested in him after two mediocre seasons since that 2012 BCS championship game run.

Keep in mind, very few key contributors from this year’s team will graduate, and some of the suspended guys may come back, so he’ll have a very good roster if he returns. That may be his best bet.

Stewart, I have been leaving many hints with the wife, I hope she picks up on the fact that I want "The Thinking Fan’s guide to the College Football Playoff" for Christmas. If Georgia Tech beats Georgia and Florida State, is there any way they could sneak into the final four or are they too far back?

— David, Augusta, Georgia

Can you ask her to get it for you for Thanksgiving? Christmas leaves you only six days of reading time before the playoff begins.

That may be more realistic than the Jackets making the playoff.

I don’t have the capability to research this kind of thing, but scoring three total points in a double-overtime game has to be a first, right? Any chance Frank Beamer makes it to 2015? I was joking to my dad that if you can prove you drove round trip to Winston-Salem and stayed the whole game, you should be given free season tickets next year.

— James H., Blacksburg, Virginia


It is indeed a first, though FAU managed to go scoreless in a 3-0 single-overtime loss to Arkansas State back in 2005. And I’d argue that any Hokie fan who did in fact endure that monstrosity in person should seek therapy, because it’s going to take a long time to process that level of horror.

I don’t know whether Beamer will be back, but I do believe it will be his decision. It’s a sad situation, for sure, but one I might have predicted back when he hired Scot Loeffler as his offensive coordinator two years ago. Auburn fans know what I’m talking about. Presumably Beamer will have to make another staff change this offseason if he’s still calling the shots. That much is obvious.

But since even before the season, Beamer has been looking toward next season’s team as potentially special. He’d surely like to go out on a high note. In order to ensure that, he really needs to beat Virginia this week. Losing to the Cavs for the first time in a decade and missing a bowl for the first time in 21 years would make for a very long offseason. Remember, as miserable as it seems in Blacksburg right now, this team did beat both 10-1 Ohio State and 8-3 Duke. There’s talent on hand. The question is whether Beamer is still capable of maximizing it. I think so, but he needs a better offensive coordinator, an explosive running back and better injury luck.

Stewart, was turning down tickets to a rain-soaked Oklahoma vs. Kansas game and missing the greatest rushing performance in FBS history firsthand the biggest mistake of my life?

— Josh, Mustang, Oklahoma

Woo, that’s pretty bad. Just don’t tell me you were at the Virginia Tech-Wake game instead.

Hi Stewart, do you think P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan should be getting more national buzz and some national coach of the year consideration? They have already won eight games this year after winning just one last year. And the Broncos’ only losses on the year are in overtime to Toledo and Purdue and Virginia Tech. It seems like a Big Ten school would be wise to pick him up next year.

— Matt, Raleigh, North Carolina


I’ve found that one of the unfortunate consequences of playoff mania is that smaller conferences like the MAC are just getting completely ignored, especially since they don’t have a BCS-buster possibility like Northern Illinois the last couple of years. I’ve seen some cursory references to #MACtion on Tuesday nights, but for the most part that conference and most of the other Group of Five leagues might as well be FCS conferences for the amount of attention they’re getting. So Western Michigan’s rise has gone completely unnoticed. But if the Broncos knock off NIU this week and if Toledo loses to Eastern Michigan, they’ll go from 1-11 to the MAC championship game.

Fleck has been a subject of curiosity since he took over there last year as a largely unknown 32-year-old with only a few years’ experience as a position coach under his belt, including three seasons working for Greg Schiano at Rutgers and the Bucs. He’s clearly an upward mover and will get a bigger job soon. But one reason the Big Ten finds itself in its current rut is the quality of its coaches, which I blame in part for the lazy tendency to just hire whichever hot new MAC coach comes on the scene (Tim Beckman, Darrell Hazell). Fleck may well buck that trend — and there could be a whole lot of Big Ten schools with openings here soon (Michigan, Indiana, Illinois) — but I’d be hesitant to hire a coach in his early 30s off of one good season.

Stewart, I’m a bit puzzled by all the criticism of SEC schools for playing a "cupcake" in November. Why the outrage over the order in which non-conference games are played? I can see the argument for more conference games or a ban on FCS opponents, but order? If anything this helps the SEC’s television partners by giving them some high-quality games in September when other teams are playing cupcakes.

— Jason Roberts, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

SEC schools get that criticism because of the perception they’re taking an easier path than everyone else or that they’re gaming the system. It may be both, but I’ve long said that until proven otherwise, the league’s scheduling philosophy is genius. Almost everyone in the country plays FCS teams. SEC schools just play theirs later in the season to help break up the grind of conference play. More importantly, though, they shift key conference games early in the season, which helps inflate early perceptions of teams. Case in point: Texas A&M’s season-opening upset of South Carolina, a game that kept on giving in the polls until the Aggies simply lost too many games.

No SEC teams suffered any consequences in this week’s committee rankings for playing their mid-November glorified byes (other than the rash of injuries Alabama inexplicably suffered against Charleston Southern). So, if it’s working, why change?

"Now watch Georgia Tech win the thing." (August 27, 2014). Well done, good sir! You are the only one who has ever figured out the ACC Coastal.

— Regan Gassaway, Charleston, South Carolina

Thanks. It seems fitting that profound insight came in the form of a throwaway line.

Stewart: Virtually every bowl projection I’ve seen, regardless of the outlet, places the Group of Five’s New Years selection in the Peach Bowl. Since I see nothing in the selection procedures relegating the Peach Bowl to the last pick, what’s the reason for this universally presumed pairing?

— Steven, Stuart, Florida

The committee decides which teams go to which of those three non-contract bowls (Fiesta, Cotton and Peach), with geographic proximity one of the primary factors. So the reason you’re seeing that is first East Carolina, and now Marshall, have been the Group of 5 teams most commonly projected.

But as we found out Tuesday night, the committee is actually highest on 9-2 Boise State, as its “strength of schedule is just far and away [stronger] than Marshall’s.” If that holds up I’d expect them to place the Broncos in one of the two more western bowls, especially since they’ve already played in the Georgia Dome this season. I’ve adjusted my own bowl projections accordingly.

Stewart, While there may or may not be an SEC bias, there clearly is an "early season" bias. That is the only explanation for Mississippi State being ranked over TCU, Ohio State and Baylor. You have been a proponent for one end-of-the season ranking — sounds like the topic for another book.

— Dave, West Chester, Pennsylvania

When Jeff Long said Tuesday night the committee likes Mississippi State in part because it beat teams that they used to have ranked, it pretty much confirmed all my worst fears about weekly rankings. They may in theory be starting from scratch each week, but in reality, every previous ranking will affect the final one.

That being said, I’m now conflicted about the rankings. This Mailbag would be a whole lot shorter without them.

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