Forward Pass: Will Iowa, UNC get chance vs. college football’s blue bloods?
College football’s postseason is in many ways the anti-March Madness. Whereas hoops fans live for the next Butler or George Mason, football fans demand an annual diet of Alabama/Ohio State/USC/Florida State — and almost without failure they get it.
The sport has not seen a school win its first-ever national championship since Florida did it nearly 20 years ago.
But heading into the final weekend of the 2015 regular season, a few non-traditional powers remain very much alive. While blue blood Oklahoma is the first team in and ultra-blue blood Alabama is heavily favored to join the Sooners, Saturday’s two most intriguing conference title games involve 12-0 Iowa, which last finished a season in the top four in 1960, and 11-1 North Carolina, which hasn’t even finished in the Top 25 since 1997.
If No. 4 Iowa beats No. 5 Michigan State (11-1) in Indianapolis, the Hawkeyes will be heading to Dallas or Miami, and fans from coast to coast are lapping up this potential Cinderella story.
Oh, who are we kidding? This is football. A lot of people probably want to see them lose by 30, because, well … WHO HAVE THEY PLAYED???!!!!
Iowa, through no fault of its own, has become a poster of sorts for the sport’s largely misguided movement toward mega-sized conferences. Besides Iowa, the Big Ten boasted three other Top 10 teams in last week’s committee rankings — Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan — but they’re all in the opposite division. Iowa did not play any of them. In fact, in 12 games, the Hawkeyes managed to play just three teams that finished with winning records (10-2 Northwestern, 9-3 Wisconsin and 8-4 Pittsburgh).
But it’s not like Iowa has struggled against those inferior opponents. Thanks to a strong rushing game, solid quarterback (C.J. Beathard) and stout defense, no team has put a true scare in the Hawkeyes since early in the season.
Even the committee needed to be sold at first, with then 8-0 Iowa checking in at No. 9 in the first rankings Nov. 3 before jumping to No. 5.
"The week before we were ninth and described as mundane," longtime Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Sunday. "The next week we jumped four spots and we were described as consistent. We’ll take that as a compliment."
If the Hawkeyes cap off a 13-0 season by handling a Top 5 Michigan State team there will be little doubt they’re one of the four best teams.
Oh, who are we kidding? Sagarin has Iowa ranked No. 14 (while playing his 62nd-toughest schedule.) Football Outsiders’ F/+ efficiency rankings list the Hawkeyes 25th. Few outside of its own state will truly take Iowa seriously unless they get to the playoff and beat a true blue blood.
At least Iowa’s playoff path is straightforward. The Tar Heels go into Saturday’s ACC title game on an 11-game winning streak and still with no certainty it will rise into the top four even if it beats consensus No. 1 Clemson (12-0). Once again, it’s a schedule issue. Never mind that UNC lost its opener to 3-9 South Carolina; it’s more the two FCS opponents and zero Top 25 foes to this point that had the Tar Heels all the way down at No. 14 in last week’s committee rankings.
Even if they move up a few spots this week following a 45-34 rout of 7-5 NC State, it’s still going to be quite the jump from there to the top four, whereas potential Pac-12 champ Stanford (10-2) and defending champ Ohio State (10-1) will already be hovering.
"If we beat the consensus No. 1 team in the country, yes, I believe our team is deserving" of a playoff spot, coach Larry Fedora said Sunday.
The raw numbers say UNC is lethal on offense, ranking second only to Baylor in yards per play (7.46), and decent on defense (40th). But the power ratings, which take into account strength of opponents, don’t like the Tar Heels — 13th in Sagarin, 22nd in F/+ — any more than they do Iowa.
There’s also another factor possibly at play here — we simply don’t trust teams outside the traditional football hierarchy.
"People could make that argument, that the committee will go with the ones that are the household football name, that everyone knows," said Fedora. "But I think that’s the great thing about this playoff — anyone can get in it, and anyone can win it."
That’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament. But as long as football’s bracket is only four teams, fans will be forever wary of handing over a precious berth to someone they think is potentially undeserving. It’s a Catch 22. The only way those teams can prove otherwise is to be given that chance.
LOOK AT BOB STOOPS & OU NOW
We still have to wait a week for the official edict from the committee, but Big 12 champ Oklahoma (11-1) is going to the playoff. The lesson, both for Sooners fans and for the Big 12 as a whole, should simply be: “Don’t panic.”
On Sunday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby recounted the angst that hovered over the conference’s entire offseason after co-champs Baylor and TCU missed out on last year’s field. Endless months of debate followed over the widely held perception that the conference would continue suffering if it did not adopt a conference championship — the all-important “13th data point” — ASAP.
But a regularly scheduled meeting of the league’s athletic directors in New York the day after last year’s announcement hardly took on a crisis-mode feel.
“There really wasn’t much panic,” Bowlsby told FOX Sports. “There was angst, obviously, but there was no knee-jerk reaction … We all agreed one year was not a trend.”
A year later, the very thing that may have cost the Big 12 a spot last year worked in its favor this year. After routing 10-1 Oklahoma State in a de facto league championship game, the third-ranked Sooners can kick their feet up Saturday and watch Clemson, Alabama, Iowa and Michigan State sweat out an extra game.
How ridiculous would it be if OU, which just beat three consecutive Top 20 conference foes and finished alone in first after a round-robin schedule, had to turn around and play Baylor or TCU again?
Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione could have panicked as well. After Bob Stoops’ 2014 Sooners finished a disappointing 8-5 campaign with a humiliating bowl blowout to Clemson, plenty of angry fans and columnists wanted the school to part ways with the winningest coach in school history. That was never remotely a possibility, but Castiglione told me on a visit to campus last spring he found the bowl game confounding. “It just didn’t look like Oklahoma,” he said.
Ultimately, he trusted his 17-year head coach’s decisions to reinvent his coaching staff, most notably hiring a 31-year-old offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, to bring the Air Raid back to Norman. The unanticipated arrival a year earlier of a transfer quarterback from Texas Tech would also prove fortuitous.
Under Riley’s tutelage, Baker Mayfield emerged as this season’s top-rated passer and perhaps just as importantly, a leader with swagger. His fellow coordinator, Mike Stoops, who’s taken no shortage of heat since returning to OU four years ago, has rebounded to produce the nation’s No. 11 defense.
“No one knows they’re going to win it back in January or the start of September,” Bob Stoops said Saturday night, “but I knew we had a good football team, better than what people thought.”
On Saturday night, Stoops hoisted the Big 12 trophy for a remarkable ninth time in 17 seasons. But it’s also been 15 years since his breakout national championship and seven years since OU last played for one.
Come Dec. 31, he’ll get another chance to end both droughts.
GROWING PAINS FOR BOWL SEASON
On Saturday, college football’s postseason finally reached a long-dreaded but long-inevitable milestone. There will not be enough 6-6 teams to fill the 80 spots in this season’s 40 bowl games. At least two, and as many five 5-7 teams will find out this weekend they’re going to play another game after all. Kansas State, Georgia State and South Alabama are the lone remaining six-win possibilities.
Seeing this likelihood coming, I began making calls several weeks ago to find out how exactly this process would play out. It quickly became apparent that literally no one involved had any idea. Three years ago, the NCAA formally adopted a contingency plan for this very scenario consisting of several steps, the last of which allows a 5-7 team that “achieved a top-five Academic Progress Rate in the Football Bowl Subdivision for the most recent reporting year.”
I followed up with the NCAA, which confirmed my interpretation that this specifically referred only to the top five APR schools in all of FBS — most recently Wisconsin, Northwestern, Duke, Michigan and Stanford — all of which happened to be eligible already. In fact, the NCAA emphasized that the 2012 bylaw was never intended to guarantee enough eligible teams.
Bowl organizers, of course, had a different interpretation, since that one would possibly cause one or more games to “go dark.” They claimed the intent all along was simply to rank the top five-win teams in order of APR score. This year that would be Nebraska (985), Missouri (976), K-State (976), Minnesota (975) and San Jose State (975).
The recently formed Football Oversight Committee — chaired by Bowlsby — has been tasked with sorting the whole thing out and will recommend a solution to the NCAA on Monday. It won’t likely be straightforward.
“The Board of Directors has been fairly consistent in saying they’d like to see some form of APR component applied to the selection process, so we’ll try to put that in place,” said Bowlsby. “That doesn’t mean we’ll put them in rank order.”
Among the issues at hand: Which bowls get stuck with these teams? If a Big Ten-partner bowl has an opening, does it get first dibs on Nebraska? And how do you avoid sending a team like San Jose State clear across the country?
“We have to come up with a better policy,” said Bowlsby, “because we can’t be dealing with it on a yearly basis.”
The NCAA used to strictly control the number of bowls but will now certify nearly any community that’s willing to write a check. Seven have launched just in the last two years alone. Some on the conference side would gladly let a few go dark this year just to curb the trend, but that would infuriate organizers and in fact potentially lead to lawsuits.
“We really need to review the whole postseason football issue and making sure we’re doing what 2015 demands,” said the Football Bowl Association’s executive director, Wright Waters. “This issue will put it center of the conversation. We’ll have an opportunity to talk with all the stakeholders and come out if it with a better postseason.”
Just not this postseason.
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.
Obviously, this lineup is based on the following assumptions: Clemson beats North Carolina, Michigan State beats Iowa, Alabama beats Florida, Stanford beats USC and Houston beats Temple (I waffled yet again).
Let’s play it out from there.
First of all, 12-1 Iowa would likely need to remain above 11-1 Ohio State in the final committee rankings. That’s no certainty. The Rose Bowl technically has some flexibility in which team it chooses to replace one of its champions, but chairman Scott Jenkins said in an e-mail Sunday it will likely heed the committee’s order.
“The strong presumption is that we will select the next-highest CFP ranked team in that conference,” said Jenkins. “Only in extraordinary situations will we deviate from that presumption.”
If Iowa remains above the Buckeyes, the committee would be hard-pressed to pass up an Ohio State-Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl. The two powers last faced each other in the same bowl 10 years ago. That also pits the two highest-ranked available teams, while Florida State makes an easy trip to Atlanta, where it has a strong alumni base, to face a fun-to-watch Houston team.
As for the Sugar Bowl, Ole Miss (9-3), thanks to its decisive Egg Bowl victory, appears likely to finish above sagging Florida as the SEC’s No. 2 team. Meanwhile, the Big 12 appears to be the lone conference using its conference standings to slot its own contract bowl, and thanks to a convoluted tiebreaker I cannot begin to explain, its Sugar Bowl rep will be Baylor (9-2) if the Bears beat Texas on Saturday.
I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …
New Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente. Succeeding Frank Beamer is no small chore, but Fuente just did something even harder — resurrect decrepit Memphis — and he’ll have longtime Beamer DC Bud Foster to help ease the transition.
New Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. Kudos to Iowa State for landing one of the profession’s brightest stars. Campbell, 36, went 35-15 in four-plus seasons at Toledo, the highest clip of any Rockets coach since Nick Saban in 1990.
Definitely-not new USC coach Clay Helton. We wish the best for the Trojans’ elevated leader; unfortunately, we suspect that hiring guru Pat Haden just sentenced the Trojans to another three years of 9-4.
Sort-of new Illinois coach Bill Cubit. In an unusual move, Illinois, which currently has both an interim chancellor and an interim AD, gave its interim coach a two-year deal to stay. And they’re a paying him a MAC-level salary of $1.2 million.
Everyone else. Now we wait on Georgia, Miami, Missouri, Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse, Rutgers and other inevitable dominoes, and along with them likely movers Tom Herman, Matt Rhule, Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart.
HERE’S TO YOU, MARK RICHT
On Sunday I wrote about LSU’s near-firing of Les Miles, which I vehemently disagreed with, and Georgia’s subsequent ouster of 15-year coach Mark Richt, which I cannot argue against given the program’s recent trajectory.
Now I’d like to step away from discussing Richt as a name with a record attached to it and tell you a little bit about Richt as a human being.
My first season as a full-time national beat writer was 2002, and one of the first stories I wrote that preseason involved a trip to Georgia. Richt treated me like a 46-year-old veteran, not a 26-year-old he’d probably never heard of. I interviewed him many more times from there. Several years ago, I won an FWAA writing award, an honor in my industry but hardly the Oscars. I was stunned to receive a signed congratulatory letter a few weeks later on UGA stationary.
In a win-at-all-costs profession, Richt stuck to his principles, dismissing players that went on to become valuable contributors elsewhere (including for SEC rivals) and adhering to the university’s own stricter policies. He did not oversign recruiting classes like so many others in his conference.
The fact that Richt is so likeable and admired helped him last as long as he did. Other SEC schools (cough, LSU, cough) would have run him off after his 8-5/6-7 dip in 2009-10. Richt got a reprieve and went to the next two SEC title games, but a second slump — not to mention near-constant staff churn — was too much to overcome.
His tenure as Georgia’s football coach may be over, but I have no doubt he’ll continue finding ways to touch lives.
ON TO NEXT WEEKEND
Three games we’re most excited for:
–Clemson vs. North Carolina (Saturday, 8 ET): For the first time in its 11-year existence, the ACC championship game is must-see TV. That starts with the clash between star QBs Deshaun Watson and Marquise Williams.
–Iowa vs. Michigan State (Saturday, 8 ET, FOX): Mark Dantonio is moving up every list of the sport’s top coaches. Ferentz, who once made some idiot writer’s list of worst coaches, will etch his own legacy with a victory.
–Stanford vs. USC (Saturday, 7:45 ET): Stanford still holds slight playoff hopes, as does Christian McCaffrey for the Heisman, while interim coach Clay Helton could lead the four-loss Trojans to an improbable Rose Bowl.
Three games you shouldn’t miss:
–Temple at Houston (Saturday, Noon ET): The first-ever AAC championship game pits dynamic Cougars QB Greg Ward Jr. against Owls All-American LB Tyler Matakevich. The winner will go to a New Year’s Six bowl.
–Texas at Baylor (Saturday, Noon ET): Most chalked up Baylor’s very un-Baylor performance against TCU to the weather, but it’s also down to a third-string quarterback. Could the 4-7 ’Horns finish off with a big upset?
–Alabama vs. Florida (Saturday, 4 ET): You should probably watch given the playoff implications, but it will not be pretty.
One under-the-radar gem:
–Southern Miss at Western Kentucky (Saturday, Noon ET): Todd Monken has lifted the Eagles from a winless 2012 season to their first C-USA title game since 2011. Hilltoppers QB Brandon Doughty is always fun to watch.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.