Mailbag: Why Missouri’s boycott may be a transformative moment

We’ll get to playoff rankings, playoff ranking complaints and playoff ranking scenarios in a moment, but first, let’s delve into a college football-related story with ramifications far beyond a bracket.

Hypothetically (we know how much you love hypotheticals), let’s pretend Tim Wolfe didn’t step down and Mizzou refused to play Saturday. Are scholarship athletes legally required to participate? Would any university and/or the NCAA have any legal authority to force a team to take the field? If not, couldn’t another team refuse to play unless they get paid?

— Andew Zucker, Sandusky, Ohio

Don’t worry, the only truly annoying hypothetical I keep hearing in regards to the Mizzou story is: "Do you think they still would have done this if they were 9-0?" Does it matter? They aren’t 9-0.

Missouri protests

As for your hypothetical, it’s become apparent from the various after-the-fact comments by Gary Pinkel, AD Mack Rhoades and the few Tigers players who’ve spoken to the media (mostly anonymously) that the situation never would have escalated to that. The team may not have felt strongly one way or the other specifically about the president resigning. It’s more that they wanted to show solidarity with Jonathan Butler and the protesting students — and use their platform to make a statement about the racial issues on their campus.

And it worked. The mere threat of a possible game cancellation and the instant national publicity that threat generated made a whole lot of people — including the now-deposed president — take the students’ movement more seriously. Whether you agree or disagree with their action, there’s no denying its potential to be a transformative moment for college athletes around the country.

But to answer your question, no, I don’t believe you can force someone to play a football game — which is why the players held so much power. The lone recourse would be dismissals or scholarship removals — which Pinkel could have justified if he considered their actions to be insubordination — but realistically, he couldn’t do that to the entire team. He’s receiving widespread praise, deservedly, for backing his players, but he may not have had a choice regardless.

If there’s another boycott in the near future, though, I doubt it will be over "getting paid." In general, it’s been my observation that adults in cubicles are much more passionate and perturbed about pay-for-play than most football players themselves. Most really enjoy playing college football and aren’t inclined to meddle with that experience. It’s going to take a particularly extreme situation — like the Grambling boycott in 2013 over decrepit conditions — to cause a group of football players to voluntarily deprive themselves of a playing opportunity. Or it’s going to be another hot-button social cause.

Hi, Stewart. Please explain to me why No. 8 Oklahoma State is not higher in the CFP rankings. Stanford has a loss, Baylor doesn’t even have a "best win" given its schedule. I can’t help but feel that there is a perpetual bias against Oklahoma State despite consistently producing quality teams that challenge for the Big 12 title. Has everyone already forgotten 2011 and the Fiesta Bowl?

— James G, Gilroy, Calif.

First I’ll give you the official committee explanation, as I interpreted it, and then I’ll give you the real reason.

In his teleconference after the rankings show, Jeff Long essentially said, "Congrats, Oklahoma State, on the great win over TCU, but that’s really all you’ve done so far." His exact quote: "That’s the first piece of real strength that we’ve seen from them." And technically he’s right. Like the other Big 12 contenders, Oklahoma State’s toughest games are only now starting. On top of that, the Cowboys weren’t exactly dominant against earlier mediocre foes like Texas (30-27), Kansas State (36-34) and West Virginia (33-26), whereas Baylor has demolished all comers. Hence, I assume, the “piece of strength” comment.

FOX FOUR AFTER WEEK 13

But if you’re going to play that card, how can you simultaneously justify putting No. 3 Ohio State so much higher? The Buckeyes have not beaten an opponent the caliber of TCU and putzed around earlier in the year against the likes of NIU and Indiana. Here’s Long’s explanation: “Ohio State, we watch them play, we analyze them. We think they have incredible talent. We think that that team is a team that hasn’t played their best yet. … Obviously they’ve had a little bit of inconsistency in the quarterback, and so we’re looking forward to evaluating them going forward with J.T. Barrett.”

As much as CFP folks like to brag that the committee is more enlightened than pollsters, they, like the rest of us, are susceptible to preseason perceptions and brand bias. Hence why, in committee parlance, undefeated Ohio State is a talented team whose best football is still ahead of it, while undefeated Oklahoma State had a good win last week but still has a lot to prove.

If the last playoff spot comes down to a one-loss Stanford and a one-loss Big 12 school, which do you like for that spot? I’d think Stanford because of a better non-conference schedule, but the Big 12 is has some pretty good teams.

— Bo Tanaka, Tracy, Calif.

It may depend on which Big 12 team you’re talking about. An 11-1 Oklahoma team with a decent non-conference win (at Tennessee) that beats three straight Top 15 foes over the next three weeks is going to have a better case than an 11-1 Baylor team with no non-conference resume that, say, loses its second-to-last game against TCU. Or an Oklahoma State team that did not do much to impress over its first eight games, then goes 3-1 down the stretch.

Here, again, a conference championship game would likely put Stanford over the top. Big 12 proponents love to point to the fact that their teams play nine conference games, but the Pac-12 champion plays 10. And in Stanford’s case, to finish 12-1 it would in fact go 10-0 in conference play. Throw in a win over a potential 10-1 Notre Dame team and the loss coming to a Top 25 Northwestern team — both in addition to those 10 conference games — and that’d be a heck of a résumé.

One-loss ‘Bama is ranked No. 2. Two-loss Michigan is ranked No. 14. Zero-loss Houston is ranked No. 22 What does this tell us about the playoff committee?

— Marshall Andrews (no city listed)

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That they’re not very impressed with Houston.

Stewart, most seem to think that the Big Ten is the fourth-best conference behind the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12. Now that the Big Ten has the most teams in the AP Top 25, will it finally get the respect it deserves?

— Adam, New York City

No question the Big Ten has proved a deeper conference than most expected this season. Ohio State and Michigan State were expected to be very good, Wisconsin about where it is, but never would I have predicted seeing Iowa in the Top 10, Michigan in the Top 15 and Northwestern in the Top 25 in November. The bottom tier of the conference — Purdue, Maryland, Rutgers, Minnesota — is most responsible for dragging down the conference’s overall reputation, but have you seen this year’s SEC East? Not even the staunchest SEC apologist could argue that division is any better than the Big Ten West.

In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to formally state for the record that this year’s SEC is the worst I’ve seen since pre-2006 (the first of the seven straight BCS title seasons). Seemingly half the teams are in some state of dysfunction. There may be more SEC fan bases that want their coach and/or at least one coordinator fired than don’t. The quarterback play is worse than I ever imagined it could be. And while Alabama and Florida have legit dominant defenses, it’s hard to play the “but we play great defense” card when the next-best after that belong to sub-.500 Vanderbilt and Missouri teams.

Even then, though, I’d be hard-pressed to say the Big Ten or any other league is definitively better. All we have to go by is the limited sample size from non-conference play, and the SEC at .619 still has the best record. Second, though? The Big Ten (.612).

As regards the Heisman, it seems you mentioned everyone and their mothers for contending teams in this wide-open race, but you leave out Baylor’s Corey Coleman? With a true freshman QB making his first start, Coleman goes out and grabs two TDs and 200+ yards. He could shatter the record for most TD catches with 20 already. He belongs in the conversation as much as Henry, Elliott and others.

— J. Kyle Ferguson, Arkadelphia, Ark.

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I’ve had him in my Top 5 for several weeks, so I’m not sure I’m the one you should be taking umbrage with, but I’ll address it anyway. For whatever reason, it’s been very hard for Big 12 receivers to get serious Heisman traction in the past. In 2007, Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree had a staggering 134 catches for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns (including the bowl game) and did not even crack the Top 10. Three years later, Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon had 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 TDs. I put both on my ballots, but neither made it to New York. Only last season did Alabama’s Amari Cooper break an 11-year finalist drought for receivers, and it took him catching a staggering 124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 TDs.

But Cooper had two things going for him the others didn’t: He played for the No. 1 team in the country at the time of the vote, and that team was Alabama.

For much the same reasons, Coleman has a realistic shot. Baylor isn’t the historic power of Alabama, but it’s one of the most respected programs in the sport today. It’s in the thick of playoff contention. But most notably of all, Coleman is already on every list, and he has not even yet played in a legit big game. If he puts up his usual big numbers and makes his customary highlight plays in upcoming games against No. 12 Oklahoma, No. 8 Oklahoma State and No. 15 TCU, he could well win the thing. But Baylor will need to win them.

I realize the Heisman is an individual award, but going forward, I believe the Heisman winner will almost always come from one of the four playoff teams because of the increased attention on those teams’ late-season games. And that’s going to be especially true for a non-quarterback.

What does Baker Mayfield have to do to get even a sniff of Heisman consideration? 70% pass completion rate, 28-4 TD to INT ratio, 3,000 yards the nation’s No. 2 QB rating. What gives?

— David Wallace, Maseru, Lesotho

If he goes out and beats Baylor this week, he’ll be smack-dab in the middle of it. As of now, though, I don’t think many around the country were paying close attention to Oklahoma’s past couple of games against Kansas and Iowa State. Apparently more so, however, in a tiny country in Southern Africa. Kudos to you, sir.

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Hi, Stew, longtime reader and fan. What’s your take on the legality (or lack thereof) of the Nebraska touchdown that beat Michigan State? The Big 10 office says the call was appropriate given the "bang-bang" nature of the play. And any thoughts on how/if video review should be upgraded/changed/fixed to avoid such controversies in the future?

— David R Butler, San Macros, Texas

It’s yet another piece of fodder in my nascent crusade to #BlowUpCollegeReplay. Note, the Big Ten did not come out and say the call was correct (it quite clearly was not) but instead clarified that illegal touching (pushing a receiver out of bounds) is a judgment call, and replay officials don’t have the authority to essentially re-officiate the call — which is correct. The only way they could have overturned the touchdown was if replay clearly established there was no contact at all. But just because this wasn’t a blatant error like Miami-Duke does not mean I’m content with the standard “they handled the mechanics appropriately” spin. If it’s abundantly clear to anyone with eyes that the call was wrong, then WHY CAN’T WE CORRECT IT?

The answer, unfortunately, is that no one wants to hurt the on-field refs’ feelings. That’s why replay protocol has always been very specific about what can and cannot be reviewed. And like most of you, I just kind of accepted those distinctions were necessary. Not anymore! It’s 2015. If you can correct a call, do it. There will still be certain caveats. They’re never going to nail every holding call, and pass interference is inherently subjective. But I want GPS trackers replacing chain gangs, I want laser detectors that know when a ball crosses the plane or a receiver’s foot is on the line, and if a guy runs out of bounds before catching a touchdown, and it’s plainly obvious no one forced him out — then someone in a command center with every imaginable camera angle should say so. This shouldn’t be that hard.

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Stewart, can the on-field success the AAC is having help it become a power conference in the future, or is that entirely an off-the-field, men-in-suits, hoarding-all-the-money situation? I ask because it’s just such a joke that three of the four ranked teams in the conference will end up playing a MAC or Sun Belt team in a third-tier bowl.

— Bob, North Wales, Penn.

Good question. It’s going to be a lot harder than it was only a few years ago. The old distinction of “BCS” and “non-BCS” arose out of what was originally a very specific definition — which conferences had automatic berths to certain bowl games and which ones did not. With time they became entire brands/stigmas, but technically AQ/non-AQ had a very narrow purpose. Conversely, the new “Power 5” — or "Autonomous Five," as they prefer to be called — are literally their own entity in the NCAA governance structure with special voting privileges.

Also, whereas the BCS did have a mechanism by which a conference like the Mountain West could eventually gain AQ status with its performance on the field, the new system is more decentralized. The New Year’s Six bowls themselves decide whom they want to partner with. At the time the playoff was conceived, none wanted to make a deal with the American. Even with that league’s success this season, I don’t believe it would be any different if it went to market today.

Ultimately, the marketplace dictates who gets the richest TV deals and the best bowl partners. If, over a period of many years, the AAC continues to turn out several ranked teams and in turn drives interest in its product, perhaps better bowls than Miami Beach (which the conference itself launched) or Boca Raton would want to partner with the league. End of day, though, bowls need to sell tickets, and this season only three AAC schools (Memphis, East Carolina and Temple) are averaging more than 40,000 in attendance.

Please remind everyone your preseason SEC pick, Texas A&M, is currently in sole possession of sixth place in the West and just got housed at home by a very bad Auburn team.

— Matt from Las Vegas

Why’d you stop there? I also had that “very bad Auburn team” in the playoff.

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.