Mailbag: Cupcakes are a sticky issue, and it’s not UNC’s only one

The selection-committee era has caused us to focus more than ever before on strength of schedule. But for all the discussion, clearly there’s no obvious scheduling model that gives you the best possible shot to reach the playoff.

Stewart: The committee makes a big deal about scheduling cupcakes (see: UNC), but it seems that Stanford going to the other extreme has ultimately hurt the two-loss Cardinal. If they had scheduled a cupcake instead of Northwestern, they would potentially be 12-1 Pac-12 champions with an out-of-conference win over Notre Dame and a lone two-point loss to 9-3 Oregon. Doesn’t that get them in the playoff?

— Mike, New York City

UNC keeps getting knocked for playing two FCS teams. Are we really supposed to believe that we would know anything more about UNC’s quality if they had played and beaten Idaho instead of Delaware?

— Eric, Nashville

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The common thread with both these questions involves the central dilemma of college football scheduling: You can never tell years in advance what kind of team you’ll be getting exactly. How could Stanford have known it would play, and lose to, an eventual 10-2 Northwestern team? If this were the 5-7 Wildcats of the past two years, Stanford probably would have won. But it also would have done nothing for its resume. The potential 12-1 version you suggested would be in slightly better shape than it is now, but probably still behind Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma. And by the same token, if Notre Dame had turned out to be a 7-5 team, I would not likely be predicting this two-loss Stanford to pass Ohio State on Sunday.

As for UNC, I agree that playing two FCS foes is not that different from playing two Sun Belt teams; I think the committee is mostly concerned about the message it sends. If the Tar Heels make it, why not everyone go out and do the same thing? But I also don’t think it’d be nearly as big a deal if South Carolina had gone 9-3 instead of 3-9 and Illinois had gone 7-5 instead of 5-7. Instead you might be hearing more lauding of the Tar Heels for being the rare Power 5 team that takes on two non-conference counterparts. Of the current top six, only Clemson and Iowa can say the same.

Long story short: While there’s certainly risk inherent in scheduling aggressively, the committee to this point has shown it’s more likely to punish you more severely for loading up on cupcakes than for losing to good non-conference foes. After all, as of today, 10-2 Stanford is three spots higher than 11-1 North Carolina. And if both win this weekend, don’t be surprised if the committee rewards the Cardinal at the expense of the Tar Heels.

Had Arkansas not been successful on their last-ditch, backward lateral against Ole Miss, Alabama would be at home this week while the Rebels faced Florida in Atlanta. The Tide’s resume would still be stronger, as their only loss would be to a 10-2 Ole Miss team. But since they would no longer have a shot at the SEC title (in a weaker-than-normal SEC), would they still be No. 2 and a lock for the playoff?

— Brian W., Massachusetts

It’s actually amazing to think about the impact three ridiculous plays had on this season. If Michigan did not drop that punt snap against Michigan State, the Spartans would not be playing for a spot in the playoff this weekend. If Georgia Tech did not block Florida State’s field-goal attempt and return it for a touchdown, the ‘Noles would be guaranteed a New Year’s Six spot already with an outside shot at a playoff berth. And that Arkansas lateral allowed Alabama to head to Atlanta.

Had that not happened, the Tide might still be No. 2 right now — Jeff Long said Tuesday night there were multiple revotes this week as to whether Alabama or Clemson should be No. 1 — but they’d be at risk of suffering TCU’s fate last year. ‘Bama would not have a conference championship. There would be those arguing 11-2 Ole Miss should go instead. But it’d also be an interesting test case for the committee, which has continually heaped praise on Alabama’s resume. While the Tide lack a signature win against a Top 10 team, they’ve beaten six teams with eight or more wins, more than any other contender. Clemson, by comparison, has beaten three.

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My guess is the committee would decide the Tide are "unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country," allowing them to become the first team to overcome the non-champion stigma. And I’m guessing most of the country would be furious about it.

Everybody and their dog has projected Iowa to the Rose Bowl for the last month (ish). Looks now like Ohio State may jump the Hawkeyes should they lose to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game. Do you agree with that? Or do you see the Rose sticking with Iowa, even if they are lower in the playoff rankings?

— Patrick McMullen, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

First of all, I just want to state for the record that I’m hardly dismissing Iowa’s chances of beating the Spartans. Second of all, don’t assume that the Rose Bowl, given its druthers, would prefer the Buckeyes to the Hawkeyes because they’re a bigger name. The folks in Pasadena want to fill their stadium, and they know that Iowa fans, who haven’t been there in 25 years, will flock west in droves, whereas some (not all) Ohio State fans may view the game as a disappointment a year after winning the national championship.

All that being said, the Rose Bowl’s chairman, Scott Jenkins, has been consistent in saying the "strong presumption" is his bowl will take the higher-ranked team, period. If this were the BCS, I’d have no doubt that the loser would fall below Ohio State, because that’s how polls work. But the committee last year did not penalize teams as much as the BCS did for playing and losing an extra game. And the members will be well aware of the consequences of dropping Iowa below the Buckeyes. If it’s a close loss, and if there are no playoff implications, I do think 12-1 Iowa may stay above 11-1 Ohio State given it would still have a better record. Michigan State, on the other hand, would be 11-2. Even though they beat the Buckeyes, the Spartans would likely drop below them.

Dear Stewart: How in the world is Northwestern rated higher than Michigan? Is the committee aware they played each other?

— Trevor M., Grand Rapids, Mich.

You Michigan fans are very myopic. Where’s the same griping about Stanford being rated seven spots ahead of Northwestern? Is the committee aware they played each other?

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Help me, Obi-Wan; you’re my only hope . . . If you tell me that Clay Helton was the right decision, made at the right time, by the right person, I’ll believe you. But I will need that kind of reassurance.

— Ben Le, Chatsworth, Calif.

I’m afraid I can’t fulfill your wish. Worse, I’m not enough of a "Star Wars" fanatic to come up with a clever reply.

Helton is an upgrade from the past two USC head coaches if for no other reason than he seems mature and grounded, but his hiring followed the same embarrassing pattern. A USC-bred AD (Pat Haden) insulated by his USC-bred cronies (J.K. McKay) opts for the familiar face right in front of him. I know Haden said he "spent weeks searching the collegiate and pro ranks," but that seemed to consist of cursory phone calls. NFL coaches are still knee-deep in their seasons, and prominent college coaches are only now beginning to look around in earnest. I find it hard to believe 17 legit candidates all turned down USC.

More likely, Haden got caught up in the Trojans’ improvement under Helton, liked how the players responded to him and decided to keep it going. That’s great, but you’re not hiring a coach for the current team, you’re hiring a coach who will recruit and lead the next-five-years’ teams. I still believe USC needed to go outside the family and bring in someone who would blow up that whole dysfunctional program and start from scratch. But that wasn’t going to happen, apparently, because the guy making the hire is the ultimate Trojan family man.

College football has definitely become an offensive game. Five years ago Bud Foster seemed like the definite replacement for Frank Beamer; today he just remains defensive coordinator. The hottest names on the coaching lists this offseason are ALL offensive minds. Do you think we’ll ever see a defensive-oriented coach become a head coach at a major college program anytime soon?

— Doug W., Natick, Mass.

In Doug’s defense, he sent this question before Georgia did just that in choosing Alabama DC Kirby Smart. But his larger point holds true. Smart is an exception to the larger trend because he possesses the Nick Saban stamp of approval. In general, major programs are reticent to give coordinators on either side of the ball their first head-coaching job, and mid-major programs that struggle to sell tickets want a guy who will come in and light up the scoreboard. Hence, AAC schools Houston and SMU turned to OCs Tom Herman and Chad Morris, respectively, last season, and UCF just hired Oregon’s Scott Frost. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Baylor’s Kendal Briles, and TCU’s Doug Meachem and Sonny Cumbie will get their opportunities soon enough.

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It’s not impossible for defensive guys, it’s just tougher to market themselves. You would think Clemson DC Brent Venables’ resume speaks for itself at this point, yet I’m not hearing him linked to any openings. Ditto Wisconsin’s Dave Aranda. Michigan’s D.J. Durkin is garnering buzz — and has reportedly landed the Maryland job — but it’s more that he’s a 37-year-old, rock-star recruiter than a defensive whiz. And it doesn’t help any of these guys that several recent high-profile, DC-to-head-coach hires — Mike Stoops, Will Muschamp, Bo Pelini, Gene Chizik — flamed out. Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi could soon prove the exception. Perhaps Smart will, too.

How does the committee justify slotting Northwestern one slot ahead of the Michigan team that crushed it in all facets of the game en route to a 38-0 victory?

— Mike Cohodes

Probably the same way it justifies ranking Michigan nine spots ahead of Utah.

Hey, Stewart. Don’t the committee rankings just show that it still matters WHEN a team loses? For example, if Texas and OU played in the last game of the season, an undefeated Oklahoma is at worst No. 2 in the rankings. If it then lost to a 3-8 Texas team it would probably drop them out of the top 4, right?

— John, New Orleans

Oklahoma would still be the Big 12 champ, so maybe not, but your larger point is valid. If you’re going to lose a game, lose it before the first committee rankings come out so you have time to climb back — just like in the traditional polls.

As much as the committee says it’s evaluating a team’s full body of work, they hold a recency bias just like the rest of us. Their message in elevating Oklahoma to No. 3 even before the Sooners whooped Oklahoma State was that they’d seen enough since the Texas loss to know they’re a much better team now. Ditto Alabama recovering so quickly from the Ole Miss loss. If Ohio State had lost to Michigan State in October but won out from there, it’d probably be in the top four right now. Instead, the Buckeyes only had one game to recover.

All of this, by the way, is among the many flaws organizers injected into the process by conducting weekly rankings. Knowing the basketball committee like I do, that body truly does weigh November games the same as March games. Last year, for example, Indiana lost four of its last five games, causing many to assume the 20-13 Hoosiers’ bubble would burst, but they’d done enough before that to build their resume that they in fact made it safely in. It would be interesting to see how the football committee’s rankings would differ if they met only once, at the end of the year, and truly started from scratch.

Stewart: Are my Nittany Lions feeling the effects of the two years of scholarship reductions, with underclassmen starting in many positions and lack of depth? Or are James Franklin and his staff great recruiters who can’t develop players? OC John Donovan took the fall for the offensive failures, but even the defense faded late in the season as injuries piled up.

CELEBRITY FANS OF THE SEC

— Dave Leppo, Camp Hill, Pa.

I don’t give Franklin and his staff a complete pass for Penn State’s mediocrity his first two seasons, but I do find the volume of criticism from prominent former players a bit naive. Did they really think the program would just shrug off sanctions that decimated two recruiting classes and go to the Rose Bowl already? It would not have surprised me if the Nittany Lions went 4-8 the past two years, but to Bill O’Brien’s and Franklin’s credit, things never got that bad. Penn State still has plenty of good players, from the Big Ten defensive player of the year (Carl Nassib) to a star running back (Saquon Barkley); it just does not have enough of them and might not for another couple of years.

Scott Frost has been talked about as a possible head coach for a few years now. What do you think made him choose UCF? I’m betting the not-too-long-ago Fiesta Bowl win and the fertile recruiting grounds of Florida? Do you think he is eyeing a job like Nebraska with the way Riley has started off?

— Matt, Bossier City, La.

Frost has been patient and choosy in terms of picking his first head-coaching opportunity. He wanted to go somewhere where he knew he could win, even if it wasn’t a Power 5 school, and for whatever reason, attractive Power 5 programs — like his alma mater, Nebraska, last year — weren’t calling. Of this year’s jobs, I thought perhaps Maryland would be a match, but with Frost taking this job, Maryland must not have shown enough interest.

So with that as context, UCF makes a lot of sense. While awful this year, it’s won big in the past. It’s in an increasingly attractive conference, in a major market with good facilities, and most notably, in a state overflowing with the type of speedy skill players that thrived in his Oregon offense. I’d imagine it will take a couple of years to right that program, but if/when he does, he could put himself in much the same position that Houston’s Tom Herman is now — either the school throws enough money at him to make it a long-term job, or he parlays his success there to an upper-level power program. Like . . . Nebraska.

Is there any chance Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo leaves for a Power 5 job? Or, I guess the better question would be, are any of the ADs bold enough to hire outside the box?

— Cody, Snellville, Ga.

He’s a great coach whose stock should be at its highest right now, but power conference teams don’t want to run the triple option. End of story. Georgia Tech’s the only one that’s even tried in the last decade, and Paul Johnson has certainly had success there, though this year he took quite a plunge. Besides that, Niumatalolo likes it at Navy. Given the choice between staying there and competing for AAC titles or taking a bottom-rung ACC or Big 12 job where eight wins is the ceiling, he’d probably be inclined to keep the job he has.

Will you and Bruce Feldman be doing picks for the next round of the FCS playoffs? Go UNI Panthers!

— Vomo Vomacka, West Des Moines, Iowa

Unfortunately I don’t follow FCS closely enough, though I did notice Charleston Southern is playing The Citadel. I assume that game will be on the SEC Network.