Mailbag: Why Michigan State-Ohio State is the biggest game of 2015

Spartans-Buckeyes could go a long way in giving the Big Ten two playoff teams this season.

Mike Carter/Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: Send questions for future Mailbags to stewart.mandel@fox.com.

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Between the Belmont, the NBA Finals, the Women’s World Cup, NCAA softball and baseball tournaments and, I’m told, hockey, televisions are overflowing with riveting sporting events right now.

Which leaves those of us in college football land to sit around and talk about games we’ll probably be watching several months from now.

Stewart, in examining the 2015 power 5 conference schedules, can you pick the single biggest game per conference? Example: Florida State at Clemson could not only determine the champion of the ACC’s Atlantic Division, but both teams could be undefeated going in — it may also determine the conference’s representative in the playoff.

— Thomas Moore, Raleigh, N.C.

While I could answer this question the way you asked it, the answers for the most part would be fairly unoriginal. Like FSU and Clemson, I’d just be picking the presumed top two teams in each conference, provided they’re on each other’s schedule. Why don’t I take it a step further and try to guess which single conference game will have the biggest impact on the entire country.

But before I do that, we should probably establish a precedent. Because the CFP has made it more difficult for one game (not including conference championship games) to make or break a team’s season like it could in the BCS, everybody essentially gets one mulligan. With that in mind, the retroactive answer to this question for 2014 was Baylor’s 61-58 comeback win over TCU on Oct. 11. It ultimately cost the Big 12 a playoff spot and opened the door for eventual national champ Ohio State — not that we could have known that at the time.

While that game should be huge again this year, I’m looking north to the Nov. 21 Michigan State-Ohio State game in Columbus. For one thing, it could make or break the Buckeyes’ repeat chances. While the first year of the CFP taught us that how you play matters more than your record (see Florida State), we don’t yet know how the committee would treat an otherwise dominant team that loses a game that late — not to mention misses out on its conference title game. Meanwhile, the Connor Cook-led Spartans could be in prime contention entering that contest as well, especially if they beat Oregon at home in Week 2.

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Which brings us to the biggest reason that game could prove so consequential — it could decide whether the Big Ten becomes the first league to place TWO in the playoff.

Follow me here: Let’s say Michigan State goes into the matchup undefeated, and Oregon, after losing in East Lansing, goes on to its typical stellar year. Let’s say it then loses a close game in Columbus to a Buckeyes team by then on a 23-game winning streak. Provided a couple of the Spartans’ other opponents crack the top 25, they’d have a pretty good resume at 11-1. It would depend on what the rest of the field looks like.

Keep in mind, though, last year’s most important game involved a team (TCU) that went 4-8 the year before. The Game of the Year in 2013, the Iron Bowl, featured one participant, Auburn, coming off 3-9. So chances are this year’s won’t be anything as obvious as Michigan State-Ohio State seems right now.

What are your thoughts on the tradition of the Army-Navy game and when it is played versus what is best for college football — moving it — now that Navy is joining the AAC?

— Ben, Columbia, S.C.

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It’s tricky. On the one hand, that game is so important to those two campuses — and to the armed forces in general — that no outsider would dare tell those institutions how they should schedule it. But there’s no question the game’s unique date, a week after bowl announcements are set, could become far more problematic now that the Midshipmen are in a conference and thus eligible for the New Year’s Six bowl berth that goes to the highest ranked Group of 5 champion. Especially given the strength of Navy’s program.

No official solution is yet on the books, but as of now the most viable options are either that game would not count toward Navy’s ranking, which seems unfair to the other Group of 5 teams, or, as has been proposed, that berth gets put on hold for a week until the outcome is known. If Navy goes into the Army game the highest-ranked champ, then loses, the next highest-ranked team takes its place. In the Mountain West’s case, it could be the difference between its champ playing in the Dec. 19 Las Vegas Bowl or the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl. Which is clunky.

One point I’d make: The "tradition" of Army-Navy playing a week later than everyone else is not exactly a longstanding one. They moved it in 2009. Furthermore, it’s possible (though people I trust on these matters think I’m crazy) that MORE people would watch it were the game CBS’ lead-in to the SEC Championship Game a week earlier, when college football is at peak interest. Last year that early window consisted of TCU-Iowa State, two AAC games and the Conference USA title game. That said, the game already does very well — it got a 4.5 rating last year, higher than CBS’ season average for its SEC package (4.0). And TV exposure is not a sole deciding factor for those two schools.

What exactly is a satellite camp? Why are SEC coaches against them?

— David Perry, Belton, Texas

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Satellite camps have become a catch-all phrase for when coaches from a certain school go work at someone else’s summer camp in another part of the country as part of its recruiting push. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan staff is currently in the midst of its much-publicized and polarizing "Summer Swarm Tour" that’s included stops in Alabama, Florida and Texas. But Michigan is hardly the first and hardly alone in the practice. Coaches all over the country are doing much the same thing right now — except in the SEC and ACC, whose conferences have rules against the practice. Hence the grumbling in that part of the country. Obviously coaches don’t like the prospect of Harbaugh coming down and poaching recruits from their backyard, but they also can’t stand being put at a disadvantage.

But the whole thing just comes off as petty. For one thing, Michigan is not going to suddenly start signing half of Alabama’s top-25 prospects. The overall number of prospects whose decisions may be affected by satellite camps will likely be minute. Furthermore, their fury is misdirected. Why should the rest of the country have to conform to your own conferences’ rules? If it’s that big a concern, change your own rules. But instead, the SEC is pushing to outlaw the practice nationally.

While I understand that league’s coaches have their own interests to protect, frankly, I fail to see anything wrong with satellite camps. In fact, they’re incredibly beneficial to the recruits themselves, many of whom gain exposure they would not otherwise enjoy. Case in point: At Michigan’s camp in Prattville, Ala., last week coaches wound up offering a scholarship to linebacker Dytarious Johnson, a two-star prospect who had previously garnered interest only from low-level FBS programs. Good for Johnson, who probably never would have gotten that opportunity if it required traveling 800 miles to Ann Arbor. Hopefully collective paranoia doesn’t wind up preventing future such stories.

Is coach Bob Diaco creating a rivalry between UCONN and Central Florida — and even presenting a trophy — only to be promptly rejected by UCF an embarrassment or a total embarrassment?

— Mike Jones, Hartford, Conn.

I’m glad you brought this up, because this story is not getting nearly the coverage it deserves. I have so many thoughts.

* First of all, give Diaco a little credit. He managed to not only "manufacture a rivalry" but have it be a "one-sided rivalry." That’s two clichés for one.

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* Presumably he coined it "Civil Conflict" because "Civil War" was taken, but if you put the word civil in front of any other word it comes off as something … well, civil. You might as well call it the Cordial Conflict.

* Most people use countdown clocks for either the first or last game of the year (like Ohio State-Michigan). The UCF game is Oct. 10. Hope the Huskies don’t look past that Sept. 19 trip to Missouri.

* I love that Diaco is all in not only on why he didn’t bother looping in UCF on his plans ("They don’t get to say whether they’re our rival or not") but why the rivalry magically began only last year, when UConn won (because he wasn’t the coach yet).

* If UCF does happen to win this year’s rematch in Orlando, does it get to keep this trophy it didn’t ask for? Or does it go back to Storrs?

* But even better, imagine if UConn wins and proceeds to celebrate on the Knights’ home field by hoisting up a trophy it created?

There’s just so much potential here. I hope Diaco comes up with one for Tulane next.

Can you make a prediction on the viability of Cincinnati joining the Big 12 and when that move might occur?

— Brady Fening, Dayton

If the Big 12 misses the playoff again this year and adds a championship game in 2016 while still at 10 teams only to miss it again, then maybe that becomes a viable possibility. Unfortunately, right now the Bearcats’ energy would be more constructively spent trying to get in on that UConn rivalry action.

Can NC State football crack the FSU-Clemson stranglehold on the ACC Atlantic Division?

— Michael C, Cary, N.C.

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I don’t normally take questions on Twitter but I liked this one. I may have to start loosening my curmudgeonly policy.

If it’s going to happen, this is the year for NC State to do it. Florida State and Clemson both have far more talented rosters, if the recruiting rankings are to be believed, but they’re both in phases of major transition. The ‘Noles are replacing not just Jameis Winston but nearly every key offensive player from 2014, save for stud tailback Dalvin Cook. Clemson, conversely, brings back star QB Deshaun Watson but loses all but two starters from the nation’s No. 1 defense last season. Clearly both teams are vulnerable, at least for one season.

Enter NC State, which improved from 3-9 to 8-5 in coach Dave Doeren’s second season, put up 41 points on the ‘Noles last season (though then lost 41-0 at Clemson the next week) and bring back dangerous fifth-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett, solid tailbacks Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes and a veteran O-line. The Wolfpack should be able to score against anyone in the ACC. The concern is having to replace three senior D-linemen from a unit that ranked 13th out of 14 in scoring defense (27.0). A best-case scenario would likely be going 6-2 in the league, beating one of the two, Clemson or FSU, and winning a tiebreaker. Coupled with a comical non-conference slate, NC State could go 10-2, cause for parades in Raleigh.

With the NCAA Notice of Allegations now in North Carolina’s hands, how does Larry Fedora deal with other coaches using impending doom (perhaps justifiably) against him on the recruiting front? He’s already having difficulties with this hanging over his head — does this make it worse?

— Arthur Valentine, Philadelphia

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Holy cow — back-to-back Tobacco Road FOOTBALL questions. If I get an Alabama basketball question next week we’ll know the end is near.

I’m sure Fedora will do his best to spin it — the violations occurred years ago, it’s not likely to impact you — but the fact is he doesn’t know any more than the next person. And there’s not likely to be a final verdict from the Committee on Infractions until close to the end of this calendar year, leaving little room before Signing Day. Meanwhile, rival coaches will likely tell recruits that if they go to UNC they might have to sit through a postseason ban — and they may well be right. So it could be a rough recruiting year for UNC, which as of this writing has just five commitments, though notably one from four-star quarterback Logan Byrd. 

Really, the best thing Fedora can do is win. His three-year tenure to this point has been an underwhelming 21-17. The Heels ended last season’s 6-7 campaign on a 35-7 loss to NC State and 40-21 loss to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl. (Quick, without looking it up: Where was the Quick Lane Bowl played?) UNC’s got to generate some enthusiasm on the field if it ever hopes to counter the cloud that hovers over that entire athletic department right now. Beat South Carolina in the opener in Charlotte and try to build from there.

Stewart, When is the full cost of attendance being implemented? And will it have an impact on college football? For example, will some FBS teams in the non-Power 5 conferences be forced to drop football because they cannot afford the additional expense? (As an example — how much would this increase UAB’s budget when football returned there?)

— John Ringer, Richmond, Va.

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It goes into effect this year, and it appears nearly all Group of 5 schools will be able to offer it to at least some of their athletes, though some may be straining to pay for what is widely reported to be an additional $1-1.5 million expense for schools that sponsor football. Colorado State, for example, is using former coach Jim McElwain’s $7 million buyout to cover COA for the next 3-to-5 years. Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill recently made headlines for deferring a scheduled $100,000 raise to help foot his school’s bill. Other schools are phasing it in over the next several years. UAB, for its part, had already factored COA into its anticipated costs for bringing back football.

I’ve previously expressed skepticism over whether the disparities in COA numbers between universities will influence recruits’ decisions. The more realistic and unwanted consequence would be low-level FBS schools dropping sports because they can’t afford it (and chances are football would not be one of those sports). There’s also an inevitable lawsuit to come from athletes at a school that doesn’t offer it across the board. We probably won’t know the true effect until 3-5 years down the road. Schools are able to capably budget for it in the near term, but in future years, as total scholarship costs go up (not to mention expenses in general), then you may see some athletic departments forced to reevaluate.

This was an interesting piece. Most people could have said what you said in a phrase such as: "I don’t have any idea about what I am talking about!"

— Kevin Fallon, location unknown

You’ve got to narrow it down for me, Kevin. That could describe a lot of my pieces.

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. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.