Mailbag: Marcus Mariota nation’s top player, SEC West shake-up, more

I’m on a bit of a whirlwind travel odyssey right now. Last week I was in Dallas for the playoff mock selection exercise and Starkville for Auburn-Mississippi State. This week I’m in South Bend to provide daily reports for FOX Sports 1 leading up to Saturday’s Florida State game.

This week’s Mailbag ought to be sponsored by Hudson News, home of the $3.50 Cliff Bar, and Sketchy Airport Kiosk That Sells Those Pre-Wrapped Sandwiches You Have No Choice but to Buy When You’re Running to Make a Connection.

Stewart: Much has been said by yourself and others that LSU losing an astounding 17 early draftees over the past two seasons was bound to catch up to them and is contributing to their less than stellar performance (by their standards) this season. Conversely, could the fact that Mississippi State has a staggering 13 senior starters and five other seniors on their two deep be playing a factor in their ascension this season?

— Jack Murphy, Taipei, Taiwan

Yes, absolutely. In fact, what’s transpiring right now in the SEC West feels almost like a condensed version of the trend we’ve seen in the NCAA Tournament over the past decade or so, where mid-majors with a lot of experienced players often knock off power teams that recruit more talented players but have them for only a year or two. In terms of the disparity in resources and recruiting rankings, Mississippi State is essentially a mid-major in its own conference, but the Bulldogs have a handful of special players like Dak Prescott and Benardrick McKinney, and they play with the confidence of a team that’s been through its share of SEC showdowns. Conversely, Alabama is teeming with future first-rounders but many are inexperienced, and they often play like it, committing penalties, missing assignments and playing with a general lack of confidence.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

Mind you, we’re not even halfway through conference season. Alabama could put things together at any moment and end up running through the rest of its schedule. Mississippi State could well cool off. Similarly, LSU may struggle through the rest of this season but you don’t worry about Les Miles’ program contending on a longer-term basis, whereas this may be a once-in-a-decade (or longer) season for the Bulldogs.

Meanwhile, Ole Miss reminds me of a hoops team that has one particularly special recruiting class and immediately elevates itself. It’s harder to do in football, with 85 players compared with 13 in hoops, but it’s pretty remarkable that basically all of the highest-rated players in the Rebels’ vaunted 2013 class – defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell, tackle Laremy Tunsil and safety Tony Conner — have not only panned out but are arguably four of the five best players on their team (along with veteran safety Cody Prewitt). They’re different formulas, but they’ve allowed the two Mississippi schools to level the playing field with their more established divisional foes.

Until recently football, unlike basketball, had not shown any noticeable effect from players turning pro early. They’re such a small percentage of the overall pool, and they can’t go one-and-done (or two-and-done). But since the new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011, the number of underclassmen entering the draft has increased by 75 percent. And since the SEC has the most NFL-caliber talent, it stands to reason the arc would effect that conference the most — especially programs like LSU and Alabama that sell themselves to recruits as NFL training grounds.

I’ll be interested to see whether or not the effects of the trend turn out to be more than just a half-season development.

Stewart, Thanks for your insights on college football. I enjoy your Mailbag. Looking for some of that insight on the Heisman Trophy. It seems to me that, over the last few seasons especially, the Heisman has turned into a flavor du jour, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of award. Seems to me that there should be more emphasis on a body of work than the latest piece of flash. Yes, I’m from Oregon, so a definite bias but, seriously, Dak Prescott over Mariota for the Heisman? Can’t see it, to this point anyway.

— Gary Lillard, La Grande, Oregon

Yes, I’ve written about the Heisman horse-race mentality many times before. Obviously things tend to be particularly volatile early in the season, as one big game can send a player soaring up the lists (See Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill after Week 1) and one quiet game can send him spiraling off of them (See Alabama’s Amari Cooper this week). Mariota himself experienced this last year. He and Jameis Winston were essentially running neck-and-neck until Stanford took down Oregon in early November, at which point you never heard about him again.

I don’t know what will happen the rest of the way, but as of today, with Todd Gurley in exile, Mariota is the best player in college football, and it’s not even close. The Oregon quarterback lost his top four receivers from last season and has played behind a patchwork offensive line that’s allowed nearly as many sacks (15) as it did all of last year (18). And yet, he’s the nation’s top-rated passer. He’s No. 2 in yards per attempt (10.5), No. 7 in completion percentage (69.7) and boasts a 17-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Prescott, by comparison, completes 61.5 percent at 9.5 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and four picks. Prescott has been the more productive rusher at 96.0 yards per game to Mariota’s 48.3, but even there, Mariota averages more yards per attempt (5.9 to 5.4) even with all those sacks counted against him.

I do think in the playoff era it will be very difficult for a quarterback to win the Heisman without leading his team to the playoff. That may ultimately be the deciding factor. And given his struggles the past two years against Stanford, Mariota needs to beat the Cardinal this year. Andrew Luck never won a Heisman in part because he couldn’t beat Oregon. Now the roles may be reversed. 

Stewart, Hope you enjoyed your visit to Starkville and that you were treated hospitably. Mississippi State jumped from unranked to No. 1 the fastest since the AP poll started. I’ve noticed recently that AP voters are much more loose with their week-to-week ballots. I wholeheartedly agree with this new approach and never liked that the poll was so “sticky.” But why is this?

— John Michael Riley, Starkville, Mississippi

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

I’ve definitely noticed that trend with the polls this year. For one thing, Florida State has now been unseated from No. 1 twice (the first time only in the coaches poll) without losing. Texas A&M jumped from No. 21 to No. 9 following its Week 1 rout of South Carolina. Arizona soared from unranked to the Top 10 after winning at Oregon. TCU moved up 15 spots after beating Oklahoma. I believe the advent of the playoff has infiltrated the traditional polls.

Voters are behaving more like we’ve been told the selection committee will, are more willing to throw out their preseason or early-season perceptions and focus on actual results and pay more mind to body of work. It makes for more volatility, and it may be at times they’re jumping the gun. I never believed Arizona to be a top-10 team even after winning at Oregon. But ultimately it was harmless, and it’s a better-intentioned approach.

It may just be that knowing these polls really do no longer matter make people feel more free to experiment.

During your recent time in Texas for the mock selection exercise, did anything stand out as being particularly enjoyable about your participation in the process (outside of drilling Andy as committee chairman)?

— Mike, Mebane, North Carolina

Yes. The hotel where they’re conducting the meetings has a fantastic steakhouse in it.

Stewart, it now seems possible (even likely) that the Big 12 will have a three-way tie for first at 8-1 in conference between Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU, with each having only lost to one of the others. The champion would (probably) come down to the top-ranked team in the College Football Playoff poll. First, how amazingly dumb would that make the Big 12’s "One True Champion" tagline? That was such hubris and destined from the start to make them look bad for having only 10 teams and not having a championship game. Didn’t they learn from 2008! Second, how do you think the CFB committee would view that situation?

— Pat O’Brien, Dallas

The mock committee I served on last week had to deal with that very 2008 Oklahoma-Texas scenario. For our purposes, though, Oklahoma was already considered the Big 12 champion. In the scenario you describe, the very committee that is supposed to reward conference champions when compiling its rankings will be asked to use its rankings to … determine the conference champion. How ridiculous.

WEEK 7 WINNERS AND LOSERS

Technically, they’d all be champions, and the committee rankings would only determine which team gets the league’s automatic berth to a New Year’s Six bowl. And I don’t think the committee would actively consider this side effect. It would just rank the teams in the order it thinks they deserve to be ranked, and if one or more make the top four, so be it.

But here’s where it could get even trickier. The conference DID learn something from 2008 and inserted a clause in the event “the two highest-ranked tied teams are ranked within one spot of the other in the College Football Playoff poll,” just as Oklahoma and Texas were in the BCS standings when the division tiebreaker was determined that year. “In this case, the head-to-head results of the top two ranked tied teams shall determine the representative in the College Football Playoff.” Note: The wording there is a bit deceptive. The league means its representative in one of the CFP bowls, not the playoff itself. Still, there could be a scenario where the committee ranks TCU fourth and Baylor fifth, thus slotting TCU into the playoff, but the league would consider the Bears their One True Champion.

Ultimately we’re talking mostly semantics here. But I can tell you that in our mock exercise we placed a lot of value on conference champions. In this case, the committee would not even be able to factor that in to their discussion.

Hi Stewart. After the first seven weeks of the season I agree with most everyone else that the SEC West has played the best football so far this year. However, how do you think the committee would react to the following scenarios: 1) An SEC East team (Georgia) runs the table and goes 11-1, only one SEC West team (Mississippi State) goes 11-1, and Georgia beats the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship. Or, same scenario as above but Georgia’s record is 9-3 and all SEC West teams would again have two losses and no conference championship. Would the SEC miss out on the playoff altogether?

Longtime Mailbag readers know I generally refused to address various BCS hypothetical scenarios before early November knowing 98 percent of them would eventually be rendered moot. But I seem to have no such inhibitions so far with the playoff, presumably because it’s yet to happen and I’m just as curious as the rest of you. Maybe by Year 3, “no more questions about one-loss teams losing to two-loss teams” will become my equivalent pet peeve to the annual BCS tradition of people asking, “What if too many teams go undefeated?”

THE FOX FOUR

In the first scenario, a 12-1 SEC champion Georgia that would have beaten Auburn and 11-1 Mississippi State would almost certainly go to the playoff. The Bulldogs’ fate would depend on who the other contenders are nationally. Of the current West heavyweights, Mississippi State is actually the least likely to get a playoff berth without winning its conference due to its joke of a non-conference schedule (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin).

In the second scenario, Georgia’s not getting in with three losses. And based on our discussions, I don’t believe the committee would say, “We have to put an SEC team in there.” It would just depend on how badly those West teams cannibalize each other down the stretch.

Stewart, I heard on your weekly podcast with Bruce Feldman that you have only one TV when you’re at home. Please explain why. I’m 33, married with a kid, and I have a room with three for NFL Sundays and most college football Saturdays depending on family activities.

— Dan McDermott, Davidson, North Carolina

Yeah, I know, I’m weird. But I find I concentrate better on the games if I’m actively engaging in them (by working the remote) than if I’m passively sitting back and watching a wall of televisions like we do in the FOX Sports green room on Saturdays. Two weeks ago, flipping back and forth between Alabama-Ole Miss, Oklahoma-TCU and Stanford-Notre Dame, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on all of them. Had they all been on TVs in front of me, though, I either would have fixated on one of them or been so distracted by all the flickering images that by day’s end I barely remembered any of them.

BEST PHOTOS OF WEEK 7

This is true when attending games, too. I always have one or more games streaming on my laptop when I’m in the press box, but inevitably I only catch bits and pieces of them. I was proud of myself, however, for managing to watch all of Baylor’s game-winning drive last week on my phone while waiting for Dan Mullen to enter his postgame press conference. Technology.

Hi Stewart. You’ve mentioned recently that the playoff selection committee will take player injuries into consideration when making their evaluations of the possible playoff teams. Consider the case of Ohio State, a team that was forced to start an inexperienced redshirt freshmen, J.T. Barrett, at quarterback in the wake of losing two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller right before opening day. If the Buckeyes win out (no small feat), how do you think the committee will view their Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech?

In "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff" — which you can currently purchase on Amazon for less than the cost of a movie ticket — Bill Hancock says that one of the advantages of having a selection committee is that the season is fluid, and the members can evaluate teams accordingly. If the Buckeyes’ offense continues to improve over the course of the season, I could certainly see the committee taking into account the fact that Barrett — currently the nation’s third-rated passer — was still green when he played Virginia Tech. I can tell you that in our ’08 mock selection we discussed the fact that Terrelle Pryor hadn’t yet taken over as starter and Beanie Wells was injured when USC crushed Ohio State in their Week 3 matchup that year. 

But to be clear, that doesn’t mean the loss never happened. And perhaps more damaging to the Buckeyes, they still missed out on a chance at a quality non-conference victory to pad their resume. Ohio State will definitely jump back into the playoff picture if it beats Michigan State on Nov. 8 and avoids a bad loss beforehand, but it may be a team that does better in the eye test than on paper.

Just read your Forward Pass article. Let the experts do their job and you report the game scores and the world will be a better place. You look like a horse’s ass writing such hearsay information, and yes, FSU will beat the crap out of Notre on Saturday and Winston will be smiling at guys like you!!

— Jason Proffitt, Atlanta

That’s because he knows he has guys like you who will defend him against literally anything just because of the jersey he wears. Good luck against Notre Dame.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. 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 Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.