Forward Pass: Why Baylor & 'Bama are crucial in first playoff poll

BY Stewart Mandel • November 2, 2015

The College Football Playoff selection committee pushed back this season’s first set of rankings by a week due to the season itself being one week shorter. If only they’d thought to delay them even further, until after this weekend, which features three games — LSU (7-0) at Alabama (7-1), Florida State (7-1) at Clemson (8-0) and TCU (8-0) at Oklahoma State (8-0) — pitting short-list playoff contenders.

Presumably we’ll know a lot more then than we do now.

But that doesn’t mean Tuesday night’s rankings don’t carry significance. They’re our first glimpse into how the committee views certain teams’ resumes to date. Given we’ve only been through one season of a new system, and given the amount of turnover on the committee roster (two new members, and no more Oliver Luck or Pat Haden), moments like this one still offer a telling window into the process.

The committee’s first rankings last season did not look radically different from the AP or coaches polls, but the landscape through nine weeks this season looks a lot different than last. There are still eight undefeated Power 5 teams; last year there were just two. Mississippi State and Florida State were the “clear cut” Nos. 1 and 2 teams at that time. This year there are a number of combos that could claim those spots.

Ultimately a mass whittling down will occur over the last five weeks of the season, but these are the teams I’m most curious to see how the committee treats simply because of what it will say about their points of emphasis.

Baylor: The 7-0 Bears are No. 2 in the AP and coaches polls; that won’t likely be the case with the committee. As dominant as Baylor has been, the committee explicitly weighs strength of schedule — and Baylor’s to this point is atrocious. Its six FBS opponents are a combined 16-32. The Bears also played FCS Lamar.

Art Briles’ defiantly weak nonconference slate hurt his team in the final rankings and could here as well. But does that mean Baylor is fourth instead of second or something more drastic than that?

Alabama: The 7-1 Tide, as they often do, have shot back up to seventh in the polls after an early home loss to Ole Miss thanks in large part to routs of then-undefeated Georgia and Texas A&M. Since then, though, the 5-3 Dawgs have crumbled while the 6-2 Aggies barely crack the Top 25.

Will the committee weigh ’Bama based on the perceived strength of its opponents at the time or where they stand today? I would not be surprised if 7-1 Florida — which clobbered the same Ole Miss team — is the higher SEC team.

Iowa: The 8-0 Hawkeyes are buried at 10th in AP despite beating three foes with 6-2 or better records (Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Northwestern), the latter two on the road. Per Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, their schedule to this point is stronger (47th) than fellow Big Ten teams Ohio State (68th) and Michigan State (59th).

Mind you, Iowa’s schedule the rest of the way is horrendous, but the committee does not project. Don’t be surprised if the Hawkeyes, which boast a top-10 defense, fare considerably better with the committee than the polls.

Oklahoma: The 7-1 Sooners lost to 3-5 Texas. That’s admittedly not good. But we also learned last season that the committee values good wins more than it punishes teams for bad losses. OU won at Tennessee in Week 2 and, since the Texas loss, has won its last three by scores of 55-0, 63-27 and 62-7.

Also, many of the former coaches on the committee value defense; the Sooners rank sixth nationally, compared with 27th for Oklahoma State, 32nd for Baylor and 41st for TCU. They may well check in higher than at least one of those.

USC: As a 5-3 team, the Trojans aren’t yet on most Top 25 radars. But Jeff Long often boasts that the committee is different than traditional pollsters in that they’re not beholden to the loss column, and they take into account unusual circumstances. USC is arguably a litmus test for both.

Since interim coach Clay Helton took over, the Trojans have beaten 7-1 Utah and won at 5-3 Cal. Two of their losses were to 7-1 Stanford and 7-1 Notre Dame. Various power ratings still consider them a top-10 team. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m willing to bet they’re safely in the Top 25 ahead of several two-loss teams.

As for the top of the poll, it’s most likely to be Ohio State, Clemson and LSU, though in what order I couldn’t tell you. As for No. 4, that’s as hazy right now as it will likely be Dec. 6.

FRANK BEAMER, A COACHING RARITY

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer announced Sunday he will retire at the end of the season. How does one even begin to quantify his legacy? The Hokies finished a season in the polls just three times prior to Beamer’s 1987 arrival. In 29 seasons, he did it 18 times. That included seven top-10 finishes, seven conference championships, a 1999 BCS title game appearance and 22 consecutive bowl trips as of last season.

And he did it all with impeccable class. Beamer was easily one of the most likable figures in the coaching profession. Virginia Tech’s native son galvanized a campus and a community without lording over it. The Hokies came into the ACC in 2004 and immediately rose to the top, yet you never heard any of the usual grousing from rival coaches.

So it’s only fitting that Beamer is exiting with class as well. His program, which won at least 10 games for eight straight seasons from 2004-11, had undeniably stagnated, posting a 26-22 record since 2012. The Hokies’ 26-10 win over Boston College on Saturday still left them just 4-5 heading into a bye week. Rather than drag the school through an uncomfortable power struggle like other recent icons, or abruptly quit on his team like another one, Beamer’s decision Sunday assures both a proper sendoff and a painless transition.

“I was going to wait until the end of the season to make this announcement,” he said in a statement, “but I’ve always believed in being open and honest with my players and coaches ... It’s an emotional day for me and my family. I am so honored and humbled to have served as your head coach.”

With that, Virginia Tech can begin planning its post-Beamer future. Some other struggling programs might not have it so easy. Like, for example, Georgia.

Dawgs coach Mark Richt has enjoyed an undeniably successful 15-year tenure, but the program has slipped since winning 12 games and nearly winning the SEC Championship Game in 2012. It’s not been as drastic as Virginia Tech’s though, with Georgia going 10-3 and finishing in the top 10 just last season, making talk of a possible coaching change far more touchy and polarizing.

That tenor changed, though, following 5-3 Georgia’s 27-3 loss to rival Florida on Saturday. More than the decade-long conference title drought or disappointing collapses the past two seasons, this embarrassment feels like a point of no return. Florida, with a first-year coach and a second-string quarterback, looked like a team with a clear identity. Georgia, which abruptly elevated a third-string quarterback (Faton Bauta) and turned the second-stringer (Brice Ramsey) into a punter, looked desperate and directionless.

A change is inevitable; it’s just a matter of whether it’s amicable or ugly. Richt, 55, is not likely ready to retire, but could he perhaps opt for a mutually beneficial change of scenery? A program like Maryland (where Richt’s former AD, Damon Evans, is a senior associate AD) or Virginia (which will likely fire Mike London), would be fortunate to have him.

Beamer’s exit will leave Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz as the longest-tenured FBS coaches at 17 seasons apiece, and both have garnered restlessness from their fan bases in recent years. It’s incredibly hard to achieve the manner of longevity Beamer did and perhaps even more rare to go out with all parties happy.

TIME FOR COLLEGE TO STEP UP REPLAY GAME?

Watching Miami’s 52-second, eight-lateral kick return to beat Duke on Saturday night, it seemed incomprehensible this could really be happening. Just two weeks ago, we’d seen a once-in-a-lifetime ending with the Michigan-Michigan State Gift Six. Just a week ago we’d watched Georgia Tech pull of the “Miracle on Techwood.” And now, here was college football offering up its most ridiculous ending yet, a cross between the 1982 Cal-Stanford Band play and a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Which, it turns out, it was.

By Sunday morning, any talk of the Miami Miracle going down as an all-time classic had been supplanted by the extent of the officiating fiasco that allowed it (as my unscientific Twitter poll confirmed). In a statement Sunday, the ACC confirmed four separate mistakes on the play, most notably the fact that the replay official somehow spent nine minutes reviewing the play and came to the conclusion that Mark Walton’s knee was not down prior to lateraling.

Whoops.

Even after the ACC suspended the crew for two games, Duke coach David Cutcliffe was still understandably fuming.

“Unfortunately there is no mechanism in place that I know of to reverse the outcome of a game,” he told reporters on a teleconference. “... When an instant replay [official] fails, and it’s obvious, in my humble opinion, the NCAA needs the ability to reverse the outcome of the game.”

That’s never going to happen. But hopefully an error as egregious as this one, in a game that was poorly officiated all around (it’s debatable whether Blue Devils QB Thomas Sirk’s go-ahead touchdown should have counted either), will add urgency to a much-needed initiative to overhaul the college replay system.

This year I’ve been watching more games on TV than I have in seasons past and it’s been eye-opening to see just how many incorrect calls — especially targeting calls — get upheld on a given Saturday. Why is this still happening in 2015? There will always be human error with on-field calls in a game that’s played at blazing speed with umpteen moving parts, but replay is supposed to correct that.

While the college system’s technology has improved considerably since the 2006 Oklahoma-Oregon onside kick debacle, ultimately game- and potentially season-defining swing plays still come down to one person in a press box with little oversight and wide latitude in rendering judgment.

On Sunday, NCAA coordinator of officials Rogers Redding told me that national and conference coordinators have discussed potentially moving to an NFL-style model where senior officials in a centralized command center far from the stadium watch the games and orchestrate the reviews. The main impediments are the mass number of games that take place every Saturday and the considerable cost presumably required.

“We may need to do something differently than we do now,” said Redding. “It’s not like we only think about these things when these high-profile, large-audience issues happen. It’s a conversation we continue to have because the conferences have a concern about it.”

They should be, because the current model is archaic and unacceptable.

The Power 5 conferences are expected to make about $51 million this year from College Football Playoff revenue alone. They make hundreds of millions more from TV and other revenue. Given the considerable stakes within that enterprise of even one game-deciding call, putting some of those resources toward building a more efficient and fool-proof replay model seems like a no-brainer.

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.

Temple acquitted itself nicely in Saturday night’s near-upset of Notre Dame, so much so that the 7-1 Owls did not fall out of either poll. That defense is legit. I don’t know whether that means Matt Rhule’s team will emerge from the impending AAC royal rumble with Memphis and Houston but it earned a spot in these projections this week.

I’m also flip-flopping from last week on the LSU-Alabama winner, which is great news for the Tigers. Now I’m certain to be wrong.

Finally, Stanford’s last-second escape at Washington State avoided having to leave the Pac-12 out of the playoff. Right now it’s still the Big 12, again. In fact, with Baylor QB Seth Russell’s injury, it’s hard to imagine anyone in that league making it out of this grueling backstretch unscathed. The Bears’ schedule leaves them no margin for error.

I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …

Kyler Murray. Texas A&M’s heralded freshman quarterback has overtaken struggling starter Kyle Allen. He looked the part in his first start (223 yards passing, 156 rushing) against South Carolina. He’ll soon face tougher defenses.

Jacques Patrick. With Dalvin Cook sidelined, Florida State’s heralded freshman tailback shredded Syracuse for 167 yards rushing and 62 receiving. Even if Cook returns, Patrick is bound to see the field quite a bit Saturday against Clemson.

Mike Riley. Nebraska’s proud program hit a modern-day low with Saturday’s 55-45 loss to then 1-6 Purdue. The Huskers are now 3-6, headed to 4-8 at best. Riley will get a second season but will be hard-pressed to win back the fan base.

Charlie Strong. Just when you thought the ‘Horns had turned the corner they go out and lose 24-0 at then 2-5 Iowa State. Texas, 3-5, will have a tough time getting bowl-eligible, which will once again test the fan base’s patience entering Year 3.

North Carolina. Lo and behold, the Tar Heels are 7-1 and alone in first place in the ACC Coastal following last week’s win over Pittsburgh. Beat Duke (6-2, 3-1) this week and they’ll be close to punching a ticket to their first ACC title game.

THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR

Miami’s Larry Scott. Officiating bungles aside, give credit to the ’Canes’ interim coach for getting a team that lost 58-0 the week before and saw its coach get fired to go on the road and quite literally not give up until the clock read 0:00.

THIS WEEK’S COACH (NO LONGER) ON THE HOT SEAT

Hawaii’s Norm Chow. Chow, a native Hawaiian who took until 65 to finally get his first head coaching job, is out after a four-year 10-36 stint. Hopefully the longtime quarterback guru can finally kick back on the beach and enjoy some down time.

ON TO NEXT WEEKEND

Three games we’re most excited for:

● No. 4 LSU at No. 7 Alabama (Saturday, 8 ET): Leonard Fournette vs. the Alabama defense. Need we say more? OK then, how about Derrick Henry vs. the LSU defense? This should be an old-school, power-vs.-power showdown.

● No. 17 Florida State at No. 3 Clemson (Saturday, 3:30 ET): Two years ago the ’Noles came to Death Valley and obliterated the Tigers en route to a national title. If Clemson wins this one, its path to at least the playoff becomes a lot wider.

● No. 5 TCU at No. 12 Oklahoma State (Saturday, 3:30 ET, FOX): The 8-0 Cowboys have gotten creative in using backup QB J.W. Walsh as their primary rushing threat. Can they keep pace with Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson?

Three games you shouldn’t miss:

● No. 2 Baylor at Kansas State (Thursday, 7:30 ET, FS1): All eyes are on Baylor freshman QB Jarrett Stidham as he takes over the nation’s most prolific offense. A Thursday night road game is not the easiest initiation.

● Duke at No. 21 North Carolina (Saturday, Noon ET): Forget basketball; there’s a football division title at stake, and the winner here puts itself in the ACC Coastal driver’s seat. And there’s no second meeting a month later.

● No. 8 Notre Dame at Pittsburgh (Saturday, Noon ET): It’d be a disservice to Pitt to call this a “trap game” for the Irish, but it’s certainly a tough turnaround. The teams’ past six meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.

One under-the-radar gem:

● Navy at No. 15 Memphis (Saturday, 7 ET): Largely lost in the AAC shuffle, newcomer Navy is 4-0 in league play. QB Keenan Reynolds needs one more rushing touchdown to break Montee Ball’s FBS career record (77).

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.


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