Mailbag: Mississippi State proves playoff flaw, Nebraska criticism, Heisman race & more

BY Stewart Mandel • November 19, 2014

One of the most refreshing aspects of these new playoff committee rankings so far is that unlike the typical NCAA basketball committee chairman, Jeff Long is fairly candid when answering questions about specific teams. But I had to cringe at one point during his TV interview Tuesday night.

When asked why the committee made Alabama its new No. 1 team, Long cited the fact the Tide controlled their game against then-No. 1 Mississippi State from the start. But when asked later why the Bulldogs remained No. 4, he commended them for tacking on that last-second touchdown to make it 25-20, saying, “You never felt like they were out of it.”

Those statements seemed incredibly contradictory. Did Alabama dominate the Bulldogs or not? And surely there’s a better case to be made for weeks-long No. 1 Mississippi State than its back-door cover against Alabama. Or is there?

Mr. Mandel, Do you think the weekly playoff rankings will lead to a different set of four teams than if they did one poll at the end of the season? I look at Mississippi State as the prime example. It’s difficult to retroactively penalize someone because its marquee wins seem less impressive. Given the Bulldogs were the No. 1 team for such a long time, logic says you cannot drop them that far even if more deserving teams are behind them. But if you evaluated their resume at the end of the season it would not look nearly as impressive as it would during the middle of the season.

-- Chase, Dallas

Yep, Mississippi State is a prime example of why it was a bad idea to do these weekly rankings. The Bulldogs are a good team, no question, and a season is fluid. Dak Prescott and his team were playing better in October than they are now, and so were some of those marquee opponents they beat (like Auburn). I have no problem with the fact they rose to No. 1 even if I remained skeptical they were actually that good because that’s the data we had at that time.

But if you were truly starting your rankings from complete scratch, as the committee says it does every week, you’d have a hard time justifying Mississippi State ahead of TCU, for one. Using the committee’s current rankings, the Bulldogs have beaten one top-25 team -- No. 14 Auburn. TCU has beaten three -- No. 12 Kansas State, No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 25 Minnesota. Both teams suffered their lone losses on the road to one-loss teams, but while Mississippi State trailed the entire game at Alabama, TCU led Baylor by 21 points in the fourth quarter. Yes, the Horned Frogs struggled at Kansas last week, but we’re supposed to be looking at the full bodies of work, not just reacting to last week’s games.

Meanwhile, Long continues to denigrate Baylor’s schedule, saying it’s not comparable at this point to TCU’s, and I don’t disagree. But is the Bears’ schedule really that different than Mississippi State’s? The Bulldogs played four body-bag games out of conference plus Kentucky. Baylor played three nobodies plus Kansas and Iowa State. I’m not saying the Bears should be ranked higher. They did lose by two touchdowns at 6-4 West Virginia. But I’ve heard no mention thus far about Mississippi State’s soft out-of-conference schedule (plus Kentucky and, this coming week, Vanderbilt), like we have Baylor’s.

Ultimately, this may all be moot. Just because Mississippi State is No. 4 this week doesn’t mean it will stay there even if it beats No. 8 Ole Miss in two weeks. And that’s because conference championships will enter the equation come Dec. 7. One or more out of TCU, Baylor and Ohio State will likely finish as a one-loss conference champ. Unless Auburn upsets Alabama, Mississippi State will not. And that could prove fatal. But if that’s the case, it gets back to the original question: Why put out these rankings now if they truly hold no bearing on the final product?

And of course, we know the answer. It’s because we’re writing and talking about them.

How would you describe the selection committee's definition of "game control?" While I understand the expectation that if a team is ranked higher, they should "control" the game, and in some cases dominate. Yet, is it based on the overall game, the final score or time of possession? Or is it a combination of all those factors?

-- Scott Clark, location unknown

I first noticed a couple of weeks ago that Long and Bill Hancock were using the phrase “game control” a lot, but Tuesday night’s show was apparently the moment where it went viral. But I don’t think the committee’s use of the phrase is anywhere near as involved as this question makes it seem. In fact I specifically asked Long to explain the concept in his teleconference Tuesday night. “It might be considered somewhat subjective,” he said. “The committee looks at the game, how the game was played, how close the game was played, whether there were lead changes back and forth, or whether a team was in control from the opening kickoff, or whether they gained control, say, in the second half and finished out the game.”

Basically, it’s an acknowledgement that final scores can be deceiving.

The fact the committee is paying attention to more than just a score on a piece of paper is ostensibly a good thing. It’s a major reason, for example, why Florida State is not faring as well with the committee as it is the traditional pollsters. The voters see the ‘Noles as a 10-0 team, with no further nuance applied. The committee is analyzing the ‘Noles’ actual performances against their largely inferior competition and sees a team that’s fortunate to be 10-0 with all the frantic rallies they’ve needed. But Long did himself no favors with his Alabama-Mississippi State contradiction. Either apply “game control” across the board or don’t invoke it at all.

Dear Stewart, after the Huskers’ complete shutdown in Madison, Bo Pelini was asked if he thought these blowout losses tarnished the reputation of Nebraska. Bo responded, “I don’t get into all these big-picture talks. That’s one football game.” If Bo doesn't see the big picture, then who does? Per my best friend in Lincoln, the whole state is in mourning. I can't express how embarrassed and ashamed I am of the coaches.

-- RJ Wallis, Wenatchee, Washington

Angry Nebraska fans’ emails about Pelini completely dominated my inbox this week, far outnumbering Florida/Will Muschamp, the playoff race or any other topic. Mind you, the Huskers were 8-1 going into the game and I’d hardly heard a word all year about Pelini. But the fan base seems to be taking this latest big-game debacle particularly hard. Pelini’s maintained a great deal of support in Lincoln for a lot longer than I would have expected given the Huskers have rarely been nationally relevant during his tenure and given the fact he was caught on tape blasting the entire fan base, among other controversies. But while Nebraskans aren’t holding on to any delusions that a return to the Tom Osborne heyday need be in order, they definitely don’t take well to high-profile embarrassments like this one and the 2012 Big Ten championship game.

I don’t actually see anything all that controversial about Pelini’s statement. It’s probably true of most coaches. While the rest of us are consumed with debating the directions of their programs in real time, they’re pretty much living in a vacuum where the only thing that matters is the next game. The offseason is their time for big-picture reflection and making philosophical or staff changes if warranted. But I know one person who’s minding the big picture: Pelini’s boss, AD Shawn Eichorst. On paper, Nebraska is 8-2 right now and still in contention to win its division with all the crazy tiebreaker scenarios if Minnesota or Iowa beats Wisconsin.

In reality, however, the Huskers have played only two meaningful conference games, falling behind 27-3 at Michigan State before mounting a last-ditch comeback and giving up 59 points at Wisconsin. Any reasonable person looking at the big picture can see the program is permanently stuck in second gear, but the fact is the Huskers could still finish the regular season 10-2, at which point Pelini should be safe for another year.

I know it would look bad, but if Bo Pelini and NU win out and finish 11-2 or even if they lose one more game and finish 10-3, would it still be okay to fire him? I think almost any objective observer knows it is time to cut ties. What do you think?

-- Eric, Phoenix

Remember what happened when you fired Frank Solich for going 9-3? You still want to fire this guy for going 11-2?

Hey Stewart, after Melvin Gordon's fantastic performance against Nebraska, I'm surprised he didn't overtake Marcus Mariota (idle last week) in most Heisman polls. Do you think the perception that running backs at Wisconsin are the product of a "system" might hurt his Heisman campaign, or is it more a product of the shifting emphasis on the quarterback? Or is Mariota still deserving of the top spot?

-- Kirk Carpenter, Chicago

He didn’t overtake him but he closed up a lot of ground. When a guy has held such a commanding lead for so much of the season as Mariota has, it’d be unrealistic to think he’d lose favored status on a bye week. In general, the Heisman has become a lot like the BCS standings in that it takes a loss to fall from No. 1, especially the later in the season we get. And Mariota is still absolutely deserving of that status. Playing against an indisputably tough schedule (four current top-25 teams plus Stanford’s No. 2-rated defense), he’s thrown 29 touchdowns against just two interceptions. His current 184.56 pass efficiency rating is almost exactly the same as Jameis Winston’s Heisman-winning 184.85 clip last year. Even if he puts up modest numbers the rest of the way, the Ducks would probably need to lose (which isn’t going to happen this week against Colorado) for anyone else to take the trophy at this point.

But then again, Gordon is making a run at all sorts of historic statistical marks, and he also has a chance to make a more resounding closing statement. While Mariota will have to beat someone pretty good from the Pac-12 South on Dec. 5 for his team to reach the playoff, Gordon could be facing a top-five Ohio State team in the next night’s Big Ten title game. Imagine if he runs for 170 yards and knocks off the Buckeyes?

As for the “system running back” tag, it hasn’t hurt Wisconsin rushers to this point. Heck, in 2011 Montee Ball not only reached New York, but he gained more traction with voters than a teammate named Russell Wilson. And Gordon is unique in that he’s a different style runner than the Ron Dayne-type Wisconsin running back. Gordon’s a speed guy, averaging a ridiculous 8.56 yards per carry, which makes for more highlight-type plays that Heisman voters love.

An Ohio State coach has not won Big Ten Coach of the Year since 1979. The streak will continue this season, right?

-- Jonathan. Westerville, Ohio

I had to look this up, as it didn’t seem remotely possible, but sure enough, Jim Tressel never won a Big Ten Coach of the Year award. Meanwhile, John Mackovic, Glen Mason, Ron Turner and yes, John L. Smith, all have at least one trophy on their mantles. That’s astounding.

So yeah, Jerry Kill will probably beat out Meyer this year.

Stewart, while watching the Patriots vs. Colts game Sunday evening, the announcers were making a big deal about the improved O-Line play. It occurred to me the center is Bryan Stork, the rookie from Florida State. It seems as though he is the key to the improvement of New England’s O-line play and the reason for a regression of the FSU O-Line play.

-- Thomas Oliver, Oregonia, Ohio

You know, I’ve been doing a whole lot of nitpicking of 10-0 FSU this week, especially on the podcast with Bruce, so before I answer the question I just want to take a moment to highlight all the things right with this year’s Seminoles. Rashad Greene (75 catches, 1,042 yards) is one of the most difficult receivers in the country to defend. Dalvin Cook’s emergence has given the running game a nice burst of explosiveness. Defensively, safety Jalen Ramsey and tackle Eddie Goldman are among the very best in the country at their positions. Jameis Winston is not having a great year overall (22nd nationally in pass efficiency, 18 TDs-12 INTs), but there’s still no one I’d rather have behind center in the second half with the game on the line.

But to the question, yes, who knew a center could be so invaluable? Stork, last year’s Rimington Trophy winner, was the only starter from FSU’s national championship O-line that didn’t come back. It didn’t help matters when his successor, Austin Barron, broke his arm in the ‘Noles’ fifth game, forcing a redshirt freshman in his place. How dire was the center situation? Jimbo Fisher recently shuffled his lineup and moved 2013 All-American left tackle Cameron Erving to center, promoting true freshman Roderick Johnson in his place. It’s not a coincidence FSU averaged 6.0 yards per carry (season average: 4.15) and allowed just one sack against Miami.

As the new lineup gels, this unit will likely become even better. It’s no longer my biggest concern about FSU. That would be its abysmal pass rush (16 sacks in 10 games). Sorry to be nitpicky again.

Hi Stewart. You mentioned in the Forward Pass that Florida "swung and missed" with former DCs Zook and Muschamp. Add in Bo Pelini's marginal performance with Nebraska and do you think it's harder for defensive coordinators to make the transition to head coach than offensive guys? It seems like offensive minds like Gus Malzahn, Urban Meyer and Mike Gundy have been a better bet than their defensive counterparts.

-- Erik, Los Angeles

It’s an interesting theory, but probably more a coincidence. Plenty of successful head coaches -- Nick Saban, Bob Stoops, Gary Patterson, Mark Dantonio, Bret Bielema, Kyle Whittingham, Charlie Strong and Todd Graham, just to name a few – came from defensive backgrounds. But it’s easier for an offensive-minded coach to put his stamp on a program. Guys like Chip Kelly, Rich Rodriguez, Meyer and Malzahn have unique offensive systems that both became their staple and an easily identifiable reason for their success. Patterson may be the only guy on that above list whose defensive scheme was so unique as to resonate with the average fan. Nevertheless, in Pelini’s case, when the defense goes south, he takes extra heat because he’s supposed to be a “guru.”

X’s and O’s are fairly low on the list of reasons a coordinator does or doesn’t succeed in the head role. Overall management ability -- hiring the right staff, dealing with media, administrators and donors, handling discipline, etc. -- is far more important, and unfortunately, that’s not an easy thing to gauge when someone’s never done it before. It makes you wonder whether ADs ought to start thinking outside of the box a little rather than instinctively defaulting to the hot coordinator. What if a team’s receivers coach is actually its best motivator or its linebackers coach particularly charismatic? Heck, what about all the non-coaching personnel that now proliferate major programs but do some of the most important organizational work in recruiting and academics?

There have been a few exceptions over the years -- Meyer was Notre Dame’s receivers coach when Bowling Green made him head coach, as was Dabo Swinney when Clemson promoted him -- but for the most part, those six-figure search firms don’t go digging much deeper than the coordinator level.

Many have thrown Rich Rod in as a potential coach for Florida, but I haven't heard many calls for Todd Graham, who has had more success with Arizona State. If Rich Rod is a fit, I would think Graham would be as well, and he has a history of moving from a smaller program to a larger one with regularity. Or does he see ASU as a big enough program?

-- Kevin, Omaha, Nebraska

I’m guessing Jeremy Foley’s phone log already has several missed calls from Tempe.

Remember that time when Indiana, 0-6 in the Big Ten, beat SEC East-leading Missouri? That was awesome.

-- Jack, Ohio

I’m not sure what’s stranger in hindsight -- that one or the same Georgia team that shut down Auburn’s perennially powerful offense last week giving up 418 rushing yards to a Florida team whose perennially awful offense just got its coach fired.

College football.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for 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