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Stewart Mandel

In the trenches

Big names won't determine Orange Bowl outcome

Posted: Tuesday December 28, 2004 12:16PM; Updated: Tuesday December 28, 2004 12:25PM

  Mike Patterson
Mike Patterson leads a stout Southern Cal defensive line.
Doug Benc/Getty Images

Welcome back. Oh, wait, you didn't go anywhere, I did.

It's the first Mailbag in several weeks, which means it's the first chance I've had to comment on that scintillating Fort Worth Bowl (attendance: 13,204) and the first chance to look ahead to Thursday's Troy-Northern Illinois showdown (projected attendance: 13,204). To be honest, though, there's really only one game on my mind this bowl season (thanks, BCS), and judging by your e-mails, on many of yours as well.

Can you break down the Orange Bowl? As I see it, USC gets a slight (very slight) edge in overall athleticism, while OU gets the nod in experience. It seems like I change my prediction daily. Your thoughts?
-- Damien, Orange County, Calif.

Do you think that the upcoming Orange Bowl has the potential to be ranked among the greatest sports games ever, like the Oklahoma-Nebraska game on Thanksgiving 1971?
-- M. Robinson, Bartlesville, Okla.

When are you going to reveal your pick for the Orange Bowl -- Jan. 5? We need stuff to talk about now. We'll have plenty to talk about later on. Give us something to talk about through this dearth of action.
-- Chris, Los Angeles

To answer the last question, I'm not ready to reveal my pick just yet -- but that's because I still haven't made up my mind. Usually by now I have. But one of the teams is also usually the clear favorite going in (not that it always wins). As Damien said, on paper, this is the most even championship game I can remember, and because of that it does indeed have the potential to go down as an all-time classic, at least among bowl games (the standards that come to mind, at least in the modern era, are the 1984 Nebraska-Miami "fumblerooski" Orange Bowl, the 1987 Penn State-Miami Fiesta Bowl and the 2003 Ohio State-Miami double-overtime Fiesta Bowl).

If you don't believe me, ask Arizona coach Mike Stoops, someone who's quite familiar with the Sooners and whose team faced the Trojans earlier this season. For a story last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times asked Stoops to identify the differences between the two teams. He couldn't find any. "They're as complete a football team as you can find," Stoops said of USC. "And so is Oklahoma."

I'm headed to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday and will have no shortage of coverage from there, but my early thoughts are this: Forget Matt Leinart, Jason White, Reggie Bush and Adrian Peterson. The most important matchup of the game is USC's defensive line vs. Oklahoma's offensive line. Both units have been dominant all season. The Trojans had 48 sacks and allowed just 75 rushing yards per game. The Sooners allowed seven sacks all year and produced 215 rushing yards per game. Something's got to give. I'm guessing Bob Stoops and Co. have spent a lot of time studying tape of USC's game against Cal, whose offense is very similar to Oklahoma's. In that game, Bears QB Aaron Rodgers completed 23 straight passes and J.J. Arrington rushed for more than 100 yards. Then again, they only scored 17 points, and lost.

Stewart Mandel will answer questions from readers each week in his mailbag.
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What do you think of The Associated Press' decision to leave the BCS? Do you think this will lead to a playoff or just more of the same?
-- K.B., Baltimore

I commend the AP for their decision, which now removes a huge conflict-of-interest burden for many of their voters, many of whom were put in extremely unfair positions this year, but I thought their venomous cease-and-desist letter was hilarious. It took you six years to become "aware" that the BCS was unlawfully using your rankings? Interesting, considering you've crossed the complete standings on your wire EVERY WEEK SINCE THE DARN THING STARTED.

As for the implications, it's been another rough year for the BCS, and for the first time some university presidents are breaking ranks and publicly expressing their displeasure with the system in a mutiny befitting Steve Zissou's Belafonte. But that doesn't mean we're any closer to a playoff. If anything, several presidents are in favor of ditching the whole national championship game concept altogether.

"The BCS seems to be a constant source of irritation," Kansas chancellor Robert Hemenway told the Dallas Morning News. "... A lot of presidents and chancellors are saying, 'Is this really worth it?' I think many of them are willing to say 'Let's play 12 games, let's have our [conference] championship game and a bowl. ... Kind of go back to a simpler time."

"The level of criticism is fairly warranted," said Tulane president Scott Cowen. "So you either do it the right way, which involves a playoff, or you go back to where there was no pretense that there was somebody [matched together] playing for the national championship. You just played the bowls, and the pollsters ranked 'em however they wanted and we lived with the controversy."

Back on planet Earth, the BCS isn't going anywhere. They just signed a new deal with FOX that goes through at least the 2009 season. The only change will be the addition of a fifth, even more meaningless game. And the AP's decision (a wise one, in my opinion) will be addressed this offseason, with the BCS commissioners considering, among other things, a human selection committee to replace the rankings system. You know how the basketball selection committee chairman always goes on CBS right after the bracket gets announced and gets grilled on why they chose 17-13 Virginia over 18-14 George Washington for the 34th at-large berth? Imagine the same thing, only this time it involves who gets to play for the national title. Sucks to be that guy.

Whom should LSU pick as Nick Saban's replacement?
-- Jimmy, Lafayette, La.

They should pick a member of the current staff, most logically offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. With or without Saban, LSU has a great thing going. They're 22-3 the past two seasons and they've assembled consecutive recruiting classes ranked either No. 1 or 2 nationally. They will be one of the leading contenders for the national title next year. Why risk ruining that momentum by bringing in an outsider who would likely dismantle the current staff? Remember when Butch Davis left Miami just as the 'Canes were beginning their run to consecutive national title games? The school's first instinct was to try to lure Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, a great coach but one who would have overhauled the program. I doubt whether they would have made as seamless a transition as they did under Larry Coker.

That said, LSU AD Skip Bertman seems more concerned with the long-term rather than immediate implications and has said he wants to hire an experienced head coach. Butch Davis' name is being mentioned heavily, as is Louisville's Bobby Petrino. The way I look at it is this, though: No big-name coach stays in the same place for long anymore. And LSU, whether they believe it or not, is not yet the type of program that can expect to dominate year in and year out. There is no guarantee anyone will be able to achieve what Saban did in Baton Rouge. Lord knows his predecessors didn't. And who knows whether the Tigers will have another opportunity like they will next season? Take advantage of it while you can.

Now that Wyoming pulled the big upset, are you going to side with all the "UCLA lost the game" people. Or will you pony up and admit that Mountain West conference football teams deserve more respect than they get?
-- Marcus, Laramie, Wyo.

I'm going to side with the "I caught a few minutes of it while flipping between Letterman and some mob movie on TNT. Looked like a good game. You say Wyoming won? Oh, good for them?" people.

Are there any stats on winning a bowl game and success the following season? I hear, "Winning the bowl would build great momentum for next season" from the talking heads all the time. I think that's a myth, but I haven't looked at the numbers.
-- Jeff Traylor, Baton Rouge, La.

I've always thought that's a bunch of bunk. Save for a few rare exceptions (see Cal in last year's Insight Bowl), bowl performances are rarely an indication of what's in store the following season. Consider that five of the past seven national champions lost their bowl game the year before. If anything, impressive bowl wins often create unrealistic expectations the following year (see Clemson coming off last year's Peach Bowl win over Tennessee or Auburn in 2003 coming off their Citrus Bowl win over Penn State).

As for a statistical measure, that's tough, because what do you consider to be "success" the following season? It depends on the team. The best thing I could think to do was look back at last year's bowl results and how the teams then fared this season. Of the 28 bowl winners last year, 10 have a better record so far this year. Of the 28 bowl losers, 12 do.

As much as I'd love him to stay, I can't think of a good reason for Matt Leinart not to go pro after the Orange Bowl. What do you think he'll do, and why?
-- David, Los Angeles

I'd be shocked if he stays. I was at the Heisman news conference when he said he intends to be back, but that's what everyone says when they haven't decided yet. I'm sure he wants to come back. You would too if you were the toast of L.A., the star quarterback on the No. 1 team, dating models and playing on a team that has a legitimate chance to win three straight national titles. All he has to do is look at what Eli Manning is going through this year and realize it's a whole lot more fun in college. The reality of the situation, though, is he has a chance to go in the top three, perhaps even No. 1, and coming back for another year would be extremely risky. There's no guarantee his stock would ever be that high again, not to mention the risk of injury.

It seems like just when Virginia Tech gets the respect that it worked so hard to earn, every sportswriter in America forgets our name, calling it "Va. Tech." I mean, seriously, you would get laughed out of Atlanta for saying GAH Tech. Please help.
-- Matt, Simpsonville, S.C.

Be careful what you wish for, buddy. Perhaps we should start referring to your school by its given name: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University runs on to the field ...

One more Mailbag left, which will run after the bowl games. So be sure to save one last batch of questions for then.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for

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