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Posted: Wednesday November 18, 2009 12:20PM; Updated: Wednesday November 18, 2009 1:06PM
Stewart Mandel

Season's best race, Michigan's coaching conundrum, more mail

Story Highlights

The Pac-10 may not play a title-game, but its race has been the most exciting

Jim Harbaugh is an attractive candidate, but Michigan won't fire RichRod yet

Plus Ohio State's failing, TCU's bowl future, USC's path to a return and more

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Jacquizz Rodgers has helped Oregon State remain one of four teams still contending for the Pac-10 crown.
Jacquizz Rodgers has helped Oregon State remain one of four teams still contending for the Pac-10 crown.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm no fan of conference championship games. They work in the SEC, where the game always sells out and we can usually count on an elite team emerging from each division. The Big 12's edition, on the other hand, has produced such recent classics as Oklahoma 42, Colorado 3 (2004), Texas 70, Colorado 3 (2005) and Oklahoma 62, Missouri 21 (2008).

And then there's my all-time personal favorite, the 2006 ACC championship in which Wake Forest topped Georgia Tech, 9-6, in front of a few thousand friends, family and masochists.

With that in mind, you'll understand why it took me about three seconds to settle on an answer to this question:

Which conference race have you enjoyed most this season? The impending conference-title showdowns in the SEC and Big East, Ohio State's late surge to reclaim the Big Ten title or the Pac-10's round-robin battle royale incorporating half the conference?
-- Todd, Mission Viejo, Calif.

The Pac-10's -- and it's not even close.

Obviously, I'm excited for Florida-Alabama and Cincinnati-Pittsburgh, but those conferences morphed into two-team races weeks ago. Everything leading up to those final battles has become anticlimactic. Meanwhile, Iowa and Ohio State played an unofficial conference-title game last week that neither team's coach appeared interested in winning. Georgia Tech ran away with its side of the ACC, and this weekend 6-5 Kansas State will be playing for a spot in the Big 12 title game. (Though the Nebraska-K-State game is not without stakes -- if the Wildcats lose, they won't go to any bowl game because they beat two I-AA foes.)

The Pac-10 race, on the other hand, continues to fascinate. Even at this late stage of the game, four realistic contenders remain, all of them solid, exciting teams, and all of them still with meaningful games to play. This weekend, No. 11 Oregon (8-2, 6-1) visits Arizona (6-3, 4-2) to determine which team takes over the conference driver's seat, while No. 14 Stanford (7-3, 6-2) hosts Cal (7-3, 4-3) needing a win to remain in the mix (the Cardinal won't fare well in most tiebreaker scenarios). On Dec. 3, No. 20 Oregon State (7-3, 5-2), the creeping dark horse, visits Oregon for a potential winner-takes-all Civil War; that is, unless Arizona (which already beat Oregon State) topples the Ducks this weekend, in which case the Wildcats may be playing for roses two days later at No. 22 USC (7-3, 4-3).

If you got lost somewhere in the above paragraph, check out Seattle Times columnist Bud Withers' complete breakdown of all possible scenarios, including an Armageddon six-way tie.

To me, this is college football at its finest -- a competitive, high-stakes race in which every game and every week has consequences. Unfortunately, it's become an increasing rarity. The Pac-10 makes a season like this possible by going against the grain and playing a nine-game, full-league round robin. Imagine if this was the Big Ten, and this happened to be the year Oregon and Arizona didn't meet. Or the league split into two divisions, and Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford all played in the "North."

Unfortunately, the very thing that makes this year's Pac-10 race so exciting is probably hurting the conference more than it helps. By playing an extra conference game, half the teams in the league are guaranteed an extra loss, and one less nonconference game means one less chance to schedule a creampuff and inflate records. That makes the league unlikely to earn a second BCS berth (it hasn't since 2002), which, sadly, means there's really no incentive for other leagues to copy its model.

Stewart, it seems to me Michigan needs to go ahead and admit it made a bad hire in Rich Rodriguez and bring in alumnus Jim Harbaugh before he is snapped up by another "big name" school. Two years may not seem like enough time to gauge a coach, but I just get the feeling Rodriguez is not the guy for that job -- not that he's a bad coach, just not a good fit. Your thoughts?
-- Rich, Nashville, Tenn.

I agree, he's not a good fit. From nearly the day Rodriguez arrived in Ann Arbor, a significant faction of Wolverines fans simply hasn't liked him, whether because he's not a "Michigan Man" like Les Miles, or because he runs that new-fangled spread offense, or because he's got a "twang." Throw in all the backlash from West Virginia, the lawsuits, the potential NCAA infractions, and it's clear there was only one way he could have won people over: to start winning, and in a hurry. That has not happened.

That said, I'm still 90 percent certain he'll get another year. AD Bill Martin has been outspoken in his support, albeit in sometimes bizarre context. (Paul Johnson? Not a good comparison. Though SI appreciates Martin's readership.) Martin has already announced he's retiring next September, and I doubt he or school president Mary Sue Coleman will want to stick his successor with a brand-new coach not of that person's choosing. Furthermore, many of Michigan's present problems can be directly attributed to the high amount of attrition that occurred during the transition from Lloyd Carr to Rodriguez. Another coaching change would only prompt more defections.

As for Harbaugh, there's no doubt he'd be a great hire, but I'm hearing the Michigan brass hasn't yet forgiven him for taking shots at his alma mater's academic standards two years ago. However, if this time next year Michigan still sits in the bottom half of the Big Ten, a call will almost certainly go out to one of its own -- if not Harbaugh, then the formerly coveted Miles, who, in SEC life-span years, may well have worn out his welcome at LSU by then.

I know there are all kinds of politics involved in the BCS shuffle, but isn't it worth it to all concerned to have TCU play the SEC title-game loser? It would quiet the congressional interest by providing a legitimate test for the non-BCS conference team, would be very easy for media types and Fox to promote and is the right thing to do morally and ethically.
-- Topgun Tex, San Diego

Well first of all, that's exactly the same matchup Utah got last season, and it hardly quieted the politicians; if anything, it empowered them. Personally, I would love to see TCU play Florida or Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. I think it would be fascinating, and it would be a far better measuring stick for the Horned Frogs than playing Boise State or Iowa. The problem is that in this year's selection order, the Sugar Bowl has last choice of at-large picks, and it's looking increasingly likely the Horned Frogs won't be available.

Barring a loss by Texas, the Sugar and Fiesta bowls will have first choice of replacement teams; the Sugar will almost certainly take the Florida-Alabama loser, while the Fiesta, as the Big 12's partner, will either take Oklahoma State if it qualifies; Penn State or Iowa (to sell tickets); or TCU. The Orange Bowl then has first choice of at-large teams and figures to take whichever of the two, TCU or Iowa/Penn State, the Fiesta doesn't. Even if the Orange passes on TCU as well in favor of the Big East champ, I'd be shocked if the Fiesta doesn't then snap up the Horned Frogs with the second at-large choice.

We're talking about the No. 4 (possibly No. 3 by then) team in the country. Brand name or not, the Frogs are going to be a coveted commodity. I just hope they get a worthy opponent; if not Florida/Alabama, then hopefully undefeated Cincinnati or one-loss Georgia Tech or Pittsburgh. Even if Boise State gets in, too, I don't think it serves anyone for those two to meet in a bowl for the second straight year.

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