Posted: Wednesday October 20, 2010 12:36PM ; Updated: Wednesday October 20, 2010 5:54PM
Stewart Mandel

How perceived conference strength impacts the polls; more Mailbag

Story Highlights

SEC teams are benefiting in the polls from the league's out-of-date reputation

Mike Leach would face challenges at Minnesota -- but so would any new coach

Boise State playing for the title would help the BCS more than it would hurt it

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The SEC's reputation helped Florida stay ranked despite back-to-back loses to Alabama and LSU.
The SEC's reputation helped Florida stay ranked despite back-to-back loses to Alabama and LSU.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

As much as we love to criticize the pollsters, there's a valid argument to be made that voters are more "nuanced" today than, say, 10 years ago. It used to be, one team loses, the next team moves up a spot. Rinse and repeat. Today's voters tend to react more fluidly -- albeit not always to our liking -- based on context, schedule strength and other factors.

But are they putting too much emphasis on one particular concept?

It is obvious to me that in this BCS era, THE most important factor in the rankings and especially in getting to the BCS Championship is perceived conference strength. Obviously the SEC is regarded as the strongest conference year-in and year-out and therefore gets the benefit of the doubt (Auburn rated over Michigan State or Missouri; Alabama rated over other one-loss teams, like Arizona). My question is, have the polls become so "conference enamored" that other more important factors are virtually ignored?
-- John Moore, Paramount, Calif.

Let's start with the disclaimer that THE most important factor in the rankings is not losing. Undefeated almost always trumps one-loss, one-loss almost always trumps two losses, etc., and while there are some exceptions now (undefeated Oklahoma State and Missouri, which have played weak schedules, are behind eight one-loss teams), those discrepancies will diminish by season's end.

But there's no denying the importance of perceived conference strength, in particular the SEC's, which has been deservedly built up over the past four years. To me, the single biggest turning points of the BCS era were Auburn's 2004 title-game snub and Florida's 2006 title-game rout of season-long No. 1 Ohio State. Prior to '04, the voters really didn't differentiate much between the major conferences, but Auburn's exclusion really started the "S-E-C, S-E-C" rallying cry from that league's constituents, who screamed to anyone and everyone about how much tougher their league was than the Pac-10 or Big 12. Two years later, 12-1 Florida got in over 11-1 Michigan due in part to that growing reputation, then bolstered it by throttling the Big Ten's much-hyped champ. LSU benefited from that enhanced reputation a year later to get into the game over several other two-loss teams, and so on and so on.

The problem, of course, is that relative conference strength is not static. It changes from year to year, and only now are the voters starting to recognize that maybe the SEC isn't all that this year, that the Pac-10, for one, may be stronger and deeper. But because Alabama started No. 1, and because Florida somehow stayed in the polls through last week, and because Arkansas inexplicably rose into the top 10 in September based on little besides conference affiliation, the perception is that Auburn, LSU and 'Bama play a tougher conference schedule than Arizona or Stanford, when really we have no idea if that's true.

I wish the voters would put more emphasis on nonconference results. If they did, Arizona, which beat Iowa, would be a lot higher than 18th in the BCS standings. But here's where the SEC is a bit crafty. It starts playing conference games as early as the second week of the season, so its teams get a boost in the polls simply by beating each other. In other leagues, it's inevitable that nonconference results from four games in September will eventually get trumped by eight conference games in October and November. So at this point, the Wildcats' more recent loss to Oregon State has a bigger impact than that Sept. 18 win over Iowa. Mind you, Alabama lost to South Carolina the same day Arizona lost to the Beavers, yet remains 10 spots higher. But the Tide's was an SEC loss, so clearly it's more forgivable.

The Mandel Initiative
Source: SI's Andy Staples joins the show for a midseason roundtable discussion on surprises, disappointments, BCS picks and more.

Hi, Stewart. I know Mike Leach is the top name for any coaching vacancy, but do you think his pass-heavy system, which relies heavily on run-after-the-catch to be successful, could win games in the cold and wet weather of late October and November in Big Ten country? As you mentioned, Minnesota has a new stadium, and it doesn't have a roof like the old one.
-- Brent, Memphis

I think the notion that a team can't run a passing offense in cold weather is a bit antiquated at this point. Is there any quantitative evidence to support it? With the possible exception of a monsoon or a blizzard, I think most players in this day and age are highly trained enough to handle the ball in adverse conditions. And as we saw last week at Nebraska, players can just as easily drop wide-open touchdowns when it's 70 degrees and sunny.

Recruiting is a more legitimate concern. At Tech, Leach coached in a state so deep with high school talent that even if Texas and Texas A&M signed better classes, Leach still had access to plenty of athletic but overlooked in-state kids, many of whom probably fit his system better than the four- or five-star guys. And spread-passing offenses are the norm across the state. At Minnesota, he'd have to recruit more regionally and nationally, going head-to-head with schools like Iowa and Wisconsin while playing against teams like Ohio State and Nebraska that, much like Oklahoma and Texas, will always have better players. I think he'd be able to lure quarterbacks and receivers, but linemen would gravitate toward the more physical teams, and elite defensive talent will always be hard to land. The latter will be true for any prospective Minnesota coach, though, not just Leach.

A sort of consensus has grown around the Gators' downfall: namely that their offense just does not fit their quarterback (or perhaps vice-versa). If that is indeed the case, what do you think Urban Meyer would give to have Cameron Newton at the helm instead of John Brantley? And I know the "what ifs" are always difficult, but I can't help but wonder if -- in the Gators' case -- one man truly could be the difference between the Gators I once knew and hated, and the confused mass of orange and light blue I see nowadays.
-- Judson Crump, Mobile, Ala.

I'm sure Meyer would love to have the 2010 version of Newton. A lot of teams would. But none of us know what kind of player Newton looked like on the practice field in 2008, nor do we know whether, given another year or two of development, he would have moved back ahead of Brantley on the Gators' depth chart. (Remember, he was ahead of Brantley when both were freshman before a 2008 injury.) It's also too simplistic to assume that Florida's offense would be cooking right now if the Gators simply subbed Newton for Brantley. Obviously, they'd have a more effective QB-run game, but that wouldn't solve everything. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Florida's offense stinks right now because it doesn't have enough good players.

It's time for Gators fans to stop living off the recruiting rankings and start accepting the fact that Florida is sorely lacking in offensive talent. In particular, its offensive line is atrocious. I'm puzzled, because it's a veteran unit full of players who helped win 26 games the past two years. But they're not controlling the line, which means Florida's average-to-begin-with running backs (with the exception of Jeff Demps, who's been limited by injury) have no holes to run through and Brantley rarely has time to throw downfield. When he does, he's throwing to mostly underachieving receivers (Carl Moore being the one exception). I'm not saying Brantley isn't without faults, but he's shown promise. Most everyone else looks like a bust to this point.

Meyer has said that Florida will be making changes during the current bye week. He did the same thing in 2005, after a similarly sluggish start, and Chris Leak and the Gators were more productive the rest of the way. It will be interesting to see what those changes are. It might be time to rely more heavily on change-of-pace QB Trey Burton, make Omarius Hines a more permanent fixture in the running game and, most importantly, strip down the playbook so Brantley is only asked to do what he's most comfortable with.

How do you have time to write articles between all your Gator bashing?
-- Marc Stephens

I work on them between Florida touchdowns. It gives me a good two to three hours of uninterrupted work time.
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