Posted: Wednesday November 21, 2012 9:02AM ; Updated: Wednesday November 21, 2012 9:02AM
Stewart Mandel

Reexamining the college football playoff or BCS debate; more mail

Story Highlights

Last week would've been less exciting with playoff, but move from BCS is positive

Newest wave in realignment could test fans' patience with oversized conferences

Plus: Pac-12 picture, overlooked Clemson, Jon Gruden's coaching prospects, more

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Oregon's Marcus Mariota
Despite suffering a very similar first loss just one week after Alabama, Marcus Mariota and Oregon are ranked three spots behind the Crimson Tide in the AP Poll.
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The Mandel Initiative Podcast
Stewart and guest co-host Andy Staples discuss the BCS race, Big Ten expansion, Tennessee and Cal's coaching changes and more.

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As loyal readers know, I spent about four years pushing for the very four-team playoff that college football finally adopted this summer. I'm still eagerly looking forward to it in 2014. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a brief moment of buyer's remorse last Saturday night around the time Stanford's Jordan Williamson lined up for that game-winning kick against Oregon.

Wouldn't you agree that if the four-team playoff were in effect this season, the drama would be far less intense and exciting than it is now? The BCS system is working splendidly and they should have left it alone.
-- Mike Brand, Tallahassee, Fla.

No system where the coaches can vote for their own teams to reach the championship game is working splendidly. But yes, when BCS defenders talk about protecting the regular season, it's nights like last Saturday they have in mind. Proponents of a full-fledged playoff love mocking that talking point, but you can't tell me you would have been on the edge of your seat flipping between those two brewing upsets if the stakes were along the lines of, "Uh oh, Oregon may lose home-field advantage in the first round." The fact that nothing short of the national championship was at stake is what made those games so riveting. A playoff will be far more exciting than the current postseason, but the regular season is going to lose those peaks in drama. That's just reality.

Now here's why I'm fine with that tradeoff if we're getting a four-team playoff: Have you noticed that later in the season, the number of must-see games drastically decreases? In September and October, it was a fairly big deal any time a top-10 team went down. By early November, our focus had narrowed to just four teams (Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame). Now this week, there is really only one game the entire country cares about (Notre Dame-USC). Even Ohio State-Michigan, which in any other year would be the game of the week given the Buckeyes' 11-0 record, isn't garnering much buzz due to the lack of BCS implications. And just think, if the Irish do win this week, thereby clinching one of the two spots in Miami, next week will truly be about one game: the SEC championship. By expanding the field by two teams, more late-season games will carry greater consequences -- even if one stunning upset may not mean what it used to.

Meanwhile, the more I contemplate the new system, the more I think that the biggest upgrade isn't the expanded field as much as the advent of the selection committee. The sport has been defined by the polls for so long that we now take certain things for granted. For example, we've come to accept that the undefeated teams rank ahead of the one-loss teams, and that the one-loss teams rank ahead of the two-loss teams. Among each group, the order generally goes by which team lost least recently.

Case in point: Alabama was ranked one spot higher than Oregon when it lost at home to 7-2 Texas A&M. Why are the Ducks now three spots behind the Tide despite suffering an almost identical close loss to 8-2 Stanford? With a selection committee, there is no preexisting order or conventions. Who teams lost to will trump when they lost. And if the committee feels, say, 10-2 Texas A&M is more deserving than 11-1 Kansas State, so be it. Give us the four best teams, not the four best records.

So yes, there are elements of the current system I will miss. But I'm embracing the change. And as most of you know, I don't always embrace change.

Stewart, Do you think there will be a backlash to the new oversized conferences in the SEC and Big Ten? With only eight conference games and protected cross-divisional games, it's hard to feel that two teams are even in the same conference. Georgia and Alabama, who will likely face off in the SEC championship, only played four common opponents this year. Nebraska will likely only travel to Bloomington to face the Hoosiers once a decade. There will be entire recruiting classes that never play against a cross-division opponent. Aren't these leagues eventually going have regrets about expansion and clamor for smaller conferences?
-- Al Caniglia, Arlington, Va.

I made my feelings known Tuesday about the Big Ten's East Coast invasion, and expressed much this very sentiment. I believe the realignment craze is a bubble that will eventually burst. But I'll also admit I'm not a prophet, and I can't say with any certainty what college football will look like 10 years down the road. To his credit, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has stated his vision quite clearly this week. He sees the population shifting away from his conference's natural region, and he sees other leagues expanding outside of their natural regions. He's come to the conclusion that the Big Ten needs to quite literally expand to keep up with those leagues going forward.

So the conference has a chance to make oodles of money -- but at what cost? Expansion isn't improving the league's football product, and it's chipping away at the regional charm that attracted many of its fans in the first place. All of these conferences are gambling that their fans will remain uber-loyal no matter how many rivalries and road trips are taken away.

The traditional notion of conferences as regional groupings of like-minded schools that fans look forward to facing every year is history. Leagues are now basically branded bundles of television packages. They're coalitions, not true conferences, much like the AFC and NFC. In the NFL, except for a few rivalries like Bears-Packers and Cowboys-Giants, a team's actual schedule of 16 games makes almost no impact on fan interest. A Bengals fan is going to watch the Bengals on Sunday whether they're facing the Browns or the Chargers. And that's the type of mindset that's surfacing in college football. If you're a Wisconsin fan, you're going to see Michigan some years, but you're going to see Rutgers every year -- and you're going to like it. So what if you've been in the same conference with LSU since 1896, Georgia fans? You're playing Missouri now. We'll get you a couple of LSU games next decade.

I think all of this is an absolute shame, but it's too soon to know whether the leagues will come to regret it. College fans have been pretty accepting of the changes to date, no matter their initial reaction. I do think there will come a point of resistance; we'll find out down the road whether they've hit it or not.

Stewart, all Stanford has to do is beat UCLA this weekend to play in the Pac-12 championship. It doesn't matter what Oregon does. Why do you still project the Ducks in the Rose Bowl and Stanford as an at-large BCS selection?
-- Scott Saxton, Windsor, Ontario

Referring to your bowl projections, by predicting Oregon will make the Rose Bowl, you have to assume Stanford will lose to UCLA this weekend. With a loss to UCLA, do you think the Fiesta would still take Stanford? If so, why wouldn't the bowl take UCLA instead?
-- Tom Sullivan, Springdale, Ohio

Based on the amount of e-mails I got like these (and there were a lot), I take it not many of you think UCLA will beat Stanford this weekend. Personally, I have no idea who will win that game. I don't even have a hunch. So I can't say there's any particular reason why I went with the scenario I did. But here's why Stanford gets the BCS nod over UCLA either way: The Bruins are No. 17 in the BCS standings right now. They'd probably move into the top 14 if they beat Stanford this week, but they'd need a lot of help to stay there if they went and lost a week later. On the other hand, Stanford is all the way up at No. 8 and can almost certainly survive a loss this weekend. So either UCLA wins the Pac-12, goes to the Rose Bowl and opens up a second spot for Oregon, or the Cardinal or Ducks win the Pac-12 and the other gets the second spot.

Now, it may be that the Pac-12 only gets a second BCS berth if Notre Dame wins this weekend. In my projections, Notre Dame, the SEC, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 claim the four at-large spots. The Fiesta Bowl has first choice of at-large teams. If the Irish go to the national championship game, they're off the table; the Sugar gets first dibs to replace the SEC champion, and the game's not going to pit Big 12 against Big 12. So by default, it's going to take a Pac-12 team, even if that's 9-3 Stanford.

However, if the Irish lose, they're going to the Fiesta Bowl. At that point, the national title game may features two SEC teams, and the Sugar Bowl would more likely pit the Big 12 against 11-1 or 10-2 Clemson than take a West Coast team.

And oh, by the way, I wound up picking Stanford to beat UCLA in the Weekend Pickoff. So we'll just have to revisit this question all over again next week.

Seriously? Notre Dame is unanimously the best team in the country right now?
-- Jeff, Hyrum, Utah

Seriously. You'd be surprised how much respect a team can gain by winning all of its games -- including against a pair of top-15 teams -- and by fielding arguably the nation's top defense. The most amazing stat of the entire season may be this: On 105 drives that started at or inside their opponent's 40-yard line, Notre Dame has allowed one touchdown -- in the opener against Navy.

A hearty to salute to you, Fighting Irish defenders.

ND to the title game? Kills you, doesn't it, Stewart, being the Irish hater you are?
-- Richie, Ocean View, N.J.

Really? We're still playing this game?
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