Posted: Wednesday December 5, 2012 12:42PM ; Updated: Wednesday December 5, 2012 12:42PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>COLLEGE FOOTBALL MAILBAG

Projecting the bowl lineup with a playoff; sizing up hires; more mail

Story Highlights

Even if the new playoff system were in effect, NIU would still land in a major bowl

Bret Bielema's hire has upside; Gus Malzahn's attack could cause issues for 'Bama

Plus: More on mock selection committee; conference title game attendance; more

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Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch
Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois finished No. 15 in the final BCS standings to earn an Orange Bowl berth against Florida State.
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

I've now re-watched Kirk Herbstreit's Howard Beale rant from Sunday night about Northern Illinois' Orange Bowl berth at least seven times. I may even watch it again tonight. It's that mesmerizing. My favorite part: Right after Herbstreit says, "You're going to take Oklahoma out to put Northern Illinois in? Are you kidding me?" At which point he pauses for a beat to collect himself, as if the true horror of it all only set in when the words came out of his mouth.

I'm also preemptively heartbroken for Kirk because he's setting himself up for future disappointment. At one point early on, he says: "Thank goodness we're moving to a new system in 2014." Well, sure, there are a lot of reasons to be excited for the new playoff, but if he's under the impression the new system is going to rid the marquee bowls of freeloaders like Northern Illinois ... well, he hasn't been following the news lately.

How differently would the bowl game lineup be if the current projected playoff system were in place this year? I still see Wisconsin and NIU having gotten into "BCS" games, if not necessarily the Orange in NIU's case.
-- Aaron Long, Maine

So here's the thing: Northern Illinois is playing in a BCS bowl because of a political compromise between the haves and the have-nots back in 2004. It lowered the BCS qualification threshold for non-AQ champs from top six to top 12 -- or, as is the case this year, top 16 if one of the AQ champs (in this case, Louisville and Wisconsin) are ranked lower. NIU is the first of the BCS busters to get in under that latter clause.

Last month, the BCS commissioners announced a similar deal that provides a guaranteed berth to one of the top six games for the highest-ranked of the Group of Five -- Big East, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt -- beginning in 2014. The bar is actually lower -- there is no minimum ranking.

Using the BCS standings as the selection committee's rankings, and using the same lineup as when I did this hypothetical a few weeks ago, here's what the bowl lineup would look like this year:

• Fiesta: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Oregon

• Orange: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida

• Sugar: No. 5 Kansas State (Big 12 champ) vs. No. 7 Georgia (SEC replacement)

• Rose: No. 6 Stanford (Pac-12 champ) vs. Wisconsin (Big Ten champ)

• Chick-fil-A: No. 8 LSU (at-large) vs. No. 12 Florida State (ACC champ)

• Cotton: No. 9 Texas A&M (at-large) vs. No. 15 Northern Illinois (Group of Five)

So we get fantastic semifinals. Georgia replaces Louisville. But beyond that, the Rose Bowl still has an unranked team, LSU and Texas A&M are playing in the same bowls as they currently are, and FSU and NIU are still in, just not playing against each other. And Herbstreit's Sooners still don't make the cut.

Obviously, the bowls that host the semifinals in a given year will do wonders. In other years, they'll largely become even more marginalized than they are now because with so many contracted tie-ins, it will be nearly impossible to achieve enticing matchups. Kirk is right about one thing, though. On paper, NIU doesn't belong in one of these games. But don't blame the Huskies. Blame the commissioners that keep watering down their own product.

Stewart, is Bret Bielema wise to leave Wisconsin for Arkansas? I understand that the SEC is the focal point of college football for now, and that the road to the national title basically runs through the SEC nowadays. However, is this a good career move for him personally given the security that Bielema must have had at Wisconsin?
-- Louie, Pittsburgh

I would call the move risky, but I wouldn't call it unwise. First of all, who am I to question someone for getting a pay raise or wanting to take on a new challenge? Only Bielema could say what his true motivation is here. But to your second point, that security most of us would assume he's built up by taking to Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls isn't quite what you'd think. Badgers fans never universally supported Bielema. In fact, I was flabbergasted by just how much of the immediate reaction to Tuesday's bombshell was along the lines of "good riddance." They questioned his play-calling and his game management. They didn't like his arrogance or his losing to Ohio State. I'm not saying this is representative of all Wisconsin fans, but it's clear he was never going to escape Barry Alvarez's shadow no matter how many consecutive Rose Bowls he delivered.

STAPLES: Arkansas lands Bielema, deals another blow to Big Ten

That Bielema would leave the reigning three-time Big Ten champion for the sixth- or seventh-best SEC program tells you everything about just how wide the perception gap is between those conferences right now. Thanks to Bobby Petrino, Arkansas fans now expect to contend regularly for BCS berths, but so do seven other SEC fan bases, so they'll never all be happy. But whereas Wisconsin fans have apparently become pretty spoiled, Arkansas fans are hungry more than they are impatient. And Bielema got out of the Big Ten just before the expected Urban takeover, which itself may have contributed to future fan angst. There's no reason to believe Bielema won't be successful. And his cockiness may play better in the macho SEC land than it did in the gentlemanly Big Ten. It certainly won't be any easier going against Nick Saban and Les Miles, but if he can make Arkansas competitive, he's got a better shot at the national title in Fayetteville than he did in Madison.

Stewart, Gus Malzahn's hurry-up style of offense is exactly the type of attack that Nick Saban scorns. Do you foresee a much more competitive Iron Bowl next year, or will it take time? In any case, it would seem like the rivalry will become very healthy again soon.
-- Foster, Howard, Pa.

I would assume that entered the thought process when Auburn made its decision. Heck, I assume every decision made at Auburn these days starts with the question: "Will this bother Nick Saban?" And Malzahn's style certainly got to Saban the first time they faced each other in 2009. Auburn jumped to a 14-0 lead in that game against an eventual national-championship defense that featured Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody, Javier Arenas and many others, and it eventually reclaimed the lead on a 72-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. The Tigers outgained the Tide that day, 332-291, in a 26-21 loss. And we all remember the 2010 game.

Of course, Alabama crushed Auburn, 42-14, in 2011, but the cupboard was starting to get pretty depleted by then. Obviously, it's even worse now.

MANDEL: Auburn turns to Malzahn to recreate past BCS magic

So to address your question, I would imagine it will take more than a year for Auburn to make headway in that rivalry. Malzahn needs players. I would assume he'll get more production from the quarterback position, and he'll have some young offensive linemen that could make strides over the offseason. But he needs more skill players and more depth in general. Who knows how long that will take? Still, once the personnel gap closes a little, some of those annual tactical showdowns between Malzahn and Saban could be fascinating.

Hi Stewart. Who is going to have the unfortunate job of telling Kirk Herbstreit that Northern Illinois would be an automatic qualifier in the new system too? I think someone should let him know, but who wants to watch him get all upset about it again?
-- Matt M., Chicago

I usually run into Kirk at the BCS championship game. I'll tell him, but I'll be extremely disappointed if his reaction is anything other than (scrunched-up mad face) "Are you kidding me?"

 
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