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Why Penn State finds itself in a College Football Playoff pickle

On Monday, I wrote a column breaking down every remaining playoff scenario and explained why it’s futile to fixate on the Ohio State vs. Penn State argument because the Buckeyes are getting in regardless of who wins Saturday night.

Clearly, you didn’t listen. I could fill this entire Mailbag with questions about that particular controversy. (Don’t worry, I won’t.)

Hi Stewart: I get that Ohio State is almost a lock to get in the CFP. That being said, I think it would be an injustice if Penn State won the Big Ten and was left out of the CFP. If Ohio State truly is the second-best team in the country, shouldn’t the conference champion that handed OSU its only loss be included as well?  

— Scott Saxton, Windsor, Ontario 
I’ve got to imagine Barry Alvarez is not the only committee member pulling for Wisconsin on Saturday, because there’s no question that scenario would make a lot of people uncomfortable. The head-to-head aspect is one thing; how do you leave out the champion of the toughest conference in the country this year?

But it’s important to remember why we’re facing this scenario in the first place.

If Penn State, like Ohio State, was 11-1 with its only loss to Michigan, there’s no question in my mind the Nittany Lions would be ahead of the Buckeyes already. They’d be no lower than No. 3. The reason they’re not is because they also lost a non-conference game at 8-4 Pittsburgh while Ohio State went to Oklahoma, now 9-2, and won by three touchdowns. Those games count just as much as any conference games — including Ohio State at Penn State.

Trace McSorley

I understand the unease about ignoring a conference’s own standings, I do. But if, like many, you believe “if you can’t win your own division, you shouldn’t make the playoff,” then you’re basically saying September is exhibition season. Teams might as well schedule all MAC/Sun Belt opponents, because only your eight or nine conference games dictate who makes the playoff.

Furthermore, consider that if Iowa had missed a last-second field goal against Michigan, Ohio State’s in Indianapolis this week and we’re not having this discussion. Why should the Iowa-Michigan game determine whether Ohio State and/or Penn State is one of the four best teams in the country?

As for head-to-head — if these two had the same record and played the same conference schedule then yes, absolutely, Penn State should get in before Ohio State. But the committee has made clear that head-to-head is to be used as a tiebreaker, not a trump card.

The unfortunate aspect of this whole debate is that it’s caused me to spend a whole bunch of time denigrating a very good Penn State team. The Nittany Lions have morphed into an offensive juggernaut over the second half of the season behind much-improved QB Trace McSorley.

But unfortunately, they weren’t remotely close to that level in September. And there’s no preseason in college football.

Are we a Washington and Clemson upset away from the B1G East getting three teams in the playoff? 

— Scott Dean, Alabama 

Jim Harbaugh

I’d certainly place greater odds at this point on three Big Ten teams making it than I would one Big 12 team.

As I wrote Tuesday night, Kirby Hocutt seemed to be telegraphing something with his relentless repetition of the “small margin of separation” between Washington and Michigan. Either he’s pre-emptively propping up the Wolverines or setting up the possibility of the Big Ten champ passing the Huskies. But of course if Colorado beats Washington, the only question will be which Big Ten team gets the second berth. I still believe it will be the winner in Indianapolis.

But if both Washington and Clemson lose, you’re basically down to three contenders — Michigan, Colorado and the Big 12 champ. We now know the committee feels CU is better than Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, even before a possible Colorado victory over fourth-ranked Washington that should trump the Bedlam result.

So if the Big 12 is out, then you’re looking at Michigan vs. Colorado, and while clearly head-to-head is a selective criteria for this committee, I have to believe the Wolverines’ 45-28 victory won’t help the Buffs overcome Michigan’s currently superior resume.

Stewart: Mike Slive was adamant that the selection committee should take the “four best,” with a nod to Jim Delany and the Big Ten’s desire to having only conference champions in the mix. With Ohio State and possibly Michigan possibilities this year, is Slive’s desire coming to fruition this year but not in favor of the conference for which he envisioned it?  

Stan Lewis, Vidalia, GA 

It sure looks that way.

I covered every little step of the roughly six-month negotiations in 2012 leading up to the playoff’s inception, so I remember well the various commissioners’ stances. Remember, we were fresh off the 2011 LSU-Alabama BCS championship rematch. Slive was obviously going to fight to preserve the SEC’s ability to keep putting multiple teams in contention for the national championship. The Pac-12’s Larry Scott was actually the most adamant about restricting to conference champs. Delany was somewhere in between, but at one point actually said, “I don’t have a lot of regard” for a team that doesn’t win its division.

(Cough, cough, Ohio State, cough.)

The main reason we have a selection committee now instead of using polls or another BCS-type formula is that Delany for one did not think traditional pollsters paid enough credence to scheduling inequities. In particular, he and Scott did not want to see their champions rewarded for playing tough non-conference schedules and nine conference games while the SEC’s and others played eight. The entire concept of a selection committee was basically a compromise. It would provide both the freedom to pick the four best regardless of whether they won their conference, as Slive desired, but also lay out a set of criteria they should emphasize — one of which is winning your conference.

If you’ve never done so before, I highly recommend reading the official selection committee protocol document — nicknamed the “Federalist Papers” by CFP officials. Delany’s unique voice is prevalent throughout, and you’ll notice just how deliberately it essentially beats the drum for conference championships without explicitly making them a prerequisite.

Stewart: Will the 2017 college football slogan be, “Make the SEC great again?” Has Nick Saban scared away coaches from wanting to take jobs in the SEC? The league clearly is lacking star power in the coaching ranks, and it seems that coaches around the country would rather coach elsewhere else then deal with Saban and the empire he has built. Do you think the league is filled with mediocre coaches as a result of Saban? 

— John, Summit, NJ

That’s an interesting theory. I don’t know how much it’s been put to the test. Besides Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman, there’s not a long list of accomplished coaches who’ve recently turned down SEC overtures. But there’s no question the quality of the coaching roster in that conference has slipped recently.

Part of that is attrition. In the last year alone, a Hall of Fame coach, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, and a four-time Big 12 or SEC division champ, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, both retired. Both Georgia (Mark Richt) and LSU (Les Miles) ran off mainstays who’d won at a very high level for a very long time. Vandy’s James Franklin parlayed his historic success there for Penn State.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote this week, the most detrimental Saban ripple is that he’s affected several schools’ hiring choices. Florida (first with Will Muschamp, now with Jim McElwain), Georgia (Kirby Smart) and South Carolina (Muschamp) are all trying to topple Saban by hiring his assistants. Smart in particular is basically trying to recreate Tuscaloosa in Athens. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But an underwhelming 7-5 debut season has many wondering why Smart was Georgia’s one and only after firing Richt.

Finally, there’s this: As much as SEC schools like to throw around money, they’ve also hamstrung their ability to make a change when warranted. Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin makes $ 5 million a year yet has failed to finish above .500 in the conference the past four seasons, but it would cost the school $ 15 million to fire him. So, status quo. Tennessee’s Butch Jones has become a walking train-wreck, but it’d cost nearly $ 11 million to fire him. So, he’ll be back to play for another Championship of Life.

I watched the Michigan vs. Ohio State game last weekend and there were some game-changing calls the refs made.  With that in mind, why is that coaches are basically forbidden from stating their opinion about the quality of officiating after a game?  Would Urban Meyer have been fined for lauding the “great” quality of officiating if he had done so in his press conference? Is there some real reason coaches are not allowed to comment on refs? 

— Tom Koziara, Chapel Hill, NC

I understand why Jim Harbaugh was upset with the officiating right after the game — he’d just suffered a heartbreaking loss — but he didn’t know any better than the rest of us whether the spot on J.T. Barrett’s run was correct. People are still freeze-framing it days later. And while there were a couple of other questionable calls, none were glaringly awful. There was no Oklahoma State-Central Michigan-level controversy surrounding the outcome of that game.

All sports leagues frown on coaches criticizing the officiating because it undermines their credibility. Scorned fans of a losing team are already crazed enough without the coach lending credence to their conspiracy theories (of which Michigan fans have authored many.)  And let’s be honest, 95 percent of coaches on the wrong end of a close loss would happily scapegoat the officials were there no consequences. That’s especially true in college basketball, where no coach in history has ever agreed with a foul call against one of his players.

I would like to see more transparency in college officiating. If there’s a controversial call, they should come to a press conference rather than releasing a statement. Meanwhile, conferences grade officials’ performance in every game but they don’t publicize those like the NBA does. Coaches can’t publicly critique the officials, but I don’t see why their supervisors can’t.

It seems rather odd that LSU was quick to fire Les Miles in fear that he would make a mid/late-season run and save his job, only to keep his interim replacement. I can’t believe they didn’t have “their guy” lined up, as Texas obviously did.  Did LSU expect to hire Tom Herman only to have him stolen away at the 11th hour, or is this just a lack of vision on LSU’s part? 

— Chris A., Chicago

By all accounts, LSU AD Joe Alleva’s No. 1 target for a full year was Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. But he had to realize it was no sure thing he’d leave Tallahassee. When that didn’t come to fruition, his Plan B was to basically try to beat Texas to the punch for Herman. That was either arrogance on his part, ignorance regarding Herman’s Texas’ roots, or both. I suppose he could have waited on Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or another sitting head coach, but none of them inspire more confidence than the guy who was a yard against Florida from going 6-1 as the Tigers’ interim coach.

Remember, Alleva had no way of knowing the strong impression Orgeron would make at the time he fired Miles. The official stated reason for the move at the time (as opposed to the real reason of, his offense stunk) was to “put (the players) in the best position to have success on the football field each week,” and he largely accomplished that.

And perhaps just as importantly, LSU saved money by hiring a guy with no outside suitors. Whereas Herman would have cost $ 5 million a year, Orgeron will reportedly make $ 3.5 million, which gives the school more money to spend on assistants. He’s already locked up Dave Aranda by making him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country, per our Bruce Feldman, and we all know his top target for OC: Lane Kiffin.

Stewart: It’s Saturday at 11 p.m. PT, and I just left Stanford Stadium. I witnessed Christian McCaffrey wandering all by himself on the field in an empty stadium after his press conference. I couldn’t help but feel heartily for him as he’s facing a tough decision about his future. The question always comes back for junior superstars, but if you’re him, where do you play in the fall of 2017?

— Blaise Collin, Idaho Falls, ID 

Wow — that may be a tougher call than any playoff scenario. Personally, if I were a student at Stanford I would not want to leave that little oasis any earlier than I had to. But I also did not choose a profession where you can become a multimillionaire the day you leave college. And perhaps more pertinently in his case, I wasn’t running with a football straight into a scrum of tacklers 250 times a year.

I know McCaffrey loves the school and is close with some of the guys in his class who are only now seeing significant playing time. I’m sure it’s tempting to want to come back and try to win another championship together. He’s also very driven by doubters, and after falling completely out of the national conversation after a couple of bad games and an injury, only to still wind up rushing for 1,600 yards, I’m sure part of him wants to come back and make another run at the Heisman.

But McCaffrey plays the one position where there’s a definitive shelf life, and the more carries he racks up in college — 632 to this point, plus 190 receptions and returns — the fewer he’s probably going to make it to in the NFL. I’m not a trained draft evaluator nor plugged in enough to know where his stock is at this point, but assuming it’s somewhere in the mid-to-late first round, he probably needs to turn pro. The good news is, he’s got a former All-Pro father to help with the decision.

Stewart: What effect does off-field news have on 18–22 year olds and their ability to focus on Saturdays? Did the whirlwind of news concerning Charlie Strong/Tom Herman get into the players’ heads more than we would hope? Strong himself said his players were trying too hard to save his job. Did Houston’s seeming flop against Memphis stem from the players knowing their coach was leaving? 

— Michael, Brasstown, NC

Absolutely, it has an effect. Coaches can implore their guys all they want not to “read the blogs,” or to “block out the noise,” etc., etc., but these days the news comes to them. Literally.

This week on The Audible, Bruce relayed a story of how the morning of the Kansas game, players were seeking out Strong because they’d just gotten an ESPN Alert on their phone with a report that the boosters wanted him fired. Clearly, that has an effect on guys’ performances. I certainly think the ‘Horns were playing with an added sense of pressure down the stretch knowing their beloved coach’s precarious status, and that’s not a great recipe for success.

In Houston’s case, the Herman-to-Texas rumors were there from the moment the Cougars knocked off Oklahoma. They played the entire season under that cloud. I can’t say without having been there how it affected their play, but Herman said at his press conference that dealing with those months of rumors was “exhausting.” If that’s the case for him, it probably trickled down to his players.
Stewart, give me five good reasons why Butch Jones should not be fired. Heck I’ll settle for three. 

Joe Simmons 

I can’t give you three reasons. But I can give you 10.625 million.


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