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August 13, 2010

Mailbag: Easy slate not the way to BCS glory

One of the criticisms of the Bowl Championship Series -- and there are many -- is that it discourages teams from playing competitive non-conference schedules.

One loss can put a team's national championship aspirations in jeopardy. With the notable exception of LSU in '07, two losses can end them.

Why, then, should teams play legitimate opponents outside of conference play? In the 1990s, Kansas State would play a ridiculous collection of non-conference cupcakes yet often was in the thick of the national championship picture in November.

That philosophy raises the criticism that the national champion isn't necessarily the strongest team but the strongest team with the easiest schedule.

Thankfully, some high-profile programs still play at least one legitimate foe each season. Alabama played Virginia Tech en route to the national title last season. This season, the Tide faces Penn State. USC typically has played a challenging non-conference schedule that annually includes Notre Dame. Oklahoma usually plays at least one tough opponent outside the Big 12; this season, the Sooners face Cincinnati and Florida State. LSU plays North Carolina.

Those kind of games get national attention, which attracts heralded recruits, who then help teams contend for national titles. Still, at least one program might be too ambitious in its scheduling. But should that be commended or criticized?

That's a topic of discussion in this week's mailbag.

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Too tough?

Given the polling system in college football, please help me understand why Miami would schedule five or six ranked teams? I don't get it. Everyone knows you can't have more than one loss to have a chance at a national championship. Why would the Hurricanes do this?
Dave in Washington, D.C.

Personally, I think teams should be praised, not criticized, for playing a challenging schedule. And Miami's schedule is challenging, with early trips to Ohio State and Pittsburgh among seven games against opponents that won at least eight games last season.

But teams that play tough competition often seem to get better because of it. Take Oregon State, for example: The Beavers typically play a rugged non-conference schedule but close strong. Oregon State has won at least eight games in each of the past four seasons and is 20-5 in the second half of the regular season in that span. Of course, the Beavers haven't played for the national championship, either. That brings us back to your point.

The national championship should be won by the strongest team, not the strongest team with the easiest schedule. And since the inception of the BCS system, which uses polls to set up the national championship matchup, there is little to suggest that a soft schedule ensures a shot at the national title.

Florida reached the '06 national championship game (and beat Ohio State) despite facing eight opponents in the regular season that posted at least eight victories that year. In '07, national champion LSU played seven teams in the regular season with at least eight wins. Last season, Alabama had six such wins -- over Virginia Tech, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn and Florida. Ohio State also faced six such teams in '02. LSU's '03 national championship team played six teams that posted at least eight wins (and we're not even counting the second time the Tigers had to play 10-3 Georgia).

In fact, the only BCS national champions that played fewer than four eight-win opponents were USC in '04 and Texas in '05, which both played three.

Texas did beat 10-2 Ohio State on the road in '05, while USC beat 10-3 Virginia Tech in a non-conference game.

By the way, USC is one of three national champions in the past six seasons to beat Virginia Tech in a non-conference game. LSU beat the Hokies in '07 and Alabama beat them last season. So, if Boise State beats Virginia Tech in the season-opener ...

Besides, an easy schedule can work against a team. Texas might have had the best team in the country in '08, but was voted behind Oklahoma in the BCS standings despite beating the Sooners. OU's stronger schedule -- the Sooners played Cincinnati and TCU -- made more of an impression on BCS voters. Texas' strongest non-conference foe that season probably was 5-7 Arkansas.

The real point here is this: A soft schedule can make for a better record and perhaps an easier path to a BCS bowl. But the strongest team, those that deserve to play for the national championship, will beat tough competition anyway.


Unbalanced

Why is it that so many of the high-octane offensive teams can score a lot of points, but have such poor defenses? It would seem to me that their No. 1 defense would be playing their No. 1 offense in many practices throughout the year, so why aren't their defenses better?
Dave in Lufkin, Texas

There are plenty of theories for that -- remember that a lot of teams don't always have the No. 1 offense going against the No. 1 defense in practice -- but the thought here is that's simply a matter of priorities established by the coach.

Offense-minded head coaches spend more time devising ways to score and practicing to perfect them. As a result, highly touted recruits who play offensive positions may be attracted to that school. Meanwhile, the same emphasis may not be placed on defense. A team might not be known for defense, so great defensive prospects instead are attracted to great defensive programs.

Facing elaborate offensive schemes and talented offensive players on a daily basis probably does help some players get better. But most second-tier players probably remain second-tier players regardless.

A good offensive coordinator can take lesser players and scheme ways to be effective. But that's not necessarily the case on defense. A receiver with questionable speed can run a perfect route and become an efficient "possession" receiver. A defensive back with questionable speed eventually will get burned.

Of course, there are teams with high-scoring offenses and stingy defenses. Last season, eight teams were ranked among the nation's top 25 in scoring offense and scoring defense.

They were Boise State (1st offense, 14th defense), Texas (3rd, 12th), Florida (10th, 4th), Central Michigan (13th, 17th), Pittsburgh (21st, 19th), Alabama (22nd, 2nd) and Virginia Tech (24th, 9th).


Missing piece

Can N.C. State compete for an ACC championship with linebacker Nate Irving returning to the team?
Tyler in Virginia

The return of Irving, a talented linebacker who missed last season after a car crash, surely will boost the defense, which last season allowed eight opponents to score at least 30 points.

But N.C. State has a rebuilt defensive line and a secondary that was shaky last season and likely will be shaky again. Offensively, the running game was atrocious -- and the top two running backs from '09 are gone.

If Irving is able to play at the level he did before his accident, he'll make the defense much better. Still, there are too many other issues and too much uncertainty to project the Wolfpack as a conference championship contender, especially with Atlantic Division rivals Florida State, Clemson and Boston College expected to be improved.

It wouldn't be surprising if NC State improved by two or even three wins and made a postseason appearance, but an ACC championship seems unlikely even with Irving.


Red Raider respect

Texas Tech always seems to be the forgotten team in the Big 12 South. Now that coach Tommy Tuberville is in Lubbock, will Tech be taken seriously nationally?
Jesse in Lubbock, Texas

The Red Raiders already have been taken seriously. Lest we forget, they were ranked No. 2 in the nation and had a chance at reaching the BCS championship game in '08 before getting blown out by Oklahoma.

That game was in Norman. Had it been in Lubbock, where the Red Raiders typically play much better, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

But for all that was accomplished -- and nearly accomplished -- under Mike Leach, the Red Raiders never represented the South Division in the Big 12 championship game and never finished in the top 10 (though they were 12th in '08).

Leach's teams featured terrific offenses and often mediocre defenses. Make no mistake, under Tuberville, Texas Tech will field a formidable defensive unit, but it may take a season or two to assemble the needed personnel.

Ole Miss was pretty good under Tuberville. At Auburn, Tuberville had one of the best teams (maybe the best) in the nation in '04. He'll be successful in Lubbock, too. Given time, the Red Raiders will field tough, athletic teams that will play good defense and still (he vows) have wide-open offenses.

Still, it's not likely Tuberville will have Tech consistently beating the Sooners and Longhorns. But Tech will have a solid team with more than a gimmicky offense and won't easily be beaten.


In a word ...

Piggy-backing off your Boise State answer, if Fresno State wins all its non-conference games (including ones over Cincinnati, Ole Miss and Illinois) and loses only to Boise State, does the WAC get two teams in the BCS?
Albert in Fresno, Calif.

That's easy. No.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
Got a question for Olin's Mailbag? Click here to drop him a note


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