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Helwagen: BCS, Bowl Thoughts

I’ve had a few days for the various bowl bids to percolate in my head. I thought I would share some thoughts on some of the key games as well as other topics on the forefront of the college football world.

Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o will collide in the BCS national title game Jan. 7

I am somewhat of a college football junkie. I think it is great that we will have 35 games spread over the 24-day period between Dec. 15 and Jan. 7. The various ESPN platforms (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ABC) will combine to televise 34 of those games, so those outlets will be a good place to check each day during that stretch.

I serve somewhat of a dual role with 247 Sports. I am the network’s Big Ten senior writer, so I generate notes and columns all season long on Big Ten football. But I am also heavily involved in our Ohio State coverage at Bucknuts.com as I have been since 2003.

Obviously, with Ohio State out of the bowl picture this year, I made the decision to head down to Florida in January. I am planning on helping out with coverage of the Nebraska-Georgia Capital One Bowl and also pitch in for 247 Sports’ coverage of the Under Armour All-American Game events.

But I will keep an eye on all of the college bowl action. Next week, I will reveal my first batch of picks for the bowl season.

Today, I wanted to share some thoughts on the BCS bowl bids and some of the other bowls we will see in the next several weeks. Here we go:

BCS General Thoughts

I guess we have to be happy that the Bowl Championship Series era of college football is winding down.

Beginning in the 2014 season, we will have a much better way of determining the national champion and will also have improved BCS-level bowl match-ups.

Thankfully, they have the championship game right this year with No. 1 Notre Dame playing No. 2 Alabama in the BCS national title game, set for Jan. 7 in Miami. Fans of Florida, Kansas State and Oregon could all complain, but I will point out how I think we do have the top two teams.

We are also getting a compelling No. 4 Oregon-No. 5 Kansas State match-up in the Fiesta Bowl. It was just a few weeks ago when those two were ticketed to play each other in the national title game. This should be a fantastic game – just as the Stanford-Oklahoma State battle last year in the Fiesta was a special game.

But when you delve much below that, you are left scratching your head who put these bowl games together. We know why it happened. The Big Ten, Big East and the non-automatic qualifiers all have a seat at the table. The highest rated non-AQ champion can rate a spot in the BCS by being ranked 16th or higher and finishing ahead of at least one of the six automatic conference champions.

People have come down on No. 15 Northern Illinois (12-1), which won the MAC title. It’s not their fault the system gave them a BCS spot and bumped No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2) out of the Sugar Bowl. The big issue is the format that has the Big East champion, No. 21 Louisville (10-2), and the Big Ten champion, unranked Wisconsin (8-5), still getting automatic slots. (Of course, if Ohio State, which finished 12-0, was eligible, the Buckeyes would have had a chance to win the Big Ten title.)

There is no reason why a team outside the top 15 should be in one of the top-five BCS bowls. Of course, several deserving SEC teams – most notably No. 7 Georgia (11-2), No. 8 LSU (10-2), No. 9 Texas A&M (10-2) and No. 10 South Carolina (10-2) – were all left out of the top bowl games because of the arcane rule limiting conferences to two teams in the BCS.

I’d agree with ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit who said, in effect, split the revenue up anyway you want … just give college football fans the games and teams they want to see.

Picking The Top Two, Picking A Champion

Anybody who has watched the season in its entirety would probably agree that if the national championship race was limited to two teams, then Notre Dame and Alabama should be those teams.

There were two unbeaten teams and four major conference once-beaten teams at the end of the regular season. We know Ohio State was ineligible for the BCS consideration, although the Buckeyes – ranked third in the final regular season Associated Press poll – could still factor in voting for the AP national title if Alabama defeats Notre Dame.

Here is a look at each of these six teams and reasons why they are or are not in the title picture, listed in order of BCS ranking (and Ohio State, obviously, is not ranked in those ratings):

* Notre Dame (12-0) – Loss: None. AP Poll: 1st. Sagarin Computer Ranking: 2nd. Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 30th. Record Vs. AP Ranked Opponents: 4-0, including 2-0 vs. top 10. Best Win: at Oklahoma (ranked eighth).

The Skinny: Notre Dame is the only eligible unbeaten. And, while the Fighting Irish had their share of close calls against lesser opponents – Purdue, Stanford, BYU and Pittsburgh – they did more than enough to earn their spot in the title game. A win over Alabama should give ND a clean sweep of the national title.

* Alabama (12-1) – Loss: Texas A&M (ranked 15th). AP Poll: 2nd. Sagarin Computer Ranking: 1st. Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 35th. Record Vs. AP Ranked Opponents: 4-1, including 3-0 vs. top 10. Best Win: Georgia (ranked third).

The Skinny: Alabama was in a do-or-die SEC title game with then-No. 3 Georgia and the Crimson Tide came through with the thrilling win to punch their ticket to Miami. Alabama is the only team with three wins over AP top-10 teams. The loss to A&M, a 10-win team, is hardly a black mark even at home.

* Florida (11-1) – Loss: Georgia (ranked 10th on game day). AP Poll: 5th. Sagarin Computer Ranking: 4th. Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 16th. Record Vs. AP Ranked Opponents: 4-1, including 2-1 vs. top 10. Best Win: LSU (ranked fourth).

The Skinny: Florida had its chance. The Gators lost to Georgia in SEC play, and Georgia, in turn, lost to Alabama. The Gators have landed on their feet in the Sugar Bowl. In two years, a team with this resume would be in a four-team playoff. It’s unfortunate we aren’t there yet.

* Oregon (11-1) – Loss: Stanford (ranked 13th). AP Poll: 5th. Sagarin Computer Ranking: 3rd. Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 33rd. Record Vs. AP Ranked Opponents: 4-1. Best Win: Oregon State (ranked 15th).

The Skinny: The argument comes down to whether the No. 2 spot should be Alabama or Oregon. Oregon, by any measure, had a great year. But the Ducks didn’t play any AP top-10 teams – Alabama played and beat three of them. Their losses – to teams in the mid-teens, and both at home – were comparable. Using the Florida example above, Oregon lost to Stanford and Notre Dame defeated Stanford – not that there is any debate about ND’s spot in the title game.

* Kansas State (11-1) – Loss: Baylor (unranked). AP Poll: 7th. Sagarin Computer Ranking: 5th. Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 19th. Record Vs. AP Ranked Opponents: 5-0, including 1-0 vs. top 10. Best Win: Oklahoma (ranked sixth).

The Skinny: Of all of these teams, Kansas State has, by far, the worst loss to Baylor (which finished 7-5). And it was a 28-point shiner (52-24) at that. Win that game and it’s Notre Dame vs. Kansas State in the title game. Instead, the Wildcats get that nice Fiesta match-up with Oregon.

* Ohio State (12-0) – Loss: None. AP Poll: 3rd. Sagarin Computer Ranking: 13th. Sagarin Strength Of Schedule: 51st. Record Vs. AP Ranked Opponents: 3-0. Best Win: Michigan (ranked 19th).

The Skinny: The AP voters have a major conference unbeaten behind a once-beaten team, and that is pretty rare to see. But the eyeball test probably favors Alabama. On paper, Ohio State did not play anybody ranked higher than 19th due to a down Big Ten this year. A lackluster Alabama win could open the door for some to vote Ohio State No. 1, although some voters will likely hold probation against the Buckeyes and not vote them No. 1 on that account. No. 2 is probably the best the Buckeyes can hope for in the AP poll.

* Summing Up – So I think the BCS got the championship game right this year, which is most of the battle. My guess is the winner of that Notre Dame-Alabama game will be the national champion in both polls.

What Would Have Been Better

The list of schools that deserved but did not get BCS bowl bids is as long as we’ve ever seen it. Beginning at No. 7 with Georgia, you have LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Oklahoma all in that category.

Instead we are force-fed the likes of Northern Illinois, Louisville and Wisconsin. If the bowls weren’t hamstrung by archaic rules on conference participation and/or having to take league champions regardless of their low rankings, things would look a lot different.

Here is what we could have had:

* BCS Title Game – Notre Dame vs. Alabama

* Sugar Bowl – Florida vs. Oklahoma

* Orange Bowl – Florida State vs. Georgia

* Fiesta Bowl – Oregon vs. Kansas State

* Rose Bowl – Stanford vs. LSU (Tigers get nod over Texas A&M because of head-to-head win)

That would be a powerhouse collection of games, to be sure.

Where Things Are Headed

OK, we know that ESPN has the rights for the new college football postseason format. We don’t have all of the sites set yet, though. We know there will be five protected conference champions (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12) and the highest rated conference champion from the rest of the league will also have a spot.

The selection committee will fill the rest of the spots with the best available teams. The revenue will go into one big pot with everybody getting a cut and academics, somehow, factoring in as well.

I’m just going to say that in the first year the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl would host national semifinal games (those games will rotate between the six bowls in the process; national title game sites can be one of those same cities or somewhere else depending on bidding).

Here is what we could have had:

* Cotton Bowl (national semifinal) – Notre Dame (1) vs. Oregon (4)

* Orange Bowl (national semifinal) – Alabama (2) vs. Florida (3)

* Sugar Bowl – Georgia (7) vs. Kansas State (5) … This will be the newly crowned Champions Bowl with the top available teams from the SEC and Big 12 after the semifinals are matched up.

* Chick-Fil-A Bowl – Florida State (12) vs. Northern Illinois (15) … FSU gets an automatic spot as ACC champion and so does NIU as the highest ranked champion from the “other” conferences.

* Rose Bowl – Stanford (6) vs. Wisconsin (unranked) … This does not change. The Pac-12 and Big Ten champions will play here, unless one or both is selected for the four-team playoff.

* Fiesta Bowl – LSU (8) vs. Oklahoma (11) … The next available teams would round out the rotation.

This brings in 11 of the nation’s top 15 teams, plus Wisconsin. I’ve capped it at four SEC teams because if you get much beyond that you would have SEC teams playing each other or there would be regular season rematches in the bowls, and nobody wants those (if they can be avoided).

I think we are really going to enjoy this new format – a lot! Those are six pretty good games, plus we would be guaranteed to see the ND-Oregon winner against Alabama or Florida in the title game later on.

The only thing is … if Ohio State was eligible, then two deserving one-loss teams would be shoved out (likely Oregon and Kansas State) … and the clamor for an eight-team playoff would just start anew.

BCS Bowl Thoughts

OK, some quick thoughts on each of the five BCS bowls:

* Rose Bowl (at Pasadena, Calif.): Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), Jan. 1, 5 p.m. (ESPN) – Stanford is 11 points and two losses away from a perfect season and possibly a shot at the national title. But the Cardinal can’t take five-loss Wisconsin lightly. The Badgers rushed for 539 yards in their Big Ten title game win over Nebraska. And they want to end a two-year Rose Bowl losing streak and will try and do it without Arkansas-bound head coach Bret Bielema.

* Orange Bowl (at Miami): Northern Illinois (12-1) vs. Florida State (11-2), Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN) – NIU won 12 in a row after an 18-17 loss to Iowa in Chicago in its opener. Florida State has been one of the most up-and-down teams all year. But the Seminoles snapped their ACC title drought at seven years, even if it was in a lackluster 21-15 win over a 6-6 Georgia Tech team.

* Sugar Bowl (at New Orleans): Florida (11-1) vs. Louisville (10-2), Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN) – The Sugar Bowl opted for Louisville instead of Northern Illinois, setting up an intriguing match-up with Florida against Louisville (led by former UF assistant Charlie Strong). If Teddy Bridgewater can get back to full speed, it ought to be a fun one on the fast track at the Superdome.

* Fiesta Bowl (at Glendale, Ariz.): Kansas State (11-1) vs. Oregon (11-1), Jan. 3, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN) – This is going to be a great one with K-State’s Collin Klein going up against Oregon’s amazing offense, led by QB Marcus Mariota.

* BCS National Championship (at Miami): Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1), 8:30 p.m. (ESPN) – Most pundits have Alabama rated as a full touchdown favorite over ND. The SEC will be going for a seventh straight title (including three in four years for Nick Saban and the Tide). ND is shooting for its first national title since 1988. That Alabama running game of 1,000-yard rushers Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon was awesome against Georgia. But LB Manti Te’o leads the nation’s best scoring defense. This will be the highest rated college football game in recorded history.

More Bowl Thoughts

You get beyond those five bowls and there are many others that will be worthwhile watching. I’m not going through all 30 of the “other” bowls. But here are thoughts on 15 of them you will not want to miss:

* Las Vegas Bowl: Boise State (10-2) vs. Washington (7-5), Dec. 22, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN) – Boise State finished 19th in the final BCS standings, coming up a few spots shy of qualifying for a spot.

* Belk Bowl (at Charlotte, N.C.): Duke (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (9-3), Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN) – Duke is going bowling for the first time in 18 years. UC is trying desperately to hold on to coach Butch Jones.

* Holiday Bowl (at San Diego): Baylor (7-5) vs. UCLA (9-4), Dec. 27, 9:45 p.m. (ESPN) – This ought to be a nice offensive explosion. Most Holiday Bowl games are.

* Meineke Car Care Bowl (at Houston): Minnesota (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (7-5), Dec. 28, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – The Meineke bowl people could have taken Purdue or Minnesota. They took the Gophers, who will be in their first bowl since 2009. They’re counting on Texas Tech to fill the stands anyway. (Of course it’s an eight-hour drive from Lubbock to Houston.)

* Pinstripe Bowl (at New York): Syracuse (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5), Dec. 29, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN) – This should be a real shootout between Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib and WVU’s Geno Smith at the House That Jeter Built. Great match-up of past Big East foes, too.

* Alamo Bowl (at San Antonio): Texas (8-4) vs. Orgeon State (9-3), Dec. 29, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN) – Texas was preseason No. 15 in the AP poll and is now unranked. Oregon State was unranked in the preseason and is now 13th in that poll. The Alamo people are happy to have the ‘Horns.

* Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (at Tempe, Ariz.): Michigan State (6-6) vs. TCU (7-5), Dec. 29, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN) – After back-to-back 11-win seasons, MSU can salvage some respectability with a bowl win in the desert.

* Music City Bowl (at Nashville, Tenn.): Vanderbilt (8-4) vs. N.C. State (7-5), Dec. 31, Noon (ESPN) – Vandy will go three miles down the street to the Titans stadium for its bowl game. The Commodores have their most wins since 1982 and will go for their first nine-win season since 1915.

* Sun Bowl (at El Paso, Texas): Georgia Tech (6-7) vs. Southern Cal (7-5), Dec. 31, 2 p.m. (CBS) – USC’s lost season ends in El Paso against a Tech team that needed a special NCAA waiver just to play in a bowl game. Maybe Matt Barkley can answer the bell for the Trojans.

* Chick-fil-A Bowl (at Atlanta): LSU (10-2) vs. Clemson (10-2), Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN) – LSU’s great defense will try and hang with Clemson’s outstanding offense, led by QB Tajh Boyd, at the Georgia Dome. Great one to ring in the new year.

* Heart of Dallas Bowl (at Dallas): Purdue (6-6) vs. Oklahoma State (7-5), Jan. 1, Noon (ESPNU) – Purdue presses on without head coach Danny Hope. Mike Gundy flirted with Tennessee and Arkansas, but sounds like he will stay at Oklahoma State.

* Gator Bowl (at Jacksonville, Fla.): Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Northwestern (9-3), Jan. 1, Noon (ESPN2) – Northwestern has not won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Ole Miss lost four of its last five games after a 7-0 start, so maybe the Wildcats can break through here.

* Capital One Bowl (at Orlando, Fla.): Georgia (11-2) vs. Nebraska (10-3), Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ABC) – The SEC and Big Ten title game losing teams will collide here in Orlando. Can the Nebraska defense rebound from its gashing at the hands of Wisconsin and redeem itself against Georgia and QB Aaron Murray?

* Outback Bowl (at Tampa, Fla.): South Carolina (10-2) vs. Michigan (8-4), Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN) – QB Denard Robinson will make his final appearance for the Wolverines. But South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney will be keyed up to contain him. This should be a fun one.

* Cotton Bowl (at Arlington, Texas): Texas A&M (10-2) vs. Oklahoma (10-2), Jan. 4, 8 p.m. (FOX) – After the BCS title game and the Fiesta Bowl, this is probably the number three bowl game this year. These two teams – old Big 12 South rivals -- would have fit very easily into BCS bowls. Landry Jones vs. Johnny “Football” Manziel. OU had won 10 of the last 12 meetings before A&M left the conference for the SEC this year.

Coaching Carousel

Some quick thoughts on the coaching carousel, which is spinning at warp speed:

* Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema shocked everybody by bolting for Arkansas three days after leading the Badgers to a Big Ten title game win. He became the first Big Ten coach to leave for an SEC job since Nick Saban left Michigan State for LSU in 2000.

Bielema was making roughly $2.5 million at Wisconsin. It’s unclear whether UW wanted to match the reported $3 million he figures to make in a six-year deal at Arkansas. But he did lead the Badgers to three straight Big Ten titles and three straight Rose Bowls – a first in school history.

Former UW coach (and current athletic director) Barry Alvarez will return to the sideline for the first time in seven years as he directs the Badgers in the Rose Bowl.

“They might finally win one,” Bielema quipped of UW at his introductory press conference in Fayetteville.

* Purdue hired Kent State’s Darrell Hazell to replace Danny Hope. Hazell led Kent to its first winning season (11-2) since 2001. He is a former Ohio State assistant under Jim Tressel, so look for some Buckeyes flavor with his staff in West Lafayette. (On a personal note, Hazell is one of the most solid people I have had the privilege to cover during my two decades on the Ohio State beat.)

* Kentucky tapped Mark Stoops, who has worked a miracle with Florida State’s defense, to replace Joker Phillips. That could be a promising hire – even if UK is staring straight up at everybody in the SEC East.

* Tennessee has flirted with Jon Gruden, Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong. Maybe they will hit paydirt with North Carolina’s Larry Fedora.

* Auburn went after Arkansas State head coach (and former Auburn offensive coordinator) Gus Malzahn to replace Gene Chizik. This should be a popular pick for a program that hit rock bottom in 2012.

* Cal has grabbed Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes to replace Jeff Tedford. There was no doubt Dykes was leaving LaTech after the administrators there failed to get his 9-3 team into a bowl game. The Bulldogs averaged a nation’s best 51.5 points per game this year for Dykes.

* Colorado is looking for a coach to replace Jon Embree, whose teams went 4-21 in two years (1-11 this year).

* N.C. State has hired Northern Illinois’ Dave Doeren to replace Tom O’Brien.

* And Boston College has brought in Temple’s Steve Addazio to replace Frank Spaziani.

Heisman Happenings

Nobody asked me, but I think we all know Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman over Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o and Kansas State’s Collin Klein.

I think Teo is a legitimate candidate, though. No fulltime defensive player has ever won it. His seven interceptions – his biggest calling card – were nearly all important in making sure Notre Dame went 12-0.

My Picks

In Week 14, I ended up 9-5 straight-up and 5-9 against-the-spread. For the year, I am now 241-89 SU and 162-164-4 ATS. (Crap, I’m two games under .500 heading into the bowl season.)

In Big Ten games, I missed the Wisconsin-Nebraska game straight-up and ATS. Through 14 weeks, I am 77-20 straight-up and 48-41 ATS.

There is one game this week, then I will have my first batch of bowl picks next week.

* Army vs. Navy (-7), at Philadelphia, Pa., Saturday, 3 p.m. (CBS) – Navy leads this fabled series 56-49-7 and has won the last 10 meetings, including 27-21 last year in Annapolis. Navy is 7-4 and won six of its last seven games, Army is 2-9 with losses in five of its last six. You tell me. Navy 33-14

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