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December 11, 2009

Mailbag: One bad loss shouldn't ruin ranking

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Upsets happen in college football.

Some are predictable, others are stunning. Whether losses can be categorized as "good" or "bad" can be debated, but there is no question some are costlier than others.

Rewind to 2007. Michigan posted nine victories that year and beat Florida in the Capital One Bowl. But the lasting memory that season is Appalachian State upsetting the Wolverines in the season opener.

That same season, USC probably would have played for - and quite possibly won - the national championship if not for a stunning 24-23 loss to Stanford. The Trojans rebounded to win seven of their final eight games, including a 49-17 pasting of Illinois in the Rose Bowl. Last season, a loss to Oregon State prevented the Trojans from playing for the national title.

But should upsets - even stunning ones - eliminate the losing team from being ranked? Of course not.

Avoiding upsets is a rare accomplishment. But it's much harder in some conferences than others.

One upset ... and out

From Bambi in Orlando, Fla.: When evaluating teams, in addition to "strength of schedule," shouldn't "weakness of loss" also be factored in? Boise State gets discounted by naysayers who point to their strength of schedule. But when teams such as Ohio State, USC or Pittsburgh lose to Purdue, Washington or N.C. State, shouldn't they be banned from the top 25 for the rest of the season? It seems to me that when Boise State beats an unranked team, it gets no credit, but when a team from a "blessed" conference loses to an unranked team, the loss doesn't hurt as much. Boise State has been a consistent winner, but it appears the BCS isn't much concerned with consistency.

No doubt Boise State has been consistently excellent, especially under current coach Chris Petersen. In four seasons under Petersen, the Broncos are 48-4. That is outstanding.

But let's not pretend that their success isn't enhanced by playing in the Western Athletic Conference, which would rank eighth - at best - among FBS conferences in terms of overall strength. WAC teams were 19-20 in non-conference games this season. Take out games against FCS opponents and the WAC's record shrinks to 12-20. In games against opponents from "Big Six" conferences (including Notre Dame), the WAC was 3-11.

Boise State's 19-8 season-opening victory over Oregon was the WAC's marquee win. The other wins over Big Six teams were Hawaii over 1-11 Washington State 38-20 and Fresno State over 3-9 Illinois 53-52.

Frankly, there are several "Big Six" teams that would dominate the WAC if they traded places with Boise State. Nevada finished second in the WAC, yet was blown out by Notre Dame 35-0. Notre Dame finished 6-6. Missouri beat Nevada 31-21 but was .500 in the anemic Big 12 North.

Stanford finished the regular season 8-4, but it likely would have gone unbeaten against Boise State's schedule, as well. After all, the Cardinal also beat Oregon.

Stanford did lose to Wake Forest, which finished 5-7. Under your rule, Stanford would be "banned" from the top 25 because it lost to a team with a losing record. You're not taking into consideration that some teams play better early and decline later. Others start slow but improve as the season progresses. Some are weakened by injuries. Some teams may lose on the road to teams that typically play better at home.

Suggesting a team should be omitted from the top 25 because of an upset loss is ludicrous. Two years ago, West Virginia was upset by 4-7 Pittsburgh in the final regular-season game. That season, the Mountaineers were as good as any team in the nation and proved it by beating Oklahoma 48-28 in the Fiesta Bowl. They didn't need a miracle completion-and-lateral to do it, either.

Though some appear unwilling to acknowledge it, there is a difference between facing a "Big Six" caliber opponent once or twice a season and facing one almost every week.

Would Boise State have gone unbeaten if it played Stanford's schedule? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Where's Tuberville on the carousel?

From David in Salem, Ore.: I am surprised that former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has not been mentioned as a candidate for a coaching job. What has happened? Why no interest?

I admit I'm a little surprised that Tuberville's name hasn't surfaced as a candidate for more jobs. But more jobs will come open, and he may be a candidate for some of those.

Another issue is that Tuberville may not be interested in a position at a non-"Big Six" program. Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly from Cincinnati. That choice can't be questioned. Louisville hired Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. That's a good choice.

Miami might have been interested in Tuberville, who once was defensive coordinator there. But the Hurricanes had a strong 9-3 season, and coach Randy Shannon's job is secure. Texas A&M would be interested in Tuberville, too. But the Aggies are in their second season under coach Mike Sherman and have made progress. They went 6-6, are bowl-bound and posted a rare win over Texas Tech in Lubbock. Trust me, winning in Lubbock earns points in College Station.

Tuberville is 55. He was making nearly $3 million a year when he was fired/resigned at Auburn and still is being paid. Obviously, he can afford to be choosy about when and where - or even if - he wants to get back into coaching.

Are better days ahead for Michigan?

From Jeff in Leesburg, Va.: Given the amount of underclassmen that either started or received significant playing time this season, how much will Michigan improve in the next one or two seasons?

The Wolverines started nine freshmen or sophomores this season, which hints that better times are ahead in Ann Arbor.

One of those players was true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who was predictably inconsistent. At times, he played like a future All-America. At other times, he played like well, a true freshman.

But he showed enough potential and big-play ability to indicate that he could develop into a special quarterback. The Wolverines also have good young receivers in Roy Roundtree and Martavious Odoms, and freshman running back Vincent Smith is small but exciting.

Three fulltime starters will return in the offensive line and five players with starting experience will be back. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Michigan won't improve significantly until the defense is upgraded.

Though end Brandon Graham will be lost, the Wolverines' defensive line figures to be good in 2010. A big problem this season was porous linebacker and safety play. That has to get better. If cornerback Donovan Warren doesn't enter the NFL draft, there will be some flexibility to make moves to bolster the secondary.

Three of Michigan's seven losses were by six or fewer points. The Wolverines should get better as the young players get more experience and coach Rich Rodriguez recruits more athletes for his system.

I'd anticipate seven or eight wins next season. The Wolverines will be better, but they probably won't be ready to challenge for a Big Ten championship for at least another season.

Spill it: You're a Pac-10 apologist?

From Johnny in Dallas: Stanford running back Toby Gerhart is your Heisman winner and Oregon's LaMichael James is No. 4 on your list? You're clearly either a Pac-10 apologist or pro-West Coast. No C.J. Spiller? It always puzzles me why national writers do not take time out of their schedules to watch all the games?

I'm not a Pac-10 apologist, though I'm not sure exactly why the Pac-10 needs to apologize. Also, I am pro-West Coast. I love the views and the climate. Good food, too. And Raleigh's in Berkeley is a good and underrated sports bar to visit on game day.

As far as watching every game well, you're right. I don't watch every game. That is physically impossible. There are about 60 games on a given weekend of college football, and I can't watch them all.

But I do see as many as possible, watch all the highlights shows and read game accounts to develop an educated opinion and make what I feel are the best choices in the Heisman race.

I voted for Gerhart because he's been consistently excellent and hasn't had a bad game. His 1,736 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns lead the nation. He gained more than 200 yards three times. He didn't rush for fewer than 82 yards in a game. He's also thrown a touchdown pass. He did all that in 12 games.

As for James, he didn't move into Oregon's starting lineup until the third game of the season. In the 10 games he started, he exceeded 100 yards nine times and has 1,398 yards and 14 touchdowns. That's 139.8 yards per game as a starter. Take away the two games he didn't start, and he'd be ranked third in the nation in average yards per game.

By the way, James closed the regular season with 166 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-33 victory over Oregon State that clinched the Pac-10 championship. Thus, he's also had strong performances in big games.

Spiller is a great player, too. I'm aware that he has scored touchdowns via runs, kickoff returns, punt returns and receptions and that he has thrown a touchdown pass, too. Put him on defense for a few plays and he'd probably return an interception or a fumble for a touchdown, too.

He had a remarkable 233-yard outburst with four touchdowns in Clemson's 39-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game.

But Spiller was held to 58 yards by Virginia and 18 yards by South Carolina in the final two regular-season games. That cannot be ignored.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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