Just For Argument's Sake ...

From whether Auburn, Ohio State or Oregon will grab an at-large BCS berth to Steve Spurrier to academic qualifications to a proper introduction, Ivan Maisel tackles all the hot topics.

Updated: December 1, 2005, 11:40 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, Ivan Maisel tackles the hottest topics in college football.

1. What should the Fiesta Bowl do with its two picks?
OregonOhio StateAuburn Before we start, there's no point debating whether Notre Dame deserves an at-large bid. The eighth-ranked Irish will meet the standard -- 9-2 and a top-12 BCS finish -- set for them by the members of the BCS, so they'll get in. If you want to debate whether Notre Dame deserves to get an automatic bid, let's table it for a less nerve-wracking week.

In a sense, the issue is the reason the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl will take the Irish with the first pick. No one is neutral about them. People love them or hate them, just like the Yankees, the Cowboys, or Duke basketball. That's the price the University of Notre Dame pays for its national stature.

But No. 8? A 9-2 record? Victories over only three teams with winning records (Michigan, BYU and Navy, hardly a murderer's row)?

Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker is the best in the business. I have heard him say numerous times that if he doesn't have the championship game, then it doesn't really matter what his teams are ranked.

He wants deserving teams whose fans will travel to the Valley of the Sun and enjoy the week.

He wants teams that will create buzz and attract television viewers. That has been the essence of the bowl business since it began decades ago.

Junker probably would like to have Notre Dame and Penn State, but that's not going to happen. The FedEx Orange Bowl, with the second pick, will take whichever of those two Junker doesn't. That leaves him with No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Oregon or No. 10 Auburn.

Ohio State has two losses, yes, but close ones to two teams ranked above it -- No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Penn State.

The Ducks have been a quiet 10-1. They played only two opponents still ranked, getting a 37-34 victory over Fresno State and, after leading USC at the half, losing to the Trojans, 45-13. Oregon didn't play UCLA, which is a good way to go 10-1 but unfortunate if you're trying to brag on your schedule.

The Tigers would have a high seed in March Madness. After a slow start (a 23-14 loss to Georgia Tech), they finished strong. But that's why the regular season holds the magic it does: There is no playoff.

I think the decision will come down to Ohio State and Oregon. The Fiesta Bowl officials are not comfortable with taking the Buckeyes for the third time in four years. If Junker could sprinkle magic dust that would induce the Orange Bowl to select Ohio State instead of Penn State, he would.

In the end, though, the allure of a Notre Dame-Ohio State matchup, redolent with history and overflowing with television appeal, will be too hard to turn down.

The Fiesta has a contractual relationship with the Pac-10, which will make it uncomfortable not to take the Ducks. Junker takes pains to remind anyone who asks that the Fiesta selected Oregon State as an at-large five years ago (and the Beavers ran over, yep, Notre Dame, 41-9).

Since then, there hasn't been a Pac-10 at-large candidate to pass over. A year ago, No. 5 California didn't make the BCS because No. 4 Texas and No. 6 Utah qualified automatically for the at-large berths. The Pac-10 can make the argument that the Bears didn't deserve to fall to No. 5, but the blame sat with the voters and the computers, not with the bowls.

The Fiesta could pick Ohio State, Oregon or Auburn and be proud of its selection.

2. Whither Chris Leak?
Leak arrived at Florida as a prodigy, a quarterback promised a scholarship while in eighth grade. He excelled in his first two seasons at Florida as a slightly undersized passer, throwing for 5,632 yards. He attracted Heisman attention, as any Gator passer did in the Spurrier Era and beyond.

Enter Urban Meyer and his spread option offense, which is most efficient when the quarterback can move around. Mobility and speed are not Leak's strengths, and for half the season, he looked about as comfortable as my mother watching "Old School" (Guess which scene she walked out on?).

Meyer adjusted, bringing in an extra blocker or two, and Leak responded. The Gators, despite the disappointing losses to Alabama and South Carolina, finished 8-3 with victories over their three biggest rivals -- Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State.

Leak finished with good numbers: 2,150 yards, 16 touchdowns, five interceptions. They aren't the eye-popping numbers of his first two seasons, but they are fine.

"He had a decent year," Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "He did some good things. The toughest thing that he had to go through is in three years, he has had three different coaches."

That won't happen next year. Leak can come back for his senior year more secure in the knowledge of the offense. And, frankly, where else would he go? He's not NFL-ready. His only other option would be to transfer, as a senior, to a I-AA program. Although that's not unheard of, it also would mean Leak would start over in yet another offense with yet another coach.

Leak might not be the ideal quarterback for this offense, but he remains the best one Meyer has. Behind him will be Josh Portis, the freshman whose talents are better suited for this offense, and possibly Tim Tebow, the Jacksonville, Fla., high school senior who is deciding between Florida and Alabama. He would be a great mentor for both.

3. Who was the best first-year coach?
Steve Spurrier
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Steve Spurrier guided the Gamecocks to a 7-4 record.

Consider this one, like the technical Oscars, a preview of the main event. ESPN.com will give out its football awards next week. In the meantime, for purposes of clarity, first-year coach means a coach in his first year at a school, not someone in his first year as a head coach.

Among the coaches worth considering: Skip Holtz at East Carolina, who picked up the 2-9 mess he found and created a 5-6 team. More impressive, Bill Cubit at Western Michigan installed the controlled passing game, took the Broncos to the last week of the MAC West race and finished 7-4, six games better than a year ago.

With all credit given to Charlie Weis and 9-2 Notre Dame, the best two performances came out of the SEC. One of the toughest jobs out there is to take a previous coach's recruits and mold them to your system. Although Meyer improved the Gators from 7-5 a year ago to 8-3 this year, the better performance took place at South Carolina.

Yes, Steve Spurrier has beaten Meyer again.

Spurrier plucked quarterback Blake Mitchell out of the heap and created a playmaker. He turned wide receiver Sidney Rice from a promising freshman into one of the best receivers in the SEC. And the Gamecocks rapidly improved on defense once Tyrone Nix took over the play-calling signals at midseason.

South Carolina finished 7-4, got its first victory over Tennessee in 13 years and stunned Florida, as well. Even with all that, as well as Spurrier did, he didn't do the best job of any first-year coach.

Although it's true Les Miles had more talent on his roster than any team in the league, his ability to keep the Tigers focused in spite of the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita is Belichickian.

As a team, LSU had every reason to cave. Against Tennessee, the Tigers did cave. But faced with one must-win game after another, LSU won. No team guts out overtime victories over Auburn and Alabama without the feeling of oneness that good coaching creates.

Not only that, Miles persuaded a team top-heavy with upperclassmen to buy into what he coached. That's no small accomplishment. The road to the BCS is littered with teams that fail to reach their potential. The Tigers are one game away from the Sugar Bowl. They leaned on one another in a difficult season. That sort of leadership begins at the top.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com