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Countdown to September (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday August 24, 2005 12:37PM; Updated: Wednesday August 24, 2005 1:31PM
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With all of the hype about Urban Meyer at Florida and Les Miles at LSU, and how those two teams could battle it out for the SEC crown, no one seems to have noticed that a first-year coach never has won an SEC title. What makes Meyer and Miles the favorites to win the conference?
--Sam, Thomasville, Ga.

I've been sensing a lot of Meyer-and-Miles skepticism among their SEC rivals, and understandably so. If you're a Tennessee fan, and your coach has been consistently successful for 13 years, you're probably wondering, what's so special about this Meyer guy that he's going to come in and beat the Vols with a team that's lost five games each of the past three years? However, I have to laugh whenever fans reference that "no first-year coach has ever won the SEC title" stat. Fifteen years ago, a guy you may have heard of named Steve Spurrier took over a Florida team that had lost five games the year before and, using an unconventional new offense, led the Gators to the best record in the conference. Technically, they did not win the conference championship, but only because the program was ineligible due to NCAA sanctions.

The situations Meyer and Miles are walking into seem similar, and in fact the very nature of the SEC actually can lend itself to quick success by an outsider (provided there's already talent on hand). The conference is very conservative, with schools usually firing one lifelong Southerner and replacing him with another, who proceeds to run virtually the same system as the guy before him, and the guy before that. Therefore on the rare occasion when someone actually does introduce a new concept, opposing coaches are caught off-guard.

Witness Auburn last season, where offensive coordinator Al Borges, primarily of a West Coast background, came in, installed some nifty new plays and, voila! Using almost the same personnel that lost five games a year earlier, he helped shape an undefeated season. Nick Saban, another "outsider," took over an LSU team that had won three games the year before and led it to eight wins his first season and an SEC title his second. I'm not guaranteeing Meyer or Miles will have that profound of an impact -- in fact, in Miles' case, the high rankings seem based more on the work of his predecessor -- but I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the newbies, either.

With all of the talk of high-powered offenses and the spread option, there seems to be a notion that defenses are always trying to "catch up." However, we have seen some great defenses on the last few national title winners. What would you say is the most important component that characterized all these great defenses: raw talent of the players, the scheme itself, or the coach's ability to game plan for a specific opponent?
--Steve, San Jose, Calif.

There's no question that every national title winner since 2000 (Oklahoma, Miami, Ohio State, LSU and USC) has had a dominant defense. I would argue  the most important aspect of the Trojans' success the past two seasons -- more than Matt Leinart, more than Reggie Bush -- has been their overpowering defensive linemen (Kenechi Udeze, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson), who helped produce the nation's No. 1 run defense both seasons and paved the way for a combined 105 sacks in 26 games.

If you look at the other teams, the one, unifying theme is dominant defensive linemen (LSU with Marcus Spears and Chad Lavalais, Ohio State with Will Smith and Darrion Scott, Miami with Jerome McDougle and William Joseph), who, in turn, help produce an impenetrable rush defense (In addition to USC's No. 1 ranking, both LSU and Ohio State finished third in the country against the run).

However, you also have to give credit to the minds behind those defenses. Oklahoma's Bob and Mike Stoops did things with disguised coverages and zone blitzes that opposing offenses simply couldn't handle. Saban was on the absolute cutting edge when it came to NFL-style blitz packages. And Pete Carroll's staff is hands-down the best in the country at devising plans to fit a particular opponent (i.e. giving Aaron Rodgers the short stuff but preventing the big plays that allowed the Trojans to hold Cal to 17 points last year, or the way their linebackers went after Jason White in the Orange Bowl in a way few previous opponents had attempted).

Every year, recruiting practices by major programs seem to be getting worse. I just read that Myron Rolle, a top recruit from New Jersey, received a message from Florida governor Jeb Bush [relayed by Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell] to apologize for missing dinner with Rolle while he was visiting the Seminoles. I know FSU is a state school and all, but this seems a little over the top. Do you think the governor of a state should get involved in recruiting high school players?
--Keith, New York

As you may recall, the NCAA formed an emergency task force two years ago -- a response in part to the steak-and-lobster treatment of another one-time FSU recruit, Willie Williams -- to enact a stricter set of guidelines on what schools can and cannot do to lure prospects. In fact, just last week Tennessee self-reported a secondary violation after a basketball assistant posted a hand-colored sign next to the Vols' locker room door welcoming a visiting recruit. Only the NCAA would take the time to draft legislation outlawing a sign -- or a personalized jersey, or a putting a player's picture on the JumboTron -- but never think to address whether it's appropriate to invoke the help of the governor in landing a stud cornerback. (Speaking of which, do Miami and Florida get the same favor when they need it?)

Why is it that you only answer quirky questions? I asked about a month ago how you thought Greg Robinson would do at Syracuse and got no response, yet you printed questions about Arrested Development, Jennifer Love Hewitt et. al. What's the deal?
--Pete Kiely, Jacksonville Beach, Fla.

Well, Pete, we're dealing with a national audience here, and, no offense, but there's a whole lot more interest in Arrested Development, Jennifer Love Hewitt or any number of other cute-yet-somehow-already-over-the-hill-at-26 actresses than there is about a perennial 6-6 football team that plays its games in a garage in upstate New York.

OK, sorry, that's a little harsh. To answer your question, I have mixed feelings about Robinson. I have great respect for what he did as a coordinator, both with the NFL's Broncos and Texas, and I understand why AD Darryl Gross would want to try to emulate USC's approach by bringing in a defensive-minded guy with pro experience. But USC is USC and Syracuse is Syracuse. USC has both a strong home base and national appeal from which it can recruit the type of athletes necessary to run a pro-style system.

Robinson may well turn the Orange into a dominant defensive team, but I question the decision to go with a West Coast offense. He's going to have a hard time getting a lot of 4.4 receivers from Florida and California to come to snow city. Granted, it's the same challenge Bill Callahan is facing at Nebraska, and he's done quite well recruiting-wise, but Nebraska also has a much more recent history of excellence to sell. There's only so many times you can say to a kid, "Donovan McNabb played here."

Recently I was offered a free trip to Puerto Vallarta by my girlfriend's parents. I was totally stoked for the vacation ... until they told me when we would be making this little voyage. The dates: Dec. 30-Jan. 7. This, as you know, falls during possibly the most exciting week of college football -- and that's especially true when you consider my Hawkeyes could be playing in one of the biggest games of their illustrious history. My question is, do I take the trip or turn it down for the possible chance of seeing Iowa play in a major bowl game?
--Fisk, San Diego

I guess it all comes down to just how much faith you have in your boys, Fisk. As far as I know, Puerto Vallarta, though in another country, is not exactly the middle of Bangladesh. I'm sure the hotel gets American TV, and I'm sure you'd have no trouble getting away from the family for four hours to watch Drew Tate and Co. in the Outback Bowl, if that's where they end up. If, however, this does turn out to be the season of all seasons for Iowa, and the Hawkeyes not only reach their first Rose Bowl in 15 years but are also playing for the national title -- and you're stuck watching it at a tiki bar in Mexico while your buddies are in Pasadena -- there's simply no way you're going to live that down for the rest of your life. Sorry, it's true. Choose wisely, my friend.

I'm curious about your thoughts on coaching changes in the Pac-10. Which new coach -- Tyrone Willingham at Washington or Walt Harris at Stanford -- is most likely to significantly improve his team's record in 2005? And which additions/subtractions at the coordinator level do you think will be most significant?
--Jeff Stockwell, Winston-Salem, N.C.

In my opinion, Willingham, who's already demonstrated he can win in the Pac-10, is a better coach than Harris. Willingham will return Washington to respectability at some point, whereas I'm not as sold on Harris' chances at Stanford. In the short-term, though, Harris has better personnel on hand -- particularly players who fit his pass-happy system -- and has a better chance of having a good first season.

In terms of coordinators, the obvious "subtraction" that comes to mind is Norm Chow, but I really don't think USC will feel the brunt of his departure until next year. Matt Leinart can coach that offense on his own this season. The true test of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian will come when they have to break in a new QB, either John David Booty or Mark Sanchez. So for most painful subtraction, I'll go with Oregon State losing offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who had great success there the past two years but is now at Wisconsin.

The best addition, as I've mentioned several times before in this space, is Gary Crowton as Oregon's new offensive coordinator. Things may not have gone well at BYU, but back when he was at Louisiana Tech there wasn't a much scarier offense in the country (Nebraska fans still remember the day Tim Rattay threw for 590 yards on them).

Being an Alabama alum and lifelong Crimson Tide fan, I've always had a natural hatred for Notre Dame. However, I've also recently developed a severe loathing of Tennessee. When Tennessee and Notre Dame play each other, whom do you think I should pull for to win? My in-laws are die-hard Irish fans, so if I pull for the Vols, they will throw things at me and cut me out of the will. (I am married to their daughter, an Auburn alum). Yet I would rather kiss you on the mouth than root for Notre Dame. What should I do?
--Aldon Hughes, Atlanta

Let me get this straight. You're an Alabama fan married to an Auburn fan -- and your in-laws are Notre Dame fans. Are there ever any mornings where you wake up and just want to run away?

But c'mon, Aldon, this isn't hard. Tennessee is your school's hated rival, not Notre Dame. The Vols are the ones who ratted your team out to the NCAA, remember? I thought 'Bama sends you a letter explaining that with your tickets. So, clearly, if given a choice, you have to side with the Irish. But sorry, I don't exactly care to kiss you, either.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.