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Posted: Wednesday July 2, 2008 12:52PM; Updated: Thursday July 3, 2008 9:57AM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

College Football Mailbag (cont.)

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June Jones
Can new SMU coach June Jones replicate the success he had at Hawaii?
Stewart Mandel's Mailbag
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Hey Stewart, who do you think will make the biggest jump in win total from last year to this year? I personally feel like the Duke Blue Devils, under the new direction of David Cutcliffe, could surprise the weak ACC.
-- Will "Da Truth" H., Raleigh, N.C.

I would not be surprised at all if the Blue Devils, 1-11 a year ago, show improvement under Cutcliffe. But as is the case nearly every year, there will inevitably be a handful of teams that improve by as many as four to six wins. Duke would be approaching bowl eligibility if that happens, and I'm not brave enough to predict a bowl berth for a team that's lost 25 consecutive conference games.

Duke's Tobacco Road rival, however, is among my top five teams most likely to make a considerable jump:

1) SMU (1-11 in 2007). June Jones orchestrated the biggest single-season turnaround in NCAA history at Hawaii, when the Warriors improved from 0-12 to 9-4 in Jones' 1999 debut season. He walks into a nearly identical situation at SMU, which went 6-6 just two years ago and suffered five of its eight conference losses last season by a touchdown or less. Assuming QB Justin Willis returns from suspension, Jones' Run-and-Shoot should take yet another conference by storm.

2) Pittsburgh (5-7). This is the season Dave Wannstedt has been building toward with three straight top 30 recruiting classes. It's not surprising that last year's extremely youthful team struggled, but even so, they knocked off 10-win teams Cincinnati and West Virginia. With the return of two potential All-Americas, RB LeSean McCoy and LB Scott McKillop, as well as two key players (QB Bill Stull and WR Derek Kinder) who missed last season with injuries, I expect the Panthers to contend for the Big East title.

3) North Carolina (4-8). Like Jones, Butch Davis is another coach with a track record for rebuilding, and there's plenty of reason to think the Tar Heels will make a significant leap in Year 2 of Davis' tenure. After throwing freshmen like QB T.J. Yates, RB Greg Little and DT Marvin Austin into the fire a year ago, UNC returns 18 starters from a team that was highly competitive down the stretch. The Tar Heels' division is also ripe for the taking with Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia Tech all expected to be down and Miami still rebuilding.

4) Ole Miss (3-9). As I said in a recent Mailbag, former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is walking into one of those ideal situations where the axed predecessor (Ed Orgeron) didn't get much done on the field but left behind a fairly stocked cupboard. Over the past couple of seasons, the Rebels always seemed to be a play or two away from pulling off some big SEC wins, and between Nutt and Texas transfer QB Jevan Snead, I'd expect to see a few of those close finishes swing Ole Miss' way this year.

5) Notre Dame (3-9). A commonly held assumption is that the Irish will improve by leaps and bounds this season based solely on the benefit of added experience and another set of touted freshmen. While I do expect a return to at least .500, anyone expecting Charlie Weis to orchestrate a miraculous, eight- or nine-win turnaround is overlooking just how uncompetitive his team was last season, losing seven games by two touchdowns or more.

I noticed a little while back you stated that Miami would return to prominence quicker than Florida State. Would you elaborate? Remember, a great recruiting class doesn't always pan out. Ask FSU.
-- Nick D., Jackson, Miss.

The main reason I think Miami will turn itself around sooner is for the simple reason that it has a two-year head start.

Both programs reached the point of embarrassment at the same time, in 2006, when both went 6-6 in the regular season and played in lower-tier bowls (FSU in the Emerald Bowl, Miami in the Humanitarian Bowl). At that time, both programs made major changes: The 'Canes fired Larry Coker, while 'Noles legend Bobby Bowden hired a slew of new assistants, including his now-future replacement, Jimbo Fisher.

Two years later, Miami has made sweeping changes under Shannon. It might not appear that way at first glance, seeing as the 'Canes actually regressed last season to 5-7, but in a very short time, he's managed to instill a visibly different attitude within the program and reclaim its recruiting stranglehold in talent-rich South Florida (something it got away from under Coker). The 'Canes still have a ways to go to return to their former glory, but I'm fairly confident they're headed in the right direction.

On the other hand, I've witnessed no noticeable changes in Tallahassee since the great staff makeover, and we probably won't until Bowden finally steps aside, which many believe will happen after the season. In his current capacity, all Fisher can do is attempt to upgrade the offense and play a more visible role in recruiting (he did lure touted QB E.J. Manuel last year). When a program grows as stagnant as FSU has over the past seven years, however, it calls for sweeping changes, and that simply won't happen until Fisher takes over for real. So in that regard, he's already two years behind Shannon.

Hey Stewart, I just wanted to know what round you think the Bengals will draft Jimmy Johns next year? I'm hearing third or fourth round since no one was injured, first or second if he has a violent crime arrest between now and then.
-- Grant, Augusta, Ga.

Touché. Of course, I had a slightly different concern upon hearing the news last week of the now-former Alabama player's arrest on charges of selling cocaine. Mainly, I hope the stigma doesn't cut into sales at Jimmy John's, the ubiquitous sub chain of which there are franchises on college campuses across America.

This isn't the first time the home of the Turkey Tom has been tangentially connected to a college football police-blotter item, either. As's own Andy Staples detailed while still with the Tampa Tribune, Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham and former linebacker Jon Demps spent a night in jail last winter after starting a food fight at the Gainesville Jimmy Johns. Hopefully the Tuscaloosa location hasn't received too many menacing calls from confused Crimson Tide fans chewing out some poor cashier for "letting down his teammates."

What do you think are the chances that Armanti Edwards and Appalachian State knock off LSU in the season-opener battle of two 2007 national champs?
-- Jim W., Reno, Nevada

It was around this time a year ago that I put my foot in my mouth and said the Mountaineers could not possibly knock off Michigan in Ann Arbor. Admittedly, at the time, I knew almost nothing about Appalachian State. Now that I'm up-to-speed on the prowess of the scintillating Edwards and coach Jerry Moore's potent spread offense ... I still don't think they can beat LSU.

This is an entirely different sort of matchup. Last year, Appalachian State was able to take advantage of a more physical Michigan defense susceptible to big plays from athletes in space. In the first half of that game, Edwards and receiver Dexter Jackson simply picked apart the Wolverines' secondary. LSU, on the other hand, has exactly the type of speedy defensive linemen that can disrupt a spread attack. Edwards is unlikely to run wild, and it doesn't help that Jackson, a second-round draft pick, and all-time rushing leader Kevin Richardson are no longer in the fold.

On the flip side, one might justifiably point out that the Mountaineers were able to beat a team that had a four-year starting quarterback (Chad Henne), while LSU will be trotting out an entirely green QB. This is true. But the Tigers have plenty of other weapons on offense, and while I don't necessarily think they'll rack up 40 points, they probably won't need to if their defense gets a handle on Edwards.

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