College football mailbag (cont.)
Stewart: Can you comment on the rules changes for this year with the play clock going from 25 seconds to 40 seconds and restarting on ready-for-play after the ball is taken out of bounds? They seem innocuous at first glance but could really impact the game.
Both are part of the NCAA's continued effort to shorten the amount of actual game action without impeding any television timeouts.
As you may recall, the rules committee's first attempt, in 2006, was nothing short of disastrous. The changes included starting the clock on kickoffs rather than returns, as well as after every first down. Coaches and fans expressed their outrage over the unintended consequences, which included teams having to waste timeouts to stop the clock in late-game situations and, most memorably, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema figuring out a loophole in which his team ran out the first-half clock against Penn State by repeatedly lining up offsides.
Version 2.0 basically mimics the NFL's clock rules, which is why I anticipate less uproar this time around. The pace should feel familiar. Rather than waiting for the ref's "ready" signal, the 40-second clock will start running as soon as the last play ends, and play won't stop for so long when a player goes out of bounds. The changes will almost certainly accomplish their goal -- NFL games all seem to magically end in three hours -- but they won't impact end-of-game situations as much as before because the out-of-bounds rule will be waived in the last two minutes of each half.
What is the deal with Ben Mauk and the NCAA? He made Cincinnati a thrill to watch, and it seems pretty clear he deserves one more season of football after the injuries he went through. Why are they so bent on taking it away from him?
In 99 percent of cases like this one, I, like you, would be inclined to side with the athlete against the NCAA. Not this time. I hate to sound harsh about a young man whose actions are well-intended, but I would turn the question around and ask: Why won't Mauk let this thing go already?
A sixth year of eligibility is only supposed to be invoked in cases of extreme personal or medical hardship. Like former Oklahoma star Jason White tearing an ACL in two consecutive seasons. Or current West Virginia defensive end Pat Liebig having to return home for 18 months to run his family's business while his father was ill. To qualify for medical hardship, as Mauk was seeking to do, an athlete must have missed at least 70 percent of two seasons due to injury.
We know Mauk essentially missed one entire season when he got injured in the first game of his junior season at Wake Forest. Where his case gets fishy, however -- and apparently the NCAA agrees -- is that he's now retroactively claiming his 2003 redshirt season was due to injury. Mauk may well have been injured, but if so, no one said so at the time. In fact, in a clip from Oct. 3 of that year, Demon Deacons coach Jim Grobe was quoted as saying: "Right now, Ben Mauk's getting all the [practice] reps with the second team. He would be the first guy up right now [if the starter got hurt]." Another article on Oct. 22 indicated that Mauk had been traveling with the team on road trips in case he was needed.
It's a shame Mauk won't get another year if for no other reason than it took until his fifth year to finally get a chance to shine, but he's not going to accomplish anything by suing the NCAA. Even if by some miracle the court forced a reversed decision, do you really think Bearcats coach Brian Kelly would immediately hand him back the reins having not gone through spring or fall practices? Much like the Green Bay Packers, I'm sure the Bearcats have already moved on.
Do you think Arizona State is as good as people are making them out to be? They played an easy nonconference slate last year, with eight games at home, and gave up a million sacks. The two teams they were supposed to challenge for the Pac-10 title, Oregon and USC, beat them soundly, as did Texas. How is everyone picking this team to be the challenger in the Pac-10 to USC?
I believe the Sun Devils greatly overachieved in winning 10 games last year, for all the reasons you said. But they did win 10 games. ASU's preseason ranking of 15th is about the same as where it ended last season, which tells me the pollsters think they'll field about the same level team. It stands to reason, however, that the Sun Devils will be better than they were last year in Dennis Erickson's first season. Rudy Carpenter will be a fourth-year starter playing his second season in Erickson's system. The offensive line can only get better. The defense will be more complex. They won't catch as many breaks with the schedule, however, most notably with top-ranked Georgia coming to town, so it's unrealistic to think ASU will finish any higher than it did last year.
Personally, I believe someone else will emerge as the No. 2 Pac-10 team -- I just don't know who. Many believe it will be Oregon, but the Ducks have a bunch of questions on offense. Oregon State is a team most prognosticators are taking far too lightly. (Sammie Stroughter is back, people. That's a pretty big addition.) Cal was the No. 2 team in the country at one point last season before its second-half collapse. And both Arizona and Washington sport the kind of game-breaking quarterbacks that can take a team to another level.
That's one thing I love about the Pac-10. USC may have a stranglehold on the top right now, but the rest of the pecking order seems to fluctuate annually. It's more fun that way.
Enough fuss about the traditional powers and the money conferences. How about the East Carolina Pirates? They line up against both Virginia Tech and West Virginia in the opening weeks of their season. In light of their improvements over the past couple of years, do you give them a legit chance to steal one, if not both, games out of the gate?
I was going to save this for my first "Upset Special" when the Weekend Pickoff returns next week, but go ahead and mark it down: East Carolina will beat Virginia Tech on Aug. 30. (I don't give the Pirates the same chance against West Virginia.) ECU played the Hokies tough in last year's opener in Blacksburg. This year's game is being played in Charlotte. Tech, which has been riddled with injuries and attrition in its backfield and at receiver, is ripe for an upset early in the season, and Skip Holtz's upstart Pirates -- who knocked off Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl and return a whole bunch of veterans on both sides of the ball (though unfortunately, NCAA all-purpose yards leader Chris Johnson is not one of them) -- are just the team to do it.
Interestingly, East Carolina faces three ACC teams in its nonconference schedule: Virginia Tech, NC State and Virginia. If by some chance the Pirates manage to beat all three of them, does that earn them an invite to Tampa in December?