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Posted: Wednesday April 28, 2010 12:16PM; Updated: Wednesday April 28, 2010 1:14PM
Stewart Mandel

Alabama's repeat chances, USC's Pac-10 forecast, more Mailbag

Story Highlights

The Tide won't be as good in 2010, but should still win a relatively weak SEC

USC will have a hard time improving on 9-4 record in a very tough Pac-10

Plus: Nebraska's dominating D, MWC's AQ quest, Randy Shannon's future, more

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The return of offensive veterans like Mark Ingram and Greg McElroy should give Alabama a leg-up in a weak SEC.
The return of offensive veterans like Mark Ingram and Greg McElroy should give Alabama a leg-up in a weak SEC.
Podcast: The Mandel Initiative
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The Mandel Initiative Archive

Last year, the Mailbag made a later-than-usual July 1 debut. This year, we're ramping things up by a couple of months to catch the end of spring football -- and, to be perfectly honest, because we need any "edge" we can get.

This begins the eighth -- eighth! -- season of my Mailbag, and just like any good, paranoid football coach, I'm pounding my head against the wall looking for any possible wrinkle or redesign to keep things fresh. Because let's face it: In Internet years, the Mailbag (which debuted in the spring of 2003) is a dinosaur. It predates Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and 95 percent of the blogosphere, all of which have made the basic concept of this column -- you submitting questions and me answering them several days later -- only slightly less antiquated than letters to the editor. If you've been listening to the Mandel Initiative, my loosely football-related, primarily Lost-obsessed podcast, you know I incorporate audience tweets sent mere hours before we record each episode. My guess is right now, someone, somewhere is developing an iPhone app that will allow you to ask a college football question and receive an automated opinion within 37 seconds.

I'm open to suggestions. In the meantime, I'm counting on the fact that a significant portion of the reading audience still enjoys reading prose longer than 140 characters and can live without telling the world how ****OUTRAGED*** it is over my PATHETIC (!!!) EXCUSE FOR JOURNALISM in some comments section. (Unless, of course, I cut and paste it here.)

A few other housecleaning items before we begin:

1) As always, the more concise and original your question, the better its chance of getting published. Please save your 800-word BCS diatribes for the aforementioned comment boards (or, better yet, e-mail them to Bill Hancock).

2) Try to avoid the generic "How will my team do this year?" question. There are more creative ways to ask pretty much the same thing.

3) All right ... here it goes. Brace for the backlash. The Mailbag Crush is officially retired.

Many of you will question whether this is a consequence of my forthcoming change in marital status, and the answer is: absolutely not. Emily loved the Crush. I'm just over it. Besides, there's no point going through the motions of soliciting nominations and doing the big reveal seeing as Zoe Saldana has basically rendered every other female celebrity moot.

Bless you, Zoe.

Shall we proceed with the football?

Stew: Love my Tide, but don't see how they can repeat. Two frosh kickers and a CRAZY schedule that has them playing SIX teams that have an off-week before playing 'Bama (cue the conspiracy music). If Saban pulls this off, he moves into Bear Bryant territory. Thoughts?
-- Ken Young, Montgomery, Ala.

The Tide have some questions, no doubt. But let me fire a question right back at you: Who in the SEC is going to beat them?

Last year we saw the World's Mightiest Conference That Won't Allow You To Argue Otherwise produce two tremendous teams (Florida and Alabama), one talented-but-flawed team (LSU) and a whole bunch of mediocre 7-5 teams. And that was before losing a league-record 49 NFL draftees last week. (No other conference produced more than 34.) This fall, the league will break in at least six new starting quarterbacks -- and the returnees include Jordan Jefferson and Stephen Garcia.

What I'm saying is, Alabama could regress a couple steps from last season and still cruise through what should be a down SEC. I wouldn't discount Florida, which is still plenty talented and which the Tide may have to beat twice this year, but the Gators have significant holes to fill on both sides of the ball. 'Bama, on the other hand, is absolutely loaded on offense thanks to the return of both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in the backfield and Greg McElroy, Julio Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks in the passing game.

There is definitely a lot of blind faith in regard to Saban's ability to reload on defense. 'Bama lost a ton of veteran standouts, and while some of the replacements (most notably linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Marcell Dareus) are hardly rookies, I'd be stunned if the Tide defense doesn't lose a step. Guys like Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas don't grow on trees, so 'Bama will be susceptible to an early-season upset against a good offensive team (that Sept. 25 game at Arkansas stands out).

But as we've seen, most years, if you can make it through the SEC with just one loss, you're probably going to play for the national championship.

What scenario would be more shocking in 2010: Lane Kiffin taking USC to 14-0 with a BCS title, or sliding into a mediocre sub-.500 season and missing a bowl? (Love the podcasts, BTW.)
-- Joe, Los Angeles

Thanks, Joe. I would be surprised if USC finishes below .500. I would be Northern Iowa-over-Kansas shocked if the Trojans went 14-0. But the reality is probably somewhere in between.

Several developments this spring have affirmed there was nothing fluky about the Trojans' slippage in Pete Carroll's last season. Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley and rookie offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates were popular scapegoats, but let's not forget a couple teams absolutely abused USC's defense. As evidenced by last week's draft, which saw guys like Taylor Mays, Joe McKnight and Everson Griffen go much lower than their rep in college would have suggested, the Trojans' talent level has finally dropped a bit. Kiffin has insinuated as much this spring, telling the Los Angeles Times that linebacker Devon Kennard "looks like an NFL player right now, one of the few of our guys that look like we used to look when we were here."

The Trojans have a few incoming freshmen who could help right away, most notably running back Dillon Baxter, whose Reggie Bush-caliber run in an early scrimmage quickly became a YouTube sensation. But remember, even Bush didn't start truly making an impact until his sophomore year. The Pac-10 is going to be ridiculously competitive this year, and it's hard for me to envision USC improving much, if any, on last year's 9-4 campaign. Kiffin will need at least a year to right the ship, a task that might be made harder depending on the severity of forthcoming (any month now, guys) NCAA sanctions.

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