BCS conference pecking-order, offensive evolution; more mail
SEC remains top dog, but deep and explosive Pac-10 is a close second
Hybrid of spread and traditional offenses could soon become the norm
Plus: 2004 title redo, oversigning, ACC preseason prejudice and more
As most of you know by now, I'm a full-fledged Lost junkie, which means I spent five-and-a-half hours watching last Sunday's touching finale and ABC's pre- and postgame shows. (It really was like the Super Bowl.) It also means I spent an inordinate amount of time these past few months bantering with colleagues, friends and the future missus about a humanized smoke monster, a mysterious glowing light and any number of other fantastical subjects from a fictional world.
Yet when it comes to the very real, very significant possibility of Big Ten expansion -- America's most popular source for reckless speculation -- I've suddenly lost interest. I was fully onboard when things first started heating up last month. But now that it appears Jim Delany and his cohorts won't make any tangible decisions for at least another six months, my eyes gloss over any e-mail or article containing the words "If Notre Dame joins the Big Ten..." or, "If Texas goes to the SEC..." It's all moot until somebody makes the first move, and until that happens, there's nothing new to say.
Like our beloved castaways, I'm ready to "move on."
So until further notice -- i.e., the arrival of actual, legitimate expansion news -- the Mailbag will become an expansion-free zone. This week we turn our attention to the leagues as they're presently constituted.
You always say that conference strength is cyclical, and I agree. So how would you rank the BCS conferences going into the 2010 season?
-- Adam W., San Francisco
As always, it depends on your criteria. Which conference will produce the most highly ranked teams? For once, it may be -- gasp! -- the ACC (Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech and possibly North Carolina). Which will be the most competitive, i.e., feature the smallest gap between No. 1 and, say, No. 8? Definitely the Pac-10 (I could see anyone but Washington State or Arizona State winning it).
I anticipate those two leagues being "up," as the Pac-10 will be loaded with offensive star power (Jake Locker, Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, Jacquizz and James Rodgers, Matt Barkley), the ACC with veteran defenses. Meanwhile, the Big 12 may be "down" after three straight, solid seasons in the limelight, especially considering how many high-caliber NFL draft picks it just lost. I feel the same way about the SEC, which is littered with considerable quarterback questions.
The two hardest leagues to gauge are the Big Ten and Big East. The former teased us with impressive bowl wins by its top four teams (Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin), but I'm still leery of teams five through 11. The latter keeps getting better, but remains limited by its size (and somewhat stigmatized by two-time champ Cincinnati's consecutive BCS blowouts).
All that said, the SEC remains top dog until proven otherwise by virtue of its ridiculous run of four straight BCS championships -- just as Alabama and Florida remain two of the most loaded teams in the country. But I don't see there being much difference, if any, between the SEC's next six teams and their equivalents in the Pac-10, which I'd rate a close No. 2, followed by the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Big East. And to show you just how cyclical these things can be, note that as recently as two years ago, I would have had the Big 12 (at No. 2) and Pac-10 (No. 5) flipped.
This is, of course, all an educated guess -- which I suppose makes it no different than the conference-expansion game. But at least it gives you something new to debate for a week.
I enjoyed watching Stanford's "old school," smashmouth offense last year. Is this type of offensive strategy catching on, or was this an outlier that worked only because it fit the Cardinal personnel? It seems to me that running a ball-control offense make sense for schools with depth problems on the defensive side of the ball, or with freshman quarterbacks.
-- Andrew, Johns Creek, Ga.
I've dedicated a whole lot of column space over the past five years or so to documenting the rise of the spread, but I've done so knowing full well that coaching strategies are inherently cyclical, and that at some point a new "fad" would come along and supplant the spread. In this case, the "fad" may simply be more teams returning to traditional, under-center football.
Mind you, I don't think the spread is going away anytime soon, because the prototype for the typical college athlete has changed along with it. Stanford had the ultimate smashmouth weapon in Toby Gerhart, but for every physical back like Gerhart there are 20 smaller, speedy skill players coming out of high school for whom an I-formation offense simply doesn't make sense. Those guys are more dangerous if you can get them out in space and exploit their one-on-one matchups with defenders. Meanwhile, the shotgun component of the spread has allowed a new type of (mobile) quarterback to thrive, putting less of a premium on finding a 6-foot-5 guy with a cannon.
But I do wonder whether we'll one day look back at 2008 -- the year of Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel and all those Big 12 shootouts -- as the apex of the spread. Last year, we saw evidence of defenses finally getting a handle on these types of offenses (see: Nebraska's dominant defensive line bottling up normally prolific teams like Texas and Missouri, or Ohio State putting the clamps on Oregon's previously lethal running game in the Rose Bowl). We also saw a prototypical pro-style team, Alabama, win the national championship. This season, Texas is planning to go back under center for the first time in about six years to resuscitate its running game. Of course, at the same time, Notre Dame is going in the opposite direction.
In the coming years, I think we'll see something of a meeting in the middle, in large part because of the current generation of coaches. At this point there is a significant contingent of mid-career coaches -- Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez, Gary Pinkel, Brian Kelly, Chip Kelly -- who have devoted themselves to the spread and have no reason to abandon it. But we're also starting to see a crop of newer coaches -- Jim Harbaugh, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian -- who were brought up under pro-style mentors and will use that background to their advantage. Many others, like Bobby Petrino and Chris Petersen, already incorporate elements of both. That blended style could become the new norm.