Posted: Wednesday April 20, 2011 12:53PM ; Updated: Wednesday April 20, 2011 6:08PM
Stewart Mandel

The 'Bag is back! Oregon vs. LSU, Notre Dame QBs and much more

Story Highlights

What does Jim Tressel's punishment actually entail and is it harsh enough?

The BCS is walking a slippery slope if it comes down hard on the Fiesta Bowl

There are a number of reasons why BYU's independence is great for the Cougars

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LaMichael James
Oregon returns notable offensive firepower, including explosive rusher LaMichael James, but the Ducks suffered big losses on defense.
John W. McDonough/SI

It's 2011, and everything about college football moves faster now, from the offenses to the recruiting calendar to the media cycle. (One notable exception: NCAA investigations.) In that spirit, the Mailbag is making the earliest debut of its nine-year history this week, for two reasons. One, I'm getting married May 29, at which point I plan to vanish for a month, so I figured we'd squeeze a few more editions in beforehand. And two -- most college football fans want to read about college football no matter what time of year. Duh.

Obviously, much of the content in this space over the next four months will involve attempts at preseason prophesy -- which leaves me open to being incredibly wrong. The first edition of 2010 included this unfortunate line in regards to Alabama's prospects: "The Tide have some questions, no doubt. But ... who in the SEC is going to beat them?" Whoops. However, how about this for a redemptive signoff: "I have a feeling it's going to be a very eventful summer in college athletics. I'm not buying into Jim Delany's 'timetables' and 'evaluations.' Something tells me we're going to have plenty to talk about."

For the sake of my forthcoming honeymoon bliss, I'd greatly prefer a more uneventful summer this year. Just enough new material to sneak into the Mailbag each week would be great. And we'll be a little cheerier in these parts if those developments don't involve bowl corruption, booster payments, unethical-conduct charges, agent scandals or any of the other variety of dirt that has overwhelmed the sport for nearly a year, though that's probably asking too much.

In the meantime, I welcome your questions, so long as they follow the traditional guidelines:

1) The more concise the e-mail, the better the chance of it being published.
2) Kindly devise a more creative way of asking "How will my team do this year?"
3) If there's a chance your e-mail might impinge on a federal investigation or requires my confidentiality, please say so directly.

We begin with a question regarding ... the beginning of the season.

With the LSU-Oregon matchup, a potential top-three matchup, the first week of the 2011 season, which team is most likely to fall out of the top 10 first and which one has the better shot at the national championship?
-- Pearce C, Baton Rouge, La.

First of all, there really ought to be a way to reward teams for scheduling matchups like these -- and along with that, we should be leery of punishing the losers too harshly. If the voters really do feel these are the second and third-best teams in the country, and provided the game is not a blowout, I'd urge the pollsters not to drop the loser very far. Nonconference schedules are growing increasingly uninteresting, as this recent Oregonian feature comprehensively documented, and with good reason: In a poll-based sport, LSU would be rewarded more for scheduling and beating McNeese State 72-0 than losing to last year's national runner-up on a last-second field goal.

Having said that, voters would also be wise to temper their expectations for Oregon. Conventional wisdom says a team that played for the national title last season and returns stars like Darron Thomas, LaMichael James and Cliff Harris gets automatically put on the short list of this year's title contenders. To do so, however, is to overlook the Ducks' considerable losses on the offensive line (three starters) and, more notably, on defense, where a slew of heart-of-the-team kind of guys (linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, D-linemen Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe) are gone. Oregon will still contend for the Pac-12 crown, but this is not another top-five team. Meanwhile, LSU has the same lingering question it's had for four years -- quarterback -- but that didn't stop the Tigers from winning 11 last year, and this team will be more experienced. They will be the favorites in Arlington on Sept. 3.

What does Jim Tressel's suspension actually entail? Is he suspended only for game days, or is he away from the program for five weeks? Unlike the players, a coach's contribution to the outcome of a game is in the preparation and game plan. It's not really much of a punishment if he can do everything but stand on the sideline.
-- Al Caniglia, Belmopan, Belize

It's true, he'll still be in charge of the program every day but Saturday, but do you really think it's not a punishment for the guy who puts in all that work and preparation to have to then watch the fruits of his labor on television from somewhere outside the stadium? Or to not be there with his players during the heat of competition? It's going to sting quite a bit.

The question is whether five games of said excruciation is a severe enough punishment for a guy that brazenly flouted one of the NCAA's most basic tenets (to, you know, comply with rules). Most are presuming the answer is no, and with good reason. Thanks to some meticulous research by my colleague Andy Staples, we know that since 1989, 159 of the 172 coaches or administrators accused of violating NCAA Bylaw 10.1 (unethical conduct) either resigned or were terminated. But those decisions were made by the schools and the individuals themselves. If and when the Ohio State case reaches the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, that body could invoke a show-cause penalty, essentially forcing the school's hand. However, it's way too early in the process to predict whether the case will come to that.

Is there any way the Fiesta Bowl will continue to be a BCS bowl amid the illegal political donations, corruption and unchecked spending of the bowl's former CEO? And if the Fiesta gets kicked out of the BCS, why wouldn't the Orange and Sugar be under similar scrutiny for their own improprieties?
-- Rob, Kansas City

There's no way to tell how the Fiesta Bowl mess will play out because we have nothing to compare it to. The BCS is only a 13-year-old conglomeration, and it's never before had to deal with gross misconduct by one of its bowls. But the latter point Rob makes is a good one. No matter what the BCS' self-appointed task force determines as to whether the Fiesta Bowl "demonstrate[s] why it should remain a BCS bowl game," the commissioners must realize they're walking a slippery slope. To be clear, there's nothing to suggest the other bowls have done anything illegal, but if you were to scrutinize the ledgers at the Sugar or Orange Bowls, there's a chance you would find plenty of similarly lavish spending (like the Orange Bowl's all-inclusive Royal Caribbean cruise for college administrators). If the BCS sets the precedent, would it run the risk of having to replace other bowls down the line, and, in doing so, further damage the credibility of an already tenuous organization?

The irony of John Junker's demise was that he was not a big fan of the BCS himself. In many conversations over the years, it was apparent he'd become increasingly disenchanted with a system in which the bowls have little say in which teams they select, and he was definitely the most vocal of the four BCS bowl CEOs in support of a plus-one. Never could I have guessed that Junker's own indiscretions might lead to the two parties eventually divorcing. At this point, though, I still consider it an unlikely outcome.
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