Posted: Wednesday June 29, 2011 11:31AM ; Updated: Wednesday June 29, 2011 12:34PM
Stewart Mandel

The second-year coach to watch; more scandal-free Mailbag

Story Highlights

Jimbo Fisher could continue the trend of second-year coaches winning it all

Russell Wilson's transfer to Wisconsin changes the landscape of the Big Ten

Andrew Luck's No. 1 pick status likely won't change barring serious injury

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Jimbo Fisher led Florida State to a 10-win season and ACC Atlantic Division title in his first year as head coach.
Jimbo Fisher led Florida State to a 10-win season and ACC Atlantic Division title in his first year as head coach.

We've reached a landmark moment in this offseason. Perhaps it's a sign of fatigue over certain beaten-to-death topics, or perhaps it's a sign that the season is getting closer. Whatever the case, thanks to your questions, I'm pleased to present the first 100 percent NCAA-scandal free Mailbag of 2011.

I have been a fan of your Mailbag for about four years now and have never written a question to you, so I figured I'd give it a try. Since I can remember, there have been several teams that have won a national championship in the second year of that coach's tenure at the school. Some names that come to mind include Jim Tressel (2001) and Gene Chizik (2010). So which second-year coach has the best chance of reaching the BCS championship game and winning it too?
-- Preston, Jasper, Ind.

It's a surprisingly common occurrence: The new coach comes in, posts a modest but encouraging first season, then jumps up and wins the national championship in Year 2. We can add Bob Stoops (2000) and Urban Meyer (2006) to Preston's list as well. The common thread seems to be coaches who come into name programs with talent on hand and simply need a year to fully implement their systems and land a few key recruits.

Looking at this season's roster of second-year coaches, there are really only two realistic candidates: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher. (Lane Kiffin's USC team remains ineligible; Derek Dooley's Tennessee team remains tattered by Kiffin.) Both squads followed the arc breakthrough teams often take in the coach's first year: They struggled mightily at times (The Irish lost to Navy and Tulsa; the Seminoles lost 47-17 to Oklahoma) before finishing strong (ND won its last four, including wins over USC and Miami; FSU reached the ACC title game and beat South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl) and reeling in monstrous recruiting classes (Kelly's Top 10 haul included three five-star defensive linemen; most experts hailed Fisher's class as the best in the land).

But while I fully believe Notre Dame will make further strides and possibly reach a BCS game this season (insert skeptical eye-rolls here), I'll only believe the perpetually overhyped Irish can win a national title once I see them hoisting the trophy. The 'Noles have also been living in the past for more than a decade, consistently failing to deliver on all those "Florida State is back" predictions. And I'll admit I cringed when I saw FSU again showing up in the top five of some preseason polls.

That said, there are several reasons to believe Fisher is in fact capable of pulling off the latest second-year title. For one thing, the 'Noles won 10 games last year for the first time since 2003, finally validating the prognosticators by winning the ACC's Atlantic Division. The Oklahoma game was admittedly humbling, but it was also very early. Their two other regular-season losses (to NC State and North Carolina) came by a combined six points, and while they lost 44-33 to Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, they played one of their best defensive games of the year in their bowl win over the Gamecocks. (It should be noted they knocked out star running back Marcus Lattimore after just one carry.)

Coordinator Mark Stoops' defense is the main source of excitement surrounding FSU in 2011. Two years after the 'Noles bottomed out in Bobby Bowden's and Mickey Andrews' last season, Stoops' unit now seems to be brimming with the type of elite playmakers who once regularly roamed Doak Campbell Stadium. Cornerbacks Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Brandon Jenkins will all be playing on Sundays, and coaches raved this spring about defensive ends Bjoern Werner (a sophomore) and Tank Carradine (a juco transfer). Offensively, it's always nice when a team's "new" quarterback has already started two bowl games, as E.J. Manuel has for FSU. There are more questions on this side of the ball -- namely replacing stalwart guard Rodney Hudson and finding consistent receivers -- but not enough to temper enthusiasm.

Virginia Tech -- whose coach is in his 25th year -- remains the ACC's bell cow until proven otherwise, but Preston isn't interested in the status quo. He's looking for an up-and-comer, and Fisher and his program fit the key criteria. We'll find out quickly enough if FSU is a legit contender; likely preseason No. 1 Oklahoma visits Tallahassee on Sept. 10.

Now that Ohio State appears depleted this year, does that make Nebraska the hands-down favorite to win the Big Ten?
-- Dave, Hangzhou, China

Before Monday (and Dave's question came before Monday) I might have said yes, but former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson's transfer to Wisconsin changed everything. While I'm not necessarily ready to pencil in the Badgers for a return trip to Pasadena, they certainly become the new favorite in the division we formerly assumed Ohio State would dominate. Even before Jim Tressel's resignation and Terrelle Pryor's departure, people were putting a little too much blind faith in the Buckeyes' ability to overcome five-game suspensions to four of their best offensive players and to replace eight senior starters on defense. Maybe Ohio State could have lost three games and still won the division by default if uncertain quarterback situations persisted at Penn State and Wisconsin. But now the Badgers have a quarterback, and a very good one at that. And, oh yeah, they also have Montee Ball and James White.

Having said that, Nebraska will be the most talented team in the conference. The Huskers' defense will be loaded (again), and fleet-footed quarterback Taylor Martinez has shed the recurring ankle injury that turned him into a shell of his former self down the stretch last season. It sounds like new coordinator Tim Beck's hurry-up playbook has injected life into the Huskers' stagnant offense. I presume the Huskers will begin the season as the league's highest-ranked team (unless voters stubbornly stick with Ohio State), but "hands-down favorite" is a stretch. For one, we've been down the reborn offense road before with this team. But more notably, Nebraska's first Big Ten schedule is a doozy, featuring road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan and home games with Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. A couple stumbles could open the division door for the still vastly overlooked Spartans, Iowa or Northwestern (which avoids both Ohio State and Wisconsin).

(Readers: Please note that I've now answered several Big Ten-related questions this offseason without mentioning the names of the divisions. This is not a coincidence.)
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