Utah's Holy War edge, Oregon's uncertain future; more Mailbag
BYU may have a stronger 2011, but Utah is better positioned for long-term success
There's no indication yet that Oregon is looking to cut ties with coach Chip Kelly
Plus: Texas Tech's prospects, Big Ten bashing, Heisman trivia nuggets and more
Last week, I wrote about some of the implications of Nebraska's historic move to the Big Ten, which became official July 1. Nebraska is unique because it's the lone FBS program in its state. But with two different changes occurring at two different schools in Utah, one could argue that state saw its college football identity shift even more radically.
Both BYU and Utah embarked on a new adventure last Friday (BYU to independence and Utah to the Pac-12). Ignoring revenue differences (frankly a win for both schools), which school has positioned itself for greater long-term success on the field?
-- Dave, Provo, Utah
Both programs are substantially better off than they were June 30. While that may be more obvious with Utah, I've been saying for some time now that BYU's bold move looks smarter every day. It will be getting more exposure and TV revenue than ever (seven of its games this season are already slated for ESPN or ESPN2), and its scheduling flexibility will allow it to play in more high-profile games (future opponents include Texas, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, West Virginia and Boise State). However, as long as the current BCS structure remains in place, the best way to reach the BCS and/or the national championship is to play in an AQ conference, which gives Utah a significant edge, even disregarding the fat Pac-12 paycheck.
But the biggest keys to "on field" success are internal, not external. Which program has the better coaching staff and talent in place, or on the way? Again, I give the edge to Utah. You can debate all day whether the Utes' Kyle Whittingham or the Cougars' Bronco Mendenhall has been more successful since their coinciding 2005 ascensions. They have nearly identical records (Whittingham is 57-20, Mendenhall 56-21). Whittingham had the bigger achievement of the two (2008's undefeated Sugar Bowl season) and more recent success (three straight seasons with 10 or more wins), but Mendenhall has more conference championships (two to one) and more double-digit win seasons (four to three). Going forward, however, Whittingham has a slightly more established staff, highlighted by new offensive coordinator Norm Chow (whose predecessor, Dave Schramm, had plenty of good years and remains on staff). Mendenhall, on the other hand, shook up nearly all his key staff during and after last year's 7-6 disappointment, anointing himself defensive coordinator and promoting quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman to offensive coordinator. The moves seemed a bit panicky.
I also expect Utah to reap the benefits of Pac-12 membership in recruiting, allowing the program -- which already recruited heavily in California -- to attract higher-caliber prospects in the highly fertile state. BYU is banking on its increased exposure to boost its national recruiting profile, including the possibility of more non-LDS players. That may be so, but the lure of the Pac-12 still figures to attract more four-star recruits than BYU's unique situation. Short-term, Utah may struggle a bit this season as it adjusts to the grind of a major-conference schedule, but there's no reason Whittingham's program can't contend for at least a division title the following year. BYU may win more games this season, and the Holy War will likely remain a very even rivalry. But until the day BYU either gains AQ-conference affiliation or the sport's postseason model undergoes a radical restructuring, it will always face a ceiling that no longer besets Utah.
As much as I enjoyed last week's refreshing scandal-free Mailbag, I have to ask, how likely is it that Chip Kelly will actually survive long enough to coach a game in the 2011 season with Lyles' most recent accusations that Kelly paid him $25,000 for his influence over recruits and that Kelly asked Lyles to submit the scouting reports retroactively to cover up the purpose of the payment?
-- Paul Kemp, Birmingham, Ala.
There's no other way to put it. With Lyles providing the details -- corroborated by that handwritten thank you note, phone records and e-mails that match his described timeline of events --Yahoo! basically caught Kelly red-handed. But as I wrote at the time, there remains some significant ambiguity as to the legality of what Yahoo! caught Kelly doing.
This is not clear-cut like Jim Tressel's unethical conduct violation (Bylaw 10.1). Tressel withheld information from the NCAA and there was a smoking gun e-mail confirming it. He had to go, one way or the other. But what rules, if any, did Oregon break? Certainly, it employed a scouting service the NCAA would not condone, but that in itself is not a major violation. If it's true Lyles chauffeured Kelly around Houston on his recruiting visits, that constitutes a non-sanctioned individual aiding in recruiting. Again, not a major violation by itself. The most serious possibility, of course, is that the NCAA will deem Lyles a "representative of athletic interests" who impermissibly helped recruit players, but at what point did that occur? When he first started interacting with Oregon coaches (around 2007)? Or when he received the $25,000 three years later? Because that makes a huge difference as it pertains to his relationships with LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk. And what of the alleged cover-up Lyles claims Oregon undertook with those retroactive scouting reports? That's Lyles' assertion, but what did Kelly tell the NCAA?
Ultimately, Kelly will survive for as long as Oregon's administration still feels comfortable with Kelly being the face of the program. There's been no indication to this point that Oregon is looking to cut ties, though the more details that come out, the worse Kelly looks. It may also be that some of his staff (like football ops guy Josh Gibson, one of Lyles' point men) and/or the compliance department become the fall guys. One thing to keep in mind: When you talk about decision-makers at Oregon, you have to include Nike mega-booster Phil Knight -- whose opinion may hold more weight than anyone employed by the school. Knight likes Kelly, he likes winning and I don't imagine he's a stickler for mundane NCAA rules. He may well keep supporting Kelly right up until the still-distant day when serious sanctions do or don't come down.
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