Posted: Wednesday August 10, 2011 1:19PM ; Updated: Wednesday August 10, 2011 2:33PM
Stewart Mandel

Why Alabama, not Oklahoma could win title; LSU's surprising ranking

Story Highlights

Alabama has most talent in nation and could keep SEC's title streak alive

Baylor over TCU in Week 1 could be the season's first big upset

Northwestern's PersaStrong campaign smart; bad FCS scheduling; more

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Led by star linebacker Courtney Upshaw, Alabama is loaded on both sides of the ball.
Led by star linebacker Courtney Upshaw, Alabama is loaded on both sides of the ball.
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Can you feel it? The season's so close. Everybody's practicing. The first official preseason poll is out. Of all the questions one could ask about the 2011 season, why not start at the top?

The last preseason No. 1 team that actually won the national championship was USC in 2004. Do you see Oklahoma actually winning it all this year to end the SEC's title run?
-- Shane Hale, Las Vegas

No, I do not. And lest you think this is a cop-out answer in light of the news Tuesday that star Sooners linebacker Travis Lewis will be out for eight weeks, please note that I've felt this way since the spring.

Oklahoma will be very good, no question. The Sooners are so loaded that they're able to replace Lewis with a guy, Corey Nelson, who Bob Stoops said in April "looks like our best player on defense. In fact, it's not even close." That's luxury. With Landry Jones, Ryan Broyles and Co. back on offense and an experienced defense, Stoops' team may well be on the same track as its prolific 2008 squad. But you remember what happened when that 60-points-per-game team met the SEC's best team in January.

It's the same thing that happened once Oregon's offense met Auburn's defensive line last January. After five straight years of this, voters could legitimately be defined as "insane" for picking anyone but an SEC team and expecting a different result.

My preseason favorite is Alabama, and the reason is pretty simple: The Crimson Tide have the most talent in the country, period. As much as some like to dismiss them, there's actually a pretty strong correlation between recruiting rankings and on-field performance. To that end, has ranked Nick Saban's last four classes as follows: No. 1 (2008), No. 1 ('09), No. 5 ('10) and No. 1 ('11). That's the type of dominance we last saw from Pete Carroll at USC (five straight classes ranked No. 1 by at least one major service) and Urban Meyer at Florida (four top-three classes in five years), and both men parlayed those hauls into multiple national titles. Saban (whose classes look even better after some of his patented oversigning and roster purging) is in prime position to do the same. Last year too many of those four- and five-star guys were either inexperienced first-year starters or limited by injuries, and thus, the Tide lost three games. A year later, guys like Courtney Upshaw and Dre Kirkpatrick are both seasoned veterans and projected first-rounders. Combine that with a more favorable schedule (LSU and Arkansas both come to Tuscaloosa), and you've got all the ingredients to be the SEC team that makes it six straight.

The Mandel Initiative
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham talks about his program's move to a major conference. Stewart and Mallory break down Oregon, Stanford and more.

More Mandel Initiative | Find on

The streak will end at some point, maybe even this year. But after watching Auburn spring from middle-of-the-pack to become champs last season, I'm going to have to see it to believe it. Also, just because I'm high on the Tide this year doesn't mean I have blind faith in the rest of the SEC. Case in point ...

Stewart, I'm a devout LSU Tiger fan living amidst the Pac-12 conference fans in Northern California. As much as I love the Tigers, can you explain to me how they can possibly justify their high preseason rankings given they have one of the toughest (if not THE toughest) schedules in football this year?
-- Curtis Barthold, Danville, Calif.

Knowing the way the voters think, it's no secret how the Tigers garnered such a lofty ranking. They went 11-2 last year while playing in the big, bad SEC; they won a January bowl game; and, like Alabama, LSU is a recent national-championship program that recruits well year in and year out. But is it asking too much of the pollsters to dig a little deeper?

This is a team that caught every imaginable break en route to 11 wins last season -- the last-second mulligan against Tennessee, the fake field goal that bounced just right against Florida, the remarkable Les Miles fourth-down reverse against Alabama. I know many feel Miles is immune from typical football karma, but generally speaking, teams that eke out so many close wins one year tend to go the other way the next.

For example, Iowa, which went 11-2 in 2009 with a slew of comebacks and last-second miracles, then, with mostly the same core of players, reverted to 8-5 last year with several last-minute losses.

Throw in a murderous early schedule (non-conference games against Oregon and at West Virginia, and a trip to pesky Mississippi State all in September) and the continual enigma that is quarterback Jordan Jefferson, and you've got all the ingredients for a textbook "flop" team. In fact I'm puzzled why the Tigers are 10 spots ahead of the same Arkansas team that both beat them head-to-head last season and earned a BCS berth. Mark it down here: The Razorbacks will finish at least 10 spots higher than LSU in the final poll.

How do you grade Brady Hoke's handling of Darryl Stonum's DUI (i.e. forced redshirt for 2011)? Do you think future coaches will take the same approach and will there be any backlash for Brian Kelly's restraint shown toward a star player (Michael Floyd) for similar transgressions?
-- Matt, Atlanta

Stewart, I don't understand how the Michael Floyd issue can be painted as anything but a superstar athlete getting preferential treatment. While I don't claim to know all of the particulars of all of the prior incidents, we're talking three alcohol-related offenses in two years, with the last being a DUI. An athlete accepting a lunch from a booster sees a greater on-field punishment than Floyd got.
-- Tim, Douglassville, Pa.

First let's get some important facts out there, because Stonum and Floyd's situations are much different. The Michigan receiver's DUI charge this summer was the second of his career. Furthermore, he served three days in jail last year for probation violations stemming from the first arrest. Conversely, Floyd's two previous "alcohol-related offenses" were underage drinking citations. Big difference.

But driving while intoxicated is a serious offense, regardless of prior history. Of course Kelly is giving Floyd preferential treatment. I don't care what his stated rationale was for the punishment; we're not stupid.

But I don't necessarily blame him, either. That may sound cynical, but the fact is, a coach's job performance is evaluated solely by wins or losses. If Kelly suspends Floyd for the opener against USF and Notre Dame loses at the last second when some inexperienced receiver fails to make a key catch to keep a last-minute drive alive, do you think the fans are going to say, "Oh well, at least he did the right thing?" Of course they're not. They're going to say "I can't believe we lost to those guys, Kelly's play calling was awful in the fourth quarter and I no longer think he's the right guy for the job."

All credit to Hoke for taking a tough stance on discipline, but this is also a time in his tenure when it's both important to set that tone and more feasible because he's still in his honeymoon period. If, two years from now, he's still taking that hard-line stance with troublemakers, and treating starters the same as third-stringers, than he's either the most ethical coach in college football, or, he will have just won the national championship and can do no wrong.

Regarding your Aug. 3 Mailbag about fans not actually complaining when their school plays an FCS team, apparently you haven't heard any Cal fans complaining about the upcoming game versus Presbyterian.
-- Natalie, Oakland, Calif.

Is this considered a formal complaint? If so, yes, yours is the first. However, I was encouraged by the fact that a whole bunch of you did chime in last week to lament your own team's role in this growing trend.

Like ...

Regarding BCS teams scheduling FCS opponents, I am a Penn State alum and diehard fan that hates our annual scrub game. It's bad enough that we schedule two MAC teams each year, but Indiana State? I hate this practice, never attend these "scrimmages," and don't buy season tickets due to the non-conference dreck. (I'll still be at the Alabama game though.) Enjoy your writing and podcast.
-- Morgan, Philadelphia

You alluded to part of the problem. A school like Penn State feels like as long as it's got one marquee non-conference opponent per year like Alabama, it can fill those other three slots with whatever dregs are willing to come to State College. That's pretty much become the standard scheduling formula in the leagues with four non-conference games, but for a few notable exceptions (like LSU's slate mentioned earlier). Last week the Big Ten announced it will be going to nine conference games in 2017, a move I wholeheartedly favor. However, it will be interesting to see which non-conference game fall off teams' slates first: The Alabama slot or the Indiana State slot. Skeptics assume it will be the former, but the Pac-12 already plays nine league games, and 11 of the 12 teams (all but Washington State) are playing at least one BCS opponent. It can be done.

(Weird but related side note: Cal and fellow Pac-12 member Colorado are playing each other in a "non-conference" game this year as part of a previously scheduled home-and-home. Funky, right?)
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