Oregon's Helfrich will face lofty expectations; more mail
More Mailbag (cont.)
As we embark on the first-ever cycle of year-round Mailbags, I'm finding out that an every-other-week format is probably the right frequency given the sparsity of news and volume of e-mails right now. But wow, did the last edition suffer from a brutal bout of bad timing. As always, I filed my responses the night before publication, in this case on Jan. 15. On the morning of Jan. 16, just before the Mailbag was published, Chip Kelly left for the Eagles. I wrote a separate column to cover it.
And then, just a few hours after my editor published the Mailbag -- which, as you'll note, led with an innocuous e-mail about Notre Dame's perception -- Deadspin broke the Manti Te'o story. Imagine the e-mails I could have included had that whole tangled mess gone public a day earlier.
On second thought, maybe it's for the best.
Is new Oregon coach Mark Helfrich walking into the same situation that David Shaw did at Stanford, where he's set at quarterback and running back and should be able to win at least 10 games and possibly the conference? If so, should Oregon fans judge him on his first year? He should have success, and if he doesn't, then his tenure with the Ducks could be short-lived.
-- Jeff Hostetler, Gainesville, Fla.
There are certainly some parallels between Shaw and Helfrich. Both were previously the largely anonymous offensive coordinators behind savior head coaches with outsized personas. Both have more natural ties to their schools (Shaw is a Stanford alum, Helfrich an Oregon native) than their predecessors did. And yes, like Shaw did with Andrew Luck in 2011, Helfrich will enjoy the benefits of starting his tenure with the Pac-12's reigning first-team all-conference quarterback, Marcus Mariota. But that's about where the similarities end.
Shaw took over a Stanford program that had only begun its ascent from mediocrity to regular BCS contention in the previous two seasons, and expectations remained tempered. Despite coming off a 12-1 season and No. 4 ranking in the final AP Poll in 2010, few would have been surprised if the Cardinal had slipped back to the 8-4 realm, and other than among the few Stanford diehards living in the Bay Area, Shaw probably wouldn't have endured much local backlash. Oregon, on the other hand, is now firmly entrenched near the top of the polls after four straight BCS berths under Kelly; Ducks fans have to come to expect national championship contention much like Alabama or Florida fans. Helfrich will be asked to replicate Kelly's success in his first season at the helm.
In a way, it's a no-win situation for Helfrich. If the Ducks struggle, he'll certainly be judged on his first-year failure. But if they win 12 games return to a BCS bowl, people will simply say he did what he was supposed to. That's exactly what happened when Shaw went 11-2 in his 2011 debut. Fans still questioned how he'd fare without Luck. Similarly, with Helfrich, all the pieces are in place for the Ducks to win the Pac-12 and possibly play for the national title next season. The bigger question is whether he can sustain a dominant culture over the long term. So it may be the best impression he can make in his first year is no impression.
At some point, Oregon will have a down season. No program keeps winning 12 games every year. But for Helfrich, it's extremely important that bump in the road doesn't happen in 2013, because his every misstep will be magnified given Kelly's remarkably dominant four-year run.
It seems like the Big Ten is going to shake up its divisions once Maryland and Rutgers join. How would you split up the conference?
-- Stephen, Chicago
First of all, can we all agree that no reshuffling will be satisfactory if those division names that remain unmentionable in the Mailbag aren't changed along with them? Given the fact that the Big Ten Network floated a couple of pretty exhaustive surveys on the matter late last year -- and based on recent comments -- it sounds like the league is finally smarting up and going with a more straight-up geographical approach that will lend to simpler and much-needed East and West names. I do think it's important to maintain some semblance of competitive balance, but in hindsight, the league went a little overboard to that end the last time around. Also, I still believe that Ohio State and Michigan should be in the same division to avoid scenarios like last year's Stanford-UCLA six-days-later rematch -- though commissioner Jim Delany and future TV ratings likely disagree with me.
Of the three options BTN threw out last December, I'd go with the East-West version, but tweak it slightly for competitive balance by swapping Michigan State and Purdue. So you'd have Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota in the West, and Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Purdue, Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers in the East. Remember, the SEC's divisions are not 100 percent geographically accurate (Missouri is in the East), nor are the Pac-12's (South members Utah and Colorado are located north of North members Cal and Stanford), but they're close enough and simple enough that they're easily remembered. Conversely, I still screw up the ACC Atlantic and Coastal alignment eight years later (mainly which group is which), and there's no logical commonalities in the Big Ten's current configuration. Hopefully that changes soon. It would be the first redeeming thing about adding Rutgers and Maryland.
After showing signs of life last season (at least on offense), Miami returns 19 starters and a number of impressive young backups (running back Duke Johnson, cornerback Tracy Howard) for 2013. This offseason, Al Golden has hired two well-respected coaches and recruiters in Mario Cristobal and James Coley, and the university saw the NCAA botch its investigation. Is it unreasonable to think that Miami is back?
-- Joe, Miami
Miami has gone 7-6, 6-6 and 7-5 over the past three seasons. It is not "back" by any stretch. But I'm not sure The U could have asked for a better offseason to date. Golden resisted overtures from Wisconsin and Tennessee. The 'Canes lost no underclassmen to the draft (though there weren't many feasible possibilities). Cristobal and Coley are both seasoned South Florida recruiters (though it's impossible to say how Coley, formerly Florida State's offensive coordinator, will fare in his first gig as a major-conference play-caller), and yes, there was that whole development in the Nevin Shapiro case. It's unclear what the NCAA is going to do once it gets done investigating its investigators, but it seems highly unlikely it will still drop the hammer given its public admission of misconduct in the matter.
And hey, Miami's really good at basketball now, too. Ask Duke.
Given the massive amount of attrition Golden dealt with after his first year, the program was already ahead of schedule simply by getting better last season. Quarterback Stephen Morris significantly improved. Golden's impressive 2012 recruiting class contributed immediately. Players like Johnson, Howard and safety Deon Bush figure to have an even bigger impact in 2013. Remember, the 'Canes would have played for the ACC championship last year had the school not banned itself from the postseason. Miami may well be favored in its division in the coming season. If it actually wins the conference -- something it hasn't done in nine seasons -- then you can start using the word "back."
Which object of the NCAA recruiting deregulations that you detailed will be first to be re-regulated?
-- Mike D., Milwaukee, Wis.
The Fatheads, for sure. The first time a media outlet does a FOIA request and discovers a university spent $20,000 on Fatheads for recruits, the NCAA will convene one of its emergency task forces.
Stewart, regarding Lane Kiffin and USC, is it possible that AD Pat Haden is just stringing him along until the sanctions are completed? It seems like it would be easier to attract a great coach once all the sanctions are over with than while a year or two of scholarship reductions are still in place.
-- Nick, Findlay, Ohio
Haden is incredibly smart and personable and has been a highly respected athletic figure for several decades, so people reasonably assume he must have some master plan for repeatedly espousing his public support of Kiffin. But you know, it may just be that he's not a very good athletic director. Remember, he had never worked in an athletic department before USC hired him during its time of crisis in 2010. Haden already held on to one underperforming, rough-around-the-edges revenue-sport coach, Kevin O'Neill, even after a 6-26 campaign last year. Then he turned around and fired O'Neill in the middle of this season a few weeks ago.
More reasonably, Haden doesn't want to blow things up and start over when Kiffin has recruited so well and is just a year removed from a 10-win season. There's still ample talent at USC, even if the Trojans didn't play like it in 2012. But Haden's almost condescendingly rosy "the sky is not falling" line is not sitting well with a fan base that just endured one of the most disappointing seasons in the country and an unwatchable bowl performance against Georgia Tech. Nearly one-third of USC's once top-rated 2013 recruiting class has decommitted (though it still has a remarkable six five-star commits, according to Rivals.com), and Kiffin's big offseason move was to hire former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. But if Haden says Kiffin's still the guy, then I'm sure he genuinely believes it, because the sanctions would not dissuade potential replacements. USC is a plenty good job regardless.
What is the general trend for a team like Utah State? The Aggies finished in the top 20 this year and return most of their key players, but their coach, Gary Andersen, left for a bigger school. Should we expect once more to fade into the football wastelands, or should we expect something closer to what happened at Boise when Chris Petersen took over?
-- Andrew, Logan, Utah
From 1998-2011, 22 different non-AQ conference schools finished a season in the AP Top 25. Looking solely at the first such instance for each team, only three -- Boise State in 2002, Utah in '03 and Louisville in '04 -- did so again the following season. TCU joins those three as the only programs to return to the final AP Top 25 twice in five years. Those are the modern gold standards for mid-major transformations (with all except Boise now part of the major-conference ranks), but they are by far the exceptions to the norm. Many on the list -- starting with undefeated Tulane in 1998 -- were never heard from again. Hawaii has had one winning season since June Jones' departure following the 2007 Sugar Bowl campaign. And last year, Southern Miss endured one of the all-time worst implosions: It dropped from 12-2 in Larry Fedora's final season to 0-12 under since-fired successor Ellis Johnson.
So it will be interesting next season to see what becomes of not only Utah State, but also Northern Illinois, San Jose State and Kent State, all of which enjoyed breakout seasons in 2012 and subsequently lost their head coaches. Which, if any, will maintain their success? Which will eventually be viewed as one-year aberrations? NIU probably has the best shot of keeping things going since it was not an overnight sensation in the first place (it went 11-3 in both 2010 and '11), and because star quarterback Jordan Lynch returns to campus. It will be tougher for Utah State, in part because it's moving to a tougher conference (the Mountain West), but promoting offensive coordinator Matt Wells at least ensures some continuity. And the Aggies still have Chuckie Keeton for another two years.
Stewart, with the news coming out a few weeks back that ESPN's Thursday night schedule drew some of its worst ratings ever (down 35 percent from 2011), what are the chances that the network beefs up the quality of its midweek games? In years past, with very little competition from the rest of the sports world, ESPN could stick a couple of four-loss teams in that slot and draw a good number. Now, with year-round NFL competition, the numbers were pretty bad. Any chance we get better matchups on Thursday nights moving forward?
-- Rob Walden, Tulsa, Okla.
Actually, I expect the opposite to happen. ESPN knows it's a lost cause going head-to-head with the NFL, and schools will be less likely to move potentially important home games off Saturdays if the exposure isn't what it used to be. If anything, Friday matchups have become a bigger deal than those on Thursdays, particularly with memorable games such TCU-Baylor and Oklahoma State-Iowa State in 2011 and Cincinnati-Louisville last season.
The one exception is the Pac-12, which has openly embraced Thursdays since Larry Scott took over. The Pac-12's 2013 schedule released earlier this month includes four Thursday night conference games, including quite possibly the league's game of the year, Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 7. Those games usually start an hour later, at 9 p.m. ET, so there's slightly less direct overlap with the NFL Network's games. The window still provides better exposure for most teams in that league than they would receive on Saturdays at 10:15 p.m. ET.
Stewart, as a fan of college football and sports in general, I couldn't care less about Manti Te'o and his pretend, deceased, online girlfriend. Can you help me understand why I appear to be the only one?
-- Kirk McIver, Louisville
I cannot. I'm hoping someone will one day publish a sociological study on the whole thing. But in the meantime ...
Hi, Stewart. Is the Manti Te'o story the absolute craziest thing you've covered as a college-football journalist?
-- John Simonian, San Francisco
This e-mail was sent in the days after the story broke, but I'm actually glad to be answering it with the perspective of nearly two weeks' distance. The events themselves -- a star player falling for a girl he never met and never existed and who, at one point, died and came back to life -- are without question the strangest I've ever written columns about. But for me, the truly crazy part was watching the path of the story itself. I don't think I'll ever forget seeing the surreal headline "Breaking News: Te'o's Girlfriend Didn't Exist" flash across the SportsCenter ticker. You knew then this was going to turn into a firestorm. But I'd never before seen someone from my little college football world transcend into a tabloid fixation overnight. Within 24 hours, the story had migrated from ESPN and Sports Illustrated to Inside Edition and TMZ. The Today Show and Good Morning America couldn't get enough. And now it's finally culminating in a pair of syndicated daytime talk show tell-alls, with Te'o's parents sobbing on Katie and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo reportedly coming out on Dr. Phil. That all really happened.
Last weekend, my wife and I were having dinner with a couple that aren't major sports fans. One of them asked, "Why was this a story?" I didn't have a good answer. The hoax was so extraordinary and so unheard of that people couldn't get enough. I know I couldn't for about the first 72 hours. But then it just became depressing. As I wrote about it then, it was mystifying how a 21-year-old kid briefly became a national villain over a case that wasn't remotely malicious. There was more venom spewed toward Te'o on the Internet than any football player since Michael Vick -- and for what? Maybe, possibly inventing a fake girlfriend? People initially took that anonymous "80 percent" quote in Deadspin's exposé as gospel, and then when it became apparent he really did get conned, they shifted from "HE'S A LIAR!" to "HE'S AN IDIOT!" Well, we all did dumb things when we were 21, especially when they involved girls. But by then the story had become so big that it was inevitable Te'o would become a Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart punchline (and presumably the face of Catfish jokes for years to come).
All in all, the whole thing was not the finest moment for the media, for p.r. people, for Notre Dame or, quite frankly, for humanity. But I did come out of it with something positive. Now, whenever I get this customary party question -- "So, what do you do when it's not football season?" -- I have a new answer: "I write about fake girlfriends."