Analyzing the merit of nontraditional powers; more mail
More Mailbag (cont.)
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We've just about reached that point on the calendar when even the staunchest pigskin devotee turns his attention to basketball brackets, as 86 percent of you indicated in last Mailbag's spring football survey. I, for one, plan to carve out a hefty dent in the couch for conference tournaments on Thursday and Friday.
(Having said that, one of the few downsides about moving to the West Coast is it's nearly impossible to watch as much hoops as I did before. For one thing, regular-season games start at 4 p.m. on weekdays. At that time, I'm usually still at "the office" (Panera Bread). Also, it's 72 degrees and sunny here this week. It takes some serious discipline to sit inside for 12 straight hours. But I digress.)
So this will be the last Mailbag for a few weeks. We'll pick it back up after the Final Four. In the meantime, props to several of you who tried your best to tie the two sports together this week.
As the NCAA tourney approaches, I thought I could add a little hoops flair to the College Football Mailbag. With Gonzaga's recent ascent to a No. 1 AP Poll ranking, I can't help but draw comparisons between Gonzaga hoops and Boise State football. It seems to me that both benefit incredibly from playing in weaker leagues. What are your thoughts on how these two programs would fare if they played in one of the bigger conferences?
-- Nate, Moscow, Idaho
First of all, I'm no Luke Winn or Seth Davis, but there is no earthly way Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in the country this season. C'mon, hoops voters. Did you watch the Indiana-Michigan game last weekend? Or Duke-UNC? You're telling me you'd take the 'Zags over the Hoosiers, Wolverines and Blue Devils? But hey, this isn't football, so my votes don't mean diddly.
In the bigger picture, I don't know that the parallels between those two programs/sports are entirely merited. Gonzaga is long past the point of having to prove it's on the same plane as the "big boys." Every year, it plays a slew of nonconference games against power-conference schools, and most seasons, it performs admirably. This year, Gonzaga beat tourney teams Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Kansas State. Unlike in football, hoops teams play enough games against other conferences that we have a fairly well-informed sense of where they stand nationally by season's end. If this year's 'Zags played in the Big Ten, they'd probably have a few more losses, but they'd also have a chance to pick up more quality wins. My guess is their tourney seed would be only minimally affected.
Football is a different story. Boise State generally gets once chance to prove its merits against an Oregon, Virginia Tech or Georgia before loading up on its overmatched conference foes -- and one early-season game doesn't tell a whole lot. I will go to my grave believing that 2010 team with Kellen Moore, Doug Martin, Austin Pettis, Titus Young, Shea McClellin and company could have won the national championship. Subsequent draft numbers bore out that there were more pros on that Boise team than either Auburn or Oregon, and its one loss came on a missed field goal to a Nevada team quarterbacked by Colin Kaepernick. On the flip side, however, last year's rebuilding Broncos squad probably was not a legitimate top-15 team (as it finished in the Coaches' Poll), but it was still good enough to rack up 11 wins against an unimposing schedule. But that's all just an educated guess. I'd need to see both teams play a few more high-level foes to feel truly confident about either assessment.
As for the whole "week-to-week" grind debate, recent transitions by Utah (which suffered its first losing season in a decade last year in the Pac-12) and TCU (which, in its first year in the Big 12, won fewer than eight games for the first time since 2004) seem to support those who believe the Broncos would never survive in a major conference. But every season is different. Utah might have managed a tad better recently if 2008 hero Brian Johnson was playing quarterback instead of calling plays, and TCU might have fared better last year if future Pro Bowler Andy Dalton were starting instead of an emergency redshirt freshman quarterback. I'd say just appreciate both Gonzaga and Boise for what they are, not what they might be -- though given that Nate hails from Idaho Vandals territory, I'm guessing that's not going to happen.
Why do I have the gut feeling that Johnny Football has already peaked? Between the nonstop distractions, the lack of a surprise factor with defenses, his unorthodox style and everyone's unrealistic expectations, I just think he'll never match, let alone exceed, last year's performance again.
-- Carlos Gomez, San Antonio
You may be right, for all the reasons you cited and then some. Kliff Kingsbury was a heck of an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He did an exceptional job not only mentoring Manziel, but tailoring the game plan to fit Manziel's comfort zone, which obviously grew as the season progressed. The aforementioned element of surprise was gone three games into the season, but Kingsbury continually introduced additional elements from the playbook that opponents hadn't seen on tape. I had a chance to meet Kingsbury's new position coach, 27-year-old Jake Spavital (whom Andy Staples recently profiled) while in College Station last week. He's a sharp guy who obviously did great things with Geno Smith at West Virginia last year, but can he develop the same level of trust that Manziel had with Kingsbury? And will co-offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney come up with the right plans and play calls? He certainly shined in the Cotton Bowl, but that's not necessarily indicative of week-to-week preparation and adjustments.
Meanwhile, Manziel will no longer have potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Luke Joeckel protecting him or steady receiver Ryan Swope as a target. But I'm not too worried about the Aggies' offensive personnel. Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, I would be surprised if Manziel takes a significant step backwards. Recent Heisman-winning or Heisman-contending quarterbacks who returned to school -- Andrew Luck (2011), Tim Tebow (2008 and '09), Colt McCoy ('09), Matt Leinart ('05), Jason White ('04) -- all had similar if not better production the next year (excluding Sam Bradford's injury-shortened '09 season). A realistic projection for Manziel is that his completion percentage (68 percent last year) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (26-to-9) will improve, but his rushing yardage (1,410) will go down slightly as he spends longer in the pocket. This will make it harder for him to repeat as the Heisman winner, because dazzling, improvisational runs are his trademark. Still, in the long run, the Aggies' offense might be better for it.
Which is more inexcusable (considering recruiting hotbeds, athletic department resources, etc.): the current futility of SEC basketball or ACC football?
-- Joey Sparks, Jasper, Ala.
Oh, this one's not even close. I know the SEC has had its high points in basketball recently, most notably three national titles in a six-year span (Florida in 2006 and '07 and Kentucky in 2012), but generally speaking, it's an afterthought to football. (I assume the minority 14 percent cited above that follow spring football more closely than March Madness hail primarily from SEC country). Of the 14 SEC schools, only two, Kentucky and Missouri, have what most would consider a basketball culture. It's obviously important at Florida, too, and Tennessee had a nice run with Bruce Pearl (and has long supported its powerhouse women's program). Still, by and large, support for basketball in the SEC lags behind every other major conference, so it's hardly a surprise the on-court product reflects that.
On the other hand, while the ACC is widely considered a basketball conference, support for football is vast. Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech would all be considered football-first schools, and Georgia Tech, Maryland, Boston College and Virginia have all enjoyed past success on the national level. NC State and North Carolina have committed ample resources to football. And the conference's geographic footprint coincides with some very strong recruiting hotbeds -- Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and the D.C. area. There's really no excuse for the sustained mediocrity of ACC football. In fact, the conference's strange dichotomy was on full display last weekend when Miami -- which the conference went after a decade ago for the sole purpose of upgrading its football product -- won the ACC regular-season basketball championship, something the 'Canes have yet to do on the gridiron.
The football league formerly known as The Big East needs a name. How about the Ctrl-Alt-Del Conference?
-- Alan Endicott, Marion, Ohio
That's pretty darn good. What about the Big Exit Fee Reservoir?
Stewart, I'm a big fan of the Mailbag and am glad we now have it in the offseason. My question concerns college football programs that hire co-offensive coordinators. Is this a recent trend, and how often would you estimate that these arrangements actually work out? Does any team really need two offensive coordinators?
-- Matt, Marietta, Ga.
Good question. I feel like this trend was relatively unheard of prior to about a decade ago, and even then you had the cryptic "run game coordinator" and "pass game coordinator" designations. In many cases, these arrangements produce mainly ceremonial titles -- like a corporation that has 27 senior vice presidents. If a head coach wants to woo a particular assistant but already has an offensive coordinator on staff, he can entice that person by letting him have a coordinator title -- even if that assistant won't be the one calling plays. Case in point: Michigan State's Mark Dantonio recently hired longtime Jim Tressel offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, who had previously accepted an offensive line job at Purdue. Bollman was given the title of co-offensive coordinator, even though Dave Warner will be calling the plays. Meanwhile, at Utah, Dennis Erickson will be sharing the offensive coordinator title with incumbent Brian Johnson, but it's generally understood that the vastly more experienced Erickson will be the lead guy there.
In any such arrangement, as long as there's a clear distinction as to who is the "main" offensive coordinator, I don't think it's a problem. Bob Stoops has utilized co-coordinators off and on since at least 2002, mostly with great success. And Mike Leach usually had co-coordinators at Texas Tech. Most staffs develop the weekly game plan collaboratively, so as long as both coordinators get along, that shouldn't be an issue. It only becomes a problem if -- as I've heard of at some places -- the head coach tries to be too democratic and assigns, say, one guy to call 2nd-and-7 and the other to call 3rd-and-1. Or if multiple voices are giving their input over the headset on every single play. That's a disaster waiting to happen. At most places, you wouldn't necessarily notice the difference.
As a Seattle resident but a South Carolina native, I couldn't be happier about the job Steve Spurrier has done with the Gamecocks. But he doesn't have too much longer before he'll retire. If he maintains this success, has he done enough for South Carolina to attract a high-level coach when he eventually steps down?
-- Matt, Spartanburg, S.C.
First of all, I wouldn't make any assumptions about Spurrier's impending retirement date. For one, he's the youngest 67 year old you'll ever meet. He's not lacking for energy, and he's clearly having a blast now that the program is having success. The assumption that he'd rather be playing golf every day was probably closer to reality in 2001 than it is in 2013. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he coaches another five to 10 years, provided the Gamecocks maintain their status as an SEC contender.
But even if that's not the case, there's no question South Carolina would be able to attract another high-level coach. It might not be another future Hall of Famer with a national title ring, but the program certainly will catch the eye of whichever hot coaches are available at the time the job opens. Spurrier will reportedly make $3.3 million this season, more than any other SEC coach besides Nick Saban ($5.3 million) or Les Miles ($3.75 million). A new coach would not likely start out that high in the conference pecking order, but potential candidates would know that South Carolina is capable of paying just as well as more traditional powers like Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Spurrier has shown you can win 11 games and recruit high-level talent like Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney to Columbia. It's hard to imagine there would be many better jobs available in a given year.
Notre Dame will play Arizona State this year. This will mark the third time in the past four years that Notre Dame has played a team coached by Todd Graham (Tulsa in 2010 and Pittsburgh in 2011). I wanted to know if any prior coach has ever faced the same team three times as the head coach of three different programs within such a short a time period.
-- David, Lawrence, Kan.
I'd love to know that answer myself. Does anyone out there know of a prior such occurrence?
(Contrary to what many of my e-mailers seem to think, I do not have a massive research staff at my disposal. Hence, I'm crowdsourcing this one.)
Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence is from my hometown of Louisville. I know she is a pretty big Cardinals fan (more so her brothers, but she sided with UL over UK last year in the Final Four). If you restart the Mailbag crush, it sounds like she would be the ideal candidate. It's about time to bring it back!
-- David Nefouse, San Francisco
Now this is something I was happy to research. I can confirm that the reigning Oscar winner and simply delightful actress is in fact a Louisville fan, though it's unclear whether that extends to football.
If so, then she undoubtedly knows that Charlie Strong was hired as Cardinals coach on Dec. 9, 2009 and 37 months later led them to a Sugar Bowl upset of Florida. On a nearly parallel track, Winter's Bone, Lawrence's breakout film, premiered Jan. 21, 2010, and 37 months later she won an Academy Award. Chew on that one.
What is your take on the Big 12 potentially holding a conference championship game? The commissioner has given several conflicting reasons/excuses for requesting permission from the NCAA to hold one.
-- Keith Walker, Grand Prairie, Texas
If you take Bob Bowlsby at his literal word, the Big 12 is not presently interested in staging a conference championship game, but it would prefer that a seemingly arbitrary rule telling the league it couldn't hold one doesn't exist. The magic number was set at 12 more than two decades ago, but there's no real explanation why. A 10-team conference has suddenly become passé, yet the only reason anyone might view that number as a negative is the inability to have a championship game. So why not eliminate that hindrance if you can? In the meantime, as Bowlsby has said, conference championship games have been an attendance disaster outside the SEC recently, and the small financial gain from a television partner is not incentive alone to add such a game.
However, I have to think part of the Big 12's rationale comes when looking toward the new playoff system; the lack of a championship game could hurt Big 12 teams in the eyes of the future selection committee. We won't know whether that's the case until we actually go through a year or two in the system. And it may be that the opposite is true, and that the Big 12's round-robin schedule allows its teams to play more highly regarded schedules than those in a 14-team league, even with its title game. Case in point: In the SEC this year, neither Alabama or Texas A&M face Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, save for possibly one if they reach the title game.
However, if Oklahoma's schedule strength is nearly identical to Ohio State's in a given year, but the Buckeyes' victory in the Big Ten championship game pushes them over the top for the No. 4 seed, then the Big 12 might need to think about adding that extra game. It'd like to have that option without having to add members.
Stewart, how is it that every team in the SEC expects to finish above .500 in conference play every year?
-- Joe, Branford, Conn.
Is that really unique to the SEC? It's spring. Every fan base in the country is thinking about finishing above .500 this year. Well, except maybe for Kansas. Even Jeff Withey thinks that's a tall order.