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College Football

Taking stock of spring games and scandals; more mail

Welcome back, Mailbag readers. While I disappeared from your computer screen for much of the past few weeks (unless you read one of my approximately 27 Wichita State stories during the NCAA tournament), you can rest assured knowing I've been busy traversing our country visiting various campuses for spring football updates. You'll be seeing a few more of those stories soon. And next week, I'll be at the BCS meetings in Pasadena for the latest developments on the forthcoming playoff era.

In the meantime, let's start with a conveniently generalized question about the latest spring happenings.

Stewart, spring games are always a source of optimism among college football fans. What team do you think truly showed something to be excited about come fall? --Josh, Columbus, Ohio

As you presumably know, spring games can be incredibly misleading. Last year, for example, freshman receiver Michael Thomas stole the show at Ohio State's game with 12 catches for 131 yards. He wound up catching three passes all season. On the other hand, T.J. Yeldon was the star of Alabama's 2012 spring game, and, sure enough, he played a significant role in the Tide's national championship run starting in the season opener. So while I could point to any number of similarly encouraging spring game performances so far -- redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston making Florida State fans salivate; redshirt freshman receiver Michael Rector shining at Stanford's biggest position of need; Johnny Football putting on an aerial show at Texas A&M -- my answer involves a less obvious school and a less tangible accomplishment.

To me, the biggest display of spring optimism came last weekend at Kentucky, where a staggering 50,831 spectators from a perceived basketball school showed up to watch a football team coming off an 0-8 SEC campaign. To put that number in perspective, it's a higher reported attendance than all but one school so far (Nebraska), higher even than Texas A&M (45,212), which is fresh off its best season in 50-plus years. It's a testament to the overwhelming and, at least to me, surprising degree of enthusiasm new coach Mark Stoops has engendered in a short amount of time.

ELLIS: Mark Stoops out to revive Kentucky on field and recruiting trail

A new coach's first spring is generally always a period of renewal and optimism, especially for a program coming off tough times. Nick Saban memorably drew 90,000-plus fans at his first A-Day game in 2007. But again, this is Kentucky, not Alabama, and Stoops is a first-time head coach, not a previous BCS champion and NFL headman. Back in January, I considered Stoops' hiring solid, but certainly not Kliff Kingsbury or Gus Malzahn-level inspiring. But Wildcats fans clearly feel differently. Stoops has given them hope, thanks in large part to a torrid recruiting start. He signed a top-30 class in February, flipping four-star players previously committed to USC and Nebraska, and is off to a similar start for 2014. He's already landed four-star receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass out of Springfield, Ohio. Kentucky didn't used to get players like that.

Still, I don't think Big Blue Nation showed up last Saturday to cheer on recruiting rankings. In hiring former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown, Stoops is bringing the Air Raid back to the place where Hal Mumme and Mike Leach first made it famous 15 years ago. At a place like Kentucky, where national titles are a distant dream, the importance of having an exciting and clearly defined brand can't be overstated. The Wildcats had success under Mumme and Rich Brooks, going to bowls and producing stars like Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen, Andre Woodson and Randall Cobb, but not since Mumme has there been a specific point of pride for Kentucky football. While I doubt the Wildcats will dig out of the Joker Phillips era overnight, Stoops has clearly instilled confidence that they will get to that point soon enough. For that reason, I think Kentucky's spring game produced the greatest cause for optimism so far.

Meanwhile, I think we can all agree on the runaway star of spring to date: Nebraska's Jack Hoffman.

Stewart, how do the recent NCAA findings on Oregon stack up to the findings on Ohio State a few years ago? If we look at the actual athlete infractions, they seem fairly similar. -- Dan Wise, Minneapolis

I do see a parallel between the two cases, though it may differ from the parallel you mention. Right up until the day Ohio State received its sanctions, our focus was entirely on TattooGate and Jim Tressel's handling of it. As of July 2011, that was the NCAA's sole focus, too. As a result, the school -- having dismissed Tressel -- believed it would get off lightly, and I was inclined to agree. But at the 11th hour that November, the enforcement staff tacked on the charge that the school failed to monitor well-known booster Bobby DiGeronimo, whose $200 payments for attending a charity event and questionable employment practices got a few players suspended that season. While the dollar amounts involved were far less than those in the tattoo deal, many have theorized that the broadening of the case may have pushed it over the edge to merit a bowl ban in December.

Similarly, when I read the initial Oregon reports on Tuesday, I thought the program was incredibly fortunate. For two years, this scandal revolved almost entirely around the school's suspicious $25,000 payment to Will Lyles in March 2011, and the enforcement staff's finding on that matter is the least sinister interpretation possible. We are told that, "none of the underlying violations were intentional in nature," and that "There is no information in the record that Lyles coerced or directed any prospect to ultimately choose Oregon." They even chastise the media for "sensationalizing" the $25,000 figure, noting this is a perfectly reasonable price tag for a legitimate recruiting service, which Oregon and Lyles have somehow convinced the NCAA it was. Their sole crime in the matter, therefore, was essentially administrative; Lyles failed to provide quarterly written reports, as required by rule. This view requires an incredible suspension of disbelief, but that's the language in the parties' since-rejected summary disposition, and it will likely be the same in the forthcoming Notice of Allegations.

But the real cause for concern comes later in the document, particularly Finding 3, which was so heavily redacted that initial reports did not even attempt to decipher it. However, compliance expert John Infante tweeted Tuesday that, based on the bylaws cited, this section "relates to gifts provided by Lyles to prospects. Those gifts included clothing, cash and 'free or reduced-cost services, rentals or purchases of any type.'" Mind you, Lyles was defined as a "representative of athletic interests" (a booster) for Oregon as early as 2008. Much like Ohio State/DiGeronimo, the program is charged with failure to monitor Lyles. "Based on the failure to monitor charge later, the clothing given was [Oregon] athletic apparel Lyles somehow got his hands on," Infante tweeted. But remember, Lyles wasn't steering anyone to Oregon. Really.

So while the original recruiting service violation that prompted the investigation is now minimized (Oregon, in fact, is arguing it should be deemed secondary), the totality of the violations -- extra benefits; impermissible phone calls; an extra coach participating in recruiting; and failure to monitor by both coach and program -- seems likely to result in significant sanctions. My guess: a one-year bowl ban (like Ohio State's), mild scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions such as a limit on official visits and/or coaches' evaluation dates and home visits (some of which the school offered to self-impose).

Stewart, do you think the University of Miami has a shot at getting "time served" with regard to the NCAA investigation? If so, do you see The U improving under Al Golden?-- Kelly Bixler, Independence, Ky.

You know it's the offseason in college football when there are back-to-back sanctions questions.

It's impossible to predict how the Miami case will be resolved because we've never seen anything remotely like it. We've never seen the NCAA publicly admit to misconduct in an investigation and fire its head of enforcement over it. We've never seen a school charged with major violations try to get the whole case tossed out because of that misconduct. And we've never seen the new NCAA enforcement head fire back at the school, accusing it of "grasping at straws." There are going to be all sorts of lawsuit(s) filed by the time this thing is over. It's just nasty all around.

But let's not forget: Miami still seems pretty guilty of committing some major violations. The full Notice of Allegations has yet to surface, but the school is facing the dreaded Lack of Institutional Control charge, and the most alarming tidbit that's leaked to date is that Miami allegedly looked into Shapiro on numerous occasions (including possibly hiring a private investigator) yet never curtailed his dealings with Hurricanes athletes. With that in mind, I find it highly unlikely the Committee on Infractions will toss out the case, and I find it similarly unlikely that it will go through the trouble of a hearing without administering any new penalties beyond the two-year postseason ban the school imposed. The question is: Will those additional sanctions be severe or mild? If it's a few scholarship reductions and redacted wins, Golden can continue the rebuilding process with little impediment and the 'Canes could be very good, very soon. If the Committee doles out USC-like scholarship reductions, however, Miami could struggle for years to come. Given the significant issues surrounding the NCAA's side of things and the threat of an ugly lawsuit, I find it hard to imagine the Committee goes the latter route, but no one can say for certain.

I just saw this headline: "NCAA director of enforcement leaves to take a job at Auburn." He also held that position from 1995-99. Isn't it a little more than coincidental that programs like Miami, USC, Ohio State and Oregon could get hammered while Auburn is skating clean from the Cam Newton scandal, especially when the director of enforcement has such strong ties to the school?-- Pete Gerski, New Berlin, Wis.

I realize it's open season on the NCAA right now, and that the now three-year quest to "get" Auburn shows no signs of dissipating. Still, I have to rain on this latest conspiracy theory. The official who left the NCAA, David Didion, was not the director of enforcement, as media accounts made it seem. Director of enforcement is a title that several of the organization's senior investigators hold, with those below them titled associate directors, assistant directors, etc. And the job he's leaving for is not even the top compliance position at Auburn. Far from a golden parachute, it seems Didion is returning to the same job he held 13 years ago, presumably to escape Mark Emmert's demoralized enforcement department.

Who's got next?

Stewart, which team is going to get the "played well in a bowl game" bump and start the preseason polls too high? (See West Virginia last season.)--John, Richmond, Va.

Oh, that's easy.

Coming off an impressive Sugar Bowl win over an SEC team win but facing a weak schedule for 2013, do you think Louisville, if it were to go undefeated, would have any chance at appearing in the BCS championship game?-- Brad, Louisville

Late in its telecast of Texas A&M's spring game last Saturday, ESPN showed a graphic of Kirk Herbstreit's early preseason top five. It included Louisville. I winced. Charlie Strong's program is certainly on the rise, and Teddy Bridgewater is a legitimate Heisman candidate. But the Cardinals were far from a top-five team last season. They went 11-2 against an abysmal schedule. Even with the win over Florida, they still finished just 27th in Jeff Sagarin's power ratings and 28th in Football Outsiders' F/+ efficiency ratings. But to their credit, they played out of their minds and destroyed the nation's third-ranked team in a bowl game. That, plus 15 returning starters, all but assures they'll get the West Virginia bump this fall.

Here's the difference: Dana Holgorsen's team moved up to a tougher conference in 2012 and promptly got exposed. Louisville will play this season in a glorified version of Conference USA. The Cardinals' schedule includes just four teams -- Ohio, Rutgers, UCF and Cincinnati -- that reached a bowl game last year. They may well be 10-0 or 11-0 late in the season and we'll still have little idea how good they really are. Yet, because preseason pollsters will do something that drives me bonkers and preemptively reward them for their easy schedule (Herbstreit even said on the broadcast that their schedule was the primary reason he was ranking them so high), they'll be right in the thick of the national title picture.

Louisville isn't going to beat out a fellow undefeated team from a power conference, but because of the victory over Florida last season, and because the newly rebranded American Athletic Conference will remain an AQ conference for another year, Louisville is more likely to get the benefit of the doubt than Boise State, TCU or Utah did during their undefeated seasons in mid-major leagues.

Based on the emails to your Mailbag over the years, one thing that's pretty clear is that college football fans tend to be very optimistic, and defensive, about the quality of their teams. Are there any self-defeated fanbases that are perennially pessimistic about their team's prospects? Put another way: Who are the Cleveland Browns fans of college football? --TT, San Jose, Calif.

I've been in the Bay Area long enough to know that Cal fans possess this type of mindset. I do sense some cautious optimism about Sonny Dykes, but the combination of the lack of a Rose Bowl berth since 1959 and the shaky play of the last four quarterbacks of Jeff Tedford's tenure seems to have them pretty beaten down.

Given Florida State's challenging 2014 schedule, should the staff focus on the future in choosing the 2013 starting quarterback, to ensure he has enough experience to handle the job by then? Or should it go year-by-year and let the best man win, even if that means a different starter each season?--Chris K., Lexington, Ky.

While all programs manage their rosters with some eye to the future, at a place with expectations like Florida State's, the staff has to play the quarterback who provides the best chance of winning the next week, not next year. It's pretty clear, however, that the aforementioned Winston is going to be the guy for the Seminoles sooner rather than later. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman, Rivals' No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2012, only fueled the hype last weekend with a 12-of-15, 205-yard performance, including a 58-yard touchdown throw on the first play from scrimmage. He's already drawing inevitable Charlie Ward comparisons. And adding to his budding legend, he split time with the baseball team this spring; he went immediately from the spring game to play in a doubleheader against Duke.

But throwing touchdowns against your own defense while wearing a non-contact jersey is one thing. Finding the same success at Pittsburgh on Labor Day is another. Just because Winston is the most talented quarterback on the roster doesn't guarantee he'll be the best prepared come Sept. 2, especially when there's a veteran on hand, Clint Trickett, who has experience playing against Oklahoma and Clemson. Therefore, Jimbo Fisher faces the same mini-dilemma that many coaches before him have. If he opts for Trickett, fans will be pining for Winston from the moment Trickett throws his first interception. If he decides to go with Winston, he has to be patient enough to withstand the inevitable growing pains, as coaches don't want to hurt a young quarterback's confidence by pulling him for the backup. In Fisher's ideal world, whichever player he chooses will excel from day one and render the issue moot. More realistically, perhaps the two will split time the first few games until Winston earns the coaches' full confidence.

***Update: Just hours after this column was published, Florida State announced that Trickett has been released from his scholarship and will transfer, rendering the previous question moot.

I know that QB No. 12 was not as respected as he should have been in Norman, especially considering he followed Heisman Trophy winner QB No. 14. How do you think QB No. 10 will do this season for Oklahoma? Can he lead my Sooners to a Big 12 championship outright?-- Josh, Norman, Okla.

First of all, kudos on a well-played reference to Bob Stoops' pay-for-play comments (assuming that's what you intended). For those scoring at home, No. 10 belongs to presumed new starter Blake Bell. Seeing as no former Oklahoma All-America has worn that number, Stoops will not be able to pull his Josh Heupel/Sam Bradford comparison if Bell's career takes off and No. 10 jerseys start popping up in the stands. I think there's a good chance that could happen, both because of Bell's dual-threat abilities and Stoops and his coordinators' long history of tailoring the offense to their quarterback's strengths. I'll stop short of proclaiming a conference title just yet, though. Frankly, Oklahoma has bigger question marks than at quarterback, most notably on the offensive and defensive line.

Funny to read your article on USC. Did you eat a big plate of crow after crowning them national champions in August of last year? Your articles are a complete joke and biased to the West Coast after moving out there to be with your sugar momma. -- Jason, Little Rock, Ark.

Actually, I incorrectly picked a team a little bit to closer to your hometown, LSU, to win it all last August. I did regrettably have USC in the Rose Bowl, but I also had them playing another eventual 7-6 flop, Michigan State, which left me eating crow in three different time zones.

Fortunately, I did not take those picks to Vegas. No need for the sugar momma to bail me out just yet.

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