My 2013 copy of Phil Steele's College Football Preview arrived over the weekend. As devoted readers know, Phil's magazine is quite different from all the others with its glossary of strange abbreviations, such as OFS (out for spring) and PRD (punt return defense), as well as its utter disregard for white space. It's also been rated the most accurate predictor of all preview magazines for the past 15 years, in part because he's not afraid to deviate from the masses.
Still, some of his outlier picks this time of year always raise a few eyebrows.
Stewart, Phil Steele has Texas listed at No. 4 in his preseason rankings. While he may have received some inside information from Bevo, I remain skeptical. I like Texas and would enjoy seeing it hang 50 points on Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. What are your thoughts on the Longhorns this year?
-- Mark G, Folsom, Pa.
Phil puts a lot of stock into recruiting rankings and NFL draft potential. In other words, he places a lot of weight on raw talent. It's no coincidence, then, that he seems to have a soft spot for the sport's bluebloods: He ranks Florida State No. 3 (current preseason consensus No. 13), Texas No. 4 (consensus No. 14) and, most astonishingly, USC No. 6 (consensus No. 21).
Phil is right about one thing: I saw Texas in the spring, and the 'Horns most certainly pass the eye test. In regard to size and speed, they look very much like a vintage Mack Brown team. Most notably, quarterback David Ash is now surrounded by a plethora of playmaking receivers (Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley, Cayleb Jones, running back/receiver Daje Johnson and more). They've still got the talented running back trio of Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron, who may finally all be healthy at the same time. Potential All-America Jackson Jeffcoat's return from last year's season-ending injury boosts what should be an excellent front four, and Texas has good experience in the secondary, led by cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom.
Still, unlike Phil, I'm reluctant to completely buy in. If this were 2009 and Texas returned 19 starters, I'd be inclined to pencil the 'Horns in for a BCS championship game berth. But after watching them flounder to an 11-15 Big 12 record over the past three seasons, I'm not confident saying Texas will rise up and go 12-1. Brown has assembled a solid staff. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite had a nice play-calling debut in the Alamo Bowl against Oregon State, and the decision to go full-on no-huddle makes sense in the already frenzied Big 12. He'll get the ball in playmakers' hands. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's unit was a train wreck last season, but he's earned the right to a mulligan. Texas will be the most talented team in the Big 12 and perhaps the favorite to win the league, but the past few years have instilled too much doubt, and there are too many questions defensively to assume the 'Horns will make it past Oklahoma (which has crushed them the past two seasons), Oklahoma State, TCU, Kansas State and Baylor with one loss or fewer.
Stewart, which Pac-12 team can do what Oregon State did last year and rise from low expectations to have a successful season? I'm hoping Utah has what it takes. And which other power-conference teams currently flying under the radar could be poised to turn heads in 2013?
-- Nick Brough, Salt Lake City
The Beavers' rise from 3-9 to 9-4 last season was one of the great stories of 2012, and it was almost impossible to predict. Normally, breakthrough teams fit a certain mold: lots of close losses the year before, or an unusual amount of injuries and/or turnovers. Notre Dame's 2011-to-2012 transformation is a textbook example. On the other hand, the Beavers were routinely blown out in 2011 but showed up last season with a heck of a passing game and a vastly improved defense. At 5-7, Utah was certainly a disappointment last fall, and while I'd like to peg the Utes as a turnaround team this year, I'm just not sure what to make of Dennis Erickson's hire. It could be a coup or disaster for head coach Kyle Whittingham. A safer bet in the Pac-12 is Washington State, simply because the Cougs -- 3-9 last year -- will enter their second campaign in Mike Leach's system. They concluded last season with a nice upset of Washington.
Looking elsewhere, one possible candidate to rise from the depths like Oregon State did last year is Indiana. Seriously. The Hoosiers, 4-8, were very competitive for the first two-thirds of Kevin Wilson's second season -- taking Ohio State and Michigan State to the wire and beating Illinois and Iowa -- before allowing 54.3 points per game in its last three contests against Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. Youth, injuries and lack of depth ultimately proved too much for the Hoosiers. This year, however, I expect Indiana to ride an explosive offense and a schedule with eight home games to a bowl berth. Another team in much the same boat is Maryland. The Terps, also 4-8 last year, played a freshman linebacker at quarterback by the end of last season due to an absurd rash of injuries. There's enough good young talent in College Park for Maryland to finish as high as third or fourth in the ACC Atlantic division.
Stewart, how differently do you think people would have reacted to last week's Oregon sanctions had Lache Seastrunk lived up to his five-star billing and led Oregon to a BCS title in 2010? On the flip side, had this been the case, would people continue to hold Auburn in such contempt?
-- Bart Prorok, Auburn, Ala.
In order to understand the context here, I must note that Bart frequently emails me, and he nearly always writes about the supposed mass media conspiracy against Auburn dating back to the Cam Newton scandal. That said, he's got a point here. Oregon's virtually nonexistent sanctions came and went basically unnoticed last week. (This may have had something to do with Aaron Hernandez's murder charge coming down a couple of hours later.) I talked with a major coach a few days later who had no idea the penalties had even been announced. (Coaches live in a bubble.) The coach had long assumed the Ducks would get a bowl ban. Nope. One docked scholarship offer for each of the next two years.
Now, let's play out Bart's hypothetical. Let's say Seastrunk arrived in Eugene in 2010 and had the kind of impact he did at Baylor last season (831 rushing yards over his last six games). Let's say Seastrunk then ran for 120 yards to lead the Ducks over Auburn in the national title game. Two months later, if it were then revealed that Oregon cut a $25,000 check to Seastrunk's mentor, people would have been apoplectic. Then, 27 months later, if the NCAA issued a report in which it accepted at face value that Oregon earnestly paid for a recruiting-service provider who simply didn't proffer the NCAA-required amount of written materials, I'm guessing it would have registered as significantly bigger news.
As for Auburn in this hypothetical, Newton would still forever be known as the Heisman winner whose father solicited $180,000, but perhaps Alabama fans and the public wouldn't be quite so incredulous about his scandal years after the fact if Auburn didn't have a BCS trophy.
Oh, and Chip Kelly probably would have left Oregon a year earlier in this alternate reality.
Stewart, following all the conference realignment moves over the last few years, which schools have now been in their current conferences the longest? I seem to recall that a couple of the original Pac-12 teams have been in some iteration of the conference for more than 100 years.
-- Burton, Seattle
It depends on what's considered to be the official start date of several current conferences, since almost all of them were spawned from previous iterations. The Big Ten is generally considered the nation's oldest conference, dating to 1896, when it was known as the Western Conference. That being an accepted premise, then the answer to this question is Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. (Indiana and Iowa joined three years later.) Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Vanderbilt have played together even longer, since 1894, when they helped found the long-defunct Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, but that league dissolved in the 1940s. The original Pacific Coast Conference teams -- Cal, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State -- first joined together in 1915.
*Update: Michigan was incorrectly listed in my original answer; it left the Western Conference from 1907-16.
While USC-Texas and Miami-Ohio State were the most exciting title games of the BCS era, and whiie the Virginia Tech-Florida State matchup was certainly compelling, which game would you say had the most talent on the field? I'd lean toward the the 2008 Florida-Oklahoma game; even while watching that game, I couldn't think of another national championship that featured harder hitting than that one.
-- Marc G., Miami
A couple of years ago I went back and researched the number of NFL draft picks that had played in the previous year's BCS title game. In that study, the total from the Florida-Oklahoma matchup actually checked in relatively low. However, Florida had a fairly young team that season and ultimately wound up having 14 starters or upperclassmen reserves drafted, and, as of last season, more than 20 players from that roster were in the NFL. For its part, Oklahoma had a combined 12 players selected in the 2009 and '10 drafts. So yes, there was plenty of talent on the field that night. But I don't think it was the most of any title game in the BCS era.
Ohio State-Miami remains the standard bearer for collective talent. The Buckeyes and 'Canes produced 37 combined draft picks between them, with Miami alone churning out 11 first-rounders. Consider some of the future NFL stars who took the field that night: Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee, Jonathan Vilma, Antrel Rolle, the late Sean Taylor, Mike Doss, Will Smith and Chris Gamble. And that doesn't even include two-time Heisman finalist Ken Dorsey and freshman sensation Maurice Clarett. The Texas-USC clash comes in a close second in terms of pro talent.
However, as I noted after this year's draft, 31 players who took the field for the 2011 LSU-Alabama title game have already been drafted. With guys like AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley still in school, it could turn out that the most scorned of all the BCS title games ultimately goes down as the one with the most NFL talent.
Dear Mr. Mandel, I'm a big college football fan and enjoy reading your stories. From all of your years covering the sport, how many FBS teams have you seen play in-person, and what's your favorite stadium? My goal is to see every FBS team play in-person. Thus far, I've seen 88 FBS teams play in 61 different stadiums. Here's my website that shows all the different stadiums I've visited and teams I've seen.
-- Tom Felice, Magnolia, Del.
Props to you, sir. That's quite the feat and undertaking, one that must be made all the more difficult by the fact that more teams keep joining the FBS every year. I especially love that you documented not just the dates and scores, but also the weather conditions of every game you've attended. (It seems you've had remarkable luck avoiding rain.)
Taking a look at your list, you've definitely got me beat. Counting retroactively, and to the best of my memory, I believe I've seen 67 teams play in 56 stadiums. Unlike your portfolio, however, mine largely lacks a non-BCS presence. Not that I'm complaining that my employers prefer to send me to the biggest games, but I can only count a handful of MAC or Conference USA sightings (and almost none at those teams' stadiums). Conversely, it saddens me that your list is devoid of any West Coast flavor (including no Rose Bowl!). I'm not sure of your budget for these things, but I'd make that a top priority for 2014. Best of luck to both of us as we attempt to add to our respective lists.
Hey Stewart, I'm a Clemson transplant here in Washington state. While it seems like offensive coordinator Chad Morris gets a lot of mention as an up-and-coming potential head coach, I almost never hear about Dabo Swinney's chances to move up to a higher-profile job. Swinney obviously knows how to bring in the right people, took over from a Bowden (granted, it was only Tommy) and has improved virtually every aspect of his team, bringing the Tigers into the preseason national championship picture. What do you think Swinney's prospects are? Or do you think he's content at Clemson?
-- Jim, Irmo, S.C.
Swinney, who took over for Bowden in 2008, probably doesn't get quite enough credit for his accomplishments to date, which include a pair of ACC championship game appearances and the 2011 league title; consecutive double-digit win seasons the past two years, the school's first such feat since 1990; and a bowl victory last year over a top-10 LSU team. Swinney's lack of recognition is probably due in part to the overall lack of respect for the ACC, but it's also because he's still playing second-fiddle in his own state; Clemson has lost four straight games to Steve Spurrier's South Carolina squad. Like Jim mentioned, Morris tends to get the acclaim because the Tigers didn't truly take off until 2011, when Morris arrived and Tajh Boyd took over at quarterback. However, Swinney is on the brink where, if this year's team can meet its lofty expectations -- beat Georgia and/or South Carolina, win the ACC and reach a BCS bowl game (and not lose 70-33) -- he'll start to get mentioned more frequently among the nation's top coaches.
Interestingly, while Clemson would never be mistaken as a "have not," Swinney is modestly compensated relative to coaches at most comparable programs. According to USA Today's database, he was just the seventh highest-paid coach in the ACC last year at $2.05 million, trailing Virginia's Mike London and Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, among others. Part of that is Swinney's own doing. He turned down a raise a few years back so the school could afford top-tier coordinators like Morris ($1.3 million, believed to be the highest of any assistant in the country) and Brent Venables ($800,000). But if Swinney's stock rises, it only makes sense that he'd be tempted by a program that can afford to pay big bucks for all three coaching positions. Presumably that would be somewhere in the SEC. Swinney is an Alabama native and alum, but that doesn't mean he's looking to flee Clemson -- and I'm sure AD Dan Radakovich would fight hard to keep him.
Stewart, do conference commissioners realize that cable subscriptions are falling for the first time ever? In time, will people still watch sports over cable? Is it possible that web viewing of some sort displaces the cable company for many people? And, given these ideas, is it possible that the cable-driven motive for college football realignment was misguided?
-- Sanjay M., New York
This is an interesting topic and one I've discussed many times with friends and colleagues. In today's age of seemingly endless entertainment options and customizable content, how is it that TV viewers are still stuck with the bundled-channel cable or satellite model, in which we're all forced to pay ever-increasing monthly bills for channels we never watch? I know Sen. John McCain has been grumbling about some sort of congressional mandate that cable providers allow à la carte channel subscriptions. But whether or not that leads to anything, Sanjay points to a longer-term trend, one in which more people would stop subscribing to cable packages altogether.
Here's the thing: It's easy enough for a non-sports fan to cut the cord. Nearly every scripted network or cable program is available through iTunes, Hulu Plus or Netflix, although sometimes not immediately. But college football fans presumably want to watch their teams play live. Virtually all of the games are on cable. Even if some day down the road the market changes drastically enough to render the current cable model moot, I don't think it would affect the conferences, even those with their own networks. All are already building complementary digital networks. As with ESPN3, viewers can already stream every Big Ten or Pac-12 Networks game on any device. So long as people still want to watch the games, the rights holders will still make their money. It's just a matter of whether they continue to go through a middleman (Comcast, Time Warner Cable, etc.), or whether there will come a day when fans pay $19.95 a month directly to ESPN for the privilege of watching games on their TV or device of choice.
Personally, while I'm intrigued by the concept of potentially less expensive à la carte programing, I fear a new model won't be dramatically different. First of all, as anyone who has gone on Twitter between 10-11 p.m ET on a Sunday is aware, it's impossible to hold off watching Mad Men for longer than 24 hours without having it spoiled. And as any married guy can attest, people will still have to pay for six different cities' worth of Real Housewives episodes.
Happy fourth of July, everybody.