Sizing up the playoff's potential impact on the SEC; more mail
The Southeastern Conference may be named after a specific region of the country, but at this point, it might as well be called the National Football League (if that name wasn't already taken). I'm not just talking about the streak of seven straight BCS titles. Nothing exemplifies the ever-increasing national scope of that conference more than this week's SEC Media Days, an annual event that is now chronicled by more than 1,200 media members and broadcast live by ESPN, complete with Joe Tessitore at the anchor desk.
May I remind everybody that there are no football games for another six weeks. The league has managed to turn three days' worth of press conferences into a national event. That might be an even more impressive accomplishment than all of the BCS trophies. Of course, starting next year, SEC teams, like those in every other conference, will play in a different postseason format. Which leads to this question:
Stewart, doesn't the new four-team playoff system that kicks in after this season almost guarantee that the SEC's run of dominance will come to an end? The winner will have to beat two top teams in a row. There's a greater chance of injury, or of an unlucky bounce, in a two-game stretch. As much as I'd like 'Bama to win forever, I see the new system making it much harder for one team (or one conference) to consistently dominate.
-- Ken Young, Old Bethpage, N.Y.
First of all, no matter what the postseason format is, the SEC's title streak will come to an end at some point. It very well could have happened last year if Ohio State were postseason eligible, or if Oregon and Kansas State didn't both lose later in the season than Alabama did. The streak could also end this year (though I wouldn't bet on it) because, hey, there are some really good teams out there. But in the bigger picture, as I've written before, the SEC's top tier is growing more -- not less -- dominant. That's evident in recent NFL draft numbers, recruiting comparisons to other leagues (the SEC had 10 of the nation's top-25 classes last year) and, of course, results like Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14. So this question really boils down to whether the new system will make it harder for the SEC to keep dominating the postseason, rather than the sport as a whole.
I'm just as curious as anyone to find out.
On one hand, it's obviously harder to win two games against elite foes, especially when a team doesn't have five weeks to prepare for the second opponent. Injuries (like Texas losing Colt McCoy in the first quarter of the 2009 title game) will likely play a bigger factor in the new format. Also, simply by virture of casting a wider net, SEC teams will likely play tougher competition than they might have in the current system. While Notre Dame certainly deserved its spot in last year's title game (it went undefeated against a respectable schedule; no other eligible team did), in hindsight, most would agree that Oregon, for one, was a better team than the Irish. The Tide might have faced the Ducks next in a four-team scenario. All indications are that the selection committee will not be as beholden to the undefeated-automatically-trumps-one-loss mindset of poll voters, which means some dangerous teams will get in that didn't in the past.
That said, the new system also stands to benefit the SEC. Last year, the league would have gotten a second team in (Florida or Georgia), so theoretically, it's possible the playoff could actually make it more feasible for the SEC to extend its streak just because it could have more entries. There's one notable caveat, however: The conference may be in for a rude awakening from the committee if it doesn't change its scheduling philosophy. Other power conferences are beefing up their nonconference schedules to impress the committee. The SEC, with its increasingly imbalanced conference schedules (last year's division champs Alabama and Georgia both avoided matchups with the top three teams in the opposite division), needs to either embrace a ninth league game or stop clinging so stubbornly to its FCS/Sun Belt blueprint. If not, it might not get those second or third berths that might otherwise be expected from a conference that had six of the top 10 teams in last year's final BCS standings.
Stewart, I'm interested in your assessment on how culpable Les Miles is in the recent string of high-profile arrests among his players (Jordan Jefferson, Tyrann Mathieu and Jeremy Hill) over the last two years. It seems to me there's an institutional problem within the program and that Miles is not doing enough to deter these types of incidents from happening. As an LSU alum, I'm concerned that these transgressions -- and the perception that they're being swept under the rug -- are beginning to tarnish the good name of a great university.
-- Jim Dunphy, Baton Rouge, La.
I suppose this question is not altogether different than the one about Urban Meyer last week, but as Jim wrote, the weird thing about LSU's troublemakers is they seem disproportionately to be the most visible players on the team. The common thread is that Miles has an awfully long leash with these guys. Former quarterback Ryan Perrilloux seemed to be all but goading Miles to kick him off the team, and, after about Perrilloux's fifth offense, Miles finally did. Jefferson was allowed back on the team after a pretty ugly incident. Mathieu claimed to have failed at least 10 drug tests prior to his dismissal, and Hill has now been involved in two brushes with the law in the 18 months since he signed with LSU. I don't know what Miles is telling his players behind the scenes, nor do I ever think a coach should be expected to babysit his players. But I can see how one star player might look at the treatment of past star players and perhaps not truly fear losing his spot on the team.
Now for the cynical part. It's admirable that you're concerned with how these incidents affect the reputation of the university. It's quite possible that many of your fellow alumni feel the same way. But the masses will consider Miles far more culpable -- and will be far less forgiving -- if LSU goes 7-6 this season. While a reasonable person might look at Hill's record to date and question why the coach would still want him as part of the program, let's look at the situation from Miles' perspective. If Miles keeps Hill on the team and lifts his suspension after, say, three games, Miles will definitely catch some flack from media and opposing fans. But if Miles kicks him off the team and then LSU struggles to run the ball this season -- and if that the proves to be the Tigers' ultimate downfall -- Miles take considerably more heat from people whose opinions actually affect his job security. None of those people will say, "Hey, cut Miles some slack, at least he did the right thing with Hill."
Hey Stewart, former Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens decided to take the leap from college to the pro ranks. Do you think the same thing could happen with Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald? Both coaches are proven winners at smaller schools. Both seem happy where they are/were. Could Fitzgerald be lured away by the money and challenge of the NFL game?
-- Jeff Pretzel, Houston
I've always said the only job I could see Fitzgerald leaving Northwestern for is head coach of the Chicago Bears. I know most people find it hard to believe a coach could ever truly be content at a nontraditional power school (see the annual speculation over Boise State's Chris Petersen), but "Fitz," who I've known since we were both undergrads in the mid-1990s, is a unique guy. He has spent all but a couple of years of his life in the Chicago area. Ditto his wife and three young boys. And the 38-year-old has spent all but four of the last 20 years at Northwestern as a player, assistant or head coach. He's one of the most distinguished players in program history (inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008). He says "Go Cats" more frequently than most Alabama fans say "Roll Tide." While most football observers marvel at how far the program has come under his watch (five straight bowl seasons, first 10-win season since '95), he truly believes it's only now turning the corner.
Now, that doesn't mean Fitzgerald doesn't like money and/or challenges like the rest of us. If Northwestern does take the next step, reaching Indianapolis and/or Pasadena, the administration will certainly need to pony up and pay him. It has already made one important and long-sought commitment in approving the construction of a new on-campus football facility. (Most of Northwestern's athletic facilities are about a mile west of campus.) Barring a drastic change of circumstances, I can say with 98 percent certainty he wouldn't leave for another college job. Nor could I see him as the next or future coach of, say, the Carolina Panthers. But the Bears? The guy is from Orland Park, Ill. End of story.
Do you agree that 'Bama will play for the national championship even if it drops its game at A&M?
-- Kevin Moore, Evansville, Ind.
Is this even a question? It's just a matter of whether both schools get spots in the game.
The advent of the 85-scholarship limit in 1995 is seen, in many ways, as a turning point in college football parity. Northwestern won the Big Ten in 1995-1996, mid-majors like Boise State and TCU rose to national prominence and a golden age of college football began in general. Last year, Bill O'Brien succeeded at Penn State despite significantly fewer scholarship players (around 70). Should college football consider lowering scholarship numbers yet again to promote greater parity? If so, what's the ideal number?
-- Chad, Chicago
The secret college football coaches don't want fans to know is that teams can, in fact, compete with fewer than 85 scholarship players on roster (provided the ones they have are good players). Georgia, which suffered a rash of attrition in 2010-11, managed to win 11 games last fall and come within five yards of playing for the national championship despite starting the preseason with just 72 scholarship players (before Mark Richt gave scholarships to seven walk-ons). USC reportedly dipped as low as 71 scholarship players after its 2010 penalties were announced, and it won eight games that subsequent season before improving to 10-2 in 2011. However, these programs recruited with the intent of maintaining 85 scholarships and were able to weather some attrition. That's different, for example, than what Penn State is about to go through. The Nittany Lions are already down to 67 scholarships for this year and must be at 65 by next year -- and that's before inevitable attrition will likely reduce those numbers even more. It's no coincidence that the sport's reigning juggernaut, Alabama, is one of the schools that employs oversigning to ensure it never falls far below 85.
If there were to be further across-the-board reductions, however, I don't think they would be in the name of parity. That's not really high on the NCAA's priority list right now, as was made clear during its recent deregulation push. The bigger issue is cost. As college tuition continues to skyrocket, the cost per program of funding 85 scholarships gets more prohibitive by the year. Of course, much like with deregulation, one can argue that if Texas can afford to fund 85 scholarships, but Directional School U can't, then that's too bad for Directional School U. Furthermore, reducing roster size runs counterintuitive to the NCAA's current emphasis on player safety. As I wrote last week, the hurry-up offense craze has researchers pondering the link between increased fatigue and concussion risk. The most tangible way of countering that is to rotate players more frequently. Oregon, for example, tries to play seven or eight defensive linemen per game, which means it needs even more in its program. And finally, in a sport where many of the players come from low-income families, fewer allowable scholarships could mean hundreds of kids per year miss out on the opportunity to attend college.
For all of those reasons, I don't see the rule changing anytime soon. Still, individual institutions may decide they can no longer afford the full 85 scholarships (though there are minimum requirements to maintain FBS membership).
Hi Stewart, after reading your great piece on David Fales, I got to thinking about all of the good quarterbacks in the Mountain West this year. Between Fales at San Jose State, David Carr at Fresno State, Brett Smith at Wyoming, Chuckie Keeton at Utah State and Cody Fajardo at Nevada, the MWC has four or five of the top-20 quarterbacks in the nation. Add in Nick Sherry at UNLV, and I'd say the league could have the best lineup of quarterbacks in the country. Thoughts?
-- Ty, Cheyenne, Wyo.
No question, that's a pretty good list. Fales and Carr are nearly universally regarded as two of the top five senior quarterbacks in the upcoming draft class, and rising juniors Fajardo, Smith and Keeton all ranked among the top 20 nationally in total offense last season. Keeton is incredibly fun to watch, and while Fajardo gets overlooked because he followed Colin Kaepernick, his numbers as a sophomore (2,786 passing yards, 1,121 rushing yards, 32 total touchdowns) were fairly similar to his predecessor's as a sophomore (2,842 passing yards, 1,130 rushing yards and 39 total TDs). Smith progressed nicely as a true sophomore, with a 27-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, albeit for a 4-8 team.
But 2013 is shaping up to be a truly rich year in general for quarterbacks, and there's no way I would label the Mountain West's group the best in the country. Are you really going to elevate the MWC's crop over either of the following groups of passers (2012 pass efficiency rank in parentheses)?
• SEC: Alabama's AJ McCarron (No. 1), Georgia's Aaron Murray (No. 2), South Carolina's Connor Shaw (No. 10), Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (No. 16). (Others: LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Florida's Jeff Driskel and Missouri's James Franklin)
• Pac-12: Oregon's Marcus Mariota (No. 7), Arizona State's Taylor Kelly (No. 9), UCLA's Brett Hundley (No. 23), Stanford's Kevin Hogan (N/A). (Others: Washington's Keith Price, Washington State's Connor Halliday and Oregon State's Sean Mannion)
But I'll put the Mountain West at No. 3.
I don't really have a question. I just wanted to agree with you about Kirk Ferentz. Here's a way of looking at how badly he has coached Iowa: I am an Indiana fan. Since 1999 (Ferentz's first season), IU has a 5-7 record against Iowa -- a .417 winning percentage. Over the same time, IU has gone .214 against all Big Ten teams. IU has almost doubled its winning percentage against Iowa compared to the rest of the Big Ten. That takes a whole lot of bad coaching. And, yes, I am trying to forget about all of the bad coaching that went into the Hoosiers compiling a .214 winning percentage over 14 years.
-- Matthew Radican, Indianapolis
That's certainly a better case than I made.
I was worried about Gary Andersen switching Wisconsin's defensive scheme from 4-3 to 3-4, but the more I look into it, the better it looks. Only a minority of college teams (about 20) run the 3-4, yet it seems like most of the top teams use the scheme, including Alabama, Notre Dame, Stanford and Georgia. Also, the Badgers will be the only full-time 3-4 team in the Big Ten, so they'll be a change of pace for opposing offenses. How do you think the Badgers' defensive transition will go this year?
-- Josh Loschen, Menomonie, Wis.
I think we make too much of this distinction to begin with. Every team has a base defense, but it's not like it lines up in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme exclusively for every play of every game. In the run-up to last year's BCS title game, I wrote a feature on Alabama's C.J. Mosley, which includes the nugget (unearthed by someone else) that the Tide only use their base defense about 20 percent of the time. Mosley, arguably their most impactful linebacker, wasn't an inside linebacker in a 3-4 as much as he was the middle linebacker in a 3-3-5 (i.e., when Alabama is in nickel coverage, which it is quite frequently against three- and four-receiver sets). Andersen told Brian Hamilton in the spring that the Badgers still used four down linemen about 40 percent of the time in practices. Most teams change their personnel alignment frequently throughout the game. So it's not like this is a revolutionary move.
The main impact of this transition will be on the type of players Wisconsin recruits. If Andersen follows the same mold as other 3-4 teams, fans will start to see the Badgers targeting bigger defensive linemen (particularly the nose tackle) and outside linebackers, and more nimble inside linebackers who can defend the pass. This philosophy may go against the grain in the Big Ten, where defenses have long been tailored around stuffing the inside run. But having more linebackers on the field allows for more versatility in blitz packages, which helps in defending spread offenses. At this point, most of the conference runs some version of the spread. Meanwhile, a good 3-4 defense can still stuff the run. All three linemen basically become space-eaters, with a good nose guard drawing double teams that allow the linebackers and safeties to swarm into the resulting gaps. Notre Dame's 3-4 with massive nose tackle Louis Nix was a perfect example last year, at least prior to running into Eddie Lacy and Alabama's offensive line.
Speaking of the eighth-year senior team, which you mentioned in last week's Mailbag, I'd like to nominate James White from Wisconsin. It seems like he's been their change of pace running back for the last six years.
-- Russ, Dyersville, Iowa
I've been negligent by failing to bring up the eighth-year senior team to date. We've waited far too long this year. So far we have White and Derek Carr. I'll go ahead and add Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, Florida all-purpose maven Trey Burton, Oregon receiver Josh Huff, Oklahoma fullback Trey Millard, Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage (raise your hand if you knew the former Rutgers starter was still in college, much less at this particular college), Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen, Wake Forest nose tackle Nikita Whitlock, and without question, the hands-down team captain, SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert.
Also, I'm considering renaming this the All-Robert Marve Team? Thoughts?
I graduated college in 1985. Aren't you a bit young and inexperienced to be scrutinizing any sport or its participants? There are plenty of experienced sports news people who have paid their dues and earned public respect who deserve your position and would elevate it to a listening level. Whoever hired you needs a good jack slappin'.
-- Jim Bread, Diamond Bar, Calif.
Get ready to have your mind truly blown, Jim. The two people who regularly edit this column were not even born yet in 1985. Feel free to write back and tell all three of us to get off your lawn.