We're entering the only three weeks of the year in which college basketball takes precedence over all-things college football. (Yes, even pro day 40 times.) The Mailbag will cede the stage accordingly before returning in early April. The bracket hasn't even been released yet, but I already know mine will be shredded by then.
In the meantime, let's kick things off -- or, perhaps more appropriately, tip things off -- with a reader who was kind enough to incorporate both sports.
The excuse has been frequently made that Big Ten football can't compete with SEC football because all of the fastest, strongest athletes come from the South. Yet the Big Ten has been consistently better than the SEC in basketball for a while. Same goes for the Big East (or the American, or the northern ACC schools). Why can't the SEC establish itself as a hoops powerhouse with a superior recruiting base?
-- Scott Saxton, Winsdor, Ontario
First of all, pretty much every major conference in every other part of the country is better in basketball than the SEC right now. (With the noted exception of No. 1 Florida, which hasn't lost since Dec. 2.) The league is generally atrocious, and roughly two-thirds of the schools' fan bases want to fire their coach (and hire Bruce Pearl). Of course, few SEC teams outside of the Gators, Kentucky and Missouri have particularly ravenous basketball fans. That apathy sits at the heart of this particular question.
I know people in other parts of the country get sick of hearing that people in the South care more about college football than everybody else. But it's true. It's intrinsic to the overall culture -- and not just athletic culture -- of much of the region. And that mindset presumably trickles down to the youngest ages. So, not coincidentally, the South has a disproportionate amount of elite football prospects. Among the Rivals100 in the class of 2014, a total of 41 players hailed from the states of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. But using the same states and the same recruiting website, there are just 17 players listed in this in this year's Rivals.com basketball rankings. Go to nearly any southern town on a fall Friday night and you'll likely find a packed high school stadium. That's not necessarily the case with basketball gyms in the winter.
Spring football primers: ACC l Big Ten l Big 12 l Pac-12 l SEC
Furthermore, geography and population shifts don't mean as much in basketball as they do in football. Schools need to sign only about five players in a given class, not 25. Also, because of the AAU travel-team culture, many premier hoops recruits aren't necessarily tied to their home-state schools (though nationally ranked Michigan's and Michigan State's key players are almost entirely from Big Ten states). Plus the weather matters less for basketball. The ability to train outdoors year-round in most of the South (and Texas and California) plays a significant part in the development of football players and likely contributes to the talent gap.
Finally, I'd like to offer my friendly reminder that these things are cyclical. Big Ten basketball was pretty miserable when I was a student in college in the mid-1990s. Ready to have your mind blown? This was the All-Big Ten first team in 1995-96: Northwestern's Geno Carlisle, Indiana's Brian Evans, Illinois' Kiwane Garris, Penn State's Matt Gaudio and Iowa's Jess Settles and Andre Woolridge. If you've heard of more than two of those guys, congratulations, you're a longtime Hawkeyes season-ticket holder with really good seats. Meanwhile, Kentucky won the national title that year, and Mississippi State reached the Final Four. Florida football was also rolling under Steve Spurrier back then. Times change.
Stewart, would you devote a few lines to the proposed early signing period? Why is it important? Who is for or against it? How does it help student-athletes, I mean, overpaid coaches? What if a player signs early and the whole coaching staff leaves (whether the head coach is fired or not) and the prospect is now stuck because he signed early?
-- Keith Walker, Grand Prairie, Texas
For one thing, there is no proposal yet. An early signing period in football has been bandied about for years, and an NCAA official quoted in an ESPN.com article said that college commissioners (who oversee the National Letter of Intent program) will likely revisit the topic in June. Since the article first appeared, reporters have been asking coaches about the subject, with many (including Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Miami's Al Golden, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher) supporting it, and others, most notably Stanford's David Shaw, opposing it. A particularly adamant Shaw called the idea "terrible." But even those in support of it are all over the map as to when, exactly, the earlier date should be. August? September? December?
I've long been in favor of an early signing day -- preferably before the school year begins -- and it seems more warranted than ever given today's accelerated recruiting cycle. For example, 60 percent of Ohio State's 2014 signees committed to the school before Sept. 1 of their senior year. Yet instead of letting those kids make it official, they were forced to go through five months of opposing coaches trying to flip them. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' staff presumably spent an absurd amount of time and money flying around to ensure their commits knew they were still loved. "It's a waste of money, and it's a waste of time when we know that a guy is coming here," Sumlin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Conversely, Shaw contends that moving the date up will pressure prospects to sign early when they may not be ready. That's certainly a possible consequence. He also has a Stanford-specific concern, which is that many of its recruits don't find out whether they've been admitted to the university until well after that date. "So we're going to punish the academic schools just because coaches don't want a kid to switch their commitment?" he asked.
Both are valid concerns. So, too, is the possibility that a late-bloomer who emerges in his senior year might miss out on better opportunities by signing early. But I still believe the pros outweigh the cons. Perhaps cap the number of players a school can sign in the early period (maybe at 10?) to reduce the pressure and negate possible imbalances, and include an opt-out clause if a coach is fired or changes jobs. Right now, most staffs are already honing in on prospects for the class of 2016. Most recruits go to camps at schools and take unofficial visits long before their senior years. (If an earlier signing date were in place, they would presumably also be allowed earlier official visits). Meanwhile, an ever-increasing number of early enrollees are already taking college classes a month before National Signing Day. It's time for the officially sanctioned recruiting calendar to start reflecting the actual recruiting calendar.
ELLIS: Georgia's Mark Richt has questions about early signing period
I enjoyed your article on the possibility of a mid-major making the College Football Playoff, but think you might have missed a big factor. I believe a mid-major must first establish its "brand name" before making the playoff run. In 2006, Boise State sat at No. 9 after an undefeated regular season. After beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl that year, it was viewed differently in future undefeated runs. And I believe that Wichita State would be under much greater scrutiny as a No. 1 seed if it had not made a run to the Final Four last season. Would you agree that history will factor into, and perhaps work against undefeated mid-majors, in playoff consideration?
-- Matt M, Chicago
You're absolutely correct that brand name was a factor in the BCS era. It took Boise State and TCU years of sustained success before they were treated as serious title contenders (at least by some) in 2010. And there's no question that Wichita State's Final Four run last season has boosted its acceptance this year. I know that's the case for me. I was sitting courtside last year when Cleanthony Early and company went up by 20 points on a very good Ohio State team in the Elite Eight. Don't tell me the Shockers are overrated.
However, in theory at least, their tourney success last year should not even be brought up in the selection committee's conversation this weekend in Indianapolis. The football committee will be under similar instructions. Of course, it would defy human nature to think that even the most dutiful committee member doesn't have different preconceived notions about Alabama than it does about, say, Fresno State. That's based on, you know, decades of following college football closely.
Stewart, with everything you've written about Bo Pelini and Nebraska recently, you've got to be surprised by the news of Pelini's contract extension, right?
-- Steve, Strongsville, Ohio
No, not really. He got a one-year extension, the bare minimum show of confidence an athletic director can offer. It was probably necessary to reassure recruits. But good for Pelini. He could use a little love right now, as Tim Miles' Nebrasketball is the hottest show in town.
I just read where former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden is now taking snaps at receiver for LSU this spring. So, a few years removed from the great Penn State free agency grab, what happened to everyone?
-- John, Spokane, Wash.
Great question, though it should be noted that Bolden asked for his release before the Nittany Lions' sanctions hit. As for the nine players who bolted post-sanctions:
• RB Silas Redd (USC): Redd never replicated his 1,241-yard performance as a sophomore at Penn State in 2011. He rushed for 905 yards and nine touchdowns for the Trojans in '12, and he ran for just 376 yards in an injury-ravaged senior season last fall.
• WR Justin Brown (Oklahoma): Brown had a solid 2012 campaign, catching 73 passes for 879 yards. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the sixth round of last year's NFL draft.
• K Anthony Fera (Texas): After playing sparingly due to a groin injury in 2012, Fera shined in '13, converting 20 of 22 field goals and becoming a Groza Award finalist.
• LB Khairi Fortt (Cal): He missed all of 2012 before making 62 tackles in '13. He declared early for the NFL draft and is projected as a low-round pick.
• TE Kevin Haplea (Florida State): Haplea played as a blocking tight end in 2012, but he tore his ACL last summer and missed all of last season. He's now a fifth-year senior.
• S Tim Buckley (NC State): After playing mostly on the special teams unit in 2012, he made 25 tackles as a backup last fall. He has one season of eligibility remaining.
• OT Ryan Nowicki (Illinois): The Arizona native did not see action during one season with the Illini and transferred again to Northern Arizona in July 2013. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
• DT Jamil Pollard (Rutgers): After he redshirted as a freshman in 2012, the school announced early last season that Pollard had suffered a career-ending injury.
• WR Shawney Kersey (Marshall): He arrived at Marshall as a senior in January 2013, but he left the Thundering Herd after just one game.
All in all, a mix of success stories, disappointments and flameouts, which is about what you'd expect from any cross-section of transfers. It's unfortunate that injuries seemed to derail so many.
Hi Stewart, with all the talk about the QB gurus who the top-flight players are using, I have to ask: Who is covering the bill for these instructors? The schools or the players? If it's the players, why is paying this person perceived differently than signing with an agent who is looking out for his long-term career? If it's the schools, how is telling a kid it will pay for his trip to San Diego every offseason not a violation?
-- Tye Stephens, Avon Lake, Ohio
I assume you're referring to quarterback guru and ESPN College GameDay staple George Whitfield Jr., who became a national name in large part for waving a broom at Andrew Luck during his televised pro day. He's been working for some time with current NFL draft prospects Johnny Manziel, Tajh Boyd, Aaron Murray and Logan Thomas, but these days the chic trend is for current college quarterbacks -- Baylor's Bryce Petty, Michigan State's Connor Cook, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and North Carolina's Marquise Williams, among others -- to spend their spring break training with Whitfield in San Diego. Mind you, private quarterback gurus are nothing new. Steve Clarkson and Bob Johnson have been working with quarterbacks in Southern California for years, starting when some of those kids are in middle school. But Whitfield is prompting guys to fly across the country for a week of offseason work.
STAPLES: Texas A&M confident entering life after Johnny Manziel
To answer Tye's primary question, the player or his family must pay for the training. Schools have nothing to do with it. If anything, college coaches who spend six months a year tutoring players a certain way probably aren't thrilled with the idea of someone else stepping in. Auburn's Gus Malzahn recently said he wouldn't allow it for returning starter Nick Marshall. However, NCAA rules strictly limit when and how often a school's coaches can be on a field with their pupils, and it's hard to begrudge a player that wants to spend extra time making himself better. The NCAA seems to have no problem with it, so long as a third party (i.e. an agent) isn't footing the bill.
The NCAA primarily sees agents as unsavory influences trying to entice players to sign with them by showering them with extra benefits. SEC commissioner Mike Slive, among others, has said that philosophy may be outdated. However, with Whitfield there's no extra benefit so long as the player is paying the same rate available to the general public.
If Brady Hoke doesn't win nine games and beat Ohio State this season, will Jim Harbaugh be Michigan's head coach in 2015?
-- Bob, Wichita, Kan.
Oh ... did Michigan fans start those rumors of a rift between Harbaugh and the 49ers? That makes more sense.
I know strength of schedule is hard to predict, but heading into 2014, is there a team with a tougher schedule than Notre Dame? The Irish play five power-conference opponents that won at least 10 games last year -- Florida State, Arizona State, USC, Stanford and Louisville -- plus they host Michigan, North Carolina and Northwestern, which should all be bowl bound. Even their "cupcake," Rice, went 10-4 last year. An 11-1 record would HAVE to get Notre Dame into the playoff, right?
-- Rob, Boston
No question, on paper that looks ridiculous, though Florida might beg to differ. Remarkably, the Gators face four of last year's final top seven in the AP Poll (at Florida State and Alabama, vs. South Carolina and Missouri) in addition to playing LSU (which finished 14th) and Georgia. Granted, Florida also opens with three cupcakes (Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky) and gets a fourth (Eastern Kentucky) later on. It's the age-old argument about strength of schedule: Should it be measured by how many elite foes a team faces, or how many total games against decent competition? The top six games on Florida's schedule look more daunting than Notre Dame's top six, but the Irish don't play a single team as bad as those four on Florida's slate. Syracuse included. That's a question the selection committee members will have to ultimately answer.
That said, I remember having nearly this same exact discussion regarding the Fighting Irish's schedule two years ago. In 2012 they also faced five teams -- USC, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Stanford -- that won at least 10 games the year before, plus Miami. I distinctly recall doing a preseason podcast with my beloved former co-host Mallory Rubin in which we considered it inconceivable that the unranked Irish would make it through that gauntlet with fewer than four losses. As it turned out, Michigan (8-5), USC (7-6) and Michigan State (7-6) were not as good as advertised. Notre Dame finished the regular season undefeated. And all we heard from the critics was ... the Irish didn't play anyone. (Not true, by the way.)
My guess? We'll look back at this question in December and laugh that a few of the teams mentioned above were cited as "tough."
The Bo Pelini contract extension. Five words. Go.
-- James, Asheville, N.C.
Five more years of @FauxPelini!