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Sizing up the SEC's scheduling philosophy; more mail

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A nine-game league schedule would hurt the bowl aspirations of lower-tier SEC teams like Kentucky.

As fans well know, the NFL has made an art form out of staying in the news 365 days a year, with no better example than the recent prime-time extravaganza that unveiled the league's 2014 schedule. Within the college football world, the SEC is quickly catching on to this trick. Over the weekend, commissioner Mike Slive's oft-chronicled conference touched off an entire news cycle based on a "new" scheduling policy that could essentially be boiled down to this: It'll keep doing what it has been doing.

Thanks as always for the high-quality work. What is your take on the SEC electing to stay with an eight-game schedule and mandate a power-conference opponent? How difficult will it be for teams that do not currently have a non-SEC rival (Alabama, LSU, etc.) to find an opponent consistently? Wouldn't it be better to go to a nine-game SEC slate?
-- Jason Roberts

Stewart, after reading the announcement and some reactions to the SEC's new schedule format beginning in 2016, it got me thinking about something you keep bringing up: the selection committee looking at strength of schedule. Many believe most SEC schools will just schedule a soft power-conference opponent such as Kansas or Colorado. And, sure, they could do that. But wouldn't that be at the mercy of a playoff spot?
-- Brad Fryman

There's a false assumption out there that conferences like the SEC craft their schedules with national championships in mind. Sure, that may be true of certain SEC schools with realistic title aspirations, including Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida and Georgia. But just as many -- Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt -- are primarily concerned with getting to a bowl game. The schools with national title aspirations already play at least one name-brand, nonconference program every season. In the past five years, the Crimson Tide have played a home-and-home series against Penn State and neutral-site games against Michigan and Virginia Tech. (They'll play West Virginia on Aug. 30.) LSU played Oregon, went to West Virginia and will face Wisconsin this year. Georgia played Clemson last fall, Auburn visits Kansas State this season and Florida plays Florida State every year. It's not hard for SEC schools to find those games now, and it won't be in the near future.

It's those other, next-tier-down programs that will be more apt to go out and schedule Kansas or Colorado to satisfy the SEC's new requirement. Once in a blue moon they might have to deal with the College Football Playoff selection committee, but for the most part they're just trying to manufacture six to eight wins in a given year. And it's these schools -- or, more specifically, these schools' coaches -- that would have the most to lose by going to a nine-game conference schedule, which would ensure an extra loss for seven of the league's 14 teams every year.

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It goes without saying that everyone affiliated with the SEC (with the notable exception of Nick Saban) believes any team that plays eight conference opponents has nothing to prove to the committee, regardless of the other four foes on its slate. So far, the conference has no reason to believe otherwise. Yet soon that could change.

Personally, I would have liked to see the league go to nine games if only because it would be better for the fans to see one more league game and one less FCS or Sun Belt game. I can't say I blame the SEC for standing pat. But mark my word, it will eventually cost one of its teams a playoff berth. I've said it here many times before: 14-team conferences create extremely unbalanced schedules. Eight league games can look very different depending on which five of the 13 other members are excluded from a slate. For instance, Alabama last season missed the four best teams from the SEC East (Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt). It beat 9-3 LSU, 8-4 Texas A&M, 7-5 Ole Miss ... and that's it. Most assume the Tide still would have made a four-team playoff field, but what if Stanford, which played a much tougher schedule, had gone 12-1 instead of 11-2? Or what if 11-1 Baylor had played a decent non-Big 12 team? The committee would have left out Alabama, in which case the South would have gone beserk. I believe that scenario will occur at some point in the new system, and the SEC will very quickly warm up to a nine-game schedule.

Hi Stewart. If I'm a fan of a traditionally mid- to lower-level power-conference team -- think Kansas State, Iowa, Washington State, Maryland, etc. -- should I give up hope of ever winning a conference title, much less a national title, again? Everything I've read lately indicates that college football is heading in a direction that will formally and purposefully tilt the playing field even further in the direction of 10 to 15 true powers. Those schools will soon be able to use even more of their financial might to entice top-level players, which would seemingly leave even the mid- to lower-level power-conference teams behind.
-- Phillip, New Orleans

Well, I think you made an important distinction about conference titles and national titles. No one could question the rise in parity across college football over the past 20 years, from Appalachian State's upset of Michigan in 2007 to Wake Forest winning the ACC in '06 to Boise State winning two Fiesta Bowls (after '06 and '09). But the trend never rose all the way to the very top of the sport, which remains the domain of Alabama, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Texas, USC and Ohio State, among select others. Those programs still horde a disproportionate amount of the nation's elite talent, and while they each still suffer cyclical dips, they never do so all at the same time. So, sure, if the courts succeed in dismantling college sports' amateurism model and things move to more of a true free market, obviously the schools with the most money stand to benefit. But it's not like the schools you listed were winning national titles to begin with. None of the 16 BCS champions fell in that category. All were high-resource, high-visibility programs.

Still, unless the 25-scholarship limit goes away, all the money in the world won't eradicate the parity that's allowed less-traditional schools to rise up and win an occasional conference title. There are only a handful of five-star future All-Americas in a given year, and they always seem to sign with the Alabamas of the sport. But there are plenty more talented high school prospects one rung below that level than there are roster spots on those top 10 to 15 programs. That's not to mention the fact that so many quality players slip under the radar. Kansas State is two years removed from a Big 12 championship that it won without the benefit of highly touted recruiting classes. Iowa has reached a pair of BCS bowls under Kirk Ferentz with a core of lightly recruited players who his staff has nevertheless developed into pro prospects. Good players will still be out there regardless of any big-picture governance or policy changes. As long as that's the case, most schools have the ability to at least occasionally achieve a perfect storm kind of season. But for a Kansas State to go a step further and beat not just one, but now two powerhouse teams in order to a capture national title? That was, and will remain, difficult to fathom.

Stewart, what do you think of this theory for the fall of 2014? The departure of so many talented offensive skill position players and the return of more defensive starters will lead to a lot of "SEC defenses are back!" articles in September and October. The defenses will be better, but the offenses will also just be a lot worse -- with the exception of Auburn. And that should give the Tigers a big advantage when other teams can't keep up in a shootout.
-- John, Richmond, Va.

I agree with you about Auburn. The Tigers' offense is going to be ridiculous, with quarterback Nick Marshall and his receiving corps now providing balance to what will remain a potent rushing attack (even without Tre Mason). Throw in the fact that this is year two in Gus Malzahn's system and Auburn's offense is likely to play faster, too. You're probably right about the regression of many other teams' offenses due to the high turnover at quarterback and receiver, in particular. The list of teams in the SEC I feel reasonably confident will be better on offense is fairly short: Auburn, Ole Miss, Georgia (because injuries decimated the Bulldogs last year) and Florida (because the Gators couldn't possibly get worse). Tennessee is a dark horse, provided that its freshmen make significant contributions.

But I also don't think the SEC will go back to the days of 9-6 final scores. That's not because of a drop-off in the defenses, which remain stocked across the board with talent. It's because the offensive systems in the league are significantly more potent than they were just three years ago. Johnny Manziel may be gone, but no Kevin Sumlin-coached offense is going to be held below 400 yards very often. Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and now Florida have all embraced the hurry-up. Poor quarterback play may hurt some teams early, and shootouts won't be as commonplace as they were last year (when the score of seemingly every game on CBS was 45-42). But I'm guessing fans will see quite a few new standouts emerge on offense.

MANDEL: Auburn's Nick Marshall set for huge senior season on the Plains

Stewart, you and many others in the media produce weekly bowl projections during the football season. With the new method of bowl placement that many conferences are using -- pooling several picks and mandating how often a school can appear in which bowl -- will projecting the bowls become more or less difficult?
-- Daniel Hopkins, Lancaster, Ky.

Oh, it will become virtually impossible, especially given the entire lineup is contingent on the selection committee's final rankings, which themselves determine the open spots in the non-semifinal big six bowls (this year, the Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach). Before, the projections were educated guesses. Now, they'll just be plain darts. I'd give up doing them, but we need the page views.

Photo: Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

After going 8-5 last season, head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Texas Tech will eye a Big 12 title in 2014.

Stewart: What would be your way-too-early dark-horse conference champs from the five power conferences? Mine: North Carolina in the ACC, Minnesota in the Big Ten, Texas Tech in the Big 12, Arizona in the Pac-12 and Mississippi State in the SEC.
-- Adam, Louisville

Dark horses by definition must be a little bit out there, but I'd put less than a five-percent chance on Minnesota or Mississippi State winning their respective leagues. Both teams could certainly be decent, but they're simply not in the same stratosphere as the top teams in the Big Ten or the SEC. I'd replace the Golden Gophers with Iowa, and the Bulldogs with their nemesis, Ole Miss. I like the North Carolina pick a lot. Larry Fedora's team came on late last season and should be explosive this year. I'd feel better if the Tar Heels weren't playing one of their crossover games at Clemson, but it's not like anyone in the ACC Coastal Division will go 8-0. Arizona will have a tall task replacing running back Ka'Deem Carey, but its offense should theoretically be more complete in Rich Rodriguez's third season, and the Wildcats' defense should finally be decent. A more realistic dark horse, though, may be Washington.

As for Texas Tech -- sure, why not? Kliff Kingsbury's first team got outclassed once it faced the top tier of the Big 12 late last season, and the Red Raiders enter the year with one sophomore (Davis Webb) and two freshmen as their lone quarterbacks. But they're as good a bet as anyone other than Oklahoma or Baylor. Oklahoma State is replacing practically its entire starting lineup, and Charlie Strong has already eliminated Texas as a contender. That doesn't leave a lot of other possibilities.

Stewart, with the five power conferences looking to get autonomy from the NCAA, do you think this might finally be the impetus for Notre Dame to join a conference? Or do you think that the Fighting Irish will continue with their independence?
-- Doug Woods

One of these days I'm going to compile a Daily Show-style montage of all the times since 2003 that someone has asked a variation of: "Will Notre Dame finally join a conference?"

Lest you missed it, Doug, Notre Dame did join a power conference, the ACC, thus ensuring itself a seat at the table in the new governance structure. For those purposes it doesn't matter that the Irish don't play football in that league. There were certainly threats to Notre Dame's independence over the past few years, but having now assured a spot in the new postseason -- both in its deal with the Orange Bowl and its access to the ACC's other bowl partners -- there's no disincentive to remaining independent.

The real loser in this is BYU. I was all for its independence experiment four years ago, but I could have never foretold how much the landscape surrounding the Cougars would change. They are probably better off as an independent than they would've been had they remained in the now-depleted Mountain West. But despite their 64,000-seat stadium, their semi-recent national title (1984) and their Heisman Trophy ('90), they are not considered of the caliber of programs in the five major conferences. BYU will presumably continue to keep Bob Bowlsby on its friends and family list.

Alabama has experienced quite a bit of success over the last few years, but with a few exceptions, its players have not experienced the same type of success in the NFL. Considering the accolades showered on the Crimson Tide players and the constant refrain of how prepared for the NFL they are, why does this disparity seem so prevalent? Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner and even Rolando McClain were high first-round NFL draft choices, but most are barely starters, much less All-Pro caliber players.
-- BJ McDonald, Grand Bay, Ala.

I'm surprised that some of those guys haven't panned out, most notably Richardson, though in most cases you haven't given them much time to prove themselves. All but Ingram and McClain have been in the league for two seasons or fewer. But I doubt it's an Alabama thing. I feel like we've heard much the same about the many draft busts from USC's great 2002-08 teams. At some point it's just a numbers game. No matter how talented and how prepared -- and there isn't a better NFL training ground than Saban's squad, given the offense and defense he runs -- a certain segment of draft prospects simply don't pan out.

If you took at a cross-section of 14 random first-rounders from the past five years, I'm sure it would include a few starters and All-Pros, a few backups and a few washouts. Fourteen, incidentally, is how many first-round picks have come out of Alabama's since 2009, of which nine became regular starters and two (Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus) made a Pro Bowl. (Eddie Lacy, a second-round pick last year, also made one.) It's not nearly the staggering hit rate of All-Pros that Miami boasted in the early 2000s, but that's still pretty good.

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Stewart, I've been a big fan of the Mailbag for a long time! I wanted to get your read on the MAC after all of the new hires and changes this offseason. What are the chances Dino Babers has Bowling Green ready to repeat?
-- Tito Sierra, Brownsville, Texas

It's tough keeping up with the MAC from year to year due to all the coaching turnover, but I checked with our resident MAC expert, Martin Rickman, who recently visited Bowling Green, and he said that the Falcons are unquestionably the team to beat. Babers is a fascinating hire, having led Eastern Illinois to the FCS playoffs by essentially copying Art Briles' offense and turning quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into an NFL prospect. He'll run the same scheme at Bowling Green, which brings back Matt Johnson, who fans may recall from the time he lit up undefeated Northern Illinois for five touchdowns in last year's MAC title game.

It should make for some fun Tuesday and Wednesday night viewing in November.

You advised Mark of London about which college football games to check out this fall in the U.S., but you forgot to mention that Penn State opens the season against UCF at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin on Aug. 30. Ireland is a heck of a lot closer for him than Oregon.
-- Robert Crouthamel, Milwaukee

Good point, though I'd sure like a comparison between Dublin tailgating and Oregon tailgating.

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