To begin with, if you haven't been following my coverage of the Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA trial this week, well, gosh darn it, you should be. Here are links to my recaps of day one and day two, and here is SI.com's full case content hub.
For this week's Mailbag, though, we'll stick to football.
Hey Stewart, in your most recent Mailbag, you were very high on Florida State making the College Football Playoff. With all the praise given to the Seminoles after the winning the national title, do you have ANY concerns about complacency? These are young kids in a town where they are reminded everywhere and every day of how great they are. Have there been any teams in the last 10 years that have fallen flat after a national championship game despite little attrition?
-- Will H., Denver, Colo.
Without question, complacency is a concern. In fact, it's likely unavoidable no matter how many times coach Jimbo Fisher repeats his line, "We're not defending anything, we're chasing another championship." We know this because a similar problem has felled several other heavily hyped teams over the past 10 years.
Alabama's players and coaches admit that complacency and entitlement infected last year's squad, which was coming off two straight national titles and which many assumed could sleepwalk to a third. They affected Urban Meyer's last great Florida team in 2009, another defending national champ that returned stars like Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes but was ultimately blown out in the SEC title game. And complacency clearly impacted the latter half of USC's dynasty under Pete Carroll, when the Trojans annually lost a game they had no business losing. I would not be at all surprised if Florida State follows much the same arc. It's unrealistic to think the Seminoles will beat every opponent 49-17 and 59-3 like they did last fall. This time around, they'll endure more scares.
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But if Florida State's 2014 roster is as loaded as I suspect, possibly on par or better than all of those aforementioned teams, it will take more than a little complacency to completely derail its season. That's partially because it has more room for error in the new system. In the BCS era, when one loss was often one too many, a team like Alabama in '13 faced tremendous pressure to not only live up to the hype, but also to be perfect. While the Crimson Tide's previous two teams each suffered a regular-season loss, too, there was no guarantee they'd climb back into the top two. Last year they didn't. This year's 'Noles, on the other hand, will almost certainly make the playoff field as a 12-1 ACC champion, especially given the caliber of opponents on their schedule (Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Clemson, Louisville, Miami and Florida).
Also, it's no coincidence that those most of those USC teams, the 2009 Florida team and the '11 and '12 'Bama teams all played more dominant football directly after their losses, particularly in bowl games. Nothing shatters complacency quite like a humbling defeat. Of course, two regular-season losses would be tough to overcome. But if that happens to Florida State this fall, other factors such as injuries or bad chemistry will likely play a role. These players are 18- to 22-year-olds, not robots.
You make a strong case that the four-team playoff field should not be limited to conference champions, but in my opinion, that doesn't mean the best set-up is always No. 1 versus No. 4 and No. 2 versus No. 3. Last year, for example, that would have meant No. 3 Alabama getting a second shot at a national title by playing in a semifinal game against No. 2 Auburn, which beat 'Bama in its regular-season finale. Would it have been a huge injustice if the committee excluded Alabama in favor of No. 5 Stanford (the Pac-12 champion) or No. 6 Baylor (the Big 12 champ)?
-- Greg Fisk, Birmingham, Ala.
The short answer is no, it would not have been an injustice if that happened. It's important to note the distinction between restricting the field solely to conference champions -- which could produce the scenario I described last week, in which a projected No. 13 team could secure a berth -- and leaving the field open but placing value on conference titles in the selection process. We'll have to see if the committee follows through on this, but playoff organizers have said league championships will be one of several unofficial tiebreakers, along with strength of schedule and head-to-head results, that distinguish between closely bunched teams.
With that in mind, it's plausible the committee might have picked Stanford, which went 11-2, won a tough conference and played a top-five national schedule, over Alabama, which went 11-1, did not win its league and played a schedule ranked closer to 50th. The Cardinal might not be the best example here because they suffered a bad loss to 5-7 Utah in October. And maybe the committee still would have felt that the Crimson Tide, whose sole loss came on an implausible last-second play, were the better team. But fans need to prepare for the inevitable scenario, possibly coming as soon as this season, in which a team ranked fifth or sixth in the AP Poll finishes fourth in the committee's eyes in part because it won its conference.
As for possible rematches, people really need to get over them. They happen all the time in every other postseason with almost no objection. For instance, the Carolina Panthers, the NFC South champion last year, beat the San Francisco 49ers, who entered the NFL playoffs in a wild card berth, during their only regular-season meeting last November. But when the teams met in the NFC divisional round, the 49ers won and advanced to the conference championship game, and no one blinked an eye. If that happened in college football, fans would have been outraged.
I'm not saying rematches are ideal in a four-team playoff. Still, I'd rather have them than manipulate seeds or selections expressly in order to avoid them.
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Stewart, given that nearly every power conference has a championship game, and given that the playoff participants will play one and potentially two additional games following a long season, do you see the recent success of more traditional physical teams such as Stanford, Michigan State and Alabama reversing the trend of spread offenses? A program built to wear opponents down with a punishing style seems better suited to the rigors of three consecutive games against presumably excellent opponents. If so, does this mean the running back will matter again in the NFL five years from now?
-- Marc Porter, New York
Great question. In the grand scheme of things, the spread offense isn't going anywhere. Now that it's so deeply engrained at all levels of football, most of the elite athletes coming out of high school are suited for the spread. Prospects spend all year playing in 7-on-7 competitions, and many teams tackle less frequently in practices due to concussion concerns. If every major college program in America decided to adopt Stanford's philosophy, you'd see a lot of bad offenses simply because there aren't enough great fullbacks, tight ends and drop-back quarterbacks to go around.
As for the playoff, your reasoning makes a lot of sense. However, I'd guess the fatigue factor would be more relevant for conference championships than it would be for the playoff. By the time Dec. 31 or Jan. 1 rolls around, teams in semifinals should be well rested after a month off. This year, the winners of those games will then receive another 11-day break before the national championship. If, as we get into it, we see a trend of traditional power teams faring better, we still won't be able to say it's definitively a byproduct of their style. The teams that stick to those offenses may just have more talented players.
I thought I was familiar with all 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee, but I recently saw a list that included Tyrone Willingham. Has he always been a member? Or was it somehow decided that his stellar coaching performances at Notre Dame and Washington merited him being a substitute for someone qualified?
-- Gerry Swider, Sherman Oaks, Calif.
He has been there all along, but I understand how he snuck up on you. Other than last fall's introductory teleconference, it's believed that no one outside his immediate family has heard from him in six years.
Hi Stewart. I have read on a couple of websites how Nick Saban is mad as all get out about schedules and how he truly believes in playing power-conference opponents. So, what do I see today? Alabama canceled its home-and-home with Michigan State, instead opting to play the mighty Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. I hope the new selection committee gets past the name on the front and looks at 'Bama's weak schedule.
-- RTG, Dallas
I realize Saban makes for an easy target, but he's hardly the poster boy for soft scheduling. For one thing, he's the lone SEC coach who consistently and adamantly supported a nine-game conference slate. That's saying something considering how much his team prospered in the BCS era by playing eight league games. And he has noted on numerous occasions that he would prefer if Power Five teams exclusively played other Power Five teams, basically saying that FCS and Sun Belt games are a slap in the face to paying fans.
In the meantime, do you really think Saban is going to put his team at a disadvantage? He wants everyone to change their ways, not just Alabama, but unfortunately for him and for us, it's tough to get schools in the same conference to adopt a universal scheduling policy, much less across all major leagues. Saban's program has embraced neutral-site openers, which can be quite lucrative. Florida will reportedly earn $6 million to play in the 2017 Cowboys Classic against Michigan. That's $6 million 'Bama would miss out on every other year if it scheduled home-and-homes rather than one neutral-site game and three home cupcakes. Hence, why the school canceled the Michigan State series. So far the formula has worked for him. If the committee dings the Tide for subpar strength of schedule at some point, he may have to revisit it.
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After a 10-2 regular season, a crushing loss to Florida State in the ACC title game and a heartbreaking bowl loss to Texas A&M, what's the future of Duke?
-- Knox, any USPA drop zone
It's always a pleasure when Knox parachutes into the Mailbag.
The future is bright for Duke. Last season will not prove to be a one-hit wonder. If anything, the Blue Devils managed to win 10 games last fall despite maddening inconsistency and far too many turnovers (25). This year the Blue Devils return quarterback Anthony Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder, two of their top three running backs and four starting offensive linemen. The defense loses its best player (cornerback Ross Cockrell), but returns five of its top six tacklers, including budding star safety DeVon Edwards. By any indication, Duke will be more experienced and talented across the board than it was in 2013.
Yet unfortunately for the Blue Devils, many of their ACC Coastal peers should be better, too. I said last week that I expect North Carolina to be a sleeper team nationally. Miami should only continue to improve as well. Conversely, two programs that ruled this division just a few years ago, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, aren't showing many signs of encouragement. It's not unrealistic to think David Cutcliffe's team can reach the 10-win mark again, especially given its soft opening slate (Elon, at Troy, Kansas and Tulane) and weak ACC crossover opponents (Syracuse and Wake Forest). I never thought I'd write that.
"Tennessee hasn't beaten Vanderbilt in four years." Umm. Might want to research that.
-- Negateer, Atlanta
My mistake. It has been three years since Tennessee last beat Vandy. Still, it's hard to believe there is a generation of toddlers that has no idea the Volunteers used to be better at football than the Commodores.
Stewart, I was just looking at the TV schedule for this fall and saw an interesting item. The first televised game of the season is Texas A&M at South Carolina on Thursday, Aug. 28. I was psyched until I saw the network -- the SEC Network. I realize TV contracts with the major networks are in place for years, but do you think that conferences will schedule other marque matchups in the future on their own networks?
-- Mark G, Folsom, Pa.
That scheduling choice is not accidental. The SEC Network, which currently has deals only with DISH, AT&T U-Verse and Google Fiber, is trying to land widespread distribution by the start of the season. Putting a marquee conference game on the network right off the bat could ratchet up the pressure on cable carriers. And I'd strongly recommend the cable companies and DirecTV play ball, because they really don't want to find out the consequences of Alabama fans missing a Crimson Tide game. The SEC Network will show at least one game involving every league team within the first four weeks of the season for this very reason.
One thing to be aware of regarding the SEC Network: Unlike the Big Ten Network, which is co-owned by FOX, and the Pac-12 Networks, which are run by the conference, the SEC Network is wholly owned and operated by ESPN. With those other leagues there's a predetermined selection order each week in choosing games, with the conference network usually getting lower priority. In this case, ESPN owns the rights to all SEC games below CBS' top choice, and while it presumably will keep putting the league's No. 2 and No. 3 games on ESPN and ESPN2, it could -- in a negotiating tactic -- place them on SEC Network. Those decisions will be made in conjunction with the conferences. It will be interesting to see how ESPN handles this if distribution battles continue into the fall. It will tick off a lot of fans nationally, if, say, Tennessee's visit to Georgia on Sept. 27 is relegated to a channel almost no one gets. But don't put it past ESPN to play hardball.
You wrote: "That's why power conferences are pushing so hard for legislative autonomy. They're sick of getting sued over things they could easily pay for if their peers would just let them." The five power conferences total 65 schools. That's about half of the FBS or whatever it is called now. Why not just tell the NCAA, this is what we want or we start our own PCAA or whatever? I think the NCAA would cave on this.
-- Michael, Los Angeles
If by "NCAA" you're referring to Mark Emmert and his minions in Indianapolis, that's not who gets to decide the autonomy issue. It's the Division I membership itself, which includes 340 schools, not only FBS and FCS football schools. The Division I board of directors -- comprised of presidents and chancellors from Dartmouth to UCLA -- will decide in August whether the proposed autonomy model passes. At this point the question is not whether it will pass, but whether the Power Five commissioners will deem the final version sufficient. The most recent proposal included a few kinks, such as high voting thresholds, and other areas about which the big boys were not pleased. That spawned subsequent veiled threats like SEC commissioner Mike Slive's recent Division IV comment (which hinted those leagues might form their own subdivision).
Still, a full-on breakaway is not in the cards, no matter how much offseason fodder such fantasies provide sports talk radio hosts. I don't think many people comprehend what a wide swath of areas fall under the NCAA's umbrella. You would need to stage championship events not only for football, but also for all of the other sports. You would need some sort of enforcement mechanism and a means to verify thousands and thousands of athletes' eligibility. You would need some sort of governance system for setting best practices and policies. It's a massive and unenviable undertaking.
Most of all, even the Power Five know that March Madness wouldn't be March Madness without teams like Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast. If the major-conference schools leave the NCAA, they leave behind a $10.8 billion enterprise that serves as a three-week advertisement for their universities. Would a basketball tournament without Cinderellas garner as much money or interest? I doubt it. But then again, the rest of Division I needs the tourney far more than the Power Five, so the latter can use its possible demise as a negotiating carrot.
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I think college football blew it with the playoff selection committee. Here's a better plan: Start each year with everyone who qualifies as an "expert" picking winners and losers every week. The ones who are least accurate each Saturday get chucked out of the pool. By the end of the year, the small number of experts who were the most accurate would become your selection committee members. Maybe Condoleezza Rice winds up in the pool, and maybe an unknown taxi driver from Ohio winds up in the pool. ESPN or Fox could get a new reality show out of it, too.
-- Thomas Horsley, Delray Beach, Fla.
This is brilliant. Next year, Bill Hancock?