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Looking back on the last 15 years in college football and beyond; Mailbag

Photo: John W. McDonough/SI

I wrote my first SI.com Mailbag on April 21, 2003. When I reread it last week, several aspects made me cringe or smile.

First of all, what an embarrassingly awful opening paragraph. Did I think I was some kind of 27-year-old Internet tough guy? It makes no sense. On a more positive note, I feel pretty good about nailing the very first question and answer. Eleven years later, Miami is still struggling to replace Ken Dorsey.

And, of course, conference realignment made it into the first edition.

What’s most interesting in hindsight is that my primary motive for starting a Mailbag was to fill time from April to August. Even once football season began, I initially viewed this piece mostly as a space-filler between reporting and writing real stories. Little did I know it would become more popular than nearly anything else I wrote, not to mention a whole lot of fun. The connections I’ve been fortunate enough to make with you, the readers, allowed me to hang out on Notre Dame students’ couches and buy hot dogs for Georgia Tech fans. You helped make the Mailbag Crush so popular that the Crushes actively participated. You indulged me on memes -- long before I knew that word existed -- like Ole Miss-Clemson Syndrome, eighth-year seniors and monkeys ranking football teams.

And you’ve outdone yourselves yet again with your touching and thoughtful submissions for this, my last SI.com Mailbag. (I’ll pause a second here for anyone who missed last week’s news to get up to speed.) We better begin, because you never know which questions I might just … answer.

Nope, that still doesn’t work.

Hi Stewart, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your Mailbag since I first started reading it in June 2003. Since then, I’ve lived in five different countries, had five different jobs, got married and had a kid, but the Mailbag was always my weekly constant. So, for your final SI.com Mailbag, it would be great to hear your favorites over the past 11 years: favorite stadium to attend a game, favorite rivalry, favorite player that you interviewed or favorite game that you witnessed in person.
-- Rooner, Jersey City, N.J.

Emails like this are truly incredible to read. I love my job, but it’s still a job, and one that comes with good days and bad. When I file a column and call it a day, it’s easy to forget that real people are eagerly waiting to read it. It’s an honor to be someone’s “weekly constant.” During the same time period, I’ve lived in one country and will only now start a new job, but I did get married, move from one coast to another and undergo plenty of other life changes. I suppose writing the Mailbag was my constant, too.

My favorite place to attend a game is Death Valley at LSU. It’s almost like walking into a different country, from the tailgate cuisine (tip of the cap to longtime reader Rusty Welch, proprietor of TigerTailgating.com) to the tiger that happens to live next door to the smell of bourbon in the air and the electric feel for a night game.

My favorite rivalry to attend is Texas-Oklahoma. It’s a football game in the middle of a state fair. Enough said.

My favorite player to interview was Andrew Luck while he was at Stanford. Even though it was clear from his sophomore season that he would soon become an NFL multimillionaire, he was just a big, geeky kid having fun right up until his final college game. From what I’m told, he's still the same way.

And the best game I’ve witnessed in person remains USC-Notre Dame in 2005. I’ll never forget the students prematurely rushing the field when the clock kept running after Matt Leinart’s fumble out of bounds, and the fact that, for a brief moment, we all thought Charlie Weis was a coaching god. Notre Dame is still paying for it. Literally.

Stewart, first, congrats! Second, I've been a reader since 2002 -- a college freshman who was just starting to dive into college football websites from my dorm room. What are some of the dumbest questions you've been asked?
-- Adam Dalby, Louisville

The only dumb questions are ones in which the person exhibits questionable grasp of the English language, and those usually aren’t actual questions, but rather angry and likely booze-induced rants regarding something I wrote. Over the years, I’ve gathered that many of you enjoy those emails the most.

But I can tell you the most common topics. They are as follows:

1. “Why is [team X] ranked 17th and [team Y] ranked 21st when it’s so clearly, indisputably obvious that [team Y] is better than [team X]?”

2. “Will this [recent news event] finally cause Notre Dame to join a conference?”

3. “When are you going to stop sucking up to the SEC?”

4. “Does [player on my favorite team who scored two touchdowns last week and plays quarterback or running back] have a chance to win the Heisman Trophy?”

5. “Seriously? You dared heap praise on [team Z]? Who have they PLAYED?”

Stewart, first off, congratulations. You have been my favorite sportswriter for years now, and I've appreciated all your work: columns, podcasts, tweets and book. Thanks for the endless hours of enjoyment. Looking back on your 15 years at SI.com, do you have any one prediction that stands out in your mind as the best you ever made? What about the worst?
-- Stephen Noffke, Chicago

Let’s start with the worst. In 2004, I was extremely high on Minnesota. The Golden Gophers went 10-3 the year before. They boasted the loaded backfield of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III. So, I placed Minnesota in my preseason top 10. I even told coach Glen Mason about it that spring. Perhaps I should have reconsidered when he seemed concerned. The Gophers ultimately finished 7-5.

As for the best, picking Texas to upset USC in the 2005 national title game was believed to be so contrarian at the time that writers in the press box were mocking me before kickoff. Right around the moment Reggie Bush attempted that bizarre lateral, they started taking me more seriously.

In your time at SI.com, what are the top three games you DIDN’T cover?
-- Al Caniglia, Frankfurt, Germany

No. 1, without question, was the Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl. I watched it from the media hotel after covering the same day’s USC-Michigan Rose Bowl, which we all assumed would be the much bigger game. Eight years later, I don’t remember anything about the matchup in Pasadena, but everything about the Statue of Liberty play.

No. 2 would be last year’s Iron Bowl. Again, I had just covered a pretty darn good game, Ohio State edging Michigan at the Big House after stopping the Wolverines’ last-minute two-point conversion. Any other year, that goes down as a classic. Instead, I’ll mostly remember watching Chris Davis’ return on a television in the press box.

And No. 3 involved a different game at Big House, Appalachian State-Michigan in 2007. That would have been unbelievably cool to cover in person. Instead, I spent the better part of the third quarter running around Manhattan looking for a bar that carried the recently launched Big Ten Network. One did.

Stewart: I've been reading the SI.com College Football Mailbag since the beginning -- all 11 years. Even while deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, I NEVER missed a Mailbag. Would you PLEASE find a way to review/revisit all the Mailbag Crushes? Please, if at all possible, set up a coffee or lunch or even a telephone/video conference with all of them and catch us up on what they've been doing.
-- Sparky, Yuma, Ariz.

Sparky: Thank you for your loyalty and most of all for your service. I would have really liked to fulfill your request, but it’s been five years since I retired the Crush concept, and, sadly, I am not in close contact with any of my previous selections. I didn’t have a lot of lead time to work with here. The best I can do is give you a general update on the various whereabouts of former Crushes.

Jenna Fischer enjoyed a nine-year run on The Office. According to IMDB, she’ll soon appear in a movie with Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis. We can say we knew her when. If you, like my wife and I, enjoy watching The Good Wife, then you saw Jordana Spiro several times last season in her recurring role as a police detective. Good for her. Kaitlin Olson is still going strong on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and had a brief cameo as Tatiana in last year’s Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy comedy, The Heat. And Katy Mixon played a big role on the final season of Eastbound & Down. She’s now a regular on Mike & Molly.

Stewart, sorry to see you leave. That said, please give us one last Crush.
-- Chris Kern, Los Angeles

I’ve previously mentioned Jennifer Lawrence, whose stock only keeps rising now that she is recording voiceovers for Louisville’s athletic department. But I realize that choice is hardly original. I’ve lost my touch.

It also occurs to me that I haven’t discussed TV in the Mailbag for a while. If you love comedy like I do, then I know you’ve been watching Veep and Louie, both of which were never better than this season. If not, cram in some binge sessions before football kicks off.

Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Longtime reader, best of luck. I hope a new Mailbag awaits, as I always looked forward to it. Choosing only players from your time at SI.com (1999-2014), who are your best starting 11 on both offense and defense?
-- Dan, Kansas City, Mo.

The beauty of this question is that I can list my choices and then never read all the angry emails from people aghast I didn’t pick their guy. I’m guessing my company account will shut down at the stroke of midnight.

Offense

QB Vince Young, Texas
RB Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
RB Reggie Bush, USC
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh
WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
TE Kellen Winslow II, Miami
OL Bryant McKinnie, Miami
OL Ryan Clady, Boise State
OL Jake Long, Michigan
OL Barrett Jones, Alabama
OL Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M

Defense

DE Terrell Suggs, Arizona State
DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
LB A.J. Hawk, Ohio State
LB Paul Posluszny, Penn State
LB Patrick Willis, Ole Miss
LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
CB Antoine Cason, Arizona
S Ed Reed, Miami
S Eric Berry, Tennessee
CB Patrick Peterson, LSU 

Stewart, I have been a loyal Mailbag reader since, well, a very long time. Without a doubt, your column is what made SI.com my default college football source, and I look forward to continuing to follow you. My favorite thing was the Mandel Initiative podcast. Last episode aside, Lost was a brilliant show, and your podcast was a major part of my weekly ritual. But on to football. What is the most influential game you covered? I mean influential as having the biggest impact on the fabric of the sport.
-- Mike, Austin, Texas

First, thanks for the podcast love. My former co-host and recent newlywed Mallory Rubin will surely appreciate it as well. Second, I don’t care if I’m in the minority, I’ll go to my grave believing the Lost finale was a touching and unfairly criticized end to an all-time great series.

(Woo hoo! More emails I don’t have to read.)

The most influential game I covered was, strangely, one of the least exciting: Florida’s 41-14 rout of Ohio State in the 2006 season’s BCS championship game. That result set in motion the two divergent arcs in perception surrounding the SEC and Big Ten that continue to this day. The SEC began its run of dominance and became the most watched, talked-about and celebrated conference in the land; the Big Ten, which previously enjoyed that status, suffered the first of many humbling defeats that exposed just how far behind the league has fallen. Just think, the overriding question throughout that '06 campaign was whether the Big Ten would get two teams (Ohio State and Michigan) into that year’s title game. Today, many people wonder whether the SEC will ever place fewer than two teams in the forthcoming College Football Playoff.

Congrats on your move to that company "with a different URL." I've enjoyed your reporting for SI.com for years. I've read your book and I follow you on Twitter. You have taught me a great deal about college football and I now have a greater appreciation for its intricacies. I do have a question for you: Looking ahead 15 years (since 15 years was the length of your tenure at SI.com), what will the college football landscape look like?
-- Karen Charmatz, Atlanta

Thank you so much, Karen. And, wow, that’s deep.

Last Friday, on the final day of the O’Bannon v. NCAA trial, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken threw out hypothetical alternatives to the current NCAA model, such as a salary cap, a luxury tax and a revenue-sharing system among conferences. I’m not saying any of those things will happen, but the fact that they were discussed in federal court should tell you just how differently college sports could look in 15 years. They’re going to become more professionalized, with athletes in the revenue sports compensated in some form. Between that and the inevitable refocusing of the sport around the playoff -- which, by then, will include at least eight teams and probably more -- we’ll likely see a reclassification of what, exactly, is major college football. Being in the Big Ten or Big 12 may no longer be enough. I could see the 25 or 30 richest programs/viable playoff contenders becoming an unofficial confederation unto themselves.

Furthermore, 15 years from now we might have the first generation of college-age athletes for whom safety fears altered their sport. Seeing the increase in U.S. soccer popularity since the last World Cup makes me wonder for the first time whether football will remain our country’s sport of choice. Will the equivalent of today’s elite football prospect play soccer in 2029? Or lacrosse? It’s possible. And I can’t even begin to predict how changes in technology -- most notably in the television industry -- will affect the way fans follow the sport.

Ultimately, I feel confident more people will consume college football in 15 years than consume it today. But the sport they watch could be radically different from the current version.

Hey Stewart, I'm writing mainly to say thank you for all the work you've done over the years at SI.com, and especially for the 11 years you've spent writing the Mailbag. I've been reading it for nearly half of my life (I'm 24 now), so I can say with sincerity that you've had a major impact on my experience as a college football fan. Do you have a particular story of which you are most proud? Or that you feel is most unique?
-- Jonathan W., Dublin, Ireland

Thanks so much for your loyalty, Jonathan, and thanks for making me feel much older than I really am. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some incredible colleagues at SI on a whole lot of stories for which I’ll forever be proud. One, in particular, is the mock selection committee exercise that I worked on with Pete Thamel late in the 2012 season. We convened athletic directors from every conference to simulate the process that will begin this fall. As it turns out, there will be quite a few sitting ADs on the real committee who will face the same pressures that we examined then. Just in these past few weeks, I’ve also enjoyed delivering what was, I hope, thorough and thoughtful coverage of the Ed O’Bannon trial alongside Andy Staples and Michael McCann.

As long as we’re on the subject of colleagues, I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize a few of the talented and supportive editors I worked with over the years at SI: Mitch Gelman (the man who originally hired me), Paul Fichtenbaum, Adam Levine, Ryan Hunt, Luke Winn (yes, he was once an editor), B.J. Schecter, Mark Mravic, Mark Godich, Gennaro Filice, Mallory Rubin, Gene Menez, Ben Glicksman and Jim Gorant. I can’t thank them enough. 

Hi Stewart, I’m a longtime reader of your work. Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls is one of my all-time favorite sports books. I used to recommend it to all of my friends who wanted to familiarize themselves with the sport. So, my question is, can we expect a sequel down the line?
-- Tom, Los Angeles

People have asked me this question on and off for the past seven years. For a long time, the best answer I could muster was “hopefully.” Well, it may not be a sequel per se, but I’m excited to say I have in fact written a new book. It is called The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff, which is exactly what it sounds like: an unofficial guidebook to the new system. It will be available on Amazon later this summer. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for updates.

And I hope you’ll follow me to my next gig, which starts next week. If not, know that it has been the honor of a lifetime to work for the company whose magazine I devoured weekly growing up. It still hasn’t hit me that this is my last contribution.

Thank you all for reading.

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