Wednesday July 1st, 2009

Dear, glorious Mailbag readers:

I thank you for clicking here today, for not abandoning me in the wake of my five-month hiatus. (No, I was not hiding out in Argentina, so don't bother scrounging for any sordid e-mails.)

I won't bore you with too many details, but after 10 nearly uninterrupted years in the sports-media bubble, I decided to take some time away. While doing so, I wrote some humor essays about an array of non-sports topics, most of which you can read here; I became a full-fledged Lost addict (perhaps we can trade theories as to what happened after the flash); the girlfriend and I took a wonderful trip to Italy; and, for the first time since college, I sat back and enjoyed sporting events purely for fun.

One of the highlights: a trip to Las Vegas for opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. If you're a college basketball fan, and if you haven't already, YOU MUST DO THIS AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE. For four straight days, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., I sat in an overflow ballroom at Planet Hollywood, surrounded by fans from around the country, watching every game on huge projection screens at the front of the room. As you may recall, on Friday night, both the Siena-Ohio State and Florida State-Wisconsin games simultaneously went into overtime. Every made or missed basket elicited roars from half the room and groans from the other. For me, it was cathartic, and it reminded me what I love most about my beat -- the drama.

With that, it's time to begin chronicling the impending drama of the 2009 college football season. Sometime during the past five months, I officially joined Twitter Nation, and look forward to incorporating tweets into my day-to-day coverage this season. So please, follow along (@slmandel).

Last week I sent out a tweet soliciting questions for this week's Mailbag -- and it worked better than I could have imagined. The 140-character limit forced people to write the kind of short, concise questions that best fit this column's format. While I promise not to do so regularly, this week's Mailbag is an (almost) all-Twitter edition. And it starts the same way last season ended: with Florida on top.

With that favorable schedule, will anybody beat Florida? -- @akosnitzky

Nobody's unbeatable in college football anymore; but on paper, these Gators have as good a shot at running the table as any team in the last four years. Heading into the season, Florida reminds me very much of USC's 2005 squad (minus the "greatest team of all-time" nonsense) -- a defending BCS champ returning its Heisman-winning quarterback and a boatload of other stars, playing a schedule that, as of now, seems inordinately favorable (no Alabama or Ole Miss in conference play; Charleston Southern, Troy and FIU in nonconference).

If anything, Florida is probably better suited to repeat than were those Trojans because the Gators' strength is their defense. Amid all the hype over Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush/Dwayne Jarrett, et. al., the fact that USC had lost four All-Americas on defense was lost. Those Trojans wound up fielding the most mediocre defensive unit of their current run, one that took its lumps against Arizona State, Notre Dame and Fresno State before ultimately succumbing to Vince Young and Texas. In contrast, Florida's biggest question mark is how to replace all-everything threat Percy Harvin. That's no small feat, but fielding a dominant defense will considerably lessen that concern.

That said, 2009 mirrors 2005 for another reason: Texas lurks around the corner. Lest we forget, the Longhorns were a last-second Michael Crabtree miracle from playing for the national title themselves, and they, too, bring back a superstar quarterback (Colt McCoy) and a loaded two-deep. Texas may have a tougher in-season showdown (against Oklahoma) than any on Florida's schedule, but the Gators have a slightly tougher overall schedule with games against Georgia, LSU, Florida State and a potential SEC title-game foe. Texas' toughest nonconference game will be a trip to Wyoming.

If the 'Horns can get by the Sooners, they have just as good a shot at running the table as the Gators.

Given that all three Heisman finalists (Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow) came back, is there anyone else that might have a shot at winning this year? -- @rmcmillon

That's an awfully accomplished trio for someone to try to usurp, but it's not an impossible prospect. For one thing, Tebow and Bradford will be competing not only against the other contenders, but also themselves. As we've seen in the past, voters hold reigning Heisman winners to almost unattainable standards. Tebow was a more complete player last year than he was the year before, but because he didn't score 51 touchdowns like he did during his 2007 trophy season, he finished third in Heisman voting. Realistically, Bradford isn't going to top last season's 4,464 passing yards or 48 TDs, mostly because Oklahoma's offense figures to be more balanced, and that could hurt him.

There will be plenty of other great players this fall, Cal RB Jahvid Best, Oklahoma State RB Kendall Hunter and WR Dez Bryant, Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead and Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor chief among them. The best way for one of these guys to take home the bronze statue will be to lead his team to the national-title game -- and hope Bradford, McCoy and Tebow all fall short.

What will the NCAA do to prevent the huge amount of secondary recruiting violations? -- @gacanefan

Secondary violations have always been fairly commonplace; it's just that they're now getting more media coverage due to both the unprecedented interest in recruiting and the aggressive approaches new coaches such as Lane Kiffin, Gene Chizik and Steve Sarkisian favor. With some of the things these guys have been doing -- be it Kiffin blurting out the name of a recruit on a radio show, Chizik orchestrating a "spontaneous" rolling of Toomer's Corner or Sarkisian blowing a fog machine while recruits ran out of the stadium tunnel -- you can tell they almost want to get caught. And why not? It's free publicity, there are no real repercussions and, most important, the antics impress recruits.

The NCAA isn't in any real hurry to "prevent" such crimes because they're just not that important. That's why they're deemed "secondary" violations and not "major" violations (i.e. paying a player or [apparently] giving away textbooks). Personally, I'd love to see the NCAA slice its rulebook by two-thirds and stop wasting both the schools' and the fans' time with these piddly violations. Washington isn't gaining any "unfair competitive advantage" by blowing a smoke machine. Meanwhile, devilish publicity-hound Kiffin has actually benefited from the fact that the media now report on almost anything involving the words "NCAA violation," even when the violation in question involves something completely trivial.

Is the Big East going to be able to improve its bowl affiliations? Or put another way, is Rutgers ever going to a decent game? -- @spudsfan

If the Big East had been able to renegotiate its bowl partnerships back in 2006, when the league's Thursday-night games were still must-see television and Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers were all top 10 teams late into the season, you might have seen a significant upgrade. As it stands now, however, the Big East isn't bringing much leverage into the great bowl shuffle that's taking place behind closed doors as we speak. (Nearly all current bowl-conference contracts expire after this season.)

Right now, the Big East's bowl fate rests largely with the Gator Bowl. The league is pushing its Jacksonville partner to end the current four-year arrangement that forced the conference to share the New Year's slot with the Big 12 (and alternate picks with the Sun Bowl). But Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett has gone on record saying he plans to maintain a dual-league setup.

The Big East's continued alliance with Notre Dame also complicates matters. Having selected Texas Tech and Nebraska the past two years, the Gator is obligated to take a Big East team this season -- but that team will almost certainly be Notre Dame if the Irish are available, pushing the Big East's second-place team down to the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The league could drop its affiliation with the Irish, but could risk losing the Gator entirely if it does.

However, there's one sure way for Rutgers to reach a "decent" bowl game: win the conference. Doing so would guarantee the Scarlet Knights, who have as good a chance as anyone of winning the wide-open league this fall, a BCS berth and make them a fairly sought-after commodity due to their reach into the New York City market and likely huge travel following.

How many of the 120 Division I-A schools' bands do you think will play a Michael Jackson medley this season? -- @GatorRock

I couldn't begin to guess, but you've put an idea in my head. I am almost 99 percent certain I watched just such a halftime tribute at one of the games I covered last season, but I can't for the life of me remember which one. I do remember it opened with Thriller.

It seems only right the Mailbag should do some sort of salute to the Man Who Made Weird Al's Career, so here's what I'm going to do. If you happen to be a member of the band in question (or any other college band that's performed a halftime MJ medley), and you have the video to prove it, send me the link or YouTube code and I'll include it next week.

Despite the NCAA ruling, will the general public (outside of Tallahassee) recognize all of Bobby Bowden's wins? -- @akosnitsky

I highly doubt it will, though not because of some moral principle. This is just my own personal hunch. I have no empirical data to support it. But I really don't think the general public cares about Bowden's career wins total. Or Joe Paterno's. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but is any non-Florida State or Penn State fan really holding his or her breath waiting to find out which legend finishes with more wins? Twenty years from now, will your memory of either coach's legacy really be affected by which one got to 394 and which only got to 392?

This debate reminds me of a basketball piece I wrote three years back when J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison were engaged in their purportedly heated race to earn the nation's scoring title and/or Player of the Year honors. I wrote then "five years from now, five months from now, perhaps even five weeks now, you'll barely remember it," and I believe I was right. Without consulting Wikipedia, I couldn't have told you which one scored more points that season (Morrison) or which one took home the Wooden Award (Redick). All I remember is how much fun it was watching them light up the scoreboard ... and that Morrison cried when he lost to UCLA.

Similarly, whether or not the NCAA vacates those 14 wins is unlikely to impact my eventual memory of Bowden as a folksy and innovative coach who presided over the most dominant juggernaut of the 1990s, but probably stayed on about a decade too long.

You are the ONLY national analyst who doesn't have Notre Dame ranked in the top 25, but why should I be surprised? Your bias against ND only shows your true colors. They must ALL be wrong and you are right? -- Steve Finelli, Tampa

Some things never change, do they? I haven't published an article since mid-February, haven't posted a top 25 since January, yet this e-mail sneaks into my Inbox June 3. Somehow I manage to be biased even when I'm not here.

I believe a team should at least do something to earn its spot in the preseason top 25. Most prognosticators seem to think a more experienced roster combined with a laughable schedule should lift the Fighting Irish into the top 25 this season, and they may well be right. I'm just saying a team that finished the previous year 7-6, ended its regular season losing to 3-9 Syracuse and getting pummeled by USC and then notched its "breakthrough" bowl win against a fourth-place WAC team hasn't exactly earned that recognition just yet.

Stewart, what do we know about the new Pac-10 commish? Is Larry Scott any less of a Rose Bowl patsy than Tom Hansen? -- @toedog_10

I don't know too much about Scott, but I look forward to speaking with him once he gets settled in his new digs. We do know he comes from the Women's Tennis Association, which may seem strange at first (all the other Division I-A commissioners were previous college administrators), but I think it's good for the Pac-10 to bring in someone with more of a sports-business mindset. The league desperately needs to raise its profile nationally, particularly in regards to its television arrangements, and many credit Scott with having done just that for the WTA.

As for whether he'll be "any less of a Rose Bowl patsy" -- I'm not even sure what that means, but I assume it relates to the BCS and Pac-10's long-held opposition to a playoff. First of all, there were three other conferences -- the Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 -- that blocked a plus-one the last time it came up. Secondly, even if Scott does turn out to be more receptive to change, I can't imagine any Pac-10 commissioner would ever do anything to impinge on that conference's relationship with the Rose Bowl. Why would he? It's one of the greatest traditions in sports, it's played in the conference's backyard and the league's champ gets an annual, automatic invite. Believe me, as long as there's a Rose Bowl, the Pac-10 will be affiliated with it.

Your buddy Andy Staples let us all in on your dirty secret: You're getting rid of the Mailbag Crush!!! Would you really do something so awful, or is he playing a welcome-back joke on you? -- Adam Pence, Kalamazoo, Mich.

I didn't say I'm getting rid of the Crush, but I did let certain co-workers know I was considering retiring the bit. This caused a minor outrage, thus eliciting Andy's comment as well as a Twitter discussion led by Hot Clicks czar Jimmy Traina. I've made no firm decision either way.

But here's the thing. Did you watch the most recent season of Big Love? Do you remember how all hell broke loose when Bill tried to add a fourth lady to the stable? I feel like we're sitting on a holy triumvirate of crushes right now -- the irrepressibly sweet Jenna Fischer; Jordana Sprio, the drop-dead knockout who can hang with the boys and the hilariously raunchy Kaitlin Olson. Personally, I fear we'd be pushing our luck by chasing after a fourth, but I'm merely a conduit on behalf of my readers. I'm sure you guys will let me know whether you feel another Crush coming on.

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