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Even in down year, USC still looks like team to beat in Pac-10

This week, we're talking USC football -- both on-field and off.

Last year, USC needed help from Oregon in the final week of the season to reach the Rose Bowl and, after losing so much talent to the NFL, seems to be ever-so-slightly down from its lofty standards. Meanwhile, Oregon, Cal and Oregon State all look improved from last season. So is this finally the year USC's streak of Pac-10 titles comes to an end?-- Travis Pederson, Redmond, Ore.

It's highly unlikely the Trojans will be as dominant as last year, when they boasted a top five NFL quarterback (Mark Sanchez) and a world-class defense. Nevertheless, I still have more faith in a USC team featuring an untested QB and eight new defensive starters than in any of the teams you mentioned.

Of the three, Cal is the only one I feel reasonably certain will be improved. The Bears return the entire starting front four and secondary from the nation's 26th-ranked defense, a third-year QB (Kevin Riley) and a Heisman-caliber tailback (Jahvid Best). But not since Aaron Rodgers' 2003-04 tenure has Cal put any sort of scare into the Trojans, and we have to wonder at this point whether Jeff Tedford's otherwise successful program will ever get over that hump.

Meanwhile, Oregon's strong finish last season has earned it a whole lot of preseason acclaim, but I'm not sure people realize just how much attrition that team has endured. In addition to a head-coaching change, the Ducks lost most of their offensive line and receiving corps and nearly every big-name defender. Oregon State is always tough to predict, but my guess is the Beavers will put up another 9-4-type season.

USC's reign atop the Pac-10 will come to an end eventually, but I learned long ago to stop doubting Pete Carroll's ability to reload. Two years ago, the Trojans suffered as bad an injury rash as I've seen, lost to a 41-point underdog (Stanford), lost a second Pac-10 game (at Oregon) ... and still won the conference. So yes, USC may be somewhat vulnerable this season; the question is, will it matter?

Hey Stewart. Any update on how the USC "investigation" is coming along? Thanks.-- Terry Collins, Independence, Kan.

No one from the NCAA, Pac-10 or any other involved party is allowed to speak about the "ongoing" investigation, but if I had to guess...

1) The investigation has shifted entirely to ex-coach Tim Floyd's rogue basketball program, which could be in big, big trouble if it did indeed pay for O.J. Mayo.

2) While it was abundantly clear to anyone who read the original Yahoo! reports Reggie Bush was ineligible while at USC, the NCAA was never able to nail down hard evidence due to Bush's non-cooperation and the fact he bought off one of the key witnesses. If it had, it would have announced something as far back as year or two ago.

3) Therefore, when the NCAA announced in April it was combining the football and basketball probes, it was probably doing so as a convenient way to save face. At some point in the near future, the NCAA will announce its findings, and while it may well result in severe penalties for the hoops program, football will likely be scantily mentioned or affected. The football team can't lose scholarships due to the basketball team's infractions.

This will surely cause no shortage of outrage among fans nationwide, who will accuse the NCAA of playing favorites (especially since it just nailed Alabama for the oh-so heinous crime of players selling textbooks). I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I just think the NCAA's enforcement department, which carries no subpoena power, is largely powerless. Unless a case involves active players with eligibility issues, or unless a related lawsuit or criminal case exists on which it can piggy back, investigators tend to curl up in a ball.

As a Kansas State fan, I will never forget the rags-to-riches success story Bill Snyder built in Manhattan. However, as much as I hate to admit it, I'm having a very difficult time convincing my fellow K-State fans that Snyder's second time around is not going to be anywhere near as successful. Maybe you could help me out here, Stewart, and see if you can convince them.-- Jeff, Overland Park, Kan.

This has got to be a Mailbag first -- a fan seeking validation that his team won't be that good.

I have nothing but overwhelming respect for what Snyder accomplished at K-State the first time around, but no, it's not going to happen again. Can the Wildcats return to bowl games consistently? Absolutely. Will they become a perennial top 10 program again? Highly doubtful.

For one, Snyder's signature strategy -- supplementing his roster with a sizable dose of juco recruits -- is far riskier today due to the APR implications if those recruits don't pan out academically, and far more schools are competing for the elite prospects. Secondly, Snyder recruited heavily in Texas and built his program during a period of sustained mediocrity in Austin and at Oklahoma. It's no coincidence K-State's demise (a losing season in 2004, Snyder's second-to-last) began around the same time Mack Brown and Bob Stoops became entrenched at their schools.

Ultimately, however, the embarrassing financial revelations that rocked the K-State community this offseason may affect the program more than any of that. In case you missed it, former AD Bob Krause made an inexplicable, secret agreement to give fired coach Ron Prince $3.2 million in deferred payments. A subsequent audit by the Kansas Board of Regents uncovered another $845,000 in under-the-table payments over the years to numerous athletic officials, including Snyder. All of this happened under the watch of recently retired president Jon Wefald, a sports nut who was lauded for hiring Snyder back in 1989 but who apparently let the athletic department operate willy-nilly during his tenure.

Clearly, heads will roll and things will change, and I just can't see it working out well for Snyder. It would be a shame to see him tarnish a previously impeccable legacy.

Do you see the ACC making a strong push this season and becoming the third-best conference behind the Big 12 and SEC?-- @CanesnJags_Dom (Via Twitter)

Back in December, I took it one step further than that. When SI.com asked me to list five storylines to watch in 2009, No. 4 on the list was: "The ACC will emerge as the nation's toughest conference." I'm going to back off from that a tad bit now -- the Big 12 looks awfully tough once again -- but I would not be surprised to see the ACC give the SEC a run for its money.

While it's true more nationally elite teams (Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss and possibly Georgia and/or LSU) reside in the SEC, there could be a pretty steep drop-off after that. Most of the other teams in that league are in some form of transition. That's how the ACC was for many years, as the league gradually ran off a slew of underachieving coaches (Chuck Amato, Chan Gailey, John Bunting, Larry Coker, Ted Roof, Tommy Bowden). But now the likes of Paul Johnson, Butch Davis and David Cutcliffe have replaced those faces and the league suddenly looks a whole lot more competitive.

In addition to prohibitive favorite Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State, Miami, NC State and Clemson could all potentially field top 25 teams. It's rare to look at a conference before the season and say, "I could see any of 11 teams reaching a bowl." (Sorry, Duke). When there's almost no dead weight, you've got a tough league.

With Penn State having such a weak nonconference schedule (thanks to Syracuse dropping off the face of the college football earth over the past seven years), how badly do you see this hurting the Nittany Lions' BCS bowl chances if they don't win the Big Ten?-- Chad, Lock Haven, Pa.

The only time strength of schedule matters is in the national-title discussion. If Penn State were to go undefeated and its opponents (Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois) prove as weak as projected, and the Big Ten's reputation continues to stink (i.e., if USC crushes Ohio State again), then there's a realistic possibility the title game could pass on the Nittany Lions for a more credentialed team. But if all you're talking about is a BCS bowl berth, well, 10-2 is 10-2. I'm sure someone in Miami, New Orleans or Glendale would be happy to have them.

Incidentally, I realize Penn State is taking a lot of heat for its schedule this season -- to the point where its co-captains, Daryll Clark and Sean Leewere recently forced to defend it -- so it's worth pointing out the Nittany Lions begin a home-and-home next season with Alabama. Also, you never know what might happen when Greg Paulus steps into Beaver Stadium on Sept. 12.

I've been reading your articles for years and believe you are the most level-headed college football writer out there. Today is the first time that something you wrote set me off, with the most insane statement I have ever read. You actually referred to Evangeline Lilly as "mildly attractive." You've lost it.-- Brandon, St. Amant, La.

If I could take back two words I've written at any time in my career, they would be "mildly attractive." The many of you who e-mailed are well justified in questioning my sanity, because there's no denying Evangeline Lilly the actress is certifiably stunning. As I wrote last week, however, my beef isn't with Lilly -- it's with the character she plays.

I'm serious about this. For the most part, I sit in genuine awe of Lost writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse and cannot begin to imagine how they do what they do. However, even with no screenwriting credentials, I believe I could write the typical Kate scene myself.

EXT. ISLAND BEACH CAMP -- DAY

Kate sits by the shore, staring pensively into the water. She is clearly deep in thought, most likely reflecting for the umpteenth time about the guy she murdered or the friend of hers that got killed. Suddenly, one of her two male admirers approaches from behind.

JACK (grinning)Still shook up about losing our bet?

(As she turns toward him, Kate's expression instinctively changes to her flirty, manipulative face.)

KATEStill shook up about losing to me in golf?

JACKA few of us are putting together a search party tonight to go find (insert missing castaway here).

KATEI'm going with you.

JACKNo, Kate, you're a girl. You should stay here.

KATE (her face scrunching back up)OK. But if a fight scene breaks out -- particularly one involving rain and mud -- I'm going to show up just in the nick of time and save your butt again.

JACK (shaking his head skeptically as he walks off)You take care of yourself, Kate.

And ... scene.

If you could make one minor change to college football's rules [on the field], what would it be?-- Scott Johnson, Burbank, Calif.

I don't have any major grievances, especially now that the play-clock rules seem to have stabilized. However, I do get annoyed from time to time at the preponderance of ticky-tack pass-interference calls that help bail out offenses on third-and-12. I realize pass interference is a judgment call, and therefore one that's hard to "revise," but it seems odd that the same, 15-yard penalty that applies to a cornerback who knows he's about to get burned down the sideline and purposefully shoves the receiver off course also applies when a safety's hand happens to graze an opposing receiver's shoulder while jostling for a jump ball.

My suggestion: adopt the NFL's more severe pass-interference penalty -- which moves the ball to the spot of the foul -- but instruct the officials to enforce it more selectively.

Speaking of Bobby Petrino, who you wrote about last week, has any team ever fallen as far and as fast as Louisville? I have a lot of respect for AD Tom Jurich, but when he says this is not a "make-or-break" season for coach Steve Kragthorpe, I am concerned. Very concerned!-- Henry Mullen, Louisville

Plenty of programs have plummeted as badly as Louisville, which went from 12-1 in Petrino's last season to 6-6 and 5-7 the past two years under Kragthorpe. However, the Cardinals' situation may be more dire due to their less-established tradition. Over the years, whenever a longtime power like USC or Alabama experienced a few down years, one could reasonably assume it wouldn't stay down for long. With that much tradition and built-in recognition, all it takes is the right coach to come along and steer the ship back on course. Louisville, however, has invested an awful lot -- mainly $72 million on a stadium expansion -- based largely on faith and a relatively brief spurt of national prominence.

The Cardinals are less than five years removed from Conference USA, and right now they're a lot closer to that level than they are to the Brian Brohm/Michael Bush days. Jurich is saying what he has to say publicly to show support for his coach, but trust me, this is most definitely a make-or-break year for Kragthorpe. Jurich spearheaded the project that will increase Papa John's Cardinal Stadium's capacity from 42,000 to 63,000, but if Kragthorpe spends another season losing 63-14 to Rutgers, the Cardinals will be lucky to draw half-that for the 2010 opener.

Why do you consider UNC the flagship program in North Carolina, when State, under Tom O'Brien, has beaten Butch Davis' team two years in a row. I guess you are like most reporters: no respect for the Wolfpack.-- Sam Homewood, Littleton, N.C.

Remember that question earlier about any rules changes I'd like to see? Here's one: Don't go playing the "no respect" card when your team hasn't posted a winning record in four years.

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