Wednesday August 5th, 2009

As you're undoubtedly aware, preseason practices begin at most campuses this week. At some, like USC, you can essentially walk in off the street and watch every drill. At others, like Ohio State, you would need to scale a fence and/or fight off attack dogs just to catch a glimpse of the Buckeyes stretching.

It might actually be worth the potential injury risk to sneak into an OSU practice this month, if only to see the electrifying and rapidly advancing Terrelle Pryor running a new offense (modeled off Nevada's "pistol" attack) purportedly tailored to his strengths as a playmaker. My colleague Andy Staples attended the Buckeyes' spring game and came away extremely impressed -- which is saying something since Andy is an unabashed SEC homer.

Then again, if you're anxious to watch a dynamic young QB, you could save yourself the trouble and simply go to Baylor instead.

Would you rather have Robert Griffin or Terrelle Pryor leading your team for the next three years? Pryor gets all the hype and has more talent around him, but Griffin is faster, quicker and a MUCH better passer. -- Nick, Frisco, Texas

This summer I've received numerous e-mails like this from those in the Lone Star State. It seems Baylor fans -- energized by the first exciting player on their team since J.J. Joe (still my all-time favorite name) -- are hell-bent on reminding the rest of us they had their own freshman sensation at quarterback last year.

They've had it up to here with all the Pyror hype, and for good reason. Griffin is the real deal, folks. See for yourself. He's possibly the fastest player in the country (he barely missed making last year's Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles) -- and he plays quarterback. Think Pat White with an even quicker stutter-step.

Is he faster than Pryor? Yes, absolutely. Pryor is more of a Tim Tebow/stiff-arm kind of runner. I disagree with Nick, however, over his assertion Griffin is a "MUCH better passer." I don't know how we would even know that yet.

Yes, Griffin put up better numbers last season, throwing for 2,091 yards and an impressive 15-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Pryor, by comparison, threw for 1,311 yards, 12 TDs and four INTs. However, Griffin was playing in coach Art Briles' wide-open passing offense, which revolved almost entirely around him. Ohio State's coaches kept the training wheels on Pryor, who also had the luxury of handing off to star RB Beanie Wells about 20 to 25 times a game.

Even with those limitations, though, you could still see Pryor has a cannon arm. Most impressive, you could see just how lethal he is throwing on the run. (Want an example? Check out the ridiculous throw he makes at the 5:28 mark in this clip.)

So I'm sorry, Nick, but I'm taking Pryor. Not only is he a more naturally gifted passer, he's a 6-foot-6, 235-pound quarterback who can run. (Griffin is 6-3, 210.) Hey may not be highlight-reel fast, but with that size and strength it doesn't matter because defenders can't bring him down. I sincerely hope Griffin leads the long-beleaguered Bears to the promised land (a bowl game), but I truly believe Pryor will become the most dominant player in the country over the next two years.

Since USC's Taylor Mays and Tennessee's Eric Berry have both expressed serious interest in winning the Heisman, will the their respective campaigns hurt or help the other in the bigger order of things? -- Ed, Atlanta

It can only help, because it's like a joint-awareness campaign for safeties. I've even got a slogan for them: "Safeties come first."

Campaign or not, we all know it's extremely difficult for a defensive player -- even one as accomplished as Mays or Berry (both of whom were first team All-Americas last year) -- to win the Heisman. And of course, the pair is attempting to do so in a year when two Heisman-winning quarterbacks (Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford) and a third who easily could have won last season (Colt McCoy) are headlining the race. Talk about bad timing.

The single most important factor in winning the Heisman is big performances in big games. The last defensive player I truly believed should have won the Heisman was Oklahoma safety Roy Williams in 2001. Not only was he the most dominant defensive player in the country, but he made arguably the play of the season with his leaping sack/forced-fumble-turned-pick-six against Texas' Chris Simms. Williams finished seventh in the voting that year, behind six quarterbacks.

Mays (against Ohio State) and Berry (against Florida) will both have opportunities to produce their own Williams-esque moments early in the season. Still, even if USC's bone-crusher barrels into Pryor at a key moment and Tennessee's star picks off Tebow a couple of times, they would need to continue that momentum all season and, most likely, their teams would need to be BCS contenders.

I'm convinced that if Cal got more consistent QB production the last couple of years, it would have put the Bears into a few Rose Bowl conversations. Has "QB Guru" Jeff Tedford lost his touch? -- Ted, Oakland, Calif.

Good question. It does seem like Cal's program took a strange turn in the middle of the 2007 season when an injured Nate Longshore inexplicably lost his mojo. Longshore, you may recall, led the Bears to a 10-win season as a sophomore in '06 and had Cal off to a 5-0 start and No. 2 ranking in '07 before spraining his ankle. Though he missed just one game, he was clearly compromised the rest of the year, throwing 11 interceptions against nine touchdowns as the Bears lost six of their last eight. Neither he nor Kevin Riley wowed too many people last year.

Let's look at some numbers.

As you can see, Cal had its worst passing season under Tedford last season yet still managed to win nine games, thanks in large part to star RB Jahvid Best's emergence. (Throw in J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett, and it would appear Tedford has become more of a "running back guru.") If he'd had Boller or Rodgers last year, maybe Cal could have challenged USC in the Pac-10.

Heading into '09, Cal is widely viewed as a top 20 team and Best as a Heisman candidate. The defense should be solid. Perhaps with no QB controversy for the first time in three years, Riley will step up and perform like an old Tedford signal-caller. If not ... Las Vegas is a great destination in December.

I'm tired of hearing you whine about the Crush. Be a grown up and make a decision. If you decide to do it, I vote Jill Flint from Royal Pains. The pick goes against the current blonde trend, which gives us some variety. It also gives us someone who is obscure and off the radar. -- Chad, Arlington, Va.

Chad, Chad, Chad. What you call "whining," I call "taking my sweet-ass time so as not to screw this thing up."

But you should know lots and lots of other people share your tastes. Since last week, I've received more than 250 Crush nominees in my Inbox -- quite possibly every name of every attractive actress on every television show or obscure movie currently in rotation -- but this Jill Flint woman got as many mentions as anyone. I must confess, I've never seen Royal Pains (though I hear SI's own Brooklyn Decker recently made an appearance), nor did I have any idea how many people watch USA (there were also numerous nominations from Pysch and Burn Notice, neither of which I've seen, either).

So two things are now abundantly clear: Yes, there will be another Celebrity Crush (I can hear the champagne corks popping now), and it seems I'm going to have to do two types of scouting this preseason.

Given the success of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta, do you foresee another corporation/city joining forces to create another great nonconference matchup in a different region of the country? -- Jack Murphy, Taipei, Taiwan

You have to give major props to Gary Stokan, Chick-fil-A Bowl president and Atlanta sports czar, for turning that event into a mainstay so quickly. (If you didn't hear, LSU and North Carolina have signed on for next season.) However, Atlanta is unique in that it is the rare major city in which college teams still rule supreme over the pros, and its location as the unofficial hub of the South makes it an ideal destination for fans throughout the SEC and ACC. There aren't too many other cities that could sell out a 70,000-seat stadium without a true home team (Georgia or Georgia Tech) involved.

Dallas, however, is another possibility. Cowboys owners Jerry Jones has already scheduled numerous college games at the new Cowboys Stadium, starting with this year's Oklahoma-BYU opener. Arkansas and Texas A&M have scheduled a 10-year series there, and the Cotton Bowl game is moving there as well. Depending on the success of the OU-BYU game (it's already a near-sellout, with a projected 15,000 BYU fans coming to town), perhaps Cotton Bowl sponsor AT&T could be talked into turning the game into an annual event. It might be tough, though, because it would probably have to include a Big 12 South school every year to make it feasible, and those teams aren't itching to give up home games.

Other than that, I think you can expect to see more neutral-site "one-offs" around the country. Notre Dame is scheduling near-annual neutral site games now, including against Army at the new Yankee Stadium next year. Army has announced it will play future games there against Boston College, Rutgers and Air Force, though those matchups might hold limited national appeal. Ditto the discussed Wrigley Field game between Northwestern and Illinois. For the most part, however, it's a difficult challenge convincing major programs to both schedule tough nonconference games and give up home games in the process.

Speaking of tough schedules ...

Since 2000, what team has played Miami twice, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio State twice, Notre Dame twice, Oklahoma twice, Fresno State, Air Force, Syracuse, Boise State, BYU and is scheduled to play LSU this year? The University of Washington. Not that I agree with their scheduling -- the team hasn't been good since Slick Rick won the Rose Bowl -- but at least they don't hide from competition. -- David Shemaria, Philadelphia

David sent this in response to last week's query about which school most consistently schedules tough nonconference opponents. I have to agree Washington ranks right up there with USC. Colorado isn't far behind, but gets docked a tad for the presence of I-AA foes in '06 and '08. According to Wiz of Odds, USC and Washington are two of just four schools that have never scheduled a I-AA opponent. The others are UCLA and Notre Dame.

I am really puzzled by this latest Rose Bowl selection change. Why would the Rose Bowl accept this constraint when the other BCS bowls have not? I am not buying they did it for the good of the BCS organization. -- Kenneth, Cincinnati

You can be sure it wasn't the Rose Bowl's idea, and that no one in the Tournament of Roses, Big Ten or Pac-10 is doing cartwheels at the thought of Utah or Boise State taking away a spot that would have otherwise gone to one of those league's teams. (You just know it will happen in a year Cal finishes in the top five.) But the Rose didn't have a choice. Officials from the other BCS bowls have been furious for some time that the Rose Bowl essentially gets to play by its own set of rules.

Since the Rose is the only BCS bowl with two conference partners, it is the only bowl that never has lower than second pick of at-large choices and therefore could never get "stuck" with a non-BCS team. (The Sugar Bowl last year was the first game to voluntarily take such a team, picking Utah over Cincinnati with the second-to-last choice.) So yes, this was done for the "good of the BCS," though it wasn't done to appease the Coalition schools (as most media reports made it out to be) as much as to pacify the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls.

I did find it interesting timing that Jim Delany chose last week to announce this "news," which was quietly agreed to years ago. It's no coincidence the whole Orrin Hatch/Utah stink took place just a few weeks earlier. I also find it amusing not even the beneficiaries seem all that pleased about it. While in Utah last week for an upcoming story, I heard some local sports radio hosts discussing Delany's comments, and their response was essentially "thanks for nothing." While I understand fans of schools like Utah want equal postseason access, not little handouts, the first time one of their schools gets invited to Pasadena, they might as well shut out the lights back home because the entire campus will be making that trip.

With everyone hyping Ole Miss, Alabama and LSU in the SEC West, do you think Auburn will sneak up on some teams with Gus Malzahn's offense? -- @Sregit (via Twitter)

I honestly have no idea what to make of Auburn. On the one hand, I have a lot of respect for offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who helped Arkansas win the division in 2006 and lit up scoreboards at Tulsa the past two years. On the other hand -- you saw Auburn's offense last year. It seemed at times the Tigers were literally trying to move backward. Obviously, the staff had as much to do with it as the players (Tommy Tuberville's old-guard staff neither embraced new coordinator Tony Franklin's spread offense, nor learned how to teach it to the players), but you don't finish 104th in total offense without some serious holes.

The hope on The Plains is previously forgotten quarterback Neil Caudle, who shined in the spring game, will beat out 2008 duds Kodi Burns and Chris Todd, and that the offense will morph into Tulsa-lite. The more realistic goal for this season is Auburn will at least cut down on the amount of mistakes it made last year, run the ball more effectively and not force the defense -- which should remain stout under respected coordinator Ted Roof -- to spend the whole day on the field. I could definitely see Auburn getting back above .500, but the Tigers will still be a step or two behind Alabama/LSU/Ole Miss. That team is not a one-year fix.

You don't mention the Celebrity Crush for a week and you get flooded with Mailbag letters? For real? How insecure are these people that they need their own attractions to be validated by a sportswriter? How old are these people? Thirteen? Fourteen? Disgusting. -- J.J., Milwaukee

Hey, now. Say what you want about me (plenty of people have), but I will NOT stand by and let someone insult my readers like that.

Numerous unpublished studies have shown Mailbag readers tend to be smart, sophisticated, highly discerning individuals. Researchers are still trying to figure out why it is they come here.

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