Wednesday September 2nd, 2009

Last week, I led the Mailbag with a discussion about Rich Rodriguez and the state of his rebuilding efforts at Michigan.

That's unfortunate, because while I generally like to cover as many different teams as possible in this space, I see no choice but to pen Michigan Part Deux in light of recent developments.

As a West Virginia alum, I was obviously displeased with how Rich Rodriguez handled his departure to Michigan. However, it seems like the current and former players who are alleging he has violated NCAA rules with his methods really just have an axe to grind. Do you think this is a case of young players not realizing what it takes to succeed or does your gut say there may be some validity to their claims? -- Chris, Olney, Md.

There's definitely a little bit of both at play here.

As I wrote on Monday, the rigorous, not-so-voluntary workouts described in the Free Press article are not unique to Michigan. That's how most big-time college football programs operate today. That doesn't make it right, and to be sure, a couple of the complaints alleged by those players were indisputably troubling. Requiring guys to put in 10-hour days on Sundays during the season sounds extremely over-the-top. How are players supposed to physically recover from the games? And coaches or staff members should not be tangibly punishing players for missing "voluntary" activities.

But what really stands out about this whole episode is just how truly radical a culture change the Rodriguez transition has been for Michigan. I say that because pretty much every time a new coach takes over a high-profile program, you immediately hear stories about just how much harder the players have been made to work (a colleague and I jokingly refer to these annual offseason articles as "puke-bucket stories"), and inevitably, a segment of players get turned off and leave the program.

But I can't ever remember hearing the type of backlash that's occurred at Michigan ever since Justin Boren's parting shots on his way out of town last year. Why that is, I don't know. While it's true Rodriguez's strength coach, Mike Barwis, is a notoriously demanding guy, there's a Barwis equivalent at just about every major program. However Lloyd Carr used to run things, whether good (it's hard to argue with his record) or bad (the Wolverines had obviously fallen behind Ohio State), it clearly wasn't remotely like the current regime, to the point where some players, and their parents, felt compelled to go public with their ire.

Michigan may end up paying a price with the NCAA (a few docked scholarships or practices), but the more immediate issue here is the atmosphere surrounding Rodriguez's program just keeps growing more toxic. I've always believed the combination of Rodriguez's offense with the type of athletes Michigan is capable of recruiting spelled the makings of a championship program -- but it's hard to get there when a large segment of the public already wants your blood. The continued negativity surrounding Rodriguez (and oh, by the way, he's also being sued over a real-estate deal) is beginning to feel a lot like the doomed tenures of Ron Zook at Florida and Bill Callahan at Nebraska.

Unlike those two, though, Rodriguez is a proven commodity whose system worked in the past. That said, he better get it working again, and in a hurry. As always, winning tends to cure a lot of things. If the Wolverines handle Western Michigan this weekend and follow that up by upsetting Notre Dame, I'm guessing most fans will forget this drama ever happened. But whereas last week I felt like a 7-5 season would appease most worried Wolverines fans, now I'm not sure Rodriguez would survive it. The climate may simply be too divisive.

Unless, of course, he beats Ohio State, in which case he'll probably get a contract extension.

After the three-headed quarterback monster at the top, some (like your colleague Gene Menez) believe Georgia Tech RB Jonathan Dwyer has the best chance to take home the Heisman. If most are so quick to disregard the stats Graham Harrell puts up in a gimmicky pass-offense, don't you see Heisman voters overlooking Dwyer's numbers for achieving them in a gimmicky run-offense? -- Chase, Durham, N.C.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could just remove the word "gimmicky" from the sport's lexicon altogether? If an offense, like Texas Tech's, is consistently successful and works at the highest level, I fail to see how it's any more "gimmicky" than anyone else's. It's just unique.

But I'm not naïve. I realize any Run 'n' Shoot-type passing quarterback is going to face an inevitable stigma. However, I don't believe voters view run-heavy offenses like Paul Johnson's the same way. The major reason: Option-based offenses used to be a staple of numerous national-championship programs like Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, which gives them legitimacy. Johnson's offense isn't exactly the same as those -- if anything, it's more advanced -- but it's similar enough that should Georgia Tech morph into a BCS contender (an unspoken prerequisite for recent Heisman winners), and should Dwyer put up big numbers (presumably in the 1,800-2,000-yard vicinity), I believe he'll be taken seriously.

Hey Stewart, I have been an avid follower of USC football for some time now, much like I was of Florida State in the '90s. Given USC's run of consecutive Pac-10 titles, how would you compare USC's overall talent to that of FSU's in the '90s? And how would you compare the talent level of today's college football players in general to those of the early-to-mid-'90s in terms of size, speed and strength? -- Zachary Cockroft, Austin, Texas

Generally speaking, you can safely presume the overall talent level across the country gets better with each passing decade. In almost every facet, the coaching and training methods employed with players -- starting at the high school level -- get more advanced with every year, and the end product is an ever-increasing proliferation of elite athletes. I would imagine the biggest difference you'd see if you compared a current college roster to one from 15 years ago is a change in size at certain positions. The safeties and linebackers would probably be sleeker and faster, as would some defensive ends, while the receivers and tight ends seem to keep getting taller.

As for the Florida State-USC comparison -- wow. That's a tough one. We may have to wait a few years to answer it. While I'm not a big fan of using NFL success to retroactively validate college players (as you'll see in just a bit), it's a fairly telling reflection of various programs' talent levels. Florida State in its heyday produced a ton of A-list stars, guys like Deion Sanders, Terrell Buckley, Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Samari Rolle, just to name a few. That hasn't been the case for USC so far. For all the Trojans' success under Pete Carroll, only one of his former players, Troy Polamalu, was selected to last year's Pro Bowl.

However, in terms of overall draft selections, it's about equal. USC has averaged 6.2 picks per year this decade; Florida State averaged 5.9 during the '90s (for current comparison's sake, I excluded those selected lower than the seventh round). Plus, most of Carroll's alumni are only a few years removed from college, so it's too soon to say what their legacy will be. Let's see how the most recent wave of Carroll protégés (Mark Sanchez, Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, etc.) fare before making a judgment.

Just a simple comment. You have outdone yourself this season with the Mailbag Crush. Previous selections have been excellent and dead on, but this year's takes the cake. Kudos to you, Stewart. --Wes, Shreveport, La.

Katy Mixon seems like the perfect woman. I have been smitten with her since the first episode of Eastbound and Down. Great show by the way. -- Jon, Jacksonville, Fla.

Yep -- Katy was a very popular choice. While there were a few, inevitable dissenters, no previous Crush selection has generated anywhere near the amount of gushing e-mails as this one. I feel bad now that I short-changed Katy a couple of months by taking so long to announce it. Fortunately, her vast LSU knowledge gives me a convenient excuse to work her in frequently.

Stewart, I come to you for sound reasoning. I come to you to get away from the ESPN "This is the Greatest (fill in the blank) of all-time" machine. You cannot be serious about this Tim Tebow thing. He is not the best ever at his position and he in not the best ever college player. That makes me sick. -- Nate Early, Atlanta

Most decorated does not equal best. There is a quite a difference between the two. Plug in the top 10 QBs in the country at Florida and you'll get the same results. I don't believe you'd get the same results if you switched Tebow to the other systems. There's way too much talent around him not to be successful. -- Camden Coble, Mustang, Okla.

Have you lost your mind? Tim Tebow? Best of all-time? Have you watched him play? A QB with mediocre passing skills that will never throw for more than 3,800 yards in a season and is also a mediocre runner is the best player ever? He wasn't even the best player on his team last year! That would be some guy named Harvin playing for the Vikings. -- Evan White, Oklahoma City

I guess I shouldn't be surprised last week's Tebow column generated such backlash (these were just the clean e-mails). It's been clear since last January's BCS Championship broadcast a whole lot of you are really, truly tired of hearing about Tebow. I tried to make it clear I myself am not one to wildly toss around hyperbole, which is why I wanted to come up with a quantitative measure by which to address the "all-time greatest" question. But judging by my inbox, many of you either didn't read past the headline, or are simply violently opposed to someone even addressing the subject.

It's a curious phenomenon when you think about it. It seems to me that in pro sports, people are constantly ranking and debating the relative greatness of players. Is Kobe on the same level as Jordan? How does Peyton Manning compare to Dan Marino? Is Ichiro a Hall of Famer? With college players, however, as soon as someone's perceived to be generating too much hype -- like Tyler Hansbrough in basketball -- there's an inevitable fan backlash.

The comments I most appreciated were those who suggested possible ways to improve my admittedly makeshift formula. In hindsight, I really wish I'd incorporated some variable that took into account the fact today's stars play one to two extra games per year than their predecessors (not to mention bowl stats weren't counted prior to this decade). Otherwise, the single most common question raised was ...

What's interesting about your list of greatest college QBs is that hardly any of them made a dent in the NFL. Why? --Karl Kramer, Palo Alto, Calif.

Obviously, it shows the vast differences between college and the NFL. For one, the pros put great emphasis on a quarterback's physical tools, to the point where actual college performance is almost secondary. Scouts saw something they liked in Jay Cutler despite the fact he played for losing Vanderbilt teams. Matt Stafford didn't exactly engineer a whole bunch of epic victories while at Georgia -- but he's got a cannon arm, and that's what earned him $72 million.

Meanwhile, my sense is NFL coaches are very rigid with the offenses they run. They'd rather go find a QB that fits their traditional system than adapt their offense to better suit the unique abilities of a guy like Tebow or Vince Young. I watched the highlights of Michael Vick's debut with the Eagles. The announcers kept talking about him running the "Wildcat" formation, when in fact he was running the exact same zone-read plays Young ran at Texas. His first play, a shovel pass out of the shotgun, was straight out of Florida's playbook. But to NFL types, it's still viewed as a gimmick (there's that word again) rather than a legitimate offense.

Regardless, I take umbrage with anyone who suggests a college QB's legacy is somehow tainted if he doesn't go on to NFL stardom. Whether or not Young ever sees the field again for the Titans, his epic Rose Bowl performance against USC will remain the greatest I've ever seen by a college quarterback. Whether Leinart ever wins the Arizona starting job, his fourth-and-nine fade pass to Dwayne Jarrett with the game on the line at Notre Dame will remain one of the most clutch throws I've ever seen. I sense, however, the majority of football fans don't see it the same way.

Hi Stewart. As you know, there is no clear-cut favorite in the Big East this year. You called Rutgers your "gun-to-my-head" pick to earn the Big East's BCS bid. My question is -- Why Rutgers over Pitt? Pitt has had the best recruiting class in the Big East for four straight years under Wanny. At some point, don't you think that talent starts to equal wins? -- Dave Moser, Pittsburgh

It's pretty simple: I don't have faith in Dave Wannstedt. I want to. Really, I do. He's a great guy who bleeds Pitt football. But every time I think the Panthers are about to turn the corner (upsetting West Virginia in 2007, winning nine games last year), they follow it up with something mind-numbing (losing to Bowling Green in last year's opener, losing a bowl game 3-0). The Panthers probably do have the most talented roster in the Big East at this point; I just don't have faith in Wannstedt to maximize that talent.

That said, I don't have a whole lot of faith in most of the other coaches in that league, either, with the notable exception of Cincinnati's Brian Kelly. But the Bearcats lost a ton of experience on defense. West Virginia just lost the greatest player in school history. South Florida always chokes. Rutgers was my process-of-elimination pick because I do have a lot of respect for Greg Schiano, and when in doubt, it's not unwise to pick the team with the best offensive line.

How can you call Nazareth a "one-hit wonder?" Didn't you ever hear of Love Hurts? That's a classic. They're at least a "two-hit wonder." -- Michael Bradley, Broomall, Pa.

I must confess: Until it was pointed out to me, I could not have told you who sang Love Hurts. To now find out that the same hard rockers that warned us, "Now you're messing with a son of a b----," could also croon so melodically "Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and marks" ... quite honestly blows my mind. But I suppose it's no more of a stretch than Warrant's range from Cherry Pie to Heaven.

To make it up to Nazareth, here is a video of the boys belting out their heartbreak.

What are your thoughts on Indiana selling its home game with Penn State to be played in FedEx stadium in DC? As a Purdue fan I'm probably a little biased when I call IU's AD, Fred Glass, a sellout, but is the profit margin really worth the sacrifice to integrity here? -- Lang, Chicago

It's a tad depressing. I'm not as bent out of shape over the competitive-advantage aspect as many Big Ten bloggers seem to be; I just feel bad for Indiana. Obviously, times are tough, and it's hard for a downtrodden program like IU to pass up a $3 million payday (keeping the game in Bloomington would reportedly have netted closer to $1 million), but it doesn't exactly exude confidence about the Hoosiers' program. What does it say to your players and potential recruits when you're basically admitting: We have such little fan support we're going to have to turn ourselves into barnstormers.

It's sad to think just three years ago, the late Terry Hoeppner was in Bloomington generating rare excitement for the program. If he hadn't passed, my guess is the Hoosiers would have continued the momentum from their 2007 bowl season under Bill Lynch. As it is, it seems like the program is looking at another extended stint in the Big Ten cellar.

I just wish to express to you that I have a newfound (and profound) sense of appreciation for what you must put up with from readers. I recently started a blog and published bowl projections. I openly admitted that I view the exercise as a crapshoot. Well, you would think that I insulted everybody's mothers. The rage that was spewed forth in the comments was far beyond anything I could have predicted. So, in short ... I salute you! -- Brad Schricker, Huntsville, Ala.

Well thank you, but it's really not that bad. Whatever people say, I know it's all in good fun.

Your taste in women is as bad as your ideas concerning a college football playoff. We're all praying you get cancer Stewie! -- Anonymous

Or not.

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