Tuesday May 3rd, 2005

The mailbag's back, and you're gonna be in trouble. Hey la, hey la ...

As we embark on the third season of the ever-popular (at least among my friends and family) College Football Mailbag, there are a few things that, I must admit, are troubling me.

I've always said the Mailbag should be fun. There's enough seriousness in our day-to-day lives; no need to carry it over to an Internet sportswriter's question-and-answer column, right? Which is why, while mindful of the fact that college football is a very serious matter to many people, I've made an effort to approach this column from a lighter side.

In the past, this has included conducting the occasional interview with a hot celebrity with some remote connection to college football (for instance, former Apprentice star Katrina Campins, whose sole qualification was that she rooted for Miami), mentioning a hot celebrity with a remote connection to college football (for instance, Hilary Duff, whose sole qualification was that she appeared in Cheaper by the Dozen, in which Steve Martin plays a college football coach) or debating the merits of a hot celebrity with no connection to college football whatsoever (for instance ... well, Hilary Duff. By the way, we're going to need a new Hillary for this season, so feel free to start submitting your nominations).

Looking back at the last few Mailbags of last season, however, it's apparent both myself and the readers lost our way. Fun, for the most part, got supplanted by anger, frustration and bitterness. For that, we can thank the BCS, which, as has become tradition each December, causes several million people to suddenly become royally ticked off about the very same sport that provides them so much joy the other 11 months of the year. Amazing, isn't it?

So, before kicking off the 2005 Mailbag (which will appear every other week in May and June, then weekly beginning in July), you should be aware of these three ground rules, two of which should be familiar to longtime readers, and one of which is completely new:

1. Avoid at all costs the generic, "Stewart, how do you think my beloved [insert team] will do this year?" question, or its evil cousin, "Stewart, do you think my beloved [insert school here] has what it takes to win the national title?" Sorry to disappoint you, but such queries are boring and redundant, especially when I just posted an early top 25 that pretty much covers how I think most major teams might do. I have full confidence Mailbag readers will come up with more creative questions, like the ones you'll be reading in a bit.

2. Keep your questions short (about 50 words or less) and, whatever you do, do not write in ALL CAPS. If you're trying to stand out from the crowd, I must admit it does do the trick. They're the ones I end up deleting first.

3. Finally, and this is the new one, no questions about the BCS or any related issues until a future date of my choosing, probably after the season starts. For one, they're a killjoy -- these are the days when we should be dreaming about that Texas-Ohio State game, not lamenting what happened to Auburn -- but on top of that, I have to look out for my own sanity. I'm on a bit of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy kick right now, and seeing as I'm already spending an unhealthy amount of time pondering life, the universe and what all of it means, can you imagine what would happen if I were to add to that such equally baffling questions as, "How can the same college presidents who say a playoff would intrude on academics then turn around and, in almost the same breath, approve a 12th game?" or, "How can the same college presidents go out and schedule their new championship game for Jan. 8?"

I'm afraid I would wind up spending entire days pacing the halls of the Time & Life Building in a state of confusion. I have answers for most things, but what do I look like, Yoda? (Don't answer that.)

So, for this first edition, I've picked out a few questions that should give you a better idea what the Mailbag is looking for, as well as a couple that, quite clearly, don't.

Alright, Mr. Mandel. Time to get all of that basketball out of your system and get ready for the religion of college football. Out of all of the teams joining a new conference this year, which do you think will have the most immediate impact? Also, which team will benefit most from its current conference's realignment? (Personally, I'd say Louisville for the first question and Southern Miss for the second.) --Stephen Benefield, Birmingham, Ala.

Great question, Stephen, and it's hard to disagree with your answers, but here are a couple others to consider: In the first department, Boston College may have a bigger impact on the ACC, at least initially, than many would expect.

The Eagles, who went 9-3 last year, return a former starter at quarterback (Quinton Porter), two solid running backs in Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth and three potential All-America defenders, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, LB Brian Toal and CB Will Blackmon. They host Florida State in their ACC opener Sept. 17, which, if they were to win, would suddenly put them in serious contention for the Atlantic Division title.

As for a team that will benefit from its conference's realignment, take a look at Bowling Green, whose path to the MAC title may be easier now that it's out of the West division, where it had to battle with Toledo and Northern Illinois, and into the East, which retains Miami of Ohio but is now without Marshall (which left for C-USA).

Two-part question: 1.) Would you put money on USC three-peating? And 2.) If not, what's the main factor that will prevent it from doing so -- too much coaching turnover, off-the-field problems, laziness, injuries or a surprise team on the schedule? Damien, Orange County, Calif.

1.) Though the Trojans certainly are the favorite on paper, no, I would not, for the simple reason that 2.) the odds are stacked against them. There's a reason no one's ever done it before -- and that is, it's really hard.

This isn't the NFL, where you can afford to lose a few games, so long as you turn it on in the playoffs. This is college, where one loss is often one loss too many. I don't care how good you are, inevitably there's going to be a game or two that comes down to one or two plays, like it did for USC against Cal and UCLA last year, and sheer probability says the chances of the ball bouncing all the right ways for the Trojans for a third straight season are extremely low. That's not to say it can't happen -- I'm just answering your question as to why, if I were a gambling man, I would not in fact put money on it happening.

(Legal disclaimer: The Mailbag is for entertainment purposes only, and in no way should any of the author's words be construed as actual gambling advice. Besides, if you'd ever been to Vegas with the author, there's no way you'd take any of his advice).

Do you think Michigan has a chance at the national title this year? --Rafael, Lansing, Mich.

Amazingly, Rafael, every team has a chance at the national title every season, so long as they're in a BCS conference and not under NCAA sanctions.

Which freshman class of 2004 had the most impact on its program, and which incoming 2005 class will have the most impact? --Rick Raber, Columbus, Ohio

Although USC relied on several freshmen (Dwayne Jarrett, Jeff Schweiger, Keith Rivers) in its national-title run, and one of Oklahoma's freshmen (Adrian Peterson) nearly won the Heisman, it's hard to argue against Michigan's 2004 class having had the biggest impact, considering the Wolverines went to the Rose Bowl with a freshman starting quarterback (Chad Henne) and 1,455-yard rusher (Michael Hart).

As for this fall, the obvious choice is Nebraska, if for no other reason than necessity. The Huskers' incoming class (which, admittedly, is not limited to freshmen), could produce as many as eight starters: QBs Zac Taylor (juco) or Harrison Beck at quarterback, RB Marlon Lucky, WR Chris Brooks, G Rodney Picou, LB Steve Octavien (juco), LB Phillip Dillard, CB Zack Bowman (juco) and TE Justin Tomerlin (juco; only if injured star Matt Herian winds up redshirting).

Have you heard anything about the changes Joe Tiller and Co. have made to their offense this offseason? Seems Tiller has taken a page from Utah and Northwestern and added in misdirection and options out of the shotgun. This is to utilize QB Brandon Kirsch's ability to run with the ball, whereas former QB Kyle Orton was almost sunk in concrete in the pocket. What is your take on this spin and what Tiller's ever-changing offense brings to the Big Ten? --Jed, West Lafayette, Ind.

I think one of the more interesting subplots this offseason has been just what a wide-ranging impact Urban Meyer's offense has had on college football. Among the teams that will be running a similar version or incorporating aspects of it this season are, obviously, Florida, where Meyer is now, and UNLV, where Meyer's offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford, took over as head coach. There's also Oregon (where ex-BYU head coach Gary Crowton is now the offensive coordinator) and, as you mentioned, Purdue.

I think it's a great idea what Tiller is doing, and, to be honest, long overdue. Tiller took the Big Ten by storm when he originally arrived in 1997, bringing his "basketball on grass" approach to the historically stodgy conference. Who can forget the game against Wisconsin in which Drew Brees threw 85 passes?

But while many of his counterparts -- Northwestern's Randy Walker, Michigan State's John L. Smith -- not only have gone to the spread themselves but taken it to new levels, Tiller's, to be honest, has become more and more predictable. He had a great quarterback the past few seasons in Orton, who did put up some big numbers at times, but for the most part the Boilers have tried to run the ball more traditionally and, when they do pass, often stick to a short, horizontal attack against their better opponents. Tiller is a proven offensive mind, though, and that's why I'm as excited as anyone outside of West Lafayette to see his new wrinkles this season.

Which lesser-known player will take the country by storm like Alex Smith did last year? --Alexander, Virginia

It should be Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs. You would think he would have done so already, what with the whole 4,002 yards, 41 touchdowns and four interceptions thing in 2004, but since these mid-major guys play on TV so infrequently it usually takes longer than a year to become a household name. Jacobs' team is already scheduled for three ESPN Games this year.

Other possibilities: Boise State QB Jared Zabransky, who, like Smith, will be leading his team on a quest for the BCS; Memphis RB DeAngelo Williams, who could have a LaDainian Tomlinson-like senior season; and Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson, who, though he plays for a major-conference team, could be this year's version of Larry Fitzgerald when he was a sophomore.

Do you feel guilty cashing your check every week? You should. --Joe Bainbridge, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Actually, thanks to the wondrous technological advancement that is direct deposit, I no longer have that problem.

I think you need a theme song to play when people read the Mailbag. I'd love to pen something if you'd like to lyrically collaborate. --Jon Malone, Tulsa, Okla.

Absolutely! But I don't think lyrics will be necessary. I'd be happy with one of those catchy, 20-second jingles that become synonymous with your favorite TV show, like the opening credits to Curb Your Enthusiasm or Arrested Development. Let me know what you come up with.

That's it for this week. There were a whole lot of other solid questions submitted over the past month that I'll hopefully get to in the coming weeks. In the meantime, feel free to further flood my inbox.

So long, and thanks for all the fish. (Jon: Cue closing credits music.)

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