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A true conference showdown, preseason injuries and much more

For the past 19 months -- ever since Florida's national-title game rout of Ohio State -- it's been the Mailbag topic that would not die. Rarely a day goes by that someone from some part of the country doesn't fire off a tome to me about why the SEC is overrated, why the Big Ten is undeservedly bashed, or both.

All the while, I've stood by my long-held stance that conference strength is cyclical -- but that didn't seem to stop anyone.

Hopefully by now you've had a chance to read The Great Conference Debate, SI.com's extensive summer-research project regarding this very topic. Among its findings was that, yes, the SEC is indeed on fire right now, and that the Big Ten is on the skids -- but that it was a much different picture five years ago. Like I said all along, it's cyclical.

Of course, I'm not foolish enough to think one feature story is going to suddenly silence all the intersectional trash-talking. While I will answer a couple of general questions about the project in a bit, it's time to redirect some of this regional chest-thumping toward a greater cause.

Dear loyal Mailbag readers -- it's my great pleasure to introduce "Stewart Mandel's Conference Showdown" to benefit DonorsChoose.org.

If you have a child, know a child, know a teacher or have picked up a newspaper any time recently, you're undoubtedly aware that these are trying times for our nation's public schools. My colleague Andy Staples wrote last month about several prominent high school sports programs struggling to stay afloat as their school's funding goes up in smokes.

DonorsChoose.org is an award-winning charity that enables individuals like you and me to donate money not to some nebulous fund, but to a specific project in a specific classroom of a specific school. Since 2000, more than 74,000 donors have given $23 million benefiting 1.4 million students in all 50 states.

Jeff Wood, executive director of DonorsChoose.org and a longtime Mailbag reader, approached me last month about a potential "conference showdown." Just a few months back, DonorsChoose.org teamed up with The Colbert Report to stage a challenge between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supporters leading up to the Pennsylvania primaries. Together they raised more than $250,000.

Obviously, Colbert reaches a far larger audience than the Mailbag, but I think you'll agree that most college football fans are every bit as passionate about their favorite conference as political junkies are their favorite presidential candidate. So for all you smack-talking fans of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, et. al. -- it's time to put your money where your mouth is.

Over the next six weeks, you, the readers, have the opportunity to make a donation of $10 or more to specific classroom projects in your favorite conference's region. If you're a Maryland Terrapins fan, you might choose to fight childhood obesity among at-risk children at a classroom in Baltimore. If you're a USC or UCLA fan, you might help an inner-city 10th-grade teacher to afford a set of Greek mythology books for her students. The list goes on and on.

Just go to DonorsChoose.org/sishowdown, click on the link to your favorite conference (all 11 FBS conferences and independents are represented) and you'll see a list of projects from that league's states. Click on any of those links and you'll get a detailed description of the project, straight from that classroom's teacher. As befitting a sports-related audience, DonorsChoose.org has included a healthy dose of physical-education themed projects.

DonorsChoose.org will be keeping a running tally of the donations raised by each conference's fans, and we'll declare a winner in the Sept. 24 Mailbag -- right around the time league play heats up in each conference. As a Big Ten alum myself, I decided to get the ball rolling by pledging $100 to a teacher in Chicago who is attempting to provide her students with an "indoor gym" after her school was forced to eliminate gym classes from its curriculum.

Now it's your turn.

"DonorsChoose.org is excited to finally settle the age-old question: Which conference is best?" said founder and CEO Charles Best.

And provide some much-needed resources to our nation's schools along the way.

Stewart, at the rate we are going do you think we will even have a college football season this year? Everyone seems to be breaking bones and tearing ACLs in fall camp. How will all of these injuries affect the final standings? -- Luke, Cary, N.C.

Indeed, the number of serious injuries to high-profile players across the country to this point has been astounding. I will address a couple others in a moment, but to me, one injury towers over the others in terms of potential national implications: Georgia starting left tackle Trinton Sturdivant's season-ending knee injury.

As you know, the Bulldogs have been tabbed the preseason No. 1 team in both the coaches poll and by Sports Illustrated. The AP poll comes out Saturday, and the Dawgs were No. 1 on the ballot I was required to turn in by Aug. 1. Had I known of this development, however, that would not be the case. Besides quarterback, there is arguably no more important position on a football team than that of the guy protecting the QB's blind side. In Georgia's case in particular, I would argue that only QB Matthew Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno were more irreplaceable. The Dawgs are fairly stacked at every other position, but the young offensive line was arguably their biggest question mark even before Sturdivant's injury.

Obviously, Georgia is still a prime national-title contender, but I no longer consider the Dawgs the favorite. Either Ohio State or Oklahoma will move to No. 1 when I release my initial power rankings Aug. 26. I'll have to give it some serious thought.

So if USC's Mark Sanchez doesn't play in the opener against Virginia and Mitch Mustain or Aaron Corp plays very well and wins, and then Sanchez is healthy for the Ohio State game ... who do you start at QB? -- Sam Willis, Los Angeles

Theoretically, the best part about having two Parade All-American quarterbacks on your roster is that if one dislocates his kneecap -- as Sanchez did last week -- there's another one right behind him. But boy, could things get complicated.

The fact is, there's not much separation between Sanchez and Mustain. They're both extremely talented. The main reasons USC's coaches anointed Sanchez the starter last spring was because of his two-year head start learning the Trojans' offense, and in part to take some of the pressure off of him. I happened to attend USC practice last spring on the day Sanchez was named starter. Several writers who attend practice daily were split as to whether the coaches made the right decision. (Corp, a redshirt freshman, finished the spring strong as well but is considered a long shot to unseat both Sanchez and Mustain.)

So if Sanchez does in fact miss the opener, and if Mustain does put on a show in Charlottesville, I don't think it would take the Trojans' coaches more than two seconds to stick with Mustain for the Ohio Sate game. That's not the problem. The problem is, what if he then struggles against the Buckeyes and USC loses. For that matter, what if Sanchez plays and does the same thing? There's going to be considerable pressure on Pete Carroll to go to the next guy off the bench ... but how long can he keep that up? He better tread carefully; a season-long QB derby is a sure way to muddle up a team's national-title hopes.

Stewart, I hate to see players leave early for the NFL, but after seeing what happened to Florida TE Cornelius Ingram (who tore his ACL last week and is out for the season), can you blame them? He was a likely late-first or second-round pick and now his stock is likely to tumble because, a) he is not eligible for a redshirt; and b) he will likely not have completed rehab by the time of the NFL combine. If you were a coach, at what point to you tell a kid to return to school and finish his degree or bolt for the NFL? -- Mike Imgarten, Norman, Okla.

While it's easy to look back now and say Ingram lost a costly gamble, he would have been taking a far bigger gamble by leaving early. It's impossible to say what exactly his draft stock would have been last year, but I find it hard to believe he would have been a guaranteed late-first- or second-round pick considering he had a modest 34 catches for 508 yards last season. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds he's certainly got an NFL body, and it's possible he would have attained that status through the combine and pro-day workouts, but the more realistic scenario is that he would have helped himself tremendously by playing an extra season.

This is not to say no player should ever leave early for the NFL, and obviously, a lot of times, there are extenuating, personal circumstances that get taken into account, but for the most part, coaches only recommend to a player to come out early if he's a no-brainer first-round pick, and the reasoning is simple: There's a vast discrepancy between the amount of money high-round picks make versus second-round picks or lower, and the chances of improving one's stock with an additional season are far greater than those of suffering a season-ending injury.

The Los Angeles Times ran an interesting article about this very subject last week in regards to USC's recent draft prospects. It pointed out that four current NFL rookies -- linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, offensive lineman Sam Baker and defensive end Lawrence Jackson -- who could very well have left USC a year earlier but chose to return for their senior seasons wound up signing five-year contracts that pay a combined $49.2 million in guaranteed money. With the exception of Baker, none were guaranteed first-rounders a year earlier.

Meanwhile, offensive lineman Chilo Rachal, who did leave school a year early, was chosen with the 39th pick. His signing bonus is likely closer to the $2 million range which, while nothing to sneeze at, pales in comparison to the others.

Your CPI article was very insightful, but failed to do the final analysis (probably because it would contradict the point of the article). Combine your stats for both five-year periods and the SEC comes out 20 percent higher than the next-closest conference. I agree conference power is cyclical, but I think your analysis uses too short of a time period. I think you'll find a more noticeable (and real) power shift if you use decades as the comparison. -- Dave Young, Athens, Ga.

I think what you're trying to ascertain is the answer to the greater question of, "Which is the greatest conference of all time?" That may well be the SEC, but it would be almost impossible to quantify it mathematically. First of all, every single league's membership has changed throughout history. Meanwhile, among the specific categories we examined, there used to be far fewer bowl games, and it was far more arbitrary which teams played in them. (For example, prior to the mid-'70s, no Big Ten team could play in consecutive Rose Bowls, nor were they eligible to play in any other bowl.) And strength-of-schedule data from earlier eras simply does not exist.

Our study focused on the specific 10-year period that it did because it coincided with the advent of the BCS, which not only formalized the postseason but really, for the first time in history, placed tangible importance on the idea of conference strength. As we've seen the past two seasons, the SEC's strong reputation has had a direct influence on the selection of a national-championship participant (both Florida in 2006 and LSU in '07 usurped teams ahead of them in the previous poll).

The CPI data from the past five years affirmed the SEC's current superiority, but I think it's important that we all understand the article's greater point that any the state of the SEC or any other league is subject to change from one year to the next. Therefore, in an ideal world, teams should not be rewarded or penalized based on the perceived strength of their conference over any longer period of time.

Stewart, about the conference rankings article: I have only one problem with the SEC, they rarely have a game outside of the Southeast. At least other conferences will leave their region to play, like Ohio State going to Texas or Washington or USC. -- Joe Greene, Rutherford, N.J.

That's a common sentiment whenever this topic is addressed, but that's also why we used the RPI formula rather than straight non-conference record in assessing each league's out-of-conference competition. The RPI formula takes into account both strength-of-opponents and whether the game was home or away. With that in mind, it was not surprising to see the Pac-10 place first in this category in both eras. Their schools constantly go on the road to face other major-conference schools (often out of necessity). The SEC, by contrast, finished second (in 2003-'07) and fourth (1998-'02).

Jordana looked good in the My Boys season finale, didn't she? As her former Celebrity Crusher, where do you think it goes next season? -- Alan, San Francisco

You got that right, sir. This most recent season (which seemed like it was over almost as soon as it started) veered almost completely away from sports, focusing instead on wedding planning. While this unfortunately made the show far less enjoyable to most people with Y chromosomes, it did provide the added bonus of Jordana's character, P.J., largely abandoning her tomboy persona. In the last episode in particular, with P.J. donned in her rehearsal-dinner gown, I did a little double take before thinking to myself, "Yep -- that was my Dodgers date."

However, I can't say I gave a whole lot of thought to how the show's wedding cliff-hanger will resolve itself. After all, we've got a new season to get ready for -- Always Sunny. The question we should be asking ourselves is, what raunchy, absurdly inappropriate situation will Kaitlin find herself in come Sept. 18? Hopefully this one won't involve a toothless, Korean busboy.

Jacksonville State managed to win the equivalent of the Football Championship Subdivision lottery by landing Ryan Perrilloux, the SEC Championship MVP. Now the OVC has picked Jacksonville State, which went 6-5 last year, to win the conference title, and I've heard more than a few people say they expect the Gamecocks to beat Georgia Tech in the season-opener. Can Perrilloux's presence really make that much of a difference? Does Perrilloux need to be fantastically successful to be relevant on NFL Draft day? -- Josh, London, Ky.

Have you watched Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards? An elite, athletic quarterback like Perrilloux can absolutely make that kind of difference. He certainly won't be able to do it alone, and I don't attest to any knowledge about his surrounding cast at Jacksonville State, but if the nucleus was already in place to have a successful season, there's no question Perrilloux could put them over the top. He's already proven he can play at the highest level of college football (though he hasn't proven he can stay out of trouble long enough to last an entire season), so it would stand to reason he will dominate the next level down.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Tech upset prediction makes perfect sense considering the radical overhaul the Yellow Jackets are going through on offense. It's highly unlikely they'll have Paul Johnson's triple-option down pat by opening day (though their defense is more than capable of shutting down an FBS offense, Perrilloux-led or not). As for the NFL question, believe me, the scouts are already well aware of Perrilloux and they're not going to forget about him now that he's playing in the relative obscurity of the OVC. Remember, Delaware's Joe Flacco, another FBS transfer quarterback (from Pittsburgh), was a first-round selection this past spring.

I had only read the first sentence of last week's Mailbag and I had to drop you a note. Sir, you are incorrect. Rock Band is NOT the greatest invention of the 21st century. The runaway winner in that category is TiVo. It changes your life. -- Mark Saenz, Honolulu

You have a valid point. In terms of its impact on society, TiVo isn't all that far behind electricity, air conditioning and cell phones. I certainly can't remember watching TV without it.

That said -- TiVo was invented in 1999. I stand by my original choice.

Stewart, why, oh why do we get our hopes up every year for a new team to make it to that elite-level and become national champion, only to see them crash and burn and watch the big boys take home the trophy? It seems like every year, people get excited about "someone new at the top" -- Wisconsin, West Virginia, Missouri ... even Kansas or USF -- only to have them pushed back off the playground while the 10-12 annual powerhouses trade spots as national champions. Parity in college football? Bah-humbug! -- Joe B., Apex, N.C.

Joe makes a good point, though I'd say it's only half-true. Remember, there was once a time when those 10-12 powerhouses (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Alabama, USC, etc.) were winning 10-12 games every single season. The fact that they don't, and the fact that programs like the ones you mentioned now do so with increasing regularity, is all the confirmation you need that parity in college football is very real and has had a dramatic effect on the sport over the past 10-15 years.

But it's also true that none of these schools have yet climbed that final hurdle to the very top of the polls since the advent of the 1-vs.-2 game in the mid-'90s, and you wonder, is it even possible? While various factors have made it possible for just about anyone to rise up and field a top-five or top-10 team, the reality is there's still a core of elite programs -- USC, LSU, Ohio State, etc. -- that are simply far more talented than Missouri or Kansas is ever going to be. What we have seen is that the presence of even a single, transcendent difference-maker can lift one of these teams right to the cusp, as Michael Bishop did for Kansas State, Michael Vick for Virginia Tech, Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin for Missouri last season and Pat White/Steve Slaton/Noel Devine for West Virginia these past few years. But as you saw in the Big 12 title game, even an offense as powerful as Missouri's was for 12 games last season couldn't handle the physicality of an Oklahoma defense chock full of future pros.

If there's any "non-traditional" program that would seem capable of breaking down that wall, it's Virginia Tech. The Hokies have been turning out national-championship caliber defenses for several years now, and only a handful of programs nationally are capable of producing eight NFL draft picks in a single year, as Virginia Tech did this past spring. And yet, to this day, the closest Frank Beamer's program has come to reaching that brass ring was when it was blessed with an otherworldly athlete at quarterback. His more recent teams had more overall talent than that 1999 squad, but they've lacked difference-makers on offense. That's pretty much the only way a program of that stature is going to win a national championship because, as you saw last year, there's still quite a disparity between the overall talent level of an LSU versus that of a Virginia Tech.

I noticed it's been two years since you've written about the monkeys that compile your 26-119 rankings. Then last week you mentioned Florida Atlantic as a potential top-40 team this season. Have the rankings for teams beyond the top 25 increased that much in importance, causing you to stop delegating to the monkeys? What ever became of your private consultants? -- Ulises Burgos, Brazil

I'm sorry to have to tell you this -- but the monkeys quit. Seriously. All of a sudden, one day, they got up and walked out, muttering something about a pension plan, overtime-pay and a threat of reporting us to the ASCPA for making them watch one too many Utah State-Idaho games. In their absence, I did pitch in on Sports Illustrated's preseason 21-119 edition (with which numerous Michigan fans were apparently none too pleased), but once the season starts, I'm not going to have time to focus on anything beyond my obligatory top 25. I'll keep you posted on their eventual replacement(s).

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