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Year Five begins

Year Five of the Mailbag is officially under way. Please take your seats.

Without question, the best part about writing the Mailbag is ... well, the groupies. But the second-best part is that it gives me a real-time window into what you, the fans, are talking about. No need to guess what topics most interest you -- all I have to do is open my inbox.

Since we parted ways in January, that inbox has become a regular outlet for what can only be described as America's new favorite sporting pastime: Big Ten bashing. The BCS beatdowns of Ohio State (by Florida) and Michigan (by USC) have created a residual backlash that Jim Delany's venerable conference is having a tough time living down. (Commissioner Delany did not do himself any favors, either, with his sore-loser letter insinuating SEC schools cut corners academically while his league is a bunch of choir boys.)

How bad has it gotten? A couple of weeks ago I wrote a fairly innocuous column about Michigan's turbulent spring -- the basic premise being that the Wolverines have a lot of questions for a purported preseason top-five team. Apparently, the mere mention of a Big Ten team on a national Web site is enough to trigger defense mechanisms among the rest of the country's still-frayed football fans.

And so, let the preseason overrating of Big Ten teams commence! Great to see that you are paying so much attention to a team that lost both of its games last year against quality opponents, including being totally outclassed by USC, and then lost half of their best players for an assortment of reasons. It makes total sense that they should be ranked in the Top 5, "possibly as high as No. 2" to start the season. You college football pundits are unbelievable. --Larry, Morgantown, W. Va.

Are you kidding me? More Big Ten Kool-Aid? When was the last time Michigan beat an elite team? Notre Dame? Please. You'd be closer to the truth if you just went ahead and said that the national championship game will be between USC and the SEC champ. Texas might crash the party, but no one else. Spare us the countdown to another overrated OSU-Michigan "Game of the Century." --Jason Heady, Smithville, Miss.

How about this, Mandel? How about, until the Big 11 (I can count, too bad they can't) has more than two somewhat decent teams in the whole conference followed by much mediocrity, you and your other Northern biased writers stop saying any of those overrated teams are (mythical) national championship contenders? How about you people finally acknowledge that if Michigan or Ohio State played in the SEC, there is no way they'd have chance of going undefeated, and that slow Michigan would be lucky to get eight wins a year? How about you lay aside your bias, Mandel, and embrace reality? --Matthew Cafaro, Athens, Ga.

First of all, let me pick up right where I left off in the last Mailbag four months ago by offering a friendly reminder that conference strength is cyclical. There's no question the SEC is hot right now and the Big Ten is in a rut. But it wasn't always that way and it won't always be that way. (Thought it might as long as four national championship coaches are all in the SEC at once). I don't remember hearing any complaints about the "slow" Big Ten when Ohio State beat Miami in the 2002 championship game. And while SEC fans can rightfully point to their national-best 11 first-round draft picks last weekend as further proof of their conference's all-around awesomeness, I didn't hear any of them handing out props to the ACC a year earlier when that league produced 12.

There was one point brought up earlier, however, on which I empathize with followers of the SEC and every other conference, and that is the hype factor. I used to laugh when fans espoused their various ABC/ESPN conspiracy theories, but they definitely had a valid argument last year regarding Ohio State and Michigan. I certainly don't blame the suits for wanting to hype up a historic No. 1 vs. No. 2 game on their own network, one that the whole country (even the South) wanted to see, but there's no question that for about a three-week period right before and after that game, Florida completely vanished from the national-title discussion on those networks. That in large part prompted Urban Meyer's vocal lobbying effort and, in turn, caused Gary Danielson's over-the-top rant on the Gators' behalf during CBS' telecast of the SEC championship game.

But most of all, that's what's causing the virulent Big Ten backlash you're seeing in e-mails like the one above. People feel duped after having had the Buckeyes and Wolverines shoved down their throats week after week last year only to watch them lay an egg when it mattered most.

The end result is that you're going to see a lot of lingering skepticism toward those two, Wisconsin or any other Big Ten team that starts the season with a bunch of wins. And there's only going to be one way for those teams to make it go away: Win the big one.

So ... what else is on your minds these days?

As an Arizona State alum, I was one of those calling for the head of Dirk Koetter. Stewart, you even called him one of the worst coaches in college football. So Arizona State goes out and hires a proven coach in Dennis Erickson. What is it about his hiring that has left Sun Devils fans with a sense of apprehension? --D. Padilla, Atlanta

I have to admit, I did not realize there was apprehension there. If so, I can only assume it's apprehension over the fact ASU's program is about to be overrun with a band of jucos, and that there's a 50-50 chance the school will wind up on probation. From a football standpoint, however, Sun Devils fans should be thrilled. Erickson may not be big on "character guys," but he's big on winning, and he's going to do a lot of it there in a short amount of time. The cupboard in Tempe is not exactly bare. Any coach would be lucky to walk into a program with a quarterback like Rudy Carpenter (whose confidence should be restored by Erickson), a running back like Ryan Torain, three all-conference offensive linemen and some decent defensive linemen.

While Erickson, like Koetter, is known as an offensive mind, the difference is, he actually knows what he's doing. Koetter had never been a head coach at a BCS-level school and it showed, as he constantly botched key decisions (like last year's Carpenter-Sam Keller debacle) and stubbornly stuck to a WAC-style offense in a league that actually plays some defense. Erickson comes in with far more experience, a proven track record both with Miami and in the Pac-10 with Washington State and Oregon State. He'll have ASU competing at a high level in no time -- and leading the league in personal-foul penalties.

Hey Stewart, is it me, or does this situation with Houston Nutt seem to be getting way out of hand? I live and breathe sports too, but using the Freedom of Information Act to get his phone records? Suing because of an E-mail that was sent to somebody else? This is crazy. --Sammy, Columbus, Ohio

It is without question the strangest, most self-destructive atmosphere I've ever seen surrounding a program. What you've got is a small but vigilant group of fans there who really, really want Nutt gone. We're not talking "I'm ticked off and I'm going to spew on a message board." More like "This man is an affront to everything I hold dear and I'm going to do everything in my power to bring him down." What these people don't seem to realize is that while the things they're accusing him of -- mistreating QB phenom Mitch Mustain, breaking promises to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, having a relationship with a female TV anchor that may or may not have been appropriate -- may be offensive to some, they're not exactly fireable offenses. Particularly for a coach who's coming off a 10-win season and SEC coach of the year honors.

What's most amazing about the situation is that the fans at the center of it (who seem to be a small but powerful minority) have become so consumed by Nutt and his alleged lies that they've allowed the story to completely overshadow what could be their greatest team in 30 years this coming season, one that includes the best player in the country, Darren McFadden. The fact that season-ticket sales are up in Fayetteville tells me there are still plenty of Razorbacks followers who have faith in Nutt. But with the amount of negativity already surrounding that program, my guess is it won't take much (like one bad loss) for the majority to turn on him. Anything less than an SEC championship and it's likely adios for the embattled coach.

Stewart, welcome back to the Mailbag. Do you predict this will be a rough year for the ACC in light of the various coaching changes and reshuffling, or do you think the changes made at Miami, Florida State, North Carolina, etc., will show immediate returns? --Wahoo Scott, Nashville

First of all, I think it's safe to assume that last year was rock bottom for the ACC. With all due respect to Wake Forest, the fact that a team -- whose highest draft choice, safety Josh Gattis, went in the fifth round last weekend -- was able to win the conference, or that a Georgia Tech team whose quarterback completed far more passes to the ground than to Calvin Johnson won the other division, tells you everything about just how bad it was. It's not like there aren't good players in that league -- see the aforementioned 12 first-rounders in 2006 -- it's just that those players, by and large, has been very poorly coached.

But two of the worst offenders, John Bunting and Chuck Amato, are now gone. (Unfortunately, the league is still stuck with Al Groh and Chan Gailey.) Tom O'Brien, already one of the league's better coaches, has moved over to N.C. State. Bobby Bowden not only made the necessary changes to his staff but struck gold in landing LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and West Virginia offensive line coach Rick Trickett. And Miami made a much-needed regime change. Things will start to improve for the ACC this season, and it's going to be interesting to see which of the affected teams benefit the most.

Bringing the 'Bag back, eh? I think it should be mentioned that I thought you were nuts when you settled on Jenna Fischer as the Mailbag Celebrity Crush last year. Then I saw Blades of Glory a couple of weeks ago. You're not crazy. --Jack, Portland, Ore.

Yep -- I may have predicted the national championship game wrong, ranked Notre Dame way too high in the preseason, prematurely jumped on the Clemson bandwagon and got stuck buying hot dogs for half of Atlanta, but I did get at least one thing right in 2006. At the time of her coronation last May, Jenna was still very much an under-the-radar hottie known almost entirely as plain Jane secretary Pam. But between her various talk-show ensembles, this eye-opening magazine cover and, most notably, that bedroom scene with Will Ferrell (one of the few redeeming qualities of that movie), it's safe to say there aren't too many Jenna doubters left out there.

That said, Jenna's reign is unfortunately coming to an end, and it's time to begin soliciting nominees for 2007 Mailbag Crush. Remember, folks: Under the radar. We're not looking for the five-star quarterback every school in the country's already offered a scholarship to (Halle Berry, Eva Longoria, et. al.), we're looking for that hidden gem that's going to burst onto the scene like Jenna did. Think 2005 Steve Slaton -- but hot and female.

How long do you think it will take for an SEC fan to start complaining about USC, its schedule and the weak Pac-10? --John Raymond, Raleigh, N.C. (via Hermosa Beach, Calif.)

Probably within a few minutes of this Mailbag being posted. I'll let you know.

Stewart, please make an argument for the Heisman Trophy to be kept. I cannot see any relevance this trophy has anymore. It goes not to the best player, but to the biggest media darling. Troy Smith was not even the best QB playing and still won the award. Looking at his status in the draft also tells me that the NFL guys don't put too much into the title, either. Is there any reason you can see to keep going through this charade? Because I don't think it matters to most people anymore. --Joshua, Florence, Ala.

The Heisman, like a lot of things in college football, is a relic from the early 20th century that doesn't necessarily jive with the modern sports landscape. Kind of like bowl games and Top 25 polls. But I would never want to see the Heisman go away, if for no other reason than it's a tradition, much like those other two, that makes college football unique. Does the best player always win it? Of course not. Is the outdated voting method flawed? Absolutely. Does the season-long Heisman "race" garner way more attention than is really merited? Umm, that's a given. But that doesn't mean the award needs to go away altogether. It's not like it's hurting anyone. In terms of problems in the sport, it's not exactly something scandalous like point-shaving. Or text-messaging.

What I'd like to see -- but will never happen -- is a modernization of the traditional criteria voters use in selecting the Heisman winner, such as opening it up to positions other than quarterback/running back/receiver and schools other than just USC/Ohio State/Texas et al. As a matter of fact, I've devoted an entire 25-page chapter to the subject in my upcoming book, Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls, in stores Aug. 24. (Uh oh. Shameless plug No. 1 of what will likely be many, many more to come.)

Dear Stewart, I attended the Miami Hurricanes' spring game in order to catch a glimpse of the "whole new 'Canes team," and to my disappointment it was the same, predictable lackluster offense. To my joy, it was the same, dominant D. Do you think that new head coach Randy Shannon's defense can handle all the work for this team again. If yes, do you think the 'Canes were wrong in getting a head coach that is so defensive minded? --Jack, Miami

Randy Shannon is a smart guy. He may be "defensive-minded," as you say, but he knows he's not going to get the 'Canes back to the top without a drastically improved offense. I think Patrick Nix was a decent hire as offensive coordinator, and I'm sure Shannon will be heavily involved with the unit himself.

But Miami fans are going to need to be patient because -- and I know this is a hard concept to accept -- the talent isn't there right now. It's been four years and it's probably time to accept that Kyle Wright is never going to be a star quarterback (and Kirby Freeman isn't going to blow him away, either.) Lance Leggett would not be a starting receiver for any top-10 team. It looks like the 'Canes have a couple blossoming stars at tailback in Javarris James and Graig Cooper, but we can't be sure yet whether the line will be able to effectively run-block.

I'd issue the same warning to Miami fans as I did Florida State faithful -- the coaching changes at both programs are a step in the right direction (though there's admittedly much more of a "wow" factor with the 'Noles' new faces) but they will not immediately return both teams to the BCS. That will only come with a year or two of good recruiting. Both these teams went 3-5 in the ACC last year and 6-6 overall in the regular season. I think a realistic model to emulate would be that of Tennessee, which itself went 3-5 in the SEC and 5-6 overall in 2005, brought in offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe and improved to 5-3 in its conference and 9-4 overall the following year.

Where did you study? Michigan? Purdue? Michigan State? USC? Why do you hate Notre Dame so much? --Federicho Pacheco, San Jose, Costa Rica

Starting up early this year, are we Domers? What precipitated this particular comment, anyway?

You're an idiot for not putting Notre Dame in your spring top 25! You suck! --Nelson, Denver

Oh, that. We'll let's see here. Team finishes 17th last year, loses its star quarterback, top running back, top two receivers, top defensive player, barely had a defense to begin with and will be relying inordinately on freshmen and sophomores. OK, I'm an idiot. Obviously that's got top-25 written all over it.

Why no hype about Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen? Everyone who's anyone has him rated as the best QB prospect out of high school since Peyton Manning. What gives? SI.com writes an article about Illinois recruit Benn and nothing about the No. 1 high school recruit of 2007? Please don't tell me there is no bias against ND. Your inaction speaks volumes. --Jeff, Andover, Mass.

C'mon. Now you're putting me on. You're seriously suggesting that Jimmy Clausen hasn't received enough press coverage?

You know, I usually only pick on a certain team's fans for one season and then move on to somebody else ... but you guys are making this way too easy. Please, Irish fans, give someone else a chance. You've already got a monopoly on the TV airwaves, no need to take over the Mailbag, too.

Next edition in two weeks. Fire off those questions.

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