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Season-opening questions

There's football this weekend, folks. Real, actual, meaningful football games. Let's not beat around the bush. Here are 10 questions I'm most eager to have answered by this time next week:

1) Is Cal ready to reclaim its manhood? There's no sugar-coating it -- the Bears got absolutely humiliated in Knoxville last year, and the cloud never fully vanished, even amid a 10-win season. Saturday night, they get their chance at revenge on friendly turf. I don't think it's a stretch to call it the most important game to date in the Jeff Tedford era.

2) Will the SEC walk the talk? Having heard non-stop for the past eight months how undeniably superior their conference is to all others, it's time for the Southern powers to back it up. In addition to Cal-Tennessee, the conference hosts two other high-profile matchups in Week 1: Kansas State-Auburn and Oklahoma State-Georgia. After all that bragging, I'm going to be highly disappointed if I don't see at least three-touchdown margins in both.

3) Will we see an offensive explosion Monday night from Florida State? Clemson's Death Valley is hardly the ideal location to debut a new offense, but if you believe the buzz out of Tallahassee, nothing's getting in the way of the re-energized 'Noles. Which is good, because as tough as FSU's defense usually is, even they can't be expected to shut down both James Davis and C.J. Spiller.

4) Who is USC's top running back? The No. 1 Trojans' once-enviable tailback depth has taken a hit with the transfer of Emmanuel Moody and injuries to Chauncey Washington, Joe McKnight and Hershel Dennis. Which of the remaining candidates (C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford, Stafon Johnson and Desmond Reed) will get the first carry Saturday night against Idaho? (Not that it's likely to affect the outcome.)

5) How good is Matt Ryan? Good enough to be voted preseason ACC offensive player of the year, apparently, but it's not like BC's senior quarterback tore the roof off last year (2,942 yards, 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). Nevertheless, new offensive coordinator Steve Logan loves him and NFL scouts are high on him. Let's see what he does against defending conference champ Wake Forest.

6) How good (or bad) is Notre Dame? Charlie Weis insists this is not a rebuilding year for the Irish. Pretty much every prognosticator this side of Lou Holtz insists it is. On Saturday, Georgia Tech may provide a good litmus test. There's really no shame in losing to the Jackets (though a blowout would be troubling), while a win would be highly encouraging.

7) Missouri or Illinois? Both are among the most trendy picks for "surprise team" in 2007, with the Tigers picked to win their division and the Illini widely expected to jump from 2-10 to bowl team. But is it really possible to put too much faith in teams coached by Gary Pinkel and Ron Zook? Maybe we'll have a better idea after they play each other.

8) Who's made more progress -- Tyrone Willingham or Greg Robinson? Both are entering their third year at once-proud programs, Washington and Syracuse, respectively, that had hit rock bottom, and both have had little tangible success to date. At least we know one of them gets to start this season 1-0, and he gets to do it a night earlier than most everyone else.

9) Did sports bars in Columbus and Ann Arbor order enough beer? In homes all across Big Ten country this weekend, TVs will be silent and couches empty as fans go in search of someplace -- anyplace -- that gets the Big Ten Network. It will be interesting to see whether sports bars with DirecTV suddenly find themselves way more crowded than they normally would for games involving Florida International and Youngstown State.

10) Is this going to be freaking awesome or what? According to SI.com's national TV schedule, there will be a staggering 40 games broadcast from Thursday through Monday (although admittedly, the ones on The Mtn. and ESPN360 really shouldn't count.) Hope you got any remaining yard work done last weekend -- here's guessing the only time many of you are going to see daylight this weekend is when you go to restock the fridge.

Stewart, I love your work on SI.com, but I have to respectfully disagree with your Blog entry about Charlie Weis and his secrecy regarding who will start at QB for Notre Dame. If he wants to keep his decision a secret, that's his decision. Weis is a disciple of other vague coaches like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, and those two have five Super Bowl rings between them. Don't you think you should give Weis the benefit of the doubt? --Chris, Olney, Md.

Chris, I thank you kindly for "respectfully" disagreeing. As you can see, most of the Irish faithful who left comments at the bottom of that blog item didn't waste time with such pleasantries. You would have thought I ripped the Pope himself. (Although at this point, perhaps ripping Charlie Weis is considered a more serious offense in South Bend.) I also fully realize its Weis' "right" to be secretive and that he's under no obligation to disclose such information, etc., etc. Where you lose me, however, is when you play the Parcells/Belichick card. Congratulations to them on their Super Bowl rings, but that's got absolutely nothing to do with college football.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm not generally a proponent of NFL-bred coaches who insist on running their programs like NFL franchises. Most of them (Dave Wannsedt, Al Groh, Karl Dorrell, et. al.) haven't exactly been wildly successful, and the sole one who has, Pete Carroll, has done so with unconventional methods that were openly mocked when was he in the pros. I've got nothing but respect for Weis as an offensive coach, and his impact on the Irish so far -- both on the field and in recruiting -- has been impressive. I also realize the Parcells/Belichick approach is the only one Weis has ever known. I just think it's a shame that he's taken a program built on such a rich tradition of pageantry and personality -- in a sport still played by 18-to-22 year olds -- and essentially turned it into a full-fledged, professional-style, strictly-Xs-and-Os operation.

This may sound corny, but you want to know one reason why it would have been nice for him to publicly name the starter? So the kid's parents could cut out the newspaper article. Seriously. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between college and the pros. But as those angry ND bloggers made abundantly clear, they're perfectly fine with it. Their faith in Weis is so absolute that if the coach thinks intentionally deceiving the public about Jimmy Clausen's injury will help the Irish win games, then they're fine with that too. (Can you imagine what the reaction would have been had Bob Davie or Ty Willingham pulled the same move?) Maybe I'm being a naïve dummy, and maybe this is simply the wave of the future, but I know this much: If Weis doesn't have the Irish contending for the national title by next season, I'm guessing even some of the more vociferous critics of that blog post may start to shudder at the coach's more haughty tactics.

Stewart, I've submitted this question at least a dozen times, and this is my last chance before the season starts (and my predictions are possibly ruined). What do you think will be this year's BCS controversy? Personally, I'm betting on 12-0 West Virginia passing 11-1 USC to play 12-0 Michigan for the national title, despite USC actually being a good team and having a schedule consisting of opponents that your average high school state champion couldn't beat. --Matthew Puskar, East Lansing, Mich.

You've got to admire the man's persistence, so much so that I'm making a one-time exception to my "no-BCS-grumbling-until-October" rule. I find this particular scenario possible but unlikely. West Virginia is already starting the season No. 3 in the AP poll, No. 4 in the Coaches' -- slightly higher than Michigan -- so unless the Trojans' loss comes late, most likely the Mountaineers would have "passed" them a while back. And if you're saying No. 2 LSU will have lost by then, too, then it's conceivable West Virginia will have moved up to No. 1.

The scenario would be much more plausible if the issue involved the No. 2 spot, in which case the pollsters could conceivably take the decision into their own hands like they did with Florida/Michigan last year. However, last year's scenario involved two one-loss teams. To ask the voters to push a one-loss team ahead of an undefeated team, there would have to be a pretty indisputable case. I'm not sure West Virginia's schedule strength -- while it will probably wind up inferior to USC's -- is going to be as horrific as you think. The only way I could see such a thing happening is if the Trojans lost very early (say to Nebraska) and not only won out but whipped up on teams like Cal and UCLA at the end while the Mountaineers visibly struggled against their final opponents.

Stewart: Would you please tell me where the NCAA investigation of Reggie Bush and USC stand? Seems a big story that has been forgotten. --Ed Brazas, Greensboro, N.C.

Good question. Three months have passed since I devoted half a Mailbag to the subject, and since then there's been ... not the slightest peep. I'm not going to rehash all the details here (you can reference that May column if needed), but I did call NCAA spokesperson Erik Christianson to provide an answer to your question. Keep in mind, NCAA bylaws specifically prevent both the organization and school involved from commenting on an ongoing investigation (hence the ongoing silence), so I was very limited in what I could ask.

First, I asked Christianson if he can at least confirm that there is still a continuing investigation. His response: "We have been forthright in saying in the past that we are seeking the cooperation of certain individuals, and we are continuing to seek cooperation." I then asked whether there was a defined end date by which an NCAA investigation must be concluded. He referred me to the NCAA's "Statute of Limitations" bylaw, which basically says the NCAA has four years from the time of the alleged infractions (which in Bush's case took place no later than 2005) to formally charge the school. There are three exceptions under which they could theoretically extend the investigation, two of which don't apply in this case, the third of which -- involving "allegations that indicate a blatant disregard" for NCAA rules -- is open to interpretation.

Finally, there was the question of, how will we know if or when the NCAA reaches a conclusion one way or the other? I know from covering similar cases in the past that the NCAA sends the school a "notice of allegations" when violations are discovered. It's not a public document; however, schools usually release it or the media obtains it through an FOIA request. That said, USC is a private school and can do as it pleases. In the event the NCAA "terminates" the investigation for lack of "sufficient evidence," it would inform the school and it's up to the school whether to disclose that.

Stewart, I wanted to respond to your Mailbag item last week asking if any Division I-A game finished regulation 0-0 since the implementation of overtime. In 2005, Arkansas State and Florida Atlantic ended regulation 0-0. Arkansas State went on to win 3-0 in overtime. I only know this because I was at the game. --Tyler, Little Rock, Ark.

See, that's what I love about the Mailbag. If I don't know the answer, invariably someone out there will. And in this case, quite a few of you knew the answer, and quite a few of you also claimed to have been there -- which, to be honest, I find kind of fishy. According to the official box score, there were 20,367 people in attendance that day. Either a disproportionate amount of them happen to read the Mailbag ... or the 2005 ASU-FAU 3-0 classic has become Arkansas State's version of Woodstock.

Stewart, I just finished reading Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls, and I loved it! It reveals so much about college football that I didn't know or hadn't thought about. What I'm wondering is, if you were made the commissioner of college football, what one edict would you give each of the following groups that would improve the game but maintain its character: the college presidents, the conference commissioners, the bowl organizers, the NCAA, the fans, the players and the coaches? --Kristen, Columbus, Ohio

A little disclaimer here: Kristen was actually the first person to buy the book at my first signing, on the first day it came out, last Friday in Columbus. Did her glowing review (which was even longer in her e-mail) influence my decision to publish her question? ... Yeah, pretty much. But you've got to admit, it's a pretty meaty question.

Here are my edicts ...

To the presidents: Quit the whole charade that this playoff thing has anything to do with academics. I'm not saying there has to be a playoff, but that particular line of reasoning is about as believable as Kanye West giving six people a "ride" to Cannes on his private jet.

To the commissioners: Work together to form some sort of uniformity regarding schedule strength. I know things will never be universally perfect, but if every school at least started with the same philosophy, we wouldn't have to waste so much time debating the subject.

To the bowl organizers: Stop creating new games. That's all I ask. Just stop.

To the NCAA: Take a more proactive role in the discipline of players involved in off-the-field incidents. I realize you can't force a school to enact a particular punishment, but perhaps issue a set of guidelines or recommendations for particular transgressions and begin investigating schools that show a pattern of suspicious or selective leniency.

To the fans: Write down the specific expectation level you hold of your program and/or its current coach -- then drop it down just one notch. I'm not saying you shouldn't hold high hopes; it just helps when they're not delusional.

To the coaches: Stop poaching each other's recruits. Can't we reach some sort of handshake agreement on this? Like maybe you can only accept someone else's previously committed player if he initiates the contact.

To the players: Just keep doing what you do.

How do you think the loss of talented wide receiver and kickoff returner Sammie Stroughter will affect the Beavers this year? Obviously it won't make them better, but do you think they will lose more games due to his absence? --Markus, Portland, Ore.

Well, first of all, we don't know how long he's going to be out. All that's been disclosed is that Stroughter is taking a leave from the team to grieve the recent losses of two close family members and a former coach. Beavers coach Mike Riley said at his weekly press conference Monday that he's "not anticipating [Stroughter] playing in games this year," but the fourth-year senior made an appearance at practice just last Saturday and reportedly attended a team meeting the next day. Riley even added, "I've been surprised already." So I wouldn't necessarily rule out his return.

But if in fact he does miss the season -- or even a significant portion of it -- there's no overstating just how big a loss that is for the Beavers. Stroughter is a big-time playmaker, very much in the DeSean Jackson mold, and Oregon State certainly would not have won 10 games last year without him. Riley does have the luxury of a 1,300-yard rusher in his backfield, Yvenson Bernard, who he will likely lean on even more heavily this season. But between the loss of Stroughter and Riley's apparent lack of confidence in either of his new quarterbacks, Sean Canfield and Lyle Moveao (he instituted the classic quarterback kiss of death last week, saying Canfield will start the opener but Moveao will play the second quarter), I'd say things aren't shaping up too positively for the Beavers right now.

It seems like there's been an explosion in the last few years of various media outlets labeling teams the "greatest team ever" or calling a matchup the "Game of the Century." My feeling is that this is just a way to grab a few more viewers, but is it possible that we are have really been treated to the greatest college football in history the last couple seasons? --Ryan, Dallas

College football wouldn't be college football without a little hyperbole. I can think of at least seven Games of the Century last century, including four -- 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State, 1967 USC-UCLA, 1969 Texas-Arkansas and 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma -- in the span of five years. (The others were 1946 Army-Notre Dame, the 1987 Miami-Penn State Fiesta Bowl and 1993 Florida State-Notre Dame). To the best of my recollection, we've only had one so far this century (last year's Ohio State-Michigan game), but then again we've also been treated to what ESPN decreed as The Greatest Game of All-Time (2005 USC-Notre Dame) and Greatest Team of All-Time (2005 USC ... whoops), to what myself and others have dubbed the Greatest Bowl Game of All-Time (last year's Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl) and various other life-changing moments.

Part of it is obviously exactly what you said -- media outlets such as ESPN, SI or others adding drama for the sake of drama. Part of it is that many of us have short memories, many of us are too young to remember most of the previous classics and many of us truly believe that today's sporting events are inherently superior to those of the past simply because the athletes are better. While I don't necessarily agree with the last assertion, I do sincerely believe that we're currently living in one of the greatest eras in the sport's history. In recent years we've been treated to several players (Vince Young, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart) who will invariably be remembered among the all-time greats. Increased parity and scholarship reductions have helped cause more unpredictability (see: Boise State); the BCS, for all its flaws, has helped produce a pair of championship thrillers (Ohio State-Miami and Texas-USC) we'll always remember; and two fairly recent developments -- the installation of overtime and the proliferation of the spread offense -- have both become trademarks of some very exciting and epic contests.

So you know what that means? The next Greatest Something of All-Time could take place as soon as this weekend.

I was watching a college football preview show on ESPN this weekend and getting excited about the upcoming season. Then, tragically, they cut to Lou Holtz for a phone interview. I immediately found my enthusiasm overcome by the fear of halftimes filled with the Lou Holtz/Mark May debacle. What's a girl to do? Please help! --Lindsay Moss, Alexandria, Va.

I'm with you, Lindsay. While I have nothing but respect for most of ESPN's analysts, those two have somehow managed to go two years without eliciting even a single remotely insightful comment between them. That said, ESPN's programmers are not stupid. There has to be a reason they keep trotting the pair out, and my guess is the reason is that some people find them entertaining. It's not like you don't know what you're getting when those two pop on the screen: schtik. Crazy Lou makes some wildly optimistic prediction about his beloved Irish, followed by Mark "I've had a vendetta against Notre Dame ever since they fired Ty Willingham" May making some equally ludicrous statement to the contrary. If you tune in to the show expecting to hear enlightened football analysis, you're going to wind up pulling your hair out, but if you accept it for what is -- entertainment -- then it becomes much more tolerable.

At least that's what I'm told.

The following comment was posted on the FanNation blog in response to SI's preseason All-American team: "Leave it to SI to screw this up. Stu [sic] Mandel probably had a say and he is a Penn State hater, so it is not surprising." You my friend are now catching flack for something you didn't even write! --Landon Saunders, Buford, Ga.

Actually, I take responsibility for that one. I did in fact choose SI's All-America team, and I assume he's taking me to task for leaving off Dan Connor. He's a great linebacker for sure, but I also don't think I have any reason to apologize for the three I did pick (Vince Hall, Keith Rivers and James Laurinaitis.) So, I guess I'll have to live with being labeled a Penn State "hater," even if I do have the Nittany Lions higher in the preseason (16th) than either the AP or coaches polls.

I haven't been keeping an official tally this preseason, but I know for sure that I also supposedly hate Georgia (for the whole Kings and Barons thing), USC (for having the audacity to keep bringing up the Reggie Bush investigation), Florida State (for not including a team that went 3-5 in the ACC last year in my preseason rankings), Michigan (for daring to rank them one spot lower than Wisconsin) and, of course, Notre Dame (see aforementioned blog item).

You know what's funny? On the day after that blog post ran, when I was getting accused 8,000 times of "hating" the Irish, I happened to be writing this week's Power Rankings and needed to do a Google search for one of last year's to make sure I had the formatting right. (I know, it's a real high-tech operation we're running here). Check out the headline on the first one that came up.

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