Wednesday May 5th, 2010

Imagine your girlfriend dumping you, then going on to marry the one person you hate most in the world. I suspect that's what this past winter felt like for North Carolina fans, who endured their storied basketball team missing the NCAA tournament while archrival Duke rose up and won the whole thing.

Relief may be on its way soon enough, Tar Heels fans, though from an unfamiliar place: your football team.

I'm a rare Tar Heels fan who cares much more about football than basketball, but even I was a bit surprised to see that's Tony Pauline ranked five UNC defensive starters (defensive end Robert Quinn, linebacker Bruce Carter, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney) among his top 40 NFL prospects for 2011. Obviously the problem in Chapel Hill has been on the offensive side of the ball, but with that much talent, how can UNC not emerge from the ludicrously deep, yet disappointingly mediocre ACC? -- J.D. Bolick, Denver, N.C.

While way-early draft projections don't always prove accurate (see Snead, Jevan), the fact that so many UNC defenders are so highly regarded speaks to how much Butch Davis has upgraded the talent level in his three-plus years in Chapel Hill. (Note that fifth-year seniors Carter and Burney predate Davis' tenure.) We've seen some pretty star-studded defenses in recent years at the usual suspects like USC, LSU, Florida and Ohio State ... but North Carolina? The unit Davis has assembled is pretty remarkable, but not surprising to anyone who watched the way he recruited and built his program at Miami. He's following the same blueprint.

There's one big difference this time, though: Davis hasn't had nearly as much success on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback T.J. Yates, at least to this point, has been no Ken Dorsey. UNC managed to lose four conference games last season despite boasting the nation's sixth-ranked defense. One big reason: turnovers. The Heels coughed it up 27 times, including 15 interceptions from Yates, whom UNC couldn't protect and who got absolutely no support from the running game. Injuries and youth on offense didn't help, and that theme continued this spring, with more injuries plaguing the offensive line.

While UNC has improved from 3-9 the year before Davis arrived to 8-5 the past two years, Tar Heels fans would be justified in expecting Davis -- with his $2 million-plus salary -- to produce an ACC title contender in this, his fourth season. There are certain years when it feels like a team has a unique window of opportunity to do something special, and with the makings of an all-world defense, this might be it for UNC. But I'm having a hard time fully jumping on the Heels' bandwagon when they've shown such little sign of producing any offensive explosion. I suppose they could follow the Virginia Tech blueprint; the Hokies' won the league in 2007 and '08 with highly suspect offenses. But league offenses have improved quite a bit since then, including in Blacksburg, and UNC will face games where it's got to move the ball, too. Get on that, guys.

I've been "somewhat" following the expansion talk. My question is: Why is the Big 12 conference the choice to be picked apart? What makes the Big 12 so vulnerable? -- Mike T., Dallas

It speaks to just how little expansion has to do with actual on-field results. The Big 12 has placed teams in five of the past seven BCS championship games and just produced five of the top six picks in last month's NFL draft. But for all its teams' on-field success, behind the scenes, the conference is a bit like a dysfunctional family.

The old-guard Big 8 schools like Nebraska resent Texas for coming in and stealing their thunder. Cash cows Texas and Oklahoma resent the fact that Iowa State, Kansas State, et. al., contribute such little value to the league's television contracts (which, at about $80 million per year, garner less than half that of the SEC's new package). And the smaller schools resent the fact that Texas and Oklahoma get larger slices of the pie in the conference's uneven revenue distribution model. (Unlike in the Big Ten, where all revenue is shared equally, the Big 12 teams that appear on TV more often get bigger payouts.)

The primary reason you're hearing Nebraska and Missouri come up so frequently in Big Ten speculation is because they'd both stand to make significantly more money than they do in the Big 12. But the biggest reason they'd actually consider leaving is because the Big Ten is simply more stable.

Everyone is focused on the Gators replacing Tim Tebow. I am more interested in how Florida will replace all the holes on defense. Is this going to be another defense learning its way through the season like in 2007? -- Eric, Austin, Texas

You are a smart man, Eric. While Tebow was unquestionably the face of Florida football the past four years, one could argue the team's true MVP was defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. He's gone, and so are the majority of his starters from the past two seasons. Florida's offense will be fine as long as Urban Meyer is on the sideline and quarterback John Brantley stays healthy. Meyer has a long track record of grooming his offense to his current quarterback's abilities, and he's got a heck of an offensive line and running back stable at his disposal. With the quarterback no longer at the center of the rushing attack, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey combine for 2,000 yards.

On the other hand, I have no idea what to expect from the defense. That uncertainty starts first and foremost with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. He's spent his entire career as a defensive backs coach, first in college (Wake Forest, Syracuse, Michigan), then the NFL (Seahawks, Cardinals). He could well become another star like Strong, but as of now he's never orchestrated a defense. All we know is he's moving the Gators to more of a 3-4 scheme.

Personnel-wise, though, Florida's in much better shape than it was in '07. That defense had to rely almost entirely on freshmen and sophomores; this defense still has a bunch of proven veterans (safeties Ahmad Black and Will Hill, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Justin Trattou, linebacker A.J. Jones). I would certainly expect a drop-off, but not nearly as much as that 9-4 season. I fully expect to see the Gators back in Atlanta come December, possibly for Florida-Alabama III.

Stewart, do not -- I repeat, DO NOT -- make any changes to the Mailbag. There are still a few of us out here who like reading a "normal" column. The Web has become overrun with podcasts and blogs. I enjoy the old school format of the Mailbag -- much like a classic car. Keep up the good work! -- Rich, Mount Joy, Pa.

I swear I wasn't fishing for compliments with last week's season intro about the Mailbag being an Internet dinosaur, but it did elicit a whole lot of e-mails like this one -- so thank you, everyone. Don't worry, no Big Ten-style overhaul is in the works. The Mailbag has done fine all these years without Rutgers or Syracuse.

I cannot believe the NCAA is considering allowing teams with losing records to play in bowl games. Does this not tarnish the sport as a whole by allowing such a thing? -- Gary Thomas, Atlanta

Oh, I'm pretty sure that ship sailed a while ago -- like when the NCAA started allowing 6-6 teams. Or counting wins over I-AA teams. Or giving Detroit a bowl game. But yes, allowing 5-7 teams would be a new low for an industry that already spends an inordinate amount of money justifying its continued existence. And from the sound of things, it will happen. The NCAA's Issues Committee last month granted four-year licenses to 35 games -- creating 70 bowl berths -- despite the fact that 71 teams reached eligibility last season. All it would take is an unusually top-heavy year in a couple more conferences (or, dare we say, a perennial bowl team banned by NCAA sanctions) to fall short of 70 in a given year. Committee members are currently discussing the "what-if" scenario to determine what they would do.

But the reality is, we live in a free-market society. If the KFC Double Down Bowl in Olathe, Kan., proves it can support itself financially, lands itself two conference partners and a TV deal, and doesn't particularly mind if one of its participants is 5-7 -- the NCAA doesn't seem inclined to stop it. The more, the merrier. In announcing the move to 35 games, the NCAA used as justification the $237 million in revenue last year's games distributed to schools. It left out the fact that nearly 65 percent of that figure comes from the five BCS games. Most of the lower-tier bowls are only able to survive financially because of the exorbitant ticket guarantees required of the participating teams, which means most schools lose money on their trips. But because the BCS games are so lucrative and because that money gets redistributed to all conference members, everyone gets to go home a winner. Hence, I would not be the least bit surprised if the NCAA just keeps lowering the entrance bar.

AD Ron Guenther at Illinois selected a non-traditional approach to resurrecting an underperforming football program: Keep the head coach (Ron Zook), strip him of most of his staff and hire high-profile, expensive coordinators to run the team. Guenther believed that that approach was the fastest way to improve the Illini (as opposed to firing Zook and starting anew). What do you think of that model in general: In the long term, is it better for a program to preserve stability at the top or start fresh with a new head coach? -- Jamie, Chicago

Honestly -- I think Guenther's decision rates as one of the worst ideas in recent college football history, somewhere between that ESPN/Dave Matthews experiment to start last season and The Mtn. Guenther might sell it as trying to maintain stability, but it sure looks more like a case of an AD stubbornly refusing to admit he hired the wrong coach, just like he did with predecessor Ron Turner, who hung on for eight years despite posting a 35-57 record. Much like Turner, who won an out-of-nowhere Big Ten championship in 2001 before slipping back down, Zook's Rose Bowl at-large team in 2007 seems quite clearly a mirage. Slipping from 9-3 to 3-9 in two years is not the sign of a stable program.

Guenther handed his coach a life raft by throwing money at new coordinators. Yes, it was no coincidence that Illinois' offensive implosion last season, despite the presence of a four-year starting quarterback (Juice Williams) and star receiver (Arrelious Benn), came on the heels of offensive coordinator Mike Locksley's departure for New Mexico. And no one could argue that Zook didn't make a serious upgrade by hiring Arkansas' Paul Petrino (offense) and Kansas State's Vic Koenning (defense). But what message does it send when an AD basically says he trusts some new assistants more than his head coach? Is this really Zook's program anymore, or is he just a puppet? This reminds me of the time Larry Coker jettisoned half his Miami staff in an act of desperation after his fifth season. He was gone himself a year later.

Who do you see emerging as the favorite in a seemingly up-for-grabs Big East this season? Given the loss of Brian Kelly from Cincinnati and Dave Wannstedt's tendency for late-season swoons, do you think Rutgers will finally get over the hump and emerge as a favorite or maybe my Mountaineers, despite the relative unknown that is Geno Smith? -- Chris H., Frederick, Md.

There is no favorite. Put a gun to my head and I'll say Cincinnati because the Bearcats are the two-time defending champs, still have a lot of familiar faces (most notably quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead) and because new coach Butch Jones is hardly an unknown commodity. But the team that intrigues me most -- one that could finally be poised for a breakthrough -- is UConn.

In a year when nearly every other team in the league is breaking in a new quarterback or a new head coach, Randy Edsall's team is a poster of continuity. The Huskies return 17 starters from a team that was arguably much better than its 8-5 record last year. As you may recall, UConn dealt with a terrible tragedy when starting cornerback Jasper Howard was murdered in mid-October. The Huskies lost three straight games after that, but it's worth revisiting what happened. They lost 28-24 at West Virginia when Noel Devine scored a 56-yard touchdown with two minutes left. They lost 28-24 to Rutgers on an 81-yard pass with 22 seconds left. And they lost 47-45 at Cincinnati in a game that was more lopsided than that score but served as a coming-out for quarterback Zach Fraser and the offense. Two weeks later, they went to South Bend, Ind., and pulled off a breakthrough upset at Notre Dame followed by three more wins, the last a 20-7 bowl victory over South Carolina.

Edsall's team has won eight or more games each of the past three seasons and shared a regular-season title with West Virginia in 2007. (The Mountaineers got the automatic berth.) With Fraser, running back Jordan Todman (1,188 yards) and the bulk of its defense coming back, UConn could be an interesting team to watch, starting right off the bat at Michigan on Sept. 3.

Please keep the Mailbag. I hate Twitter, podcasts and the rest of that crap. -- Nick, Charlotte

If it's OK with you, Nick, I intend to keep doing all three. But I haven't gone completely to the dark side. I still refuse to use "foursquare," that new "location networking" app (translation: stalker tool) all the kids are using these days.

If I did, though, I'm fairly confident I'd be the mayor of my couch.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.