Wednesday June 23rd, 2010

In the closing paragraph of last week's Mailbag, I opened the door to resume talking about actual, on-the-field football -- but apparently you guys weren't ready. Too many lingering questions, too much unfinished business remains from the drama of the past month.

So consider this week's edition our version of the much-anticipated "bonus material" on the upcomingLost DVD collection -- lots of answers for your as-yet unresolved questions.

Hey Stewart, I'm a big fan of the Mailbag. I don't remember hearing about whether the Big 12 will be adding any teams to have a conference championship game in 2011. I just read about the Texas lawmakers pushing Houston, and I had thought that Houston and TCU would be a great fit. What are your thoughts on the Big 12's best teams for expansion? -- Jonathan Nelson, Hiawassee, Ga.

The Big 12 (er, 10) is not expanding. People seem to have a hard time believing this, but it's true. Commissioner Dan Beebe reiterated this on Tuesday following a meeting of the league's remaining athletic directors, saying, "There is no interest in expansion, and it was not a consideration at [Tuesday's] gathering." To keep the league together, Beebe had to wrangle up enough new TV money to assure potential defectors Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M a particular revenue distribution (reported to be around $20 million) by 2012. If the Big 12 added two more teams -- particularly those teams -- it'd be right back where it started. The new teams would take away a bigger cut of the pie than they could add in value. Next thing you know, Texas is back on the phone with Larry Scott and A&M is back on the phone with Mike Slive.

I wouldn't take the Houston/lawmakers story too seriously. I have a lot of respect for Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin, who's done a nice job building on the momentum of predecessor Art Briles and getting the program back on the national map a bit. I wrote a feature last season on his and the school's recent efforts to change the program's reputation. But Houston's still got a ways to go. It's still largely a commuter school (it's got dorms, but not a lot of them) with a small local fan base (average home attendance last year: 25,242) in a city where not only pro teams, but also Texas and Texas A&M, take precedence. As of now, the Big 12 has no more reason to add Houston than the Pac-10 did Baylor. Not that Houston is doomed. Utah had much the same reputation prior to Urban Meyer's arrival, so much could change down the road.

That said, recent shuffling has left us with a particularly intriguing free agent, a tradition-rich program that's posted four straight 10-wins seasons, plays in a 64,000-seat stadium and is itching for a new home after watching its hated rival suddenly achieve BCS affiliation last week.

As a lifelong BYU fan, it seems to me that BYU is the biggest loser in the recent conference expansion. Our arch-rival, Utah, goes to the Pac-10 and we stay in the Mountain West. It appears that the only hope for BYU is to go to the Big 12 someday. Right now the Big 12, especially Texas, seems content with 10 teams. Do you see the Big 12 ever expanding back to 12 teams and taking BYU? -- Shane Jensen, Salt Lake City

If you've ever been to BYU, you know its second-class characterization is completely ridiculous. In terms of facilities, resources and fan support, BYU more closely resembles a BCS program than half the schools in BCS conferences. However, the LDS-affiliated school is unquestionably a unique institution. It's an unofficial Mailbag policy not to delve into politics (college football is polarizing enough as it is), but I invite you to read this excellent piece by Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson about why BYU could never "fit" with the Pac-10.

But Big 12 presidents might not have the same objections. BYU's one obvious drawback to the conference is that with Colorado gone, BYU really is nowhere near any of the other 10 members, and it's got no logical travel partner. Some have thrown out Air Force, but realistically, a service academy is never going to be able to compete on an annual basis with Texas and Oklahoma. As of now, it's not an issue, because like I said, the Big 12 isn't looking for new teams.

There's one scenario where I could see that stance changing, though: If, come 2012 or '13, Texas and Oklahoma run into problems with the BCS due to their watered-down league. Up until now, the Big 12 has always been viewed on the same playing field with the Big Ten and SEC, and its schools were virtually assured a spot in the championship game if they took care of business. Its teams have made seven appearances in 12 years. But we don't yet know how the pollsters will treat this new conference. Will the 'Horns and Sooners still get the benefit of the doubt due to their recent track record, or will they be penalized for perceived weak conference competition? If it becomes a problem, then maybe a call goes out to BYU and TCU.

(Or Texas gets back on the phone with Scott...)

If you're Boise State, what do you do? They move to the Mountain West to significantly increase their chances to get to a BCS bowl and Utah pulls the rug out from under them. Do you convince the MWC to add Fresno State and others or do you try to get into the Pac-10 or Big 12? -- Guy Beaudry, Winnipeg

Obviously it's unfortunate timing, but Utah-to-the-Pac-10 was always a possibility. Boise still took a step up. Besides the Broncos, the WAC's highest-ranked team in the BCS standings last season (according to CollegeBCS.com) was Fresno State at 52nd. More than half its teams (five) were ranked 82nd or lower. Compare that to the Mountain West, which had three teams in the top 25, though admittedly also had its share of weaklings (San Diego State, Colorado State and New Mexico were ranked 95th or lower). The league still has an outside chance of gaining a BCS automatic berth in two years, but it's going to need its top teams (including Boise) to maintain their recent level and, just as importantly, some significant improvement from the bottom third of the league. Depth is the one area still killing the Mountain West in the BCS's qualification formula.

Remember, Boise's program, as successful as it's been, is still in a relatively infant state. If conference realignment was solely about BCS rankings, someone would swipe up the Broncos right now, but as it is, the school's overall athletic program isn't yet strong enough, the university itself isn't that highly regarded in academic circles and Boise is a small TV market. If Boise keeps building like Utah, though, its call could come in the next realignment go-around.

So now that Utah is heading to the Pac-10, I am curious to get your take on what I've seen as the under-reported aspect of it: We finally get our chance to see what one of the "BCS Busters" can do in a BCS conference. Utah has had the most impressive BCS win of the three (Alabama), but I don't see Boise or Utah winning more than eight games in a big-time conference because of the grind of heightened competition week in and week out. -- Neil Wicker, Columbia, S.C.

Whenever someone makes the argument that Utah or Boise State wouldn't be able to hang for an entire season in, say, the Pac-10, my answer is always this: If they were in the Pac-10, they'd be able to recruit better players. And that's what you're about to see with Utah.

As I said in last week's Mailbag, I believe Utah will contend for the Pac-10 title within a couple years of joining. The reasons are threefold. One, the Utes have already demonstrated repeatedly that they can play and beat Pac-10 competition. They're 7-3 against that league since 2003 (Meyer's first season). They beat Cal last year, Oregon State the year before. Those aren't the dregs of the conference. Secondly, while they're about to face a much tougher week-in, week-out grind, they're also going to start attracting better recruits by shedding their non-BCS stigma. They don't need to start piling up five-star receivers, they just need to build up more quality depth. And finally, Utah will benefit from USC's sanctions. The Utes won't be walking into the Pac-10 of 2002-08, which the Trojans dominated, but into a more wide-open league where any of six to eight teams could contend in a given year. Plus, due to USC's scholarship reductions, some very good Southern California kids that might otherwise have signed with Lane Kiffin will now be up for grabs to the rest of the Pac-10. Utah can get in some of those doors.

There is a precedent for Utah's situation. If you recall, Louisville won the Big East within two years of moving up from Conference USA. Cincinnati, another C-USA import, won two years later. The Pac-10 is indisputably tougher than the depleted Big East that those schools walked into, but Utah comes in more established, having acquitted itself against national competition (19-11 against BCS-conference schools since 1998) much more so than those teams had. It's impossible to project what sort of team Utah will have a couple of years from now relative to the rest of the Pac-10, but it would not surprise me at all if the Utes are one of the top three or four teams.

Great article on the potential conference divisions for the Pac-10/Big Ten. I'd say a great fit for the Pac-10 would be to hold its championship in one city, year after year: VEGAS. -- Lance Landry, Denver

I think that's a great idea -- just as soon as someone there builds a new stadium. Clearly, you've never been to Sam Boyd Stadium. I have, and trust me, the Pac-10 is not going to hold its championship in a 37,000-seat stadium in the middle of the desert.

Stewart, I was wondering if you could explain something. Everyone talks about how powerless the NCAA is regulating things like expansion or the BCS. Yet, the NCAA was able to hand down a bowl ban for USC. What would stop a bowl from inviting USC to play and USC accepting if the NCAA is powerless, especially since USC clearly disagrees with the decision? If the BCS is a separate entity, why must it abide by NCAA decisions? Conversely, if the NCAA can prohibit a team from playing in a bowl, doesn't it have more control over college football's postseason than you and many others have stated? -- Brian, Charlottesville, Va.

That's such a great question that I'm not even sure there's an answer for it. Somebody should write a thesis about it. The best I can try to do is whittle down a very convoluted issue into a few overly simplified explanations.

First of all, the NCAA's membership -- the schools themselves -- dictate policy. Yes, there is a president and an enforcement division and staff members who administer the basketball tournament, but ultimately they're only carrying out what its members created over the years through charters and legislation. At some point, for example, they agreed that a player shouldn't receive benefits from an agent, and at some point they agreed upon a bowl ban as an acceptable punishment. They also agreed at some point that, while bowl games are independent organizations, the NCAA should have the authority to "license" respective bowls based on established criteria. While this has never come up, I presume if a bowl defied the NCAA's rules and invited a banned USC team, it would lose its license pretty quickly.

Now, as to your bigger question: If the NCAA has the power to license bowl games (including the BCS games) and has the power to punish a school by prohibiting it from playing in one, why then does it lack the power to, say, implement a playoff? Because the majority of its FBS members don't want one. Just like President Obama can't unilaterally write a new law (he needs someone in Congress to sponsor a bill, and then he needs the two houses to pass it), incoming NCAA President Mark Emmeret can't decree that his schools ditch the BCS for a playoff. He'd need them to voluntarily introduce legislation. That's not to say he couldn't advocate for one, but college sports' unspoken truth is that the NCAA would be irrelevant without its cadre of big, money-making football conferences. So historically, the NCAA has just sat back and let them do as they please. And that's why we deem it "powerless."

Although I live in Los Angeles, I am not a USC fan. Living here I have noticed over the past decade how many love letters were written by sports writers about Pete Carroll and his program at USC. Now I am reading many of the same writers burning Carroll and Mike Garrett in effigy. There is no excuse for what happened at USC, and the men in charge who allowed it to happen should be held accountable -- period. That being said, does the media bear any responsibility in building up coaches and programs with embarrassing hyperbole only to express shock and self-righteousness when the same people fail to live up to the hype? I remember living through this same thing in 1988 when Barry Switzer's teams were finally held accountable. Same dynamic -- the writers that lionized Barry were the first to spit on his grave. Thoughts? -- Tim, Los Angeles

Guilty as charged.

While I don't cover USC day-in, day-out, I made numerous visits there during Carroll's tenure, in particular during Reggie Bush's time there. As a reporter accustomed to dealing with closed practices and limited media opportunities at other schools, I couldn't help but enjoy the wide-open atmosphere and virtually unlimited access at USC. I can remember thinking at times: "It's amazing their players don't get into trouble more often." Whoops.

A few random memories from that period:

1. I attended one preseason practice in 2005 where you could barely walk; the sidelines were so filled with spectators. One guy had actually plopped down a fold-out beach chair at the 50-yard line and was sitting there with his shirt off. USC claims now it "monitored" practice visitors, but c'mon.

2. On the sideline during the waning moments of a 66-19 rout of UCLA in the '05 regular-season finale, I saw LenDale White come over and pose for a picture (while the game was still going on) with rapper The Game.

3. This one troubles me the most. During postgame interviews after the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, it was getting late and had gotten to the point where I was alone at Bush's podium. Some guy who clearly wasn't a media member or a USC employee came over, congratulated Bush and invited him to a party. At the time, I was too focused on writing a game column to give the matter a second thought, but who knows -- it could have been Lloyd Lake himself.

I'm not suggesting myself, or any other media member, should have known of Bush's arrangements and exposed them earlier, but there's no denying that the ultra-relaxed atmosphere surrounding Carroll's program -- which we glamorized at the time -- was ripe for trouble. The NCAA said as much in its report. I'm only sorry I didn't think to raise questions about it at that time.

Given all of the drama of realignment, last year's controversial Big 12 Championship finish and the potential of the two teams, how high has Texas at Nebraska (Oct. 16) shot up this year's must-see games list? -- Al Caniglia, Belmopan, Belize

It's No. 1 in my book. No question.

Granted, the game would lose some of its sizzle if the teams both lost a couple of games beforehand. Texas faces a rough three-game stretch early (at Texas Tech, UCLA at home and Oklahoma in Dallas), while Nebraska's lone challenges figure to be Washington on Sept. 16 and a Thursday night visit to Kansas State. But figuring them both to be top 10 caliber teams, I'd already circled this one on the calendar long before recent events. Now it figures to be a true grudge match.

A quick recap: When the Big 12 appeared on the verge of implosion, many media accounts (including some of mine) hinted at Tom Osborne's long-standing resentment toward Texas as one of the motives behind the Huskers' imminent departure to the Big Ten. Osborne did not take kindly to those implications, nor to the tone at Big 12 meetings the previous week where Texas supposedly gave the school an ultimatum to stay or go. While speaking at Nebraska's Board of Regents meeting where they approved the move, he basically implied (in much nicer, Osborne-character verbiage) that Texas was a hypocrite because it had been talking to two or three different leagues itself. And then there's the matter of that one second that got put back on the clock (correctly, it should be noted) at the end of last year's Texas-Nebraska title game.

So yeah, Oct. 16 -- it's on. Nebraska fans' reputation as the most "welcoming" in the country may be put on hold for a week.

Many schools have interesting QB battles this season, with one of the most interesting taking place at BYU. It got hold of one of the best incoming QBs in the nation (Jake Heaps) but also has senior Riley Nelson, Max Hall's former backup. Do you go with the more experienced QB or the freshman? -- Shane Hale, Las Vegas

Wait ... quarterbacks? Playing time? What the heck do you think this is, a FOOTBALL Mailbag?

Bronco Mendenhall faces a tough decision, one that many of his colleagues have had to deal with over the years. By all accounts, Heaps is the most talented quarterback on the roster. He looked great in the spring. But is he truly ready to face college competition? If he's not, and BYU throws him in too soon, it risks not only losing games but Heaps losing confidence. However, if BYU goes with Nelson (or sophomore James Lark), and loses games anyway, it'll have a quarterback controversy on its hands. And then there's the question of rewarding seniority and loyalty. If the competition truly is close, and Nelson has the ability, I'm sure Mendenhall would want to at least give him a shot to prove himself.

My guess is that's exactly what will happen. Unless Heaps blows the other two out of the water in fall practices, Nelson will start opening day, Lark and Heaps will get playing time, and Heaps will take over at some point in the season.

Thanks for the question, Shane. I know it means this Mailbag turned out to be a little BYU-heavy, but hey, it's been a rough week for Cougars fans. I'm sure they appreciate feeling included for a change.

(But yeah ... don't wait by the phone for that call from Beebe.)

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