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Prepare for return to parity after Year of Predictability; more mail

Longtime Mailbag readers know well the select group of buzzwords I tend to frequently recycle when discussing college football -- words like "cyclical," "spread-option" and "Jordana." (That last one's in honor of My Boys returning.) And of course, there's this oldie but goodie:

A couple of years ago, you couldn't go anywhere without seeing the word "parity." But I barely remember that word being used last season. Indeed, the only real parity we saw was from the Pac-10, with USC falling. All things considered, do you expect the "Age of Parity" to have a resurgent year? Or will it be a pretty clear Top 25 by the time December rolls around?-- Vince, Washington D.C.

Indeed, if 2007 was The Year of Parity (from Appalachian State-Michigan right up through a two-loss national champion), 2009 was The Year of the Predictability. Before the season even started, most prognosticators -- including this one -- predicted a Florida-Texas collision course, and everything but the SEC Championship Game score played out pretty much as if scripted. The hierarchy was so clear-cut that by late November, we had six undefeated teams (Florida, Alabama, Texas, Boise State, TCU and Cincinnati) ... and a bunch of two- and three-loss teams. Even the seemingly wide-open Pac-10 race ended with Oregon finishing two games ahead of everyone else in the standings.

But I don't see 2010 being nearly as top-heavy, for several reasons. For one, the defending national champion, Alabama, doesn't look quite as loaded as Florida or Texas did heading into last season. The Crimson Tide should still be very good, but they've got enough kinks to leave them susceptible to an upset or two. Remember, last season marked the first time in four years that the national championship game featured two undefeated teams. My guess is this year will see a return to the recent trend of one-loss participants.

Secondly, we've had a massive changing of the guard at the quarterback position, with recent staples Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford all gone. Whenever some of the top dogs are facing uncertainty at quarterback, there's the chance for accompanying upheaval. USC found that out last season when it started a freshman quarterback for the first time under Pete Carroll (though offense was hardly the Trojans' only problem).

But mostly, I think we're going to see a lot more competitive conference races. When I look at Ohio State, I see a team, on paper, that's talented and experienced across the board and an obvious national-title contender. But the Buckeyes will also be facing at least two other very good teams (Wisconsin and Iowa) on the road during conference play. They may still win the Big Ten, but I don't see them running away with it.

In the ACC, I've seen three different teams -- Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina -- picked to win the Coastal Division, and that list does not even include the defending champ, Georgia Tech. (Never underestimate Paul Johnson's teams.) In the SEC East, there's a sense that Florida is vulnerable, but so, too, is everyone else in that division. And the Pac-10 is so deep and even, in my opinion, that any of nine teams (sorry, Wazzu) could beat any of the others on a given week.

Finally, it's worth noting that just because last season wasn't littered with upsets doesn't mean the overriding trend of parity in the sport has dissipated. The pool of competitive programs around the country is deeper than ever, with last year's TCU-Boise State Fiesta Bowl serving as a pretty telling illustration. Not a soul would have dreamed that scenario possible a decade earlier. Meanwhile, before they went on to win 11 games and an Orange Bowl, the Hawkeyes needed two blocked field goals to survive I-AA Northern Iowa in their opener. Houston beat two respectable Big 12 foes. Longtime doormat Temple won nine games last year. Duke even won three ACC games.

But it's also true that the sport's richest powers -- Florida, Texas, Alabama, Ohio State, etc. -- will always have an inherent advantage over the rest of the country, so long as the right coach is in place. Alabama, so dominant for decades under Bear Bryant, was on the wrong end of parity for most of the 15 years prior to Nick Saban's arrival. Now it's one of the teams perennially capable of squashing it.

Stewart, with all of these agents going around giving money to college athletes, couldn't the NFL, NBA, etc. put some enforcement on these agents and de-certify them or otherwise punish them? I understand the NCAA has little influence over the agents, but certainly if an agent is going to be suspended by one of the professional leagues, he'd think twice about paying these college athletes.-- Bob, New Philadelphia, Ohio

What incentive does the early NFL draft-bound student athlete like Reggie Bush, Maurkice Pouncey, etc. have to comply with NCAA regulations? Other than caring about his own reputation, school pride or guilt, what is the downside of accepting money and gifts from agents? Do these guys really have anything to lose?-- Sharon, Boston

One of the big frustrations for colleges, the NCAA and the many rule-abiding agents out there is the fact that the pro leagues show so little interest in investigating and/or punishing agents as pertains to the recruitment of college players. Unfortunately, in both the NFL and NBA, that responsibility rests in the hands of the leagues' respective Players Associations, which are obviously far more concerned about the welfare of their current constituents than about potential future pros. Therefore, the onus falls largely on the NCAA and individual schools to monitor a sordid and tangled world of individuals who largely fall outside their realm.

As for Sharon's question: The truth is, there isn't much incentive for players to follow the rules -- if they're confident they won't be caught. That's why these current investigations at North Carolina, South Carolina, et. al., are so intriguing. If it turns out the NCAA actually caught one or more star players in the act while still in college, and if it ends up costing those players a season of football -- it'll serve as a pretty significant deterrent. A cash-strapped athlete who's suddenly tempted with money, cars or plane trips to exotic locales probably isn't giving much thought to "guilt" or "school pride," but he sure as heck wouldn't want to miss out on playing the sport he loves. So far, however, players have been given little reason to believe such consequences are a real possibility.

Why is everyone so obsessed with Jake Locker? This kid hasn't done anything yet worth talking about except have a good-sized body that pro scouts love. His best season was 5-7 and he has never been to a bowl, yet many people are claiming he is a frontrunner for the Heisman. His numbers are nowhere near great (58.2 percent completions, 2,800 yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions last season). I just don't understand all the hype. Can you please explain it to me?-- Matt, Omaha, Neb.

Let me start with the caveat that it's hardly fair to pin Washington's record the past few years on Locker. The Huskies were dreadful, as we saw when Locker got injured two years ago and the team promptly slumped to an 0-12 finish. Five wins last year was a major accomplishment. Having said that, I don't dispute that there's an unusual disconnect between Locker's lofty reputation and his actual college production to date. If you watched a Washington game in either of his two full seasons (2007 and '09), you undoubtedly saw him use his athleticism to make some incredible plays, but you probably also saw him make a few bad reads and misconnect with receivers.

The Locker phenomenon is partly UW-driven (Huskies fans have been singing his praises to anyone who will listen since the first game of his freshman year, and the school recently unleashed a massive p.r. campaign), but it's more a reflection of how enormous the NFL draft has become. It's no secret NFL types are in love with Locker. ESPN's Todd McShay anointed him the No. 1 pick in last year's draft before Locker announced his return and recently posted this gushing tweet. Scouts put far more stock in what they see on tape than what they read in a box score. Remember, guys like Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford didn't put up glowing numbers for much of their college careers, either.

The Locker hype is almost the reverse of the Tebow hype from last season -- Locker's lofty draft stock is elevating his standing in regards to the Heisman and other college accolades. I do believe Locker (provided he stays healthy) will have a big senior season, due both to his increased comfort with second-year coach Steve Sarkisian's system and to the improved pieces around him, but he's admittedly got far more name recognition right now than your typical career 53.4 percent passer.

Well, it looks like Lindsay Lohan's week-long stint in sober living didn't work as a last-minute attempt to avoid jail time. Do you think the firing of Mike Garrett and hiring of Pat Haden is too little, too-late, or will it help with USC's appeals process?-- Ryan, Huntington Beach, Calif.

Too little, too late, I'm afraid. The NCAA explicitly states that the Infractions Appeals Committee does not weigh "new evidence," nor is it a "second chance to argue the case." Basically, USC will be trying to convince a new committee that the other committee penalized it too heavily based on the evidence that was presented. USC may bring up past case precedent as a comparison, but it can't use its own actions since the sanctions were announced as a case for mercy.

But forget about the hearing and focus on the substance of the letter published Tuesday by incoming school president C.L. Max Nikias. To this point, we've mostly heard continued themes of denial and defiance from USC officials and book-hawking Pete Carroll. Nikias is the first person of authority to fully acknowledge the severity of the sanctions and signal a new era for the school. From the long-overdue ouster of buffoon-at-the-wheel Garrett (whose fate was prolonged largely due to USC's presidential transition) to the removal of Reggie Bush's Heisman Trophy and the appointment of a vice president for compliance, Nikias essentially stripped Heritage Hall of any remaining remnants of the tarnished era.

One notable exception: The current head coach, Mr. Lane Kiffin, whom Garrett ostensibly hired to carry on the Carroll legacy but who will now be working for a new administration trying to wash their hands of it. Here's guessing he'll be well behaved in the near future.

Stewart, isn't it a conflict of interest for the University of Miami to pick up Seantrel Henderson after Miami's former athletic director, Paul Dee, headed the committee which issued the (unjustifiable) sanctions against SC?-- Stephen Harris, Philadelphia

I'm sorry. I can't take this question seriously. I can't stop picturing Paul Dee with a bald head and pointy nose, sinisterly folding his hands and saying to his ever-obedient henchman, "Henderson, eh? ... Excellent."

Dear Stewart: Only Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy threw more TDs as freshmen than Landry Jones (26). He played on a team with a shoddy offensive line, yet managed to post a higher passer rating than Jake Locker. Why does he not get more credit? I feel like the whole country dogs on Landry.-- Scott, Oklahoma City

I feel like this whole Mailbag is dogging on Jake Locker. What's up with that?

As for Jones, I don't think the Sooners would be garnering such lofty preseason praise (No. 1 by Phil Steele, No. 5 by Athlon) if the "experts" didn't believe in Jones. At the same time, it's not hard to see why some of us might still be skeptical. Jones had a schizophrenic first season in which he put up impressive numbers against the likes of Tulsa (336 yards, six touchdowns), Kansas State (four TDs) and Texas A&M (392 yards, five TDs) but struggled mightily against quality foes like Texas (24-of-43, one TD), Nebraska (five picks) and Texas Tech (a 41-13 Sooners loss).

Our last image of him, however, was a huge aerial performance in the Sun Bowl against Stanford -- 30-of-51 for 418 yards and three TDs -- that signaled OU may well have another Bradford, Jason White or Josh Heupel on its hands. And therein lies your "lack of credit" explanation. Strange as it sounds, Sooners quarterbacks are now suffering from much the same "system" stigma as those at schools like Texas Tech and Houston. At this point, it seems like whomever Bob Stoops puts back there inevitably puts up big numbers. Stoops, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and his staff (including quarterbacks coach Heupel) deserve ample credit, but so, too, will Jones if he follows up on his El Paso masterpiece.

I was on board when NC State hired Tom O'Brien thinking he would be able to exceed what he did at BC. Now I am seeing BC fans are right. O'Brien is what he is -- he will beat the rival but lose plenty to the Dukes and Wakes on the schedule. Do you think new AD Debbie Yow will make a move if TOB doesn't win this season?-- Mike, Charlotte

Count me among those disappointed with O'Brien's Wolfpack tenure to date. Even with one of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks, Russell Wilson, NC State was all over the map last season, beating Pittsburgh and North Carolina but finishing 2-6 in the ACC. As a result, the Wolfpack posted their third straight seven-loss season (with a 2008 PapaJohns.com Bowl appearance wedged in there). Meanwhile, the BC fans Mike mentions who grew dissatisfied with O'Brien's perceived ceiling -- whom I considered to be spoiled at the time -- have been validated by the Eagles' continued success under Jeff Jagodzinski and Frank Spaziani.

Arguably O'Brien's biggest problem is that Butch Davis arrived in Chapel Hill the same year he came to Raleigh. While O'Brien has won all three on-field meetings with his rival, Davis, with a few exceptions, has killed him in recruiting. But I wouldn't throw in the towel on O'Brien just yet. His is by no means a program in disarray. Wilson, amazingly, is only a junior, and star linebacker Nate Irving returns this year after missing all of last season following a severe car crash. Provided O'Brien posts a winning season, I don't see Yow bouncing him out the door, but if he wants to truly curry favor, a nine- or 10-win season would help a lot.

I just noticed that all the BCS bowl games including the BCS Championship game are on ESPN. It is unprecedented that a major sporting event will not be on free TV. Why hasn't there been more of a major stink made about this?-- Matt, Ypsilanti, Mich.

I would imagine it's because 99.9 percent of sports fans have cable. And if you don't ... well, then you're going to miss the Mad Men season premiere Sunday, so you better get on that, pronto.

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