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Anticipation mounting for changing of the guard; plus more Mailbag

It's finally August. College football teams around the country will be hitting the practice fields as early as today. If you're like me, you're brimming with anticipation for the 2010 season.

Unlike this guy...

Maybe it's just me, but I have to share a feeling I've had for months: I'm not too excited about the upcoming college football season. Will I still follow it? Of course. But I'm just not feeling the anticipation like I have in past years. I feel like it has to do with the departure of big-name QBs like Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy. It just seems like a down year when most teams will be replacing key players.-- Ken Devine, Centerville, Ohio

Among the 1,927 reasons I prefer college to the NFL is the ever-changing wave of new stars and breakout players. While I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the careers of Tebow and McCoy, their departures are the very reason I find myself more excited for this season than last. Nothing against those guys, but we were due a changing of the guard, and I can't wait to watch the next generation.

Last week in New York, several other writers and I enjoyed the opportunity to have dinner with four Pac-10 quarterbacks (USC's Matt Barkley, Stanford's Andrew Luck, Washington's Jake Locker and Arizona's Nick Foles). They're all great kids, very mature for their age, and yet they've all only begun to scratch the surface of their talents. It will be neat to see whom among that group -- along with other rising talents around the country like Terrelle Pryor, Ryan Mallett, Jerrod Johnson and Blaine Gabbert -- emerge as the faces of 2010.

Meanwhile, the aura of those quarterbacks and their title-contending teams last season overshadowed an abundance of big-time running backs that burst onto the scene. Obviously, Mark Ingram and the now-departed Toby Gerhart got their due acclaim, but few seemed to notice Pitt's Dion Lewis run for nearly 1,800 yards or Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams score 21 touchdowns, both as freshmen. Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers remains one of the most exciting, if overlooked, players in the country, and the Oregon tandem of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner is going to be fun to watch.

And finally, you've got a whole host of intriguing new coaches, many of whom could have an immediate impact this season. For all that's been said and written about Lane Kiffin, it's time to find out what kind of a coach he actually is. Will he lead USC back to the 11-win level? Fall on his face? We don't know. For all we know, Brian Kelly could well walk into South Bend and turn Notre Dame into a BCS contender and Jimbo Fisher could restore swagger in Tallahassee.

Change is really the overriding theme in the sport right now, and it makes for a whole lot more preseason mystery than there was this time a year ago when it was all about Tebow/McCoy/Bradford.

Your Houston Nutt article is an outrage! Who are you, Mr. Stewart Mandel, to call a fine coach trying to help someone dirty or question his integrity? You should be fired!! I think you, sir, are a big A$$!!-- Steve, North Mississippi

After reading your latest article on Houston Nutt, I only have one thing to say: Thank you so much for publishing that article. I honestly can't thank you enough for exposing this man for who he truly is.-- James, Little Rock, Ark.

I knew the Nutt column would elicit some strong reactions, but I had no idea they would split so diametrically between the states of Mississippi and Arkansas. I literally received hundreds of e-mails just like these two. It's no surprise Ole Miss fans so vociferously defended their coach (though I have no doubt the same exact people would have crucified Dan Mullen if by chance Mississippi State had taking Masoli instead), but apparently Nutt is about as popular in Arkansas as Kiffin is in Tennessee.

But the point of the column was not to rile up those two fan bases. Let me address a less partisan e-mail.

Stewart, your writing is usually spot-on in regards to the ever-wavering ethics of college football, but your criticism of Houston Nutt's acceptance of Masoli is uncharacteristically harsh to the point of seeming almost personal. I'm not saying that you're wrong about Nutt, just that you seem to have lost your perspective as a journalist on this one. What gives?-- James, Edmond, Okla.

I don't dispute that the column was harsh, but it wasn't without reason.

My hope with the Nutt-Masoli piece was that readers might take a moment to rethink what truly constitutes "dirty" in this day and age. It's been an eventful off-season for scandal-related headlines, and as I wrote in the lead, I've noticed fans throwing around the d-word with reckless abandon, demonizing coaches and programs based mostly on blanket assumptions and innuendo. Listening to some of the revisionist history out there about Pete Carroll's USC tenure, you'd think he was handing Reggie Bush money out of his own wallet, which couldn't be further from the truth. If you're going to accuse someone of being "dirty," it really ought to be for something of his own doing.

Admittedly, Nutt has broken no rules, and if that's your sole criteria for judging a coach's ethics, then you're obviously going to disagree with the column. But as I wrote, Nutt has demonstrated a repeated pattern over the past several years of shameless win-at-any-cost tactics. Taking on Masoli just happens to be his most brazenly transparent. No one's buying the cover that this has anything to do with "helping" a wayward kid. As Nutt himself told the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "I could have not gone after him, gone 6-6 this season and got ready to reload [for 2011]. But when you think about your team, you have an obligation to them to do everything you can to put them in the best situation to win."

Sadly, this has become the standard operating mentality for a lot of coaches, and I happen to find it more troublesome than many of the things others might consider "dirty," but unfortunately, a lot of fans now tacitly accept it.

I am an Ole Miss fan, and if taking Masoli helps us win more games, so be it. This is what college football has become. Get over it.-- David Davis, Taylorsville, Miss.

Case in point.

You've said that playing nine conference games has been a problem for the Pac-10 in terms of getting BCS spots because they're more likely to beat up on each other. If this happens in the "Big Ten" (I know they want to keep the name, but it HAS to change), do you see the same problem?-- James, Flint, Mich.

First off, the name's not changing, so get used to it. Maybe one day they'll do a KFC thing -- just abbreviate it to "BT" and hope people forget what it stands for.

I was surprised to hear Jim Delany speak so resolutely in favor of going to nine games (though it wouldn't be for several years due to existing scheduling contracts). He even claimed to have "a consensus among our athletic directors" to do so. But I get where he's coming from. The more games they play against each other instead of against Western Kentucky, the higher their number of desirable TV games and home-attendance games.

And yes, the BCS issue is a concern, but it's not entirely an apples-to-apples scenario with what the Pac-10's been experiencing. For one, the Big Ten still won't be playing a full round-robin as the Pac-10 has been doing, so it's still possible a team might catch a favorable break in its schedule one year and ride it to 10 wins and an at-large berth. But more importantly, the entire competitive landscape will be changing with the two conferences both adding more teams and a title game. My guess is the general threshold for finishing in the Top 14 and entertaining at-large candidacy is going to drop from 10-2 to 9-3 once four of the six major conferences have 12 teams.

Stewart, this is more a question about college football writers than college football itself. Why is that the biggest excuse they give for people from the South and Midwest being more ardent fans than those on the West Coast is that there is a supposed lack of anything else to do in those parts of the country? Having lived in the Midwest most of my life and Los Angeles the last 10 years, there isn't that much more to do out here. I now have access to an ocean, and that's about it.-- Joe, Rolling Hills, Calif.

Excellent question. I suppose the notion that Southern Californians are too busy surfing to attend a football game while Iowans are looking for any excuse to get off the farm is one of those outdated clichés that became engrained back when the sport was still largely regional. I do think there's truth to the differing levels of loyalty regarding teams like USC and Miami that play in major cities (where the stadiums are only full when the teams are good) versus college-town teams like Alabama or Nebraska (where the stadiums are full no matter what), but that has more to do with the fact that most major cities are more focused on pro sports than college sports.

But some stereotypes do hold true. You need only walk onto any SEC campus the night before a game to see how life comes to a standstill for college football. Meanwhile, the first time I covered an Oregon game, I remember being so puzzled at the near-total absence of Ducks gear in the bars the night before the game. Mind you, the next morning, the tailgate lots were jam-packed and the stadium was roaring, but even by Saturday night, it was back to life as usual. It's not that West Coasters aren't passionate about their teams; they just manage to maintain more perspective than their peers in some other parts of the country. I'll leave you to decide whether that's admirable or embarrassing.

My phone number is [redacted]. My address is [redacted]. And you, sir, are CERTIFIABLY an idiot. If you want to deny that FACT, then give me a call.-- James Clark, Hattiesburg, Miss.

Something tells me I'm not going to win that argument.

Stewart, love your column. I've been reading it for years. Last week, on the subject of agents, you mentioned how many people feel college players should be paid. Aren't players paid already? They get a $60,000 tuition, room and board, meals, plane tickets, lodging, physical trainers free of charge and the best medical coverage on the planet. They don't get a check, just free education and professional training. I wish I had professional training while I was in college.-- Rustin, New Orleans

It's the age-old debate, isn't it? At the risk of opening a giant can of worms, here's where I stand on the athlete-compensation issue.

As long as college sports remains part of the larger university, I don't believe athletes should be paid any sort of straight-up salary or stipend. As you said, they are already being rewarded quite handsomely for their work, much more so than other college students who participate in their own respective extracurricular activities. The small handful that will go on to the NFL will be rewarded financially when their careers are over, while the rest, if they put in the work, will themselves be set up for the future with something very valuable: a diploma.

I do have a problem, however, with the fact athletes don't see a dime when their own personal likeness gets licensed in order to sell jerseys and other merchandise. Terrelle Pryor absolutely deserves a cut of all those No. 2 jerseys that will be flying off the shelves in Columbus this fall. And as much as I Iove EA Sports' college football games, the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit is well justified. The NCAA would be very wise to reach some sort of resolution before it goes to trial. In the meantime, schools should either be prohibited from selling jerseys with active players' numbers, or, set up some of trust where, in this example, Pryor would collect a percentage of his jersey sales upon completion of his college eligibility.

Not to get too crazy after one bowl appearance in 30 years, but do you think Temple could move back up to a BCS conference sometime in the next five to 10 years? It's a large, public, urban institution, and the Owls play in an NFL stadium. I'm wondering if the Big East or ACC would have interest if expansion continues.-- Bob, North Wales, Pa.

I don't think it's out of the question. The Big East booted Temple several years ago not just because the Owls weren't competitive, but because the overall atmosphere surrounding that program (embarrassingly small crowds, equally embarrassing academic performances) wasn't befitting of a BCS conference. If Al Golden (or whomever inevitably succeeds him when he gets a better job) can keep winning, get more butts in the stands and maintain a stable program, perhaps the Big East will give the Owls another look sometime down the road.

In the meantime, let's focus on a more pressing question: Will Temple wind up in Pasadena? Follow me here. As you may know, there's a rule in place this year that states that if the Big Ten or Pac-10 champion reaches the national title game, the Rose Bowl must select a non-AQ team if one is eligible. Obviously, we're all assuming Boise State, TCU or another Mountain West team will get that call, but why not the Owls? They won nine games last year. They've got a stud running back in Bernard Pierce. They're favored to win the MAC. Just sneak into that final Top 12 (presumably by upsetting Penn State), hope the Broncos choke against Nevada, the MWC teams all knock each other off and bam ... Temple in the Rose Bowl.

That thud you just heard was from a Tournament of Roses Committee member who just read this and had a stroke.

Criticism is often heaped on a "system quarterback," but a "system running back" tends to escape such labels. One might make a case for the existence of "system running backs" by looking at teams such as 1990s Penn State or, in the NFL, the Denver Broncos of 1990s-2000s. Why don't running backs have to battle the same stigma?-- David T, Amherst, Mass.

Much like Joe's question earlier about the West Coast/Midwest stereotypes, you've astutely identified another outdated football cliché. The idea of a "system quarterback" dates back at least to the Andre Ware/David Klingler "Run and Shoot" teams at Houston, which, at the time, were throwing the ball far more often than nearly any other team. I would imagine the reason Penn State running backs didn't have to worry about a stigma was because JoePa's offense was no different than those of three-fourths of the country.

Today, however, so many teams throw the ball heavily that you could well argue a run-heavy offense is now the anomaly. Case in point: Wisconsin. Is John Clay really, truly an elite running back, or is he just the latest in a long line of productive rushers -- Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett, Anthony Davis, Brian Calhoun, P.J. Hill -- who benefitted from a bunch of beefy linemen and fullbacks and a whole bunch of power-I sets? I'm not trying to belittle Clay, but considering almost none of those aforementioned names -- much like Ware and Klingler --went on to NFL success -- you could legitimately argue they were just products of their "systems."

Personally, I'd prefer we just lose the whole "system" thing altogether.

As a three-degree alum of the University of Mississippi, I have to say this is embarrassing to Ole Miss. After David Cutcliffe was shown the door after one losing season (which followed the team's first 10-win season in three decades), Nutt rightfully shouldn't feel like he has job security there. Still, the school has enough working against it. Scandals and scoundrels aren't helping its image. Too bad -- a fall Saturday in Oxford is perhaps the best stage for college football that exists.-- Chris, New Orleans

On that we can agree -- especially the last part.

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