Wednesday August 11th, 2010

There are some things that simply defy explanation. Take, for example, my infatuation with Jersey Shore.

As a 34-year-old professional whose prime MTV-watching days ended about 10 years ago, there's no logical reason why I should find so much enjoyment in watching a bunch of dim-witted twentysomethings in Miami get drunk, fight, break up, get back together, rinse and repeat. But I do. Oh, how I do. I live to see JWoww threaten to punch someone in her sleep. Few things are more amusing to me than "Situation" using his nickname when ordering takeout. And literally every word that comes out of Snooki's mouth is pure entertainment gold. "Angelina died." Incredible.

In fact, it would be much easier for me to identify the reasons behind Jersey Shore's age-defying appeal than those behind various team rankings in the preseason coaches' poll. And yet, like Sammie and Ron, I just keep trying.

Mr. Mandel, I was happy to see Oregon (No. 11) and Oregon State (No. 22) ranked in the coaches' poll, but I also noticed they were the only Pac-10 teams ranked despite not having a high-profile quarterback. Much is being said about the quarterback talent in the Pac-10 this year with Andrew Luck, Jake Locker and Nick Foles, but the pollsters seem to be saying that their talent is trumped by other factors. In the NFL success and failure seems to rely heavily on the QB. Is college football that much different? -- Michael Kurtz, Roseburg, Ore.

To address the last part of your question first: Yes, I do think the difference in overall talent level among NFL teams is far thinner than among college teams, therefore putting NFL quarterbacks in the position to make or break a season. Obviously, you're not going to win championships in college with a subpar signal-caller -- but Alabama did win a national title last season with a first-year starting quarterback (Greg McElroy) who ranked a modest 28th in pass efficiency.

However, it does seem like voters put less of a premium on quarterback experience this year than they have in the past. While Oregon probably dropped about five spots when it lost Jeremiah Masoli, No. 3 Florida and No. 4 Texas were hardly affected by losing Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy. No. 14 Penn State and No. 15 Pittsburgh both garnered generous rankings considering their huge question marks at quarterback. Georgia, 8-5 last year, checked in at No. 21 despite not having a quarterback with any experience.

But that doesn't explain the low number of Pac-10 teams in the poll. (And we must mention as a disclaimer that USC was ineligible.) It was probably more a reflection of the conference's poor showing last bowl season. Oregon State came darn close to reaching the Rose Bowl, but probably cost itself a preseason top 15 ranking by laying an egg against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. Arizona's 33-0 Holiday Bowl loss to Nebraska cost it any shot at a preseason ranking. And imagine how different the preseason rankings might have been for both Oklahoma (No. 8) and Stanford (unranked) had the Sun Bowl gone 31-27 the other way.

The irony, of course, is that bowl results are rarely representative of anything other than which team cared more about the game and which team handled the layoff better. Luck didn't even play in Stanford's bowl game. My guess is at least two or three other Pac-10 teams will be ranked by the end of the season -- but good luck guessing which ones. While only two made the preseason cut, seven of the league's nine eligible teams received votes (everyone but UCLA and Washington State). It's not that voters didn't notice those veteran quarterbacks, they just couldn't agree on which had the best supporting casts.

With the new allegations that have surfaced that Rich Rodriguez committed the same violations at West Virginia that he did at Michigan, do you think the NCAA will be less likely to penalize the University of Michigan as it's obvious that the problem is more RichRod and not the university? As a lifelong Wolverine fan I can't wait for UM to fire him. He is a cancer to a once proud program. -- Chris Hale, Barrington, Ill.

Sorry, Chris. Regardless of a coach's involvement, the NCAA sanctions the school where the infractions occurred. This happens to be a particularly unusual situation because, while most of the West Virginia violations allegedly occurred before Rodriguez got to Michigan, the Committee on Infractions will be hearing that case after Michigan's. If they go strictly by the book, committee members won't even be able to discuss or consider the West Virginia allegations when Rodriguez and other Michigan officials appear before the committee this weekend in Seattle. This could create an awkward situation for Michigan.

Mind you, of the five "major" violations alleged against Michigan (personally, I think they're all still fairly "minor"), the only one the school is contesting is the allegation that Rodriguez "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance" in the football program. AD Dave Brandon has continually defended RichRod publicly, and the school is defending him to the NCAA as well. Should the Committee rule against him, the school would at that point be able to fire Rodriguez "with cause," but I think we can all agree that if Michigan wins nine games this fall, he's not going anywhere.

However, what happens if Rodriguez is found guilty again next winter in the West Virginia case? At that point, the Committee would consider his history of violations, and in turn, might impose a "show-cause" penalty against the coach. It's the one individual sanction the Committee can levy against a coach, and it puts the onus on his current employer to "show cause" why he should be allowed to hold his position. To use a basketball comparison, it's the Kelvin Sampson penalty, and it's hard to see Rodriguez surviving it. But due to the timeline of the West Virginia case, we might not even reach that point until next spring.

Do you think Montel Harris of Boston College could potentially be one of the "new faces" of college football? Last season, he rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and double-digit touchdowns as a true sophomore. Going into this season, he should be the focal point of the Eagles' offense and is running behind a very good offensive line that includes a potential NFL first round pick at left tackle. -- Jermaine Starks, Jacksonville, Fla.

Harris is a beast, no question, but one who's done his best work with near anonymity thus far. How many people outside of ACC country could tell you that Harris ran for 264 yards in a game against NC State last season or 179 against Florida State? Or that he closed the season with five straight 100-yard games? Or that he ran for 900 yards the year before?

Harris faces two obstacles in terms of exposure. For one, he's only the third-most decorated player on his own team behind linebacker Mark Herzlich (who will be getting a whole lot of deserved pub this season when he returns from bone cancer) and preseason All-American tackle Anthony Castonzo. And secondly, BC, while always a bowl team, rarely seems to play in nationally prominent games. The last one that comes to mind is Matt Ryan's Thursday night miracle against Virginia Tech in 2007. If Harris and the Eagles can have a similar season as that 11-3 team -- and personally, I consider BC one of the biggest sleeper teams in the country -- Harris will get his recognition. Whether he distinguishes himself from a boatload of other high-profile running backs around the country remains to be seen.

In last week's Mailbag you argued that college athletes should be entitled to profits the university makes off of marketing products related to specific players. Maybe it's just because I'm a Northwestern fan, but wouldn't that be a disaster in terms of recruiting parity? Ultimately, the school has the ability to indirectly pay their players by pumping money into marketing these products, and can decide whose jersey they put on the shelf. Sounds like a sticky situation. -- Evan, Chicago

Hey Stewart, in last week's Mailbag, you talked about the possibility of giving players a cut of the profits from their jersey sales. Would that not give USC or Penn State an unfair advantage? With no names on their jerseys, a head coach could promise a player, say No. 55, knowing full well that jersey will sell whether he plays well or not. -- Alex, San Diego

Both of you raise a valid point, and both show why the issue of compensating college athletes is so much more complex than the average sanctimonious columnist would have you believe. Still, it's hard to believe the NCAA and its schools have gotten away with the racket of profiting off of individual players' likeness -- even long after they've graduated -- for this long. There's got to be a solution, even if it's not the one I proposed.

When a college football player loses his scholarship based on the numbers game (as was the case for LSU's Elliott Porter), what happens to the player? Does he still have a scholarship at that school but can't play football? The media needs to greatly publicize what happens to these kids each year. Enough popular backlash could force coaches to amend their behavior, or at least prospects would know the risks associated in signing with certain coaches. -- Arthur Folse, New Orleans

To answer the first part of the question: no. If a coach oversigns in February and/or overshoots his expected offseason roster attrition and has to pull one of his incoming freshman's scholarships at the last second, the player has three equally unappealing options. He can "grayshirt," which means delaying enrollment until January, when a scholarship becomes available in next year's class; walk-on at his own expense; or ask for his release and transfer elsewhere. It's cold, it's ugly, but fortunately, this dark side of the sport is finally getting some much-needed publicity.

Credit the unusual candor of Porter, the LSU freshman who, having already spent two months on campus, in a dorm room and attending classes, was summoned to Les Miles' office on the eve of training camp and asked to grayshirt. His vivid play-by-play of how it went down (and refusal, thus far, to accept Miles' offer) has garnered a lot of media attention from various writers around the country. And Porter is hardly alone. The same thing happened to incoming Alabama tight end Harrison Jones when a more coveted signee, Blake Sims, was cleared academically at the 11th hour. After Miami's summer snag of USC defector Seantrel Henderson, meanwhile, fifth-year senior and career reserve Steven Wesley got the boot.

In the coaches' defense, there are a few legitimate reasons behind oversigning. A coach has to anticipate that some veteran players will transfer, flunk out or suffer career-ending injuries (in which case they can be placed on medical hardship scholarships). And remember, scholarships are not four-year agreements, they're one-year renewable deals. I've had several coaches tell me the danger of unconditionally committing to a guy for four years is that some underachievers inevitably stop caring, stop putting in the work and keep receiving tuition checks without contributing in any meaningful way. I get that. But at the end of the day, a program is not going to implode if it has to go into a particular season with 81 players instead of 85. These are kids' lives coaches are messing with, especially the freshmen. Can you imagine moving away to college, showing up for the first day of school and being told, "Sorry -- we lied. We don't have room for you. Wait 'til next year."

It's inexcusable, and the NCAA needs to step up and take a hard-line stance against oversigning. As mentioned here before, check out oversigning.com for some staggering numbers.

Big Ten Name Game: It seems rather strange that institutions of higher learning will stick with six plus six equals 10. Maybe that's a nod to their athletic departments' student athletes? Surely all the combined brain power at all the universities in the Big T can come up with a better solution. How about Big Ten and the Little Two? -- Michael, L.A.

I get the cute little math jokes, I do, but seriously -- why would the Big Ten change its name? You don't have to be a marketing major to understand the importance of branding. Besides the Ivy League, no college conference has the same level of brand recognition as the Big Ten. It's not even close. Even a complete non-sports fan has at least heard of "the Big Ten." Meanwhile, there's a significant portion of the population that knows the "SEC" only as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As this admittedly partisan faculty member at Illinois brings up, Southwest Airlines flies to the Northeast, and I'm not sure Radio Shack even sells radios anymore, but you don't see those companies giving up their highly recognizable brands. Meanwhile, as Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News recently wrote, it was a somewhat sad commentary on the Pac-10's lack of brand value that no one seems particularly broken up about its forthcoming name change.

Stewart, I am a huge University of Cincinnati fan. The past two seasons they were picked to finish third and fifth in the Big East and both years went on to win the title. This year they were picked second (tied with WVU). They are starting to garner some respect, but not enough to assume they can reload with the loss of Brian Kelly. Yet if Jim Tressel went to the pros after last season, Ohio State would still be picked to win the Big Ten no matter who replaced him. How long does a program have to be successful before it gets the benefit of the doubt? -- Chris, Atlanta

I'm not sure you can put a number of years or championships on it, but it's certainly true that the Bearcats haven't yet reached "benefit of the doubt" status. It's tough to compare Ohio State, which played in its first Rose Bowl in 1950, and Cincinnati, which made its first BCS bowl in 2009. And I'm sure some Big East followers remember the cautionary tale of Louisville, which looked to be on the brink of becoming an annual contender under Bobby Petrino, then immediately imploded the year after he left.

While I don't expect Cincy to go 12-1 again, I do think the Bearcats are being discarded far too quickly by most. Consider: Of the 10 teams that played in BCS games last season, eight were among the top 11 in the preseason coaches' poll, Georgia Tech was 17th ... and Cincinnati was unranked. It'd be one thing if the school had replaced Kelly with a complete unknown, but Butch Jones is coming off two MAC championships in three seasons at Central Michigan and coached in the Big East (at West Virginia) before that. It'd be another thing if Tony Pike's successor was an untested freshman, but in fact it's Zach Collaros, who you might remember from his four starts last season when he completed 75 percent of his passes.

I don't know if the Bearcats will win the Big East again -- they're in a tight jumble with West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Connecticut -- but I'd be surprised if they return to the land of the forgotten.

Hi Stewart. My girlfriend complains I watch too much college football every Saturday, so I promised her that for this regular season I would only watch all Florida State games and just three other games. I have to let her know the dates of the games right away, so she can plan accordingly. Which games would you recommend? -- Mike B, Tallahassee, Fla.

Mike, I hate to break it to you pal, but it's time to get a new girlfriend.

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