Wednesday September 1st, 2010

To most of us, the dawn of September marks the unofficial end of summer. On the last day of August, college football's Summer of Realignment reached a fitting and ironic end: with a football program choosing to un-align itself entirely.

In going independent, did BYU settle for less than it should have or did it get all that it wanted? -- Shane Hale, Las Vegas

We won't be able to answer that question definitively until the contracts have been signed and the television dollars disclosed. Conceptually, I think BYU absolutely did the right thing for its school and its football program. Practically, I have quite a few concerns.

The school's decision was first and foremost about television -- specifically, escaping the shackles of the Mountain West's restrictive, low-rent contracts in search of more money and more exposure. I don't doubt the Cougars will achieve both. Some of the projected revenue numbers being tossed around -- as much as $10 million per year, up from a $1.5 million share in the Mountain West -- seem unrealistically high, but even just by getting four or five games a year on ESPN, the school will enjoy infinitely more exposure than it does currently. It also retains the ability to add live games to its own existing network, BYUtv. In theory, this is all a very good thing.

But now to the logistics -- most notably, who are the Cougars going to play? BYU's plan made a lot more sense back when it involved partnering with the WAC. That way, half its schedule would already be taken care of. While the Cougars could still land annual deals with natural rivals Utah, Utah State and Hawaii, they'll now be facing the daunting task of filling out those other nine or 10 games a year. The success of their new TV deals will depend on whether a network is singing up to show BYU vs. Michigan or BYU vs. Eastern Michigan. The school has already landed one notable home-and-home with Texas for 2013-14, but it's going to need three or four more like that, every year.

Which brings us to the other question: What becomes of the Cougars' BCS prospects? The biggest risk BYU is taking in all of this is that it's no longer guaranteed to see another dime from the BCS. As a Mountain West member, it collected several million dollars from Utah and TCU's appearances, and even in years when the league didn't qualify a team, it still garnered a small BCS handout. BYU also had a pretty good thing going with the Las Vegas Bowl, the league's top bowl partner, which selected the Cougars four straight years. Conference bowl contracts are locked in for the next four years, which means BYU could be playing for scraps from 2011-13.

Ultimately, though, the sport's postseason system will likely cause BYU to look wiser in the long run. The reality is, unless you're a school in one of the six BCS conferences, you're basically a handicapped FBS member. You're not privy to the roughly $20 million (and growing) each of those leagues gets to divvy up every year, and you're inherently stigmatized in the eyes of voters as a "non-BCS" team. For most schools, the only hope is to get "called up" to the bigs like Utah did. BYU, with its 60,000-seat stadium, its national championship and its Heisman, was arguably the one "non-BCS" school that had the cachet to take matters into its own hands.

If, five years from now, BYU is playing big games on big television networks at least four or five times a year, if it's playing the type of schedule that makes voters treat the Cougars no differently than they would most Pac-10 or Big 12 teams and if it's got postseason options beyond the New Mexico Bowl, then yes, it will have gotten everything it wanted. It's all possible, but there's a lot of details to be worked out.

Update: Since this column was published, BYU announced an eight-year deal with ESPN for all home games and a six-year series with Notre Dame. I'd say the Cougars are well on their way to achieving most of the aforementioned goals.

I have a lot riding on the Labor Day matchup of Boise State and Virginia Tech. My son picked Boise State to win the national championship in our annual college football wager, and my daughter is a faculty member at Virginia Tech. My question is, do the Hokies have a legitimate chance? -- Neil, Fargo, N.D.

Of course they do. The game is an absolute toss-up, regardless of what the disparity in the teams' AP rankings might suggest. (Boise State is No. 3, Virginia Tech is No. 10.) All of the pressure is on Boise. Virginia Tech can still go on to have a fine season either way, but for the Broncos, it could mean the difference between the Jan. 10 BCS Championship Game and the Jan. 9 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. This is also much more of a road game than a true neutral-site game (organizers are expecting 60,000 Hokies fans), and memories of Boise's disastrous trip east to Georgia in 2005 (a 48-13 annihilation) still linger.

From a purely football standpoint, however, we know a lot more about these Broncos than about the Hokies. They're almost the exact same team they were a year ago (20 returning starters), only older and wiser. The Hokies' high ranking is based more on potential. Their offense should be powerful, with quarterback Tyrod Taylor now a polished senior and Darren Evans returning to join Ryan Williams in the backfield -- but they did rank just 50th nationally last season. Bud Foster's defense should be stingy, because it almost always is, but he does have to replace seven starters from a year ago, including his top three sacks leaders.

These are actually two very similar programs. They both emphasize a physical, blue-collar mentality. They both want to run the ball down your throat. (For all of Kellen Moore's accolades, Boise actually ranked higher in rushing offense than passing offense last season.) They both feast on turnovers and special-teams play. It may sound simplistic, but the game will come down to which team is more physical. It's how Boise beat Oregon and TCU last year, and it's how Virginia Tech crushed Miami and Tennessee last season. I give a slight edge to the Broncos, but only because I'm more familiar with their personnel.

The NCAA has denied immediate eligibility to Jeremiah Masoli, apparently because his move to Ole Miss violates the spirit of the graduate transfer rule. Why did the NCAA let this play out for so long if it knew the whole time what would happen? Any thoughts on Masoli's chances on appeal? -- Gabe Jones, Austin, Texas

I don't know why it took it so long, other than the fact that the NCAA's staff doesn't have some sort of Ole Miss quarterback hotline. It processes a lot of eligibility situations involving a lot of players in a lot of different sports at a lot of different schools. Unfortunately, had Masoli learned his fate earlier, he could have transferred down to an FCS school and played right away. I hope Ole Miss coaches or administrators didn't lead him to believe the waiver was a formality, and I hope he was made aware of all of his options.

Meanwhile, the NCAA -- which is often criticized for adhering so rigidly to its rulebook, oftentimes at the expense of common sense -- should be commended for taking the stance that it did. The graduate-transfer waiver that Masoli and Ole Miss were counting on was never intended as a free-agency option for someone who got kicked off his team. It's not a "rule," it's a "waiver" -- i.e., an exception, which, as the NCAA said in its statement, "... exists to provide relief to student-athletes who transfer for academic reasons to pursue graduate studies, not to avoid disciplinary measures at the previous university."

The Masoli situation made a lot of compliance officers and other college officials around the country queasy because of the precedent it might have created. I don't know what his chances are of winning an appeal, but based on the wording of the NCAA's statement, it would likely require some sort of convincing argument that he absolutely hopes to pursue a career in Parks and Recreation Management. While I'm sure Masoli is disappointed, he doesn't have much reasonable ground to complain. The NCAA isn't saying he can't play for Ole Miss. It flat out said he's entitled to a scholarship. It's just saying he has to wait a year to compete, like virtually every other FBS transfer.

Let me just make sure I read this right -- you've picked Georgia ... GEORGIA ... to be in the Sugar Bowl and you have Florida in a non-BCS bowl. Seriously? I mean ... SERIOUSLY?!! Pray tell based on what? That means you have Georgia winning the SEC East. Ahead of Florida. Florida coming in behind Georgia. Do me a favor, print that again, because I can't believe my #@!*^%$ eyes. -- Tom, Lakeland, Fla.

Ah, bowl projections. As if it's not futile enough to attempt to predict records for 70 teams before the season, you then get to plug them into a postseason lineup that, as most of you well know, is based only partially on wins and losses.

To clarify, I do believe Florida will win the SEC East, but with at least one or two losses. That means if the Gators lose in the SEC title game, they'll have two or three losses. And after Florida fans' meager turnout to last year's Sugar Bowl, I figure the New Orleans game will take a different SEC team this year, in this case Georgia, which I project to go 10-2. Obviously, I'm making a whole lot of presumptions (most notably Alabama reaching the BCS championship game), but bowl projections are nothing if not one big presumption.

Can you explain why the Rose Bowl is obligated to take highest non-AQ team if it loses a team to the national championship game? Is it actually true? If so, why would they agree to that (was it some kind of deal that allowed them to get a favorable matchup in a past game or something)? -- Bruce McKinley, South Riding, Va.

It is indeed true. Here is the exact clause from the BCS' media guide:

For the games of January 2011 through 2014, the first year the Rose Bowl loses a team to the NCG and a team from the non-AQ group is an automatic qualifier, that non-AQ team will play in the Rose Bowl.

It was a compromise the Rose Bowl quietly and reluctantly agreed to some time back due to resentment from the other bowls over the fact that the Rose, with two conference partners, would never have to pick lower than second among at-large teams and therefore would never be stuck having to host a non-AQ team. While I'm sure some traditionalists will still vomit at the prospect of an orange-and-blue Broncos end zone, I think most of the public would enjoy seeing Boise in Pasadena more than they did that 9-3 Illinois team a few years ago. Personally, I'm still rooting for Temple.

Is there no International Bowl in Toronto this year? I've gone to all four of them so far. -- Don, Newmarket, Ontario

Wow. I hate to break this to you, Don, but the International Bowl is indeed no more. But you deserve some sort of medal for going to all four of them. At least you'll always have the memory of having attended Jim Leavitt's last game.

Pete Carroll left a team that was going to win at least 10 games. Lane Kiffin left a team that was going to win at best six games. So the question is, which coach, USC's Kiffin or Tennessee's Derek Dooley, will do more with the team he was given? -- Rick, Chattanooga

I can see why that would be a topic of interest in Chattanooga.

First of all, I think those are both realistic numbers for each team's general expectation level. However, if you read my coaches primer last week, you know I have lower expectations for the Vols (much to the indignation of several folks who sent e-mails from the Volunteer State last week). The 4-8 prediction isn't an indictment of Dooley as much as of the depleted talent level in Knoxville. A new quarterback playing behind a new offensive line, in a season when the defense is rebuilding, is not a recipe for success in the SEC. To me, he will have gotten the "most" out of his team if it wins more than two conference games.

As for Kiffin, last year he basically achieved the exact record (7-6, 4-4 SEC) I would have predicted going into the season. I believe he'll do the same with the Trojans his first year -- they won't overachieve, but they won't fall apart, either. One big advantage Kiffin has over Dooley (besides the overabundance of former five-star recruits) is a talented quarterback (Matt Barkley) with a year's experience under his belt. That's a nice piece to have when you're dealing with depth issues at a lot of other positions. That's why I have more confidence in his prospects than Dooley's going into this particular season.

Stewart, on paper WVU and Pitt are basically equal coming into the upcoming season. The Mountaineers return more starters (16 to 11) and they are both starting new quarterbacks. However, Geno Smith has actually seen meaningful playing time, unlike Tino Sunseri. Also, WVU won head-to-head a year ago. So why is Pitt getting all the preseason hype? Does the difference come down to a total lack of confidence in Bill Stewart? -- Ryan, Oak Hill, West Va.

Well when you put it that way ... it doesn't make much sense, does it?

The perception for a few years now, based both on recruiting rankings and NFL exports, is that Pittsburgh is the most talented team in the Big East, but just hasn't put it together. The Panthers have four All-America candidates in running back Dion Lewis, receiver Jon Baldwin, defensive end Greg Romeus and tackle Jason Pinkston, whereas West Virginia really only has one household name, Noel Devine. I think if you were to ask 100 people, maybe 40 of them would remember who won the Backyard Brawl last year, but 99 remember Pitt coming within a point against Cincinnati in that winner-take-all game the first Saturday of December. And then there's the fact that the Panthers won their bowl game against North Carolina, while the Mountaineers lost theirs to Florida State.

Count me among those who don't have a lot of confidence in Coach Stew -- but I'm not a big believer in Dave Wannstedt, either. I think both teams will be about the same as they were last year, losing at least one league game they have no business losing. And the only reason either is getting more hype than Cincinnati is because of the Bearcats' coaching change. The one guy in that league I truly have confidence in at this point is Connecticut's Randy Edsall, which is a major reason I went with the Huskies as my Big East pick even though both Pitt and WVU are probably more talented.

And now, for a brief aside. I received a ton of responses to the Jersey Shore college football casting call, but none that I considered 8-for-8. So I culled together a full-cast lineup from several different e-mailers.

The Situation = Larry Scott. Always going after the hotties (Texas and Oklahoma) but usually brings home an OK-looking girl (Utah) and her grenade friend (Colorado). -- Bill, Pocatello, Idaho

Clearly Snooki is Tennessee, because she gets arrested weekly and is an unnatural shade of orange. -- Rob, Washington D.C.

Ronnie: Texas. Flirts and "creeps" with the Pac-10, but eventually returns home to the security of the Big 12 (Sammi). -- Dave, Minneapolis

Sammi = Oregon: Reinstated LeGarrette Blount (Ronnie). -- Aaron, New York City

J-Woww = Big 12. Texas! Oklahoma! You only need two assets to grab peoples' attention. Angelina = Notre Dame. No one seems to want her there, but there she is, collecting a nice, fat paycheck. -- Sean, Hartford, Conn.

Vinny = Vanderbilt. Seems to be the most level-headed member of the house, but the show wouldn't be drastically different without him. -- Mario Contreras, New York

I definitely think Pauly is Army, because both promote grenade free Americas. -- John, Worcester, Mass.

Nice work. All I have to say is, Sammi better not reinstate Blount again or I'm going to stop watching.

Stewart: What's your Appalachian State-esque pick for Week 1? See any possible earth shattering upsets on the horizon? -- Brandy, Toronto

I don't see anything quite that earth-shattering on the horizon, though there will inevitably be at least a couple of FCS over FBS victories. The most likely: Richmond giving former coach Mike London a tough start to his UVa tenure.

your bowls that u picked r nuts......i dod't think u put a lot of thought into this. AND IT SHOWS -- Lionel, Belle Chasse, La.

Well, then, that makes two of us.

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