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Blame struggles on bad coaching, not recruiting rankings; more mail

A year ago this week, Florida and Texas sat at No. 1 and 2 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll. Both wound up winning 13 games. Now, the Longhorns are one loss away from missing a bowl for the first time since 1997, while the Gators need to win their last two to avoid their first five-loss regular season since 1988. And they're hardly the only glamour programs suffering through brutal seasons.

Somebody messed up.

Stewart: Has this year not shown us that recruiting rankings are erroneous? Notre Dame, Georgia, Florida and Texas all field consistent top 10 recruiting classes, and all have performed below par this year. TCU and Boise State, neither of which are ever in the Top 25 in terms of recruitment, are ranked in the AP and BCS top 10.-- Drew, Athens, Ga.

Recruiting rankings are never going to be an exact science, but now more than ever, I believe the major services actually do a pretty good job. Between their teams of evaluators, the rise of combines and camps and better access to quality game tapes, they tend to be much more accurate predictors of future success now than they were, say, 15 years ago.

Take a look back at Rivals.com's Top 100 recruits from 2007. Among the top 30 alone, eight are already in the NFL (including Jimmy Clausen and Eric Berry), several others are current college stars (Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett, Tyrod Taylor) and plenty more are solid starters (USC receiver Ronald Johnson and center Kris O'Dowd, LSU receiver Terrance Toliver, Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson). Look further down the list and you'll find more NFLers (Rolando McClain, Joe Haden, Aaron Hernandez, Dez Bryant, Jahvid Best) and other current stars/starters (John Clay, Drake Nevis). You'll also find plenty of busts, but that's to be expected, and the ratio of productive players versus busts is about 2-to-1 -- better than a typical NFL draft first round.

But we're talking here solely about the four- and five-star recruits, who tend to jump off the screen more clearly, and of whom there are a limited number sprinkled throughout the country. There are thousands of high school players each year who could probably qualify as three-star prospects (Rivals classifies about 1,300), guys who aren't as big or developed as the four- and five-star guys, but are fully capable of getting there. And that's where the coaching staffs at schools like TCU and Boise State earn their paychecks: They have to identify who among this largely interchangeable group of prospects has the best chance of blossoming. They have to figure out that a guy like Boise's Ryan Winterswyk, a lightly recruited safety, could turn into a dominant defensive end.

And the same applies to the coaching staffs at Notre Dame and Texas. I know there's this notion that the elite programs just print out a Top 100 list and pick the guys they want, but that's too simplistic. Sure, they have an easier time getting into living rooms, but they do their own evaluations, and just like Boise/TCU, they can't afford to miss on too many kids. Take another look back at '07, when Florida had the No. 1 class, Texas the No. 5. If you look at the Gators' list, you'll see nearly half the starting lineup from last year's 13-1 team (many have since turned pro). If you look at Texas' class, you'll see one star from last year's 13-1 team (Earl Thomas) and nine starters for this year's 4-6 team. Interestingly, the one current standout from that class, defensive end Sam Acho, was one of the lowest-rated in the group (three stars).

Mind you, Texas' recruiting classes have earned top five rankings nearly every year for a decade, and Mack Brown's team has produced 10-win seasons nearly every year during that span. So was Rivals.com suddenly completely off the mark with the '07 class, or have an inordinate number of those recruits simply fail to develop as expected? I'm inclined to go with the latter. Ultimately, that falls on the coaching staff. Meanwhile, that same year, Boise State signed nearly 15 players who are starters or key contributors on its current top five team, most notably Kellen Moore and Austin Pettis, both of whom were three-star recruits. Give the Boise coaching staff ample credit for evaluating and developing those players -- and perhaps give Rivals a little flack for not seeing the same thing.

If Cam Newton's father has admitted to soliciting money during the recruiting process, as has been reported, and the rule clearly states that soliciting money on behalf of someone is a violation, why is he still playing? This makes no sense. If the NCAA doesn't step in, others could miss out on a national championship to a team that is clearly playing an ineligible player.-- Chris, Boise

Only the Auburn administration could possibly tell us why Newton is still playing -- and it's exercising a strict "no-comment" policy. But believe me, there are a lot of folks around college athletics right now wondering the same thing. Standard procedure in these matters is to sit a player and apply for reinstatement if there are any questions surrounding his eligibility. It's what Georgia did with A.J. Green. It's what Alabama did with Marcell Dareus. Auburn, an NCAA member, is basically flouting NCAA protocol, and it sends a terrible message to the rest of college sports. If you get caught selling a game-worn jersey to a runner, you miss the first four games of the season, but if your father stands accused of soliciting six figures for your recruitment, but you happen to be in the midst of a national championship hunt -- play on.

The NCAA cannot step in and suspend an active player until it completes its investigation. It's up to the school to sit him and apply for reinstatement. Auburn must feel it has a compelling case as to why Newton should remain eligible. While the NCAA has officially stated that, "solicitation of cash or benefits by a prospective student-athlete or another individual on his or her behalf is not allowed under NCAA rules," there is no bylaw in its 431-page handbook that states this direct verbiage. When I asked NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn to cite a specific bylaw to which the above statement refers, she said, "the exact bylaw would depend on the specifics of the situation." The closest I could find is section 10.1 (c): "Unethical conduct by a prospective or enrolled student-athlete or a current or former institutional staff member (e.g., coach, professor, tutor, teaching assistant, student manager, student trainer) may include, but is not limited to ... Knowing involvement in offering or providing a prospective or an enrolled student-athlete an improper inducement ..."

Note that the word "parent" never appears. Auburn will likely contend that neither the student-athlete nor the staff members had any involvement in Cecil Newton's unethical conduct. But just because this exact and possibly unprecedented situation (in that there's currently no proof any money changed hands) is not stated in the book doesn't mean NCAA staffers can't interpret it as such. That's their job. Meanwhile, even if a violation did occur, nobody yet knows whether it would constitute ineligibility. I'd have to assume it rendered Newton ineligible to play at Mississippi State, but would it follow him to Auburn? We don't know.

What we do know is that this is an active investigation, with both the NCAA and FBI -- yes, FBI -- interviewing key figures this week. More information is bound to come out. Either Auburn and its lawyers are daring the NCAA to declare Newton ineligible or they genuinely believe he's in the clear. Either way, they're playing with fire.

Why is it a big deal that Cam played last Saturday? If he's ineligible based on the allegations that came out last week, then he's been ineligible all year, and Auburn's season is shot. Why sideline him? I'd expect them to fight tooth-and-nail even if they thought he was ineligible, since they have so much to gain from a team playing for (and from their perspective, hopefully winning) a national championship and their star player getting a Heisman.-- Patrick Luff, Oxford, UK

Vacated wins aren't the issue. The real risk is potentially crippling sanctions down the road if it's proven Auburn knowingly played an ineligible player. Remember, USC's defense in the Reggie Bush case was "we couldn't possibly know" of his family's living arrangements, his offseason Vegas jaunts, etc. -- to which the Committee on Infractions said, "Well, you should have." What kind of hammer would it drop in a case where the school knows right now that a violation occurred? While I'm sure some Auburn fans would gladly trade a few years of probation down the road for a national title (even a vacated one) this year, Auburn officials can't afford to think that way. Gene Chizik, Jay Jacobs, compliance officers -- their jobs are all at stake if the school is found guilty of major violations. Again, they must be awfully confident this will all work itself out.

In your most recent bowl projections you state, "As of now, I'm projecting exactly 70 eligible teams for 70 spots." Does that mean it's possible that there could be fewer than 70 bowl eligible teams? If so, what happens then? Since I can't imagine they cancel a bowl game, do we simply get one (or more) with a 5-7 team?-- Michael Butler, Fort Worth, Texas

Yep. I talked Monday with Big East associate commissioner Nick Capparelli, who chairs the NCAA's football postseason licensing subcommittee, and though he said the group has yet to adopt a formal resolution, it is "committed to making sure every game gets played," which would mean seeking a waiver to allow a 5-7 team to go to a bowl. I assume the bowls would have free reign to choose whichever 5-7 team would buy the most tickets. So your bowl hopes aren't dead yet, Texas.

Having said that, when I do those projections, I'm fairly conservative in predicting how teams' schedules will play out. Inevitably, a couple of teams that look right now like they won't get to six wins will pull an upset or two and get there. So while it could be extremely close, I'd be surprised if the final number of eligible teams is below 70.

How does Nebraska, at 9-1 and ranked ninth in the country, get tentatively matched against 5-4 Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl when Pitt is not even in the Top 25? Heck, Pitt isn't even listed in "others receiving votes."-- Colonel Chris Krisinger, USAF (Ret), Burke, Va.

Unfortunately, someone will have to play the Big East champ in a BCS game, and most likely it's going to be the Big 12 champ. The Fiesta Bowl, which hosts the Big 12 champ, has last choice of at-large picks this year, and it's hard to imagine it won't get stuck with a three- or four-loss Big East team. Pitt is currently alone in first in the Big East and holds the tiebreaker over second-place Syracuse.

But look at the bright side, Huskers fans: You'd finally get to exact your revenge on Steve Pederson (Pitt's AD).

Stewart, aren't we told that the BCS rewards schools for playing tougher opponents? This week, of the top four teams, TCU played the toughest opponent, 7-2 SDSU, and won, yet was punished by the pollsters because it didn't win decisively enough. Of course, Oregon isn't held to the same standard with a two-point win over a 5-4 Cal. Doesn't it seem like the rules change every week in the BCS?-- Tammy, Columbia, Md.

You're only now figuring this out, Tammy? The rules of the BCS have changed nearly every week for 12 years, as have the whims of the voters. It's no secret the non-AQs are held to a different standard when it comes to style points, but not without reason. Unlike with Auburn or Oregon, we only get a few chances a year to see non-AQ teams face decent competition. Oregon can afford a mulligan because voters have seen the Ducks clobber the likes of Stanford and USC. But if you're TCU, and you want to play for a national championship without playing the same quality schedule as the big boys, the voters aren't going to give you the same benefit of the doubt. You've got to win big every week. That's the reality.

Having said that, I still contend that the Horned Frogs would not have dropped solely on the basis of the San Diego State game. Anyone who paid even remote attention knows it was a highly atypical 40-35 game in that TCU dominated until late in the fourth quarter. Rather, it was the fact that the close call came at the same exact time as Utah's debacle at Notre Dame, making voters question why they jumped the Frogs over Boise State to begin with. Again, this is not something you would see with a BCS conference team. Nobody downgraded then-No. 2 Ohio State when Miami got crushed by Florida State. I think at this point most voters believe that TCU and Boise State are two of the best teams in the country, but there's enough hesitation that every little misstep, whether by the Frogs or one of their marquee opponents, gets punished.

Stewart, I know it's Wednesday and this is a late request for your Mailbag, but please call out Cal (and every other inferior team, but especially Cal) for faking injuries, and put an end to the idea that "it's gamesmanship." Thanks.-- Ryan Belton, Eugene, Ore.

I don't know what you want me to do, Ryan. There's no question Cal faked injuries Saturday, as have previous Oregon foes. This video of one guy walking around just fine at the end of the play, looking to the sideline ... and then immediately pretending to cramp up, is downright laughable in its transparency. But what can be done? Refs aren't doctors. They can't determine who's injured and who's faking. If a team thinks it's that important to catch a break against the Ducks' offense, it's not going to let a little Internet mockery get in the way.

I hate to tell you, but it is gamesmanship. It's no different than World Cup soccer players hamming up injuries to draw a yellow card, basketball players intentionally flopping to draw charging calls or Derek Jeter pretending he got hit by a pitch. The best retaliation against a team that resorts to such chicanery: beating it anyway, which Oregon did.

Stewart: First of all, Rob from Fort Collins needs to be hurt for asking his question. Second, you are completely right about Clemson. Third, I'm going to cry myself to sleep tonight. Mailbag day is usually my favorite day. I hate you today.--John, Liberty, S.C.

Wow. And John wrote all that before Clemson lost to Florida State on a 55-yard field goal. Just a rough week all around.

Tell me why there is no outrage about the Big Ten using the BCS standings to settle a possible three-way tie among its top teams when it created an uproar when the Big 12 did this a few years ago?-- Duane Compton, Lyme, N.H.

It's not getting much attention because, first of all, we don't know yet whether it's going to come to that (Ohio State could lose at Iowa, Wisconsin could lose at Michigan, Michigan State could lose at Penn State). Secondly, it doesn't look like it will have national title consequences. The Texas/Oklahoma/Texas Tech enigma in 2008 became a hot-button issue because it determined not just who won the conference, but also whether the Longhorns or Sooners would play for the BCS Championship. Texas considered it an injustice that OU got the nod despite having lost to the 'Horns, while Bob Stoops contended that the Sooners beat Texas Tech, which beat Texas, which created the whole fiasco.

But yes, right now the Big Ten is looking at a situation where a team could possibly get left out of the Rose Bowl in favor of a team with the same record which it beat. The most likely victim is Michigan State. If Wisconsin, Ohio State and the Spartans all finish 7-1, the Badgers -- who beat the Buckeyes but lost to Michigan State -- would get the nod based on the current BCS standings. The problem is, Ohio State and Michigan State don't play this year, so there's really no other way to resolve it.

Personally, I think the Big Ten should go back to the old days, when the team that's been to the Rose Bowl least recently gets the nod. But of course that wouldn't help if one of the two was in contention for the national title. You'd have to follow the lead of Texas AD DeLoss Dodds, who, after the '08 snub, managed to sneak in a rule change that accounts for head-to-head issues.

Stop hating on Cam Stewart!-- Rock, Jacksonville, Fla.

I'm not sure to whom you're referring, Rock, but I have no issues with either Cam Stewart the hockey player or Cam Stewart the Canadian sportscaster.

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