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Sun Devils' sleeper potential, cause for concern in Stillwater; more mail

Every year around this time someone asks the following, admittedly intriguing question, which inevitably sets me up to look like an idiot by midseason. I swear I don't throw darts to come up with the answer -- though that may well be a more accurate method.

Since 2000, there have been several national title winners that were not in the almighty preseason top 10 (i.e., 2000 Oklahoma and 2010 Auburn). If you were told that a team with a preseason rank somewhere between 15 and 25 would win the national title this year, who would you guess would be ranked in this range and would have a shot at the title?-- John, Houston

First, a disclaimer: To say there have been "several" national title sleepers since 2000 is a bit misleading, because the two John mentioned are the only two that started outside of the top 15 and went on to win it all. So basically, it happens about once a decade, which means I'd bet the house that the 2011 national champion will be Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, Oregon or another team likely to be ranked high this preseason. But if I have to attempt to defy history...

When looking for a team likely to improve by several wins, the single biggest factor generally is finding a squad that performed better last season than its record indicates. Arizona State certainly fits that description. The Sun Devils went 6-6 overall last year and 4-5 in Pac-10 play, but they had only one truly bad loss, a 50-17 defeat at Cal. They lost 20-19 at Wisconsin on a blocked extra point; they lost by a point at USC and held Stanford to a season-low 17; and they played Oregon tough for three quarters before ultimately being done in by a staggering seven turnovers.

Another common thread among sleeper teams is that they're coming off a coaching change that may have required adjustment time. Dennis Erickson has been ASU's head coach since 2007, but last year he brought in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to remold the Sun Devils into a spread passing team. Since leaving the NFL in 2008, Mazzone has immersed himself in the Mike Leach/Dana Holgorsen-style passing attack. As a result, ASU passed a lot last season, but not very efficiently. That is until quarterback Brock Osweiler took over for an injured Steven Threet in the second-to-last game against UCLA and proceeded to throw for 647 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over the Bruins and Arizona.

Threet has given up football due to multiple concussions, but Osweiler is back, along with nearly every other offensive starter from a year ago. Sophomore tailback Deantre Lewis flashed star potential the first half of last season before a shoulder injury slowed him down. He and classmate Kyle Middlebrooks should dramatically improve ASU's running game. And gifted (though absurdly combustible) linebacker Vontaze Burfict returns to lead a potentially dominant rushing defense.

The schedule is very manageable, save for a daunting Oct. 15 trip to Oregon. It may take a colossal upset, or a rematch opportunity in the Pac-12 title game, for ASU to deliver on its sleeper potential. Or, ASU could wilt under the hype, go 5-7, and cost Erickson his job. But hey, John wanted a sleeper, and I assumed Florida State didn't count.

In honor of the fabulous job our Navy Seals did recently, what are Navy's chances Sept. 17th at South Carolina? Navy has had good success in recent years against top competition: beat Notre Dame three of the last four years, beat a good Mizzou team in a bowl game and took Ohio State to the wire.-- Randy, Wilmington, Del.

By now it should be obvious that Navy needs to be taken seriously, no matter how many five-star athletes the competition has, or what conference it plays in. The Midshipmen run their unique offense incredibly well, and if a team is not prepared to stop it, Navy will run wild. See last year's Notre Dame game: Navy found a hole inside and just kept pounding away with fullback Alexander Teich, who finished with 210 of the Midshipmen's 367 rushing yards. And that was a Notre Dame defense that went on to dominate its last four opponents.

Navy will have a chance to catch South Carolina off guard, especially with the Gamecocks coming off their always-important clash with Georgia the week before, but two things will be working against the Midshipmen. For one, dynamic quarterback Ricky Dobbs is gone, and while successor Kriss Proctor is not inexperienced (he filled in for Dobbs and ran for 201 yards against Central Michigan), he's not likely to provide the same passing threat as Dobbs, which helped keep foes honest. But more notably, the Navy defense -- which returns just five starters -- is going to have a hard time handling guys like Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. Navy will have to hope the Gamecocks come out flat on both sides of the ball.

Stewart, I am a die-hard SEC fan, I am in the U.S. Army and follow football with a passion. That being said, I am baffled by the lack of attention to a team that I feel may just make a splash as a contender ... wait for it ... wait for it ... Oklahoma State. Eww, did I just say that? I do vaguely remember the Cowboys having a good team with a very good quarterback (Brandon Weeden) and outstanding receiver (Justin Blackmon), both of whom have returned this year. I admit that I am not sure how their defense is, but given the high-power nature of their offense it may offset their defensive deficiencies. Do you think they should at least be looked at as a potential BCS contender?-- David A. Horn, Irvington, Ala.

I certainly think the Cowboys should be viewed as a potential BCS bowl contender. They weren't that far off the past two years (9-4 and 11-2 seasons, respectively), but season-ending Bedlam losses to Oklahoma kept them just short. And I'm certainly salivating over the possibilities of another year of Weeden-to-Blackmon. Running back Kendall Hunter is gone, but Joseph Randle showed as a freshman that he can be a capable replacement. There's no question this team is stacked offensively.

But I'm more inclined to think the Cowboys hit their ceiling last year. For one, there's no understating the impact Holgorsen had in his lone season as offensive coordinator. Mike Gundy had some highly productive offenses before, but nothing close to last year's unit, which ranked third nationally in total offense (520.3 yards per game), second in passing (345.9) and third in scoring (44.2). SI.com contributor George Schroeder visited Stillwater this spring and told the unique story of new coordinator Todd Monken, who literally had Weeden teach him the offense from scratch. It's one thing to learn the terminology, but it seems almost impossible for someone with no previous experience in Holgorsen's offense to replicate his play-calling ability. Meanwhile, there's no evidence to suggest Oklahoma State's defense is anywhere closer to championship level. Last year it ranked 88th nationally in yards allowed (409.5).

The Cowboys don't have the same overall talent level as Oklahoma, Texas or even Texas A&M, so they have to try to outscore them. Last year showed they may be able to do that most weeks, but at some point they'll have to stop somebody if they want to go undefeated.

This might be a bit premature, but can you run one of those "I Can't Believe They're Still in School" lists? I was reading one of your articles, and Stephen Garcia's name was there, indicating that he's the starter for the Gamecocks next year. All I can say is: WHAT?!?!-- Andres, Atlanta

It's never too early to start soliciting nominees for the Eighth Year Senior Team, especially now that longtime captain Mitch Mustain has finally moved on. Garcia, who's had a suspension for each year he's been in school (five), is certainly on the list, though he'll be backing up Houston's Case Keenum (back for a sixth season) at quarterback. I'd also submit for your consideration: Florida running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, USC linebacker Chris Galippo (I believe he was MVP of the 2003 U.S. Army game), Georgia running back Caleb King, Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith, Texas running back Fozzy Whitaker and Oregon State receiver James Rodgers.

I could not have been more upset when I saw that the Fiesta Bowl would remain a BCS game after all it had done. If this had been a student-athlete who did anything close to what these guys had done he would have been suspended for the year and chastised for his actions, yet the Fiesta only gets a slap on the wrist and told to donate to charity, which, as you pointed out, should have already been happening anyway. The NCAA wants it so morally uptight when it comes to the student-athletes that it exploits and punishes them for anything that might seem improper, but these guys do something morally wrong and they get a light punishment and get to remain in a high moneymaking position. This just isn't right.-- Drew Marshall, Topsham, Maine

While I understand your frustration, you might want to rethink your analogy. The NCAA, which you're saying is too harsh on individual players who violate rules, did not decide the Fiesta Bowl's BCS fate; the BCS did. Meanwhile, the individuals involved in the Fiesta Bowl malfeasance did get punished. John Junker lost his job, as did several other staffers and board members. Local authorities have begun a criminal investigation, and some of those same people may go to jail. I'd hardly call that a slap on the wrist.

What you're calling for is a more severe punishment against the Fiesta Bowl as an institution, and that may well be merited. But how many times do we complain that the NCAA infractions process winds up penalizing people (like current USC players) who had nothing to do with the crimes committed? Here we have the antithesis of that: The individual perpetrators (that we know of) have been penalized and the institution has been sanctioned ($1 million fine, among other conditions), but innocent bystanders -- like the people of Phoenix whose economy would be negatively impacted were the city to lose the national title game -- didn't get caught in the path. I'm not saying it's a perfect solution, but I don't think it was an injustice, either.

Stewart, I read your Mailbag when my wife doesn't let me look at anything else. But, c'mon "revelatory"?? I don't want to have to look up words in the middle of my reading. And you probably went to Thesaurus.com just to find a fancy word and show your fiancée that you're educated. That means you had a spat. Just buy her some flowers, apologize (even if you were not wrong) and go back to writing English. This is a football column, dude.-- Lazer, Detroit

Thank you?

I know this is a compliment of my vocabulary disguised as a complaint ... but I'll take it, considering all the complaints I normally receive about mixing up "nevertheless" and "much less," using "flaunt" when I mean "flout" and generally bungling the English language.

With the Pac-12 announcing that Colorado and Utah will be playing each other the Friday after Thanksgiving, it is obvious that they want to create a new rivalry. My question is why try to create a new one when Utah already has a great one with BYU? They have been playing each other for almost 90 years and always have close, hard-fought games, and a BYU-Utah game would draw much higher TV ratings than Utah and Colorado. So why is the Pac-12 doing this?-- Shane Hale, Las Vegas

Well first, remember that there was no guarantee the Utah-BYU series would continue once the two went their separate ways last summer. Utah had to scramble and break one of its existing nonconference contracts for this year (a game against Boise State), and it had to find a date that wouldn't conflict with the Pac-12's as-yet-unannounced schedule. Therefore, it scheduled this and next year's games for mid-September.

Larry Scott has made it a point that going forward he wants the stretch run of the season to be reserved primarily for conference games, as a buildup to the championship. In fact, the newly announced deal with ESPN and Fox explicitly restricts nonconference games to the first three weeks of the season, unless all 12 athletic directors grant a waiver. USC and Stanford have already received said waiver for their rotating year-end games with Notre Dame. Presumably Utah could ask for one going forward, but it wasn't likely to push for one as the new kid on the block. In the meantime, it only makes sense that Utah and Colorado (which itself lost its annual Thanksgiving weekend date with Nebraska) fill the mutual void on their schedules.

The upshot is that this year's Holy War will be played in prime time on Sept. 17 on ESPN2 -- as a BYU independent home game, mind you, not a Pac-12 game -- marking the first time in seven years most people outside of Utah will see it. It's at 9:15 p.m. ET, so I'm guessing a lot of folks will flip over in the third quarter after the Oklahoma-Florida State and Ohio State-Miami games end.

Stewart, I love a lot of things about the Mailbag but I really love it when you call out and verbally abuse idiot homers. Cheers to you good man!-- Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Ore.

I sometimes get the feeling people would love nothing more than for me to fill an entire Mailbag with those e-mails and my snarky retorts. But that would delve from amusing to mean, and I'd hate to be known as a party-pooper.

Can you describe for us a hypothetical, 16-team college football playoff scenario in which the outcome would justify the "I told you so" article you'd love to write in your hypothetical future.-- Sean Moran, Austin, Texas

But I don't want to be a party-pooper! Oh, if you insist...

INDIANAPOLIS (Jan. 4, 2024) -- Texas defeated Stony Brook last night in the thrilling iPad 17.0 NCAA Championship Game presented by Five Guys, ending the 13th-seeded Sea Wolves' quest for a Cinderella trophy. The game capped yet another thrilling edition of "December Madness," the 16-team college playoff that's captivated America in the 10 years since a grueling Department of Justice investigation prompted leaders of the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series to finally throw up their hands in defeat and turn over control of the postseason to the folks in Indianapolis.

The 2023-24 tourney set yet another ratings record for ESPNU27, which has helped turn the college postseason into the most popular sporting event outside of the Super Bowl, drawing even more viewers than the 73rd season of Dancing with the Stars (featuring the former baby from the E*Trade commercials).

"These are the greatest four weeks in sports," said Texas head coach Major Applewhite. "We're just so fortunate that our third-string quarterback stepped up after the first two went down earlier in the tournament, and that half our freshman class allowed us to pull their redshirt in the semis. They really sacrificed for the team, just like all those guys in casts back in our locker room."

While Monday night's game served as a memorable finale, the season leading up to it was mostly forgettable. Regular-season attendance was down across the country for the ninth straight year, as fans at Penn State, Nebraska and other schools with large stadiums stopped turning out once their teams were eliminated from playoff contention. This year's Alabama-Auburn game, once the sport's fiercest rivalry, was played in front of 20,000 empty seats, as both teams entered the game just 5-6.

Once upon a time those teams would still have gone into their season finale with bowl berths on the line. However, 28 of the 35 bowl games played in 2010 went out of business within three years of the playoff's inception, as ESPN realized it could get higher ratings airing weeknight shows previewing the following weekend's playoff action than it could showing the Alamo Bowl. The Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls continue, but, much like basketball's NIT, they've become known mostly as scores that run across the ticker during playoff games.

Meanwhile, in the month since the regular season ended, Ohio State, Florida, Iowa and 17 other schools fired coaches who failed to reach the playoffs. All had been on the job no more than three years, now the average tenure for most head coaches.

In other news, Illinois captured the first-ever Limbo League championship last weekend. Upon seeing a drastic decline in fan interest among teams that rarely win their conference (and thus rarely reach the playoff), about half of schools formerly in conferences like the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC could no longer afford to fund their programs and decided to drop down to a newly created NCAA level somewhere between FBS and FCS. The Illini emerged from a field that also included Oregon State, Baylor and N.C. State. Only the SEC remained fully intact, with Ole Miss still dogged in its belief that it will one day climb the mountaintop. It has gone through eight coaches in 10 years.

There are still 64 FBS teams, the symmetry of which has led to an emergency meeting of the NCAA's board of directors next month. There, they will discuss the ongoing debate to expand the tournament to 32 teams.

"It's the right thing to do," said Virginia Tech coach Stan Greenberg, whose team was denied an at-large berth for the seventh straight year. "The system we have now is a joke."

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