Thursday May 26th, 2011

Our time is short. I have a wedding to get to -- my wedding, this weekend -- and you have many questions. You're also the only people in my life right now whose most pressing query isn't "Are you nervous?" So the Mailbag is a welcome diversion.

Stewart, tell us about the Big-Ten's proposal for "full-cost tuition" scholarships. This is such a big and potentially game changing development I don't even know where to begin asking a question. Is this good for college football, or does this make it more of a professional sport than ever now that there's a player compensation model in place? -- Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Ore.

In light of the NCAA and several conferences discussing increasing athlete living allowances, regardless of whether a student athlete needs $5,000 to "live" when all meals, books, medical expenses, rent, etc. are paid by scholarships, how can a MAC or Sun Belt school afford to pay more when their athletic departments are already in the red? Is this the end of "little guys" competing with the BCS schools and exactly what they want? -- RJ, Columbus, Ohio

To be clear, the Big Ten hasn't formally proposed anything yet, but at last week's conference meetings the attendees made a point of letting everyone know they'd begun discussing the issue. In so doing, they sent a signal to their FBS colleagues that perhaps they ought to be discussing it too (they are) and that perhaps a formal NCAA proposal may not be too far off (President Mark Emmert has already hinted on numerous occasions that it should be discussed).

Is it good for college football? That depends on whether you think the current model is "bad." I don't believe that to be the case. My one beef, as I've said on multiple occasions, is the use of a player's individual likeness by a school and the NCAA to sell jerseys, video games, etc., which seems so unfair it should be illegal, and which a court will eventually rule on in the Ed O'Bannon/Sam Keller lawsuit. But to think college football players aren't already compensated is a slap in the face to any regular college student who's ever had to pay four years of tuition on his or her own, doesn't get to take charter flights and stay in four-star hotels on the road and eats regular dining hall food rather than feasting on the lavish, nutritionist-supervised training tables at most programs.

But many do feel college football players are exploited due to the millions in revenue their programs generate. The full-cost scholarship has become the NCAA's and schools' most realistic stopgap. They're not going to start paying players a salary for reasons both philosophical and practical, but, considering academic scholarships do already include "cost of living," this is a fair and reasonable way to provide some small form of compensation. It's good for the athletes; whether it's good for the sport depends on the ramifications.

As RJ suggests, one likely ramification would be the creation of an even bigger gap between the major football-playing schools, which could easily afford the extra $2 million or so a year thanks to their lucrative new contracts, and the lower-level FBS schools, which could not. But as Ohio State AD Gene Smith pointed out quite bluntly: Why are Big Ten schools obligated to do what's right for the Sun Belt? I happen to agree. Yes, they play in the same NCAA division, but they are two completely different sets of schools with two completely different circumstances. No one is forcing Louisiana-Monroe to play FBS football. If it can't afford the new costs, it can always drop down to the FCS.

While many will view this through the BCS/non-BCS prism, I don't believe this is part of some conspiracy to job the "little guys." This is not even a competitive issue; it's an ethical one. As their TV contracts get richer and richer, the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, et. al are facing significant pressure to compensate their athletes, and they view full-cost scholarships as a possible solution. The MAC getting caught in the crossfire would be an unintended consequence, but one that would cause enough concern to complicate pushing through legislation that would appease the majority of members. Only six of the 18 members of the Division I board of directors represent BCS conferences. As John Infante, author of the NCAA's Bylaw Blog, recently wrote, it's time for FBS football to "pick a side."

Brady Hoke has turned heads with the number, and quality, of recruits he has verbal commitments from in the 2012 class and his ability to pull together a decent 2011 class. Any insight into what his message has been that seems to resonate with these kids? -- Andy, Green Bay, Wis.

I haven't sat in a room with Hoke, so I don't know the particulars of his recruiting pitch, but I'd imagine one of the central selling points is: Michigan. One of the most predictable recruiting trends, without failure, is that whenever a new coach takes over a traditionally strong program that's fallen on hard times, his first full recruiting class is always a monster. That's a given. He's selling from a position of strength: Come in and help bring back Texas/USC/Ohio State/Notre Dame/Alabama/Michigan back to glory. One of the few recent exceptions was Rich Rodriguez's first full class three years ago, which was probably a sign of things to come.

What's interesting to me about Hoke's class so far is that it's so intensely focused on three specific positions: linebacker (four commits), defensive end (three) and offensive line (two, with several more expected). Not only are these hallmarks of the physical style of football Hoke plans to bring back, but those defensive recruits (also including two cornerbacks, most notably Detroit standout Terry Richardson) must realize they can come in and play right away, and I'm guessing renowned defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is a big draw as well.

But again, this is what Hoke is supposed to be doing in his first full recruiting cycle. Anything less would be cause for alarm.

What are the chances that Texas A&M's late season success (minus the Cotton Bowl) was not just a football mirage? Has Mike Sherman finally figured out how to be a college coach? -- Dave, Amarillo, Texas

The Aggies took significant strides last season, and I was impressed by several moves Sherman made. He hired one of the finest college defensive coordinators in the country in former Air Force assistant Tim DeRuyter, who immediately helped upgrade A&M from 105th to 55th nationally in total defense. A year earlier, Sherman adopted the Gus Malzahn-style hurry-up offense, though the tempo wasn't nearly as big a factor in A&M's 2010 success as Sherman's difficult but necessary midseason switch to quarterback Ryan Tannehill. All in all, Sherman has been far less of a conservative, NFL clone than some other head coaches with similar backgrounds like Chan Gailey and Bill Callahan.

But this season will be the real indicator of Sherman's long-term potential. The Aggies will enter Week 1 amid their highest expectations in many years. Even with two other Big 12 teams (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) likely to start higher in the preseason polls, A&M could well begin the year in the top 10, and fans will expect the Aggies to contend for the conference title. That's not an unrealistic goal given the bevy of returning talent on offense, including Tannehill, receiver Jeff Fuller, running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael and practically the entire offensive line. But it won't be easy to replace linebackers Von Miller and Michael Hodges, the biggest keys by far to A&M's defense last season.

It's important for Sherman that the program builds on last season's success and doesn't slip back toward mediocrity. Because remember, even Callahan (2006 Big 12 North title) and Gailey (2006 ACC Coastal title) had their moments. Both were fired a year later.

Yes, you should do a column where all you do is call out idiots. Not all the time, just on special occasions, but I think A LOT of readers would get a kick out of that. Just once would be OK too. -- Eric M., St. Petersburg, Fla.

OK, I'll keep that in mind. In the meantime, I'll spotlight one particular idiot later in this column.

You implied at the end of your article last week that oversigning has minimal effect on the product on the field, but obviously all the SEC coaches you mentioned feel differently or they wouldn't open themselves up to this scrutiny. It's common sense that a larger pool to draw from gives you a better chance to field a good team. -- Luke, Grand Rapids, Mich.

To clarify, I'm not saying oversigning doesn't create a competitive advantage for the teams that do it. However, the effect is more profound within the SEC than outside of it. Obviously, weeding out underperformers and bringing in a larger pool of recruits allows teams to build more quality depth, which becomes incredibly important over the course of a 12- or 13-game season. The main reason Nick Saban oversigns is because his direct competitors do, too. As I said in the article, if the SEC does adopt some sort of uniform rule limiting oversigning and its accompanying tactics, it's going to hurt schools like Ole Miss and South Carolina a lot more than it will Alabama, which has the cachet to produce a championship team without it. In the meantime, though, Nick Saban isn't going to voluntarily cede a tactical edge to Auburn or Arkansas.

However, I stand by the statement that, "While Big Ten fans would like to believe otherwise, oversigning is not the primary reason the SEC has won all those BCS championships." On the list of reasons why the SEC has won five straight national titles, oversigning would fall well below more relevant factors like the decades-long population shift and exorbitant coaching salaries (including for assistants). Also, in a single-game setting like the BCS title game, when it's both teams' best 45 or so players out there, depth is not the deciding factor. And while Alabama may sign more players over a four-year period than Ohio State, the few players the schools recruit head-to-head are the very elite national prospects either school would hold a spot for, no matter the signing-class limits.

Remember, Florida, which won two of the SEC's five straight titles, does not condone oversigning. So there goes that excuse.

I have personally witnessed many academic scholarship recipients lose their scholarship for "not performing," i.e. not making the grades. Why is it wrong, then, to take away a football player's scholarship who is not performing to a standard? Oversigning is complex as you have noted, but all other scholarships have set standards that have to be met each year. Oversigning gives more kids the chance for an education. Are you blind to this? -- David Horn, Irvington, Ala.

Either I'm blind or bad at math, because I fail to see how taking away one player's scholarship to make room for another creates more educational opportunities.

Yes, students on academic scholarships must meet a certain standard to retain them, but that standard is tangible: maintain a 3.0 GPA, for instance. However, the standard for what constitutes an underperforming football player is completely subjective and entirely at a coach's discretion. I don't believe a player should be automatically guaranteed a four-year scholarship. It's one thing if he gets in trouble, isn't showing up to meetings or conditioning drills, etc. But many of the "cuts" you're seeing in SEC land right now are due to nothing more than a coach saying, "You're not as good as we thought you were when we recruited you, you're probably never going to see the field here, so we think it's best you go elsewhere." In doing so, that coach is most likely depriving the player of his opportunity to finish his degree at that school (unless he can afford to pay his own way) and encouraging him to transfer and complete his degree at a less renowned institution. I'm sorry, but messing with a kid's future is not worth getting back one scholarship for the next recruiting class.

"But that would delve from amusing to mean." Delve? Sigh ... I think you meant "devolve." And only a short way below admitting how often you're bashed for "bungling the English language." -- Sam, Montgomery, Ala.

Please allow me to add to the list of complaints about misused words. In discussing Oklahoma State's offense you wrote there is no UNDERSTATING the impact Dana Holgorsen had. I think you really meant there is no OVERSTATING his impact. -- Gerry Swider, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

You wanted me to start calling out morons? Well, the first up is ... me.

Just writing to say that your hypothetical article for a 16-team playoff was well done! I had a good laugh, but you made some serious points. Score one for Mandel. -- Benjamin Caire, Golden, Colo.

You wrote in your last Mailbag that having a playoff would kill all the bowl games not directly involved in it. Why do you think so? Those games matching two 7-5 teams are meaningless already, so it isn't as though a playoff would change anything. -- Andrew, Nashville

I was pleased to see how well-received the playoff parody was. The point, Andrew, is that everything would change the day a full-scale playoff was implemented. Right now, the goal of every team going into its season is to win its conference, but short of that, to reach a decent bowl game. A game between two 7-5 teams may be meaningless to some, but to, say, Kansas State, it was the mark of a successful season last year. Wildcats fans were pumped.

But with a 16-game playoff, the only goal for every team in the country will be reaching that playoff, just like in the NFL, NBA, baseball, etc. As I laid out in that hypothetical, the reality is that teams like Kansas State aren't going to make a playoff very often, and they're not going to be excited about going to the Pinstripe Bowl instead any more than K-State basketball fans get excited about going to the NIT. And so, bye-bye bowl games, and bye-bye casual fans whose schools aren't regular playoff contenders because there are 120 teams, not 32, and there's no draft or salary cap to facilitate parity.

Some playoff proponents will say that's a worthy sacrifice to be able to crown an undisputed national champion, and maybe so. The point of my parody was that you can't look at these things in a vacuum. People like Andrew assume you can just add a playoff and everything else about college football would go on as it does now. In reality, there would be seismic changes that would fundamentally alter all aspects of the sport, for better and worse.

You said a non-SEC team would win the 2024 National Championship. Ha, ha, ha. -- Mark Mills, Las Vegas

In 2024, the SEC will be required to sign five fewer players than everybody else.

And with that, I bid you adieu for a few weeks. I'd be lying if I said I'll be giving much thought to oversigning, the BCS or the Committee on Infractions while strolling Jardin des Tuileries on my honeymoon, but I'm sure it will all be waiting when I get back.

In the meantime, I look forward to bungling other countries' languages for a change.

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