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Utah's Holy War edge, Oregon's uncertain future; more Mailbag

Last week, I wrote about some of the implications of Nebraska's historic move to the Big Ten, which became official July 1. Nebraska is unique because it's the lone FBS program in its state. But with two different changes occurring at two different schools in Utah, one could argue that state saw its college football identity shift even more radically.

Both BYU and Utah embarked on a new adventure last Friday (BYU to independence and Utah to the Pac-12). Ignoring revenue differences (frankly a win for both schools), which school has positioned itself for greater long-term success on the field?-- Dave, Provo, Utah

Both programs are substantially better off than they were June 30. While that may be more obvious with Utah, I've been saying for some time now that BYU's bold move looks smarter every day. It will be getting more exposure and TV revenue than ever (seven of its games this season are already slated for ESPN or ESPN2), and its scheduling flexibility will allow it to play in more high-profile games (future opponents include Texas, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, West Virginia and Boise State). However, as long as the current BCS structure remains in place, the best way to reach the BCS and/or the national championship is to play in an AQ conference, which gives Utah a significant edge, even disregarding the fat Pac-12 paycheck.

But the biggest keys to "on field" success are internal, not external. Which program has the better coaching staff and talent in place, or on the way? Again, I give the edge to Utah. You can debate all day whether the Utes' Kyle Whittingham or the Cougars' Bronco Mendenhall has been more successful since their coinciding 2005 ascensions. They have nearly identical records (Whittingham is 57-20, Mendenhall 56-21). Whittingham had the bigger achievement of the two (2008's undefeated Sugar Bowl season) and more recent success (three straight seasons with 10 or more wins), but Mendenhall has more conference championships (two to one) and more double-digit win seasons (four to three). Going forward, however, Whittingham has a slightly more established staff, highlighted by new offensive coordinator Norm Chow (whose predecessor, Dave Schramm, had plenty of good years and remains on staff). Mendenhall, on the other hand, shook up nearly all his key staff during and after last year's 7-6 disappointment, anointing himself defensive coordinator and promoting quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman to offensive coordinator. The moves seemed a bit panicky.

I also expect Utah to reap the benefits of Pac-12 membership in recruiting, allowing the program -- which already recruited heavily in California -- to attract higher-caliber prospects in the highly fertile state. BYU is banking on its increased exposure to boost its national recruiting profile, including the possibility of more non-LDS players. That may be so, but the lure of the Pac-12 still figures to attract more four-star recruits than BYU's unique situation. Short-term, Utah may struggle a bit this season as it adjusts to the grind of a major-conference schedule, but there's no reason Whittingham's program can't contend for at least a division title the following year. BYU may win more games this season, and the Holy War will likely remain a very even rivalry. But until the day BYU either gains AQ-conference affiliation or the sport's postseason model undergoes a radical restructuring, it will always face a ceiling that no longer besets Utah.

As much as I enjoyed last week's refreshing scandal-free Mailbag, I have to ask, how likely is it that Chip Kelly will actually survive long enough to coach a game in the 2011 season with Lyles' most recent accusations that Kelly paid him $25,000 for his influence over recruits and that Kelly asked Lyles to submit the scouting reports retroactively to cover up the purpose of the payment?-- Paul Kemp, Birmingham, Ala.

There's no other way to put it. With Lyles providing the details -- corroborated by that handwritten thank you note, phone records and e-mails that match his described timeline of events --Yahoo! basically caught Kelly red-handed. But as I wrote at the time, there remains some significant ambiguity as to the legality of what Yahoo! caught Kelly doing.

This is not clear-cut like Jim Tressel's unethical conduct violation (Bylaw 10.1). Tressel withheld information from the NCAA and there was a smoking gun e-mail confirming it. He had to go, one way or the other. But what rules, if any, did Oregon break? Certainly, it employed a scouting service the NCAA would not condone, but that in itself is not a major violation. If it's true Lyles chauffeured Kelly around Houston on his recruiting visits, that constitutes a non-sanctioned individual aiding in recruiting. Again, not a major violation by itself. The most serious possibility, of course, is that the NCAA will deem Lyles a "representative of athletic interests" who impermissibly helped recruit players, but at what point did that occur? When he first started interacting with Oregon coaches (around 2007)? Or when he received the $25,000 three years later? Because that makes a huge difference as it pertains to his relationships with LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk. And what of the alleged cover-up Lyles claims Oregon undertook with those retroactive scouting reports? That's Lyles' assertion, but what did Kelly tell the NCAA?

Ultimately, Kelly will survive for as long as Oregon's administration still feels comfortable with Kelly being the face of the program. There's been no indication to this point that Oregon is looking to cut ties, though the more details that come out, the worse Kelly looks. It may also be that some of his staff (like football ops guy Josh Gibson, one of Lyles' point men) and/or the compliance department become the fall guys. One thing to keep in mind: When you talk about decision-makers at Oregon, you have to include Nike mega-booster Phil Knight -- whose opinion may hold more weight than anyone employed by the school. Knight likes Kelly, he likes winning and I don't imagine he's a stickler for mundane NCAA rules. He may well keep supporting Kelly right up until the still-distant day when serious sanctions do or don't come down.

I still remember my shock and dismay at the dismissal of Mike Leach before the 2009 Alamo Bowl. My children and I held signs during the game expressing our extreme disgust for the university president and athletic director. Many fans seemed to be with us but seemed to soon lose interest and jump on the "Tuberville Train." My brother is embarrassed by my inability to move on, but I miss the excitement, seat-filling and sometimes craziness of Leach. Do you see Tech football becoming a player in the "Big 12" again, or do you see Texas and A&M continuing to laugh at us?-- Jayma Vaughan, Georgetown, Texas

I'm sure you're not the only Tech fan pining for the Leach days, and I'm guessing the upcoming July 19 release of his autobiography, Swing Your Sword, is going to reignite some of that bitterness since I'm told it includes more details about Craig James and the events surrounding Leach's ugly exit.

But Tommy Tuberville had a whole lot of success at Auburn, and it's baffling to me how people are universally disregarding the Red Raiders. Tuberville's first year was rocky, particularly on defense, but he made an exceptional coordinator hire in former TCU safeties coach Chad Glasgow. Tech will be breaking in new quarterback Seth Doege, who started one game in 2009, but there's talent around him. I'm not sure I'd peg the Red Raiders to go much above last season's eight wins, but lest we forget, Leach won eight or nine games in seven of his last eight seasons in Lubbock. That one 11-win breakthrough in 2008 was an exception, not the norm. Tech is never going to compete on a year-in, year-out basis with Oklahoma and Texas, but it can certainly stay on par with Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Missouri and occasionally rise up and challenge the Big Two. Be warned, though: In the Big 12's new round-robin era, there's about an 80 percent chance the Sooners or Longhorns will win the conference in any given year as long as Bob Stoops and Mack Brown are still around.

Stewart, that bit last week about Chattanooga playing the past three Heisman winners and title game participants was pretty cool. After doing some digging, I found something that may be equally as cool. In 1991, Florida State played the reigning, soon-to-be, and next-in-line Heisman winners all in the same season. They beat 1990 winner Ty Detmer and BYU 44-28 to open the season in the Pigskin Classic. A couple weeks later they beat '91 winner Desmond Howard and Michigan 51-31 up in Ann Arbor. Then late in the season they lost to 1992 winner Gino Torretta and Miami 17-16 in Wide Right I.-- Matt, Tallahassee, Fla.

Penn State faced four Heisman winners in a row from 1981-84, and six in seven years: USC's Marcus Allen ('81), Georgia's Herschel Walker ('82), Nebraska's Mike Rozier ('83), BC's Doug Flutie ('84), Miami's Vinnie Testaverde ('86) and Notre Dame's Tim Brown ('87). Walker and Testaverde's teams were both ranked No. 1 when Penn State beat them in bowl games, and Rozier's team played for the national title.-- Jon, Falls Church, Va.

These were two of the most unique and impressive submissions from people providing comparisons to Chattanooga's streak. They also made me nostalgic for the days of multiple powerhouse independents and the wealth of intersectional games they created.

I also got a whole bunch of e-mails from SEC fans referencing various feats from the past five years (in which the conference produced five national champions and three Heisman winners). While nearly every team could make some claim to facing a whole bunch of both, I appreciated the humor in this one.

Just a note on the facing multiple Heisman winners: South Carolina won the Heisman for Tim Tebow in 2007, for Mark Ingram in 2009 and for Cam Newton in 2010. It also won the Heisman for Darren McFadden the week before winning it for Tebow in '07.-- Chris, Columbia, S.C.

And South Carolina also played all five national champions.

It's become obvious the lengths the NCAA (Read: College Presidents) is willing to go to keep from having to share any money, or, as it likes to put it, "preserve the integrity of amateur athletics." Being that it is utterly futile to try to suppress an economic market the size of college athletics, which is what the NCAA is trying to do with its Draconian rules and useless bureaucracy, what would stop a venture capital firm from setting up a group of "minor league" football organizations? The players could be paid whatever the market would be willing to stand, learn the game, as well as be eligible for the NFL after three years. Would such a thing be viable?-- Matthew, Lubbock, Texas

With all the scandal in college sports this year, most of which involved money changing hands, it's become increasingly popular to portray the players as poor, exploited peasants toiling against their wills for the benefit of their privileged overlords. It's a provocative analogy, and it feeds into our country's greater contempt for authority and rich people, but it's such a grossly misguided generalization of the college athlete population. Yes, many NCAA rules are outdated or unfair to the players. But the vast majority of college football players do not walk around bemoaning their place in the system, or seeking out the nearest Edward Rife to help attain their "market value." While nearly every player dreams of the NFL, the overwhelming majority want a college diploma and understand the significance of a scholarship. And if they don't, their parents do.

There are exceptions, obviously. Plenty of kids come from underprivileged backgrounds where academics were never deemed a priority. Many either have little aptitude or interest in attending college, and for them, I really do wish there was some sort of viable alternative like the one Matthew's proposing. Baseball players can sign straight out of high school. NBA hopefuls can spend their year-in-limbo in the D-league or (like Brandon Jennings) in Europe. Football doesn't have that, and maybe it should. But to think that model would compete with or supplant college football is absurd. For one, Alabama or Ohio State fans aren't going to suddenly switch their allegiances from their favorite school to their favorite minor league team. Just the term "minor league" carries a negative connotation for fans. And the benefit for players would be negligible. Maybe they'd make a few bucks, but unless these same venture capitalists are going to pony up and buy away Nick Saban, Bob Stoops and Gary Patterson, players who bypass college won't be receiving the best possible preparation for a pro career.

The next time you hear someone bemoan how evil the current system is to college players, go online, do some research and try to figure the financial value of a full four-year scholarship (average: $200,000), a dedicated academic support staff, strength trainers and medical professionals and tutelage from some of the most respected leaders in one's chosen field -- a field in which potential career earnings could reach into the tens of millions. Admittedly, whatever that number is will still not be in the same ballpark as Mack Brown's $5 million salary or the Pac-12's $250 million TV deal. However, I also guarantee the disparity won't be nearly as great as that of, say, IBM's annual revenue ($99 billion), its CEO's salary ($30.3 million) and that of the software engineers who actually produce the products (roughly $150,000). That's the way the world works, folks, not just the NCAA.

While it doesn't detract from the point you were making, compact discs were around in 1986. I had a CD player by then, along with maybe seven CDs. (I think the first one I bought was Foreigner's first album.)-- Mark, Austin, Texas

You must have been the cool kid in school. I don't recall seeing one until about 1989 (my first purchase was most likely Def Leppard's Hysteria). Next you're going to tell me you had a Twitter account in 2007.

You mentioned in your most recent Mailbag that you have purposely been avoiding using the Big Ten's new division names. Every Big Ten fan I know thinks they are the dumbest names ever, and time has not changed anyone's opinion. Jim Delany initially indicated he would reconsider following the initial uproar, but we haven't heard anything recently. I'm concerned that without additional pressure from the media it will be forgotten. Has there been any additional discussion about changing the names recently?-- Mike Johnson, Frisco, Texas

The names, unfortunately, are not going anywhere. Delany made those comments last December just to quell the storm. When I talked to him at the Rose Bowl a few weeks later, he didn't sound like a guy planning to go back to the drawing board. Since that time, the conference has spent countless hours and money beating viewers over the head with those "One Conference, Two Divisions" PSAs heralding the new names. While I would expect (and hope) the punch lines to pick up again come fall, by season's end we'll probably be conditioned to begrudgingly accept the names.

That is -- unless fans stage a massive protest at the conference title game. Maybe each division winner's fans can print up T-shirts declaring themselves "East" and "West" champs.

Hello Stewart, just want to say I enjoy reading your column. I'm a big fan of the Oregon Ducks and although I'm happy that they made it to the BCS title game this year, I was also disappointed that they lost the game. Chip Kelly is now 0-2 in BCS games so far, and unfortunately (and hoping to be wrong) I'm seeing him as the Pac-12's Bo Schembechler, i.e., coaches teams to great regular seasons but almost always loses the big bowl games.-- John Akimoto, Honolulu, Hawaii

I'm guessing both you and Chip have bigger causes for concern right now.

Come on, Stewart. We were (somehow) tied with two minutes left in a BCS title game. Oregon. In football. When Oregon took over the top spot in the AP poll, I'd sit in my chair and just stare at that No. 1 spot with our name. Chip is a hero, Stewart. If police caught Coach stealing kids' candy bags on Halloween night, he'd still be doing it "the right way."-- Shawn Ihle, Redneck Riviera, Fla.

Or not.

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