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Surprise team facing Week 1 statement game; more mail

Among the eight million reasons the college football season is so captivating: It's not just about whether a team wins or loses, but about what that win or loss means. In a sport where perception (by fans, by poll voters, by recruits, etc.) carries nearly as much weight as actual results, we can't help but attach added significance to the final scores.

The coaches and players will tell us "it's just one game," but we're not having that. No sir. What's the point of even lining up if not to "make a statement?"

Most opening-weekend games are not usually big statements games, but there are a few are this year. Boise State is going to Georgia to prove it can be a national title contender, Oregon is going to LSU to show it can compete with the SEC and BYU is going to Ole Miss to prove it can get things done as an independent. Which opening-day statement game is the most important for which team?-- Shane Hale, Las Vegas

My answer is: D) None of the above. Boise certainly can't play for the national title without beating Georgia, but the Broncos have beaten better teams before. And while the SEC milestone would be huge, it wouldn't legitimize the Broncos any more than beating Virginia Tech did last year. Similarly, I know Oregon would love some SEC bragging rights, particularly after the Auburn loss, but it's not like the Ducks are hurting for national respect. And Shane is a BYU fan, but frankly I'm puzzled by why that one's even on the list. The Cougars faced better teams than Ole Miss when they were in the Mountain West. We'll need at least a full season, if not longer, to truly gauge whether independence is working for them.

As I wrote Monday, the team on Shane's list that most needs to make a statement this weekend is Georgia. As quarterback Aaron Murray said this summer: "It's a great way to put us back on the map." From 2002-07, Mark Richt's program won two SEC titles, went to three BCS games and finished in the top 10 five out of six seasons. But over the past three years, during a time when the SEC has never been more nationally visible, the Bulldogs have sunk into mediocrity, bottoming out at 6-7 last year. This is a team few outside of Athens would be talking about this preseason if not for this Boise game.

So while it bucks the conventional AQ vs. non-AQ narrative, in this case the SEC team is the one that could really use a primetime win over a top five team to show it's still got a pulse. And it goes without saying that Richt, despite owning the fourth-highest winning percentage in the country (.738), needs to show he's got things back on the upswing or risk the vultures circling tighter. Technically Georgia's Week 2 game against South Carolina is more important because of the division-title implications, but the Boise game is going to impact the Dawgs' perception far more.

And isn't that really what we mean about making a statement?

So ... five games for getting a tattoo (if you're a Buckeye), but only one game for visiting a gentleman's club (if you're a Hurricane)? Really? Are the words "tattoo" or "gentleman's club" even written, specifically, anywhere in the NCAA bylaws, or is someone coming up with these punishments using a dartboard?-- Wood, Minneapolis

Actually, this is a rare instance where the NCAA is not using the dartboard. The reinstatement staff has written guidelines for the length of a suspension based on the dollar amount of the benefits. For instance, a player who receives $100 to $300 in benefits is supposed to sit 10 percent of the season -- which comes to one football game out of 12. A player who receives $500 or more is supposed to sit 30 percent -- or four out of 12. The NCAA said the Tattoo 5 all received between $1,000 and $2,500 in benefits, hence the four-game suspensions (plus an additional game because, according to the NCAA, "they did not immediately disclose the violations when presented with the appropriate rules education.") By contrast, the five Miami players who got one-game suspensions all received $400 or fewer.

The guidelines are not ironclad by any means, as the staff is supposed to consider "if a significant competitive advantage was gained, the student-athlete's responsibility for the violations and any mitigating circumstances." Last year Alabama's Marcell Dareus got what by dollar amount should have been a four-game suspension reduced to two for "mitigating circumstances" that were never revealed. And I assume Miami defensive lineman Olivier Vernon's suspension went from four games to six because it involved his recruitment, hence a competitive advantage. The real question isn't how the NCAA came up with these punishments; it's how did it come up with exact dollar values for all those drinks, cover charges and lap dances from three years ago?

More of a comment than a question regarding your Oregon-LSU breakdown. Besides their physicality, another similarity between the nonconference teams that have beaten Oregon the last two years is that Boise State, Ohio State and Auburn all had extra time to prepare for the Ducks' offense. Teams with just one week to prepare are going to struggle, but teams with extra time have also had the chance to implement more effective schemes. LSU has the same opportunity.-- Jamie S., Beaverton, Ore.

No question, that's certainly another element to consider, though I'm not sure it's about Xs and Os. Oregon has the same amount of extra time as its opponents to prepare its own "more effective" schemes. But I have to believe conditioning comes in to play when facing Oregon's offense. Given the absurd tempo at which the Ducks operate, you'd much rather play them with fresh legs than, say, in Week 9, when teams are banged up. There's also the rust factor. Offenses often struggle with execution the first week of the season and early in BCS games after such a long layoff. That, too, can work against an offense like Oregon's that is so precision based.

But maybe we're just overthinking this. Boise, OSU and Auburn were all end-of-season top five teams the years they beat the Ducks. Maybe they were just that much better. If Oregon is more talented than LSU, it should win Saturday night, schemes or layoffs be damned. But judging by recruiting rankings and LSU's recent track record, the Tigers' defense should be just as talented if not more so than those other elite groups that felled the Ducks, so this will be a game where Oregon's execution and Chip Kelly's creativity need to be in top form.

I feel bad for Boise State. If it beats Georgia, the SEC apologists among us will proclaim that, "Well, that wasn't one of the Bulldogs' better teams." If the Broncos lose, it will be paraded around as prima facie evidence that the Broncos have always been, and will always be, overrated. Can this Pac-12 fan do anything to make people call it before the game ends, and spare us the revisionist analysis on Sunday morning?-- Jonathan, Sacramento, Calif.

Not a chance. No SEC team has ever lost a nonconference game that couldn't be washed away by some indisputable excuse (Darren McFadden wasn't healthy when USC beat Arkansas 50-14; Alabama wasn't "up" for the Sugar Bowl when it got crushed by Utah). Likewise, every nonconference opponent every SEC team has ever beaten was slower, smaller and outcoached. This is actually the real reason Texas A&M wants to join the conference: Better spin.

Hi Stewart, just wanted to find out whether you were as shocked as I was when I FINALLY(!) got a look at Texas' 2011 depth chart this morning. After going three years without a premier workhorse back, Texas names their stud five-star/potential program savior Malcolm Brown not to be their starter, not even second-string, but as third-string behind both Fozzy Whittaker and fellow frosh Joe Bergeron. Is this a simple and direct indictment of Malcolm's progress in camp, or is there more to this and/or is this type of thing more typical than I'd believed?-- Scott Aeschliman, Portland, Ore.

I was indeed shocked -- shocked to learn that Fozzy Whitaker is still at Texas. That does not seem humanly possible. Wasn't he in Chris Simms' recruiting class? But seriously, no matter how heavily hyped, no matter how many of us peg him with the "phenom" tag, it's asking a lot of a freshman to come in and win a starting job after three weeks of practices. Georgia's Isaiah Crowell, the other similarly acclaimed runner in this class, looks like he'll play significantly Saturday, but the Dawgs also don't have a lot of other options.

From what I've been told, Whitaker had an impressive camp. Co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin called him "tremendous." But he's a fifth-year senior who's averaged 4.3 yards a carry. He may well be improved, perhaps in part thanks to the new offense, but he obviously has a ceiling. You'll note that Brown is not listed as third string, but co-No. 2 with Bergeron, a less heralded member of the same recruiting class (he was a three-star prospect). Bergeron is more of a power runner, while Brown is more elusive. My guess is we'll see all three early on, and perhaps Brown will eventually emerge as the go-to guy, but recruiting is an inexact science. It wouldn't be stunning if Bergeron keeps pace with Brown. It will be shocking if Whitaker turns into a 1,400-yard back.

Regarding the guy who said OU has no chance of winning the BCS because the state is landlocked: Oklahoma "has more man-made lakes than any other state, with over 1 million acres of water and 2,000 more miles of shoreline than the Atlantic and Gulf coasts combined." (Source) So I'd say the preseason No. 1 ranking is well-deserved.-- RB, Rockwall, Texas

Wow, look at that. Come for the football, stay for the geography lesson.

Come on Stew, the Gophers have six national titles. So maybe the lakes theory is true!-- AP, Golden Valley, Minn.

Did the lakes freeze over 50 years ago?

Everyone knows that the Pac-12 is loaded with great offensive players this year (Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley, Darron Thomas, LaMichael James, et. al.), and it seems that the country views the Pac-12 as an "offensive" conference. The defenses out here are pretty good, too, but defensive players are getting no media attention outside of Cliff Harris' driving skills. Anyway, I was debating with a co-worker on who the defensive MVP could be. I said Washington defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu and he said Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict. Is it either one of the two or another? Thanks.-- Tyler, Seattle, Wash.

The country views the Pac-12 as an offensive conference because it is. The reason USC was able to sustain such dominance under Pete Carroll is because it was the rare program in that conference that managed to assemble enough elite defensive talent to handle the challenge of repeatedly facing NFL-caliber quarterbacks. (Case in point: During its 34-game winning streak from 2003-05, it faced Aaron Rodgers, Derek Anderson, Kellen Clemens and Trent Edwards, among others.) And I'd argue the league's quarterback crop last year and this year is particularly strong.

But the league does have a history of producing elite individual defensive players at schools other than USC, like Oregon State's Stephen Paea and UCLA's Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore last season. I'm guessing by your hometown that your pick of Ta'Amu for this year is a partisan one, and no question he's a budding star. He was a monster in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska. But Burfict has to be the overwhelming favorite. He may be the most physically gifted defensive player in the country and the only thing that will keep him from a dominating season is himself. His oft-noted temper is no joking matter at this point. If he does wind up derailing himself, I'd keep an eye on two other candidates: USC defensive end Nick Perry, who as a full-time starter should increase on last season's 7.5 sacks; and UCLA defensive end Datone Jones, who, after missing last season with a broken foot, could be one of the conference's breakout players this season.

Is the decision by the Committee on Infractions on the penalties to Tennessee a prelude to the hearing for Ohio State? I know the charges are different from the standpoint of where the violations occurred, but both are centered more on the head coach and his lack of forthcoming to the school. This leads me to believe the NCAA may accept OSU's self imposed sanctions as well and go the show-cause route with Tressel. What do you think?-- Steve, Mobile, Ala.

I agree 100 percent. We've long known the Ohio State case would end with Jim Tressel receiving a show-cause penalty (in which a coach is prevented from recruiting for an NCAA member school for a certain length of time, essentially making him unhireable); the only question is for how long. Pearl received three years for initially lying about the details of an incriminating photo of himself with a recruit and attempting to coerce the recruit's father to do the same. I have no idea whether the committee will consider Tressel's failure to report the memorabilia violations more or less seriously, but figure three years to be the ballpark estimate. And the NCAA's case against Ohio State is even more coach-centric than its Tennessee case, which also included impermissible phone calls, a failure to monitor charge against the school and, originally, a major violation in football (which the committee reduced to secondary).

It's interesting that at a time when figures all around college sports are calling for stiffer enforcement and penalties, the current committee (headed by MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas) has been rather lenient in its high-profile cases so far.

Why do you and other writers call picks like these "projections"? Projections implies a certain knowledge of outcome, such as election results projections which are based on actual data. These are guesses, and mostly, you guys are wrong.-- Dennis Secret, Coquitlam, BC, Canada

You caught me. For the most part they're guesses. Except when I'm right, in which case they're the results of extensive data study and those giant touch-screens and holograms CNN uses on election night.

Just a compliment here: Your College Football TV Roundtable was impressive to say the least, and it's made me more loyal to the SI brand. The article itself is impressive and bold, for all the reasons many other e-mails have surely flooded your inbox by now. Props to both you and SI for having the courage to publish such an article.-- John Bowen, Atlanta

Give credit to Richard Deitsch, SI.com's sports media guru, who came up with the concept and the questions. I had no idea when I gave my answers that it would garner the reaction that it has. Normally when a writer expresses a strong opinion about something, no matter the subject, he can usually expect reactions both positive and negative. This was a very rare occasion where nearly every single e-mail and tweet the other panelists and I received was along the lines of this one -- including many thanking us just for writing it.

College football fans will never agree on which conference is the best, which teams are overrated or underrated, whether there should be a playoff, whether players should be paid -- but they do seem to universally despise Craig James.

Irony: The Oregon/Will Lyles NCAA investigation moves to LSU, an LSU player (Russell Shepard) discusses the investigation with a teammate and gets benched for the Oregon game. So, at least for one game, Oregon actually benefits from the NCAA investigation into Oregon. Can this get any crazier? -- Kevin Brunson, Collierville, Tenn.

This summer has taught me that whatever you think is the wildest possible story is probably just a precursor to something else. I'm ready for summer to be over. Kick it off, fellas.

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