In visiting a couple of campuses this week for upcoming stories, I'm reminded of what a uniquely uplifting rite this time of year can be. With new and returning students all converging from their respective hometowns, you can feel the anticipation in the air that comes with the start of a new school year.
Unfortunately, the biggest story in college football this past week involved a player who got sent home.
Jordan Jefferson last year and now the Honey Badger. Would you say things are ugly in Baton Rouge, or has Les Miles done a good job of disciplining despite superstar status? How would you rate his job as a mentor compared to other programs?-- Jeff, Hyrum, Utah
As you know, nearly every team in the country has players dismissed for disciplinary reasons almost every single year. This year in particular has not been particularly stellar for once-celebrated running backs (Georgia's Isaiah Crowell, Auburn-turned-Arkansas State's Michael Dyer) or cornerback/punt return fiends (Florida State's Greg Reid and now Tyrann Mathieu). For the most part, however, the overwhelming majority of disciplinary cases involve backup safeties or linemen you've never heard from.
In general LSU has had fewer off-field issues under Miles than most programs of its ilk. Unfortunately for Miles, though, the ones he's had -- going back to former quarterback Ryan Perrilloux -- have often involved some of his highest-profile players. I'm not sure that's a reflection of the coach, nor is it necessarily a total coincidence. The more hoopla a player receives, the more temptations he's exposed to, and the more he might start to think he's above the law. Miles oversees 100-plus players. It's no surprise if two or three get into some sort of trouble. But it's going to generate a lot more headlines when those two or three are Perrilloux, Jefferson and Honey Badger.
As for how Miles handled each case, I'd say it's a mixed bag. The oft-troubled Perrilloux seemed to get nearly as many chances as college football world record-holder Stephen Garcia (and once we saw Perriloux's eventual replacements, we found out why). The initial allegation against Jefferson -- that he kicked a man in the face -- may have warranted more than a month's suspension, but a grand jury ultimately reduced the charge to a misdemeanor in part based on Jefferson's testimony. And Mathieu's situation was all but taken out of Miles' hands. It's been reported that Mathieu failed a drug test, which would have been his third at LSU, which, according to school policy, automatically garnered a year's suspension. Whether Miles chose to make the dismissal permanent or that too was in keeping with university protocol, Mathieu wasn't going to play for the Tigers in 2012.
In none of those cases did Miles act all that differently from how most coaches would. There are some (Mark Richt, for example) who tend to take harder-line stances, but when you're never more than a bad year or two from the hot seat, no matter your career record, it's a lot easier to cast off a trouble-making third-string tackle than the starting quarterback or a returning Heisman finalist cornerback.
I find Les Miles' statement on the Honey Badger curious. If Mathieu was really a "quality" guy, would he have violated team rules and got dismissed from the team? He cares nothing about the team and nothing about his teammates, selfish. Why would Les say he'll help him in every way possible? Dump this clown and move on. There's no quality in this kid.-- Mark Rusin, Naperville, Ill.
And you know this how? I can't imagine Mathieu has spent too much time in Naperville, so I find it curious how you could be a better judge of his character than the coach who's spent three years around him.
Mathieu screwed up, multiple times. I'm not here to make excuses for him. But I have a problem with people passing judgment on 20-year-old kids they don't know based on a quote or a headline they read. I met Mathieu a couple of times, but I don't claim to know him. I do know, based on a riveting profile last January by my new colleague Thayer Evans, that his mother had little role in his upbringing and his father is serving a life sentence for murder. The grandfather who initially cared for him died when he was five, his aunt and uncle raised him, and at one point they got displaced by Hurricane Katrina. I could see, therefore, why Miles might want to help the kid. And while there's no excuse for violating a team rule three times knowing full well the consequences, Mathieu has not been charged with a crime. As far as I know he's never been accused of a violent act against another person, just of getting high. If that makes someone a clown, then Barnum & Bailey should probably start recruiting at every college campus in America.
Do you think the hiring of Mike Aresco will help the Big East obtain prominence in the coming years? Besides winning big games during the regular season and hopefully the occasional win in a reputable bowl game, what else can the Big East possibly do in the near future to stay "in the game" for a title shot?-- Gerald Woods, Tampa
The Big East set out to find its own Larry Scott -- the outsider who comes in and remakes a conference's media image -- and industry observers agree it accomplished just that with Aresco. It's becoming clear that the Big East's future will hinge a great deal on its upcoming television negotiations this fall, and the Big East essentially went one step farther than even the Pac-12 -- which hired Scott for his acumen negotiating pro tennis television deals -- by hiring an actual television executive. In this case, however, Aresco has dealt extensively with college properties for nearly three decades, including the most recent NCAA tournament deal. Not that we needed it, but this is the clearest indication yet that television now runs college sports, not the other way around.
The upcoming TV deal will be crucial for the league. It's not realistic that the conference would get Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12 money, but if it could get something approaching the ACC's recent ESPN deal ($17 million), it would send a message of strength. ESPN will obviously bid to keep the league, but NBC figures to make a strong push, and now perhaps CBS will as well. But ultimately, as Gerald wrote, it's all about the on-field product. One or more of the incoming programs needs to show it can compete on the national level. When it comes to marquee bowl access, the Big East will likely be treated much the same as the current non-AQ leagues, simply because most of its programs have demonstrated limited TV appeal and travel bases. However, the four-team playoff is open to everybody, and I find it hard to imagine an undefeated Cincinnati, USF or anyone else would be left out at the expense of four one-loss (or more) teams.
Stewart, for several years you had an amusing Mailbag discussion of players who seem to have been eligible to play college football forever (I think you called them "eighth year seniors"). Are there any such candidates this year?-- Tom, Los Angeles
Have we really not played that game yet? That tells you it's been quite the busy offseason.
The undisputed captain of the 2012 edition is Purdue quarterback Robert Marve, who initially committed to Miami when Larry Coker was still the coach. Seriously. His teammates this year include USF quarterback B.J. Daniels, Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel, Alabama center Barrett Jones, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, LSU receiver Russell Shepard, Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, Temple (formerly Boston College) running back Montel Harris, Arizona (formerly Texas) receiver Dan Buckner, Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray and Iowa State linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein.
I welcome other nominees.
With the Ohio State and Penn State situations duly noted, I still fail to see why Wisconsin is getting so much love. Sure, Montee Ball's return is great and they have another fun media story with the Maryland quarterback transfer, Danny O'Brien, but they lost (practically) their ENTIRE coaching staff! They all just hauled up and moved to Pitt. I happen to think losing an entire staff is harder for a program to recover from than losing a crop of successful seniors. What say you?-- Rob, Seattle
I share your concerns. With all due respect to Bret Bielema, who's done a fantastic job with the Badgers (three 11- or 12-win seasons in six years), we're going to find out this season just how much of the Badgers' offensive success of late was due to Paul Chryst and his staff. He deserves a lot of the credit. Sure, Wisconsin has been churning out All-American linemen and 1,000-yard rushers since the Barry Alvarez days, so it's easy to assume the program is simply self-sustaining at this point, but Chryst had a noticeable impact on the Badgers' passing attack. Their quarterbacks got notably more efficient after Chryst came aboard in 2005, topping out with record-setter Russell Wilson last year. Ball will get his yards, but just how many he gets will depend in large part on how well new coordinator Matt Canada deploys O'Brien, thus creating play-action opportunities.
Even so, it's hard to envision a scenario where the Badgers don't go back to Indianapolis. Either they'd have to completely fall apart, or Illinois or Purdue will have to break out one of their best seasons in years. And knowing that, it's easy to see why so many would pick Wisconsin to threepeat its way to Pasadena. But in the conference pecking order, I'd actually put the Badgers fourth this year, behind Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, albeit very bunched together (and with Nebraska not far behind those), all of them amongst the nation's Top 15 to 20 teams.
You have noted in the past that schools penalized with scholarship reductions are put at a big disadvantage from a recruiting standpoint. Maybe I'm ignorant as I was never a high school All-American, but can't having fewer scholarships actually work in a program's favor? For example, if you are a five-star recruit and you are being recruited by major FBS programs, can't a depleted scholarship roster at a USC be seen as more attractive than a fully-stocked Alabama roster because you have the opportunity to play early and often due to a team's lack of depth?-- Adam, Lancaster, Pa.
I think you're actually seeing that right now with USC, which is reeling in five-star commits like nothing we've ever seen. While the program has other obvious selling points, it's been reported that Lane Kiffin and his staff have made the smaller classes a selling point of their own -- as in, we only have 15 spots, and we want to use one of them on you. Come join our exclusive club. And they need only point to Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Hayes Pullard and others -- who signed on when the Trojans couldn't go to a bowl game -- as evidence that you'll get to play early.
The caveat, though, is that you've got to keep winning. Appealing the sanctions and thus delaying the scholarship limit implementation to this year really worked wonders for Kiffin, who used those two years to restock the roster and turn USC back into a national title contender -- but it won't likely stay that way once the impact of multiple smaller classes is felt. Just ask Miami in Butch Davis' early years, or Alabama under Mike Shula. Penn State is not USC. It has no recent history of national championships to sell, and it's not going to be playing for one again anytime soon. So yes, maybe some recruits will be intrigued by the prospect of early playing time and fewer competitors at their position -- but that will likely be negated after a couple of years if Bill O'Brien's team finishes below .500, as most of us expect.
Why has your Mailbag gone downhill since you moved out to the Left Coast? You really seem biased toward USC now, when in past years I couldn't detect as much (but there was still some) bias toward one of the dirtiest programs in the country, but hey everyone loves a winner. Here's hoping you can correct your flawed and obvious slant in your reporting.-- John, Little Rock, Ark.
There seems to be a sect of USC/Mailbag conspiracists clustered in Little Rock.
If Gus Malzahn does well at Arkansas State this season and John L Smith's tenure at Arkansas is a one-year shot, does Malzahn end up back at Arkansas as head coach after this season?-- Sam, Knoxville, Tenn.
I'm inclined to say no, even if on paper it would seem a logical step. While Malzahn has never discussed it publicly, his lone season in Fayetteville in 2006 was a nightmare, from the way his preferred offense was discarded by Houston Nutt and Nutt's staff after just one game to the fact he and his former Springdale High players (most notably quarterback Mitch Mustain) became a lightning rod for debate when the Arkansas fan base essentially splintered that offseason. On the one hand, he's always maintained he was grateful to Nutt and the school for affording him the opportunity to move from high school up to college, but you have to imagine there are still some hard feelings -- on both sides.
That being said, a lot has changed at Arkansas since then. Frank Broyles was still the AD at the time. He's long since been replaced by the more progressive Jeff Long. And Malzahn has built up considerably more SEC credibility. It's his home state and presumably a longtime dream job. However, that doesn't mean he's a sure-thing as an SEC head coach, and one season in the Sun Belt won't likely prove much. Arkansas has the money and the cachet to attract any number of high-profile candidates. It made Petrino one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the country. While there's no obvious name out there right now like there was last offseason with Urban Meyer, much will change between now and December. I see Long going after an established head coach, either from college or the NFL.
Stewart, now that UCLA has selected redshirt freshman Brett Hundley as its starting quarterback, what will we see from the UCLA offense this year? More growing pains under a young QB? Or might we see something resembling an actual offense, which has been missing the last few years?-- Garrett, Sacramento, Calif.
See, I'm answering a UCLA question. Where are those "too much USC" complainers now?
I'm as curious as the next guy to see what the UCLA offense looks like. Hundley's ascension is just one source of the mystery. For the third time in four years, the Bruins will be running an entirely new system. New coach Jim L. Mora hired former Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who is turning UCLA into something of a hybrid spread team (lots of shotgun and hurry-up, but still utilizing some pro sets). Mazzone has become something of a one-back offense guru nationally, which is a bit puzzling to me seeing as his Sun Devils one-back offenses weren't that good. Quarterback Brock Osweiler was obviously effective, but the running game never took off.
In Westwood, the most talented returning skill player is tailback Johnathan Franklin. Between his presence and having a freshman quarterback, you'd expect the Bruins to run a bunch. It will be interesting to see how much Hundley himself becomes part of that running game. One thing's for certain: Without having yet seen him play, I'm now more confident in UCLA's offense than I would have been had Mora gone with ineffective staples Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut. Any change is welcome at this point. With a lot of talent back on defense, and a favorable conference schedule, the Bruins could surprise some people this season, provided first-time college head coach Mora is more Pete Carroll, less Bill Callahan.
Texas, a team that hasn't sniffed relevance since losing in the title game in '09 and doesn't have anything approaching a legitimate quarterback, is the first team you list with the best shot to beat the SEC? Have you lost your mind? Are you on their payroll? Texas at best will finish fourth in the Big 12 this year behind OU, OSU, WVU, and KSU.-- John, Washington D.C.
In that same article -- right before I lost my mind -- I wrote: "The following is not a prediction of which teams have the best chance to reach the national championship game." The beauty of which is: You may be right about Texas, but we'll never know whether I was wrong.