So here we are, on the eve of our first date (of the football season), and it's suddenly occurred to me: I don't really know you that well. We've spent so much time lately talking about Matt Barkley, Nick Saban, Tyrann Mathieu, et al., but I want to know a little bit more about you, the reader.
Some of you may remember that way back in 2006, before Twitter turned all of you into 10-letter user names with tiny little avatars, I had an actual MySpace page, and before it became overrun by middle schoolers and Macy's spam, it actually proved quite useful. I got to put some faces to names and get a better sense of exactly whom I'm addressing each week. I suppose I could do the same now with Facebook, but then I'd be expected to remember peoples' birthdays and comment on their kids' back-to-school pictures. No thanks.
Instead, I'm going to attempt a one-time get-to-know-you-a-little-better experiment. Call it market research. Just this once, please e-mail me (even if you're not normally the type to e-mail sportswriters) with simple answers to the following questions.
1. What is your age?2. What is your favorite college team?3. Roughly how long (be it years, months or weeks) have you been reading the Mailbag?4. When (Nights? Days? Weekends?) and where (Home? Work? The bathroom?) do you usually read the Mailbag?5. On what device (Computer? Phone? Tablet?) do you usually read it?6. What's one thing you'd like to see more or less of in this column? (Note: Less of me is not one of the choices.)
Rest assured, I will not sell your information to a third party. I don't even know how to do that. But if this little survey works, it will help me write columns this season that are the most likely to interest you. And for anyone who's curious, I will publish the general audience demographics next week.
And now, on with the questions:
Hi Stewart, looking at your preseason bowl picks, I see you have Oregon in the national championship game against LSU. That tells me you like Oregon over USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game (if all goes the way I think it will). I think USC can win the regular season game Nov. 3rd, but playing twice will be very tough. Do you believe it's Oregon's offense or overall scheme that will give the Ducks the Pac-12 title?-- Bill Van Iden, San Francisco
You wouldn't think my predicted national championship matchup of two preseason top five teams would be all that unusual, but apparently it is. This week ESPN sent out the predictions of 18 different on-air analysts, and while some had LSU and others Oregon, none had them playing each other. (Our own Holly Anderson, on the other hand, is very smart.) Meanwhile, I've gotten a number of e-mails and Tweets suggesting I'm either off my rocker or purposely playing the contrarian simply for not picking USC to win the Pac-12.
Is it really crazy to think an Oregon team that's gone 34-6 and won its conference three consecutive years might in fact win the league again? No question, USC will be very, very good, particularly on offense. But the Trojans, as you may have heard, are still under NCAA sanctions and playing with at least 10 fewer guys than everybody else. I'm concerned about their ability to withstand injuries for an entire season, and I'm concerned that their biggest question mark, the defensive line, just happens to be the biggest key to stopping Oregon's offense. As Bill said, barring the unexpected rise of some team like Cal or Washington, the Ducks and Trojans will likely face each other twice in November, and the later in the year it gets, the more depth will become a concern.
Hence, I see USC winning the first meeting but not the second, and assuming that's Oregon's only loss, I see De'Anthony Thomas and Co. rising back into the top two.
This season, Nov. 3 has the potential to be "Seismic Saturday," when four of the preseason top five teams will face each other on the same night: USC vs. Oregon and Alabama vs. LSU. This will only be the biggest night of college football "this century" if all teams remain undefeated going into the weekend. My question is, who gets upset first before that weekend?-- Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Ore.
First of all, as thrilling as that would be, can we all agree it's highly unlikely to happen? Now that we've spent eight months assuming this hierarchy for the 2012 season, there is absolutely no chance it will stay that way for nine weeks. Someone we haven't even contemplated will rise into the top five by then, and at least one of the aforementioned teams will fall on its face. Given how I just penciled Oregon and USC into a de facto national semifinal, it will probably be one of them.
But just looking at schedules, the answer is Alabama. In the first three weeks alone the Tide face two preseason top 10 teams (Michigan and Arkansas) away from home. While I believe both those teams to be slightly overrated, they can still notch an early upset over an Alabama squad breaking in a whole lot of first-time starters at important positions. If it doesn't happen then, it might come in one of the Tide's consecutive mid-October road games at Missouri and Tennessee. Nick Saban's team is still loaded -- the offensive line alone has three preseason All-Americas (center Barrett Jones, tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack) and a former top-rated high school tackle (Cyrus Kouandjio) -- but so was the 2010 team that tripped up three times. This team, too, is bound to get upset at some point.
Do you see the ACC's Coastal Division coming down to a battle between Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech again this year? If so, the opening game in Blacksburg would seem to be key to the rest of the season for each. Do you think it is more advantageous to play the Hokies early in the season since they will be replacing so many pieces on offense this year?-- Gil Myers, Blairstown, N.J.
I wouldn't dismiss Virginia, what with the progress the Cavs have already made under Mike London, but with North Carolina ineligible, Miami undergoing a massive youth movement and Duke being Duke (though I'm apparently more optimistic for the Blue Devils this year than most), it's very likely the division will come down to the teams that play each other Monday night.
Absolutely, it's better to face the Hokies early. That's not unique to this season; just look at their recent history. Frank Beamer's teams lost at least one of their first two games every year from 2007-10 before playing an all-cupcake September last season. Mind you, that included games against LSU, Alabama and Boise State, but also East Carolina and James Madison. From that point forward, however, they went a combined 41-8 in those four seasons. So yes, if you're Georgia Tech, you'd rather face the Hokies on Sept. 3 than Nov. 3. However, it's also advantageous for Virginia Tech to be facing the triple-option without a game the week before. The Hokies have had bye weeks before facing the Jackets the past two years and won both meetings.
Of course, the biggest advantage for Virginia Tech is that the game is in Lane Stadium at night -- which means this.
Stewart, really? Predicting ALL of the bowl games on August 27? Dude, you need to find something to do!!! No one, not even Rutgers fans, the poor things, cares about a Maaco Bowl prediction in August.-- Pat Murphy, LaBelle, Fla.
The page views that thing got would suggest otherwise.
Stewart, I'm a South Carolina alum and I'm cautiously optimistic about the Gamecocks' chances in the SEC East this year, not just because of the constant UGA threat, but rather the fact that EVERYONE seems to be overlooking Mizzou. I've kept up with this team the past few years and watched them play live last year. James Franklin is the real deal, T.J. Moe is getting overlooked and Dorial Green-Beckham will be a nightmare. Am I correct in thinking Mizzou is closely behind UGA and SC in the SEC East or am I just being a typical paranoid Gamecock fan who isn't used to high expectations?-- Dan, Charleston, S.C.
I think you're correct about the Tigers -- and I also think you may be among the very small minority of SEC fans who believes one of the conference newbies will do something other than be beaten into submission by its new oppressors.
No team is a sure thing in the East, not even South Carolina (inexperienced offensive line and secondary) or Georgia (questionable running game, early season suspensions). Missouri's offense has been consistently potent the past five years, and Franklin's running ability makes the Tigers trickier to defend than during the Chase Daniel/Blaine Gabbert days. I don't expect them to score 35 points every week, but it will happen more often than many expect. My concern is whether defenders who have spent their entire careers to date facing the Big 12's mostly spread-passing offenses can handle the physical rushing attacks of teams like South Carolina and Alabama.
Mizzou probably won't win the East in Year 1, but it could mess things up for one of the favorites.
Your bowl picks are a joke!-- Brian Nutt, Springdale, Ark.
I have got to start working on my Q Score in Arkansas. (Admittedly the Music City Bowl pick didn't help.)
Which formerly starting quarterback transfer is primed to have the best season at his new school? (Hint: He's the one whose name rhymes with Ferret Filbert.)-- Kelly, Dallas
Wow, what a fun game. Are you saying I shouldn't go with Kansas' Vain Wrist?
June Jones is as good a bet as anyone to resurrect Garrett Gilbert's career. I don't think Gilbert will ever be the five-star guy he was touted to be when he got to Texas -- an opposing coach who faced the Longhorns during Gilbert's tenure told me he couldn't believe the quarterback they faced that day would be billed as such -- but clearly a lot of other things went wrong during his time in Austin. After attempting to succeed a legend (Colt McCoy) while getting no protection and no running game as the season rapidly deteriorated, his confidence was surely shot. Throwing five picks on two occasions (in the BCS championship game against Alabama and against Kansas State in 2010) probably didn't help, either. Jones has yet to produce another Colt Brennan at SMU, but you can usually count on his Run and Shoot quarterbacks to throw for at least 3,500 yards.
But if I'm going to pick one transfer quarterback to have the best season, without question it's Wisconsin's Danny O'Brien. For one thing, unlike Gilbert, we've seen O'Brien shine before. As a redshirt freshman at Maryland, he threw for 2,438 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions while starting the last 10 games, highlighted by a 417-yard, four-touchdown day against NC State in the regular season finale. Then Randy Edsall replaced Ralph Friedgen and everything unraveled. But now O'Brien is stepping into a talented team with an All-America running back (Monteé Ball) behind him, a rock solid O-line in front of him and at least two very talented receivers (Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen) to throw to. While not as off-the-charts explosive as Russell Wilson, O'Brien is pretty darn athletic, too. So I'll go with Danny ... er, Fanny Orion.
Stewart, now that Penn State got one, what are the remaining BCS programs whose athletic departments have never committed a major violation, as you mentioned in your Monday column?-- Kevin, Tampa, Fla.
Technically, Penn State still has not committed a major violation, since it never went through the actual NCAA infractions process. But the others are Stanford, Northwestern and Boston College. (Hat tip to the Wall Street Journal for doing the research.)
Vanderbilt and Northwestern are very similar football schools: academically minded, young energetic coaches, tough conferences. However, I feel like there's a lot of positive momentum around James Franklin and the Commodores, whereas Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats have slid back (in terms of wins) for the past three seasons. Which program is in better shape now, and which has a better outlook for next five years?-- Michael Kasa, Lincoln, Ill.
No question, there's a lot of buzz surrounding Franklin and the Commodores right now. They're doing things once deemed impossible at Vanderbilt, like putting together a top 15 recruiting class highlighted by a quarterback (Johnathon McCrary) who turned down Alabama and Georgia. Franklin has done a nice job marketing himself and the program, as shown by the video that recently went viral of Franklin awarding a scholarship to a walk-on. Northwestern garnered some buzz last year for the clever PersaStrong Heisman campaign but that died pretty soon thereafter when Persa wasn't healthy enough to start the season.
But I don't know whether any of that means Vandy is in "better shape" than Northwestern. For one thing, we now take it for granted that the Wildcats will reach a bowl game every year. They've been to four straight and six in nine years. For the Commodores it was still a pretty big deal just to reach bowls in 2008 and 2011, and the teams both finished last season with the same 6-7 records. I fully expect to see Vandy improve over the next couple of years. Heck, the 'Dores might knock off South Carolina on Thursday. But I wouldn't bet my life on Franklin's still being in Nashville five years from now. His stock is only going to rise, and he has no ties to the area, whereas Fitzgerald, a Chicago native and Northwestern alum, will be in that job for eternity unless the Bears ever call. He's got another star quarterback in the making with junior Kain Colter, and I wouldn't expect the recent drop-off (from nine wins in 2008 to eight to seven to six) to continue.
Oh, so Miami will stink this year, will we? I imagine all the other teams who have won four national championships in nine seasons wish they stunk as much as Miami. Oh, by the way, who are those other teams? Exactly.-- Mark, Miami
Are any of those trophies capable of playing defense this year? If so, I'll reassess.
And with that ... we're DONE previewing the season! Unleash the fireworks and confetti!
Follow along this weekend as I travel to Provo on Thursday to cover Washington State-BYU, then to Jerry World for Michigan-Alabama on Saturday. And please do take a moment to fill out my little survey. I'll tweet out some of the early returns if Ohio State lets me.