By Stewart Mandel
May 15, 2013

You know we're stuck in the dreariest depths of the college football offseason when Bob Stoops' booster-club comments generate a week or more of national coverage. It's times like these when actual games somehow seem further away than they did two months earlier. To offset that perception, I'll do my part to add a taste of September (and August 31) to your spring reading.

Stewart: Every year we look forward to some great nonconference matchups. Last year we had Alabama vs. Michigan, Boise State vs. Michigan State and Notre Dame vs. almost everyone on its schedule. What are some of the nonconference games you're most looking forward to in 2013?-- Chris Kern, Torrance, Calif.

Unfortunately, this season lacks a blockbuster neutral-site opener like Alabama-Michigan in 2012 or LSU-Oregon the year before that. Meanwhile, it seems like every week there's been another announcement of a cool home-and-home (Oklahoma State-Boise State, Michigan-Virginia Tech) series that kicks off in 2019 or some other futuristic date, early dividends of the new playoff system. Looking at this season's comparatively lackluster slate, however, is a reminder that we've still got one more year of the BCS era's no-risk, all-reward philosophy.

Keeping that in mind, here are my top five nonconference games for the first month of the 2013 season:

1. Georgia at Clemson, Aug. 31: This sporadically re-continued regional rivalry takes on national importance this season, as it's likely to pit two preseason top-10 teams and two potential first-round quarterbacks, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Clemson's Tajh Boyd. It should also feature a healthy heaping of Tigers receiver Sammy Watkins and strangely overlooked Dawgs running back Todd Gurley. (As a freshman, Gurley ran for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, including 122 yards and two scores in the SEC title game against Alabama.) The winner will gain serious legitimacy going forward, especially if either Georgia's reloading defense or Clemson's perennially up-and-down unit can slow the other's offense. Expect a 45-42 kind of game.

STAPLES: Where do Georgia, Clemson land in thepost-spring Top 25?

2. Oklahoma at Notre Dame, Sept. 28: I covered last year's edition of this matchup in Norman, and it was electric. Granted, it helped that the Irish were undefeated at the time, but it's always cool to see two of the sport's all-time powers line up on the same field. I really have no idea what to expect out of the Sooners this season; on paper, it's Stoops' least confidence-inspiring team since the 2005 Rhett Bomar squad. But Oklahoma did win 10 games last year, even though we primarily remember its big-game losses. Similarly, most understandably assume the Irish will take a step back after losing key veterans like Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert and Cierre Wood, but Brian Kelly's squad still returns 14 starters and should be very talented.

3. Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 7: We're down to the second-to-last edition of this series for the foreseeable future because, as Brady Hoke put it, the Irish are "chickening out of" it. Like the fantastic 2011 game, when Denard Robinson threw two touchdowns in the final 1:12 to cap a 17-point comeback, this one will happen under the lights at the Big House. (Wolverines fans are trying to forget last year's Robinson interception-fest in South Bend ever happened.) Playing South Carolina close in the Outback Bowl can only be a rallying point for so long; beating one of last year's BCS title game participants would be a nice momentum builder for the Wolverines.

4. LSU vs. TCU, Aug. 31: While this year's Cowboys Classic won't host a top-10 matchup as it has in seasons past, it should still put on a very intriguing game. LSU will be favored, but it will take the field with a practically brand new team after 11 Tigers underclassmen turned pro and eight defenders were drafted. It will also be the first game for new LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Meanwhile, TCU is a trendy dark-horse pick to win the Big 12. The Horned Frogs should trot out yet another top-20 defense, plus quarterback Casey Pachall is back and reportedly well after losing most of last season while in substance abuse treatment. Gary Patterson has a history of knocking off the big boys, though TCU is no longer the cuddly underdog it was while in the Mountain West.

5. Florida at Miami, Sept. 7: It's great to see the two Sunshine State schools renew their rivalry for the first time since 2008. The 'Canes are poised to take a big step forward this fall, barring further NCAA restrictions, and they would have won their ACC division with an extremely young team had they been eligible last year. Now, they return nearly everybody, most notably overlooked quarterback Stephen Morris, all-purpose threat Duke Johnson and defenders such as linebacker Denzel Perryman. Is Miami yet on Florida's level? We'll get to find out. I was a repeated Gators skeptic last year, but their offense can only get better. The defense lost a bunch of stars, but quite a few remain on hand.

Alabama fans will surely howl for leaving the Virginia Tech game off this list, but it's only because I don't expect it to be much of a game. (Offshore books already have the Tide as 22-point favorites.) It was tougher leaving off UCLA-Nebraska.

Stewart, Bob Stoops has been getting slammed for his "propaganda" comments, but beneath all the ridicule he does have a point about SEC scheduling inequality. The truth is, due to conference expansion, SEC contenders simply don't play that many games against each other anymore. Do you think the media, and more importantly a playoff selection committee, will hold that against the SEC? And how long before the league faces serious pressure to go to a nine-game conference slate?-- Ben, Atlanta

Sure, Stoops has a point, the same one I've been making ever since the Alabama-Oklahoma State controversy unfolded in 2011. For the past two years, the Big 12 has been a much deeper conference. Last season, Kansas State had to play against eight conference foes that made bowls, meaning it had to show up every week but one (Kansas). It didn't against Baylor, and it paid the price. Alabama, on the other hand, played five games against teams (Arkansas, Ole Miss, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi State) that never stood a chance. However, the reason Stoops gets no sympathy is that his comments imply that the SEC as a whole is overrated. Just because those six top-10 teams beat up on the other eight (they went 30-0 head-to-in 2012) doesn't mean the former weren't as good as advertised. In fact, Stoops should know that better than anyone after getting his brains beat in by a Texas A&M team that tied for second in the SEC West.

But you raise a good point about the selection committee. If it does put an emphasis on strength of schedule, then it absolutely should downgrade teams that play a heavily imbalanced conference slate. For example, I find it hard to believe that a committee, unlike pollsters, would have had Georgia at No. 3 on its board going into the SEC Championship Game last season. At the time, the Dawgs had beaten one top-five team (Florida) and 10 also-rans. But had it then proceeded to beat No. 2 Alabama in Atlanta (which it almost did), Georgia would have boasted two wins over top-five teams with its lone loss coming to a top-10 opponent. Big 12 champ K-State had no such wins and lost to a 7-5 squad, though it did beat eight bowl teams. Which was the more "difficult" accomplishment? I'm not entirely sure. I'd point you to this column I wrote in March after talking to various stats people who make the case that merely defining "strength of schedule" isn't nearly as simple as it sounds.

STAPLES: Revisiting the last 10 seasons had a playoff been in place

I know the four-team playoff format is "locked in place" for 12 years, but I don't see any way it holds up forthat amount of time. The first time there's any real controversy about the field, there will be calls to go to an eight- or 16-team system. How long do you think the four-team playoff will actually last?-- Chris, Pittsburgh

I'm sure Bill Hancock and most of the commissioners truly believe the playoff will stay at four teams for 12 years, just like they were steadfast there would be no playoff at all two years ago. But mark my words: The field will expand to eight halfway through the deal (in 2020). The controversy surrounding the selections will be deafening, but that might not even be the biggest factor. First and foremost will be the money. The event will become so popular that there will be so much more to be had, and barring a drastic downturn in its business, ESPN will be happy to pay to make it happen. Also, by 2018 or '19 (when a new deal might be negotiated), old-guard stalwarts like Jim Delany and Mike Slive might be retired. The new-age guys coming up the ranks aren't as wed to the traditional bowl system, and they may in fact encourage adding a play-in quarterfinal round at campus sites.

Anything sooner than 2020 is unrealistic given the various contracts with the bowls, but after six years each will be on equal footing in terms of the number of times it has hosted semifinals. That should make it easy to conveniently hit the reset button.

Stewart, with all the talk the media gives to big-name programs, how about a shout out for Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, who's retiring with an incredible record and championships? At any level, what he's accomplished is remarkable.-- Weber, Chicago

No question. Imagine Alabama maintaining its recent four-year run over a 27-year span and you'd get an approximation of the dynasty Kehres built at Division III Mount Union. His 11 national championships are incredible, but his most staggering stat is his record of 332-24-3. The man averaged fewer than one loss per season. My goodness. We wish him well.

Stewart, I was one happy soul when West Virginia got a Big 12 invite. But then I watched it struggle last year and saw its lack of talent (especially on defense) and depth compared to the upper echelon in the conference. Will WVU ever be able to recruit enough talent to compete in the Big 12 on a year-in, year-out basis?-- Ross, Clinton, Utah

At the time it realigned, West Virginia felt it had to get out of the Big East at any cost, and given what transpired the following year, AD Oliver Luck was absolutely correct in his reasoning. Unfortunately, the Big 12 was never a natural landing spot, and some of the consequences of the move are already apparent. The talent gap would have existed regardless, but it certainly didn't help matters that WVU had to make consecutive road trips to the state of Texas in early October. While the Mountaineers' defense was atrocious from the get-go, it wasn't a coincidence that previously torrid quarterback Geno Smith and the offense looked completely out of sync in both the second game of that swing (at Texas Tech) and then the next week at home against K-State. It's also not a coincidence Bob Huggins' travel-worn basketball team had an uncharacteristically bad year. I'm not sure there's an easy remedy to the fact Morgantown is nowhere near any of the other cities in the Big 12, though Luck has apparently sought some help from the league.

As for the talent ... let's not forget, West Virginia has fielded plenty of nationally competitive teams over the years. The talent level is down right now, and Dana Holgorsen needs to build it back up. The challenge for WVU will be differentiating itself in a league where nearly everyone makes its living in the state of Texas. While Holgorsen has Texas ties, he'll probably find more success in the ACC/Big Ten footprint (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia) and the state of Florida (South Florida in particular), where WVU has pulled several of its recent stars (Noel Devine, Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey). The Mountaineers are never going to recruit on the same level as Oklahoma or Texas, but neither have Kansas State or Oklahoma State, and that didn't stop the Wildcats and Cowboys from winning the past two Big 12 titles.

GLICKSMAN: After exodus of stars, WVU looking to establish new identity

With the BCS going the way of the Dodo bird, how long do you think it will bebefore sportswriters and fans stop using the term "BCS" entirely? Two years? Ten? Twenty? Ever? (I'm not just referring to football here but basketball, too, which never really made sense.)-- Glenn, Richmond, Va.

I think BCS will be phased out fairly quickly. When the NCAA replaced I-A and I-AA with FBS and FCS in 2006, the new designations seemed so unnatural that I thought they would never stick. In fact, I kept using I-A and I-AA at first. But within a couple of years they had near-universal acceptance. The only time you ever hear a reference to I-AA anymore is when someone mentions a team or game from that era. And that was for something pretty innocuous. Nearly everyone in the sport, both participants and observers, can't wait to rid themselves of the BCS and everything associated with it. You're already hearing the term "BCS conference" replaced by "power conference." (The disintegration of the Big East and ensuing paradigm shift likely accelerated that process.)

The only thing I'm unclear on is how people will refer to the equivalent of the current BCS bowls in the new system. For instance, it was a big deal at the time for Utah or Boise State to play in a "BCS bowl." If, say, San Diego State reaches the Fiesta Bowl in a few years, will the Aztecs be playing in a College Football Playoff bowl? That doesn't make much sense, since it wouldn't be a playoff game. Will it be dubbed a "New Year's bowl," even if the game is on Dec. 31, and even if other games like the Capital One Bowl technically remain New Year's bowls? All that is yet to be seen. But I can't imagine the term BCS living past this year.

Sorry Stewart, but the SEC's national title dominance is a myth. Yes, Alabama won the title last year, but given the fact that the Tide have been among the three dirtiest programs in college football over the last 30 years, I don't think it would come as a shock to anyone if that title was removed at some point. In 2011, 'Bama beat LSU, but it shouldn't have been there in the first place. That title is meaningless. 2010? We all know Scam Newton wasn't eligible. 2009? Alabama was on probation. 2008? Florida was the fifth-best team in the country at best. 2007? LSU backed into the title. No fewer than five teams can make an equal claim. 2006? Same thing. Get over the SEC. The SEC is rubbish.-- Jay, Arlington, Va.

You know you're reaching when you've got to dig out the heinous 2009 Alabama textbook scandal for fodder. P.S., your fifth-best team in 2008 had more than 20 players in the NFL as of last season.

Stewart, do you feel there's any cause for concern regarding the new SEC/ESPN deal? ESPN has tremendous influence over poll voters, and now they have a vested interest in SEC teams being highly ranked. I can envision any number of scenarios in which the ESPN hype machine could artificially inflate rankings in order to drive ratings.-- Brian Meyers, Oregon, Ohio

We may soon have to rename the Mailbag "This Week in SEC Conspiracy Theories."

Well, the good news is a year from now the poll voters' decisions will have no meaningful bearing on anything. But yes, the fact that ESPN -- by far the most powerful entity in college football, whether or not its executives will admit as much -- now owns and operates a major conference's television network creates huge conflict-of-interest concerns. Just look at the ramifications caused by ESPN doing the same thing for one school, Texas. It caused major unrest within the Big 12 and arguably became the lightning rod that finally pushed Texas A&M to bolt. While ESPN has a vested interest in every FBS conference, you can be sure there will be grumbling from coaches in other conferences if they feel the network is pushing SEC teams over theirs.

Ultimately, though, I'm most interested to see what effect -- if any -- ESPN and the forthcoming network will have on the SEC itself. For instance, it would be in ESPN's best interest for the conference to go to nine league games, thereby creating better programming for the network. Right now, its coaches (save for Nick Saban) are strongly opposed to that notion. We'll see just how much power the network has if it tries to override them. Similarly, ESPN often brokers scheduling arrangements for certain high-profile nonconference games. Will it now be incentivized to focus more on games involving SEC teams, knowing that some might get pushed to the SEC Network? And will the conference's notoriously territorial coaches start griping if they feel the network isn't spotlighting their team enough? (Steve Spurrier comes to mind.) This deal will certainly be a boon to the league, but as the Pac-12 learned this year, these ventures don't come without their fair share of headaches.

Stewart, can you do me a solid and not write any more about Ohio State possibly knocking off the SEC's top dog? It gets the small but vocal portion of the fan base that sees nothing beyond the zero from last year's 12-0 record a little too riled up, and it gives the monolithic SEC chuckleheads a good laugh. I don't doubt that OSU can challenge this year, but I can't see any justification at this point for putting it in the discussion for No. 1.-- Marcus Aurelius, New Albany, Ohio

I take back what I said earlier. Getting levelheaded emails from Ohio State fans is a sure sign we're stuck knee-deep in the offseason doldrums.

A quick programming note: There WILL be a Mailbag next week, then off for vacation the following week. Then, starting in June, we'll go weekly the rest of the way.

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