Breaking down preseason Heisman hype; more mail

Tuesday June 18th, 2013

A relative unknown at the start of 2012, Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman.
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

Lately I've seen various preseason Heisman odds floating around the web, with incumbent winner Johnny Manziel joined by the likes of returning stars Braxton Miller, Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, Jadeveon Clowney and others. Of course, after Manziel's entirely unforeseen emergence last season, perhaps Vegas should also provide odds for every quarterback on every roster in the country, whether he's actually won his team's starting quarterback job yet or not. Hedge your bets on Aaron Murray or Tajh Boyd if you want. I'm going all in on Cal redshirt freshman Zach Kline, who figures to throw for 4,500 yards in new coach Sonny Dykes' offense. Why not?

And with that, I'll end my clunky forced segue into this question.

Stewart, seeing as the last four Heisman winners -- Mark Ingram (2009), Cam Newton (2010), Robert Griffin III (2011) and Johnny Manziel (2012) -- had absolutely no preseason buzz, isn't it time to retire the old cliché that the Heisman is more about hype than performance? Those guys just went out and earned sports' most prestigious award.
-- Mike Brand, Tallahassee, Fla.

If by "hype" you're referring to the various gimmicky Heisman campaigns schools often devise on behalf of their candidate, then hype certainly carries less influence today than it has in years past. That's because those campaigns date to an earlier era when voters had few, if any, chances to watch the players compete, as each candidate's respective team appeared on television just a couple of times per year. This was before ESPN's College GameDay became weekly appointment viewing for most voters, and before the Internet helped turn college football into a year-round beat amplified by the rise of YouTube and Twitter. Texas A&M did almost nothing to promote Manziel until he'd finished the regular season last year, by which time he'd long since become a household name and had likely already secured most of his first-place votes.

But while a player no longer needs preseason attention, he does need media buzz throughout the season to take home the trophy. A creative sports information director can help with that. Take Griffin, for example. Looking back, it's truly remarkable that a player from Baylor was able to not only win the Heisman, but to beat out universal preseason favorite and far more heralded quarterback Andrew Luck. Griffin certainly did his part on the field, but he still needed a narrative. I give Baylor a lot of credit for the way it promoted him that year. After Griffin shredded TCU on national television during the Bears' season opener on Friday night, Baylor whisked him to Dallas to appear on GameDay the next morning. Meanwhile, the school's sports information department had already invested in thousands of "RG3" trading cards (mind you, that nickname wasn't yet ubiquitous) that arrived in voters' mailboxes the following week. It helped ensure Griffin's name would remain in the mix the rest of the way, setting up the moment he seized control of the race with his last-second touchdown to upset Oklahoma in late November.

Granted, Griffin's situation was a bit different than the others in that he played for a program that wasn't a championship contender and didn't typically receive much media attention. Ingram didn't need a campaign; he was the star running back for the No. 1 team in the country and excelled under the bright lights of the SEC Championship Game. Ditto for Newton. Playing in the SEC -- specifically, beating Alabama -- certainly assured ample coverage for Manziel.

But in Manziel's case, there was no shortage of grassroots hype. The Johnny Football nickname alone probably did wonders. To that point, the backstory and hype surrounding runner-up Manti Te'o -- which was lamented during the subsequent Lennay Kekua saga, and much of which came simply by virtue of playing for Notre Dame -- was largely responsible for assuring he became the defensive Heisman candidate du jour rather than Clowney or Georgia's Jarvis Jones.

Speaking of which, it will be interesting to follow Clowney's candidacy in 2013. No defensive player in recent memory has entered a season with this much buzz, due in large part to the hype that's surrounded him since he was a recruit and which exploded following his epic Outback Bowl hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith. Like those past four winners, he'll need to produce on the field, which in his case likely means matching or exceeding last year's total of 13 sacks. South Carolina will also need to be an SEC title contender or else he'll fall out of the spotlight. More likely, though, a new and unexpected flavor of the month will emerge and capture the nation's attention. Yes, he'll have to earn it on the field -- but having a catchy nickname or moving backstory won't hurt.

RICO: Does UCLA's Anthony Barr deserve Heisman Trophy consideration?

Hey Stewart, reading your thoughts last week on Tommie Frazier prompted me to think about who is the greatest college quarterback of all-time. I know this sounds crazy, but if Alabama repeats this year, will AJ McCarron's résumé (first-ever back-to-back-to-back national champ) merit his inclusion in the discussion? Or is he destined to become the Terry Bradshaw of college football?
-- Tracy, Charlotte, N.C.

It seems like this possibility comes up every few years. USC's Matt Leinart generated much the same discussion heading into his senior season, as he was also in the running for a possible unprecedented three-peat. Ditto for Tim Tebow, whose Florida team was favored to win a third title in four years going into Tebow's senior season. Both fell short, of course, though not by all that much. The difference between those players and McCarron is that Leinart and Tebow had already captured a Heisman Trophy and had a chance to win another. McCarron hasn't come particularly close to garnering such individual recognition yet, with his spoils limited to an offensive MVP award in the BCS championship game against LSU and ... well, Katherine Webb. However, McCarron did finish the 2012 season as the nation's leading passer, completing 67.2 percent of his attempts with a ridiculous 30-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His days of being labeled as a "game manager" are a distant memory.

Let's say for the sake of this hypothetical that McCarron puts up even better numbers this fall, earns at least an invite to New York and does indeed win that elusive third straight ring (and the fourth of his career counting his redshirt season). He would almost certainly become part of that conversation, having achieved unprecedented team success and, finally, some individual acclaim. However, let's say he has a worse season statistically but Alabama still wins the title. Or he has another great season but the Tide stumble along the way. Then it's a matter of which factor takes on more emphasis in remembering a quarterback's legacy: team or individual accomplishments.

Personally, I veer to the latter. As wonderfully as McCarron played last year, he doesn't get to the title game -- much less win it -- without Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and 'Bama's batch of pro-ready offensive linemen. Meanwhile, the best college passer I ever covered, Cal's Aaron Rodgers, didn't win any championships. Neither did Luck, who almost surely will go down as an all-time great. But I realize many others fall more in the dichotomous LeBron vs. Jordan/Brady vs. Manning view of sports where the only thing that matters is the rings.

In the past week, Kentucky offered a scholarship to a 13-year-old player (cornerback Jairus Brents), while UCLA (quarterback Lindell Stone) and USC (receiver Nathan Tilford) offered eighth-graders. Another eighth-grader, running back Dylan Moses, previously received offers from Alabama and Texas, among others. Should the NCAA be concerned about this growing trend, or is it a harmless evolution in the college football landscape?
-- Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Ore.

To begin with, the idea of schools offering prospects before high school is not an entirely new phenomenon. Wake Forest offered eventual Florida quarterback Chris Leak as an eighth-grader. (Wake was also recruiting his older brother, C.J., at the time.) Former Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillespie once offered an eight-grader named Michael Avery. He went on to average 1.9 points per game last season at Sonoma State. Class of 2015 quarterback David Sills committed to USC as a 13 year old shortly after Lane Kiffin took over in 2010. Generally, these offers are publicity stunts that carry little weight on either end.

However, the fact that we've seen so many such gestures this year alone is troubling -- and it's not a coincidence. The recruiting cycle has been trending earlier and earlier as major programs keep adding more support staffers devoted solely to recruiting. (Andy Staples and I wrote about this trend in a recent Sports Illustrated feature.) In the race to get in early with a kid, staffs are identifying, evaluating and recruiting the best prospects much earlier than ever before. It used to be rare for a player to commit to a school more than a year before Signing Day. Michigan, for one, has two incoming freshmen that committed way back in 2011. And while it'd make sense to think the NCAA would be alarmed by this trend, consider that one of its deregulation proposals that got tabled in January would have allowed official visits, offers and the like to begin 13 months earlier -- July 1 after a prospect's sophomore year -- than present rules permit.

Still, don't expect offers for junior high players to become the norm. Reports about UCLA's Stone offer mentioned that the player had yet to speak with a single member of the Bruins' coaching staff. That should signify just how seriously to take it.

Stewart, just one request for the Mailbag: Keep up the Arrested Development references!
-- Daniel, San Antonio

Oh good, you noticed. I was afraid for a moment I'd made a huge mistake.

Alabama's rout of Notre Dame in last season's title game was the latest in a string of recent blowouts.
John Biever/SI

Stewart, what do you think would be the most fitting end to the BCS era? Would it be three or four teams from power conferences finishing undefeated, showing exactly why a playoff is necessary? Or would it be two clear-cut undefeated teams emerging after the regular season, exemplifying what the commissioners originally envisioned for the BCS?
-- Nick, Irvine, Calif.

Oooh, that's a good question. Selfishly, as a football fan, I'd prefer a clear-cut matchup between two undefeated teams. I want to watch a competitive BCS title game for once. As most fans may have noticed, the majority of national championship games in the double-hosting era (most notably the past two) have been boring blowouts. Sadly, only three of the 15 BCS title games ever played have come down to last-second or overtime finishes: Ohio State-Miami (2002), Texas-USC (2005) and Auburn-Oregon (2010). In each case the participants were the only two major-conference teams to finish undefeated. And the only other time that happened, with Florida State and Virginia Tech in 1999, the game had a lopsided final score (46-29) but was still incredibly entertaining.

That said, Nick asked which possibility would be more fitting, and of course, a maddening, controversy-riddled matchup would be the only fitting sendoff for the BCS. Even better would be a scenario that could have been cleanly resolved if the four-team playoff were already in place. How about this? Louisville finishes as the only undefeated team, having properly dispatched UCF, USF and the rest of the American. It sits at No. 2 in the standings going into Championship Saturday, when No. 1 Alabama (12-0) falls in a shocking upset to 9-3 South Carolina. That result bumps Louisville to No. 1 and allows 11-1 Texas A&M -- despite having lost to the Tide earlier in the season -- to move up from No. 3 and into the game at the expense of 12-1 Pac-12 champ Stanford. Oh, and Boise State goes undefeated but remains stuck at No. 4. Sound about right?

Stewart, I know it's way too early to speculate, but given the potential early-season rankings of at least two Pac-12 teams (Oregon and Stanford) and two Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Michigan/Northwestern), is there any likelihood that Pasadena will stage a Big Ten-Pac-12 Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1 and then again five days later in the BCS championship game? (I threw Northwestern in to get your attention.)
-- David, Los Angeles

David from Los Angeles, eh? Call me suspicious. This sure sounds like something from the mind of Jim D. in Park Ridge, Ill.

Sure, this scenario is possible. For it to happen, presumably the winners of Oregon-Stanford (Nov. 7) and Ohio State-Michigan (Nov. 30) would go on to win their respective conferences and finish No. 1 or 2 in the polls, while the losers would remain ranked highly enough (top 14) to take both teams' place in the Rose Bowl. Note that in the Big Ten scenario the Buckeyes and Wolverines -- at least for one more year -- could face each other again in Indianapolis, making such a possibility less likely. It means one team would have to win twice, and the other couldn't lose to any other opponent.

The bigger stretch, of course, is suggesting that the SEC gets shut out of the national title game. For exactly one week last season, following the Alabama-Texas A&M game, it appeared this might happen. Even the dour Tide fans calling into Paul Finebaum's show were willing to concede that Oregon would deserve 'Bama's spot if the Ducks went undefeated. I'd expect there to be far more resistance/skepticism if it's a Big Ten team potentially taking the SEC's spot.

No question, just wanted to say that I'm loving all of the Arrested Development references -- keep them coming! Well, OK, one question: What did you think of the fourth season?
-- D. Plunkett, Columbus, Ohio

(Note: Don't worry, this will be a spoiler-free answer.)

So, it wound up taking me exactly 15 days to watch all 15 episodes, and, at times, I found it a bit of a slog. The one-character per episode format really makes viewers realize who their favorites are, and, unfortunately, a couple of mine didn't get their spotlight until the very end. But once they did, it was so worth it. Bring on the movie.

On a related note, make sure to go see This Is The End, if for no other reason than to see Michael Cera (George Michael) like you've never seen him before.

There have been several stories regarding NFL teams "competing against the couch" in terms of attendance. However, most colleges have been immune to that trend and continue to post exceptional attendance percentages. How long do you think that will last? Many schools are building extravagant stadium expansions and drastically raising capacity. At the same time, ticket prices make it difficult for many average fans to attend games (at least frequently), and virtually every game is available on TV at home.
-- Mike, Houston (by way of College Station)

College programs aren't as immune to this trend as it may appear. It's certainly not something Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and LSU, among others, have to worry about, but nationally, average attendance has dropped three percent from five years ago, virtually paralleling the NFL's dip. And it's not just a handful of programs or apathetic mid-major schools feeling the pinch. Among those with empty seats last season were Florida (98.9 percent of capacity), Oklahoma State (93.9), West Virginia (93.2), Florida State (91.9) and Stanford (86.7). Believe me, it's a huge concern for athletic directors, who are well aware of all the factors mentioned above. Michigan State AD Mark Hollis told an interesting anecdote a few months ago about his realization last season why so many students had stayed home during a rainy game. "What can't you do in the rain? Text. So they stay inside," Hollis said. Similarly, Twitter has become a staple of live sporting events -- but it sure eats up phone battery spending all day tailgating before the game.

One advantage major college programs have over the NFL with their in-stadium experiences is the pageantry: the eagle soaring at Auburn, the dotting of the I at the Horseshoe, the "Jump Around" routine at Camp Randall, etc. Most schools' fans miss out on something special and unique if they stay home. At the same time, if fans do go to the game, they're not going to see all the same replay angles they would on television, they can't switch to another game during the TV timeouts (which feel REALLY LONG in-person) and they're probably going to sit in two hours of traffic after the game. I know one thing: Schools have got to be absolutely nuts to approve a stadium expansion today. I assume that's the genesis of Mike's question; his hometown program, Texas A&M, recently announced an expansion from about 82,500 to 102,000. That could really backfire if, say, Kevin Sumlin leaves for the NFL in a few years and the program regresses. Then again, A&M is all about the 12th Man, and its game-day experience is not something a true Aggie fan would ever take lightly -- so long as that experience remains affordable.

Just read your Mailbag and noted several great Arrested Development references. I couldn't resist: Who would be your college football team equivalents to the characters of Arrested Development?
-- TJ, Corvina, Calif.

Wow. We've done this before for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Lost -- but there are a whole lot more characters in play here. As I did with those questions, I'll open the floor to you, the readers, who will come up with far better answers than I could. However, in the interest of both your time and mine, maybe limit responses to five Bluths plus one recurring guest of your choice. I'll publish the best answers next week (when the Mailbag will also return to its regular Wednesday run date).

Until then, I shall be neither seen nor heard.

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