Predicting overrated, underrated teams entering 2013; more mail

Wednesday June 26th, 2013

Louisville should start this season near the top of the polls following its Sugar Bowl win over Florida.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Note: I wrote a separate column on Wednesday reacting to the NCAA's sanctions against Oregon. For a full breakdown of the penalties facing the Ducks, click here.

One of the many annual rites of college football is the arrival of preseason preview magazines, which is taking place right now. I love it. I realize there are preview magazines for every sport, and I realize that there have been plenty of similar polls and team previews on the Internet (including on this site) that started coming out nearly six months ago. Still, there's a certain significance associated with picking up a freshly printed Athlon or Phil Steele preview magazine. For one thing, it means the season isn't too far away. For another, these previews unofficially set the narrative for basically every team's upcoming season.

Six months from now, certain teams will celebrate a storybook season while others will look for a new coach, all because they either exceeded or fell short of the expectations created by the number that appeared before their names in the preseason. And it's not like there's great variance from one publication to the next. Sure, one preview might have Florida listed at No. 7 and another at No. 13, but generally speaking they'll all have at least 18-20 teams in common and very few outliers.

That apparent groupthink leads to questions like this ...

So who is the "it" team for 2013? That one team that a couple of sportswriters pick as the breakout team for the season, and then, next thing you know, everyone's picking them? Keep in mind, this is usually the team that ends up having an average season. My early prediction goes to TCU.
-- Mike, Dallas

Even with that vague description, I think we all know what Mike means by an "it" team. In fact, we can probably identify some fairly obvious ones from recent years. In 2009, it was Houston Nutt's Ole Miss team that started in the top 10 only to lose four SEC games. Last year, following its Orange Bowl explosion against Clemson, it was West Virginia; the Mountaineers finished 7-6. (USC obviously fell off even more dramatically, but I'm assuming one of the criteria for the "it" team is that it's not a regular contender. Otherwise, Florida State has been the "it" team for more than a decade.)

TCU is a pretty good bet. I tried to jump on the bandwagon early, but it appears I'm not alone. The Horned Frogs are showing up in virtually every preseason Top 25 despite last year's 7-6 mark. Still, when picking a program to make that jump from one year to the next, Gary Patterson's is probably one of the safest bets around. TCU should have an elite defense. And while most teams in the Big 12 will have to deal with inexperience at quarterback, the Frogs will bring back an NFL-caliber guy (albeit one who spent most of last season being treated for drug and alcohol addiction) in Casey Pachall. But the perhaps the biggest reason TCU doesn't fall in this category is simpler: While it may start the year in the Top 25, I don't believe it will be anywhere near the top 10. TCU is trendy, but not that trendy.

So who's the team that may be getting too much hype? Louisville. The Cardinals may well start the season on the brink of the top five, and they'll do so for three reasons: They beat Florida in a BCS game, they have Teddy Bridgewater and they have an easy schedule. The bump that comes from an unexpected bowl victory and the return of a star quarterback is without question the surest track to an inflated preseason ranking. In fact, both the aforementioned Ole Miss and West Virginia teams shared those same attributes. The difference here is that it's obviously hard to imagine Charlie Strong's team stumbling more than once, if at all, against its de facto Conference USA schedule. But I'd remind you, Louisville didn't play the world's most daunting schedule last year, either, and it still managed to lose to Syracuse and Connecticut. Even with the Sugar Bowl win, it finished outside the Top 25 in Sagarin's ratings. By no means am I predicting a Cardinals implosion, but with the expectations where they are, it would only take a couple of upsets for Louisville to give up "it" status.

ELLIS: Now back on campus, TCU's Casey Pachall looking to return to form

Which team that likely won't start the season in the top 10 has the best chance to make a national title run?
-- Joshua, Houston

You're going to laugh, especially in light of my sarcastic earlier comment, but give me Florida State. Wouldn't it be fitting if the 'Noles finally return to glory the one year expectations aren't through the roof? Clemson figures to be the consensus preseason ACC title pick, and for good reason: The Tigers' talent level has increased every year under Dabo Swinney. They bring back one of the best quarterbacks in the country (Tajh Boyd), and their Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU showed that Clemson may finally be ready to compete with the nation's elite.

But remember, the 'Noles hung 49 points on the Tigers last season. Florida State had the nation's No. 2 total defense last year; Clemson's unit ranked 63rd. How much has that gap really closed over the course of a year? As I've mentioned previously, FSU's returning starters number is deceiving. There are still plenty of talented veterans on that team. Of course, the 'Noles will replace a first-round quarterback, E.J. Manuel, with a redshirt freshman, Jameis Winston, and while the post-spring buzz surrounding Winston is off the charts, first-year quarterbacks are often prone to mistakes. If Winston does prove competent, FSU's schedule is extremely manageable. The 'Noles will need to win at Clemson -- no small feat -- and avoid a truly bad loss like last year's defeat at NC State, which effectively eliminated them from the national title race by early October.

What is your take on all the Johnny Manziel hoopla? I can kind of understand the way he may be feeling given his instant rise to celebrity, but so many other football stars have been in this exact situation and have handled it a lot classier than he has. Is this just a case of Manziel's ego getting out of hand?
-- Tucker, Springfield, Mo.

Well, let me begin with a story from my own college experience. Like Manziel, I had a car in college (admittedly, not a Mercedes). And like Manziel, I got a few parking tickets. Everyone who has ever spent any time on a college campus knows there are no bigger sticklers for rules and regulations than campus meter maids. Well, let's just say my diligence about paying them became a bit more lax as I got closer to graduation because, really, what did it matter at that point? As it turns out, it mattered enough that the school stuck the tickets on my final tuition bill, which of course needed to be paid in full before I walked at graduation. I don't remember my reaction. I was probably more amused than angry. But I do know this: If Twitter had existed in 1998, there's a very good chance I would have tweeted about this little nugget. And considering I was 22 and not yet employed by a major media organization (or any employer, for that matter), it's quite likely my tweets would have lacked the same filter my more measured 37-year-old self employs.

I've only met Manziel once. He was pleasant and engaging. Perhaps I caught him on a good day and he's actually an egomaniacal punk when the recorder is off. I couldn't tell you. The real question is this: Are we really sure "many other football stars have been in this exact situation and have handled it a lot classier than he has?" Or is it possible that many previous stars were just as naïve or immature -- if not more so -- but their off-field lives didn't unfold in real time? Prior to the past few years, the only glimpse the public got into any college athlete's personality came through media interviews -- most of which take place in carefully controlled settings chosen by protective school public relations handlers. Now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, we're seeing what some of these stars are really like when the cameras aren't running, and we're finding out -- shocker -- that they act like college kids. Manziel is the most prominent athlete to share as much information as he does, and that tendency has certainly backfired on him a few times. Is that "a case of his ego being out of hand?" Possibly. But I'd be willing to bet that plenty of other former Heisman winners would have gotten themselves into hot water had Twitter existed during their day.

While Virginia Tech did lose the 2000 Sugar Bowl to Florida State by 17 points, it actually led by one point at the end of the third quarter and offensively was the better team. I don't consider that a "blowout," as many of your readers would suggest. In fact, I would rank the 2000 Sugar Bowl as the fifth- or sixth-best BCS championship game in terms of sheer entertainment level.
-- Joe W., Farmville, Va.

I think you're selling the game short. Maybe I skew too nostalgic because it was the first title game I covered, but in my mind, only Ohio State-Miami and Texas-USC were more entertaining. Michael Vick's theatrics alone were absolutely jaw dropping at the time. It was one of the defining moments in the evolution of the modern dual-threat quarterback.

What the hell is Arrested Development?
-- Jack, Knoxville, Tenn.

It's the story of Tennessee's 2009 recruiting class.

Ed O'Bannon leads a case challenging the NCAA's right to use student-athletes' likenesses without pay.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Stewart, good update on the O'Bannon case, but what are your thoughts on it? There is definitely a case to be made concerning the use of athletes' likenesses in video games and the notion that the NCAA and game manufacturers should reimburse athletes for this use. I feel this issue goes beyond the scope of the waiver/release that each student-athlete is required to sign. When the plaintiffs add TV rights to the suit, however, I think they cross directly into the area those waivers/releases are intended to cover, and thus TV money should not be touched by this case. What do you think?
-- Sparky, Yuma, Ariz.

This may sound like a cop-out answer, but I'm trying to keep an open mind and not form too many definitive opinions either way. This is because A) I'm not an expert in antitrust law and B) it looks like I might be covering this case for another year or longer. I will say, when O'Bannon and Sam Keller before him first went after the NCAA and EA Sports over the video-game issue, it seemed to me like a pretty airtight case. No reasonable person could possibly believe that the NCAA did not know EA was using actual players' likenesses in the games (and there are emails and testimonies on file that seem to confirm as much). In doing so, the parties seemingly licensed individuals' rights that they either did not or should not have possessed. The infamous waiver in question, Form 08-3a, authorizes use of athletes' names and pictures to "promote NCAA championships or other NCAA events, activities or programs." And despite the NCAA's own arguments to the contrary, athletes are certainly given the impression they have no choice but to sign it.

However, as Sparky points out, the question of athletes' rights to a share of TV revenue seems far more vexing. It was fascinating last week in court watching the judge try to poke holes in both sides' theories. The plaintiffs are arguing that just like with EA, athletes are being denied the right to market their own likenesses when, say, the SEC makes a multibillion dollar deal with ESPN to broadcast games. (Mind you, no individual conference is being sued here.) But the NCAA makes a seemingly valid counterargument that most states' publicity rights laws exempt sports or news broadcasts from requiring waivers from those who appear on camera. In fact, if the laws didn't have those exemptions, then ESPN would theoretically need to license not only the players' rights, but also those of any referee, cheerleader, mascot or even fan that appears during the course a broadcast. That's not realistic.

STAPLES: Current college athlete set to be face of Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA?

And then there's the question of how any such revenue distribution would work. In order to advance its claim for class certification, the plaintiffs are arguing that every player on a roster would be compensated equally. The NCAA, which obviously objects to compensation of any kind, is then left to argue that if the plaintiffs got their way, Texas A&M's Manziel would surely command a greater cut than the Aggies' third-string safety, and therefore athletes can't possibly be licensed as a group.

I have no idea how this case will play out. Even if the judge certifies the class (as she's expected to do), that's not necessarily an indication as to how the trial will play out, or whether the NCAA will reach a settlement before that happens. Stay tuned.

Hey Stewart, Notre Dame alum and longtime fan. With Michigan, Ohio State and the Irish all riding high now in regard to coaching, recruiting and on-field success, how can the rest of the Big Ten compete? It seems that those three schools will get the best local talent in addition to several touted national prospects. How can an Iowa or Illinois or even Northwestern keep up?
-- Todd Bushway, Buffalo

No question, all three of those programs are certainly capable of sustained runs of excellence under their current coaches. But I would contend that not much else has changed recently. With rare exception, those programs have always out-recruited the other Big Ten schools (with the occasional exception of Penn State). Illinois and Iowa will always keep a certain segment of in-state prospects, but they're not often going to beat out Ohio State for a kid in Cleveland or Michigan for a kid in Detroit. Ohio State and Michigan recruit against each other and Penn State far more frequently than they do against most of the other teams in the conference. And yet, since 1995, eight different schools have won at least a share of one Big Ten title, including three by Northwestern, two by Iowa and one by Illinois.

What puts a Michigan or Ohio State class over the top in a given year is its ability to land a few elite recruits from outside its region that would have otherwise gone to a USC or Florida. Case in point: Jabrill Peppers, the five-star defensive back from New Jersey who committed to the Wolverines last month. And Notre Dame is an extreme example of that; its entire class is national. An uptick by the Irish doesn't necessarily impact the Big Ten other than the fact that Notre Dame faces several Big Ten foes. Yet even with all that, we're still seeing Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern -- which is enjoying its best recruiting season in decades -- land their share of blue-chippers. I do believe Urban Meyer, Brady Hoke and Brian Kelly will keep their respective programs hot for the foreseeable future, but the new Big Ten divisional alignment alone (in which the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Nittany Lions will be in the East) opens the door for a non-traditional program from the West (pretty much everyone but Nebraska and Wisconsin) to earn the opportunity to at least reach Indianapolis, if not Pasadena, on an annual basis.

STAPLES: Coded commitment tweets bringing new publicity to recruiting

Hello, I love the Mailbag and have read every one for years. You said last week that stadium attendance has decreased about three percent over the past five years and that TV coverage is one likely culprit. That percent drop in game-day attendance only accounts for about $500,000 per year for a typical big-time school. However, the extra TV exposure has added $20 million per year to the athletic coffers. I'd think most athletic directors would be happy with $19.5 million dollar raises at the expense of slightly less-than-packed stadiums.
-- Andrew, California

I'm not sure how you arrived at your numbers, but yes, in general, the revenue lost from a few thousand unsold tickets per game pales in comparison to the cut of conference TV money the power-conference schools now receive. But there are a few factors you're not taking into account, starting with the fact that no amount of money is ever enough in the minds of athletic directors. Secondly, I'm guessing it's not the three percent drop that concerns schools, but the fear that the trend might grow even worse over time. Also, the $20 million per year total is a set figure that an AD can count on when setting an annual budget for his department, but the volatility that comes with fluctuating attendance can lead to budget deficits and, in turn, affect coaches' salaries or renovation projects. Remember, schools will receive that $20 million whether three million or 3,000 people actually watch the game; there's far more incentive to promote in-game attendance than television viewership.

Most of all, while it may seem quaint, a fan who attends a game in person is more valuable than merely the gate-cut of a $40 game ticket. A fan who attends a game in person is more likely to be a diehard fan, someone who is likely to develop a lifelong allegiance to the school, perhaps a donor who contributes for the right to purchase season tickets. Many travel from out of town and spend money at local hotels and restaurants. These are the people programs can't afford to lose. To be clear, I'm not saying there's some crisis at hand here, and perhaps the concern is even overblown. But I can tell you with certainty that enhancing the live-game experience is a high priority right now for many athletic departments.

Love your commentary on football. Have no use whatsoever for wasting time on TV series or vicarious "hot" girlfriends. Do a majority of your readers actually enjoy this complete waste of your space?
-- Jerry Outlaw, Boise, Idaho

I can't say for sure, but I do know I received far more Arrested Development casting emails this week than I did complaints. In fact, yours was the only one.

While there were plenty of quality responses to last week's challenge, Dave from Cincinnati pulled off an all-timer. Enjoy his submission, printed below.

Warning: There's some off-color humor here that may offend those who haven't seen the show and thus don't know the context.

I drew up this list of Arrested Development comparisons while studying at the Method One Clinic.

  • George Bluth: Alabama. The elder statesmen, the head honchos and likely up to something shady.
  • Michael Bluth: Michigan. The dependable ones who are always there, have fallen on hard times, are trying to get to the top and live in a big house.
  • Gob Bluth: Notre Dame. So good at illusions that Manti Te'o's girlfriend disappeared. Probably wanted to take a Forget-Me-Now to erase its BCS title game performance.
  • Lindsay Bluth: Auburn. Tried to save the trees, then had them cut down.
  • George Michael: West Virginia. Put on the muscle suit every season, but eventually have to take it off and reveal the skinny kid underneath.
  • Tobias Funke: Boise State. They blue themselves.
  • Buster Bluth: Army. No one expects them to be any good and their greatest fear is a loose SEAL (Navy).
  • Lucille Bluth: Miami. Booze-fueled parties and a criminal record to boot.
  • Maebe Funky: Every mid-major trying to get noticed.
  • Lucille Ostero: Florida State. Lucille Bluth's rival, prone to suffering from crippling vertigo the last few seasons: Every time they think they are back, they fall on their a***s.
  • Barry Zuckercorn: Ohio State. They have the worst lawyers.
  • Oscar Bluth: Colorado. Legalized pot. Enough said.
  • The banana stand: Texas. There's always money in the banana stand.

On next week's Mailbag, Stewart puts the Arrested Development thread to bed because there's simply no topping that.

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