Assessing Johnny Manziel's upcoming season; more mail

Wednesday July 24th, 2013

Johnny Manziel's offseason has been full of media swarms, headlines and various other distractions.
Dave Martin/AP

As the offseason morphs into the preseason, it's becoming increasingly clear that "This Week in Johnny Football" won't subside any time soon. If anything, it's like a reality show that people can't seem to stop watching even while openly mocking. I keep waiting for a photo to pop up of Manziel with The Situation.

The Mailbag will not indulge your week-old Manning Academy conspiracy theories, because The Mailbag's author really couldn't give a **** about that whole overblown story. But he will happily oblige in discussing the actual football implications.

Stewart, let's say we buy the tall tale that Johnny Manziel accidentally overslept at the Manning Passing Camp. While we're at it let's write off all of Manziel's offseason bonehead actions as college boy tomfoolery. This season, with all the scrutiny he will be under, coupled with a new offensive coordinator, the loss of key players on both sides of the ball, a mediocre defense and 12 opponents that have had all offseason to create defensive schemes to stop him, what are your realistic expectations for Mr. Sleepyhead and the Aggies in 2013-14?
-- Jake Dawson, Reynolds, Ill.

First of all, until Manziel demonstrates otherwise, I won't give the slightest credence to the notion that his offseason extracurricular activities will have any impact on his performance this season. Has he missed any conditioning drills or flaked on 7-on-7 sessions? Is he out of shape? Has he stopped watching tape? We've yet to hear about any of those things. The majority of voices out there seem to think Manziel is just having fun like any other college kid and that none of this is that big of a deal -- and yet, many are waiting for an accompanying on-field implosion. Why? Let me remind you that the guy spent a week-plus on the banquet tour last December, flew out to be on The Tonight Show, sat courtside at NBA games and still managed to go out and torch Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

The other theory I'm not buying? The whole "SEC defenses have had a year to study A&M/Manziel and have dreamed up a magic antidote" bit. The reason I'm not buying it? It's been proven wrong so ... many ... times ... before. The same thing was supposed to happen when Urban Meyer took over Florida; his offense got better in Year 2. Ditto Chip Kelly's at Oregon and Dana Holgorsen's at Oklahoma State (though Holgorsen wasn't around for it). Even West Virginia's offense got better last season despite moving up to a tougher conference; its defense was primarily to blame for a worse record. Yes, the defenses have an extra year to prepare, but the offensive coaches spend that time adapting, too. And without fail, the quarterbacks -- in the Sumlin/Holgorsen/Kingsbury family tree, we're talking primarily Case Keenum, Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith -- get better in Year 2. Why would Manziel's trajectory be any different?

Having said all that, it's obviously no certainty that A&M will repeat or improve on last year's 11-2 campaign, and hidden within Jake's Mr. Sleepyhead e-mail are some of the legitimate reasons why. While Manziel does lose an Outland Trophy-winning blocker (Luke Joeckel) and the team's most dependable receiver (Ryan Swope), new co-coordinators Clarence McKinney and Jake Spavital and the Aggies' offense will be fine. But their defensive counterpart, Mark Snyder, has some real concerns. While A&M's defense struggled early last season, its contributions late in the season should not be overlooked. Manziel did not beat Alabama by himself.

This season, Snyder will likely rely on some very green players up front after losing sack-master Damontre Moore, defensive tackle Spencer Nealy and two invaluable veteran linebackers, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart. Making matters worse, Deshazor Everett and Floyd Raven, two veterans in what was shaping up to be a rock-solid secondary, are currently suspended indefinitely. None of that is ideal for a team set to face Alabama in Week 3.

But anyone pegging A&M to take a major step back is either a) wearing burnt orange or b) failing to look at the Aggies' schedule. It's comically light. They play Rice, Sam Houston State, SMU and UTEP out of conference. They miss Florida, Georgia and South Carolina from the SEC East. So the challengers are basically Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and maybe Mississippi State or Missouri, barring drastic improvement from Arkansas and Auburn.

Here's how I see this playing out: Alabama exacts its revenge in Week 3, complete with a couple Johnny Football turnovers, and all of Manziel's detractors get to say, "See, I told you so," even though the Tide will likely do the same thing to 11 other quarterbacks. Then Manziel will tear it up the rest of the way, but struggle to get back in the Heisman race. Still, barring an all-out implosion on defense, A&M will likely finish the regular season with 10 wins again.

Stewart, what to make of Bob Bowlsby's 'Big Five' superdivision comments? There are currently two teams outside the 'Big Five' that simply should not be left behind: Boise State and Notre Dame. (Apologies to fans of Nevada, Old Dominion, SMU, the academies, etc.) What happens to these two teams?
-- Sancho, Golden, Colo.

First of all, can we just stop for a moment and say: Wow! After all the rumors and speculation these past few months and even years, Bowlsby and John Swofford dropped the hammer this week (and I can't wait to hear Jim Delany's comments on Wednesday). It may not be an all-out NCAA breakaway as many have posited (that was never realistic), but it now appears a major reorganization that formalizes the dividing line between the haves and have-nots is in fact imminent. Secondly, Sancho owes a bigger apology to BYU, that school with the 64,000-seat stadium, national championship and Heisman winner. Which brings us to his question.

It's impossible to say what the ramification will be because no one has said what exactly this new "federation" will look like. Would it really be a new "Division 4" (more appropriate title: "Division Not 4 U"), or would it be a consolidation of FBS/Division I with the smaller schools dropping down a rung? And either way, what are the eligibility criteria for the highest division? Based on recent commissioners' comments, we can probably assume that offering full cost-of-attendance scholarships would be a requirement. Perhaps a higher minimum will be established for the number of sports offered and scholarships awarded. Theoretically, under the existing NCAA structure, schools, not conferences, apply for Division I status. However, one of the current stipulations for new members is "a bona fide offer of membership from a multisport, voting Division I conference." If that holds true in this hypothetical new division, then both Boise and BYU would at the very least need to secure their own Notre Dame/ACC-type deal. And what about current BCS-conference programs Cincinnati, UConn and USF? I don't see how they could afford to meet the aforementioned financial requirements with the American's puny TV revenue. But I also find it hard to believe that one of the nation's most successful Division I basketball programs, UConn, would take a step down competitively.

Just when we thought realignment was over, eh?

Of all the teams with a new coach, which do you expect the most improvement from in the win column? In 2011 Arkansas went 10-2 and in 2012 was steered by an interim coach to a 4-8 season. Do you have other candidates primed for success in 2013?
-- Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Ore.

I do think Bret Bielema will get the Razorbacks turned around soon enough, but it might not be this fall. The personnel isn't yet where he needs it, and the schedule features a brutal five-week stretch starting Sept. 21: at Rutgers, vs. Texas A&M, at Florida, vs. South Carolina and at Alabama. Getting to six wins will be a struggle. But staying in the same division in the same conference, I'd go with Auburn's Gus Malzahn. First of all, it can't get any worse than last year's 3-9/0-8 mark. The Tigers could be better. And the Tigers could be significantly better with a coach running a clearly defined offense that both fits its quarterback (Kiehl Frazier) and won't be saddled with last year's woefully inexperienced offensive line, which included freshman starters at both tackle positions. This year four starters return, as do some decent skill players.

Auburn's early schedule is interesting. The Tigers open with Washington State and Arkansas State, two teams that should be gimmes but really aren't until we know for sure that the Tigers truly bottomed out last year. If they do win both, though, Malzahn's team should get to .500 no problem, as it also faces Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic. I see winnable home games against Mississippi State and Ole Miss as well as road games at Arkansas and Tennessee. Just split 'em.

Hi Stewart -- I'm a huge fan of your Mailbag and look forward to reading it every week. I would like to nominate Tommy Rees of Notre Dame to your eighth-year senior team. Thanks!
-- Jenna Johnson, Chicago

Good one! As a general rule of thumb, if an active player was once the winning quarterback in the Sun Bowl, served as the backup when his team later made the BCS title game and then found himself back under center the next season, he's most definitely an eighth-year senior.

Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit gained significant steam when the NCAA's contract with EA Sports ceased.
Isaac Brekken/AP

Stewart, the NCAA keeps saying it isn't worried about the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, but recently it decided to not renew its contract with EA Sports, the game at the center of the mess. My opinion is that the NCAA should drop the facade and let players negotiate their own contract with entities such as EA Sports, shoe manufacturers and anyone NOT DIRECTLY RELATED to the school, but draw the line on money coming from the school and its reps. Should the O'Bannon lawsuit win, it will be the end of college football as we know it, one way or another.
-- John Moore, Ft. Worth, Texas

You're basically advocating the Olympic model, a favorite of NCAA critics like Jay Bilas, Andy Staples and others. It certainly makes a lot of sense. First of all, it's the only remotely realistic manner by which college athletes will ever be compensated. Universities are not going to turn their students into salaried employees and deal with unionization, severances, pensions, Title IX issues and all other manner of complications that render the possibility DOA. I suppose one day Alabama could sponsor a semipro football team the way a butcher shop sponsors the local pee-wee team, but that'd be a far less popular sport. More realistically, whether due to an O'Bannon loss or not, the NCAA could loosen its definition of amateurism and allow athletes to collect royalties from their jersey sales, video-game appearances, etc., as well as potential local and national sponsorships. The difference: Those are instances where players' specific likeness is being marketed.

There's one major complication, however: recruiting. In the Olympics, teams aren't competing for the services of the athletes, save for a few dual-citizen cases. Therefore there's no potential conflict of interest with athletes earning individual sponsorships (save for that time Michael Jordan covered his Reebok logo). With colleges, you could have all sorts of insidious cross-pollination. Suddenly every Oregon recruit will get a Nike contract or a wealthy Ohio State booster will pay inordinate sums to prospective Buckeyes for doing an autograph signing at his car dealership. Most business owners went to school somewhere. How would the NCAA separate legitimate business deals from de facto recruiting payoffs? It couldn't. It may be that it's an unavoidable issue. It may be an overblown fear. But nothing is as simple as it seems when it comes to the pay-for-play issue.

Andy Staples had a pretty harsh column about coaches putting winning above all else. In that context, how would you rate Gary Patterson's handling of Casey Pachall? Pachall has shown a real desire to change, and Patterson has been very supportive. The cynics will say Patterson needs Pachall to win, but I say that if Pachall can endure self-inflicted humiliations such as having to ask his probation officer for permission to go to road games, Pachall is trying to man up and Patterson is doing the right thing.
-- Doug Strout, Montgomery, Ala.

I thought Patterson handled the situation perfectly in that he managed to be both punitive and supportive. Two things were clear at the time of Pachall's DWI arrest last October (after previously failing a drug test): The quarterback didn't belong on a football field, and he needed help. Patterson all but sacrificed a season to accomplish both. He could have suspended the star for a few games and gotten him back in time for the Big 12 stretch run. Instead, he turned over the job to a redshirt freshman for the rest of the year. He also could have cut Pachall loose and been done with him entirely. Instead, he forced him to enter rehab and get the help he needed with the carrot of a possible 2013 return as motivation.

I have no idea if Pachall is manning up or if he's truly changed. TCU has not made him available for interviews all year. If he relapses, mostly it will be sad for him, but it will also make Patterson look foolish. That said, the Horned Frogs could have a perfectly good year without Pachall. Trevone Boykin is ready to lead the team if necessary after last year's early christening. So I would hardly cast Pachall's return as a win-at-all-costs decision. If he does return to 2011 form, though, TCU could be in position for a great season.

Alabama guard Anthony Steen is my nominee for the eighth-year senior list. Half the 'Bama fans I talk to just assume they have to find a replacement at right guard as well for this year.
-- Kyle Stingily, Atlanta

That one may be a little too 'Bama-specific. You'd have to remember that Steen made an unfortunate fill-in start for the injured Barrett Jones back in the 2010 Iron Bowl. Jones, on the other hand, will be a permanent honorary captain.

I heard a lot of talk at SEC Media Days about certain teams getting easier cross-division games. I know it has been easier the past few season for Alabama, but Nick Saban was the only coach to vote for a nine-game conference schedule. This would make it easier to even out the imbalances. The way it is now, a couple of teams each year will have it easier. I feel these people need to step up to the plate for a ninth conference game or let it go. What are your thoughts and opinion?
-- Brandon, Mt. Carmel, Tenn.

I couldn't agree more. All the cross-divisional complaints are a bit short-sighted, although that shouldn't be surprising since coaches are focused first and foremost on protecting their jobs. I'm sure Alabama would have loved for somebody to take Tennessee off its hands back in the '90s. I'm guessing Florida didn't much mind playing LSU every year during that span.

LSU's Les Miles has the most legitimate gripe, as his program has been stuck playing the SEC's most consistently successful team for 20 years, but then at the same time Miles is arguably the most outspoken about how difficult the SEC is and how unthinkable it would be to play more than eight conference games. I find this strange since Miles has proven more amenable than most of his colleagues about playing tough out-of-conference games (the 2011 Oregon and 2013 TCU openers, home-and-homes with West Virginia, Washington and others). Adding a ninth league game would only help his team's national title chances. As for its conference-title hopes, some years it would harder, some years easier. It's random that way. But at least more than one of his SEC West competitors would have to face Florida.

With all the controversy around unbalanced SEC scheduling, why don't they make it easy and declare the division winner based solely on division record, with head-to-head serving as a two-way tie-breaker and conference record serving as a multi-way tiebreaker?
-- Bob Smith, Philadelphia

Steve Spurrier's is not a bad idea, but it would cheapen the cross-divisional games, which means the SEC Network ... er, ESPN ... er, they actually are one in the same now ... would never go for it.

BYU always has several candidates for the eighth-year senior team because of the two-year Church missions many of the players go on. However, I think defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna is particularly notable this year because he famously blocked a field goal with no time left on the clock to preserve a BYU victory in the Las Vegas Bowl against UCLA ... in 2007.
-- Joe, Rexburg, Idaho

Game, set, match.

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