Analyzing Ohio State's preseason hype; more mail

Wednesday August 14th, 2013

Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller and Ohio State are being widely billed as a preseason BCS title contender.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

For any of you looking for another Johnny Manziel-free Mailbag ... yeah, right. But here's something else to get things started.

If you look at Notre Dame and Ohio State's 2012 results, you'll see they're pretty similar. In addition to playing and beating three common opponents (Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue), both schools had close calls against inferior competition (Purdue for both, Indiana for Ohio State and Pitt for ND) and comfortably beat some respectable opponents (Nebraska for Ohio State, Miami for ND). Both schools caught some breaks until Notre Dame's luck ran out in the BCS championship against Alabama; however, I've yet to hear a pundit say Ohio State would have put up a better fight. Taking all that into account, what is the main reason Ohio State is being picked as a popular preseason BCS title game participant?
-- John, Jersey City, N.J.

I've certainly played my part in contributing to Ohio State's preseason hype, yet even I'm skeptical that the Buckeyes have reached a BCS championship level. (You might notice that my hypothetical OSU-'Bama game story the other day included mention of a hypothetical Cal-over-OSU upset.) It's a good point that Ohio State's lack of postseason participation last year may have actually shielded it from a potential setback and, in turn, lowered expectations for 2013. (Of course, had the Buckeyes been eligible, they would have faced Notre Dame, not Alabama.) The Irish have certainly suffered that type of carryover effect: Had Brian Kelly's team actually lost that triple-overtime game to Pittsburgh, fallen out of the BCS title race and wound up winning a more favorable bowl matchup, it almost certainly would enter this season ranked higher than 11th in the Coaches' Poll.

Still, Ohio State's lofty 2013 status was preordained from the moment Urban Meyer was hired in November 2011. The Buckeyes likely would be talked about as a national title contender even if they hadn't gone undefeated last season. Just by the mere fact of Meyer's arrival, it seemed a foregone conclusion that, following a transition period in Meyer's first year, OSU would contend for a national title in his second season, just as Florida did. The fact that the Buckeyes went undefeated, as ugly as it was at times, only reinforced that notion. Factor in the perfect storm of Braxton Miller's ascension at quarterback, Meyer's consecutive top-five recruiting classes and another extremely favorable schedule and we've reached a point where CBS' season preview show last weekend actually had the Buckeyes No. 1, ahead of Alabama. It's all a bit reminiscent of the rush to anoint USC last year, though in this case the head coach inspires a bit more confidence.

As for the contrast with Notre Dame, which actually returns far more proven talent on defense (eight starters, including stars Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo), quarterback uncertainty explains the discrepancy in preseason perception. Miller, despite his average passing numbers last season, is a more proven commodity than Tommy Rees. The Irish also don't get the same benefit of the doubt. They were down for so long that many refused to believe they were "back" even before the Alabama implosion. The Buckeyes had one down year in the last decade, when their coach got fired three months before the season. It would hardly come as a surprise if they get back in BCS title contention. But I'd also consider it only a mild surprise if the Irish actually field the better team in 2013.

Let me pose a question to all those who think college football players should be allowed to make money by selling their autographs: How would you feel if all the starters for your school's biggest rival were paid $200,000 a year each by boosters to sign autographs? Once you let players start making money, how do you keep boosters from completely undermining the amateurism that differentiates college football from the NFL?
-- Gerry Swider, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

I agree that the NCAA is hypocritical, but I've yet to hear of a workable alternative. Should players be able to keep a cut of their jersey sales? Can one school offer a bigger cut to get a player? Won't large schools like Texas have a huge advantage over schools like Oregon State? Can a booster become an autograph salesman and offer $50,000 for a signing? We should hear plans for something new before we scrap the current system.
-- Eric, Japan

Remember when I wrote last week: "The general consensus, from what I can tell, regarding Manziel's alleged autograph payout boils down to this: He knows the rules, so if true, he should pay the price -- but the rule he'd be breaking is unfair. A player should be allowed to profit off his name and likeness." Well, the rest of you made your voices heard loud and clear in my inbox.

As Eric says, a lot of column space has been devoted to the question: Should the NCAA allow athletes to profit off their likenesses/abilities? Yet not nearly as much has focused on the question: Can the NCAA do it? Any proposal one could come up with is littered with potentially messy consequences, starting first and foremost with Title IX implications. And while many have pointed to the Olympic model -- athletes aren't paid to participate but are free to sign individual endorsement deals -- there's a fundamental difference unique to college athletics. Except for a few dual-citizenship cases, countries don't recruit. They don't compete against each other for the services of the most coveted athletes. No matter what system is used, college athletes will still presumably be free to pick which university they attend. Once money is introduced into the system in any way, the potential for abuse is created. Suddenly every Oregon recruit is being offered a Nike sponsorship, and a whole lot of Alabama boosters suddenly become autograph brokers.

That said, let's say a consensus of decision-makers comes to believe, like many fans, that it is morally wrong to deny star players a share of the profits derived from their jersey sales and video-game avatars. (Though as ESPN's Kristi Dosh noted last week, jersey sales are not a particularly profitable business for universities). Then it seems to me those decision-makers have a moral obligation to find a way to make it happen. One thing I'll say in regard to recruiting: If the fear is that the most deep-pocketed schools will get all the best prospects ... doesn't that already happen? Still, I'm not sure the average fan would be able to stomach a system in which players pick their schools simply based on which affiliated third-party offers the best deal. It's a legalized version of the situation that landed SMU the death penalty.

So by all means, if you're among the many who believe current amateurism rules are unfair, don't just complain about it. Come up with a viable alternative.

Here's my issue with the Manziel situation, and it doesn't necessarily have to do with him. The vast majority of college athletes cannot sell their autographs for $7,500. How is it fair to ask young kids to compete in a system in which the very small percentage of athletes who are celebrities reap benefits others cannot? I know people want to criticize the NCAA, but just considering this rule itself, I don't have a problem with it.
-- Shane, Portland, Ore.

I'm not sure I'd use the word "unfair" to describe that conundrum. Is it unfair that Peyton Manning makes more money and gets to be in more commercials than his teammates? Is it unfair that the lovely and talented Jennifer Lawrence (oh, we have not forgotten you, J-Law) makes more than her Hunger Games co-stars? Of course not; every sector of our economy rewards its top performers financially ... except for amateur athletics.

One word I would use is "awkward." I could see where A&M's starting center (a hypothetical one, not this year's center) who is getting his scholarship and nothing else might start to resent his quarterback that's getting paid to sign autographs after every game. Might it affect the way they perform together?

Another word is "disruptive." Let's say you're a two-star no-name recruit who gets an 11th-hour scholarship from Arkansas State. You blow up as a freshman and it quickly becomes apparent that you can play for just about anybody. Wouldn't you immediately transfer to a higher-profile school, where your autograph will be in far greater demand? Suddenly sitting out a year becomes a worthwhile investment, and suddenly the Sun Belt, Conference USA, etc., become the equivalent of minor league feeder systems.

Is that unfair? No, it's capitalism. But I would hate to be a C-USA coach in that system.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston will have the benefit of throwing behind an experienced offensive line.
Phil Sears/AP

Nice prediction on Stanford grinding it out over Alabama in this year's national championship. While Stanford is getting some really nice media coverage on its overall toughness and talent, I'm not sure anyone (outside of northern California) realizes how dominant the Cardinal's offensive line could be. Any other dominant position groups (D-line, receivers, linebackers, etc.) that you could see being able to take over games and carry a certain team to a special bowl game or even a championship?
-- Joe, Tempe, Ariz.

Just to be clear, that wasn't a prediction, just a fun little hypothetical. But I do believe, as of today, that Stanford is the non-SEC team best equipped to take on Alabama, if it actually came to that. The Cardinal's offensive line is a big part of that equation. No team has ever won a championship primarily on the strength of its receivers or linebackers, but you're right that a team can ride a strong offensive and defensive line pretty darn far. With that in mind, the closer we get to the season, the more I believe Florida State is the most overlooked team in the country right now. (And yes, I realize how ridiculous that would have sounded any time in recent history.)

People are automatically writing off the 'Noles because of their low number of returning starters, but look at the guys coming back, particularly up front. That offensive line was already good last year and returns four starters and a fifth, Bobby Hart, who started as a true freshman in 2011. Defensively, FSU only has one true veteran up front, tackle Timmy Jernigan, but projected starters Dan Hicks and Demonte McAllister are fifth-year seniors who've seen action, and the other, sophomore Mario Edwards Jr., was only one of the top-ranked recruits in the country two years ago. The catch with the 'Noles is they're putting faith in a redshirt freshman quarterback, Jameis Winston. But if he plays with as much poise as he talks, watch out.

Considering that Tennessee will face five of the top 10 teams in the preseason Coaches' Poll (at Oregon, at Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and at Alabama), do the Vols have the toughest schedule in the nation?
-- Jack, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

That's pretty brutal. What's worse, the Vols play those five games over a six-game stretch from Sept. 21 to Oct. 26, which could leave the rebuilding program pretty beaten down by the time it gets to November. However, I have a hard time putting the word "toughest" in front of a schedule that still includes South Alabama (2-11) and Austin Peay (2-9). That honor either goes to Florida (same East foes plus road games at LSU, Florida State and Miami) or LSU (TCU and 11-win Kent State out of conference; Alabama and Texas A&M in its division plus crossover games at Florida and Georgia). I'd also give consideration to Cal, which hosts a pair of ranked Big Ten teams (Northwestern and Ohio State) and faces top-10 foes Oregon and Stanford on the road.

Keep in mind, these preseason schedule rankings rarely play out as predicted. Remember who had the consensus toughest schedule going into last year? Notre Dame. What was the biggest gripe about the Irish during late-season BCS arguments? They didn't play a tough enough schedule.

Really? Ohio State and Stanford will take down Alabama? Come on, guys; you're better than this. The only real team that has a shot each year is LSU! Alabama is not going to lose to any team outside the SEC and you know it.
-- Derek, Baton Rouge, La.

You may be right about the outside-the-SEC part, but I must have missed where Alabama's one loss last year was to LSU.

When Orlando Pace played for Ohio State, the "pancake block" was an often-cited stat. What happened to the "pancake block?"
-- Jamie, Madison, Wis.

Good question. As best I can remember the term basically originated from Pace's Heisman campaign. You still hear it tossed around in the NFL (including in the Madden video-game series), but it's largely disappeared from the college lexicon. A few schools' sports information departments track and publicize their linemen's "knockdowns," which is virtually the same thing. (Technically, a defender has to fall flat on his back to be considered a pancake; knockdowns probably aren't that specific.) Clemson comes to mind. But while coaches grade their linemen's film every week, few schools make that information public, which drives me crazy come awards season. Sportswriters in general aren't remotely qualified to evaluate offensive line play (former Florida lineman Andy Staples being a notable exception), and we could use any help we can get. Credit Ohio State circa 1996 -- it managed to get an offensive tackle invited to New York, and the pancake campaign had everything to do with it. Some school today that has a similar aspirant might be smart to bring it back.

Which SEC team held the ball for 40 minutes against 'Bama, which logged only 20 minutes of possession? Which SEC team was plus-100 in total yards, and plus-two in the turnover battle vs. 'Bama? It's not Texas A&M. That other team, which is being overlooked these days, is LSU. The Tigers pushed the Tide around for 55 minutes. Which team really has a shot to beat 'Bama this year?
-- Scott, Winter Park, Fla.

Both, I suppose, but for whatever reason we went with the one that actually beat the Tide last year. And that team didn't lose 11 guys early to the NFL draft.

I heard from a local radio announcer that under the new bowl alignment system starting in 2014, the SEC will actually pick which teams go to which bowls after the Sugar and Capital One have made their selections. In other words, rather than the Outback or Gator Bowls deciding which team from the SEC to invite, the conference office will now make those decisions. Two questions: Is there any truth to this? And if so, are other conferences doing the same thing with their new bowl lineups?
-- Jake, Columbia, S.C.

Yes, it is true. The top SEC team not selected for the playoff (as determined by the selection committee) will go to the Sugar Bowl. If the Sugar is hosting a semifinal that year, the displaced SEC team will go to one of the other "New Year's Six" bowls. Some years the league will also place a team in the Orange Bowl (in a shared spot with the Big Ten and Notre Dame), and the Capital One still gets first choice after that. Then, the league will go to a pool system consisting of six bowls: Outback, Music City, Gator, Belk, Liberty and Texas. "In consultation with SEC member institutions, as well as these six bowls, the conference will make the assignments for the bowl games in this newly created pool system," according to the league's official release. Birmingham, then Shreveport, get to pick any remaining SEC teams.

Obviously, it's the SEC's attempt to create matchups that are geographically sensible, avoid one team playing in the same game three times in four years, get the most deserving teams the best possible matchups, etc. And yes, other leagues are employing similar concepts, though none have said quite as plainly "we will pick the teams." The Big Ten has organized its new set of bowls into three "tiers" with stipulations, for example, that five different teams will appear in the Holiday and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl over a six-year period. The ACC will have a four-bowl pool after the playoff/Orange and Russell Athletic slots. It's all part of an inevitable course that will eventually lead the conferences one day taking over ownership of the bowls entirely and simply paying local organizers a fee to run the event for them.

With all due respect to the "four teams that can beat Alabama" package, the team that scares me most as an Alabama fan is LSU. I know it lost a ton of players last year, but it's able to stand in and go toe-to-toe physically with Alabama.
-- Dan Brunetti, Cullman, Ala.

OK, OK. Raving LSU fans are one thing, but I can't argue with a pragmatic Alabama fan.

Last year on the day of the BCS title game you predicted Notre Dame would beat Alabama. Now these four scenarios? You just can't quit your fantasy of Alabama not winning a national championship? Pathetic Stewart.
-- Tim Howard, Arab, Ala.

There just aren't that many of them.

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