Which second-year coach will make the leap?; more mail

Wednesday August 21st, 2013

After going 8-4 in his debut season, Penn State's Bill O'Brien will look to continue to build in year two.
Centre Daily Times/MCT/Getty Images

'Tis the season for predictions, be it SI's preseason Top 25 (which, it should be noted, is not my personal list, though I agree with 90 percent of it) or my Big Ten and Pac-12 previews. They're fun, they're timely and they give fans something to throw back in my face three months from now when they're wrong.

I feel pretty good about this prediction, however.

You've previously touted second-year coaches as ones in position to take big leaps. Last year, Florida took that leap back to national relevancy in Will Muschamp's second year. Is any second-year coach primed to take that leap in 2013?
-- Ethan, Marshall, Va.

OK, get ready. Here's my bold prediction. The second-year coach who will follow in the footsteps of Oklahoma's Bob Stoops (from 7-5 to 13-0 and a BCS title), Ohio State's Jim Tressel (7-5 to 14-0 and a BCS title), USC's Pete Carroll (6-6 to 11-2), Georgia's Mark Richt (8-4 to 13-1), LSU's Nick Saban (8-4 to 10-3 and an SEC title), Alabama's Nick Saban (7-6 to 12-2), Florida's Urban Meyer (9-3 to 13-1 and a BCS title) and Muschamp is ... no one. It's not happening this year. Here's why.

With the exception of Saban at LSU, all the guys above came to traditional powers that had hit a rut. These programs are rarely down for long, so when these coaches achieved the expected improvement that comes with a year of experience using their system, they did it with rosters full of blue-chip recruits. In 2013, the coaches/programs that most closely fit this mold -- Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Penn State's Bill O'Brien, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and UCLA's Jim L. Mora -- already exceeded expectations in year one. In Meyer's and Sumlin's cases, they've already produced top-five teams. Under normal circumstances, one might pin O'Brien as a guy who could lift the Nittany Lions from 8-4 last year to the 11-12 win range this year, but that's not likely to happen with a thin roster and a newcomer at quarterback. As for Mora, I could see the Bruins repeating last year's 9-5 campaign, but not much more than that, particularly after losing Johnathan Franklin and a host of key defenders.

ELLIS: Predicting the first-year records for each of the 2013 season's new coaches

Now, looking for a program that might improve but won't necessarily explode into the top 10 is a very different story. Expect second-year bumps from Arizona State's Todd Graham (8-5 last year), who I've got winning the Pac-12 South, and a guy whose team is being completely overlooked, North Carolina's Larry Fedora. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me entirely if the Tar Heels -- 7-5 last year with no postseason eligibility -- jump to the double-digit win plateau. Fedora is a fantastic offensive coach with a talented veteran quarterback in Bryn Renner. Certainly losing star running back Gio Bernard to the Cincinnati Bengals doesn't help, but there are other good skill players in Chapel Hill. My main holdup in anointing UNC is there are at least three other teams in the ACC Coastal division (Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech) that should also be much improved this fall.

Sorry, that's probably not the answer you were looking for, but blame Sumlin and Meyer. If they had just gone 8-4 last year I'd probably be making bolder predictions for their second seasons.

Why is SI much lower on Georgia this year than many other websites? Almost everyone has them in the top five, as the Bulldogs have an offense loaded with great seniors and came this close to beating Alabama when 'Bama was playing its best. Sure, the defense is somewhat young, but it's loaded with top recruits. SI's decision to leave Georgia out of the top 10 is perplexing.
-- ATL G, Atlanta

I've been getting a lot of questions like this over the past week, and I'd like to reiterate that I have but one vote of many in compiling SI's Top 25. I would probably have the Dawgs in the top 10; however, count me among those that think their top-five spot in both the AP and Coaches' polls is a bit overly optimistic. For one thing, while that SEC Championship Game near-miss became the lasting image of Georgia's 2012 season, it's causing a bit of revisionist history. The Dawgs likely wouldn't have gotten into that game if not for a fortuitous scheduling break. If you recall, South Carolina pummeled Aaron Murray and company last season. In my opinion, the Gamecocks were the best team in the SEC East in 2012, but they had to turn around and play consecutive road games at Florida and LSU. They lost both. Georgia certainly got better over the second half of the season, but besides an ugly Cocktail Party win over Florida, it largely feasted on lower-tier conference foes prior to falling short against Alabama.

Looking to 2013, Georgia unquestionably has the makings of a lethal offense. In fact, it quietly led the country in yards per play (7.1) last season, a notable statistic given it doesn't use an up-tempo offense. With Murray, Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and, most notably, ALL FIVE offensive line starters returning, the offense should only be better. But another 2012 memory that goes largely unmentioned is the Tide running all over Georgia's defense. Alabama's 350 rushing yards (6.9 per carry) in the SEC title game were even more than it racked up on Notre Dame (265; 5.9) a month later, and now Georgia is replacing seven starters and dealing with numerous injuries. The Dawgs' defense may well improve, but it could take some time to gel. That could prove costly with games against Clemson and South Carolina right off the bat. So I'm going with the Gamecocks and their established defense in that division, and I can't see both teams finishing in the top five.

ANDERSON: Georgia ranks No. 12 in SI's preseason college football Top 25

I read about Steven Rhodes (the U.S. Marine walking on at MTSU) this morning on SI, and thought "Man, the NCAA is really broken if this kind of stuff happens." I arrived home this evening, and now I've read that he was granted immediate eligibility. Is this a case of the NCAA doing public relations damage control? Or is this an honest mistake followed by someone's honest hard work to fix it?
-- Wood, Minneapolis

I knew as soon as that story broke Sunday morning that it was going to be a hardcore bash-the-NCAA day across the media. While I, like everyone else, would have been horrified if Rhodes had indeed been forced to sit a season for playing in a military rec league, much of the criticism was premature and misdirected. Whenever something like this occurs, people assume some tone deaf pencil pusher in Indianapolis is purposefully persecuting the athlete. That ignores the fact schools and conferences, not the NCAA staff, institute NCAA rules. As compliance expert John Infante uncovered, whoever crafted this particular rule on delayed enrollment (Bylaw left out (most likely by accident) an exception for military personnel that existed prior to 2011. (The reason I imagine it was an oversight is it still exists in a similar clause specific to men's ice hockey and skiing.)

So the people in Indianapolis didn't write the rule, but it's their job to enforce it, and the rule is pretty unambiguous as written. Now, one might argue the staff should exercise a little common sense in this scenario and waive the rule, and I agree -- and that's exactly what happened here. By all accounts, NCAA staff was still addressing the situation with MTSU when the story broke, and so now we'll never know whether the news coverage influenced the outcome or whether he would have been cleared to play regardless. The fact the decision came on the very next business day does not seem like a p.r. coincidence. But it's unfair to say that someone there made a mistake in initially decreeing he couldn't play. The fault is in the rule, not the enforcer. Certainly this case was a no-brainer, but it's a slippery slope to have a rulebook that the people in charge have discretion to selectively ignore.

While the NCAA made a commendable decision in allowing Steven Rhodes to play immediately, isn't this another example of the NCAA just making up the rules as it goes?
-- Brian, Houston

Case in point.

The term "pancake block" was used prominently in former Pitt offensive lineman Bill Fralic's Heisman campaign.
Courtesy of Pitt's athletic department

You mentioned the term "pancake block" originated at Ohio State for the Heisman campaign of Orlando Pace. This is not correct. The idea came from the University of Pittsburgh to promote the Heisman campaign of Bill Fralic in 1983 and '84.
-- Raymond Nanni, Los Alamos, N.M.

Stewart, the term "pancake block" was created by Nebraska's longtime offensive line coach, Milt Tenopir, in the early 1980s. Nebraska was the only school to track the metric until the 1990s, when, thanks to Nebraska's offensive line dominance, other schools started doing the same.
-- Bob Jennings, Lincoln, Neb.

As always, I appreciate when I can use the Mailbag audience as a de facto research department. Clearly, I was dead wrong on assuming that pancake blocks started with Pace, but it appears there are conflicting reports as to the true origin of the term.

I contacted Pitt media relations extraordinaire E.J. Borghetti, who, in addition to providing the phenomenal photo you see here, was definitely under the impression "pancake" originated with the Fralic campaign. SI's 1984 preview capsule for the Panthers makes mention of the newly created statistic, but it doesn't specifically credit Pitt. I spoke with the Panthers' SID from that time, Jim O'Brien, who did indeed spearhead that campaign and arrange that photo shoot, but he said Pitt's coaches were already using the term.

So while Pitt may have introduced the "pancake block" into the public arena, clearly it was already circulating within the coaching profession. Tenopir, who churned out dominant blockers from 1974-2002, is the likely originator. No school tracked the stat more closely for a while. I found numerous articles on early 2000s All-America Toniu Fonoti that referenced his status as the school's "career leader in pancakes." However, even Nebraska phased it out after Tenopir retired. "... When that kind of stuff starts to get reported, and you have a lot of knockdowns -- but you didn't win the football game -- then something's not matching up," Frank Solich said in 2003. "Really, technique and finishing off your assignment is much more important than a pancake block."

Stewart, Georgia will face two opposing quarterbacks this fall that were previously dismissed from the Bulldogs for disciplinary issues. LSU's Zach Mettenberger was kicked off the team in 2010 after groping a female at a bar. And now Nick Marshall, who was kicked out of Georgia after allegedly stealing from a teammate in the locker room in 2011, will lead Auburn against the Dawgs. Can you ever recall two dismissed players coming back to play against their former team, and in the same season to top it off?
-- Arthur, Atlanta

I'll have to open this one up to the "research department" as well, but I can't imagine there's a precedent here. I certainly hope not. While both players spent a season in junior college, this milestone will probably not be commemorated by the SEC office. Marshall has taken a particularly fascinating career arc, going from a defensive back at Georgia to starting quarterback at Auburn.

Thanks for your "Revenge of the Nerds" column. The primary success stories you chronicled all either have a longstanding football tradition (Notre Dame, the outlier in this group) or come from traditional power conferences (Stanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt). You highlighted Duke as well, which is also in one of the Power Five. Do you think any other schools have the resources to possibly join that group, particularly from outside of the current power structure? Put more bluntly, is there hope for my Rice Owls or other similarly situated schools to rise above their nerd-school stereotypes?
-- Eric, Flower Mound, Texas

Thanks for the kind words. That piece took a lot of work. One of the main takeaways from the coaches and administrators I interviewed at those schools is that academic requirements, while certainly challenging, should no longer be used as an excuse. If anything, a good coach should be able to use the prospect of a prestigious degree (on a free ride, no less) as a prime recruiting selling point. The biggest obstacles these schools have traditionally faced are a lack of support (both in the stands and in the administration) and a self-propagating defeatist attitude. Rice has dealt with all of that, too, but it faces a far more fundamental problem: being stuck in a third-tier conference. It's hard for any school, let alone a "smart school," to rise to prominence from C-USA. It's only going to get harder in the new playoff system. It's not like the Owls are slouches. They've been to bowl games in three of the past seven years. And starting next year, they'll have a new goal to play for -- the Bahamas!

I have a question about another "smart" school: Georgia Tech. Considering its history and location, Tech is a school that could (arguably should) thrive like Vandy or Stanford. But the Jackets seem to be stuck, at best, competing for the ACC Coastal division title. What's holding Georgia Tech back?
--Vince, Washington D.C.

It seems to me the Jackets were humming along just fine until Al Groh showed up on the scene. Paul Johnson's program was coming off an 11-win season, ACC title and Orange Bowl berth when the recently fired Virginia coach became its defensive coordinator. It proceeded to go 16-16 with a 2-4 start last year, until Johnson dismissed Groh in early October; Tech went 5-3 the rest of the way, won its division (albeit by default) and limited USC to seven points in the Sun Bowl.

OK, that's a bit harsh and simplistic, but Georgia Tech is not exactly a program in disarray. In fact, they're my dark horse to win the ACC this season. (Anyone besides Clemson or Florida State is a dark horse this year.) Quarterback Vad Lee is by far the best passer Johnson has had to run his option-based offense, which should make the Jackets tough to defend. Former Auburn and Penn State coordinator and Tech alum Ted Roof was an excellent choice as defensive coordinator. That unit showed improvement late last season and has some nice pieces to stop the pass. Academic requirements are not the same hurdle at Georgia Tech that they are at the schools I profiled. Like most ACC programs, Tech gets "special admits." However, due to its location, Tech is recruiting head-to-head with nearly the entire SEC. Johnson is not considered a particularly good recruiter, and the triple-option is often a tough sell. But Tech did greatly enhance its recruiting department this offseason, which could prove beneficial.

As you know, Frank Beamer's most recent literary offering, Let Me Be Frank has hit the shelves amid great fanfare, and yet you have remained conspicuously silent with regard to the book, Mr. Mandel. Despite more than two decades of college football dominance, you have consistently ignored the Hokies and attempted to diminish their staggering achievements. One can only wonder if "professional jealousy" must be added to the list of reasons you resent coach Beamer and his team.
-- Christian O'Neil M.D., Newport News, Va.

I have nothing but the utmost respect for Beamer, his program and all the great players to come through it -- but I honestly had no idea he wrote a book. It probably doesn't help that Amazon has classified it as a travel book.

RICKMAN: Let Me Be Frank is Frank Beamer's new book, and hopefully the start of a trend

Bo Pelini recently banned all local media from Huskers practice until further notice. It's frustrating from a fan perspective hoping for any nugget of news about how our team is progressing. How common is this among major college programs? And do you see it as a positive or a negative thing in regard to how a program is seen on a national level?
-- Chris, Omaha, Neb.

Unfortunately, for both media and fans, Pelini is by far in the majority. There are only a small handful of BCS-conference programs left that allow media to attend practice, and so I enjoyed this quote from Cal's Sonny Dykes -- one of the few exceptions -- to CBS' Jeremy Fowler: "I've never really understood why there's so much secrecy. From a philosophical standpoint, this is the University of Cal's football team. If people want to come see them practice or work out, I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be able to do that."

It's not affecting anything on the national level because practically everyone's doing it, but fans of the respective teams are certainly losing out. The people who pay good money to attend the games and support the team deserve more detailed updates than their coach saying, "I was happy with the effort today" and "Things are coming along." How does the hot-shot freshman running back look in pads? Which defensive backs are running with the first string? This is enlightening and entirely harmless material. That's not to say the media should report every little detail they see. For example, a mother shouldn't have to find out on Twitter that her son left the field on crutches. And you're serving no one but the team's upcoming opponents to describe which plays they ran, how often they ran them and out of which formations. Ninety percent of working media understand that, but with today's constant churn of inexperienced reporters on every beat, someone inevitably screws it up for everybody else.

For all the paranoia, I've yet to hear a coach attribute a loss to some website's practice report. Meanwhile, in their attempt to control the flow of information, coaches only increase the likelihood of reckless rumors and speculation.

Just a quick update on your eighth-year senior team: Tom Savage has been named Pitt's starting quarterback. Savage started at Rutgers in 2009. If he's still the starter when Pitt makes its annual trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl in January, his career will have spanned 2009-2014.
-- Kevin, Springfield, Mo.

And he'll be starting for an ACC team that he faced in a Big East conference game four years ago. College Football 2013: The Year of the Wayward QB.

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