Dissecting Alabama, Notre Dame's BCS chances; more mail

Wednesday August 28th, 2013

Cyrus Kouandjio will be asked to anchor a line that lost D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
In the first episode of his revamped podcast, Stewart chats with his buddy and Georgia superfan Jonathan Ganz about the Dawgs' chances against Clemson.

It happens with the regularity of the Olympics, only without the sappy vignettes: Once every four years, a team wins the national championship, returns the bulk of its star players and gets built up as the universal national title favorite/greatest team of all time. In 2005 it was USC. In 2009 it was Florida. And in 2013 it's Alabama.

As we know, the first two did not fulfill their presumed destinies. That didn't stop three other SI writers and me from anointing the Tide, and personally, I never seriously considered anyone else. Does that make me clinically insane?

Check out all of SI's 2013 preview content

I know Alabama is No. 1 in pretty much all the preseason hype. I know it has AJ McCarron, T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, etc. But 'Bama lost the most important element of what makes a team great -- its offensive line. Yes, it still has Cyrus Kouandjio, but it lost Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack. To me, 10-2 and the Cotton Bowl seem more likely than a three-peat. Your thoughts?
-- Ian, Phoenix

Recent history is littered with teams that were built up in the preseason but ultimately fell flat with a depleted offensive line. There was the 2008 Georgia team that started No. 1 despite replacing three starting offensive linemen and losing a fourth in the preseason; it got mauled by Alabama and Florida. There was the 2009 Oklahoma team that lost a pair of All-America tackles and couldn't protect Sam Bradford in the opener against BYU; it lost the game and lost Bradford for nearly the entire season. There was last year's preseason No. 1 USC team; its star-studded offense never reached its potential after losing star tackle Matt Kalil (and center Khaled Holmes against Stanford).

Alabama is replacing a better set of offensive linemen than any of those teams. Heck, last year's 'Bama line was the best I've seen in at least a decade, and the Tide still lost one game and came within five yards of losing another. So it's certainly possible they'll suffer a dropoff.

Yet, to be fair, Alabama is hardly in dire straits up front. Kouandjio is another future first-round NFL draft pick. Guard Anthony Steen is a third-year starter and preseason All-SEC selection. Nick Saban has been very positive about Arie Kouandjio, Cyrus' older brother and the likely starter at left guard. New center Ryan Kelly earned freshman All-SEC honors as a backup last season. And the likely fifth starter, Austin Shepherd, has played in 19 games. Still, the latter three carry a fraction of the experience held by those departed players. It's no coincidence this area has garnered the most concern from Saban following preseason scrimmages.

Ultimately, I think 'Bama will be fine for two reasons. For one, no program in the country does a better job reloading from year to year. The Tide were similarly inexperienced in the secondary heading into last season and barely saw any dropoff. The program is a recruiting machine. And second, Saban and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will play to their strengths. If the new line struggles with pass-blocking early, they'll elect to run more. If run-blocking is the issue, they'll find other ways to utilize their ridiculous plethora of skill players.

Like all teams, however, injuries could be the Tide's undoing. It's challenging enough getting a new line to jell. Teams can't afford to then have one or more of those guys missing games. If that happens, and LSU, Texas A&M or even an SEC East title game opponent exploits it, then this four-year cycle of false hype will claim another victim.

College football preview 2013: Four teams that can beat Alabama

Stewart, Notre Dame in a BCS bowl? With "Turnover Tommy" Rees as quarterback? So it's only going to lose two of the following games (at Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, USC, at Stanford)? Not a chance!
-- Chris, D.C.

This will hardly come as a surprise, but I received more flak for my Notre Dame-to-the-BCS pick than all the other picks combined. Old habits die hard, I suppose. I'm not particularly worried about Rees. In between the turnovers, he somehow managed to win 78 percent of his starts, complete 64 percent of his passes and flat-out rescue the Irish on multiple occasions last season. If Notre Dame loses more than two games, it likely won't be because of the quarterback. And the reason I don't think they'll lose more than two of the games Chris cited? To be blunt, it's because the Irish are better than every one of those teams except Stanford.

Sorry to break it to you, America, but Notre Dame is trending upward -- not downward -- under Brian Kelly. The roster is getting more -- not less -- talented, especially on defense. Last season, the Irish were playing with house money. That doesn't mean they're going to start 12-0 again. It took a whole bunch of breaks to go their way a year ago, and that's not likely to happen again. But 10 wins is a perfectly attainable number, and even 9-3 might be enough as long as the Irish finish in the top 14. Oregon State went 9-3 and finished 13th last season.

I love how in your second-year coach predictions you left off the most recent coach to win a national championship in his second year. I'm sure that was accidental. Admit it: Auburn, 2010 national champions -- it leaves a horrible taste in your mouth.
-- Steve S., Pelham, Ala.

While I can't deny that this plays perfectly into the ever-present Auburn media conspiracies, regrettably, I did just flat-out forget to include Gene Chizik. I don't know how that could have happened when compiling a list that included Bob Stoops, Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel and Saban, among others. Well, other than the fact Chizik was the only member of the group to be FIRED TWO YEARS LATER.

On a positive note, Chizik has proven a surprisingly adept interviewer of guests on Sirius XM's College Sports channel. It's almost like he's embracing ... wait for it ... the media.

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) went 20-of-32 for 266 yards and two TDs against Florida.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Why does everyone think Teddy Bridgewater is so great? I get it, he had an awesome year. But is he really the best quarterback in the country? He hasn't played against a real defense yet. I'd like to see him get some playing time against a defense with some future NFL players on it before I hand him a Heisman.
-- Nick, Portland, Ore.

Did they not show the Sugar Bowl in Oregon? Or did Florida not count as a "real defense?" Both seem equally implausible. ESPN doesn't normally black out BCS bowl broadcasts, and the Gators ranked fifth in the country in total defense last season while producing three first- or second-round NFL draft picks. Bridgewater went 20-of-32 for 266 yards, two touchdowns and a pick against Florida, so it sure seems he already passed your desired test.

Of course, I'd never advise evaluating a guy based solely on one game, nor do I think it's a foregone conclusion that Bridgewater is either the best quarterback in the country or a presumptive Heisman winner. Speaking solely as a college football observer, not an NFL draft evaluator, Bridgewater is not head and shoulders above or behind McCarron, Manziel, Aaron Murray, Marcus Mariota, David Fales or Tajh Boyd. I'm sure others will enter the conversation, too. But Bridgewater is probably one of the safest bets in the bunch to put up huge numbers this season, partially because he did it already (68.5 percent completions, 3,718 yards, 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions last year), he returns nearly his entire offense (including stud receiver DeVante Parker) and he'll get to pad those numbers against a Conference USA-caliber schedule. That's the frustrating part; we may have to wait until bowl season again to see Bridgewater square off with an elite D.

ELLIS: Preseason Heisman Watch 2013: Breaking down the top candidates

I saw a piece during a recent NFL preseason game about stopping the read-option. Basically, it entails the defense hitting the opposing quarterback every time. The thinking is that no coach would subject his quarterback to that type of punishment over and over. If that line of thinking were true, wouldn't college teams and high school teams have been using that strategy all these years?
-- Chad, Honolulu

I did not see that piece, but I did hear Jon Gruden during last week's Panthers-Ravens game going on and on about the dangers of letting the quarterback run the ball. I've read no shortage of pieces recently about the NFL's read-option hysteria. My general reaction: What is wrong with these people? College teams have been running these plays for roughly 10-15 years with no noticeable uptick in quarterback injuries. Secondly, no one in the NFL is yet running the read-option with the regularity of, say, a Rich Rodriguez-coached team, so no quarterback is going to get hit the way Denard Robinson did at Michigan. NFL quarterbacks get hurt all the time for repeatedly dropping back to pass and getting pummeled by monstrous oncoming pass rushers. Is it really more dangerous to tuck and run from time to time? Just do it selectively and minimize exposure.

The reason read-option and zone-read plays are not going to be the passing fad that stodgy NFL traditionalists assume they will be is the same reason they're so prevalent in college: Offenses are significantly tougher to stop when defenders have to account for the quarterback on every play. The strategy Chad mentions would be particularly harebrained because defenses would be purposefully taking a defender out of the play if the quarterback doesn't keep it. In fact, that's a great way to give up a 40-yard run by the tailback. You defend the quarterback-run game by controlling the line of scrimmage and playing sound assignment football. That's really it.

Year in and year out, you always seem to think LSU will just go away. Why is that?
-- Tony, Louisiana

I'm not sure. Give me a second to go back in time and check with the Stewart Mandel that picked the Tigers to win the national title at this time last year.

When a guy like Dennis Erickson joins a team as an assistant after working as a head coach for so long, what's the dynamic? Is there a benefit to having an assistant with so much experience? Or is it the equivalent to having too many cooks in the kitchen?
-- Dan, Washington D.C.

Head coaches return to the assistant ranks with regularity, and I've seen some potentially awkward situations work out seamlessly. Case in point: Look how naturally Ohio State 2011 head coach Luke Fickell has transitioned to co-defensive coordinator under Meyer, who in theory he'd have every reason to resent. But that's the thing. Most of the assistants who fit this category weren't head coaches for very long. Erickson has been a head coach for 30 years. I have no doubt Utah's staff is benefiting from his knowledge and experience. But will he treat boss Kyle Whittingham with the proper respect? More notably, is he really OK sharing play-calling duties with 26-year-old Brian Johnson? I can think of no applicable precedent so I have no idea how this will play out.

Hi, Stewart, although I believe that 12-team conferences are too big, I know the conference championship games make too much money for any conference to get rid of them. So I have a very simple question: Why do large conferences even need divisions? Why can't the top two teams from each conference play each other in the championship game?
-- John Simonian, San Francisco

Now, more than ever, the divisions are needed to compensate for the scheduling imbalances of 14-team conferences. For instance, let's say the SEC plays out in the order predicted in SI's preseason Top 25. (That will never happen, but play along.) The top two teams would be No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Texas A&M, which play on Sept. 14. There are five other ranked teams in the conference, of which the Tide and Aggies both play just one (LSU). So if those two finish with the top two records, why have them play each other again without finding out how one would fare against No. 6 South Carolina (and the Gamecocks against them)?

I can't stress enough how imbalanced scheduling is going to be in the 14-team conferences going forward. Just take a look at Wisconsin's 2014 Big Ten schedule. Yes, that is an actual "power conference" schedule. Thank heavens the Badgers added LSU.

Miami as ACC No. 4? How is that, Stewart, when literally every other website with an opinion has picked us to win the Coastal division? Have you just decided to let your hatred of Miami overwhelm the facts, such as that we would have played for the conference title last season, and therefore cannot possibly be worse than ACC No. 2 this season barring injuries or penalties?
-- Mark Cleary, North Miami

Are you saying there's an ACC rule that last year's division champion cannot be selected lower than second the following bowl season? My apologies, I'll be sure to get my facts straight next time.

(I actually think UNC, Miami and Georgia Tech are all very close, but throw in Florida State and Clemson and some teams have to go to the Sun and Belk bowls.)

Regarding your bowl predictions, though I'd rather see Ohio State in the title game, overall I'd say those would be some great games on paper. But do you really think the Big Ten will only have one representative in the BCS? I'd have to think Wisconsin, Nebraska or That Team Up North will have enough wins to qualify. Wouldn't the Fiesta rather have one of those then Boise?
-- Mike, Columbus, Ohio

I'd actually be surprised if there AREN'T two Big Ten teams, given my own predictions for the league included three 10-plus win teams (Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska) and three others (Wisconsin, Michigan State and Northwestern) within one win of that total. Last year, in fact, was the first time in eight years the league only got one berth thanks in part to Ohio State's ineligibility.

However, in my particular scenario, the league got squeezed out by Notre Dame and Boise (which, like Northern Illinois last year, would be guaranteed a spot. The Fiesta wouldn't have a choice.) However, if the Irish do in fact stink it up like so many assume, or if Ohio State or another Big Ten team makes the title game (allowing the Rose Bowl to replace it), or if there's no eligible non-AQ team, then the league will almost certainly get that second bid.

In your last Mailbag you said something very troubling to me: "I have but one vote among many in compiling SI's Top 25." Who are the many others? What are their qualifications? Do they represent all regions of the country? Does every person's vote count equally or is it weighted on some sort of a system?
-- Arie, Toronto

I can't say. Not because I'm not allowed to, but more because we didn't bother to name the darts we used.

But here's the good news, Arie: Those rankings become completely irrelevant as of 6:01 p.m. ET on Thursday. Happy game-watching, everybody.

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