Analyzing the polarization of Johnny Manziel; more mail

Wednesday September 4th, 2013

Johnny Manziel threw three touchdowns vs. Rice, but was eventually benched after a taunting penalty.
Eric Gay/AP

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and return guest John Walters discuss their Week 1 takeaways, preview Notre Dame-Michigan and critique the second season of The Newsroom.

As the college football world just begins to acquaint itself with a new quarterback phenom, Florida State's Jameis Winston, clearly many of you are still trying to figure out how to feel about last year's breakout star.

What must change for Johnny anti-Football's continuous mocking of college football to end? I'm not talking about his ability, but his above-the-law, rules-don't-apply-to-me attitude.
-- Chas, Del Rio, Calif.

The answer, as should be patently obvious by now, is nothing. It's not going to happen. After his much-chronicled offseason dalliances and after having his NCAA eligibility threatened, it seems people were expecting Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel to come out and show that he's been "reformed." But that assumes Johnny sees a need to change. By now it's pretty clear that the same traits that make Johnny Football so fun to watch play football -- his manic energy, his freewheeling running style, his knack for improvisation -- are extensions of his carefree, impulsive and evidently entitled real-life attitude. So far, those traits have served him pretty darn well. He won a Heisman. He gets to hang with celebs. Not even the NCAA can bring him down.

Put yourself in his shoes. Would you change? Now, ask yourself this more interesting question: As long as A&M keeps winning, does he really need to?

The culture of college football places a tremendous emphasis on discipline. Its most celebrated coaches -- Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, etc. -- were seen as stern and militaristic. Its current king, Nick Saban, is famous for his ultra-regimented approach. So whenever someone comes along who deviates from that prevailing norm -- Brian Bosworth, the Jimmy Johnson-Dennis Erickson Miami teams, Cam Newton, Manziel -- they're deemed to be mocking the sanctity of the sport. This stands in stark contrast to basketball, for example, in which we lap up every time Michael Jordan sticks out his tongue, Dikembe Mutombo wags his finger or Florida Gulf Coast converts an alley-oop. Whereas that sport embraces dynamic personalities, football almost demands that players suppress theirs.

Heck, this is a sport where it's a penalty to celebrate something. Football is considered the ultimate team sport. Players are supposed to check their individuality at the door and lace up in chinstraps. Manziel stands in direct defiance of that code.

Fox Sports 1 analyst Clay Travis wrote an outstanding column this week on the polarization of Manziel, his premise being that one's own worldview largely dictates how he or she views Manziel. If you're someone who generally follows the rules in your day-to-day life, you presumably view Manziel as a heathen. If you're more of an anti-establishment type, you probably don't mind Manziel's antics; you may even celebrate them. The danger, of course, is that Manziel risks hurting his team if he doesn't follow the rules, either by violating NCAA bylaws or in-game rules that draw 15-yard penalties. There should be no divergence of opinion if the all-out implosion so many seem to be waiting for from Manziel ever comes to be and wrecks the Aggies' 2013 season. Short of that, though, is he an affront to the entire sport as he's being widely portrayed?

As Travis notes, model citizen Tim Tebow got penalized for taunting in the 2008 national title game for doing the Gator chomp. It was a non-story. Manziel did the same thing last Saturday and got a national lecture. Maybe he learned his lesson -- but I wouldn't hold your breath.

With Clemson's big win over Georgia, it seems like the perception of ACC football may be changing. This would be especially true if Miami can pull off the upset over Florida this weekend. Could the ACC finally be considered a great football conference in the near future? With the addition of Louisville and the "partial" addition of Notre Dame, it seems like the league is on an upward trajectory.
-- Ben Stafford, Denver, Colo.

I'm hesitant to predict all-out greatness because I feel like the league has teased us many, many times in the past. However, while watching the Jameis Winston Show on Monday night, it occurred to me that the ACC may have a chance to enjoy the long-awaited national spotlight it envisioned back when it went all-in on football in 2003. Florida State, as I suspected, is really freaking good. I knew the 'Noles had top-five-caliber talent, but so much was dependent on the performance of their redshirt freshman quarterback. Well, it turns out that redshirt freshman already has the poise and command of a fourth-year junior to go with his size, cannon of an arm and running ability. Meanwhile, Clemson has knocked off consecutive top-10 SEC foes dating back to last year's bowl game. Behind Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, the Tigers boast one of the most dangerous offenses in the country.

Now, look at the teams' schedules between now and Oct. 19. I'd say there's a 90 percent chance both teams will be undefeated when they meet in Death Valley. (The 10 percent hedge is due to Florida State's recent history and Clemson's not-as-recent history of losing games they shouldn't.) The fact I can say that with such certainty is the same reason no one would use the word "great" to describe the conference as a whole. However, if Florida State and Clemson do meet each other as unbeatens, they would likely be two top-five teams playing in an ACC game with national championship implications in the second half of the season. That last happened in 2005 (Miami-Virginia Tech). If the 'Canes were to beat Florida this week, suddenly they'd join the national conversation, too. So there's definitely an opportunity this year for the ACC to make some noise before even bringing Louisville into the fold.

STAPLES: Florida State, Clemson on the rise in Power Rankings after Week 1

What is your take on Brian Kelly's comment that the Notre Dame-Michigan game is "not one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivals" and is "... a big regional game"? Other than USC and possibly Navy, I can't think of any bigger Notre Dame rival. It seems Kelly is toeing the university line and trying to down play what everyone else thinks is a noteworthy rivalry.
-- Eric, Plesanton, Calif.

They weren't the wisest comments, and Kelly obviously recognized that when he came into his Tuesday press conference and backtracked. In fact, I made the same mistake when the news first came out a year ago that the series would be discontinued. I wrote on Twitter at the time: "ND and Michigan have played some great games, and I will miss it ... but it is NOT a rivalry. They have played 39 times." The backlash was immediate and massive. The truth is, it doesn't matter how many times the teams have played. If the fans of the teams consider it a big rivalry, it's a big rivalry. And it's certainly not a regional one; the game is always considered one of the most watched games in the country the week it happens.

But Kelly is in a difficult position. His bosses made a decision last year -- a very wise one in hindsight -- to leave the crumbling Big East for the stability of the ACC. The scheduling arrangement the Irish agreed to (five annual ACC games) necessitates bumping some existing opponents. But there's no right answer if someone asks why the Irish are dumping Michigan and not Purdue (84 meetings) or Michigan State (76), both of which more accurately qualify as regional rivals. Fair or not, it looks like the school is "chickening out," as Brady Hoke put it. Kelly was likely trying to downplay that whole angle in advance of the game, but he only made things 10 times worse.

ROSENBERG: The Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry has always been about the money

So, North Dakota State just knocked off the defending Big 12 champ. Are you some sort of psychic?
-- Justin, Wichita Falls, Kan.

Did you consider retiring immediately after North Dakota State beat Kansas State, so you could have gone out like John Elway at the top of his game?
-- John Hillburg, Mount Prospect, Ill.

The better analogy would be George Costanza going out on a high note, and yes, it was quite tempting. There's probably no pick I could make over the next 14 weeks that would top that one, but plenty that will make everyone forget it ever happened.

Also, my record for the weekend was 12-1. If we could just end this thing now, I'd be assured a BCS berth.

Vandy's Jordan Matthews returned to the game last Thursday moments after throwing up on the field.
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Stewart, what can we do about fake injuries? I don't want football to become as bad as soccer in that regard, but I feels like it's on its way. My proposal: If a player is hurt badly enough to force a stop in action, that player must -- for his own safety -- sit out at least until the next change of possession. Of course, we would have missed the great Jordan Matthews sequence for Vanderbilt last week.
-- Sancho, Golden, Colo.

I noticed an interesting paradox over the weekend. People got all worked up last Thursday when they thought Vandy had put Matthews back in the game with concussion-like symptoms. (He was actually dehydrated.) Admirably, a large portion of the public is much more sensitive to concussions and player safety now than it was five years ago, and it gets concerned by the mere appearance that a school is not taking a case seriously enough. (And as this week's Chronicle of Higher Education survey found, it's a legitimate concern.) Still, two nights later Cal coach Sonny Dykes all but accuses Northwestern of faking injuries ... and now fans are ticked off about it.

Well, you can't have it both ways. You can't be more vigilant about player safety but then penalize players who, whether you believe it or not, may be legitimately injured. You certainly can't give referees the authority to override the judgment of medical professionals.

If you put in a substitution limitation like the one Sancho suggests, I have no doubt it would deter players from faking an injury. However, it would also discourage many legitimately injured players from taking themselves out of the game, thus putting them at risk for even more dangerous injuries. I found it interesting that both Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Georgia's Mark Richt vehemently denied their players faked injuries but fully admitted they'd instructed players who might be cramping up or mildly banged up not to try limping off the field, because, as Richt put it, "... you're giving the other team the advantage. So if you are hurt just stay down until the officials stop play and then you can come off the field and we can put the next guy in." Seeing no obvious rule change on the horizon, hurry-up teams will just have to find a way to counter that strategy. My suggestion: Run the next play right at the backup the other team just put in.

Very young Washington team, and we beat Stanford last year. So your write-up was weak like most East Coast columns. Do us a favor. When you put UW in the title of your piece, say more than three sentences about it.
-- Frank, Renton, Wash.

It's one game. What were you expecting? "The 2013 Washington Huskies: An Oral History?"

Hi Stewart, I have no children and I don't plan to have any children for at least the next five years. Will my grandkids live long enough to see a world in which the 'Canes have received their punishment from the NCAA?
-- Mark, Hollywood, Fla.

It would be very NCAA-like for the announcement to come down on Friday afternoon, right before the Florida game. (I don't actually think that will happen.)

Stewart, in your podcast last week you said, "I'll believe LSU has a passing attack when I see it." Zach Mettenberger's completion percentage was only 50 percent, but TCU busted up some screens and played tight coverage in the red zone. LSU took a lot of downfield shots. Did Mettenberger and crew show enough against TCU to convert you into a believer?
-- Ben Caire, Golden, Colo.

Mettenberger was very impressive on Saturday night. As you said, his completion percentage, and yardage for that matter, were deceiving. There were several drops, most notably one from Odell Beckham Jr. that likely would have resulted in a touchdown, and TCU's cornerbacks were spectacular in the red zone. Jason Verrett is an All-America for a reason. We've been waiting six years for LSU to field a competent passing game. Les Miles has gone through three offensive coordinators during that time. For one game at least, Cam Cameron seemed to have a noticeable impact both in play-calling (the Tigers went much more vertical) and in Mettenberger's confidence level. Am I a believer? Almost. I do think he could have a really good year, but I'd like to see at least one game in which I don't have to put a bunch of disclaimers next to his completion percentage first.

And thanks for mentioning the newly rebranded podcast. After some Week 1 glitches, it's now available on iTunes. Please subscribe. I think you'll enjoy it.

If there's one thing that really sets college football apart from the NFL, it's the amount of underdogs even a general fan can pull for on any given Saturday. The fact that eight FCS programs scored wins over FBS programs in Week 1 was something most fans are celebrating (outside of Manhattan, Kan., etc.). Yet the wins also come at a time in which we've never heard more about the "haves" of the FBS breaking away from the NCAA. My fear is that such a scenario would destroy the uniqueness of what we saw on Saturday by virtually excluding the kinds of scheduling moves that make FCS upsets possible.
-- Adam Nettina, Ellicott City, Md.

I addressed this notion a bit in College Football Overtime. The general sentiment surrounding the sport this offseason was that major programs should schedule fewer FCS opponents -- if not eliminate them altogether (as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is encouraging of his schools) -- both to placate fans tired of buying tickets to unappealing games and to beef up schedules for the new selection committee. But the power-conference schools all want to play at least seven, if not eight, home games a year, and they can't achieve that solely by playing each other. It's prohibitively more expensive to schedule a low-level FBS opponent (where the paycheck for a one-off game is around $1 million) than it is to schedule an FCS foe (less than $500,000). If you eliminate the FCS option entirely, those FBS games would become even more expensive.

At the same time, the Big Ten is joining the Big 12 and Pac-12 in moving to a nine-game league schedule, and despite the protestations of its coaches, I believe the SEC will eventually follow suit (for the sake of the forthcoming SEC Network). So there will soon be fewer dates to fill. My guess is schools will be more selective about which programs they face, and the total number of FBS-FCS games will decrease, but they won't go away entirely and the Cinderella possibility will remain. What schools really ought to be doing is stop treating FCS as one enormous league and recognize that, just like in FBS, some programs and conferences are stronger than others. It's cool to see the defending FCS national champ play a BCS bowl team like North Dakota State did Kansas State. Meanwhile, Florida State and Oklahoma State beating up on de facto NAIA program Savannah State last year was a waste of everyone's time.

Why did Oregon play Nicholls State?
-- Rob, Brooklyn

I assume because Nicholls State said yes.

What ever happened to USF? I remember six or seven years ago it seemed to be poised to make the jump from the team that always had one big win to a genuine BCS contender. It had good defense, lots of talent and players going to the NFL. I hadn't really heard about them recently, so I was surprised when I saw that McNeese State beat them 52-31. What caused the program to go downhill?
-- Jeremy, Atlanta

I remember USF's glory days well. I was the doofus AP voter who once ranked the Bulls No. 1 in the country.

Jim Leavitt worked miracles leading that program from birth to nationally competitive Big East team in the span of a decade, but he plateaued well before his ugly 2009 exit. Skip Holtz seemed like a fine replacement, given his previous success at East Carolina, but clearly that wasn't the case. Not only did the Bulls regress on the field, but Holtz and his staff whiffed in the evaluation phase of recruiting. Three years later, the Bulls' talent level is so depleted they could get demolished by an FCS foe.

New coach Willie Taggart clearly has his work cut out replenishing the roster, but he's already pulled off one remarkable turnaround at Western Kentucky. This time, he gets to do it in a state brimming with high school talent.

So how many Iowa fans emailed you to apologize after Kirk Ferentz's opening home loss to Northern Illinois?
-- Chris, Brighton, Mich.

I have not heard from one single Iowa fan since Saturday. I'm assuming the entire state's Internet connection went down.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.