Assessing the state of the SEC, Texas; more mail

Wednesday September 11th, 2013

Miami was the second ACC program to take down a highly ranked SEC opponent in the 2013 campaign.
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart and Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports review Week 2 action, discuss Texas and USC's implosions and break down the much-anticipated showdown in College Station.

While it wasn't intentional, the first three games I will cover this season -- LSU-TCU, South Carolina-Georgia and Alabama-Texas A&M -- all involve SEC teams. My impressions so far: LSU looks much better than expected and Georgia's offense is as powerful as any in the country (its defense, not so much). We'll see about Tide-Aggies, but I highly doubt I'll come away thinking, "Eh, these teams both stink."

Of course, in America's now-annual clamor to downgrade that conference down south, many of you wrote in with a different take on the first two weeks.

Are we finally seeing the first dominoes of SEC dominance fall? Florida and Georgia lost to Miami and Clemson, respectively, and 'Bama relied on Beamerball against Virginia Tech in Week 1. Miami and Clemson aren't exactly Appalachian State and Eastern Washington, but Rome didn't fall in a day, either.
-- Kellen O'Brien, Madison, Wis.

The SEC takes so much flak for lightweight, out-of-conference schedules, but three of the league's four nonconference losses so far this season have come against ranked opponents (Clemson, Oklahoma State and Miami). Contrast that with the Big 12, which also has four losses, but three to North Dakota State, Northern Iowa and unranked BYU. Has the SEC proved mortal? Absolutely. It's 3-3 to date against the other AQ conferences. Barring a pair of miracle upsets, the league is going to add at least two more losses this weekend (Tennessee at Oregon and Kentucky against Louisville). But I wouldn't draw any definitive conclusions for another couple of weeks due to the disparities in how many such games each conference has played to this point.

STAPLES: Alabama, Oregon top Power Rankings after Week 2

To me, the more interesting development has been the ACC's early head-to-head success against the SEC, both because it's been so rare for the ACC to win big national games in recent years and because of the potential implications going forward. Last season, Clemson and Florida State were effectively eliminated from the national title discussion once they suffered their first losses because their conference schedules presented almost no opportunities to distinguish themselves. This year, with Clemson beating a top-10 Georgia team and Miami beating a top-15 Florida team, both those squads and Florida State (by virtue of playing both Clemson and Miami) will be taken much more seriously and might even survive a loss. That would get particularly interesting if, come Dec. 7, a one-loss SEC and one-loss ACC team are vying for a BCS title game berth. The SEC champ gets in no matter what, right? Well, what if the two teams are 12-1 Georgia and 12-1 Clemson?

Ultimately, no matter how its teams perform in these early-season games, the SEC's "dominance" will remain intact for as long as it keeps winning the big one in January. Though we've seen cracks in most of the league's contenders, the same can be said for all but a handful of teams nationally.

Let me get this straight. Manny Diaz's defense is historically bad, so he's rightfully, immediately, fired. But then Mack Brown thinks it's a good idea to name Greg Robinson as the new defensive coordinator? REALLY? The Greg Robinson who was fired as Syracuse's head coach and who was so bad as the Michigan defensive coordinator? REALLY? I think Brown is either trolling the Texas fans now or trying to get himself fired.
-- Craig, Salt Lake City

It's an absolute train wreck in Austin right now. I'm not sure what was more baffling last weekend -- that Texas' defense was so utterly helpless against a good-but-not-great BYU rushing attack or that Brown panicked in response to that performance. Brown said on Monday that he considered firing Diaz after last season, but opted against it because the unit showed improvement late in the year. He also said the defensive coaching staff knew coming into the year they were on a "short leash."

First of all, that sounds like an awful environment for the assistants, who work knowing they could lose their jobs at any moment. But moreover, Brown surely must have known he had a problem prior to last Saturday. The 50-plus practices the 'Horns had since last spring and the hours upon hours of staff meetings he sat through should have provided far greater evaluation opportunities than one game in Provo.

STAPLES: Texas A&M taking advantage of opportunity Texas has offered

While Brown said there was no backup plan in mind before Sunday, it does seem curious in hindsight that he quietly hired a long-tenured NFL and college defensive coach for a behind-the-scenes "analyst" position last summer. Robinson had been serving as a defensive consultant, evaluating practice video and offering suggestions. Now, he conveniently slides into the coordinator role. His more recent debacles aside, Robinson did a fine job in his one season at Texas in 2004. The 'Horns went 11-1, won the Rose Bowl and fielded a rushing defense that ranked among the top 20 nationally. However, the Big 12 and college football have changed considerably since then. Hurry-up and spread offenses are being used by programs across the country (including this week's opponent, Ole Miss), and I'm not sure it's realistic for a guy to come in midstream and gain the trust of assistants and players who worked so closely with Diaz.

Brown seems to think he just had the wrong guy game-planning and that Robinson can solve that. If it were an isolated incidence, I might be inclined to agree. But we're now into year four of Texas barely resembling the team that dominated most of the past decade. That signals a much deeper problem.

I'm no fan of Lane Kiffin, and I'm not saying he's doing a bang-up job (he's not), but isn't this the first year that all of USC's sanctions were really supposed to hurt the team? And ... aren't they? Why isn't he getting any sort of break in guiding a program through sanctions? Again, I have no dog in this fight, but Kiffin isn't exactly playing with a full deck, right?
-- Rob, Seattle

You're correct in that we're only now reaching the point where USC, after two reduced recruiting classes and with 10 fewer scholarships as a whole, is fully feeling the impact of sanctions. Most reasonable people knew the Trojans would eventually struggle because of them. As such, athletic director Pat Haden has repeatedly referenced the sanctions when voicing his continued support of his head coach. However, with that looming down period in mind, Kiffin really needed to produce a banner season last fall to maintain confidence from the fan base when things eventually went south. Instead, his 2012 team imploded, giving preemptive fodder to his critics the first time this year's team fell flat. And, my, how spectacularly the Trojans did that last week against Washington State.

MANDEL: Texas, USC left searching for answers after Week 2; more Overtime

USC's most glaring problem against the Cougars had nothing to do with sanctions or reduced numbers. Kiffin clearly doesn't trust his quarterbacks, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, both of whom were sought-after four-star recruits who signed with the school before the scholarship penalties took effect. Either those players haven't developed, or Kiffin isn't calling plays that fit their skill sets. This week, he finally proclaimed Kessler as his guy, so maybe that will give Kessler a boost.

Gone largely unnoticed is the fact that USC is playing phenomenal defense so far under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. The Trojans could win a lot of games with a competent offense. However, Kiffin is still his own de facto offensive coordinator, and dating to last season, he hasn't done much to inspire confidence. No offense with wide receiver Marqise Lee should ever be held to seven points.

Nice pick against Colorado ... I would not bet against them this season.
-- Lisa Mayo, Denver

Hey, I took a shot in the dark and, not surprisingly, lightning didn't strike twice. I'm happy to see the Buffs winning again -- but are you suggesting they're not going to lose this year? Wow, that's some confidence.

If the Irish's loss to Michigan was any indication, Brian Kelly will need alter Notre Dame's pass defense.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What's your take on the Irish defense so far? I'd say they are falling far short of the hype. Could it be that despite a cartoonish January and the debacle that was the BCS title game, maybe Manti Te'o (and Zeke Motta and Kapron Lewis-Moore) were better than we thought?
-- Todd, Buffalo

After missing the Temple game, all I've got to go on is the Michigan showdown. First of all, give a lot of credit to Michigan quarterback Devin Garnder. The Irish got plenty of pressure on him, but, with the one glaring exception of his end zone toss-up to Stephon Tuitt, Gardner remained poised, stepped up and made the right throws. He also made some nice plays with his feet. Keep in mind, Notre Dame did a nice job stuffing the run. It seemed like multiple defenders were constantly swarming Wolverines back Fitz Toussaint. The main problem was the Irish cornerbacks' inability to hang with Michigan's receivers, which comes as a bit of a surprise seeing as both starters, Bennett Jackson and KeiVare Russell, played well throughout last season.

Coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco were presumably counting on them, too. Where last year's defense played with a more conservative, read-and-react approach, the Irish blitzed on 63 percent of its plays on Saturday, according to the Notre Dame blog Her Loyal Sons. The defense is being more aggressive despite losing its invaluable security blanket, Te'o, who, contrary to revisionist history, was an outstanding instinctive pass defender. So was three-year starting safety Motta. Perhaps there's an easy fix and Notre Dame just needs to dial back its blitzes a little to make life easier for its defensive backs. But there's also reason to be concerned that guys like Te'o and Motta helped mask some personnel deficiencies (pre-Alabama), which, despite an extra year's worth of development, have not gone away and could be problematic all season.

I've never sent you an email before, and I am an avid reader. But how did that vaunted Notre Dame defense work out? What is it about Michigan that you hate?
-- Paul Chute, Farmington Hills, Mich.

You're such an avid reader that you missed where I picked the Wolverines?

Why did you have to go and pick Florida to beat Miami? I think you were wrong every time you picked Florida to win and every time you picked it to lose last year.
-- Jon O., East Palatka, Fla.

The streak continues. I haven't picked a Florida game correctly since last year's Texas A&M opener. That team is starting to frustrate me almost as much as it does its own fans.

Given Illinois' 45-17 victory over Cincinnati, the game against Washington in Chicago this weekend just got a little more interesting. While Washington will be favored, do we suddenly have a matchup worth watching?
-- Nick, Seattle

Absolutely. Just two weeks ago I would have glossed right over this matchup. Now I'm intrigued. While based on a small sample size, both teams appear to have dramatically overhauled their offenses. Washington had more pieces to begin with, but it was still eye-opening to see quarterback Keith Price and the Huskies so marvelously execute their new hurry-up attack against a normally sound Boise State defense. And while it may be that Illinois thumping a Cincinnati team that thumped Purdue a week earlier may just mean the Boilermakers are particularly awful, Illinois' offense doesn't remotely resemble last year's dreadful unit. Fourth-year quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (74 percent completions, six touchdowns, one interception) is thriving under new coordinator Bill Cubit's tutelage, and the Illini put up 522 yards on a talented Bearcats' defense.

That said, Washington should still win this game. The Huskies are more talented, more experienced and -- while it's too early to say for sure -- notched their early statement win against a better opponent than Illinois. However, this can no longer be deemed a gimme game, especially with Steve Sarkisian's squad having to travel two time zones.

After two games, Michigan State's offense has been responsible for 19 points. Its defense has accounted for 28. Is there another team in the country that has such a huge disparity in quality between the two main phases of the game? The Spartans might be better off punting every time they get the ball.
-- Andrew, Tucson, Ariz.

You would not believe how many Michigan State emails I received just like this one this week. It seems there's a morbid fascination with the Spartans' extreme duality. But yes, the Spartans do have a counterpart. They're called the Florida Gators. Heaven help our eyes if they meet in the Outback Bowl.

Am I the only one who thinks Cal true freshman quarterback Jared Goff is the real deal? I'm a Stanford guy and I think this kid will be phenomenal. The game against Northwestern started at 10 p.m. ET. East Coast guys probably saw three interceptions and didn't think much. What they didn't see was that two of those came off tipped passes. Then he rebounded last Saturday, though I will grant that he played against an opposing defense (Portland State) that wasn't tremendously talented. Why is there no love for Goff from any sportswriters?
-- Adam, San Francisco

You're probably right that most people east of the Mississippi did not stay up or bother tuning in for Northwestern-Cal (it got a 0.6 TV rating), and I can't imagine anyone outside of Berkeley and Portland watched last week's game. I watched most of the first game and Goff certainly looked impressive for a barely-out-of-high-school kid making his first college start. He has a strong arm, gets the ball out quickly and made few obvious mistakes. He's thrown for 400-plus yards in both games, though Air Raid-style offenses lend themselves to those kind of numbers. (Texas Tech freshman quarterback Baker Mayfield is doing much the same thing.)

The combination of Cal's offensive prowess, Braxton Miller's questionable health and the inevitable fatigue of cross-country travel should have Ohio State fans feeling a little nervous this week. The Buckeyes have a lot of young defenders who will play their first significant minutes of a road game against a power-conference opponent. Realistically, the Buckeyes will get more pressure on Goff than Northwestern did, and their offense should have a field day against the Bears' defense, with or without a full-strength Miller. (Ohio State can move the ball just fine with backup Kenny Guiton if needed.) But it's worth tuning in for if for no other reason than to get your first glimpse of the kid Cal fans are already hailing as the second coming of Aaron Rodgers.

Thanks for mentioning tailback Brendan Douglas' contribution to Georgia's victory last Saturday. I looked him up. Two stars. With the way Georgia has recruited running backs recently, why are they recruiting this kid? Why is he on the field? Compare his performance to that of five-star players at other schools and he looked very good.
-- Rusty, Cincinnati

It shows the importance of schools trusting their own evaluations. Georgia has done a particularly good job with running backs lately. While former five-star prospect Isaiah Crowell flamed out, Todd Gurley, who I personally believe has been the most impressive player in the country through the season's opening two weeks (he's averaged 143 rushing yards per game against two top-10 foes), was an under-the-radar guy until late in the recruiting process. (Future teammate and fellow North Carolina native Keith Marshall overshadowed him.)

But that's nothing compared to Douglas, a Georgia Tech commit who flipped upon getting an 11th-hour offer from the Dawgs last winter. Let's be frank: Most people would instinctually doubt the potential of a white running back. Case in point: He was listed as fullback on all the recruiting sites. But the least-heralded member of Georgia's recruiting class was the talk of preseason camp, battled more touted classmate J.J. Green for the third-string tailback spot and came in late last Saturday to help close out South Carolina. Douglas looked pretty impressive running over a Gamecocks defender on one carry. I look forward to seeing how his career progresses.

I noticed in your College Football Overtime column that Washington State held USC to 54 yards passing (perhaps with some help from USC). This came a week after it held my favorite team, the Auburn Tigers, to 99 passing yards (perhaps with some help from Auburn). Do you think either of the Cougars' next two opponents, Southern Utah and Idaho, can break that elusive 100-yard passing mark?
-- James, Calera, Ala.

Good question. I'm going to say yes, if for no other reason than both figure to be playing from behind. But credit the Cougars; they've got a legit defensive line.

After Tennessee knocks off Oregon this weekend, do you think the Vols will finally get a Top 25 vote?
-- Jack, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

If the Vols keep it within 20 points, they deserve some votes. If they actually win, Mack Brown will fire Oregon's defensive coordinator.

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