Why Louisville is overrated; ranking QB draft prospects; more mail

Wednesday October 16th, 2013

Marcus Smith's six sacks this season have been part of an impressive defensive effort from Louisville.
John Sommers II/Getty Images

The Stewart Mandel Podcast
Stewart, Andy Staples and Ben Glicksman review Week 7 and offer their midseason awards for best games, players and coaches of the 2013 season to date.

I'm told there's a pretty big game this weekend in ACC country -- No. 3 vs. No. 5, Boyd vs. Winston and all that jazz. But ... nobody asked about it. So we'll delve into other topics.

Hey Stewart, an admitted Louisville homer here. Wanted to ask about your assessment of Louisville as "overrated." Based on the schedule put in front of the Cards (with teams like Texas A&M, Alabama and Wisconsin not agreeing to terms), I'm not sure how anyone could say we know definitively one way or another. They've played patsies for the most part and dominated them, with an average score of 41-7, and they have the nation's No. 2 scoring defense. Rutgers, which was a bad OT decision away from possibly being 5-0, never really had a chance despite an off night by the Heisman candidate QB.
-- Chris Lindy, Louisville, Ky.

I feel bad for Louisville. Obviously Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater had no control over the fact that their conference disintegrated well after most teams' 2013 schedules were set. The Cardinals' program is a "tweener" of sorts where there's not much incentive for one of the power-conference teams Chris mentioned to schedule it. Alabama doesn't get the glamour out of a game with Louisville that it does out of a meeting with Michigan or Penn State, and Louisville is also a riskier draw. You can say that AD Tom Jurich should have put together a stronger non-conference schedule from the start to help compensate, but at the time most of those games were scheduled several years ago, the Cardinals were just trying to get back to bowl-eligibility. They weren't thinking about a national title. And no one could have predicted how the various dominoes would fall in conference realignment.

But as we move toward the playoff era, I'm a strong believer that rankings should be based less on the eye test and more on actual resumes. In College Football Overtime I cited three teams -- UCLA, Miami and Baylor -- that deserved to be rated ahead of the Cardinals. In hindsight I should not have included Baylor as one of the examples, as its schedule to date has been as light as Louisville's. But UCLA has beaten Nebraska and Utah on the road. Miami beat Florida pre-injury rash. Louisville, on the other hand, has beaten foes with the following Sagarin rankings (which includes FCS teams): No. 81 Ohio, No. 159 Eastern Kentucky, No. 86 Kentucky, No. 170 FIU, No. 143 Temple and finally, No. 53 Rutgers. In a world without preseason rankings, there is no way a team with that schedule would be ranked sixth in the country.

Now, it's entirely possible Louisville is one of the six best teams in the country. Chris is correct in saying we couldn't possibly know definitively. Since I cited Sagarin ratings before, I should note that the Cardinals check in at No. 8 themselves. In Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings, which at this point includes no preseason component and does heavily weigh schedule strength, Louisville is No. 3 (behind Alabama and Florida State). While Bridgewater gets the lion's share of attention, it's the Cardinals' defense that has been truly impressive. Led by standout pass-rushers Marcus Smith (six sacks, 10 tackles for loss) and Lorenzo Mauldin (seven sacks, nine TFLs) and great back-end play by safeties Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith, the Cards suffocate offenses. Ask Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, who followed up a four-touchdown, one-interception game against SMU with a one TD-four INT nightmare at Louisville.

If Louisville continues to dominate while others fall off, I won't have as much problem with the Cardinals being ranked where they are now. But there's going to be a ceiling. Boise State dominated people, too, playing a similarly lightweight conference schedule in the WAC, but it always had that one signature non-conference win (Oregon, Virginia Tech, Georgia) to give us some sense of where it stood relative to other highly-ranked teams. The Cardinals are not going to play anyone close to that realm, with Friday night's opponent, UCF (No. 32 in Sagarin), about as high as it will get. Meanwhile there are any number of major-conference teams that will play four or five Top 25 teams, where, if they only lose once, will still be more deserving of a Top 5 ranking come season's end.

STAPLES: Louisville checks in at No. 9 in the College Football Power Rankings

With the NFL going to spread-options more and more, and with the success of quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick, why is Bridgewater considered that much better a prospect than Marcus Mariota? Mariota is bigger, faster and has played tougher foes. Granted he has a better team around him, but does that discount his pro prospects that much? What am I missing?
-- J. Baker, Bend, Ore.

I would not put much credence either way in any pecking order of quarterback prospects you're seeing right now. For one thing, all draft rankings this early in the process are purely speculative. We've still got a half-season of games and bowls, the Senior Bowl, the combine and individual workouts between now and May. Furthermore, I guarantee you no actual decision-maker for any NFL team has made any definitive conclusions about Mariota because he's only a third-year sophomore. He's only now getting on their radars. And it's no guarantee he'll even enter next year's draft.

Bridgewater's credentials are more firmly established, but even then I wouldn't read too much into anyone declaring him to be the clear-cut No. 1 guy. This year's quarterback class is undeniably loaded, but there's no Andrew Luck-caliber sure thing. Instead you've got at least 10 guys -- Bridgewater, Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Brett Hundley, Tajh Boyd, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray, Derek Carr and David Fales -- that will garner first-round consideration, and their place in the hierarchy will vary from team to team. If someone values more of a dual-threat guy, Mariota seems like an ideal candidate. But Bridgewater is the prototype big-armed, athletic pro-style passer.

They're both great. But the only people whose opinions truly matter won't be making their final evaluations for another seven months.

College Football Midseason Report: Mariota, Barr headline SI.com's midseason All-America Team

So I know injuries are a part of football, but this year has been rough. I'm sure there must be, but do you remember a year when more starters have been knocked out for the season for two early highly ranked teams than Florida and Georgia have suffered this season? I'm starting to wonder if the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party will have to take place in the infirmary this year.
-- Tom Merritt, Oxford, UK

I said on Twitter it might have to be renamed the World's Largest Burned Redshirt Party.

While Georgia (the top two running backs, three starting receivers and the starting safety were out last week and most of them are done for the season) and Florida (running back Matt Jones this week joined quarterback Jeff Driskel, defensive tackle Dominique Easley and two other starters with season-ending injuries) may be the most extreme examples, this feels like a rough season across the country. Look at the two participants in last weekend's Red River Rivalry game. Texas played without quarterback David Ash and top linebacker Jordan Hicks (out for the season), Oklahoma went without top linebacker Corey Nelson and starting nose tackle Jordan Phillips (both out for the season). In the past week alone we've learned of extended or season-ending injuries to such prominent players as TCU defensive end Devonte Fields, Missouri quarterback James Franklin, Nebraska guard Spencer Long and Texas A&M defensive tackle Kirby Ennis.

Perhaps we're just imagining that this year is worse than any other year, or perhaps the injury bug just happens to be hitting more notable players. I'd be curious at the end of the year to see whether the NCAA or another organization that tracks these things can tell us the answer. Either way, I've got no deep explanation as to why this is happening. I'm just a bit puzzled because supposedly the sport is taking all manner of precautions to cut down on injuries.

In College Football Overtime you mentioned the unusual nature of USF's record (2-4, 2-0 AAC). You can add to that zero offensive touchdowns in its two wins.
-- Nathan, Temple Terrace, Fla.

And this team is going to play Louisville a week from Saturday.

College Football Midseason Report: Alabama, Oregon lead SI.com's 2013 midseason Crystal Ball

Jadeveon Clowney has been a subject of controversy this season, some of it driven by his own coach.
Tom DiPace/AP

Was this entire Jadeveon Clowney thing nothing but media sensationalism? It seemed to start this offseason with the idea of him sitting out the season, which was all journalist driven. He fought injuries and illness. And then last Saturday the media jumped on him for not riding on the team bus (which it turned out he did). After watching him play and the enthusiasm he displayed, I can't help thinking the media is desperately trying to make something out of nothing.
-- Aiden, Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.

The hype surrounding Clowney began long before this season. He was as touted a recruit as any in the past five years, carrying mythic expectations before he ever donned a South Carolina helmet and then becoming the rare freshman to actually meet and exceed them. Clowney was superb as a sophomore. So I'd object to any characterization that the Clowney legend was an ESPN or media creation. He did it with his play on the field. But the narrative did seem to start spinning out of control following the famous Outback Bowl hit, and everything from there was most definitely media-driven ... with a healthy assist from his own coach.

The backlash began that opening night against North Carolina, when Clowney was noticeably winded and frequently coming off the field. But mind you, the viewer only sees what the ESPN producer and director choose to show you, and that night they decided Clowney's fatigue was the story. There's data to suggest he didn't play more or less than a typical player at his position. But that then became a perfect lightning rod for the type of faux controversy that many talking heads and columnists live for, and it soon became a universally held truism that Clowney was having a bad season, when in fact plenty of evidence suggets that while his sack total is down, he's still dramatically impacting games. But with that narrative already established, Steve Spurrier basically lit a keg of dynamite with his comments after Clowney's surprising absence against Kentucky. I agree with my colleague Richard Deitsch that several ESPN television personalities in particular were way over the top in their criticism of a 20-year old college player, but you can't put all the blame on the media when Clowney's own coach did him no favors.

Mr. Mandel, I've followed your mailbag for as long as I can remember. I asked this exact question all the way back in 2006, and then again in 2009, and I ask it now when it finally seems to be coming true. What is your opinion on Virginia Tech-Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway? Gimmick? Great idea? Both?
-- Matt, Mount Juliet, Tenn.

If done right it could be a truly phenomenal environment. Who wouldn't be excited at the prospect of 160,000 people attending a college football game? At the same time, though, it's worth stopping and acknowledging that this is yet another instance where college football moves even farther from its roots as a quaint, on-campus, community- and alumni-focused event and towards a mass market, financially-driven entertainment venture. It's cut from the same cloth as conference realignment and unrecognizable new uniforms and helmets, but the novelty and the excitement make it far more appealing.

I had totally forgotten Missouri was in the SEC East. One better, I had totally forgotten Missouri was even in the SEC. Now look, they lead the SEC East all by themselves. Who would have thunk it?
-- Scott Saxton, Windsor, Ontario

Don't worry, I'd forgotten myself until about two weeks ago. But yes indeed. the SEC East now runs through Columbia West.

BECHT: Missouri upsets injury-laden Georgia 41-26 to open up SEC East race

Stewart, as we approach the selection committee era for FBS starting next season, how long do you think it will take for the public, as well as the committee, to basically ignore the AP and coaches rankings that the public is so used to after all these years? As someone who also follows college basketball where the polls have almost no bearing on selection and seeding, I'm interested in your opinion.
-- Chris McCabe, Los Angeles, Calif.

That will be a major issue for at least the first season, if not longer. The polls are not going away; they'll remain the unofficial pecking order against which the committee's picks will be judged. The difference from basketball, though, is that in college basketball's postseason the main variance you see between the polls and the committee is in seeding, which isn't that big a deal. In football, with only four teams, the focus is going to be almost entirely on selection. You know there will be a huge uproar the first time one or more of the AP and coaches final Top 4 aren't one of the committee's top four.

It's naïve to think the committee members won't go into the room fully aware of the pervading rankings, but you hope they will be able to ignore them and form their own opinions. By season's end the AP and coaches poll are basically just an ordering based on the loss column. The hope with the committee is that they won't be afraid to select a one-loss team over an undefeated team, or a two-loss team over a one-loss team, if the former is more deserving. It does sound like the committee will release its own periodic rankings to the public over the course of the season, which I'm not thrilled with. The whole point is to pick the four best teams regardless of preseason or midseason standing. However, it's probably necessary. It will be too jarring if, after operating in complete secrecy the entire season, the committee comes out with a field that differs dramatically from the AP and coaches polls. At least the fans will have a sense of where things stand throughout the season, and in turn, perhaps they'll start de-emphasizing the polls.

Stewart, I can't understand -- people complained when the SEC was defense-dominated that the games were boring, up to and including the Alabama-LSU National Championship game. Trying to please, we all swapped to offense this year, and now all we hear is "where's the defense?" There is just no pleasing folks is there?
-- Foamheart, South Louisiana

No Foamheart, there really isn't.

Stewart, is it time for Brady Hoke to rethink his offensive coordinator? A familiar trend is developing for the Wolverines. During Al Borges' 2004-07 tenure at Auburn, the Tigers' total offense rank dropped from 25th to 37th to 76th to 97th. During his tenure at Michigan, their total offense rank has plunged from eighth in Rich Rodriquez's final year to 42nd to 79th and now 75th so far this season.
-- Bart Prorok, Auburn, Ala.

No question, the vaunted Brady Hoke-Al Borges pro-style offense we've been hearing about for three years has been a big dud this season. The question is how much of that is due to the coaches and how much to the personnel. Michigan is struggling in particular on the offensive line, where it replaced its three interior starters from last year with completely inexperienced players. Needless to say they're struggling. At one point against Penn State, Michigan was playing both without hobbled All-American tackle Taylor Lewan and with two walk-ons (Graham Glasgow and Joey Burzynski) and a redshirt freshman (Erik Magnson). The end result is the Wolverines are trying to run an offense based around the power-run game without any power. Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint gained just 27 yards on 27 carries Saturday.

I'd wait until season's end before rendering final judgment because several of the young players (most notably five-star freshman running back Derrick Green) could develop greatly with more experience. If not, perhaps a change in coordinator is warranted, but no matter who holds that job I wouldn't expect dramatic changes schematically. This is the style Hoke wants to play, and to which he's been recruiting. He and Borges had success with it at San Diego State. But Borges is pretty darn old school. He scoffs at the hurry-up and is uncomfortable with the modern shotgun-run game. There are plenty of other coaches around the country running successful pro-style offenses (Nick Saban, Les Miles, David Shaw, etc.) while still incorporating those very elements. Of course they're also running it with mammoth linemen and polished quarterbacks.

Can the media please shut up about Washington now? They got drilled by Oregon, and it was only the media that built this up as a potential upset. It will be Oregon and Alabama for the championship. No one has shown the domination of their opponents like these two teams. Clemson is hovering just above the competition, Florida State will beat Clemson but not be able to get into the top-2. Ohio State is weak and can barely beat a Northwestern team that gets drilled by Wisconsin. So can the media quit attempting to build up these dream matchups each week and just let them play?
-- Casey, Dallas, Ga.

So don't bother covering anyone but Oregon and Alabama the rest of the way because it's such a no-brainer they'll meet in Pasadena? Got it. Good thing we didn't follow that line of thinking last year.

ELLIS: Mariota's the Heisman favorite midway through the college football season

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