Has ACC football finally earned more respect?; more mail

Wednesday February 26th, 2014

Devonta Freeman (8) and Florida State brought the BCS title to the ACC with a 34-31 win over Auburn.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

My last Mailbag came out early in the afternoon on Feb. 12. In an unfortunate bit of timing, the NCAA rules committee unleashed its controversial 10-second proposal later that same day. So, two weeks later, this is the first opportunity my readers have to weigh in on the subject. We'll get to a couple of those emails in a moment, but let's begin with a fresh topic.

Stewart, do you think the ACC will get more respect this year? Last season the ACC was the first conference in history to have 11 bowl teams in the same year. It was the first conference since 1932 to have 11 teams finish with winning records. And the ACC was the first conference in history to have players capture the Heisman Trophy (Florida State's Jameis Winston), Outland (Pitt's Aaron Donald), Nagurski (Donald), Doak Walker (Boston College's Andre Williams), Lombardi (Donald), Bednarik (Donald), Davey O'Brien (Winston), Lou Groza (Florida State's Roberto Aguayo) and Rimington (Florida State's Bryan Stork) awards in the same year. Oh, and the reigning national champ is from the ACC.
-- Bret, Tallahassee, Fla.

I feel like I've been answering some variation of this question every year since 2004, but this is certainly the strongest case the ACC has ever had. Mind you, I wouldn't put much credence into the milestones about bowl teams and winning records. The league expanded to 14 members last summer. It's not particularly shocking that it's now securing more bowl berths.

Still, that list of award winners is pretty staggering. I'd even throw in another achievement: The conference won two BCS games in a season for the first time ever, with Florida State's championship triumph and Clemson's victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. It only makes sense that the ACC's long-dismal football reputation would subsequently improve.

However, in the lead-up to the Seminoles' showdown with Auburn, many discounted their regular-season dominance because they played in what was perceived as a weak conference. The fact that Florida State looked mortal once it played the SEC champ probably did not alter that perception. Nor did the fact that ACC teams not named Florida State or Clemson went a dismal 3-6 in bowl games.

STAPLES: Jameis Winston still chasing dream of becoming a two-sport star

The ACC went through a period in the mid-to-late 2000s when the entire conference was mediocre. Now, it has one legitimately elite team (Florida State) and one that has acquitted itself well (Clemson) over the last few years against big-name nonconference foes, including LSU, Georgia and Ohio State. But the league remains mostly top-heavy. Case in point, the ACC has produced more NFL draft picks (311) than any conference except the SEC since 2005, but that's not necessarily indicative of the league's overall level of talent. According to SB Nation recruiting analyst Bud Elliott, just 16.5 percent of ACC recruits over the past four years were four- or five-star prospects, less than half of the SEC's mark (35.9 percent) and fourth among power conferences.

But starting this season, the ACC will swap out one of its stragglers (Maryland) for a reigning top-15 team (Louisville). Notre Dame will officially become a partial member. No one can scoff at the Seminoles' 2014 schedule, which includes Oklahoma State, Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame and Miami. If the conference's uptick continues -- and that will depend largely on the continued improvement of the Hurricanes and Virginia Tech -- it could garner more respect in the playoff system than it had in most of the BCS era.

Stewart, the NCAA proposal to give defenses time to substitute is based on the assumption that faster-paced offenses cause more injuries as defensive players become tired. What happens if studies show that fewer injuries actually occur because, for example, defensive coordinators rotate in fresher players with new possessions, or because hurry-up offenses get off the field more quickly if they fail to execute? Would the NCAA shorten the play clock to, say, 20 seconds?
-- Steve, Winchester, Va.

There are many in the medical community who hypothesize that there is a link between fatigue and an increased risk of injury. Given what a lightning rod this proposal has become, I assume that someone will now conduct a thorough study. Whether it will prove any correlation one way or the other remains to be seen. Yet to this point, the most extensive research I've seen on the topic is from Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix.com, who charted plays per game and starts missed to injury for every conference from 2009 through '12. During that time, the Big 12 had both the most plays and the fewest missed starts; on the surface, this seems to debunk the whole argument from Nick Saban, Bret Bielema and Troy Calhoun.

But I don't think it's that simple. For one thing, the more I've delved into this subject, the more I've noticed that plays per game can be a deceiving stat. For instance, anyone who has watched Texas A&M under Kevin Sumlin knows that the Aggies play at a fast tempo. Yet they ranked just 61st in the category last season, primarily because their awful defense couldn't get off the field. (Opponents ran 77.9 plays per game to A&M's 73.8.)

MANDEL: Explaining Arkansas' Bret Bielema's fall from coaching grace

Secondly, even if we take the numbers from any study as gospel, there's still no proof of causation. To show that, one would need to watch tape and chart every play of every game, thereby establishing the elapsed time between snaps -- and/or the number of consecutive plays without a defensive substitution -- and determine whether there's a noticeable uptick in injuries during more frenzied sequences.

It may be that a study finds no correlation. I seriously doubt, however, that it would prove the opposite to be true, as Steve suggests. The 20-second idea isn't remotely plausible. Lest we forget, players aren't the only ones at risk of fatigue. What about the officials? Many have a difficult time resetting the ball fast enough for some hurry-up teams as it is. If offenses continue to get faster, we may need to initiate a 10-second rule to sub in fresh refs.

Speaking of the proposed rule change prohibiting offenses from snapping the ball until 10 seconds have run off the play clock, wouldn't it be wiser to simply shorten each quarter down to 10 or 12 minutes rather than change the rules of the game as it is now? Reducing the time of each quarter would have the same effect on player safety while maintaining the substance of the game. By the way, I prefer the status quo. I'm concerned that every silly rules proposal is going to pass whenever the word "safety" is attached to it.
-- Mike H., Saginaw, Texas

In my mind, there's a very simple solution that would address both Calhoun's and Bielema's concerns about the potential need for an emergency substitution without radically altering the flow or content of the game. Football teams have been allotted three timeouts per half for as long as I've followed the sport, and I assume much longer. (If anyone knows the exact origin date, by all means, write in.) Given how much the rhythm of games has changed of late, it seems reasonable to suggest that teams should be given a fourth. People might complain that games are already too long -- with increased stoppages in play and longer TV timeouts -- but that seems a fairly benign byproduct compared to the significant strategic and game-management consequences that hurry-up, no-huddle coaches are bracing for if the current proposal comes to pass.

Furthermore, the rules could stipulate that this extra timeout be different from the other three in that it would be used specifically for substitution purposes. It'd be a 30-second timeout that a coach could elect to use if he sees a player in distress who either can't or won't get off the field. If the coach does use this emergency timeout, the player in question must come out of the game for the rest of that series. This would address the purported motive behind the rule change, take away any excuse for why a coach can't address player safety and minimize a coach's ability to horde this extra timeout for schematic purposes.

What do you think? Am I on to something?

Sources are claiming that Nick Saban has petitioned the rules committee that field goals should no longer be returnable and that his team should never have to face Trevor Knight again. Any truth to these rumors?
-- Jason, Ankeny, Iowa

This year is reserved for player safety. Those issues are on next year's agenda.

With a new stadium and a new head coach, Washington seems positioned for success in the near future.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Good afternoon Stewart. I was wondering which programs you think are sleeping giants with the right head coach. I know schools like Texas, USC and Michigan are big-time programs that just happen to be down right now. But what about schools that might sit in a recruiting hotbed, or have history that hasn't been realized in the last 30-plus years?
-- Carson Thomas, Carthage, Texas

Without question, it's Washington. Oregon today is what the Huskies were 20 years ago. Now, all the pieces are in place for a turnaround: a new stadium, new facilities and, one would think, the right coach in Chris Petersen. I'd say the same of Tennessee, though the Vols' dry spell hasn't gone on for nearly as long.

Still, picking a program that hasn't been elite since before 1980 is tough. You're basically looking for a modern-day Florida State or Miami-level reinvention. I've long thought that Arizona State was a sleeping giant, and it's certainly trending in the right direction under Todd Graham. But the Sun Devils have been to a couple of Rose Bowls and came darn close to a national title during the period in question. Louisville is probably too easy an answer; the Cardinals have already made considerable strides. USF and UCF are often seen in this vein, but they've got a tougher road ahead playing in the marginalized American conference.

So, I'll stick with Washington. The Huskies have been off the grid for long enough.

MANDEL: Grading each of this season's college football coaching hires

I assume Nick Saban and Bret Bielema will endorse size limits on football players at any moment now, right? No offensive linemen over 300 pounds, no defensive linemen over 270 and no linebackers over 240.
-- Andrew, Boulder, Colo.

No, but imagine if the coach at some directional school that endures annual 62-7 beatdowns at these teams' hands proffered this as a counterproposal? Hey, player safety, right?

Stewart, a buddy and I were having this discussion a few months ago. If you could choose any coach (pro, college, etc.) to lead your favorite college program, and you knew he would be there for the next eight years guaranteed, who would you choose? After much deliberation, my top choice was Chip Kelly, followed by Nick Saban. My buddy picked Urban Meyer, followed by Chip. What are your thoughts?
-- Jon, Denver

Those are all good choices, obviously. You could be certain your team would win frequently with any of them. At that point, it's more a matter of style preference -- both in regard to the coach's personality and the brand of football his teams play.

Personally, I'd pick Pete Carroll, and not because he just won the Super Bowl. He's going to recruit with the intensity of Saban or Meyer. He'll have his teams prepared and properly amped for big games. And he'll create an environment around the program that's just plain fun. Of course, the Committee on Infractions decided that Carroll's USC program was a little too fun, but with distance it now seems patently absurd that the late Paul Dee decided one star player's rogue arrangement with unaffiliated hangers-on was an indictment of the program's entire culture.

Kelly (who, unlike Carroll, was actually implicated in an NCAA scandal) would be plenty fun in his own right, and I hope he eventually returns to the college ranks. I miss his drip-dry sarcasm and his merciless foot-on-the-gas-pedal approach to everything. But Carroll, Saban and Meyer have the hardware to prove they could win a national title, so I'll go with the one who has the best sense of humor. Then again, others might opt for the one who does the best version of the Electric Slide.

Have you ever seen a conference with a departing class of quarterbacks as accomplished as the SEC's? It loses Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin and Connor Shaw. Also, do you think this QB exodus will help SEC defenses get back to their usually dominant ways? Or are those days over?
-- Josh L, Platteville, Wis.

It's a pretty incredible group, but I don't think it's unprecedented. Just two years ago, the Big 12 lost three first-round quarterbacks -- Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill -- in one year. Still, the fact that so many teams are losing guys who started and shined for two to three seasons will certainly have a profound impact on the conference. Suddenly, Auburn's Nick Marshall, who is one year removed from junior college, is the most accomplished quarterback in the league. Ole Miss' Bo Wallace is the most experienced.

The result will likely be a shift in the balance of power back to the defensive side of the ball, with fewer 44-41 shootouts throughout the fall. But games with scores like 9-6 won't necessarily become the norm, either. Sumlin is going to find a way to score points even without Manziel. The Crimson Tide have no shortage of dangerous offensive skill players. And teams like the Rebels and Tennessee are going to become more potent as they develop their talent.

Of course, I reserve the right to revise this answer if the 10-second rule passes next week.

MANDEL: Breaking down the increase in young quarterback transfers

Hey Stewart, as Northwestern players move forward with their attempt to unionize, what impact (if any) do you see it having on Pat Fitzgerald in terms of his ability to recruit and coach, and his standing with the university?
-- Rajiv, Orlando, Fla.

In the long term, if the CAPA is successful and Fitzgerald's team becomes unionized, it would present myriad challenges, including the notion that his roster could go on strike at any moment. But that scenario is likely many years -- and many court appeals -- away from coming to fruition, and by then, the entire model of college athletics could be drastically different than it is now.

In the short term, it's certainly far from ideal that Fitzgerald had to take a witness stand last week and basically justify every facet of the way he runs his program, all because Northwestern became the test case for this movement. I'm sure some rival coaches will try to seize on aspects of his testimony in recruiting, even though I can't imagine there's anything he described in terms of discipline and time commitment that doesn't apply to most programs recruiting against him. Other than that, Fitzgerald's standing with the university, players and recruits hasn't changed.

The eventual decision notwithstanding, it seems like Kain Colter took a bigger public hit than Fitzgerald. Maybe that's just the price that comes with being an activist. But whereas his initial public comments about the movement focused more on big-picture issues that affect athletes everywhere, his testimony sounded more like his personal ax to grind against the program. He complained about coaches burning his redshirt year, about how the school refused to pay for an MRI on his ankle (school attorneys said he is being reimbursed) and about how football obligations prevented him from pursuing his preferred premed track. Interestingly, his teammates moved quickly to distance themselves from his testimony, which makes one wonder whether they fully realized what they were agreeing to when Colter convinced them to sign those union cards.

Regarding defensive player substitutions, I think officials can solve the problem if they stop strictly enforcing 12 men on the field. Make it like a line change in hockey: If someone gets within five yards of the sideline at the snap and continues off, it will have no effect on the play.
-- Jim Weiland, Valencia, Calif.

Derek Dooley approves.

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