Examining the changing Heisman Trophy landscape; more mail

Wednesday April 9th, 2014

Florida State QB Jameis Winston was the second straight redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
Rich Graessle/Icon SMI

In light of your outpouring of questions in response to last week's call to action, I figured why wait the extra week for another Mailbag?

Hi Stewart, since you're in need of football-related questions, here's one: Do you think there's a clear preseason Heisman Trophy candidate this year, other than Jameis Winston? Marcus Mariota seems to be a logical choice, but I also think that Auburn's Nick Marshall and perhaps Georgia's Todd Gurley could have stellar seasons. Plus, I just don't think Winston will be as good without the arsenal of receivers he had last year, namely Kelvin Benjamin.
-- RJ, Portland, Ore.

Now that we've seen two straight redshirt freshmen (academic sophomores) break through and win the Heisman Trophy, is it inevitable that a true freshman will win the award soon?
-- Matt Farrell, New Albany, Ohio

I hate to break it to you, but there's no such thing as a preseason Heisman favorite anymore. We'll keep putting out watch lists, sure, but a player no longer needs preseason recognition to claim the prize. Three of the past five winners -- Cam Newton (2010), Johnny Manziel ('12) and Winston ('13) -- had not played for their team the year before they won the trophy. Alabama's Mark Ingram ('09) was a backup the year before he won. Baylor's Robert Griffin III ('11) had name recognition, but he wasn't on many short lists heading into the season, and he still beat out a guy, Andrew Luck, who was about as overwhelming a preseason frontrunner as you could find.

And repeating is almost impossible. New wide receivers or not, one thing fans can say with near certainty right now is that if Florida State is anything less than 13-0 again entering Heisman weekend this fall, Winston will not hoist a second trophy. Just ask Manziel, whose passing stats all improved considerably in 2013 (save for four extra interceptions), but he ran less, lost twice as many games and, thus, finished a distant fifth in Heisman voting.

ELLIS: Which redshirt freshmen are poised to break out in the 2014 season?

I'm not yet ready to say that a preseason dark horse will start winning the Heisman every year. Mariota, Marshall and Gurley all have excellent chances. Ditto for Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Baylor's Bryce Petty, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, among others. But now, more than ever, the Heisman is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately award. Mariota seemed like he had taken command of the race last season, but as soon as Oregon suffered its first loss against Stanford on Nov. 7, he was done. Conversely, Tre Mason did not garner a sniff of consideration until his 304-yard rushing explosion in the SEC title game on Dec. 7. So, in some ways, preseason hype works against a candidate. It gives him an early leg up, but as soon as he suffers a setback, voters knock him off the throne in favor of the latest flavor. It's hard to come back from that.

As for true freshmen, absolutely, one could win soon. That's especially the case given how many are starting and playing major roles for title contenders, as I wrote about in February. However, it's going to take an exceptionally rare talent now that the Heisman is such a quarterback-dominated award. Then-Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson finished in second in 2004 when he rushed for 1,843 yards for a 12-0 team. Would that happen today? Or does the trophy have to go to a quarterback? If the latter, it becomes exponentially more difficult. The idea of a redshirt freshman like Manziel or Winston who had a full year (or more) in a system putting together a Heisman-worthy season is one thing. Yet even the most talented true freshmen starters, like USC's Matt Barkley in '09 or Penn State's Christian Hackenberg last year, generally don't have immediate, overwhelming success. Most likely it will be a running back for a playoff contender. Perhaps LSU's Leonard Fournette?

One final thought: Will it even be possible for a player to win the Heisman going forward if he's not on a playoff contender? That's a question for another Mailbag.

I have a major fear with the College Football Playoff approaching that the No. 1 team in the nation will sit its starters in the regular-season finale or the conference championship game. Without home-field advantage on the table, there is no difference between being ranked No. 1 and No. 4. In 2011, LSU would have had no reason to play its starters against Georgia in the SEC title game, having already assured itself a top-four finish, win or lose. This consideration plagues nearly every professional sport. Are the days of college football putting on the greatest regular season in sports going to be a thing of the past?
-- Breese, Philadelphia

The playoff is going to grow. We all know that. A few decades from now, I'm sure we'll have the football equivalent of Kentucky playing UConn for the national title, which, substituting last year's final BCS standings for this year's final RPI rankings, would have given us 9-3 UCLA vs. 8-4 Georgia. Yay?

When that day comes, yes, the greatest regular season in sports will be ruined. (Though the office pools for that bracket will be insane.) Even at eight teams, especially with conference champions as automatic qualifiers, teams resting starters would certainly be a possibility. Imagine if Baylor had clinched the Big 12 a week earlier last fall; I'm sure Petty still would have played the finale, but maybe he would have handed off a bunch of times.

However, I don't think this is a concern with the playoff field set at four teams, because no program will be guaranteed anything until the announcement is made. Things will work differently with a selection committee. In the 2011 LSU scenario mentioned above, you're assuming the Tigers would remain in the top two regardless of the Georgia outcome given 13 years of experience with the BCS, and decades more with polls in general. We already know the committee is supposed to place an emphasis on conference champions. For all we know, it will penalize teams that lose their last game.

Perhaps my answer to this question will change a few years into the new system. But let's not forget, winning a conference championship in football is still a really big deal to teams and fans (unlike in basketball). I can't see a team tanking in that game. And I certainly can't see a team tanking in a season-ending rivalry like the Iron Bowl.

With Everett Golson returning to Notre Dame, replacing the spirited but limited Tommy Rees, do you see the Fighting Irish returning to a championship caliber this season? Isn't that all the team really needed last year -- a dynamic and athletic playmaker under center?
-- Chris Gilbert, Ontario

One of the great mysteries of Brian Kelly's four-year tenure in South Bend is that a coach who built his reputation on explosive offenses at Cincinnati and Central Michigan has yet to produce one at Notre Dame. Golson's return is important, no question, but to say he's all that the Irish were missing in 2013 not only glosses over some other issues, but it also indicates a bit of revisionist history about Golson's freshman season. He happened to play two of his best games in two of the Irish's biggest wins that year, at Oklahoma and USC. But he also was pulled for Rees on several occasions. In fact, the oft-maligned Rees actually threw for more yards in '13 (3,257) than Golson did in '12 (2,405), and he tossed more than twice as many touchdown passes (27 to 12). Rees' completion percentage (54.1) was too low and his interception total (13) too high, but 9-4 Notre Dame -- which ranked a modest 37th nationally in yards per play -- also lacked a big-play running back and regressed on defense.

HAMILTON: Everett Golson welcomes the pressure in return to Notre Dame

Still, we know the program's talent is there. Kelly has recruited very well. Golson's ceiling is high, and I fully expect him to progress in his third year in the offense. To return to a championship caliber, Notre Dame could use a big year from redshirt freshman Greg Bryant, a five-star running back in the class of 2013 who has drawn rave reviews this spring. Defensively, Notre Dame will be challenged to maintain its recent high level of play up front without departed standouts Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. The unit has a new coordinator, Brian VanGorder. And, as I've previously written about, that schedule is a beast.

My gut says this could be a bridge year to a really big 2015 (much like '11). But Notre Dame has a penchant for pulling a surprise when expectations are low, and vice versa.

Notre Dame is reportedly working to finalize a home-and-home series against Georgia for 2018 and '19.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Stewart, I hope you are correct that an increased emphasis on strength of schedule in the playoff era will entice schools to schedule some major nonconference opponents instead of a parade of FCS schools and mid-majors. As an Auburn alum, I'd love to see the Tigers play Notre Dame. Currently, Auburn is the only school with an AP national title to have never played the Irish. What are some other blockbuster matchups you'd like to see arranged or reinstated?
-- Jeremy, Nashville, Tenn.

Bad news, Jeremy. The Irish may be coming South, but they're not heading to Auburn. They're reportedly in talks for a future home-and-home series with Georgia. So close.

As for other matchups, I'd start by initiating some much-needed SEC against Pac-12 showdowns. Maybe give Alabama and Oregon a home-and-home, with an Alabama-Stanford season-opener at Jerry World tossed in between. USC-LSU is a must. I'd take USC against Florida, too. It doesn't seem like the Big Ten and Big 12 square off enough, either. Give me Michigan State-Baylor and renew Ohio State-Texas, which had a great series in 2005 and '06. Notre Dame versus just about anyone would be fun. Notre Dame-Boise State on the blue turf would be fantastic.

But I might trade all of that just to have Texas and Texas A&M get over themselves and start playing again. There's a hole in the sport without it.

Stewart, it is sick that your column about the Penn State program made the front page of SI.com. Penn State is a shamed program regardless of what you want it to be. Its sickness is what makes college football a disease. Why would you elevate a program STILL on probation that defended action against children who were molested?
-- Sandra, Dublin, Va.

That column was primarily about a coach, James Franklin, who did not become employed by Penn State until January of this year and a bunch of players who were in grade school at the time of the infamous Jerry Sandusky email chain. Every coach or administrator who had any connection to the scandal has been fired, been indicted or passed away. So, when you refer to "Penn State's" sickness, are you saying the buildings are infected? Because those are about all that's left of that Penn State program.

Stewart, in last week's Mailbag you shared your thoughts regarding James Franklin and the success he is having as a new coach recruiting at Penn State. Is Charlie Strong finding the same success at Texas?
-- Chris Thompson, St. Louis

Strong's situation is a little bit different, as he faces formidable recruiting competition in his own state, most notably from Texas A&M, which is currently one of only two teams ranked higher than Penn State in Rivals.com's early 2015 class ratings. Kevin Sumlin's Aggies are unquestionably the it program in Texas right now, fresh off the two-year Johnny Football era, so Strong isn't able to just show up and immediately reclaim the state in the way that Mack Brown dominated it for more than a decade.

But there are more than enough elite prospects in that state for both teams, and so far, Strong has the Longhorns on track for a top-10 class. It's only April. Check back after the summer camp circuit.

As a Boston College fan, what is a reasonable ceiling to expect from the Eagles in the coming years?
-- Kris, Edwardsville, Pa.

It's high. Boston College is not that far removed from winning consecutive ACC Atlantic Division titles in 2007 and '08 under Jeff Jagodzinski (the first with quarterback Matt Ryan). Unfortunately for the Eagles, their division has become considerably tougher following Florida State's resurgence, Clemson's rise and Louisville's arrival.

However, Boston College has more history than Louisville and was arguably stronger than Clemson for about 15 years before Tajh Boyd suited up for the Tigers. Now the Eagles have a coach, Steve Addazzio, who both preaches the physical style of offense that's long been a hallmark at Boston College and, along with his staff, may be the best recruiter to come through Chestnut Hill in a long, long time. Getting to 7-6 last fall given the state of that roster was no small feat. The Eagles may take a step back this year without Heisman finalist Andre Williams, but I'd bet on them becoming a Top 25-caliber team again soon.

RICKMAN: Myles Willis looking to fill Andre Williams' shoes at Boston College

What would say the Sooners' chances of taking it all next year are? 50-50? I thought so.
-- Ignacio, Norman, Okla.

Well, either Oklahoma will win it all next year or it won't. It could go either way.

Stewart, do you think this is the year that Ole Miss gets over the hump? With Alabama and LSU replacing a bunch of starters, will this be the season that a miracle happens and the Rebels finally win the SEC West? I realize Auburn and Texas A&M are going to be tough games, but I'm not convinced either will be as good as last year with the losses of Tre Mason and Johnny Manziel.
-- Kevin T., Oxford, Miss.

Coach Hugh Freeze has certainly upped the talent level in Oxford, and it may be that this year offers his best window to make a run at the division title. Believe it or not, Bo Wallace enters this fall as the most experienced quarterback in the SEC. Running back I'Tavius Mathers, who had a 96-yard gain in last weekend's spring game, and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell are game-breakers. And the Rebels were better on defense in 2013 than many fans realize; they ranked fourth in the league in yards per play allowed (5.25). Standout safety Cody Prewitt, promising defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and several other key pieces return.

However, though the rest of the SEC West may have its question marks, it's hardly a cakewalk. I'm not expecting Auburn to regress much, if at all. Mason was great, but Gus Malzahn will play to this year's team's strengths. Marshall will be more of a passer. And Alabama remains the unquestioned talent leader. The Crimson Tide routed the Rebels 25-0 last September.

At a minimum, Ole Miss should be a top-20 team, but programs usually need to push higher than that to win the SEC West. I certainly wouldn't rule out the Rebels, but they would likely require more than just significant improvement. They'd need some disarray at Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M, too.

Following some major offseason changes in the Mountain West (Chris Petersen leaving Boise State, Derek Carr leaving Fresno State and David Fales leaving San Jose State), who do you feel is the preseason favorite in each division? Ultimately, who wins the MWC?
-- Eric, Phoenix

It's too early for predictions. You've got to leave me something to do in July and August. Still, I'd imagine that Boise State will get back in the race this year under new coach Bryan Harsin. Fresno will be hard-pressed to avoid a drop-off without Carr and his star receivers. Meanwhile, Utah State did a nice job last season under first-year coach Matt Wells, reaching the league championship game despite losing star quarterback Chuckie Keeton to an ACL injury in early October. The Aggies play some defense. If Keeton returns to form, they may well be the favorites. Utah State loses a lot of starters, but it isn't entirely inexperienced.

And the wild card here is Wyoming, if for no other reason than the arrival of head coach Craig Bohl. After what he achieved at North Dakota State, I wouldn't overlook him, though I would have felt better about the Cowboys if quarterback Brett Smith hadn't turned pro.

SCHNELL: Craig Bohl out to establish his system, success at Wyoming

Hi Stewart. I am a HUGE Oregon fan, even though I have always lived in the Boston area. I really, honestly believe this is the year the Ducks win a national championship. My question is, do I really want them to win? Being from title town and watching all the pro sports teams win championship after championship, I've lost some of my passion for rooting for these teams. If Oregon wins the title, will I lack the desire to wear my lucky socks for every game? Will I lack the desire to search for every illegal way to watch the games on the stupid Pac-12 Network? Or should I just be happy to have the Ducks in the conversation?
-- Dave, Boston

This is what we would call a first-world sports problem.

No Mailbag next week, but definitely one on April 23. Questions were great this week. Keep 'em coming.

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