Trevor Knight brings high expectations to Oklahoma; more Mailbag

Wednesday May 7th, 2014

Trevor Knight's big Sugar Bowl performance is helping fuel high preseason expectations for Oklahoma.
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI

I've got to say, I'm disappointed in you guys. Not one email referencing crab legs! This Mailbag will be a shell of its former self. You've got to do butter.

I see Oklahoma in the top five of most ultra-early polls. As we've learned in the past, it's often a mistake to set expectations for the upcoming season based on the bowl game from the previous one. Trevor Knight threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama, but shouldn't we consider the rest of his stats from last year? In non-Sugar Bowl games, Knight went 47-of-90 with five scores and four interceptions. Does Oklahoma's top-five status hinge on Knight's ability to consistently play like he did in the Sugar Bowl? If so, how confident are you that he's the Sugar Bowl quarterback and not the regular-season one?
-- Jonathan, San Antonio

Yep, as soon as those first way-too-early polls started coming out in January, it was clear that Oklahoma was getting this year's honorary 2012 West Virginia status as the team with expectations unduly propped up by its bowl performance. When I saw the Sporting News ranked the Sooners as its preseason No. 1, I winced. Recently, when Bob Stoops' team is pumped up as a preseason national-title favorite, it flops. (See '09 and '11, in particular.) On the rare occasion it's overlooked (last season), however, it surprises us.

Of course, the end result is usually the same: The Sooners win between 10 and 12 games, with a Big 12 title about every other year. But those unfulfilled preseason No. 1 rankings give off the perception that Oklahoma is not delivering on its potential when, in fact, the Sooners are doing quite well. I fear that might be the case for Stoops and his team again in '14.

Don't get me wrong: I think Oklahoma will be very good. And the primary reason is not Knight, it's the Sooners' defense. After several seasons of falling well below its previous standard, a largely inexperienced unit delivered some big moments last fall. Those included a defense-driven 35-21 win at Notre Dame on Sept. 28, a deceiving 41-12 loss at Baylor on Nov. 7 -- when Oklahoma limited Bryce Petty and the Bears for much of the night -- and the season-ending 33-24 upset win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 7 that sealed the Sooners' BCS berth. Oklahoma had the Big 12's second-ranked scoring defense (22.1 points per game), which is all the more reason that the 45-31 bowl shootout victory over Alabama was uncharacteristic. Fast forward to this season and the Sooners should be even better on that side of the ball. They have a bunch of guys who can get to the quarterback, most notably linebacker Eric Striker and defensive end Charles Tapper. They also have a budding star in sophomore cornerback Zack Sanchez.

Still, I'm as curious as the rest of you to see which version of Knight takes the field this fall. Anyone capable of putting up those numbers against the Crimson Tide's defense is pretty talented. But that was also a 'Bama group that struggled against the pass all season and was playing in a de facto consolation game. My guess? Knight will perform somewhere between the two extremes. However, he has virtually no proven playmakers around him.

If Oklahoma's defense goes from improved to dominant, then maybe it will live up to its lofty hype. But it takes a pretty big leap of faith in May to predict a team that has not been national-title caliber in six years will be better than Florida State, Auburn and Alabama.

Stewart, the playoff selection committee has one charge -- to deliver four teams for the playoff. Why should it spend even one second arguing about the 23rd-best team in the country? Forget the traditional Top 25. The committee should do a top 12 at most and stop. I would be fine if it stopped at four or eight.
-- John, Richmond, Va.

One of my biggest takeaways from covering last week's playoff meetings is just how much education is still required before much of the sport's fans and media fully understand the new system. This question is a perfect example.

Putting aside the fact that I vehemently disagree with publishing weekly late-season polls, it's important to understand that the committee is not just picking the four teams for the playoff. Its rankings will also be used to fill open spots in the Fiesta, Cotton and Peach bowls in years they're not hosting a semifinal. The rankings will determine which champion from the five non-contract conferences (American, C-USA, MAC, MWC and Sun Belt) gets a guaranteed berth to one of those three games and will select the Orange Bowl's participant opposite the ACC, which will be the highest-ranked available team from among the Big Ten, SEC and Notre Dame. Also, when one of the three contract bowls loses its champion to a semifinal site (the Big Ten and Pac-12 for the Rose, the SEC and Big 12 for the Sugar and the ACC for the Orange), the committee's next highest-ranked team from that conference will replace it.

Even with all those elements, though, it's certainly possible the committee could rank 10 teams in a given season and have all six bowls filled. For instance, in 2016-17, when the Fiesta and Peach bowls host semifinals, the Cotton will be the only bowl game with any available at-large spots. The others will host either playoff games or their contract conferences.

But with no minimum threshold anymore, the guaranteed non-power-league champ could be ranked fairly low -- even outside the Top 25. If the Orange Bowl were to lose No. 2 Florida State to the playoff, it's not inconceivable that No. 22 Clemson would replace the Seminoles. None of this changes the fact that releasing a weekly poll taints the process, giving the false impression that teams moved up and down based on the previous week's results when they're supposed to be judged on their full bodies of work. But if the committee is going to do rankings, it may well need the full Top 25.

So, now I am hearing that there will be fewer New Year's Day and New Year's Eve bowl games. Am I wrong, or wasn't there supposed to be an emphasis on college football taking back New Year's from hockey or whatever other sport was potentially hogging the spotlight? It seems to me like college football should add games on these days, not take them away.
-- Mike, Dayton, Ohio

Nostalgia can play interesting tricks sometimes. When those of us of a certain age think back to New Year's bowls of our youth, we remember the day being far more meaningful than it is now. Thus, we assume it's because there were more games. Not so. Last year there were six games on Jan. 1 (Heart of Dallas, Capital One, Outback, Gator, Rose and Fiesta). It's true that in the late 1980s and early '90s there were as many as eight. But what made the day special wasn't the quantity of the games; it was the quality. Before the BCS, there were years when both the Rose and Orange bowls had national championship implications. Yet because the BCS title game was moved after New Year's, there hasn't been a Jan. 1 game of that magnitude since USC played Michigan for an AP championship in 2004, the lone split title of the BCS era.

This year, there will be two playoff games on Jan. 1. It will be the first time in 23 years that the first- and second-ranked teams have played in back-to-back New Year's Day bowls. (AP No. 1 Miami beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl shortly after AP No. 2 and Coaches' Poll No. 1 Washington beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The Hurricanes and the Huskies shared the 1991 national title). So, yeah, I'd say college football is retaking New Year's. Mind you, the semifinals in the next two seasons will be played on Dec. 31, since the Rose and Sugar bowls have claimed Jan. 1. As such, it's possible that New Year's Day will be a letdown. But in clearing the Liberty, Sun, etc., off New Year's Eve, conference and TV execs are making a point of emphasizing that Dec. 31 is now as significant as Jan. 1 on the college football calendar. And the equivalent of the former BCS bowls will no longer happen as late as Jan. 4 or 5. All six will take place over two days. I'm personally looking forward to that aspect of it.

Note: In researching that answer I came across a 1992 Los Angles Times TV column about the previous day's games which included this rather stupefying passage: "Something has to be done about the New Year's Day logjam. Eight games is at least four too many. It's not good for viewers, and it is not good for television sponsors. Up comes a commercial, and zap, the viewer hits the remote control and switches to another game. For about two hours Wednesday morning, there were four games at the same time. From 10 a.m. on, there was almost always at least two. All one has to do to make an argument for an orderly playoff system in college football is point to the New Year's Day mess."

Larry Stewart, if you happen to read this, we'd love to hear your thoughts on that dastardly invention, the DVR. "Record four shows at once? The humanity!"

With Johnny Manziel off to the NFL, what should Kevin Sumlin expect as the 2014 season approaches?
Scott Halleran/Getty Images/SI

Stewart, now that Texas A&M might have three first-round NFL draft picks this week (Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans) a year after having Luke Joeckel go second overall, has anybody mentioned the incredible recruiting/talent evaluation job that Mike Sherman did? Plus, does anybody remember that all of those players were recruited when the Aggies were in the Big 12?
-- Phil, Spearville, Kan.

No question. Mind you, this will be the fourth straight year that the Aggies will produce at least one first-round pick, with Ryan Tannehill going No. 8 to the Dolphins in 2012 and Von Miller No. 2 in to the Broncos in '11. Texas A&M hasn't experienced anything like that since 1992-94, when the Aggies produced six first-rounders in three years, most notably All-Pros Sam Adams and Aaron Glenn and No. 2 pick Quentin Coryatt. So hats off to Sherman for attracting and/or developing those players. He had the foresight to recruit Manziel as a quarterback when others wanted him to change positions. On the flip side, his overall tenure may best be encapsulated by the fact that it took him nearly three years to figure out that future NFL starting quarterback Tannehill might be more useful at his current position than receiver. Even then, A&M went just 7-6 in Tannehill's senior season, leading to Sherman's ouster.

As you may recall, the Aggies developed an uncanny penchant in the 2011 season for blowing second-half leads. Had they finished a couple of those games with wins, Sherman might have kept his job, Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury might have never come to College Station and Manziel might have never beaten Alabama or won the Heisman Trophy. College football is fickle that way.

Stewart, did you intentionally miss the point about the SEC's strength of schedule? Yes, its best teams play at least one power-conference opponent, but there are also several virtual bye weeks with teams like Arkansas State, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic (to use Auburn's schedule from last year as an example). Considering the weakness of the bottom half of the SEC, most members play at least half of their games against cupcakes. Strength of schedule should factor in scheduling cowardice as well as the talent at the top of the conference.
-- Mike Marcuson, Portland, Ore.

Well, that's mostly true. But it's also not specific to the SEC among leagues with eight-game conference schedules. Last year, the SEC's 14 teams played a combined 37 games against non-BCS teams, including 15 against FCS teams. The ACC's 14 teams played a combined 40 non-BCS teams, including 15 FCS teams. And the Big Ten's 12 teams played 31 non-BCS teams, including 10 FCS teams. Across the board, the average team in each conference played two to three non-BCS opponents and one FCS foe. The SEC's ratio gets more attention, though, because A) it's the SEC and B) its teams have a clever/cowardly (depending on your perspective) strategy of playing one of those games in mid-November rather than playing them all in September. It did wonders for the league in the BCS.

No one would dispute that the teams in the Pac-12 generally play tougher 12-game schedules than teams in any other league. And Big 12 teams don't get the luxury of missing any other team in their conference, much less two or three really good ones, as Alabama and Missouri both did last year. The Big Ten has gotten the memo and is encouraging its teams to beef up future nonconference schedules and cut back on FCS games. The ACC is adding four to five games a year against Notre Dame. The SEC is essentially putting its foot in the ground daring the committee to force it change.

Hi Stewart, in the discussion of increased athlete benefits, a lot of focus goes to athletes at places like Ohio State or Texas, which are essentially swimming in cash. But what about some of the power-conference schools that aren't quite so flush? Rutgers, Maryland, Oregon State and Colorado were each more than $10 million in the red last year (requiring a school subsidy). What happens when those schools are forced to pay all of their athletes substantially more than they do now?
-- Dr. Nick, Los Alamos, N.M.

They've just got to manage their finances better.

It's true that the overwhelming majority of Division I athletic departments don't turn a profit. But it's one thing if a school is trying to cover expenses for umpteen different teams on a Big Sky budget, or even a Mountain West budget. A UT-San Diego article this week on power-conference autonomy noted that San Diego State, which nets just $1.3 million a year from the league's television contract, can only afford to serve its football team a training table meal three days a week. Unlimited meals and snacks are not likely in the school's immediate future and the extra $600,000-$750,000 a year it might have to spend on full cost of attendance scholarships is a significant dent.

But schools in the five power conferences are now collecting $20 million or more annually in conference revenue distributions (though in some cases not quite yet). The Big Ten is projecting nearly $45 million -- $45 million! -- for each of the 12 current members once it negotiates its new TV deal in 2017. If schools can't balance their books with that, they're probably mismanaging.

Most of the schools cited above got in their current predicament by overextending on stadium renovations, facilities upgrades, coaches' contracts and/or buyouts -- or some combination of all three. Every major conference has doubled to tripled its television revenue over the last decade. Is it really twice to three times as expensive to run an athletic department? If so, it's only because of the self-inflicted pressure to keep up in the facilities and coaching salaries arms races. The cost of the most commonly proposed added benefits to athletes is less, in most cases, than the cost of a defensive coordinator.

Stewart, with the news that the Big Ten basketball tournament will be played in Washington D.C. in 2017, what's the likelihood that the conference's football championship game also heads east?
-- Steve, Strongsville, Ohio

Jim Delany is certainly going all-in on the East Coast push and has indicated there will be more such announcements to come. But, no, neither he nor the other Big Ten sources to whom I've spoken have mentioned that as a possibility. It's one thing to fill a 20,000-seat arena. There are enough Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana fans living in New York, Washington D.C. and that vicinity, coupled with local Maryland fans, to ensure the basketball tourney will be well attended. Attracting 60,000-70,000 football fans on a week's notice is another story, especially if many of those fans are saving money to potentially follow their team to one or two more postseason games in far-flung locales. Most likely the game remains in the Midwest, though possibly rotating to other cities.

A more realistic possibility is scheduling occasional regular-season games at MetLife Stadium, FedEx Field or even Yankee Stadium. Penn State played Indiana at FedEx in 2010 and took on Syracuse at MetLife last year. It would be cool to see one of those sites stage an opening-week event -- like the ones in Atlanta and Arlington -- that pits a Big Ten team against an ACC or SEC team. Remember, the Big Ten begins a six-year deal this season to face the ACC in the Pinstripe Bowl. So far, that game has been largely the domain of Rutgers and Syracuse. Now, it has a chance to be ... well, Rutgers versus Syracuse.

I'm going to be taking the next few weeks off from the Mailbag, returning the first week of June. But could you all do me a favor? Keep emailing whatever questions you might have about the playoff system. It will help me understand what aspects remain the most foreign at this point, so I can try to better explain them between now and the start of the season.

In the meantime, if any other prominent college football players get caught shoplifting seafood, I expect the jokes in my inbox.

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