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  • It'd be surprising to see Alabama QB Jalen Hurts lose his job after going 14–1, but new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian could tweak Hurts's role next season.
By Stewart Mandel
January 25, 2017

This article originally appeared on FOXSports.com.

It’s a week until National Signing Day, but in the meantime we’ve got some recent developments to address in this edition of the Mailbag.

There appears to be an ongoing debate about the “honeymoon” status of Willie Taggart. On one hand, he started out extremely well with recruiting and several coaching hires. On the other, there are the workout and DUI incidents by his coaches (former USF staffers, to boot) that have cast a suspicious eye on the U of Quack. I know winning often cures all, but how much should Taggart be to blame for these incidents, and how much does this hurt his momentum in the eyes of fans and the public, in general?

— Landon

I don’t see how you can blame Taggart for the fact one of his assistants, David Reaves, drove while intoxicated. All you can really judge is his response, which was swift and strong (Oregon suspended Reaves with intent to dismiss for cause). But that story didn’t happen in a vacuum; it came not long after the news that three players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis following grueling military-style workouts. That’s not an assistant’s personal life, that’s business directly under his watch.

While strength coach Irele Oderinde, whom Oregon suspended for a month, was directly at fault for the workout issue, Taggart absolutely deserves some blame. As the head coach he’s ultimately responsible for his players’ safety. He clearly instructed Oderinde to toughen up his guys—as most new coaches do—and Oderinde is the guy he entrusted to accomplish that. Whether Taggart knew the exact details of the workouts or not, he signed off on them. And they put Ducks players at harm.

As you said, winning has a way of making bad headlines go away. That’s true to some extent with recruiting. If Taggart lands some big names on signing day, it will probably renew the honeymoon for Oregon fans. The problem could come this fall if the Ducks don’t do much better than last year’s 4–8 campaign that got Mark Helfrich fired. The events of the past month have given people reason to lack confidence in the new coach, and on-field struggles would only exacerbate that.

Conversely, if Oregon goes 8–4, you’ll probably never hear about this stuff again.

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We all know this question is coming. So let’s get it over with. Who had the better championship performance, Deshaun Watson or Vince Young? We all know how great the 2016 Bama D was, but let’s remember the USC D in 2005 finished 35th overall and 75th in pass defense.

— Clint, Houston

That’s a good point about the defenses. I remember wondering at the time during all the hoopla about USC possibly having the Greatest Team of All Time why more people weren’t concerned about a defense that Arizona State, Notre Dame, and especially Fresno State had notable success against. Conversely, Alabama’s D was consistently dominant all year, with the one caveat that it barely faced any quarterbacks with a pulse prior to the playoff games.

But I’ve still got to give the slight edge to Young. There’s just something mystical about a quarterback who literally runs all over a defense, and Young that night had such a beautifully symmetrical stat line—267 yards passing, 200 rushing. Amazingly, Watson produced very similar total yardage—478—though all but 73 of it through the air.

To be clear, 405 yards passing and four touchdowns against the nation’s No. 1 defense is incredible. Both performances were.

Finally, let us not forget that Young’s game-winning scramble came on a do-or-die fourth-and-five play down by four points. Watson’s climactic throw to Hunter Renfrow kept Clemson from having to kick a field goal to send the game to overtime. Again: NOT SHORTCHANGING DESHAUN. I was asked to pick one or the other.

David J. Phillip/AP

Do you suppose if Jalen Hurts doesn’t develop his passing game that a new Alabama freshman jumps him? Or perhaps Bama’s offense shifts even more to spread-run like Rich Rod’s West Virginia teams? Or with Alabama’s wealth at running back that they come out in Tom Osborne’s triple option?

— Ty

I definitely vote for the latter. That would be awesome.

I find it hard to believe that a guy who went 14–1 as a starter and led his team to within one second of a national championship is in any danger of losing his job. Certainly, Hurts has a ways to go as a downfield passer, and the fact he had two of his worst passing games in the two playoff games did not make a good impression.

However, he did post a decent 62.8 completion percentage on the season. Granted, much of that came on short- and intermediate throws, but with a defense like Alabama’s you don’t need to take that many chances. Of course, that eventually came back to bite the Tide (barely).

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It will be interesting to see what improvement he makes this off-season under Steve Sarkisian’s tutelage. By no means would I expect Alabama to morph into an Air Raid team next year—not with Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs all coming back—but nor does Alabama need to turn into an option team. Though throwing in a few option plays a game wouldn’t hurt.

But if by chance Hurts regresses … five-star QB Tua Tagovailoa, the No. 3 quarterback in the country this recruiting cycle, is already on campus.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Whenever a school fires a football coach midseason, we hear about trying to get a head start on others. But everyone pretty much ends up hiring around the same time once the season ends. However, if Chip Kelly doesn’t take an OC job somewhere and sits out next season, he would be the biggest-name, ready-to-go candidate in some time. Could he be hired as the “coach in waiting” while an interim coach finished out a season? And if so, would he be able to begin recruiting in that capacity?

— John, Spokane, WA

Kelly’s potential availability brings to mind when Ohio State hired Urban Meyer in 2011. Meyer had “retired” from Florida the year before and spent that season calling games for ESPN (and I imagine if Kelly doesn’t get an OC job you’ll see him in some sort of TV role himself). Meanwhile, Jim Tressel had resigned under pressure that May. It was to no one’s surprise when Ohio State AD Gene Smith had Meyer lined up and ready to go the Monday after the Michigan game.

Much more under the radar, Fresno State this year did pretty much exactly what you described in hiring former Cal coach Jeff Tedford, at the time a “consultant” at Washington. Fresno fired Tim DeRuyter on Oct. 23 and officially hired Tedford on Nov. 10, nearly three weeks before the rest of the country. Tedford started work the following week and yes, he was able to contact recruits.

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So yes, I could absolutely see a school doing something similar for Kelly, but keep in mind, he’ll be in a lot higher demand than Tedford was. It would have to be an awfully special job—Notre Dame?—for Kelly to accept it without knowing what else might come open at season’s end. And with potential openings at that school, Texas A&M, UCLA, Tennessee, Arizona State and Auburn, there could be a lot of spots to choose from come December.

Can we eliminate signing day and just let coaches and recruits officially commit when they are ready?

— Crawford, Stafford, Va.

It’s a good idea in theory. But only if coaches were willing to hold a kid’s offer until he truly is ready. In reality, whenever players are first allowed to put pen to paper, coaches are going to pressure them into signing then and there.

You will likely see this next year when the NCAA’s newly proposed December signing date likely goes into effect. My guess is it will simply become the new signing day, because only the best-of-the-best (five stars and some four stars) would feel confident there’s still going to be a spot for them if they wait until February.

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Did Ohio State do enough to revamp the offensive staff this off-season?

— Scott

I don’t think you could ask for much more than landing Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator. I put him on a very short list of the sport’s most innovative offensive coaches this century. Back in 2000 he installed the then-exotic run-first spread offense at Northwestern and helped win a Big Ten title. His Oklahoma offenses in the Sam Bradford/Landry Jones era were ahead of the curve with hurry-up and mixing spread pass and run concepts. And his Indiana teams certainly scored a lot of points, while producing NFL stars Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard.

I’m not as familiar with quarterbacks coach Ryan Day, but he’ll bring the Chip Kelly influence and NFL experience. I’ll be interested to see what effect he has on J.T. Barrett, who clearly stagnated in his development recently. Offensive line remains the same with Greg Studrawa.

Ultimately, Ohio State’s offense lacked a clear identity in the two seasons following Tom Herman’s departure. Was it Urban Meyer’s? Ed Warinner’s? Tim Beck’s? All of the above? Going forward, I have no doubt it will be a Kevin Wilson production, and everyone else will fall in line from there.

 

Is there a more fitting place for a guy to row his boat than in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?

— Jeff, Minneapolis

Somewhere warmer perhaps? Though P.J. Fleck doesn’t strike me as someone who lets a Minnesota winter bother him like it apparently did Tracy Claeys.

What odds would you give Michigan State to bounce back in the Big Ten next season? Can they get back to contending for the conference title, or has Penn State’s reemergence taken their place?

— Jared

The Spartans will bounce back because Mark Dantonio is too good a coach for them not to, but it’s asking a lot for a team that plummeted to 3–9 to turn around and contend for the conference title a year later. Especially in a division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.

Oftentimes you’ll find that a team was better than its record but just had a lot of bad luck. Notre Dame fell into that category in 2016. The Irish went 4–8 but seven of their eight defeats were by one score. Notre Dame finished 29th in the opponent-adjusted F/+ efficiency ratings, ahead of 9–4 teams Kansas State, Minnesota and Utah.

Those same rankings, however, tell us that Michigan State was just plain bad. The Spartans finished 62nd, only a handful of spots higher than 4–8 Duke, 4–8 Oregon State and 3–9 Iowa State. I have no doubt Michigan State is more talented than those teams and therefore has a better shot of improving its record quite a bit in 2017, but the Spartans could be 8–4 and still finish fourth or fifth in their division.

Hey Stewart. The national championship game lasted 4 hours and 8 minutes. I for one am O.K. with longer games (if they are exciting), but this is starting to push it, as did many games this year. Is this a problem for college football? What can be done to shorten games back down to size? I believe commercials and replay are a part of it, but is there more to it?

— Kevin, Chesterfield, Va.

It’s definitely a problem. I’ve been hearing this same complaint from a lot of people for quite a while but it really ramped up following the national title game, which did not end until 12:27 a.m. EST on a Tuesday. So either all of you could move to the Pacific time zone, or the sport has to make some tweaks.

First of all, let me just rule out a couple of popular suggestions. For one, networks are not going to voluntarily start showing fewer commercials. It cost ESPN more than $7 billion to land the playoff rights. It’s got to make that back somehow. Nor do I see college shortening halftime, which is 20 minutes to the NFL’s 12, because college bands are a big part of the college football experience, and they put a whole lot of work into their halftime shows.

First and foremost, college needs to scrap the clock stoppages after first downs. The NFL doesn’t do it. Not coincidentally, their games take at least a half hour less on average. Maybe exempt the last two minutes of each half. While hurry-up teams might complain that this reduces the amount of plays they can run, I’d counter that they can push the tempo even faster if they’re not waiting on a slow-moving chain crew to get set.

(That the sport of football is still relying on volunteers holding a physical chain to keep track of down and distance is a whole other matter. It’s 2017. Think digital, folks.)

But nothing bogged down the Alabama-Clemson game more than replay reviews. I don’t have a good answer for why it takes five minutes to review a targeting call. Which is why it’s probably not realistic anything will change. The clock-stoppage rules are much more controllable and would have a noticeable effect.

Hi. Love the podcast. Listen to every episode. I’ve heard you and Bruce debate the “best games of all time,” and I was wondering, what do you look for in a game? Competitiveness? Scoring? Individual performances? Storylines?

— Kenneth C., Dallas

Can I say all of the above?

I’d start with significance. It could be that the best game ever played was between two Conference USA teams on a Saturday in late October, but how would we ever know? The games we discussed on The Audible a few weeks ago were all either national title games, BCS bowls or regular-season games with national championship ramifications.

Secondly, I’d say momentum swings. One team going up 20–0, then the other coming back to win 28–27, probably isn’t going to cut it no matter how dramatic the ending. I want back-and-forth, like the fourth quarter of Clemson-Alabama spread out over an entire game.

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And finally, perhaps most importantly, big plays. That doesn’t mean the final score has to be 45–42, but certainly we tend to remember big offensive plays more than big defensive plays (save for a game-sealing goal line stand or interception). Again using the Clemson-Alabama example, I’m always going to remember Hurts’s 30-yard touchdown run, Mike Williams’s two huge leaping catches, Jordan Leggett’s sideline catch on the final drive and, of course, Watson-to-Renfrow.

The more I think about it, the more I realize the Oklahoma-Boise State Fiesta Bowl probably checks off more boxes than almost any game I’ve ever seen. But it’s hard to put that above one of the classic national championship games.

Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Stewart: James Madison University Dukes fan here. As we appreciate the joy of our FCS national championship, maybe you can help settle an argument some of us are having: Who gets better recognition and publicity, the winner of the FCS national championship or the winner of one of the Group of 5 bowls?

— Todd, Littleton, CO

Congrats, and good question.

Let’s randomly pick one of the more obscure Group of 5 bowl champs from last year—New Orleans Bowl winner Southern Miss—and try to quantify the amount of attention both received. And let’s start with the obvious: How many people watched their games? Per Sports Media Watch, 1.34 million viewed the New Orleans Bowl, while 1.56 million watched James Madison beat Youngstown State.

Slight advantage FCS.

Another telling metric is Google news citations. I typed in several different variations of each—i.e., “2016 New Orleans Bowl,” “Southern Miss Louisiana Lafayette,” etc. Searches for the bowl game showed results in the range of 68,000-85,000. FCS terms saw a wider range, from a low of 12,500 to a high of 68,000.

Slight advantage New Orleans Bowl.

I’m sure there are more scientifically sound and/or expensive ways to measure this, but based on these two very simple and very convenient methods, I think we can reasonably conclude that … they get about the same level of recognition.

Sorry. I know that didn’t help at all.

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