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  • Will the Longhorns break out of their middle-of-the-road rut this fall? Are we overlooking Wisconsin? And which conference will blink first in the debate over league schedule size? All that and more early March questions in this week's #DearAndy mailbag.
By Andy Staples
March 07, 2018

Everyone is talking about the basketball bubble this week, but it’s not too early to talk about the football tournament bubble…

From Matt: Who is your dark horse for the Big Ten title in 2018?

It feels weird calling a team that won 13 games last year and hasn’t had a single-digit win season since 2013 a dark horse, but that’s what I’m going to call Wisconsin. We assume the team that wins the Big Ten East division will win the league—probably because the East champ has won the conference title in all four seasons since the Leaders and Legends got scrapped in favor of geography. And the East is going to be loaded again this season. Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State might be playoff contenders, and an improvement on offense by Michigan could put the Wolverines in that mix.

The Badgers, meanwhile, continue to bludgeon everyone in the West and probably will continue to do so unless Scott Frost can get Nebraska rolling again. (Which probably won’t happen this year.) Wisconsin returns its entire offensive line as well as tailback Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 1,977 yards and averaged 6.6 yards a carry as a true freshman. Meanwhile, the defense will have the same coordinator (Jim Leonhard) for the first time in three years. This should ease the blow of only bringing back four starters. Let’s be honest, though. The floor for Wisconsin’s defense is adequate. It’s more likely the Badgers remain stout, if a little less dominant than last season when they ranked third in the nation in fewest yards allowed per play. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook needs to cut down on his interceptions—he threw 15 last year against 25 touchdowns—but if he can, the Badgers should be legitimate playoff contenders. So if Wisconsin once again finds itself in a one-game scenario in Indianapolis against the best team from the East with a playoff berth on the line, this might be the year the Badgers break through.

From Henry: What would you say is a Pass mark for year two of the Tom Herman Era at Texas in terms of on-field results and recruiting?

Just keep getting better. There is no need to put a number on this, because Texas has been stuck in a 5–7/6–6 hole for so long that climbing out of that is the top priority.

Winning the Texas Bowl probably provided a bigger psychological boost than anything, because looking back at a 7–6 first year feels radically different than looking back at a 6–7 first year. But the truth of the matter is Texas still went 6–6 in the regular season, and that’s not good enough.

The Longhorns could play defense last year, but their inability to block down the stretch crushed them in winnable games against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and gave them no chance against TCU. Herb Hand, who does much more than offer great steak recommendations, has been hired to strengthen that group. Herman has been vague about who will call the plays next season, but the offense certainly looked more functional in the bowl game with Herman taking a larger role on that front. And that makes sense. His brilliance as a play-caller at Ohio State was how he got his first head-coaching job at Houston in the first place. Herman has said he doesn’t like calling plays and running the program. He’d rather delegate that duty. But if Tim Beck is as ineffective as he was last season, Herman may need to call plays to keep the program on the proper trajectory.

From @yehonala04: Where will the most contentious starting QB battles be this spring in the ACC/SEC?

The hottest quarterback competitions in those leagues will be right at the top. We’ll start with the one that ignited during the national title game. Alabama is going to try to hang on to Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts into the season, but Crimson Tide coaches may have to make a choice after spring practice. Both quarterbacks seem savvy enough to keep from getting dragged into a protracted competition that forces one to be a backup at Alabama next year rather than sitting out a year and assuming a starting job somewhere else in 2019. So the fireworks should come in the spring.

Alabama also has a tangential role in the most important quarterback competition in the ACC. Clemson’s Kelly Bryant played his worst game against the Tide in the Sugar Bowl, and it raised questions about whether the Tigers would be headed for a competition similar to the one between Hurts and Tagovailoa last spring. Trevor Lawrence, the top-rated recruit in the class of 2018, is on campus at Clemson. Hunter Johnson, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback recruit in the class of 2017, backed up Bryant last year and likely will get a shot. Like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney must be thoroughly convinced—or down 13-0 at halftime of the national title game—to supplant the older, more experienced starter, but the goal at Clemson isn’t to make the playoff. It’s to win the national title. With the entire starting defensive line back, the Tigers have a chance to compete for their second title in three seasons. But they’ll need to beat a team (or two) like Alabama to get there. (They’ll probably have to beat Alabama to get there.) They’ll need more from their quarterback than they got from Bryant in the Sugar Bowl. The player who gives Clemson the best chance to beat that kind of team is the one who needs to win the job.

From Nate: How much longer will it take the other Power 5 conferences outside of the SEC and ACC to figure out we are scheduling too many conference games and add in the extra cupcake game?

Thank you for phrasing that question the way you did, Nate. Too many fans of Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 schools act as if the decision to play nine conference games in those leagues was made at gunpoint. They chose to do that, and when they chose, they also acknowledged that they might put their teams at a disadvantage when compared against other Power 5 teams.

The Pac-12 played nine conference games when it was the Pac-10—because it would be silly to miss only one league team every year—and kept that model when it expanded. The Big 12 plays nine for a simple reason: It would be silly to miss only one league team every year. The Big Ten chose to play nine games beginning in 2016 for a few reasons. First, it runs a cable network and wants quality product for that network. Second, it sells games to ESPN and Fox and wants quality product to sell. Third, its teams weren’t particularly great at scheduling challenging non-conference opponents. Fourth, more conference games usually means more robust season-ticket packages, which is important for the programs that don’t sell out every game like the ones at the top of the league.

The ACC and SEC don’t have any TV product to sell for a while, so there is little incentive for them to change. The thing that would prompt a change is a sustained decline in attendance because ticket-buyers are tired of paying for games against FCS schools. That might inspire a push for more conference games. I’d expect the SEC to do that before the ACC, though. The ACC’s deal with Notre Dame means five teams essentially do play a ninth conference game each year. Add to that annual rivalries for Clemson (South Carolina), Florida State (Florida), Georgia Tech (Georgia) and Louisville (Kentucky) against SEC schools, and a chunk of the ACC is already playing 10 Power 5-level teams. Those schools would fight hard against adding another conference game. The SEC counterparts in those rivalries would feel the same way, but the SEC doesn’t have the Notre Dame deal adding de facto conference games.

From @3YearLetterman: Should the UGA football administration finally listen to me and make “The Rains of Castamere” the fourth-quarter song while playing the Red Wedding scene on the big screen?

This would be a bold choice. You’re basically telling an opponent that you intend to wipe them out in the ensuing 15 minutes. That’s a claim you’re going to need to back up.

I’m not sure you can show the scene on the big screen. It’s a tad graphic. Also, you’d get complaints from people who are waiting for the series to end so they can binge the entire thing. I don’t know that Georgia AD Greg McGarity wants to add #Spoliers to the list of things people yell at him about.

Speaking of #Spoilers, the other reason you might want to avoid The Rains of Castamere is because of what ultimately happened to the Freys. Remember when Georgia celebrated a big lead between the third and fourth quarters of the 2007 Auburn game with Soulja Boy’s “Crank That”?

Remember how Auburn waited 10 years and then rolled out that song with a big fourth-quarter lead?

But I do like the idea of having a specific song that plays between the third and fourth quarters. Wisconsin has turned “Jump Around” into a wonderful tradition. Auburn’s 2010 national title team might have had the best one ever with Maino’s “All The Above”. It’s one thing to make everyone jump up and down. It’s another thing entirely to make 85,000 people completely get down.

With that said, the obvious choice for Georgia’s fourth-quarter song is Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad”.

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