Ranking Notre Dame in Top 25 not yet justifiable, plus more thoughts

Wednesday August 12th, 2009

They already have their own TV network, their own BCS entry rule and their own, famous leprechaun (Regis Philbin). Now, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have their own Mailbag lead.

Stewart, please explain to me why Notre Dame, which lost to SYRACUSE at home last season, is ranked in the preseason Top 25. Will the college football world ever stop overrating that team in South Bend? If this isn't a reason to completely disregard preseason rankings, I don't know what is.-- Tim, Evanston, Ill.

You wrote recently that Charlie Weis needs at least nine wins to keep his job. Will Weis and the Irish win nine games this season?-- @PPokaski (via Twitter)

Most voters treat their preseason polls as a prediction of the final outcome, and it seems most pollsters are looking at Notre Dame's schedule and penciling in at least nine wins. It's easy to see why. Notre Dame plays just one team -- USC -- that is unquestionably better than it. It plays four teams -- Michigan State, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Connecticut -- that were better than it last year but lost key players. Everyone else, you could probably pencil in as a "W."

I'd been on the fence about this for some time. For one, the image of those last two regular-season games -- the loss to Syracuse (at home, no less) and the 38-3 drubbing at USC -- still weigh heavily on me. Those were not games played by a team poised for a breakthrough. In fact, the Irish lost their last four games against BCS-conference foes. For another, as favorable as the schedule seems, Charlie Weis' teams have shown a penchant for losing at least one game they have no business losing (Navy in 2007 and Syracuse last year). It wouldn't take much for a presumed 9-3 season to turn into 8-4 or 7-5.

But then something changed for me. I was watching one of Weis' post-practice press conferences this week, and the coach's demeanor was completely different than anything I'd seen before. He looked ... relaxed. The days of "I have three Super Bowl rings and I'm smarter than you, so deal with it" seemed a distant memory. But so, too, did that sad, resigned demeanor Weis displayed the past couple seasons when trying to convince the masses "everything's still under control" while his team routinely stunk up the joint.

The Weis I saw the other day seemed cool, but not cocky. He seemed like a guy who, probably for the first time in three years, knows what to expect from his team. I think he feels his defense, already fairly decent last year, rests in good hands with former Georgia Tech whiz Jon Tenuta taking over the play-calling. He surely feels his offense rests in good hands now that he himself is back in his comfort zone calling offensive plays. His offensive line, such a sore spot two years ago, now consists of five seniors. And his star quarterback should finally be dependable.

Still, it's doubtful Notre Dame's offense will be the well-oiled machine it was in 2005 and '06 or that it's defense will be nationally elite, which is why the Irish's sudden inclusion in the top 25 remains a bit of a leap of faith. I don't believe it's justified just yet. But as I look at that schedule, I don't see too many teams that are going to hound the Irish with their defense. Nor do I see a bunch of high-octane offenses. (Opening-week foe Nevada is the one notable exception, but because that's the first game, Tenuta will be well prepared.)

I see as many as 11 winnable games. While that's never going to happen (assuming Michigan is improved, I could see the Wolverines upsetting the Irish in Week 2), it still seems likely the Irish will make it to 9-3. Whether that will merit rising into the top 14 is another story.

I believe an experienced offensive line is an important factor in a successful season. Are there any Top 25 teams with lots of talent at the skill positions, but playing with an inexperienced or suspect offensive line? Do you think these teams will not live up to their preseason rankings because of this potential weakness?-- John, Chicago

I couldn't agree more. Besides quarterback, there is not a more important position on a football team than offensive line, and too often voters get so seduced by a team's glamour players that they overlook serious questions on the line. Having a pair of stud receivers won't do you much good if the quarterback doesn't have time to throw the ball. Ask Clemson last year. And losing an elite left tackle can be downright crippling. Ask Alabama.

There are three teams in the preseason top 15 that could potentially fall into this category: Oklahoma, Penn State and Oregon. The Sooners lost four veteran O-linemen that made a combined 151 career starts. Even with quarterback Sam Bradford returning, Oklahoma's offense won't be nearly as powerful as last season, though I'm not too concerned because they don't need 60 points every week to win.

However, I was quite surprised to see Penn State check in at No. 8 in the coaches poll. Yes, quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster are back, but Penn State lost three All-Big Ten offensive linemen, not to mention all their most important receivers. I find it highly unlikely the Spread HD will have as sharp a resolution this year. The Ducks are in a similar situation. They return a dynamic quarterback (Jeremiah Masoli) and a dangerous running back (LeGarrette Blount), but their offense loses its two most important cogs, All-America center Max Unger and left tackle Fenuki Tupou. And the Ducks don't have the same caliber defense as Oklahoma or Penn State to lean on if the offense sputters early.

One should also look at O-lines when identifying potential surprise teams flying under the radar. Even without longtime starting quarterback Mike Teel, Rutgers is my pick to win the watered-down Big East due in large part to its five returning starters on the line. While Northwestern lacks veteran tailbacks and receivers, it's in fine shape to duplicate last year's nine-win season due to the quality of its offensive and defensive lines (and secondary, another overlooked position). And while star sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson gets the pub for N.C. State, the four seniors blocking for him make the Wolfpack an ACC contender.

Are you sure Robert Griffin is faster than Terrelle Pryor? Griffin is said to run a 4.4 40 time while Pryor, despite being taller and heavier, runs a 4.3 40 time.-- Sean, Columbus, Ohio

Um, did you see that Pryor ran a 4.33 at camp? Fastest time on the OSU roster. Still think Griffin is faster?-- Rob, Denver

You've got to love Ohio State fans. A reader asks me which quarterback would rather have over the next three years, Pryor or Griffin. I choose Pryor, even go against all tangible evidence to date and declare him the better passer -- only to get flooded with angry e-mails for daring to suggest someone is faster than him.

First thing's first: I'm fully aware Pryor is fast. Very, very fast. However, my immediate response upon receiving all of these e-mails was to wonder for the umpteenth time why fans continue to get duped into believing 40 times are some sort of gospel. I was even going to use this week's Mailbag as a pulpit to expose the many myths behind this archaic football ritual -- but then Matt Hinton, author of the extremely insightful blog Dr. Saturday, beat me to it.

As Matt points out, former West Virginia star Pat White -- who I think we can all agree was ridiculously fast -- ran a 4.55 at the NFL combine last winter. Do you really believe Pryor -- or any other quarterback for that matter -- could be that much faster than White? I'm not saying someone made up Pryor's 40 time; it's just that most 40 times are about as reliable as a $2,000 used car.

Why do football people continue to swear by this measuring stick, anyway? Legend has it Paul Brown instituted the test because 40 yards was about as far as a player might run on any given play. OK. But how many times during the course of a football game does a player run 40 yards in a straight line? Seriously. The only tests of speed to which I lend credence are sanctioned track-and-field competitions. The fact that Griffin reached the semifinals of an event at the U.S. Olympic trials tells me he's probably the fastest human being currently playing quarterback for a college football team.

Stewart, one of your recurring themes (you know, along with cyclical conference strength and Mailbag Crushes) has been parity. Given your colleague Andy Staples' excellent piece on how the recession is impacting college sports, and particularly the non-powerhouse schools, what does this mean for the future of parity? Will the recession lead to an un-evening of the playing field as the traditional powers continue to have money to spend on coaches, facilities and recruiting/scholarships while the little guys just try to stay afloat?-- Adam Martin, Ann Arbor, Mich.

I know that's been a popular theory of late, particularly in light of the Big Ten and SEC's TV mega-deals, but I'm not buying it. For one thing, the recession is temporary. At some point it will pass. The cutbacks you're seeing at many athletic departments will eventually fade. But more importantly than that, I've yet to see any hard evidence that suggests more money guarantees more victories. If it did, Notre Dame and Michigan would never go 3-9, Texas and Oklahoma would never go through entire decades of mediocrity and the Oklahoma State Fighting Pickens would play in the national championship game every year.

Obviously, the Ohio States and Floridas of the world enjoy a level of financial luxury that allows them to invest heavily in their programs, but money is not the driving factor behind their current success. Ohio State's tremendous history and name recognition carry far more sway over recruits than the size of its weight room. Florida sits at the center of a recruiting goldmine. Meanwhile, programs like Boise State and Utah hold a fraction of the resources Oklahoma and Alabama do, yet have beaten them on the field. The fact they can even compete at that level is a direct result of the issues I always bring up -- scholarship reductions, the growth of high-school talent and increased TV exposure.

The impact of the recession will be felt far more directly across non-revenue sports. The tennis and gymnastics programs at SEC schools figure to only grow stronger as their athletic departments start investing the influx of TV money. Unfortunately, on the other end of that, cash-strapped schools currently looking to slash budgets are probably going to chip away at the less visible sports before they do anything to impinge on football. In some extreme cases, they will inevitably cut entire teams.

FYI, the cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is going to do live shows next month in New York, L.A., Philly, Seattle and San Fran. So it looks like the lovely and talented Kaitlin Olson is coming to a town near you!-- David, New York

Indeed, it appears the Nightman Cometh. I look forward to seeing Kaitlin perform her hilarious solo from last year's season finale. I also look forward to the new season, which begins Sept. 17.

Between Always Sunny, the long-awaited return of Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, 30 Rock and the most popular show in the SI.com newsroom -- Gossip Girl -- the DVR is going to be working overtime this fall. It's almost a blessing Lost doesn't return until January. If it came back any sooner, I'd probably have to take another sabbatical.

LSU plays all five teams to which it lost in 2008. Is [new defensive coordinator] John Chavis really going to flip three or more of those?-- @joeysparks (via Twitter)

It's asking a lot, particularly since three of those losses last year came at home against a trio of very good teams (Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss) the Tigers must play on the road this year. They also get Florida at home. It's possible LSU could be much improved, but not improve its record all that dramatically.

But I'm a bit more optimistic about the Tigers' prospects. Les Miles is a very good coach (despite what a strange faction of continued skeptics would have you believe), but he either underestimated the impact of losing defensive coordinator Bo Pelini or failed to land a suitable replacement before promoting Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto to be co-coordinators. Whatever the case, LSU wound up fielding its worst defense in a decade. Miles corrected things in a big way by bringing in Chavis, who produced top-flight defenses at Tennessee on a near-annual basis.

Of course, defense was not LSU's only problem. The void left at quarterback following Ryan Perrilloux's dismissal proved even more ghastly than Tigers fans imagined. I hate to pile on poor Jarrett Lee, but there's no denying the redshirt freshman's penchant for pick-sixes played a big part in several of those losses, most notably the overtime game against Alabama. Having a reliable guy like Jordan Jefferson back there this season will play as big a role as Chavis' addition.

The fact is, there's too much talent on that roster for LSU to suffer another four- or five-loss season. I'm guessing both the offense and defense will be more productive this season.

Excellent piece on the '84 BYU national championship ... watched it all unfold. But unfortunately, it will never happen again. Only a playoff would allow it.-- Mike, Yorba Linda, Calif.

Per your article: "With the way the [BCS] system is now, there's no question we wouldn't have been No. 1," said BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco ... THANK GOD!!! BYU beat a very mediocre Michigan team and they were AWARDED the national championship merely because they won all their games against a substandard schedule. It was a fluke and a sham and, despite my dislike for the current BCS system, if it keeps another 1984 from happening, then God bless it!-- Michael Paul, Indialantic, Fla.

Why do so many people claim BYU's SOS in 1984 was too weak for national title consideration and then in the next sentence say Washington deserved the championship? These were the Huskies' regular-season opponents: Northwestern (2-9), Michigan (6-6), Houston (7-5), Oregon State (2-9), Stanford (5-6), Oregon (6-5), Arizona (7-4), Cal (2-9), USC (9-3) -- LOST -- and Washington State (6-5).

Washington's schedule was at best only marginally better than BYU's, and the Huskies lost to the only respectable team they played. The only difference is they got to prove their mettle against Oklahoma in a bowl game while multiple teams [including Washington] turned down offers to play BYU in the Holiday Bowl.-- Eric, Pleasanton, Calif.

I picked these e-mails (and there were many more like them) to point out one thing: This is exactly why there's no playoff in college football. In what other sport would people still be arguing so passionately about an event that took place 25 years ago?

Nobody wants to admit it, but as much as people complain about the controversy, deep down they enjoy it. I read that in a book.

My fellow UGA friends say they hate you and hate your writing (but still read your column). I like your writing and am constantly defending you and most of your viewpoints. Anything I can tell them so they can finally give you (and me) a break?-- HAWK, Atlanta

Yes. Tell them: "We can no longer be friends."

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