By Stewart Mandel
August 26, 2009

Roughly 20 months ago, West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez was nearly universally regarded as a "hot" coach. But between a disastrous 3-9 debut at Michigan and a slew of controversial headlines involving his ugly departure from West Virginia, critical comments from players who left the program and an ugly story recently about a player found to be dealing cocaine, Rodriguez hasn't done a whole lot to inspire confidence -- even among his team's own fans.

Rich Rodriguez is asking for patience and is speaking about playing multiple quarterbacks. Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel all won national championships in their second seasons at their respective schools. Isn't Rodriguez just trying to spin 2008's disaster by saying his system is so complicated that it will take time? What if it just can't work?-- Jonathan, Grand Blanc, Mich.

I am a born Michigan fan. I think dad sang The Victors to me in the womb. But I am hard-pressed to see anything but a 3-9 season this year. Michigan is young, thin at the skill positions, kind of slow and not that talented. How does SI pick it to go 7-5?-- Mark May (not that Mark May), Los Angeles

I assume the "system" Jonathan refers to is Rodriguez's spread-option offense. Not only is it infinitely less complicated than most pro-style schemes, it seems to be working pretty well for Florida and Oregon, whose coaches (Meyer and Chip Kelly) both employ the same shotgun-run principles Rodriguez first popularized as Clemson's offensive coordinator nearly a decade ago.

It's not the system that's the problem -- it's the players. The three national championship coaches Jonathan mentioned all followed renowned recruiters (John Blake at Oklahoma, Ron Zook at Florida, John Cooper at Ohio State) who handed over a core of young talent in need of proper grooming. Lloyd Carr didn't necessarily leave Rodriguez with an empty cupboard, but there's no question Michigan's recruiting fell off in his last couple of years (due in large part to lingering uncertainty over the coach's own future). In 2004 and '05, pegged the Wolverines' classes fifth and sixth, respectively. In '06 and '07, the classes fell out of the top 10, a fact made worse considering about a third of the players in those classes -- most notably quarterback Ryan Mallett and offensive lineman Justin Boren -- are no longer in the program.

Meanwhile, Michigan produced just two NFL draft picks last spring (fourth-rounder Terrance Taylor and sixth-rounder Morgan Trent), its lowest number since 1994, and next year's class might not be much better (though defensive end Brandon Graham should at least be a high pick).

I watched excerpts from Rodriguez's Media Day press conference last Sunday, and his team's youth caused him to express restraint on several occasions. He made a point of reminding the reporters his freshmen -- a whole bunch of which Michigan will be relying on this fall -- are "still freshmen," and lamented having just two senior starters on defense.

So why would anyone predict the Wolverines will improve by four wins this fall? Simple: confidence in Rodriguez. For one thing, big second-year improvements have occurred everywhere he's been before (Tulane went from 7-4 to 12-0, Clemson from 6-6 to 9-3, West Virginia from 3-8 to 9-4). And because Rodriguez's offense is fairly simple -- long story short: create mismatches in open space -- it's easier for a true freshman quarterback like Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson (who plays with untied shoelaces?) to step in and run it. It also makes it more plausible freshman skill players like standout running back Vincent Smith can make an immediate impact.

(Incidentally, I don't buy Rodriguez's "three quarterbacks" statement. Maybe all three will play in the opener if Michigan builds a lead, but it will likely be the two freshmen from there, with one eventually taking the reins.)

Obviously, Michigan needs at least one more solid recruiting class to return to its customary talent level, but breaking .500 seems like a reasonable goal for this year. A year ago this time, SI predicted the Wolverines to go 5-7, causing my in-box to fill with angry missives from Maize and Blue faithful unaccustomed to such pessimistic forecasts. A year later, apparently we're being too optimistic.

But let's be honest: preseason football predictions are largely a crapshoot. If you hit better than 50-50, you're doing all right.

When it comes to Celebrity Crushes, however, few can dispute the Mailbag has gone 3-for-3 in identifying sweet and beautiful under-the-radar starlets. Will the streak continue?

Oh, yes.

Dude, I know an astute comedy man such as yourself has not let a show like Eastbound and Down pass you by. How is Katy Mixon not the hands-down Mailbag Crush for 2009? She is gorgeous and funny and very under the radar.-- B.J. Etchison, Mansfield, Texas

That, and she's a diehard college football fan to boot.

Folks, meet your 2009 Mailbag Celebrity Crush, Katy Mixon, who plays April Buchanon on HBO's hilariously off-color sitcom Eastbound and Down. The show, which has developed quite the cult following despite a brief six-episode run last winter (it still ranks among the top 15 downloaded shows on iTunes), centers around the clownishly foul-mouthed, self-serving Kenny Powers, a washed-up big league pitcher (think John Rocker, only hysterical) who returns to his hometown of Shelby, N.C., and becomes a middle-school gym teacher. There, he begins shamelessly wooing his old high school sweetheart, April, who's now engaged to the school principal.

While Danny McBride (Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder) is the undisputed star of the show (with help from co-producer and guest star Will Ferrell), one can't help but develop a soft spot for the irrepressibly sweet Katy. As it turns out, the 27-year-old actress (who you may also recognize as Vince Vaughn's very pregnant sister-in-law from the movie Four Christmases) is a true Southern sweetheart, a Pensacola, Fla., native who addresses people as "honey" or "sweetie." And like any good Southerner, she knows her college football.

Check that: She really knows her college football.

Stewart: So Katy, thanks for agreeing to be this year's Crush.

Katy: Oh, sweetie, are you kidding me? It's a pleasure. I love college football.

Stewart: Are you a Florida fan?

Katy: No, honey, I'm a massive LSU fan. My grandfather, Neil Mixon, played running back for LSU. My dad, Fred Mixon, played defensive back for LSU. Everyone else back home is for the Gators or FSU, but I'm a Tiger.

Stewart: So you still follow LSU?

Katy: Oh my god, yes. I come from a big family -- six boys, one girl. All the siblings in Birmingham and Florida get to go to a lot of games. I'm trying to hit one this year, but it's tough [she lives in Los Angeles]. We're really excited because we have John Chavis, the defensive coordinator from Tennessee, coming in.

Stewart: Hold on ... you know who John Chavis is? You really are serious.

Katy: It's something, isn't it? I know we're 11th in the Associated Press poll, ninth in the coaches. Les Miles is awesome. He's really, really great. We had a rough year last year, but that's because we lost 12 [starting] seniors. I really think with the new defensive coordinator, it will be interesting.

Stewart: Just curious: How do guys in Hollywood usually react when they find out the depth of your football knowledge?

Katy: It's really funny. They crack up. I think they die a little bit. I just love it. I'm a real girlie girl and still into girly stuff, but I'm a massive college football fan.

Stewart: What's a typical game-day like for you?

Katy: Wings, beer -- it's some good times, but nothing like being there. Everyone puts their T-shirts on. It's a big deal in the Mixon family. But [last season], I was filming Eastbound and Down in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Stewart: Can you believe how popular the show became off of just six episodes?

Katy: It's been really amazing to watch. I kind of feel like, through word of mouth, it took off. You know what I'm saying, honey? We go into production for next season in early 2010. I can't wait.

Stewart: I don't want to give away too much about the show for people who haven't seen it yet, but one obvious question: Why do you think April is still drawn to Kenny considering some of the things that come out of his mouth?

Katy: He's a bad boy, and she's in love with him. She finds him charming. She doesn't want to, but that spark is still there.

Stewart: Well, would it be OK if we check back in from time to time for your commentary, perhaps before the [Oct. 10] LSU-Florida game?

Katy: Absolutely. I would adore it. Done and done.

To see more of Katy, download or rent Season 1 of Eastbound and Down, or, as of Sept. 4, head to your nearest movie theater -- she's co-starring in the upcoming Sandra Bullock/Bradley Cooper comedy All About Steve.

But mostly, watch Eastbound and Down. You'll thank me. Just be warned that it's the furthest thing from a family-friendly show (I couldn't even find a PG-13 clip to link to). Katy's predecessor, Kaitlin Olson, would most certainly approve.

Wow, on your ninth-year seniors list, no Jordan Shipley? He's actually been there for six!-- David, Houston

No list of ninth-year seniors is complete without USC DB Josh Pinkard. I think he was in Carroll's first recruiting class.-- Dan, Spokane, Wash.

The Shipley exclusion: inexcusable. I deserve the full Chase Coffman treatment from the Bengals' tight ends coach for that one. And Pinkard definitely merits a spot on the team. In fact, he was the last Trojan to try to tackle Vince Young. (Look for No. 36.)

Why is Alabama in the top five? They were so overmatched by Utah in the Sugar Bowl in every category. Clearly they will only be worse given the losses they suffered. I just don't see them being in everyone's preseason top five. I think you all are scared of Nick Saban.-- Jimmy Vespe, Phoenix

Compared to Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and USC, I'm pretty sure someone would ask "why?" about any team tossed into that fifth spot.

I can't say I remember a year quite like this one, where there's a distinct group of four teams that nearly everyone seems to agree are the best -- and then a steep drop-off in confidence after that. Not a single one of the established preseason publications -- SI, Steele, Athlon, Lindy's, Sporting News -- placed a different team in its top four. Football Outsiders, which this year added a college football section to its highly regarded pro football almanac, was the closest thing to a dissenter, rating Virginia Tech fourth and Oklahoma fifth.PODCAST: Stew breaks down Florida's chances and more

Alabama did wind up as the consensus No. 5 selection, but that says as much about the rest of the field as it does about the Crimson Tide. Consider: Not a single one of the publications listed above actually rated Alabama as high as fifth -- Athlon had the Tide sixth, Lindy's seventh, SI and Steele eighth, Sporting News and Football Outsiders 13th -- yet collectively, the Tide still fared better than any other team. In the AP poll, where Alabama also finished fifth, only 24 of the 59 voters had the Tide that high. This shows just how widely opinions vary right now about any team not named Florida, Texas, Oklahoma or USC.

As for me -- well, I'm no longer a voter. I gleefully handed off my AP ballot to Andy Staples this year (enjoy the e-mails, Andy), but I probably would have voted 'Bama fifth myself. I'm scared of Saban, but I certainly respect him. While the Tide may have stunk it up in New Orleans, prior to that they won 12 straight games and gave Florida everything it could handle in the SEC title game. It's possible the Tide's rebuilt offensive line will slow them down, but there isn't another team out there that doesn't have at least one equally glaring question mark.

So Jimmy, the question isn't "Why is Alabama in the top five?" It's "Who would you put there instead?"

My friend and I were arguing about whether Jake Locker would start for every Pac-10 team, whether at QB or another position. I think every Pac-10 coach would find somewhere to start him. My friend argued the Cougs would try to start him at every position, but USC wouldn't have a spot. Do you agree USC wouldn't have room for him?-- Tyler, Seattle

As of today, I'm fairly certain he'd be the Trojans' starting quarterback.

I'm aware of Ryan Mallett moving from Michigan to Arkansas. Who are some other transfers who will be eligible this season you expect to make an impact?-- Gary Thornton, Crystal Beach, Fla.

Mallett is certainly the headliner. If you believe the hype and the absurd stats coming out of Arkansas' scrimmages, he could be this year's Jevan Snead. And of course, there's the year's most unique transfer, new Syracuse starting QB Greg Paulus.

Others include: Ohio State G Justin Boren (from Michigan), a potential all-conference performer; Georgia Tech running back Anthony Allen, who scored 23 touchdowns in two seasons at Louisville and adds yet another threat to Paul Johnson's triple-option; Illinois receiver Jarred Fayson (from Florida), who should become Juice Williams' second target alongside Arrelious Benn; Arkansas running back Broderick Green (from USC), who brings a physical dimension to Bobby Petrino's backfield; UCLA center Kai Maiva (from Colorado), who brings much-needed help to what was one of the nation's worst O-lines last year; Washington State running back James Montgomery (from Cal), a much-needed playmaker; Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor (from Penn State), a potential standout; and Louisville quarterback Justin Burke (from N.C. State), who won the Cardinals' starting job this week.

Two other high-profile quarterback transfers, Michigan State's Keith Nichol (from Oklahoma) and Arizona's Nick Foles (from Michigan State) are still fighting for starting jobs.

True or false: EVERY college football team is completely new every four years, so why do you media types make such a B.F.D. out of how many returning starters teams have. Do you ever consider the players who come in on the second play or the second series are just as capable?-- Tom Sacco, Des Moines, Iowa

Is too much made of the number of returning-starters? Probably. It's not like there's some specific watermark -- 14? 15? 16? -- that guarantees success, and obviously there are plenty of cases where "new" starters are actually quite experienced. (For example, USC technically returns just three defensive starters this season, but seven other defenders have started at some point in their careers.)

That said, experience/inexperience is generally a pretty reliable indicator of which direction a team is headed -- as Katy mentioned, LSU lost 12 senior starters (including the kicker and punter) from its 2007 national title season, and you saw what happened. The number of returning starters is the most easily decipherable means of assessing a team's experience level.

Phil Steele, who takes this whole prognostication business more seriously than anyone out there, swears by the returning starter stat. According to this tidbit from his Web site (the numbers are a year old): "There were nine teams [in 2007] that had 18 or more returning starters, and seven of the nine improved their record from 2006. ... On the other end of the spectrum there were 33 teams last year that had 12 or fewer returning starters, and of the 33, only eight managed to improve their record."

So you see, that's why we make such a B.F.D. out of it.

With all the hysteria over swine flu, the media seems to have forgotten the REALLY important angle to the story. Will H1N1 cost a top 25 team a victory this year? If so, do you think pollsters will take that into account when casting their ballots?-- Michael, Norman, Okla.

I doubt it, but your question leads to another question: Why do these viruses always seem to affect Duke?

As you may have read, H1N1 took down about half the Blue Devils' roster recently. While other teams, like Tulane, have endured similar scares this preseason, Duke seemed to get hit the hardest.

It brings to mind Duke's infamous 1998 game against Florida State, in which a food virus caused half the players to start vomiting all over themselves during the game. In a case that garnered attention from the New England Journal of Medicine, the Blue Devils' players actually passed the bug to several Seminoles, who themselves started puking. (This didn't stop FSU from winning 62-13.)

What's the deal, health gods? Doesn't Duke football have enough obstacles to deal with? Or is this karmic payback for ... this.

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