By Stewart Mandel
September 07, 2004

There are times when a sportswriter's job description falls into the realm of travel agent -- booking flights and hotels to cover games, then frantically figuring out a way to change everything when some unforeseen event causes everything to go haywire.

The difference is, the travel agent doesn't actually have to take that 6 a.m. flight to Buffalo he just booked. In fact, the often-exhausting burdens of extensive travel (like the ones's Peter King dutifully details every week) can cause you to forget pretty quickly that at the end of the day, you still have a pretty darn cool job.

I was reminded of this all too well last week when the Florida State-Miami game was rescheduled to Friday, thus throwing into chaos two itineraries -- that one as well as a previously planned trip to Michigan-Notre Dame the following day. Speaking to a friend outside the business, I mentioned how, logistically, it would still be possible to cover both games -- but I probably wasn't going to do it because the travel involved would be too taxing.

"Are you crazy?" he replied. "When will you ever get the chance again to see two of the top rivalries in the country back-to-back?"

He was right. And so, it's on.

Here's the plan: Cover the FSU-Miami game Friday night, meaning I probably won't get back to my room any earlier than 2 a.m., probably later. Wake up at 6 a.m. to get to the airport for a flight that gets into O'Hare at 10:08 Chicago time. Rent a car and make the two-hour drive (not including traffic) to South Bend, Ind. Cover the Wolverines-Irish game, then drive back to Chicago (because you have to sell a kidney to afford a hotel room in South Bend on game weekends) that night, presumably to pass out.

Hopefully the Miami weather (can you believe there's another hurricane on the way?) and South Bend traffic will cooperate. I'd be curious to hear from any Chicago Domers who make the same trip regularly what they think my chances are of making it by kickoff.

So what's going on with Lloyd Carr and Michigan's QB situation? Do you really think that he will go the entire season with true freshman Chad Henne at QB rather than sophomore Matt Gutierrez? I really don't want to see another Tom Brady vs. Drew Henson situation again. --Al, Detroit

Of all the potential quarterback controversies I've witnessed over the years, this one's definitely unique. I would expect Carr to give Gutierrez his chance as soon as he's healthy -- after all, he earned the job to begin with, and while Henne was decent, it's not like he was too good to sit. If Gutierrez goes out there and excels, the situation will resolve itself, at least in the short term. In the long term, though, not only are you dealing with a potential Brady/Henson situation, but you could be dealing with it for three years. That's simply unimaginable. Either that or Henne will get the job back after Gutierrez struggles, and we'll never hear from the guy again.

By the way, you've got to feel for the Gutierrez family. On the same day Matt would have made his first collegiate start, his old team, Concord De La Salle, for whom his brother Anthony is a co-captain, had its 151-game winning streak snapped -- by a team (Bellevue, Wash.) wearing Michigan-style helmets.

After watching Penn State decisively beat Akron, is it too soon for us to get our hopes up for a bowl game this season? --Jen Lemanski, Fort Collins, Colo.

Ooh, it's a lady. It's occurred to me lately that, at least in terms of e-mailers, my female readership has dipped from about 10 percent last year to almost zilch. Think it has anything to do with all those gratuitous pictures and interviews with celebrity women? To answer your question, Jen, it's too early to say just how much the Nittany Lions have improved, but if season openers are any indication, consider that in a year's time they doubled their victory margin (from 23-10 against Temple to 48-10 against Akron). The offense looked light years more competent than last season, but let's see how Zack Mills fares against a defense that can actually produce some pressure.

Why no coverage of the dominating Texas win? The Longhorns dominated a conference winner and bowl team (the Sun Belt's North Texas) in every aspect of the game. They were more impressive than any other team in college football on Saturday. The starters only played one half and Texas still won 65-0. If I were a journalist, I would jump all over this story. --Branden J. Oswalt, Austin, Texas

Branden: Imagine for a second you've found what seems on paper to be the perfect car -- sleek design, handles great, gets excellent gas mileage -- only to have it conk out on you halfway through your lease. When you go out to buy your next car, the dealer manages to convince you to buy the exact same car -- don't worry, they've ironed out the glitches, this one's even better than last year's -- and sure enough, the same thing happens again. And again. And again. By the fifth time, don't you think you'd be a little gun-shy about buying another one?

Was it fair of the AP poll to drop LSU two spots after a victory (albeit a close one), and move up two teams (Miami and Florida State) that haven't even played yet? --Kyle, Lacassine, La.

I don't have any problem with voters dropping LSU (I did in my Power Rankings), seeing as it was apparent to anyone watching the game that the Tigers have some serious issues. However, I do find it a tad strange they got passed up by two teams that didn't play. The voters are basically saying the 'Canes and 'Noles did more to impress them sitting on their couches than the Tigers did in pulling out an overtime victory against a major-conference opponent.

That wasn't the strangest development in the poll, though. Clemson dropped five spots simply by going to overtime against Wake Forest, and Purdue had perhaps the most damaging 51-0 victory in football history, dropping from 24th to 25th.

Do you think that N.C. State is a sleeper this year? Looks like the Wolfpack have two good quarterbacks, a solid offensive line, a stable of running backs that may put Hot Tub McLendon's job in jeopardy, several good receivers and the defense is decent (versus pathetic last year). I am predicting an upset of Ohio State. How about you? --Grant B. Kenion, Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

I'm not predicting anything yet, but that game does have excellent upset potential. The Wolfpack nearly knocked off the Buckeyes in Columbus last year, and I have a feeling this N.C. State team is better. Whenever a team loses a quarterback as successful as Philip Rivers -- especially at a program that's not tradition-rich -- the tendency is to dismiss them out of hand, but the fact is N.C. State is more talented overall this season than it has been in the past. The problem is that schedule -- Ohio State, Miami, Florida State, at Virginia Tech, at Maryland and at Clemson. The Wolfpack may be better yet not improve on their 2003 record.

Why is Barry Alvarez given so much respect? I want a Wisconsin team that is at least in the hunt for a national championship. After all, the Badgers' basketball team did recently make it to the Final Four. -- Michael Forcier, Eau Claire, Wis.

Michael, Michael, Michael. Please tell me you're either eight years old, or were in a car accident sometime in the past four years and are suffering from amnesia. I realize the Badgers haven't been up to par the past few seasons, but the only reason you're even able to utter Wisconsin and national championship in the same sentence without being laughed at is Alvarez. It's no stretch to say that before him, Wisconsin was to the Big Ten what Indiana is now. Since 1993, he's taken the Badgers to three Rose Bowls -- more than Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State during that time. Now that the foundation has been laid, there's nothing wrong with wanting to reach the next level. But Alvarez is still given respect for the same reason Tom Hanks is excused for his last couple of stinkers -- there's a track record of success.

Do you think the state-university system in California prevents Cal and UCLA from going after big-time coaches due to salary limits? As a UCLA alum, I feel we settled on Karl Dorrell because we could not pony up a Nick Saban-type contract for someone else. Your thoughts? --John Moody, New York

There's some definite truth to that -- UCLA is paying Dorrell less than half (about $600,000) than its rival USC, a private school under no such restrictions, is paying Pete Carroll. Coincidentally, the Bruins got exactly half as many wins last year.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. For one, there's nothing stopping boosters from anteing up to help boost the coach's income, which is exactly how the Bruins lured basketball coach Ben Howland from Pittsburgh. Apparently UCLA boosters don't have quite the same zeal for their football program. Also, there's nothing to say you can't find a good football coach for $600,000. In fact, Cal reportedly paid the same amount for Jeff Tedford (his deal has since been renegotiated), who had a substantially longer track record than Dorrell and who seems to be working out rather nicely. Rather than blaming the system, I'd pin the blame on AD Dan Guerro, who took a gigantic leap of faith when he hired the inexperienced Dorrell and either lacked the vision to find a more qualified mid-level candidate, or was trying too hard to make a splash.

How could you be so wrong with your surprise upset pick of Vanderbilt over South Carolina? Is this the type of prognostication we can expect from you this season? Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you get paid to make these predictions? If I was this bad at my job, I'd be in a bread line. --Dave, Omaha, Neb.

No, the last time I checked I got paid to write articles. You must have me confused with either A) a psychic, B) a stockbroker, C) a weatherman or D) someone who runs a 1-900 gamblers' hotline. That said, cut me a little slack, man. Of the three upsets I picked last week -- Vandy, Rutgers and Fresno State -- two came true. With those kind of percentages, I'm probably doing better than most A), B) and C)s, and if I were doing better than D ... well, I wouldn't need this job, now would I?

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