By Stewart Mandel
April 28, 2010

Last year, the Mailbag made a later-than-usual July 1 debut. This year, we're ramping things up by a couple of months to catch the end of spring football -- and, to be perfectly honest, because we need any "edge" we can get.

This begins the eighth -- eighth! -- season of my Mailbag, and just like any good, paranoid football coach, I'm pounding my head against the wall looking for any possible wrinkle or redesign to keep things fresh. Because let's face it: In Internet years, the Mailbag (which debuted in the spring of 2003) is a dinosaur. It predates Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and 95 percent of the blogosphere, all of which have made the basic concept of this column -- you submitting questions and me answering them several days later -- only slightly less antiquated than letters to the editor. If you've been listening to the Mandel Initiative, my loosely football-related, primarily Lost-obsessed podcast, you know I incorporate audience tweets sent mere hours before we record each episode. My guess is right now, someone, somewhere is developing an iPhone app that will allow you to ask a college football question and receive an automated opinion within 37 seconds.

I'm open to suggestions. In the meantime, I'm counting on the fact that a significant portion of the reading audience still enjoys reading prose longer than 140 characters and can live without telling the world how ****OUTRAGED*** it is over my PATHETIC (!!!) EXCUSE FOR JOURNALISM in some comments section. (Unless, of course, I cut and paste it here.)

A few other housecleaning items before we begin:

1) As always, the more concise and original your question, the better its chance of getting published. Please save your 800-word BCS diatribes for the aforementioned comment boards (or, better yet, e-mail them to Bill Hancock).

2) Try to avoid the generic "How will my team do this year?" question. There are more creative ways to ask pretty much the same thing.

3) All right ... here it goes. Brace for the backlash. The Mailbag Crush is officially retired.

Many of you will question whether this is a consequence of my forthcoming change in marital status, and the answer is: absolutely not. Emily loved the Crush. I'm just over it. Besides, there's no point going through the motions of soliciting nominations and doing the big reveal seeing as Zoe Saldana has basically rendered every other female celebrity moot.

Bless you, Zoe.

Shall we proceed with the football?

Stew: Love my Tide, but don't see how they can repeat. Two frosh kickers and a CRAZY schedule that has them playing SIX teams that have an off-week before playing 'Bama (cue the conspiracy music). If Saban pulls this off, he moves into Bear Bryant territory. Thoughts?--Ken Young, Montgomery, Ala.

The Tide have some questions, no doubt. But let me fire a question right back at you: Who in the SEC is going to beat them?

Last year we saw the World's Mightiest Conference That Won't Allow You To Argue Otherwise produce two tremendous teams (Florida and Alabama), one talented-but-flawed team (LSU) and a whole bunch of mediocre 7-5 teams. And that was before losing a league-record 49 NFL draftees last week. (No other conference produced more than 34.) This fall, the league will break in at least six new starting quarterbacks -- and the returnees include Jordan Jefferson and Stephen Garcia.

What I'm saying is, Alabama could regress a couple steps from last season and still cruise through what should be a down SEC. I wouldn't discount Florida, which is still plenty talented and which the Tide may have to beat twice this year, but the Gators have significant holes to fill on both sides of the ball. 'Bama, on the other hand, is absolutely loaded on offense thanks to the return of both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in the backfield and Greg McElroy, Julio Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks in the passing game.

There is definitely a lot of blind faith in regard to Saban's ability to reload on defense. 'Bama lost a ton of veteran standouts, and while some of the replacements (most notably linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Marcell Dareus) are hardly rookies, I'd be stunned if the Tide defense doesn't lose a step. Guys like Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas don't grow on trees, so 'Bama will be susceptible to an early-season upset against a good offensive team (that Sept. 25 game at Arkansas stands out).

But as we've seen, most years, if you can make it through the SEC with just one loss, you're probably going to play for the national championship.

What scenario would be more shocking in 2010: Lane Kiffin taking USC to 14-0 with a BCS title, or sliding into a mediocre sub-.500 season and missing a bowl? (Love the podcasts, BTW.)-- Joe, Los Angeles

Thanks, Joe. I would be surprised if USC finishes below .500. I would be Northern Iowa-over-Kansas shocked if the Trojans went 14-0. But the reality is probably somewhere in between.

Several developments this spring have affirmed there was nothing fluky about the Trojans' slippage in Pete Carroll's last season. Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley and rookie offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates were popular scapegoats, but let's not forget a couple teams absolutely abused USC's defense. As evidenced by last week's draft, which saw guys like Taylor Mays, Joe McKnight and Everson Griffen go much lower than their rep in college would have suggested, the Trojans' talent level has finally dropped a bit. Kiffin has insinuated as much this spring, telling the Los Angeles Times that linebacker Devon Kennard "looks like an NFL player right now, one of the few of our guys that look like we used to look when we were here."

The Trojans have a few incoming freshmen who could help right away, most notably running back Dillon Baxter, whose Reggie Bush-caliber run in an early scrimmage quickly became a YouTube sensation. But remember, even Bush didn't start truly making an impact until his sophomore year. The Pac-10 is going to be ridiculously competitive this year, and it's hard for me to envision USC improving much, if any, on last year's 9-4 campaign. Kiffin will need at least a year to right the ship, a task that might be made harder depending on the severity of forthcoming (any month now, guys) NCAA sanctions.

Why on earth, after losing arguably the best defensive player of the past decade (Ndamukong Suh), would head coach Bo Pelini say his Nebraska defense will be "five times" better this year?-- Shane Johnston, Raleigh, N.C.

I'd say partially because Bo's a little nutty like that, but mostly because he holds his defenses to near-impossible standards. While most of us remember Suh and Co. teeing off on Colt McCoy in the Big 12 title game, blanking Arizona in the Holiday Bowl and generally playing at a national-championship level most of the season, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Pelini spent much of the winter seething about the Blackshirts' last-minute collapse at Virginia Tech or their one notable debacle against Texas Tech.

But he's not completely crazy. On paper, Nebraska's defense should be as good or better than last season's. (It won't be five times better, because that would require allowing 54 yards per game). As dominant as Suh was, Jared Crick was an All-America-caliber performer on the defensive line as well, and Pierre Allen wasn't far off. They both return. Four solid cornerbacks return, as well as safety Eric Hagg.

But the biggest reason there's such lofty expectations for this defense is that so many of the returning players were largely unsung when Pelini arrived. Not only has he developed them, but his most talented recruits are only now breaking into the lineup or the depth chart. In other words, he knows his defense is only getting better, which is truly scary considering the way it played last season.

Now if he could just find an offense...

If Steve Sarkisian had any honor, he would have made Jake Locker go pro. Locker's idiotic decision cost him around $40 million that he will never get back. Between now and next year's draft, there is a high likelihood the NFL and the NFLPA will agree on a rookie wage scale that will give Locker a fraction of what he would have gotten this year. To turn down that kind of money for a year of college is an insult to the millions of Americans who work hard for every dollar they receive.-- Kevin Frankel, Malibu, Calif.

So you're saying that even if a kid really loves college and wants to spend the extra year there to which he's entitled, he should be forced to enter the workforce if he has a plush job offer on the table? That seems like an insult to anyone who's ever gone to college.

Right now, SI says the only thing holding the Mountain West back from a BCS auto bid in 2012 is its teams' average BCS ranking (58.61). In 2004, the Big East was allowed to count incoming member Louisville's numbers to keep its status. While expansion is mostly about long-term factors, doesn't the MWC have to take a look at helping its numbers if it is going to get into the BCS? My numbers say adding Boise would lower the average to about 54. Adding Boise, Fresno and Houston would lower it to about 50 (tied with the Big Ten for the sixth spot!).-- Greg Welch, Des Moines, Iowa

That would certainly be an interesting strategy; however I noticed an interesting footnote in the qualifying guidelines the BCS sent out last week. You'll find it at the very bottom of this page. It says the conferences will be evaluated based on their membership as of Dec. 4, 2011. In other words, no league will be able to do what the Big East did and count a team or teams for 2012 that haven't actually played in the league yet. To pull off such a move, the Mountain West would have to have its new lineup in place by the start of the 2011 season -- 16 months from now. The only way that's going to happen is if the invites are sent out and accepted within the next couple of months.

My guess is the Mountain West has long since studied such a move (the commissioners were aware of this formula well before last week's public unveiling), and would have made a move already if it felt doing so would have worked. The league has actually shown surprisingly little interest in adding Boise State, which tells me that adding the Broncos might hurt as much as help the league. While it'd be adding another highly ranked team, that team would now be playing Utah, BYU and TCU. Somebody's going to lose, which means someone's going to fall or even drop out of the rankings. The pollsters aren't going to be as forgiving of three-loss Utah as they would three-loss Georgia.

Where is the NCAA on this conference realignment? Does the NCAA have any power to influence what teams go where?-- Randy Starkey, Buckhannon W.Va.

No, it does not. As proof, I refer you to this recent Omaha World Heraldinterview with Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman -- a bigwig both with the BCS (chairman of the presidential oversight committee) AND the NCAA (soon-to-be chairman of the Division I board of directors) -- who said: "Conferences are independent units. The Big Ten doesn't have to come to the NCAA to get permission to do what it wants to do. The NCAA regulates around the margins."

That last sentence pretty much sums it up in a nutshell. The NCAA is basically just a big regulatory agency that the schools rely on to manage all the mundane little details involved in staging college athletics -- academic eligibility requirements, practice limits, recruiting regulations, etc. -- but when it comes to big-picture issues like the BCS, conference realignment, athletic department spending -- the schools are pretty much free to do as they please. It pays to have a regulatory body comprised of the very parties it's regulating.

At Miami, Randy Shannon is in the final year of his contract. How much are questions about his long-term future impacting recruiting? Also, what show are you planning on latching onto once Lost ends?-- Shaun E., New York

Great questions, both.

If you were to ask Shannon, he'd tell you that yes, the lack of an extension (which the two sides both insist is imminent) has given ammo to his rival recruiters. "I was getting murdered last year," he told the Palm Beach Post. But it seems to me that if a player truly wants to play for The U and believes in Shannon, he's going to sign with the school regardless. The fact that the 'Canes noticeably struggled in recruiting last season -- especially in their own backyard -- tells me the problem is more an indictment of Shannon than his contract status.

While Miami has improved each of Shannon's three years there, it's still nowhere near its glory days of yesteryear. Shannon has churned through a slew of coordinators and assistants (including former recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt, who left for Louisville prior to Signing Day) during his tenure. And the school is quite clearly hedging its bets on him, as reports indicate one of the sticking points in contract negotiations has been the potential amount of a buyout. (Not to mention Miami is offering a very modest $1.4 million salary.)

As for post-Lost plans, my guess is it will take some time to recover before I'm capable of investing myself intellectually or emotionally in another show as much as I have with Lost. I look forward to the summer return of Mad Men (and Jersey Shore!), but it doesn't merit a weekly roundtable recap. That's the bigger question: What becomes of the Mandel Initiative? Do we continue it post-Lost? If so, do we transform it into an all-football show (not my preference -- I write plenty about football already) or latch on to another piece of pop culture? As with the Mailbag, I'm open to suggestions.

Which rule change/development will have the most impact during the 2010 season -- the new taunting-may-take-away-a-TD rule; the ban on wedge blocking during kickoffs; the introduction of HD replay monitors in most stadiums; or the doing away with the requirement that bowls have to pick seven-plus win teams over six-win teams?-- Raman, Elkins, W. Va.

The taunting rule does not take effect until 2011, but once it does, that could definitely have the most impact if officials really do enforce it as strictly as has been indicated. Can you imagine the first time someone gets a touchdown taken off the board for, say, high-stepping into the end zone, his team fumbles on the next play, then loses the game? The outcry is going to be insane.

The other changes aren't that big of a deal. Teams will find new ways to return kickoffs. Replay officials will still blow calls. And as my colleague Andy Staples likes to say of the low-end bowl games: "If you put a football game on television, people will watch it."

What in the world are we supposed to do for the next four months? I see the World Cup as the only oasis in the long, long desert.-- James Doker, Gainesville, Fla.

I suppose you could watch the NBA Playoffs, but it'd be a lot more efficient to just record every game and fast forward to the last two minutes. I suppose you could watch baseball, but if you're like my podcast co-host and loyal Baltimore Orioles fan Mallory Rubin, your team's season may already be over.

But I wouldn't worry too much. I have a feeling it's going to be a very eventful summer in college athletics. I'm not buying into Jim Delany's "timetables" and "evaluations." Something tells me we're going to have plenty to talk about.

Let the 'Bag begin.

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