Pryor ready to lead Ohio State to national title; more Mailbag

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From the time he burst onto the scene as a nationally decorated recruit, Terrelle Pryor hasn't been able to walk, talk or throw a touchdown pass without eliciting the inevitable Vince Young comparison. It's fitting, therefore, that this week's Pryor-themed Mailbag lead comes to us from ... Texas.

I'm a Buckeyes fan in Texas and I'm tired of hearing how great Texas and Oklahoma will be in 2010. Was Terrelle Pryor's Rose Bowl performance an anomaly, or is he really ready to lead OSU to the national championship game? Basically, can I start talking trash and feel confident that Pryor will back it up?-- Scott, Arlington, Texas

Yes, Pryor's Pasadena performance was an anomaly -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Many dubbed the then-sophomore quarterback's 338-yard day in the Buckeyes' 26-17 victory over Oregon as his "coming out party." For a variety of reasons, Jim Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman chose the bowl game as their opportunity to unleash a Pryor-centric game-plan for the first time since Pryor's midseason debacle at Purdue. The result: career highs in pass attempts (37), completions (23) and passing yards (266). In the two games immediately prior to the Rose Bowl (against Iowa and Michigan), Pryor was limited to just 17 attempts in each.

There were presumably game-specific reasons why Tressel chose to air it out (Oregon's young secondary, the extra prep time, etc.), but what really matters is that after two, often erratic seasons, he sent a signal that he finally had full faith in his quarterback. And with good reason. Pryor's entire demeanor seemed to change after that Purdue game, both on the field and in interviews. Perhaps the loss was the wake-up call he needed. And let's not forget most of Pryor's equally young supporting cast (running backs Brandon Saine and Boom Herron, top receiver DeVier Posey, several offensive linemen) also stepped up over the second half of the season.

But anyone who thinks Pryor is going to attempt 37 passes and 20 rushes every week next season is setting himself up for disappointment. And the Vince Young comparisons? Bury them for good. Pryor is a tremendous athlete, but it's clear by now that OSU's coaches don't intend to turn him into a Young- or Pat White-like runner (nor does he want them to). And with two solid tailbacks plus more coming up the ranks, Pryor isn't going to be asked to zing it every week. All Ohio State needs is for him to keep making smart decisions and not agonize over mistakes (as he's tended to do at times), because the Buckeyes have more than enough pieces on both sides of the ball to make a title run. I believe Pryor can do that, and thus, Ohio State is one of five teams I'm considering picking to win the national title.

(What, you thought I was going to list the other four? Not a chance. I've got four more months of Mailbags to fill ...)

The second Saturday of the season (Sept. 11) is going to feature several great nonconference games: Florida State at Oklahoma, Miami at Ohio State, Oregon at Tennessee, Penn State at Alabama and Michigan at Notre Dame. Which of these games would you most like to see in person? Can you remember another early-season date so loaded with interesting matchups since you began covering college football?-- Drew, Norman, Okla.

Hey now, don't forget about Presbyterian at Clemson.

It's a tough call (and one I'm going to eventually have to make, because I will attend a game in person that weekend). Purely for the sake of atmosphere, I'd want to be in Tuscaloosa for the Tide's first big game at Bryant-Denny post-championship. I fear, however, that it could be a bloodbath with Penn State starting a very green quarterback against a very good defense. That's why football-wise, I'd be more inclined to choose Miami-Ohio State, which should be a better barometer for both teams -- the Buckeyes to prove they're a title favorite, the 'Canes to make a statement that they're finally "back." It's also the teams' first matchup since their controversial Fiesta Bowl classic eight years ago.

But as juicy as that lineup looks (and I'd throw USF-Florida and Iowa State-Iowa into the mix as well), it's going to have a hard time topping Sept. 16, 2006. You may remember that day, which featured seven matchups between ranked teams (albeit a couple of them intra-conference games): No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Michigan; No. 3 Auburn vs. No. 6 LSU; No. 4 USC vs. No. 19 Nebraska; No. 7 Florida vs. No. 12 Tennessee; No. 12 Louisville vs. No. 17 Miami; No. 15 Oklahoma vs. No. 18 Oregon and No. 20 TCU vs. No. 24 Texas Tech. Of the games Drew mentioned, only three might fit that bill, since Tennessee and Michigan are unlikely to be ranked in Week 2.

What stands out upon looking back at that 2006 slate is that the most surprising result at the time was Michigan trouncing Notre Dame (en route to an 11-0 start), while by far the most memorable game, Oklahoma-Oregon (a.k.a. the "replay game"), had very little buildup. (I was at Michigan-Notre Dame.) There's no predicting which of this year's games will end up fitting those scripts.

Stewart, I have been following your columns for almost nine years now, ever since I moved from my beloved Knoxville to Denver. Derek Dooley, I believe, will be the perfect fit for Tennessee. We've been known for years as an overachiever/underachiever. Whenever we are ranked in the top 10 preseason, we fall apart. But this year, everyone is picking us to finish third or fourth in the SEC East. With no pressure to speak of, do you think we have the chance to finish with 10 wins?-- Michael Jackson, Denver

You'll notice I allowed Michael a pass from my longstanding "No 'we'" rule when discussing one's team. That's because Michael's (much longer) e-mail also mentioned he was a walk-on for Phillip Fulmer's 1998 national title team. Congrats, sir.

Unfortunately, I don't share the perennial optimism that surely comes with having actually donned the orange and white. While I have no reason to believe Dooley won't make a fine SEC coach -- eventually -- there's a strong possibility his first Vols team will be downright awful. Even before He Who Must Not Be Name ditched Knoxville, Tennessee had a lot to replace in 2010, most notably on the offensive and defensive lines. (And, oh yeah, Eric Berry.) Then its lone returning O-line starter, freshman All-America Aaron Douglas, elected to transfer, creating a bad backdrop for breaking in a new quarterback (most likely Louisville/juco transfer Matt Simms, possibly true freshman Tyler Bray). To their credit, former coach LaneKiffin and Dooley reeled in consecutive top 10 recruiting classes, but a freshman-heavy team is unavoidably going to struggle in the SEC.

As for the notion that Tennessee perennially defies preseason expectations, one way or the other -- that was absolutely true for most of Fulmer's tenure, but doesn't necessarily carry over from coach to coach. Kiffin's team went 7-6, which was almost exactly what most would have predicted in August. It's kind of like Clemson. For years, the Tigers' most heavily hyped teams either choked or couldn't quite get over the hump -- and then Dabo Swinney comes in and wins the division in his first full season. Turns out it was a Tommy Bowden thing, not a Clemson thing. We'll find out soon enough whether Fulmer shared the same gene.

As to what should happen if there aren't bowl-eligible teams to fill 70 slots, I would submit that a good I-AA school should step in and clean some underachieving I-A school's clock.-- Ray Works, Kathleen, Ga.

No way. Those teams are spoiled enough, what with their fancy-dancy "playoff" and all those mid-December weekends in Montana and Chattanooga. Why should they get to have their cake and eat it too?

Mike Leach's colorful tenure at Texas Tech produced winning teams and a passing attack that certainly gave opponents headaches. Do you see his name surfacing on major college lists after this season? Do you think he could get a high-profile job at a BCS-conference school, or do you think he would have to move his way back up the ranks by starting at a Division II or FCS school?-- Daniel, Greenville, S.C.

Much will depend on the course of Leach's pending lawsuit against Texas Tech. As you're presumably aware, what was already an ugly dispute (see some of the comments at the bottom of this recent press release for a sense of where the public stands) just keeps getting messier, with the university filing a motion last week to have the case dismissed and Leach's camp responding that the school intentionally withheld an incriminating e-mail when subpoenaed. Personally, I always assumed the sides would reach a settlement long before Leach would go looking for another job in the winter. If they don't, it could make things much more difficult for him, because few schools will want an incoming coach with such unresolved baggage.

Whether Leach wins or loses, however, I do think he'll ultimately return to coaching, most likely at the FBS level. He's certainly not the right fit for all schools. Whoever hires him must be OK with the idea that one if its most visible representatives is an odd cat who may have mistreated a concussed player. But he's also a proven winner whose teams play an exciting brand of offense -- one that is now spreading across the country (Oklahoma State, Arizona State and East Carolina will all be running variations this fall) -- and who can come in to some down-on-its luck program (Washington State? Illinois? A Conference USA school?) and energize things in a hurry.

Please explain all the preseason love for Iowa. Sure, their defense will be good, but last season they had the 86th-ranked scoring offense and 99th-ranked rushing offense and now have to replace four starters on the O-line. Do any of you sportswriters remember the beating BYU gave Sam Bradford last September after Oklahoma replaced four starters on its O-line?-- Ron, Columbus, Ohio

I'm sure few will be surprised if Iowa falls short of the considerable (possibly preseason top five) expectations, because the Hawkeyes were never fully appreciated last season. Yet this was a team that won 11 games, came within an overtime field goal of beating Ohio State in the Horseshoe for a spot in the Rose Bowl (while playing its backup quarterback, no less), then absolutely suffocated Georgia Tech's powerful rushing attack in the Orange Bowl. It's no secret why the Hawkeyes are expected to do as well or better in 2010: They return eight starters from an already stout defense, most notably stars defensive end Adrian Clayborn and safety Tyler Sash. They also return underrated quarterback Ricky Stanzi. And that woeful rushing game of which Ron speaks should get a huge lift from the return of tailback Jewel Hampton, who was last year's anticipated starter before suffering a knee injury.

Without question, one of the biggest mistakes we prognosticators make is underestimating the impact of losing veteran offensive linemen like Bryan Bulaga and Dace Richardson. It was the primary reason I tried to warn people off Oklahoma last offseason (though I certainly didn't anticipate things going that poorly for the Sooners). But when dealing with Iowa specifically, we've got to give Kirk Ferentz some benefit of the doubt, because that's his specialty. Iowa always has the next wave of linemen waiting in the wings, and that should be the case again this year with guys like budding star tackle Riley Reiff and experienced guards Julian Vandervelde and Adam Gettis.

But the main reason I'm keen on Iowa: the schedule. Last year, to their credit, the Hawkeyes went on the road to beat Penn State and Wisconsin. This year, they get those teams, plus Ohio State, at home. That doesn't mean they won't slip up -- they barely survived Northern Iowa and lost to Northwestern in home games last season. On paper, however, it's a pretty favorable schedule, though it does include one incredibly difficult game early: at Arizona in Week 3.

Why is no one talking about Oklahoma State? The Cowboys have Brandon Weeden at QB, who played pro baseball and has a cannon for an arm. He reminds me a lot of Chris Weinke at Florida State. Then you have new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorson, who learned his craft from Mike Leach. Sam Bradford (Oklahoma) is gone, Colt McCoy (Texas) is gone and Tech has a new coach. Why can't the Cowboys win the Big 12 South?-- James White, Stillwater, Okla.

Four reasons:

1. Mike Gundy is still their head coach.

2. They lost to OU and Texas last year by a combined score of 68-14.

3. They lost nearly their entire starting offensive line, linebacking corps and secondary.

4. Mike Gundy is still their head coach.

Was I the only one impressed by the number Wyoming's freshman quarterback, Austyn Carta-Samuels, did on Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl last December? And the job the Cowboys' defense did? What are the chances the 'Boys might threaten MWC heavyweights TCU or Utah for the top spot?-- Horace, Dillon, Mont.

Oh, I remember Carta-Samuels well. Why? Because in our office bowl pool (no money, of course), I had my highest number of confidence points (34) on 11-point favorite Fresno State. So naturally, Carta-Samuels, who'd thrown seven TDs all season, threw three in that game, including the game-winner in overtime, and Wyoming, which came in with the nation's 109th-ranked scoring offense, doubled its season average by posting 35 points. So yes, I was impressed, but I'm always reticent to put too much emphasis on a bowl result. The Cowboys lost 52-0 to BYU and 45-10 to TCU last season. I have a lot of respect for Dave Christensen, and there's every reason to believe he'll get things going there, but realistically, they're still a year away from competing for the "top spot."

But while we're on the subject, keep an eye on another non-BCS team that delivered a seemingly out-of-nowhere bowl performance: SMU. June Jones' team made the most of its Hawaii Bowl trip, scoring a season-high 45 points in a rout of Nevada (which admittedly was missing two of its top offensive players). The Mustangs clearly improved in Jones' second season, beating C-USA champion East Carolina, taking Navy to overtime and winning eight games for the first time in 25 years. Knowing Jones' track record, I would not be surprised to see SMU take another step and compete for the league crown this year.

Stewart, regarding your decision to end the Mailbag Crush: First, I just don't get the current love for Zoe Saldana. Sure, she's hot, but not necessarily any hotter than a dozen other celebs I could name. But, personal preferences aside, I thought the point of the Mailbag Crush was to pick an "under the radar" hottie. Considering Zoe is everyone's "it" girl right now, she doesn't exactly fit the under the radar bill. What gives?-- Lewis, Phoenix, Ariz.

Like I said: No more "Crush." No more playful flirtations with sparkly, hilarious, up-and-coming starlets. That was so 2006-09. But c'mon -- a beautiful lady is a beautiful lady, and that said, with regards to Zoe: Take it back, sir.

I will admit, however, that I overstated things just a tad when I said the oh-so exotic Saldana had "basically rendered every other female celebrity moot." I didn't mean to diss Sofia Vergara like that. My sincere apologies, dear lady.

The Mailbag (more specifically, its author) will be on vacation next week -- Argentina, baby. But fire away with more questions because I'm coming right back with another edition on May 26.