By Stewart Mandel
May 26, 2010

As most of you know by now, I'm a full-fledged Lost junkie, which means I spent five-and-a-half hours watching last Sunday's touching finale and ABC's pre- and postgame shows. (It really was like the Super Bowl.) It also means I spent an inordinate amount of time these past few months bantering with colleagues, friends and the future missus about a humanized smoke monster, a mysterious glowing light and any number of other fantastical subjects from a fictional world.

Yet when it comes to the very real, very significant possibility of Big Ten expansion -- America's most popular source for reckless speculation -- I've suddenly lost interest. I was fully onboard when things first started heating up last month. But now that it appears Jim Delany and his cohorts won't make any tangible decisions for at least another six months, my eyes gloss over any e-mail or article containing the words "If Notre Dame joins the Big Ten..." or, "If Texas goes to the SEC..." It's all moot until somebody makes the first move, and until that happens, there's nothing new to say.

Like our beloved castaways, I'm ready to "move on."

So until further notice -- i.e., the arrival of actual, legitimate expansion news -- the Mailbag will become an expansion-free zone. This week we turn our attention to the leagues as they're presently constituted.

You always say that conference strength is cyclical, and I agree. So how would you rank the BCS conferences going into the 2010 season?-- Adam W., San Francisco

As always, it depends on your criteria. Which conference will produce the most highly ranked teams? For once, it may be -- gasp! -- the ACC (Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech and possibly North Carolina). Which will be the most competitive, i.e., feature the smallest gap between No. 1 and, say, No. 8? Definitely the Pac-10 (I could see anyone but Washington State or Arizona State winning it).

I anticipate those two leagues being "up," as the Pac-10 will be loaded with offensive star power (Jake Locker, Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, Jacquizz and James Rodgers, Matt Barkley), the ACC with veteran defenses. Meanwhile, the Big 12 may be "down" after three straight, solid seasons in the limelight, especially considering how many high-caliber NFL draft picks it just lost. I feel the same way about the SEC, which is littered with considerable quarterback questions.

The two hardest leagues to gauge are the Big Ten and Big East. The former teased us with impressive bowl wins by its top four teams (Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin), but I'm still leery of teams five through 11. The latter keeps getting better, but remains limited by its size (and somewhat stigmatized by two-time champ Cincinnati's consecutive BCS blowouts).

All that said, the SEC remains top dog until proven otherwise by virtue of its ridiculous run of four straight BCS championships -- just as Alabama and Florida remain two of the most loaded teams in the country. But I don't see there being much difference, if any, between the SEC's next six teams and their equivalents in the Pac-10, which I'd rate a close No. 2, followed by the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Big East. And to show you just how cyclical these things can be, note that as recently as two years ago, I would have had the Big 12 (at No. 2) and Pac-10 (No. 5) flipped.

This is, of course, all an educated guess -- which I suppose makes it no different than the conference-expansion game. But at least it gives you something new to debate for a week.

I enjoyed watching Stanford's "old school," smashmouth offense last year. Is this type of offensive strategy catching on, or was this an outlier that worked only because it fit the Cardinal personnel? It seems to me that running a ball-control offense make sense for schools with depth problems on the defensive side of the ball, or with freshman quarterbacks.-- Andrew, Johns Creek, Ga.

I've dedicated a whole lot of column space over the past five years or so to documenting the rise of the spread, but I've done so knowing full well that coaching strategies are inherently cyclical, and that at some point a new "fad" would come along and supplant the spread. In this case, the "fad" may simply be more teams returning to traditional, under-center football.

Mind you, I don't think the spread is going away anytime soon, because the prototype for the typical college athlete has changed along with it. Stanford had the ultimate smashmouth weapon in Toby Gerhart, but for every physical back like Gerhart there are 20 smaller, speedy skill players coming out of high school for whom an I-formation offense simply doesn't make sense. Those guys are more dangerous if you can get them out in space and exploit their one-on-one matchups with defenders. Meanwhile, the shotgun component of the spread has allowed a new type of (mobile) quarterback to thrive, putting less of a premium on finding a 6-foot-5 guy with a cannon.

But I do wonder whether we'll one day look back at 2008 -- the year of Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel and all those Big 12 shootouts -- as the apex of the spread. Last year, we saw evidence of defenses finally getting a handle on these types of offenses (see: Nebraska's dominant defensive line bottling up normally prolific teams like Texas and Missouri, or Ohio State putting the clamps on Oregon's previously lethal running game in the Rose Bowl). We also saw a prototypical pro-style team, Alabama, win the national championship. This season, Texas is planning to go back under center for the first time in about six years to resuscitate its running game. Of course, at the same time, Notre Dame is going in the opposite direction.

In the coming years, I think we'll see something of a meeting in the middle, in large part because of the current generation of coaches. At this point there is a significant contingent of mid-career coaches -- Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez, Gary Pinkel, Brian Kelly, Chip Kelly -- who have devoted themselves to the spread and have no reason to abandon it. But we're also starting to see a crop of newer coaches -- Jim Harbaugh, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian -- who were brought up under pro-style mentors and will use that background to their advantage. Many others, like Bobby Petrino and Chris Petersen, already incorporate elements of both. That blended style could become the new norm.

If the BCS decides to strip USC of its 2004 title, why not award it to Auburn? It's arguably the one season where stripping a team of its title and awarding it to another team wouldn't seem completely hollow and absurd. And don't bring up Utah as a reason not to do it -- they're used to being treated unfairly by the BCS.--Adrian, San Francisco

I know this is a common sentiment, but I don't happen to share it.

College football's championship race is often referred to jokingly as a "beauty pageant," but do you really want to take that analogy even further? Because that's exactly what you'd be doing if you retroactively rewarded Auburn the trophy. The Tigers would be Suzette Charles, the woman who finished runner-up to Vanessa Williams in the 1984 Miss America contest but got to take over the crown after someone dug up dirty pictures of Vanessa. Even if you did do that, would anyone outside of Alabama consider it legitimate? We all remember the USC-Oklahoma game. We saw what happened. It's not going to vanish from our collective memories just because someone revises the BCS media guide.

A vacated trophy is exactly what it sounds like -- it means that year's championship goes "vacant." However, I'm curious how the BCS would go about enforcing this recently uncovered "policy" of theirs, considering the crystal football awarded to the BCS championship game winner is actually the Coaches Poll trophy. Unless this policy also requires USA Today to void its final 2004 poll, it would seem USC still officially finished "No. 1" that year, just as it did in the AP poll. Both of those trophies are currently sitting in Heritage Hall. I'd be curious to know whether this BCS policy designates someone with the responsibility of flying to L.A. and forcibly removing the trophy from its display case.

Why doesn't the NCAA stop the process of oversigning football recruits? (See From 2002-2010 Auburn signed 83 more players than its last bowl opponent, Northwestern. Doesn't this give a major advantage to SEC programs in bowl games when they face teams like Ohio State and Texas, which do not oversign?-- Sujith, Bangalore, India

This is why I love the Internet. I must confess, I was not aware of until receiving this e-mail. (I've since seen it referenced numerous places.) Hats off to the authors. They've done a tremendous job of shedding light on a largely under-covered topic through meticulous research and easy-to-digest data. They seem most concerned with the overlooked human consequence of this practice: coaches quietly cutting loose underperforming or injury-riddled veterans to make room for a new crop of recruits. Currently, the site is closely monitoring Alabama, which, as of the most recent post, still had 91 scholarship players on its projected 2010 roster, in its "March to 85."

It's been well-chronicled that SEC teams are the most prolific abusers of oversigning -- six of the eight schools that have signed the most recruits since 2002 hail from that league -- and the conference did take a step to curb the practice last year by capping the maximum number of players per signing class at 28. (The year before, Ole Miss signed a staggering 37.) Therefore, some of the disparity in the numbers will decline in coming years. But the reality is, oversigning goes hand in hand with another, unavoidable cause for competitive advantages and disadvantages, which is that some schools simply have lower admissions standards than others. Most schools that oversign do so knowing full well that several of their signees likely won't qualify academically, and in many cases they do so with the intent of stashing those players at junior colleges or prep schools of their choosing.

Seeing as the NCAA already has a pretty clear-cut rule in place capping scholarships at 25 per year, the only realistic way I could envision eliminating oversigning is if you put in place another rule stating that a prospect can't sign with a school until he becomes academically eligible. But that's sure to meet resistance both from coaches, who might end up with unfilled scholarships, and from recruits, many of whom use the spring and summer to improve their final high school GPA and test scores.

Am I the only one who thinks Notre Dame has the potential to have a really big year? The schedule is favorable and they still have a ton of offensive talent (Dayne Crist, Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd). People tend to forget that they were a few points here and there from being 9-3 or 10-2. If Brian Kelly can improve that defense a tad -- isn't ND a potential 10-win, BCS bowl team?-- Sean, Hartford, Conn.

I believe so. But then, this time last year I felt the Irish were fully capable of winning nine games, for mostly the same reasons -- and they wound up going 6-6 again. When I attended one of the Irish's spring practices in early April, I saw a team that still had a ways to go in adapting to Kelly's breakneck operating speed and transitioning into spread-offense mode. That doesn't mean it can't happen. By all accounts they got consistently better over the rest of the spring, and they've got summer workouts and preseason practices still to go. But the fact is, Jimmy Clausen last season had three years' experience operating Charlie Weis' offense, whereas Crist, talented though he may be, will have had less than a year in Kelly's.

My other main observation, having covered practices all over the country, is there's still a stunning lack of overall athleticism in South Bend. I know what the recruiting rankings say. And there's no disputing that guys like Floyd, Rudolph and linebacker Mant'i Teo are legit five-star talents. But in terms of overall speed and playmakers, the difference between watching a practice at Notre Dame and watching a practice at Oregon (which I did five days later) was like the difference between watching ... oh, Lost and Flash Forward. That doesn't mean the Irish can't still win a bunch of games -- only two teams on their schedule (Utah and USC) will have a definitive athletic advantage -- but they're going to have to stay healthy, and they're going to have to be much more technically sound on defense than they were in 2009.

As a Boston College alum, I don't understand the love for Florida State over BC in ACC predictions. The Seminoles are no more "talented" than they were the last five years when they were mediocre, most notably on defense. Meanwhile, BC returns 16 starters from a team that beat FSU last year and won more games. That does not even count any possible contributions from Mark Herzlich. Is the media overrating FSU and underrating BC, the same way they do every year?-- Matty, Washington D.C.

You're definitely on to something. Since the ACC went to its divisional format in 2005, FSU has been the consensus preseason favorite in the Atlantic Division four out of five years, but hasn't actually won it since '05, and has finished third or lower all but one year since. During that same time, BC has never been picked to win and has in fact been picked third or lower three times. The Eagles took the crown in '07 and '08 and have never finished lower than second. And yet, when the newest batch of preview magazines hit the newsstands in coming weeks, you can be sure the 'Noles (7-6, 5-3 last year) -- will be right back on top, with BC (8-5, 4-4) somewhere around third or fourth.

Obviously, there's a new variable in the picture this year with Jimbo Fisher taking over in Tallahassee. He's already made huge inroads in recruiting. And with quarterback Christian Ponder returning, FSU's offense should be pretty darn good. But anyone who thinks Fisher will instantly return the 'Noles to glory has forgotten just how dreadful that defense was last year (108th nationally). You don't fix that overnight. BC had the opposite problem. It's offense was horrendous (99th), though not without hope. Montel Harris (1,457 yards) emerged as a dominant running back, but he alone couldn't make up for an absent passing game.

So obviously, both teams have major question marks, and I'm not sure either could be considered a clear favorite in that division. Defending champ Clemson and possibly even N.C. State should be in the mix as well. But you do have to ask yourself: If BC has finished ahead of FSU for four straight seasons and both return similar numbers, what reason do we have to believe this year will be different?

Longtime reader and podcast follower, first-time writer. One of the great debates is whether to follow a team that wins all the time (Florida, USC, etc.) or follow a team that wins big once in a blue moon (like the Northwestern team that went to the Rose Bowl that you talk about a lot). Which is the more rewarding type to follow, in your opinion, for a neutral party?-- Elijah Abram, Washington D.C.

I saved this one for last because it's a fascinating question -- so much so that I'd be curious to hear opinions from the readers.

Personally, I've always been drawn to the underdog. I've felt sorry at times for friends of mine who root for, say, Ohio State, for whom reaching the national title game in 2006 and '07 caused more grief than joy. The Florida fans in my office seemed downright miserable most of last season even before that Alabama loss, because nothing short of outright domination was good enough for that team. But it's also no coincidence that the teams with the largest national fan bases, whether it's Michigan and Notre Dame in football or Duke and North Carolina in basketball, are the teams that have traditionally won the most games.

So which would you prefer if picking a team from scratch: Rooting for an underdog with modest expectations for whom the occasional championship is a pleasant surprise, or rooting for a perennial power for whom championships are expected and anything less is a disappointment?

Let me know. And while you're at it ... why was Penny in the church?

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