By Stewart Mandel
July 14, 2010

You know we're in the dregs of summer when the only real college football news of late has been the unfortunate, but inevitable, wave of offseason player arrests (with an athletic director thrown in this year to boot). Most of those headlines have emanated from SEC locales Georgia and Tennessee.

Next week, however, SEC coaches, players and a horde of media will convene in Birmingham, Ala., for the league's annual season kickoff circus, where talk will (mostly) turn from police lineups to projected lineups. Having attended this event several times and sat in the enormous Wynfrey Hotel ballroom, I can already predict the No. 1 question each of the conference's 12 coaches will be asked when he takes his turn at the dais.

Coach, what do you think are the biggest reasons why the SEC is so freaking good?

Hey, you can't argue with four straight BCS titles. But I do wish we could have seen a more diverse set of championship-game matchups over the past four years, which involved two SEC-Big Ten and two SEC-Big 12 pairings. Apparently I'm not alone.

As a college football coach, I have really enjoyed reading your Mailbag the last few years. I can appreciate the level-head you seem to keep with you opinions. One thing that disappointed me the past few years is that we never got to see Pete Carroll's USC teams match up with Urban Meyer's Florida Gators. Looking at the current landscape of college football, what two programs would you most like to see play this year?-- Jerry, Cleveland

Indeed, it's a shame Carroll's Trojans never faced an SEC champion in either the BCS title game or another bowl matchup. Controversial finishes denied us the chance to see USC face LSU in 2003 or Auburn in '04, much to the chagrin of SEC fans. For USC fans, however, the single biggest missed opportunity came in 2008, when the Trojans fielded what was unquestionably the most dominant defense of the Carroll era (the unit allowed a staggering 9.0 points per game) but shot themselves in the foot with an early-season loss at Oregon State. While I still believe one-loss Oklahoma (or Texas) was a more deserving participant, it's a shame we didn't get the opportunity to see Tim Tebow at his peak face Carroll's defense at its peak.

So, what potential 2010 matchup would elicit a similar curiosity factor? I'll go with Alabama vs. Boise State.

There's no greater litmus test right now than facing the SEC's champion, and if we believe the consensus projections that Alabama will once again be that team, and that the perennial outsider Broncos are about to field their most complete team to date, what better way to settle the question once and for all as to whether Boise belongs? For once, there would be no excuses if the Broncos pulled it off. No one could say their opponent wasn't motivated (Oklahoma in the '07 Fiesta Bowl), hadn't yet rounded into form (Oregon in last season's opener) or wasn't a BCS program (TCU in last year's Fiesta Bowl). We can already predict the requisite disclaimers that will follow should Boise beat Virginia Tech in this year's highly anticipated opener -- the Hokies always lose their high-profile openers, they play in the "inferior" ACC, etc.

Even when Utah beat 12-1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl two years ago, we heard that the deflated Tide didn't take the game seriously, suffered from Andre Smith's suspension, etc., etc. That's why it would take a BCS championship matchup against an actual SEC champion (because heaven knows a win over Ohio State would come with its own set of detractors) for Boise State to deliver its closing argument.

And of course, if Alabama won by three touchdowns, we'd learn something, too.

Longtime reader, first time e-mailer. I understand why USC has been declared ineligible for the coaches poll as a result of the NCAA sanctions. However, my question concerns how this impacts the Trojans' opponents. Sanctions or no sanctions, USC will be a difficult team to face on the field. Without USC being eligible for the poll, how will a game against the Trojans affect an opponent's strength of schedule, among other factors, in the BCS formula?-- Kevin, Tucson, Ariz.

I've noticed a lot of confusion on this issue since USC's coaches-poll ban was announced. Short answer: There is no effect. The BCS hasn't included specific "strength of schedule" or "quality win" components in its formula since 2003. And the various computer ratings used by the BCS crunch straight-up wins-and-losses data, not voter-poll rankings. So USC's opponents will get the same credit for the game as they usually would.

USC's standing in the BCS rankings will obviously be affected, as the coaches poll accounts for one-third of a team's score (along with the Harris Poll and the computers), but since the Trojans are ineligible for a BCS bowl, that doesn't matter, either. The only tangible impact might come if USC finishes the regular season ranked, say, seventh in the AP and Harris polls, and, say, Wisconsin finishes 15th. The Badgers (and like everyone else ranked behind the Trojans in those polls) would finish one spot higher in the BCS standings, which, in this hypothetical, would allow Wisconsin to finish in the Top 14 and therefore qualify for a BCS at-large berth.

Stewart, why do so many national media members, yourself included, seem to think that John Brantley is a virtual lock to be a big-time, successful starting QB in his first season under center for Florida, while just up the road in Athens, Aaron Murray is viewed much more skeptically (to put it mildly) as he prepares to take over at QB for Georgia? Both were the No. 3 ranked QB's coming out of high school by Rivals in their respective years, and both were named MVP of the prestigious Elite 11 QB camp.-- Arthur Steedman, Atlanta

There's no reason both can't be successful. Murray was ranked behind only Matt Barkley (USC) and Garrett Gilbert (Texas) in the class of 2009, just as Brantley was ranked behind only Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame) and Ryan Mallett (Arkansas). But it's not hard to see why Brantley is garnering more buzz at this point. He's entering his fourth year in the Gators' program. He's played in games (albeit largely in mop-up duty). And fans got a good taste of his abilities in Florida's spring game, in which offensive coordinator Steve Addazio let him air it out (15-of-19 for 201 yards). Murray, by contrast, was a shaky 10-of-22 for 96 yards with a pick in his spring showcase, but admittedly, spring games can be deceiving. Coach Mark Richt indicated Murray performed much better in other scrimmages.

One thing's for sure: Don't be fooled into reading too much into Murray's inexperience. If you look at the trend in recent years, quarterbacks who get thrown into the fire as true freshmen, no matter how talented, do tend to struggle initially (see Clausen, Matthew Stafford, Terrelle Pryor and Barkley, among others), but that one redshirt season does make a difference (see Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford and Andrew Luck, among others). If you've got it, you've got it, and those who have followed Murray closely say he's got it. He also has a great supporting cast to lean on, including a veteran offensive line and big-time receiver A.J. Green.

If both Brantley and Murray fulfill expectations, it should add yet another chapter to the Florida-Georgia rivalry and give their fans yet another subject to debate.

Stewart -- I saw your list of preseason Heisman candidates and I am perplexed at how you could have left Andy Dalton of TCU off your list. I understand you have a lot of people to cover but he is coming off of one of the most successful campaigns that TCU has seen. He is a couple of games away from beating the school's all-time wins record. He may not be flashy, but he is a proven winner. Come on Stewart, get with the program. -- Chuck, Dallas

That Heisman list must have been pretty all-encompassing, because I didn't get a whole lot of complaints about excluded players -- just a whole bunch from Dallas/Fort Worth. Dalton's omission was not intentional. Perhaps subconsciously my lingering memory of his three picks in the Fiesta Bowl affected my thinking, but that's not entirely fair, considering Kellen Moore -- who did make my cut -- didn't exactly tear it up that night in Glendale, either.

While Dalton is far from a favorite, I could see him entering the discussion early, especially if he has a big game in TCU's nationally televised opener against Oregon State. Beyond that, however, the Horned Frogs aren't going to play in a lot of must-see-TV games, and Dalton would have to put together much gaudier stats than he did last season (2,756 yards, 23 touchdowns, eight interceptions) and lead his team to another undefeated season to remain a factor.

In light of the recent expansion excitement, with television contracts being a critical variable, what are your thoughts on the new 12-year, $1.86 million television contract for the ACC?-- Erik Olson, Los Gatos, Calif.

It was huge for the ACC, and yet another example of just how rapidly the value of college television contracts has skyrocketed in recent years. When the ACC expanded in 2004, industry observers lauded the league for garnering a new football contract with ABC/ESPN worth $37 million a year, up from $20 million. Six fairly undistinguished football seasons later, that same conference is suddenly worth $155 million -- not quite SEC or Big Ten territory, but still very impressive. Mind you, that figure is for a combined football/basketball deal, and ACC basketball is a valuable property, but even so, the league is reportedly doubling its prior football/basketball take of roughly $65 to $75 million, and football is the driving force.

As I've written before, this all started when the Big Ten started its own network in 2006. At the time, commissioner Jim Delany assessed that college sports properties in general were "undervalued." Clearly he was right. I don't know why it took so long, but Madison Avenue types have finally figured out that college football is no longer contained to a cute, regional following, but is in fact massively popular on a national scale. ESPN (which reportedly got into a bidding war with Fox) would not be paying the ACC all that money if it believed only people in Clemson, S.C., and Blacksburg, Va., were watching. (Not to mention that Miami and Florida State, even in their reduced stature, still garner huge ratings.)

All of which is extremely good news for the Pac-10, the one BCS conference that has yet to reap the windfalls of this new spending spree. Commissioner Larry Scott will go to the negotiating table next year with a new 12-team lineup, a likely championship game and the knowledge that ESPN is throwing around money right now and that other networks like Fox are itching to get in the business. I'd expect that league to garner close to the same numbers the ACC did (the time-zone issue will always hurt it somewhat), with the added wild-card that Scott is openly looking to start his own network with an established partner.

Stewart, now that Tennessee has landed both the top kicker (Michael Palardy) and the top punter (Matt Darr) for 2010, according to, do you think special teams play will improve at UT?-- Neyland Robert, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

I certainly hope so. With a new quarterback playing behind five new offensive linemen, a long-range field-goal kicker may be the Vols' best hope of scoring points, and with a freshman and two sophomores expected to start in the secondary, a punter who can pin an opponent deep might force opposing receivers to have to run farther to reach the end zone.

The WAC has never been all that great, but with Boise State soon heading to the Mountain West, where does the conference go from here? I know there has been talk of bringing in a few teams like Montana and Cal-Poly, but are these potential additions at all helpful? Will the WAC ever be relevant again?-- Ryan, Connecticut

That depends on your definition of "relevant."

In the 10 years since the Mountain West-WAC split, the two leagues have obviously gone in opposite directions. The MWC continues to gain respect, while the WAC teeters closer to oblivion. Whereas Utah's move to the Pac-10 marks the first time the MWC has lost a team, the WAC already went through one raid in 2005 when it lost Tulsa, UTEP, Rice and SMU to Conference USA and had to replace them with bottom-feeders Idaho, Utah State and New Mexico State. Commissioner Karl Benson recently announced that the league will not replace Boise and will stand pat at eight teams for now, and I presume the main reason is there's no one left to add. The teams Ryan mentions are currently FCS programs. First they would have to seek FBS membership, and that transition process takes several years.

But that does not mean the WAC will disappear without Boise. Lest we forget, another WAC team, Hawaii, earned a BCS bid just three years ago. Fresno State's beaten quite a few of the big boys under Pat Hill (though admittedly not as often in recent years). Nevada has gained attention for its prolific rushing attack with quarterback Colin Kapernick. Don't get me wrong: The quality of teams in this league beyond Boise is not good right now. But 10 years ago, Boise was barely a I-A program. With the right coach and the right resources, a new Boise could always come along, and I'm sure the WAC will maintain its relevance (relatively speaking) if one of its teams can garner a BCS berth at least once every few years.

Just a clarification regarding the email you received about Georgia Tech winning its first national title in the '90s -- it's incorrect. That was the school's fourth national championship.-- Rubin, Atlanta

Fair enough, but here's a little clarification on my part. The Mailbag fully concedes the right of any school to recognize whichever national championship selectors it deems legitimate from the pre-modern era, and the inherent ambiguity that comes with it. Alabama, for instance, proudly claims 13 national championships, while other sources recognize it for 12. Georgia Tech, for its part, is certainly entitled to claim the four that it does: 1917, 1928, 1952 and '90.

For uniformity's sake, however, the Mailbag does not recognize so-called "national championships" prior to the advent of the AP poll in 1936 and coaches poll in 1950, seeing as most "polls" prior to then were conducted by obscure individuals or organizations and oftentimes were rewarded retroactively. Therefore, while Yellow Jackets fans are perfectly entitled to brag of the 1917 and '28 teams that wowed the Helms Athletic Foundation, or the '52 team that claims as one of its selectors the INS -- International News Service -- the Mailbag officially recognize the 1990 UPI coaches poll trophy as that school's "first" national championship.

Any further disputes may be taken up with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who will "personally guarantee" any championship your favorite team dreams possible.

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