By Stewart Mandel
July 28, 2010

The college football world is abuzz with headlines about agents and NCAA investigations, which are indisputably newsworthy but pretty darn inconvenient, too. With fall camp just a couple of weeks away, these unanticipated developments are disrupting's season preview planning and coordinated effort among our reporters.

Therefore, we are filing a lawsuit in the state of Tennessee. Take that, dirty agents.

More practically, I will be sprinkling a few of your agent-related questions throughout this week's Mailbag but will begin with a more traditional, season-preview query.

Georgia in '08, Ole Miss in '09. What team this year is most likely to be the "sexy" pick that falls far short of expectations?-- Jared, Columbus, Ohio

A little context: Georgia went 10-3 in '08, Ole Miss 9-4 in '09, and both played in semi-major bowls (Georgia beat Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, Ole Miss beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.) However, because the Dawgs had been touted as a preseason No. 1 team and Ole Miss as high as fifth, their seasons were considered letdowns. Yet, in neither case were people all that "surprised" by their "downfall" because most considered them "overrated" to begin with.

The one common thread you'll find in both cases (as with so many other preseason "flops") is that prognosticators got caught up in their impressive bowl performances the prior year (Georgia's Sugar Bowl demolition of Hawaii, Ole Miss' Cotton Bowl upset of 11-1 Texas Tech). Granted, it's much easier to reach that conclusion with the benefit of hindsight, but I can think of at least one soon-to-be preseason top 10 pick coming off what was, at the time, a very uncharacteristic bowl performance: Nebraska.

Last we saw the Huskers, they were dismantling Arizona, 33-0, in the Holiday Bowl, to cement their first 10-win season in six years. Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh led another dominant performance by the nation's seventh-ranked defense. That part was par for the course. Quarterback Zac Lee ran 18 times for 65 yards and threw a 74-yard touchdown. Where on earth did that come from?

The 2010 Huskers are undeniably talented. Receiver Niles Paul, defensive linemen Jared Crick and Pierre Allen and cornerback Prince Amukamara are all considered potential high-round NFL prospects, and running back RoyHelu Jr. could work himself into the mix with a big senior year. But anyone predicting Nebraska as a BCS title contender is making two considerable leaps of faith: 1) That the defense will remain at or near last year's level despite losing the nation's most dominant defensive tackle (Suh), and 2) The productive bowl performance from Lee and the offense is a better predictor of things to come than their 13 mostly woeful outings before that.

Nebraska's defense will still be very good, but not as relentlessly devastating as the unit that nearly beheaded Colt McCoy in the Big 12 title game. Its offense, best-case, goes from lousy to average. Nebraska plays a couple early "trap" games on the road (at Washington and at K-State) before hosting Texas, and visits A&M late in the year. It's easy to envision a scenario where the Huskers stumble early, rally, but ultimately finish around the same as they did last year -- a good season but not the return to glory many have predicted for this team.

Or they could win the national championship, and 500,000 Husker fans will rub this column in my face. But hey, that's the risk you take when trying to predict ahead of time whether a prediction might not come true.

We are seeing more and more programs being investigated for the actions of one or, at the most, several players. How does the NCAA deem it fair to penalize an entire program for the mistakes of a few? Especially if the player in question has already left the program? Shouldn't punishment be more directed at the guilty party?-- Will, Gadsen, Alabama

Hey Stewart: Thanks again for the LOST podcast! Still thinking about the show ... Didn't it seem like the stories from SEC Media Day were putting the NCAA on trial? Andy Staples recently wrote, "[Nick] Saban and [Michael] Slive are powerful men, but are powerless against agents." Any headlines like that for Pete Carroll? Is it just me or did the entire media do an about-face regarding this issue, turning the coaches and the schools into victims?-- Eric Krust, New Orleans

AgentGate may lack mystical numbers or Dharma jumpsuits, but much like the former ABC series, Eric, and I mourn, it has generated a lot of good discussion and opinions on the issue -- and some pretty zaney ones as well. I also sense a lot of confusion, so let's start by clarifying a major point.

When you read that NCAA investigators are coming to a campus (North Carolina, Georgia, etc.) to interview players about their dealings with agents, that doesn't necessarily mean the school itself is in trouble. As was described to me by an NCAA official, the investigators looking into current players' eligibility act separately from the larger enforcement division, which would only open an investigation into the program itself (like it did at USC) if there were issues of "institutional culpability." There is no indication as of yet that the NCAA is looking to "penalize" any of the schools you've read about in recent headlines.

The reason USC is currently on probation, banned from bowls, etc., isn't because Reggie Bush took money (though that alone may have led to vacated wins) but because it was charged with "lack of institutional control." Rightly or wrongly (read any USC fan site for the argument behind "wrongly"), the NCAA determined that running backs coach Todd McNair knew of Bush's "arrangement" but failed to report it; that the compliance office didn't follow up on any number of red-flags; and that Carroll's "openness" allowed for such infractions by allowing various hangers-on access to his sidelines and locker room.

Personally, I agree with Andy that coaches are largely powerless to prevent the underground interactions between players and agents/runners, and perhaps Saban and Slive were playing a bit of preemptive defense with their comments, knowing the hard-line stance the NCAA took in the USC case. But as long as the current programs involved are acting on the info they receive and dealing with the accused players accordingly, they should be OK -- unless, of course, investigators uncover that coaches or school officials were complicit in any players' arrangements.

How is it that no one is ripping Nick Saban for usurping someone else's moral high ground as he takes shots at agents for being "pimps?" The man intentionally oversigns year after year, then basically runs an NFL camp as he whittles the roster down to the legal limit by finding ways to kick kids off the team and yank promises out from under them. If an agent is a pimp, what the heck is he?--Robert, Denver

Saban is hardly alone in the area of oversigning (as I've addressed before), but I won't deny he's given his critics ample reasons over the years to question his credibility as a moral arbiter. And let's not be naïve to think his motivation for taking such a strong stance on this issue has to do with any more noble intention than protecting his program. But that doesn't mean his opinion isn't worth taking seriously.

Say what you want about Saban, the one accusation you can't possibly make is that he runs a loose ship. On the contrary, his reputation as an extreme control freak is well-documented, and his attention to the tiniest details when it comes to motivating and preparing players is often seen as the key to his success. So when Captain Control Freak comes out and says there's an issue even he can't control, you know you've got a problem. I'm sure it frustrates him to no end that no matter how hard he recruits, no matter how well he game-plans, no matter how much he drills his players, it can all go up in smoke the minute some murky underground character comes along and tries to bribe his star lineman into signing with a particular agent.

Do you think Adrian Clayborn can have a season like Suh had last year? The performance he put on in the Orange Bowl has a lot of people in Iowa thinking so.-- Josh Schoonover, West Des Moines, Iowa

As a friendly reminder, Suh in 2009 had a team-high 85 tackles, 12 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hurries, 10 pass break-ups and three blocked kicks. And he was an interior lineman. I don't think we're going to see another defensive tackle have a season like that again in the near future. But Clayborn, an end, is definitely my preseason pick for this season's top defensive lineman. (Note that I consider Texas A&M's Von Miller -- last year's sacks leader -- a linebacker.)

Much like Suh, Clayborn showed last season he can do far more than just get to the quarterback (though he did have 11.5 sacks). He had 70 tackles, including nine solos in the Orange Bowl, 20 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Arguably his most important play of the season was his blocked punt and touchdown return that broke open a defensive stalemate at Penn State. And in the Orange Bowl he had so many plays where he just walled off the right side of the field any time Georgia Tech tried to run the option that way.

But it's also important to note that Clayborn didn't do it alone. Just like Suh had Jared Crick and Barry Turner occupying blockers, Clayborn played on a fantastic front four with end Broderick Binns and tackles Karl Klug and Christian Ballard -- all of whom are back. So it stands to reason that Clayborn should have a huge senior season.

Which quarterback will serve the Oregon Ducks better -- sophomore Darron Thomas (explosive, fast) or Nate Costa (solid, not as flashy). Personally, I like watching the Dennis Dixon-disciple Thomas more, but I don't know if that will allow for a better team.-- Wesley Poland, West Valley City, Utah

If "fast and explosive" was the most important part of the quarterback's job description, than Thomas would win, hands down. But as fun as it is to watch a QB like Dixon fake a handoff and take off 60 yards, it's just as important in ChipKelly's offense that his trigger-man is a viable passing threat, makes good decisions and sells the zone-read. At times in the Ducks' spring game it seemed like the more experienced Costa had the edge, but then Thomas would come back and make things seem even again by showing off his improved passing abilities.

Ultimately, Oregon will probably be at its "best" with a reliable Thomas, because we've seen just how explosive Kelly's offense can be with a fast quarterback. But I also don't think he needs to risk things if Costa is the "safer" choice. Oregon will have two track-star ball-handlers in its backfield (LaMichaelJames and Kenjon Barner), and Costa, despite his previous knee injuries, is not a statue. He can run the option. Kelly will have to make a tough decision, but I'd be slightly surprised if the senior doesn't get the first crack.

Good news, I fixed the player/agent problem. In addition to the current NCAA rules and regulations, the NFL will ban any player who accepts money from an agent, booster, runner, chicken, Darth Vader and so on. Only a true fool would accept money from an agent during their college tenure if it could ultimately lead to the sudden collapse of their potentially lucrative career as an NFL star. Do you see any issues with this idea?-- Rich Doyle, Happy Valley, Pa.

I do. What's in it for the NFL? All it would be doing is possibly hurting its own business by banishing potential future stars. The NFL needs to regulate its agents, but the players are the NCAA's problem.

Stewart, I have been in Afghanistan for most of the past year and my time out here is finally coming to an end. Your column has been one of the few bright spots of my day and I hope you slap anyone who says that your work is frivolous or trivial. Nothing passed the time out here better than arguing over your Mailbag every week. My question is: What's in store for Texas this year? Can Garrett Gilbert play?-- Spc. Benjamin Abell, Konar, Afghanistan

Thank you, Benjamin. I will also be printing out and reading it to my fiancée any time she needs a reminder on a Thursday night why it really is important that I watch the South Florida-Cincinnati game.

I'm not worried about Gilbert. He's got the tools, and, just as importantly, he's got a position coach, Greg Davis, who should really be viewed at this point as one of the top quarterback mentors in the country. Whatever heat he once took during the Chris Simms era should be long forgotten after what he achieved with both Vince Young and Colt McCoy. Similarly, I'm not worried about Texas' defense, which lost a few big names but retains its most important figure, coordinator Will Muschamp.

I am, however, a tad concerned about the players Gilbert will be throwing and handing off to. McCoy was so inordinately dependent on Jordan Shipley that it's hard to tell what we can count on from holdover receivers James Kirkendoll, Malcolm Williams and Marquise Goodwin. Meanwhile, Texas worked this spring on rediscovering its running game, and Tre Newton looks like a promising ball-carrier, but the offensive linemen may take time to adjust to their new roles. All in all, however, I think you'll have much to look forward to back home, Benjamin. I expect another high-stakes duel in Dallas when the 'Horns and Oklahoma meet on Oct. 2.

There has been some buzz lately about new football start-up Georgia State University. They hired Bill Curry as head coach, they will call the Georgia Dome home and, recently, Alabama's former prized recruit, Star Jackson, transferred to the school. Georgia is a huge football state with only two FBS teams. Where do you see this program in 10 years?-- Ben, Dayton, Ohio

To me, the most intriguing part of the Georgia State's upcoming first season is that Curry, the former Alabama coach who had a brick thrown through his office window, is bringing his start-up team to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 18. We're talking about not just an FCS team, but a team that's yet to play an official game, facing the defending national champions. The carnage could be grotesque. And yet at the same time it's a fantastic p.r. move by Curry, whose team won't likely garner much coverage once its first game passes but will get a burst the week of that game.

As for his program's long-term potential, one need only look at some of the upstart Florida schools for a model. I don't know that Georgia State will be playing in a BCS conference within nine years of Inception (saw the movie last weekend; overrated) like USF did, but Curry could conceivably follow the fast-track of Howard Schnellenberger, who started Florida Atlantic's program in 2001, had it playing in the Sun Belt by '05 and reaching its first bowl by '07.

Hi Stewart, in all the recent talk about agents/players taking money, it seems everyone is targeting the agents for prosecution. But what about the athletes and their families that taking the money? Shouldn't we have some laws that make their actions criminal? Throw a few in jail (for three or six months) and others would have second thoughts.-- Mike, Columbus, Ohio

Some people think college athletes should be paid; others think they should be thrown in the slammer for taking a cut. Like I said, this issue has raised some very "interesting" discussions.

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