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Why Georgia could be a national sleeper in 2010; more Mailbag

Is it crazy to think that the editors of Athlon, Lindy's, The Sporting News, Blue Ribbon and SI meet in an undisclosed location (perhaps that nowhere-looking diner from Hard Knocks) early in the offseason and agree to rank Nebraska as a low-Top 10 team; that Pittsburgh must fall somewhere between Nos. 14 and 19; and that Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina should be barely separated. (The one notable dissenter: Phil Steele, who only comes out of his bat cave on the third Tuesday of every other month and therefore misses the summit.)

There are only a handful of teams apparently unpredictable enough for the consortium to agree upon. This week, we examine one of them:

I am surprised at the placement of Georgia -- not where they are ranked, but the diversity of their ranking. The coaches have them 21, Phil Steele has them 19th but a candidate to win the SEC East (I like that), CollegeFootballNews all the way at No. 3 (!), and SI (the magazine) projects them at 8-4. Why such disagreement? Yes, there is a new defensive scheme, but anything is an improvement over last year. And yes, there is a freshman quarterback, but everyone else is back on offense for a redshirt, former Elite-11 freshman quarterback.-- NCDawg, Greensboro, N.C.

I don't know whether Georgia will finish No. 3 or No. 33. All I know is that for all the ludicrous talk about Mark Richt being on the "hot seat," the fact that Georgia is even in the discussion as an SEC contender is a tribute to Richt's track record. (Don't tell anyone, but he averages 10 wins a season.) Because if you take Richt out of the equation, you're looking at a team that lost five games last year -- including a home loss to Kentucky and blowouts to Tennessee and Florida -- and returns essentially two proven commodities: its offensive line and receiver A.J. Green. A national ranking period is the result of a whole lot of assumptions.

Quarterback Aaron Murray has a considerable high school pedigree, but he has yet to take a collegiate snap. Who knows how he'll respond? Georgia will rely heavily on its running game, but as much as Dawgs fans are convinced that Washaun Ealey and Caleb King are the second coming of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, to this point neither has run for more than 717 yards in a season. And then there's the defense, which many UGA faithful believe will be magically repaired now that coordinator/devil incarnate Willie Martinez is gone. Personally, I'm not as concerned about the new scheme as I am about the seven new starters.

So after that rather harsh assessment, you're probably assuming I fall into the 8-4 camp. Not so fast. Count me as part of the Georgia/national sleeper crowd -- and the reason is Richt. Last year was his first truly "down" season since his first in Athens, and his best seasons have come when preseason expectations were low. His two SEC championship teams (in 2002 and '05) were picked to finish third in their division, and the '07 team that finished No. 2 nationally started 13th in the AP poll. On paper at least, this team actually reminds me a bit of the 13-1 team from '02 that was coming off an eight-win season, with a young quarterback (sophomore David Greene) and a defense of then-unknowns like David Pollack and Sean Jones.

I don't see Georgia beating Florida in the East, but a 10-2 record seems entirely plausible and may just be enough to sneak into a BCS bowl over the SEC title-game loser (presumably the Gators or Alabama).

How could you and Andy Staples list the 10 things that will define college football this decade and not include head injuries/concussions? With more studies showing the dangers of youth football, it is very likely fewer parents will allow their kids to even play the sport anymore.-- Nick, Tampa, Fla.

No question, safety will continue to be one of the hot-button issues for the sport over the next decade, and Andy and I tossed around a couple of related ideas. The problem was, we were supposed to make "predictions" about the next 10 years, and I honestly have no idea what officials will end up doing about head injuries. Most people I talk to around the sport are similarly concerned but perplexed. They know the way the sport is played needs to change drastically, but at the same time you can't change the fact that football is by nature a contact sport, and players are only going to continue getting bigger, faster and stronger.

One thing I don't buy is this notion that kids will stop playing football. Maybe you'll see a decrease in the pre-teen rank, but the fact is the sport is only getting more popular, which means more kids will want to play it, and while some parents will get scared away by the various studies, as many or more will be enticed by the possibility of scholarships and NFL paydays. The sport will be affected by greater concussion awareness, but probably not in the way you described.

Stewart, I read your and Andy Staples' predictions for the next decade and I noticed an omission. In the section talking about the next star coaches, you only mentioned coordinators from major schools. What about the trend of small college coaches (Division I-AA or lower) moving up to the big time? Last year half of the BCS conference titles were won by former small school guys (Jim Tressel at Ohio State, Brian Kelly at Cincinnati and Chip Kelly at Oregon). So who are the small college coaches that you think could make a splash in the future?-- Casey, Cincinnati

Two of them joined the I-A head-coaching ranks this year. I expect good things from Mike London, the former Richmond head coach who replaced Al Groh at Virginia. He seems perfectly suited for that job, having worked in Charlottesville as an assistant (much like Tressel did at Ohio State before taking over at Youngstown State) before gaining valuable head coaching experience. The Cavaliers may be in for a rough first couple of years, but could perhaps emerge as an ACC title contender down the road.

The other is Bobby Hauck, the former Montana coach who took the Grizzlies to consecutive I-AA national championship games before taking over at UNLV last winter. UNLV is a tough job -- no one's won there consistently since the late 1970s/early '80s -- but he arrives at a time when the Mountain West is gaining respect (which it admittedly might lose if BYU defects), making the school a more attractive draw to recruits. If the former Rick Neuheisel assistant has success there, I could see him becoming a Pac-10 head coach down the line.

Stewart: 'Tis the season for Watch Lists for the various college football awards. My question: Does a player have to be on a preseason watch list to win that award? I would like to think that if some unknown or unheralded running back, for instance, ran for 2,000 yards, he would be eligible to win the Doak Walker award even if he's not on the watch list.-- Phil Romans, Portland, Ore.

No, Watch Lists are a relic from the 1960s, when voters didn't have access to cable or the Internet and maybe did need somebody to tell them who was playing quarterback for Texas that year. Now, these lists basically just give sports information directors reason to send out puffy press releases in July. Any player can still win the awards -- as long as he makes the semifinal cut.

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First, you ditch the Mailbag Crush. Now, you've proclaimed your love for Jersey Shore. Are you trying to expand your demographics to include more female readers? Whatever it is, it's not working. College football and Jersey Shore do not go together.-- Shawn, Reston, Va.

Clearly, you haven't watched the show, Shawn. I've seen no evidence of gender divide among Jersey Shore fanatics, and just last week, we even learned that "MVP" is part of the house lexicon. So my two loves have that in common.

Thanks for your article on the new bowl arrangements, it was very helpful. However, I noticed that Notre Dame is only listed as a "possible selection by the Champs Sports Bowl once every four years." So what happens if Notre Dame goes 8-4 or even 9-3 for the next four years -- good, but not good enough to land in the BCS -- and every conference manages to have enough eligible teams to fill their spots?-- Andrew, California

Under your scenario, once the Champs Sports Bowl exercises its Notre Dame pick, the Irish become bowl free agents in subsequent years, much like they were two years ago when they wound up in the Hawaii Bowl, and much like they would have been last year had they chosen to play a bowl. I don't think they'll ever have to worry about every conference filling its allotment. There were 71 eligible teams the past two years and there are now 70 bowl berths (plus USC is ineligible). There's no way the Big Ten is going to qualify nine teams every year, or the Big 12 is going to fill eight once it drops to 10 teams.

However, we're still talking about the bowls at the bottom of the leagues' pecking orders -- the Little Caesars Bowl, not the Gator Bowl. That fate may have been deserved for the past two 6-6 Irish teams, but not a 9-3 team that plays the schedule Notre Dame does. It will be interesting to see how the school reacts if this becomes a regular occurrence. If the Irish go to the BCS twice in the next four years, the topic is moot. But if they don't, you're seeing yet another negative consequence of remaining independent. It's literally BCS or bust for these guys.

There has been tremendous talk in our part of the country about Oklahoma State recently. Specifically, about how much money has been pumped into the sports facilities (by T. Boone Pickens) and the lack of potential for a championship football program. The argument centers around the fact that they are "OSU" and by virtue of that fact, they just "can't win." My question is this: How is OSU (or similar programs) any different from Boise State? It is clearly not the weather. BTW, I am obviously an OU fan, I just don't believe that OSU can't win.-- SoonerSteve, Tulsa, Okla.

It's not that OSU "can't win," but that it's incredibly difficult for the Cowboys to beat Oklahoma and Texas, both on the field and in recruiting, when those programs are both humming. They simply have more prestige, a better track record of success and more accomplished coaches, factors that carry far more weight with recruits in those two states than plush couches. Oklahoma State's facilities are superb, but I've never once heard a coach credit luxury suites or locker rooms for a team's success. And Miami had some of the crappiest facilities in the country when it was winning national championships. The idea that T. Boone could just write a big check and magically produce championships was always a tad delusional.

In terms of the Boise State comparison, you've honed in on an interesting "loophole" in the BCS. As much as fans from the non-AQ conferences gripe about the unfairness of the system, the reality is they have a much more advantageous path to the BCS than do Oklahoma State, Michigan State, Ole Miss or any number of other AQ schools. Whereas those teams have to compete against the entire Big 12, Big Ten or SEC, Boise is competing against one or two such schools per year. The downside, obviously, is that the Broncos have to go undefeated to reach a big game, and even then are not guaranteed of anything. But at the end of the day, they've made it to two more BCS bowls than Oklahoma State, with a fraction of the resources.

Stewie, Stewie, Stewie ... Radio Shack has changed its brand to just "The Shack." I know I must be the 1,000th person to send this to you, but considering how good you 'normally' do, think of it as a compliment that we are watching out for you!-- Ken, Flatonia, Texas

You are, in fact, the 10th person to send this to me, but you may want to send a more pressing memo to the Radio Shack on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, which I walk by several times a week and which, as of this writing, has showed no evidence of a rebranding.

Nevertheless, my opinion about the Big Ten's name hasn't changed. And why have I heard no such outrage over the fact that the Atlantic 10 has 14 teams? Hypocrites.

Why is it that people are discussing not whether Alabama is going to win on Sept. 11 against Penn State, but by how much? Is having to replace nine starters on defense really much easier than one quarterback?-- Eli, Brooklyn, N.Y.

If only it were that simple, Eli. While I'd love to see an exciting, competitive game befitting the history of those teams and the iconic coach whose days on the sideline are nearing their end, pretty much every possible factor is working against the Nittany Lions. The only way someone's going to get Alabama this year is in a shootout, as the Tide's young secondary will definitely be vulnerable to a balanced offense with a dangerous quarterback. But Penn State's bringing a new quarterback and a suspect offensive line that got absolutely mauled by the two best defensive fronts its faced last season, Ohio State and Iowa. And while those new Alabama starters may be young, they're all former four- and five-star recruits with at least some game experience.

The Nittany Lions will probably rely heavily on their running game and try to keep Alabama's offense off the field, but inevitably, Greg McElroy, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Julio Jones are going to score points, and it's going to get ugly. I would consider it an enormous upset if Penn State won.

Your magazine did an excellent in-depth review of Notre Dame football for your college football preview. I hope you are sensing my sarcasm. Relegating ND, a storied program, to a blurb at the end of your magazine in a year when they are bringing in a new coach falls just short of tragic.-- Shawn Costello, Ridgefield, Conn.

If you are in fact a Notre Dame fan, Shawn, then you're presumably aware that one of the Irish's recruits, Matt James, fell over a balcony and died while on spring break this year. That's tragic. What you're describing is called "lack of space."