Texas' dominant D, Shoelace's Heisman odds; more Mailbag

Wednesday September 22nd, 2010

You'll have to excuse me if, over the next couple of weeks, I morph into a pseudo-Alabama beat writer. After Andy Staples and I drew straws (well, it was a little more involved than that), I ended up booking my flights to Fayetteville for 'Bama-Arkansas this weekend and to Tuscaloosa for Tide-Gators the next. My goal is to incorporate as many Nick Saban climbing-the-mountain metaphors as possible into my game columns.

However, we've got another interesting gauntlet looming in the Big 12. In its next three games, Texas hosts UCLA, meets Oklahoma in Dallas and, after a bye week, visits Nebraska. By Oct. 17, the 'Horns may well be the new No. 1 or 2 team in the country -- or be staring into the face of an Alamo Bowl season. Some of the natives are nervous.

I'm not sure what to take from this Texas-Texas Tech game. It was hard watching all those errors, but the D was spectacular, keeping Tech under 150 total yards. In the end, UT got the win, and knowing you can win when so many things go wrong is at least a small comfort. But should I be mortified by the utter lack of progress showed by the O so far, or have faith that this D will keep us in any game?-- Alex P., Austin, Texas

At this point, I think it's safe to say that much of the Texas coverage this offseason focused on the wrong side of the ball. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert was being mentioned as a dark-horse Heisman candidate based off of a two-touchdown, four-interception performance in the BCS championship game. Last Saturday in Lubbock, he threw ... two touchdowns and three interceptions. Mack Brown spoke confidently this summer about the Longhorns' transformation back into a power running team. Texas averaged 2.2 yards per carry against the Red Raiders.

But Texas' defense? It's so freaking good. Brown said before the season he thought this defense had a chance to be the best of his 13-year tenure, and he may be right. Texas receiver James Kirkendoll said this week, "I feel we have the best defense in the country," and he may be right, too. For me, it's a toss-up between the 'Horns and Ohio State.

Will Muschamp, Texas' great defensive coordinator, is working with a deep, experienced and very versatile unit. It starts with the secondary, where he has five well-tested veterans (cornerbacks Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown and safeties Blake Gideon and Christian Scott) who are so reliable, Texas can afford to take risks up front. But he really hasn't had to take risks yet, because the front four can rush so effectively. The emergence of true freshman end Jackson Jeffcoat allowed Muschamp to move Alex Okafor and, at times, star Sam Acho, inside. Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson are both big-time linebackers.

But can Texas expect to beat Oklahoma on Oct. 2 and Nebraska on Oct. 16 (I'm not that worried about UCLA this week) solely with its defense? I doubt it, because those teams have pretty good defenses themselves. I do believe Gilbert will only get better as the season progresses, but I don't have much faith in that running game. The Longhorns' offensive line simply is not physical enough and none of the tailbacks are elite difference-makers. Gilbert will have to do a better job of avoiding mistakes, and the defense will have to be flat-out dominant, for Texas to make it through that stretch unscathed.

Heisman winner on a 7-5 team? If Denard Robinson continues to put up the numbers he has, he should be in the Heisman talk ... but will he? The Heisman has been only going to a BCS bowl-bound (usually championship game-bound) player. If Robinson puts up 400 yards per game all season, but the Wolverines' defense plays like it did against UMass and costs Michigan games, will Robinson have any chance to win the doorstop trophy?-- DM, Columbus, Ohio

First of all, it's a big presumption to think Robinson will keep up his current pace (410 yards per game of total offense) throughout Big Ten play. It's probably a safer bet that Michigan's defense will in fact cost the Wolverines at least four games. But let's say he does continue to put up ridiculous numbers. Recent history has favored the star player from a national-title contender, a la Mark Ingram last season. Six of the past seven winners played in the BCS championship game. Therefore, it stands to reason that should Michigan fall from the national rankings, guys like Terrelle Pryor, Kellen Moore, Ryan Mallett (he'll need to knock off Alabama this weekend) and perhaps even Nebraska frosh Taylor Martinez will start hogging the spotlight.

Mandel & Staples debate Heisman favorite

But there is one notable precedent for Robinson: 2007 winner Tim Tebow, the exception to the "six of the past seven" stat above. Tebow played for a 9-3 team that was out of the BCS title chase by mid-October, but his statistics were just so absurd -- most notably the 51 rushing and passing touchdowns -- that it was hard to argue he wasn't the most dominant player in the country. Robinson will have two things going for him: One is that he's already at the top of most Heisman lists, so it's going to take more than just one bad game to fall out of the discussion. The other is that he'll end his season facing Pryor head-to-head. If both are in the mix, and especially if the Buckeyes are playing for a spot in the BCS title game, Michigan's record might not matter if Robinson goes out and shreds the Buckeyes' defense -- a very tall task.

I surrender. I've been defending the ACC for years now, mainly by pointing out respectable regular season records against the other BCS conferences despite persistent BCS bowl failures, but now I don't even have that. This conference stinks. Period. The only thing I can't figure out is why. The ACC annually produces among the most NFL talent, and the coaches are largely respected in some form. Maybe the answer has something to do with only two quarterbacks being drafted out of the ACC over the last six years (Matt Ryan and Charlie Whitehurst)?-- J.D. Bolick, Denver, N.C.

You know I believe strongly in the cyclical nature of conference strength, but admittedly the ACC has yet to hit its "up" cycle. And the interesting thing is, you can actually divide the league's seven seasons since expansion into two cycles.

The quarterback void was definitely a prominent factor for several years, starting after Phillip Rivers (NC State) and Matt Schaub (Virginia) played their final seasons in 2003. Around 2005-06, the ACC had arguably as much defensive talent as any league this side of the SEC. Florida State and Miami were still churning out elite defenses but bumbling around on offense with QBs like Kyle Wright and Drew Weatherford. NC State had three first-round picks (Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo) on its 2005 defense, but couldn't break seven wins. (Our old pal Chesty Chuck might have had something to do with that.) Georgia Tech endured the four-year Reggie Ball era. It was ugly.

Now, the league finally has a whole bunch of good quarterbacks -- Russell Wilson, Christian Ponder, Jacory Harris, Josh Nesbitt, Tyrod Taylor, Kyle Parker and the much-improved T.J. Yates -- but the defenses have gone in the toilet, most notably Florida State's. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are struggling on that side of the ball, too. North Carolina was expected to be an exception before suspension city kicked in. Bottom line: I think most schools in the league have the right coaches in place and a good number of NFL-caliber players, but just can't seem to put it all together. Things are better than they were in the latter half of the 'aughts, but not there yet.

Stewart, thanks for picking Texas Tech to upset UT. I was honestly worried Texas was going to lose in Lubbock, but once you picked Tech, I knew we were safe. Please pick OU and Nebraska as well. Thanks.-- Alan, Houston

Nice picks for the upset this week! Either you were living on another planet or you were on some really good drugs when you said Washington (seriously, Washington?) would upset or even come close to beating the Huskers.-- Chad Hutchens, Laramie, Wyo.

I hit 80 percent of my picks the first two weeks, and do you know how many e-mails I got about it? Zero. But of course after this weekend's unmitigated pickoff disaster, the e-mails start pouring in. No worries. I can take it. Though I'd be a lot more impressed if you guys had the stones to send these in before the games.

Here's my prediction of your predictions. You will lose five of these picks, most notably Texas and Nebraska.-- Chris, Portland, Ore.

Well played, sir.

I just finished watching Nebraska's drubbing of UW, and in light of that humiliation, I have a question about Jake Locker. I am absolutely not disputing his athleticism, but given his performance today (4-of-20 for 71 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), does he deserve the hype he's been getting? I just don't get it: His stats are mediocre, and he looked awful today. What gives?-- Angela, Seattle, Wash.

As I wrote this summer, Locker is the rare player whose "hype" was trickling down from the NFL rather than vice versa. Personally, I've long ago given up trying to figure out which quarterbacks will succeed at the next level and which won't. If you'd told me in 2005 that five years later Matt Leinart would be a career backup just cut by his original team, I'd have said you were out of your mind. Of course, I would have said the same thing if you told me in 2006 that JaMarcus Russell would be a No. 1 pick the following spring. I don't claim to be an NFL talent evaluator. I leave that to the "professionals."

With that in mind, I drank the Kool-Aid when guys like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay started speaking about Locker as if he were the second coming of John Elway. Kiper on April 7: "If you had to ask me right now who is going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, I would say it's etched in stone it's going to be Jake Locker." McShay on July 14: "Just finished Locker '09 tape. Anyone that thinks he's not [round one] talent either hasn't done homework or doesn't know how to eval[uate] QB's." And now comes the backtracking. McShay after Saturday's game: "Watched all 16 Locker misses, incl[uding] 2 picks + 1 pick erased due to flag. Of the 17, 8 were on Locker. Bad reads, erratic throws. Not good." And: "Definitely mounting concerns about Locker pressing and confidence level..."

Just a guess, here: Perhaps some of that pressing and lack of confidence comes from having been anointed a No. 1 pick more than a year before the actual draft. Between the pundits' hyperbole and Washington's own aggressive Heisman campaign, Locker bore some serious public expectations coming into the season despite relatively modest production his first three seasons. Physically, he's a great talent, and we've seen him make some fantastic plays, but he's yet to do it for a full game against an elite opponent. Hopefully he'll get back on the right track and not pull a Jevan Snead,who, like Locker, had a much higher reputation among the draftnicks than he did in actual NFL war rooms. Says McShay: "... Snead comparisons are crazy. Ease off the panic button folks."

Stewart: Just wanted to say I agree with you about all these "conflicted" college football fans. Alma Mater should always come first, no matter what. I grew up in the Florida panhandle. I was raised by Gator fans my entire life. At 8, I moved to New Orleans, the closest thing to the epicenter of LSU-dom outside Baton Rouge. I rooted for UF diligently, often at my own peril, during LSU's rise to prominence in the beginning of the decade. Nothing was sweeter than watching the Gators beat LSU and win the national title in 2006. Nine months later, I started school at LSU. The epic 2007 game between the two was pretty hard to watch, but at the start of my senior year I can honestly say I don't even give UF a second thought. I'll always cherish the Spurrier years and my childhood as a Gator fan, and I enjoy seeing them do well if they aren't playing LSU, but I am an LSU fan and only an LSU fan.-- David, New Orleans

Thank you, David. I received a lot of e-mails like this one that confirmed what I already believed: I am right, and you alma mater dissenters out there are just plain wrong. Be true to your school, folks. Or don't go to school there.

How underrated is Nevada's Colin Kaepernick? With all the (deserved) press Denard Robinson is getting, shouldn't Kaepernick be getting some? As of now, he has 13 TDs in three games and is putting up numbers that would even make Tim Tebow do a double-take.-- Scott Dean, Birmingham, Ala.

Kapernick has been putting up those silly numbers for four years now. He's the unquestioned king of the Pistol offense, a master of ball-fake handoffs and keepers. And he's got a heck of an arm, too. I started to have doubts, however, when he tailed off a bit last year, particularly against the best opponents on his schedule: Notre Dame (188 yards in a 35-0 loss), Missouri (205 yards in a 31-21 loss), Boise State (172 yards in a 44-33 loss) and SMU in the Hawaii Bowl (200 yards in a 45-10 loss).

But there's no doubt he's off to an incredible start this season, including a dominating performance against Cal. He ran 17 times for 148 yards and three touchdowns, but I was more impressed with the way he attacked downfield through the air, finishing 10-of-15 for 181 yards and two scores. With the caveat that Cal was playing without its best defensive player, linebacker Mike Mohamed, the Bears looked completely helpless against Kapernick and the Pistol. If Nevada can keep it up and go into its season finale against Boise State at 10-1 or 11-0, Kapernick will get all the attention he could ask for.

Stewart, I usually like your stuff, but you are way off on this hometown vs. alma mater discussion. I was raised a Cornhusker. I ate, slept, and breathed Cornhusker football. The first college that I attended out of high school was Miami (Fla). They played Nebraska my freshman year (1976). No way would I ever root for any team other than the Big Red ... EVER. And for extra measure, my daughter goes to the University of Arizona. She was rooting for Nebraska at last year's Holiday bowl. And she had a great time!-- Jeff, Phoenix

That's cool. But if Arizona goes to its first Rose Bowl in school history this season, your daughter is ineligible to purchase a ticket.

I figured I should go to the expert regarding Case Keenum's future eligibility. Keenum is a redshirt senior, and the NCAA rule states that a player can't participate in more than 20 percent of his team's games and still receive another year. But I also know Keenum is probably close to graduate school by now, which potentially changes the rules. If Keenum IS in graduate school, could he get a sixth year?-- GW, Baton Rouge, La.

Unfortunately, it's extremely unlikely Keenum would get a sixth year. I think perhaps you're getting confused with the graduate-school waiver Jeremiah Masoli used to become eligible at Ole Miss. Masoli was only entering his fourth year of eligibility. Keenum is in his fifth, and while he got injured early enough that this year would theoretically qualify for a medical redshirt, it's negated by the fact that he already used up his redshirt year as a freshman. The general rule is you have "five years to play four," and it takes some pretty drastic circumstances to be granted a sixth year, like missing two full seasons to injury.

You may recall that Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk unsuccessfully petitioned for a sixth season in 2008. He'd suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the '06 season while at Wake Forest and tried to claim retroactively that his redshirt season his first year had been due to an injury; however, it was not reported as such at the time. Oklahoma's Jason White, on the other hand, received a medical hardship waiver his first year on campus, then redshirted his second, then suffered season-ending injuries his third and fourth years. The NCAA's pretty strict with this rule. In 2005, I wrote about Cal receiver Chase Lyman, who missed one full season and parts of two others due to injuries, including a season-ender in the fourth game of his fifth year -- one game too many. He was denied.

One current player who will definitely have a case for a sixth year, should he choose to go that route, is Iowa running back Jewel Hampton. Talk about hard luck. After serving as Shonn Greene's backup as a freshman in 2008, he injured his knee in the preseason last year and took a medical redshirt. Then, last week against Arizona, he tore his other knee and will miss the rest of this season. Since it came in the third game, he should be eligible for a sixth year in 2013, but he won't be able to apply for it until then.

When my sweet 10-year-old daughter saw SI's @slmandel predict Texas Tech would beat #UT 27-24, she said "He gets paid to be that dumb??" Amen.-- Bill Morrison, Austin, Texas (via Twitter)

Now that's just cold.

For anyone who cares to hear more from this "dumb" writer (all ages welcome), remember that The Mandel Initiative podcast is available weekly here and on iTunes. Enjoy.

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