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Breaking down Texas' and LSU's offensive woes; more Mailbag

Help me out here, Stewart. I'm a diehard LSU fan and I am struggling with trying to comprehend what the heck is happening with its offense. I watch a lot of football and cannot remember seeing a team do less with as much talent as they have. Is this a case of Les Miles just being too stubborn to yank [coordinator Gary] Crowton and/or [quarterback Jordan] Jefferson? Are Stevan Ridley, Russell Shepard, Rueben Randle, Terrence Tolliver et. al not as good as I think and we really have zero talent? This just does not make any sense.-- Russell Macomber, Ormond Beach, Fla.

Stewart, What does it take to have a good running offense? Texas gets better recruits and should have better coaches, so I don't understand why they can't run the ball while a team like N.C. State can run the ball with some kind of consistency. I don't mean any offense to N.C. State, just happened to watch their game on Saturday also. So, when the recruits are better, is it on the coaches, or are these recruits just not panning out? Is it because of the offensive line, or because of the running backs? Or is this one on the great Greg Davis?--Tucker, Monett, Mo.

Well, let's start with both teams' offensive identities: What are they? For three years, I haven't been able to figure out what exactly LSU's Miles and Crowton are trying to do. At least during their 2007 title season, they had a powerful, go-to running back (Jacob Hester) who could pick up the tough yards and open up the play-action for quarterback Matt Flynn. Since then, it's been a potpourri of misery. At one point, the Tigers were a running team with Charles Scott. Sometimes they still are with Ridley. Sometimes they morph into an option team. Sometimes they realize they've got a bunch of speedy receivers and perhaps Jefferson should try to throw downfield to them. Crowton's master plan seems to be to throw as many different looks at a defense as possible, which is admirable (Boise State does much the same thing), but the Tigers aren't particularly good at any of them.

Texas, meanwhile, had a pretty clear identity for the past six years -- the shotgun-spread, with an efficient quarterback (first Vince Young, then Colt McCoy) who can both run and pass. It worked pretty darn well. Then, in a bold and, in hindsight, questionable decision, Mack Brown and Davis decided to chuck that approach this offseason and switch to a pro-style attack. The rationale made sense -- Garrett Gilbert is more of a pro-style quarterback than his predecessors and therefore would need a productive running game to be successful. But to make the switch, they needed offensive linemen who had primarily pass-blocked for their whole careers to morph into more physical, hard-nosed attackers. I don't think that's happened. So now it seems like the 'Horns are caught between two identities -- they want to run right at you, but that's not really going so well, so they still try the slip-screens and quick-drops that worked for McCoy, but Gilbert and his receivers don't have the timing down.

More than anything, however, an offense -- even the running game -- can't be successful without a reliable quarterback. LSU hasn't had one since 2007. (You wonder where Miles' program might be today had Ryan Perrilloux not bumbled his way out of town.) It's past the point where one might expect Jefferson (10-of-22 for 75 yards and two picks against West Virginia) to progress, and the only alternative, Jarrett Lee, did not inspire confidence when given his shot two years ago. Maybe it's time to give him another. Meanwhile, Gilbert (four TDs, four INTs this season) is going through the expected growing pains of a guy who's played four-plus games, but some folks are already panicking that he might not be the one. I'd remind those folks that Young and McCoy both struggled early, too.

All is not lost for either team. Texas' defense still has the potential to be special (come November, the second half against UCLA will ultimately be viewed as an aberration), and, win or lose Saturday against Oklahoma, Brown's teams have a history of going on a post-Dallas tear. LSU, meanwhile, is 4-0 (all against BCS-conference foes) despite its offensive ineptitude, in part because of a nasty defense, and in part because of ...

Stewart, Patrick Peterson's Heisman pose ... was it brash and foolish? Or was it a good p.r. move? Also, what do you think are the chances PP7 wins the trophy? 99:1, 999:1, 999,999,999:1? Charles Woodson had four TDs, 8 INTS, played on an unbeaten team and almost single-handedly beat Ohio State on national TV. Will it take a similar performance for a DB to win the trophy?-- Matt, Baton Rouge, La.

The pose was p.r. genius. Peterson absolutely deserves to be in the Heisman conversation -- and now he is. The pose turned a great but not uncommon highlight (his punt return) into a signature moment. There's no question Peterson is brash -- he's made no bones about the fact that he's going after the Heisman -- but so are most who play his position. Like you said, the odds are still stacked against him. Peterson only touches the ball a handful of times per game, with little control over how many punts he'll get to return or whether opponents will throw or punt away from him. Like with Woodson, his team will need to be in BCS contention come early December, and he'll need to make some big plays in the Tigers' biggest games.

Stewart, I am a believer that a fan base must always answer the question "And hire whom?" before they talk about firing a coach. If you cannot name a better option than the current guy, forget it. I find myself teetering on the Mark Richt discussion. If he goes, who would be your hire?-- Dave, Atlanta

I'm with you, Dave. If Georgia runs off Richt this year, it will be textbook Clemson/Ole Miss Syndrome. (Note the example cited in that link: Minnesota. How's that working out?) Historically, Georgia is more prestigious than either of those teams -- but not as much as Dawgs fans like to think. In all my travels, I'm not sure I've ever come across a fan base whose self-perception is so far from reality. Georgia fashions itself a national power in the vein of Ohio State, USC, et. al., based primarily off one glorious three-year run 30 years ago with Herschel Walker (and some kick-butt years in the 1940s). Prior to this season, the Dawgs under Richt had vastly outperformed their historical "equilibrium," and in fact Richt's career winning percentage (.752) is the highest in school history (not counting BobbyWinston's lone 5-1 season in 1894).

But in today's SEC, the goal is national championships, and three other league coaches hired by their schools more recently than Richt -- Florida's Urban Meyer, LSU's Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban -- have 'em. Richt doesn't. And at 0-3 in the SEC, winning one anytime soon probably seems like a very remote possibility. But realistically, the chances of hiring another Ray Goff are higher than the school landing its own Meyer or Saban. Texas head-coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp (a UGA alum) is a realistic and enticing possibility, but beyond that, there is not a single coach out there I'd consider an upgrade from Richt (and even Muschamp is no guarantee). Let's see how the season plays out. With a light upcoming schedule, a freshman quarterback who should theoretically progress and the return of A.J. Green, my guess is the Dawgs will go on a run. If they can salvage things and win eight games, and still fire him ... well, just take a look at Tennessee for a glimpse into their immediate future.

Both I and everyone I know who follows college football understands that Boise State is a good football team. The problem is, the eighth-grade gimmick plays (i.e. the Statute of Liberty) and especially the blue Field Turf projects a bush league image. You want respect? Look like you deserve it. If your program looks like a circus, you'll be treated like a circus.-- Andrew, Pittsburgh

I've been wondering this for a couple of years and I may be totally off base, but is seems to me that Boise State gets a big (and possible unfair) advantage having the blue field and matching blue uniforms and helmets. At times when they are showing replays going down the field, it appears as if the Boise players are camouflaged by the field. That would seem to make it hard for a quarterback to account for the defensive-back coverage.-- Steve Kratt, Alameda, Calif.

Really? It's come to this? Bashing the Smurf Turf? No one particularly seemed to mind it when the Broncos were mostly a Friday night sideshow, but now that they're in the top three, it's "bush league?" Give me a break. First of all, there's nothing stopping anyone else from painting their field any color they'd like. (Eastern Washington's is now red.) Second of all, long before Boise began fielding a legit football team, the blue turf brought it national recognition. It's as much a part of that program's identity as the trick plays. (Incidentally, there's nothing stopping your favorite team from calling said plays, either. That's not "bush league," that's good coaching.)

I will concede that the blue does give Boise at least one advantage. As Fresno State coach Pat Hill told my colleague Austin Murphy: "It takes forever to break down Boise State film. The way the uniforms blend in, it's very hard to see the formations. You gotta click the film back 10 times to see some plays." But in terms of the actual game, a quarterback is much more likely to be distracted by the backdrop (i.e. fans) in his field of vision (which, if you've seen this week's SI cover, is orange) than the color of the field below him. I seriously doubt either comes into play nearly as much as crowd noise or other elements. What's your next excuse, Boise haters?

After watching Cal nearly take out Arizona one week after their beatdown at Nevada, I am bemused by so many of the pundits saying that Boise is off the radar now, a 12-0 team with no shot, etc. While Nov. 26 might not attract the GameDay crew to Reno, don't you think this could be a huge game between two talented and highly ranked undefeated teams?-- Chris M, Redondo Beach, Calif.

Absolutely -- which is why I found myself on Expedia the other night checking out flights from St. Louis (where I'll be spending Thanksgiving) to Reno that Friday. Nevada is playing at a very high level right now, ranked fourth nationally in total offense (529 yards per game). Last season it went 7-0 in the league prior to facing Boise, but that team lost three games out of conference; this team spanked Cal and won at (admittedly down) BYU. But that game's a long ways away, and there's no question both teams will largely be out of sight, out of mind until then.

Stewart, Do you think the UCLA victory over Texas is going to be a "turning point" for the program or just another big isolated victory? Since 2000, UCLA has nonconference victories over Alabama (twice), Tennessee (twice), Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma. Yet they haven't been able to follow any of these other, potentially program-defining victories with any continued success.-- Jason Kingston, Los Angeles

The reason UCLA wasn't able to capitalize on most of those other victories was because it was coached by Bob Toledo and Karl Dorrell. With Rick Neuheisel, I do believe the Bruins have the right guy in charge now, but I don't know that the Texas game will prove to be an immediate "turning point." It was an extremely important win for him, especially in light of the way the season started, because it should infuse some confidence in the fan base and show people that the staff does in fact have a plan in place.

Like I talked about earlier with LSU and Texas, Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow took a huge risk in committing themselves full-time to the Pistol offense. Many teams, including No. 1 Alabama, have incorporated the formation (quarterback in the shotgun with the tailback behind him), but UCLA is the first BCS-conference team to switch entirely to Nevada's patented offense. Chow told me the Bruins initially discussed going to an Oregon-style spread, but instead visited Reno and took to the Pistol because it allows for more of a traditional downhill running attack. Mind you, neither had any prior experience with this style of offense, but it sure looked good against Texas.

The Bruins still have too many talent deficiencies, and a very shaky quarterback, to make a run at the Pac-10 title, but they're well positioned to make a run in the coming years due both to their own recruiting efforts and the anticipated toll cross-town rival USC will take due to its NCAA sanctions. The Texas game may seem like an aberration later this season but it will certainly serve as a landmark moment when the program turns the corner, most likely next season.

How does Arkansas almost beat the No. 1 team in the country and then drop five spots in the AP poll?-- Jamie, Dallas

Please don't view the inclusion of this question as an excuse to start bombing me with complaints about your favorite team's ranking, but this one brings up a particular pet peeve of mine. If you're a pollster and you genuinely believed, going into Saturday, that Alabama was the No. 1 team in the country and Arkansas the 10th best, then the Razorbacks performed as well, if not better, than they should have. If anything, it validated their ranking. Yet any team that loses to anyone automatically drops five or six spots. Where's the context?

Because voters place such a premium on the "0" in your loss column, the Razorbacks fell behind a Wisconsin team that's beaten Arizona State (barely) and three nobodies, an LSU team with one of the nation's worst offenses and a Utah team whose opponents to date are a combined 3-12. For a more sensible way to fill out an AP ballot, see my colleague Andy Staples, who has Arkansas 14th -- the same place he had the Razorbacks last week.

Speaking as a fellow Northwestern alum, it seems to me the 4-0 'Cats have a shot at winning their first eight games. I only mention that because it seems to me that as good as Denard Robinson and Terrelle Pryor have been, there is another QB in the Big Ten who should be getting some attention. Dan Persa (the nation's third-rated passer) has played way beyond expectations.-- David, Rockville, Md.

Indeed, the first half of Northwestern's Big Ten schedule -- at Minnesota, vs. Purdue and Michigan State and at Indiana -- sets up where anything less than 7-1 would be considered disappointing. And because the Big Ten's schedule-makers seem to have a permanent soft spot for the Wildcats, they miss both Ohio State and Michigan. But the school makes its own nonconference schedule, so I view NU the same way I would any team that chose to start against Vanderbilt, Illinois State, Rice and Central Michigan -- as a squad that's yet to prove anything.

Persa does look pretty good, though.

You had a great weekend with your picks (going 9-1). You even picked the NC State upset. Congrats!-- Andy McCall, Dallas

Wow, someone besides my editor actually noticed. And when I say someone -- I literally mean one person. Thanks for the e-mail, Andy.

From Stewart Mandel's College Football Mailbag, 9/22/10:

"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)

"Texas' defense? It's so freaking good ... 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?" (You)

I don't really know where I'm going with this, but I guess you just can't win for losing.-- Kevin Bobbett, Seoul, South Korea

No, no you can't. I didn't even include Texas-UCLA in my picks because it seemed like such a foregone conclusion. Well, at least I can take comfort in knowing Bill and his daughter got their comeuppance. Take that, you know-it-all 10-year old.

(Wait ... have I really resorted to smack-talking 10-year-olds? That can't be a good sign.)