By Stewart Mandel
December 15, 2010

Recently, a couple of fan bases have dug up my old articles to remind me that some of my initial assessments of coaching hires have been a bit off the mark in recent years. Most notably, there was the infamous "Chizik has Zero Chance to Succeed" column, which I've now been e-mailed several hundred times from Auburn fans. (In my defense, I wonder how many of those same fans felt the same way at the time.) Last weekend, after Arkansas gave Bobby Petrino a contract extension that includes a $1 trillion buyout (actually $18 million, which is still remarkably high), a few Razorbacks fans came armed with this 2007 gem, which predicted Petrino would have fled town by now. (In my defense, he'd changed jobs twice in 11 months. Vegas would have given me 1:1 odds.)

Undaunted, folks keep asking me to stare into my crystal ball and predict the future fortunes or failures of coaches who've yet to even hire their first staff members -- and I'll keep indulging, because what fun would the Mailbag be without wild, ripe-for-future-mockery prognostication attempts?

The once and mighty former BIG 3 -- FSU, Florida and Miami -- all have their head coaches. Let's look ahead to 2013. Who in your opinion will be in better shape as a football program when that day comes?-- Brad Sontag, Jacksonville, Fla.

Are you serious? I'd have a better chance of predicting the price of oil in 2013.

First thing's first: Florida (with Will Muschamp) and Miami (with Al Golden) both made excellent hires. The recruiting wars in that state are going to be epic over the next few years. FSU's Jimbo Fisher has a leg up as the sudden elder statesman of the group, but Muschamp and Golden won't take long to catch up. Muschamp's experience in the SEC at both LSU and Auburn will pay dividends, and Golden should be able to extend Miami's reach along the East Coast.

In the short term, FSU and Miami should take back state supremacy for the first time in nearly a decade. The 'Noles are already on the right track. They won their division this year and should be even better next year. Golden, meanwhile, is inheriting a ready-made winner in Coral Gables. How many coaches walk into a place boasting a three-year starting quarterback (Jacory Harris), his anointed successor (Stephen Morris) and a junior and senior class stocked with former four- and five-star recruits? The ACC may well get its long-awaited FSU-Miami title game next year.

Muschamp will have some rebuilding to do in Gainesville, but it won't take long. Lest we forget, Urban Meyer recruited the No. 1 class in the country last February. There's a lot of young talent in that program. I would be shocked if the Gators aren't back in the SEC Championship Game in two years, and I'd be shocked if they aren't in the thick of the national hunt in 2013. The national landscape has changed considerably since the FSU/Miami heyday. Florida has won two national titles in the last five years and plays in the most revered conference in the country. It has an inherent advantage over the other two. All three programs will be strong over the next several years, but by 2013, Florida should be the strongest.

Leaders and Legends??? Seriously???--Adam Pence, Kalamazoo, Mich.

Is there anything redeeming about the new Big Ten division names? I feel ridiculous saying them out loud and will do anything I can to avoid doing so. In my opinion, whatever they were trying to accomplish completely backfired.-- Kevin, Cincinnati

Like most of you, I cringed -- both as a college football fan and a Big Ten alum -- when those names were uttered. My initial reaction: Could they come off any more condescending? Is the Big Ten the only league that produces legends and leaders? (Though it's nice to know I am a legend.) Then I started thinking about the potential ramifications for sportswriters: "Ohio State, the Big Ten Leaders Division co-leader..." So we have that to look forward to. But this clearly had Jim Delany's stamp all over it -- always looking to be a trendsetter, always with one eye on the marketing possibilities -- so I thought it fair to get reaction from the source himself.

"We were monitoring the blogs and media coverage from the get-go. I think we've got a good handle on where the criticism is," Delany told me Tuesday. "The area where we were most surprised was the very strong negative reaction on the divisional names. I guess it's like submitting a book to the publisher and hoping there were no red marks on the return."

Delany said the decisions on both the names and the new logo were made in-house ("Ultimately, I take full responsibility") and that he knows they're "risky." The league considered going the "safe" route and doing something geographical, but, "Because it's the Midwest, there's really only one Eastern institution [Penn State] and maybe two or three Western institutions. We could have done Lakes and Prairies, but some of our schools are in major metropolitan markets and some of our institutions don't border lakes." They also decided against the popularly theorized Bo/Woody or Grange/Kinnick variety, instead incorporating specific names into a bunch of new trophies.

Essentially, no obvious names jumped off the page after the initial decision to put competitive balance ahead of geography in dividing the teams. So the Big Ten went outside the box and opted for a thematic approach that matches a lot of its promotional programming. "We probably broke some rules, and when you break rules and don't conform to etiquette, you're going to get some pushback," said Delany. "But I hope we get the opportunity to experiment, and that people gives us a chance to do it."

From a purely football standpoint, I don't see how the names will be anything but confusing to fans both inside and outside the conference. It's going to be hard enough figuring out which teams are on which side. Then again, I'm the same guy who never imagined the Big Ten Network being successful. And I know a lot of people 20 years ago thought the idea of Penn State joining the league was certifiably crazy. If we can accept a 12-team league calling itself the Big Ten, maybe we'll eventually accept Legends and Leaders -- but not before at least three years' worth of punchlines. (For example, do you consider Iowa receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos a leader or a legend?)

I read your article on Cam Newton's speech, and I liked it, but I still find fault with it. Like many of your fellow sports journalists, you still seem to take Cam Newton's side just because of his play. DOES ANYBODY CARE ABOUT THE RULES? So what, the NCAA cleared him to play. They only did so because they couldn't establish enough evidence to keep him from playing. What is wrong with America? In continuing to praise Cam Newton even in light of this alleged scandal, it sends a message that grown adults merely value an individual human's ability to play a GAME over anything else.-- Rob, Columbus, Ohio

It's been interesting to follow the arc of reaction to the Newton saga. The one recurring theme is that at every stop along the way, someone's been angry about something. Prior to the NCAA's decision, it was mostly Auburn fans angry over the perceived persecution of their beloved star. When the NCAA cleared him, the rest of the country turned its ire toward the organization for letting a seemingly egregious violation by Newton's father go unpunished. And then when it came time for the Heisman, some people were angry at the voters who chose to make a statement and leave Newton off the ballot, and others (like Rob) were angry at those of us who did vote for Newton.

While I understand the latter sentiment, it seems entirely misdirected. As Rob said, the NCAA "couldn't establish enough evidence to keep him from playing." So you're saying that the media should step in and do what the NCAA didn't despite the same lack of evidence? How would you feel if I (or any other objective journalist) treated all stories that way? Example: I have no hard proof of any wrongdoing by Coach X, but the word on the street is he cheats, so I'm going to write a story saying so. That's National Enquirer stuff. So while I have the same suspicions as everyone else regarding Newton's situation, you'll have to forgive me if I'm unwilling to hang the guy based solely on suspicions.

I completely understand your view that Cam Newton should address the issues surrounding his father. However, I do not understand how specifics would help clarify the situation. Maybe Cam knew, maybe he didn't, but him divulging anymore information about his recruitment by Mississippi State or Auburn would, in my opinion, only provide more fodder for dissection and scrutiny. Call me naive, but I think "no comment" is the best option for himself and Auburn University.-- Matt Connor, Montgomery, Ala.

Obviously, "no comment" is the safe route toward avoiding any further scrutiny. But in terms of public perception, Newton's not doing himself any favors by continuing to proceed as if nothing happened. We know something happened. We know his father asked Mississippi State for $180,000. Both Auburn and the NCAA agreed to this as fact. It is no longer allegation or innuendo. Yet in Newton's world, it's just a little nuisance from his past that he's choosing to dance around even after he's been cleared of any wrongdoing himself.

I went both to an informal press gathering with Newton the day before the ceremony (him sitting at a table with about 15 reporters around him) and his press conference afterward, and while he was perfectly pleasant and engaging, it all still felt ... disingenuous. I didn't expect him to sit down and spill the beans for all to hear, and I realize it's not entirely fair for him to have to answer questions about his father's actions. All I was looking for was a simple acknowledgment of and remorse over the incident. Something as simple as: "My family made some mistakes during my recruitment, I feel terrible about it, and I'm grateful to the NCAA for the way they handled my case." That's it. He'd immediately be more sympathetic.

Instead, he just keeps flashing that smile, hamming it up on David Letterman and continuing to play the role of victim. Sorry, Cam, not buying it. Most of the public sees you as someone who was party to an egregious rules violation and got away with it. Just because you're in the clear doesn't mean you can't be remorseful.

USC was able to somewhat withstand the current of NCAA sanctions through the hiring of Lane Kiffin, and it looks like they may be able to stay moderately respectable until the sanctions are lifted. How is Texas going rebound from a disastrous season when they have to replace half of the coaching staff at the same time?-- Thomas, Stamford, Conn.

I'm not sure the two situations are comparable. USC went 8-5 this year with a relatively full roster. Over the next three years, it's going to lose 30 scholarships. The Trojans may have a slightly better record next season before the sanctions fully kick in, but make no mistake, their worst years are still ahead. Meanwhile, Texas hit bottom this year, and while it wasn't pretty, at least there are no restrictions getting in the way of its rebuilding process.

Mack Brown's program is about to undergo a complete overhaul in its coaching staff, which is no small chore. But it's a task made much more manageable by the fact that it's still Texas. Brown has the luxury of choosing pretty much anyone he wants. Money is not an issue. And recruits (particularly in-state) are going to want to play there regardless of the staff. That appeal that carried Brown and the Longhorns to all those recruiting titles and 10-win seasons didn't wear off in three months' time. I don't know how long it will take for Brown to get his team back to the top 10, but I'm a lot more confident in his abilities to get there than I am in USC's abilities to overcome crippling blows to its talent level and depth.

Stewart, three out of the four Heisman finalists that went to New York were West Coast guys, and half of the top 10 vote recipients are from the West Coast (Stanford with two, then one from Oregon, Boise State, Nevada). Is this one of the strongest years for West Coast players and the Heisman?-- Tim, Portland, Ore.

Without question. In 2004, the winner (Matt Leinart) and two finalists (Reggie Bush and Alex Smith) were Westerners. In 1988, Pac-10 quarterbacks came in second (USC's Rodney Peete), third (UCLA's Troy Aikman) and seventh (Washington State's Timm Rosenbach). In 1979 and '81, USC players (Charles White and Marcus Allen, respectively) won, BYU quarterbacks (Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon) finished third and Pac-10 players (USC's Paul McDonald and Stanford's Darrin Nelson) finished sixth. That's as close as I could find in the course of my admittedly rushed research.

Obviously, chalk it up to an abundance of good players and good teams in the Pacific and Mountain time zones this year, but also look at it as the definitive sign that the long-held East Coast Heisman bias is dead. It was once very real, even within the last 10 years. There's a reason Oregon felt the need to put up that New York billboard for Joey Harrington in 2001. Nobody outside the Pac-10 knew who he was. But the sport is truly national today, thanks to the explosion of televised games and national coverage. Certainly, the SEC still gets more national coverage, but that's not why Newton won the Heisman. If he'd thrown four interceptions in the Iron Bowl, I have no doubt Andrew Luck or LaMichael James would have overtaken him.

The current bowl system is bloated -- 70 bowl teams. From what I understand some schools even lose money taking a bowl trip. Some of the matchups are HORRIBLE (Troy and Ohio). I know the NCAA cannot just automatically tell a bowl to take a hike, so I propose a solution to trimming the fat from the college football post season: Why doesn't the NCAA raise the requirements to get into a bowl game? How about seven wins instead of six? Or how about you must have seven wins AND be at least .500 in conference play?-- Josh, Oklahoma City, Okla.

I would be all for that, but the NCAA is not. Over the past decade, its bowl licensing committee has adopted a hands-off, free-market philosophy: If you've got a stadium, a sponsor and a conference partner or two, you can stage a bowl, so long as there will still be enough eligible teams. This year the committee even granted four-year licenses for the first time rather than requiring recertification every year. Obviously, the eligibility requirements go hand in hand with that. If the committee were to adopt the criteria you suggest, it would fall well short of 70 eligible teams, some games would be forced to shut down and there'd be lawsuits galore.

It's hard to believe that in 1997, a year before the BCS started, there were just 20 bowls. Since teams played 11 games, they had to finish above .500. In most cases six wins still wasn't enough. But that's before ESPN became so heavily invested in the bowl business (it owns and operates seven of the games and airs all but three of them). Bowls are great programming. Even the most insignificant ones deliver solid ratings during an otherwise lackluster time of year for networks. As long as you've got ESPN and a sponsor subsidizing your game, it doesn't matter if the teams are 6-6 or there are only 20,000 people in the stands. You can still afford the modest payouts. Meanwhile, BCS money shared by the conferences helps offset team expenses. The players get their bowl gifts, the coaches get their extra practices, and you have something to watch on a Tuesday night in late December.

Or, as the case may be, this Saturday at 2 p.m., when BYU-UTEP kicks off the bowl slate. It's as if the season never ended.

The Mailbag is taking a week off for the holidays but will return Dec. 29.

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