By Stewart Mandel
April 20, 2011

It's 2011, and everything about college football moves faster now, from the offenses to the recruiting calendar to the media cycle. (One notable exception: NCAA investigations.) In that spirit, the Mailbag is making the earliest debut of its nine-year history this week, for two reasons. One, I'm getting married May 29, at which point I plan to vanish for a month, so I figured we'd squeeze a few more editions in beforehand. And two -- most college football fans want to read about college football no matter what time of year. Duh.

Obviously, much of the content in this space over the next four months will involve attempts at preseason prophesy -- which leaves me open to being incredibly wrong. The first edition of 2010 included this unfortunate line in regards to Alabama's prospects: "The Tide have some questions, no doubt. But ... who in the SEC is going to beat them?" Whoops. However, how about this for a redemptive signoff: "I have a feeling it's going to be a very eventful summer in college athletics. I'm not buying into Jim Delany's 'timetables' and 'evaluations.' Something tells me we're going to have plenty to talk about."

For the sake of my forthcoming honeymoon bliss, I'd greatly prefer a more uneventful summer this year. Just enough new material to sneak into the Mailbag each week would be great. And we'll be a little cheerier in these parts if those developments don't involve bowl corruption, booster payments, unethical-conduct charges, agent scandals or any of the other variety of dirt that has overwhelmed the sport for nearly a year, though that's probably asking too much.

In the meantime, I welcome your questions, so long as they follow the traditional guidelines:

1) The more concise the e-mail, the better the chance of it being published. 2) Kindly devise a more creative way of asking "How will my team do this year?"3) If there's a chance your e-mail might impinge on a federal investigation or requires my confidentiality, please say so directly.

We begin with a question regarding ... the beginning of the season.

With the LSU-Oregon matchup, a potential top-three matchup, the first week of the 2011 season, which team is most likely to fall out of the top 10 first and which one has the better shot at the national championship?-- Pearce C, Baton Rouge, La.

First of all, there really ought to be a way to reward teams for scheduling matchups like these -- and along with that, we should be leery of punishing the losers too harshly. If the voters really do feel these are the second and third-best teams in the country, and provided the game is not a blowout, I'd urge the pollsters not to drop the loser very far. Nonconference schedules are growing increasingly uninteresting, as this recent Oregonian feature comprehensively documented, and with good reason: In a poll-based sport, LSU would be rewarded more for scheduling and beating McNeese State 72-0 than losing to last year's national runner-up on a last-second field goal.

Having said that, voters would also be wise to temper their expectations for Oregon. Conventional wisdom says a team that played for the national title last season and returns stars like Darron Thomas, LaMichael James and Cliff Harris gets automatically put on the short list of this year's title contenders. To do so, however, is to overlook the Ducks' considerable losses on the offensive line (three starters) and, more notably, on defense, where a slew of heart-of-the-team kind of guys (linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, D-linemen Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe) are gone. Oregon will still contend for the Pac-12 crown, but this is not another top-five team. Meanwhile, LSU has the same lingering question it's had for four years -- quarterback -- but that didn't stop the Tigers from winning 11 last year, and this team will be more experienced. They will be the favorites in Arlington on Sept. 3.

What does Jim Tressel's suspension actually entail? Is he suspended only for game days, or is he away from the program for five weeks? Unlike the players, a coach's contribution to the outcome of a game is in the preparation and game plan. It's not really much of a punishment if he can do everything but stand on the sideline.-- Al Caniglia, Belmopan, Belize

It's true, he'll still be in charge of the program every day but Saturday, but do you really think it's not a punishment for the guy who puts in all that work and preparation to have to then watch the fruits of his labor on television from somewhere outside the stadium? Or to not be there with his players during the heat of competition? It's going to sting quite a bit.

The question is whether five games of said excruciation is a severe enough punishment for a guy that brazenly flouted one of the NCAA's most basic tenets (to, you know, comply with rules). Most are presuming the answer is no, and with good reason. Thanks to some meticulous research by my colleague Andy Staples, we know that since 1989, 159 of the 172 coaches or administrators accused of violating NCAA Bylaw 10.1 (unethical conduct) either resigned or were terminated. But those decisions were made by the schools and the individuals themselves. If and when the Ohio State case reaches the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, that body could invoke a show-cause penalty, essentially forcing the school's hand. However, it's way too early in the process to predict whether the case will come to that.

Is there any way the Fiesta Bowl will continue to be a BCS bowl amid the illegal political donations, corruption and unchecked spending of the bowl's former CEO? And if the Fiesta gets kicked out of the BCS, why wouldn't the Orange and Sugar be under similar scrutiny for their own improprieties?-- Rob, Kansas City

There's no way to tell how the Fiesta Bowl mess will play out because we have nothing to compare it to. The BCS is only a 13-year-old conglomeration, and it's never before had to deal with gross misconduct by one of its bowls. But the latter point Rob makes is a good one. No matter what the BCS' self-appointed task force determines as to whether the Fiesta Bowl "demonstrate[s] why it should remain a BCS bowl game," the commissioners must realize they're walking a slippery slope. To be clear, there's nothing to suggest the other bowls have done anything illegal, but if you were to scrutinize the ledgers at the Sugar or Orange Bowls, there's a chance you would find plenty of similarly lavish spending (like the Orange Bowl's all-inclusive Royal Caribbean cruise for college administrators). If the BCS sets the precedent, would it run the risk of having to replace other bowls down the line, and, in doing so, further damage the credibility of an already tenuous organization?

The irony of John Junker's demise was that he was not a big fan of the BCS himself. In many conversations over the years, it was apparent he'd become increasingly disenchanted with a system in which the bowls have little say in which teams they select, and he was definitely the most vocal of the four BCS bowl CEOs in support of a plus-one. Never could I have guessed that Junker's own indiscretions might lead to the two parties eventually divorcing. At this point, though, I still consider it an unlikely outcome.

The Notre Dame QB competition seems cloudier than ever after the conclusion of spring ball. Do you think having four viable options at QB with varying skill sets will prove a good or bad thing for the Irish?-- Luke, Estero, Fla.

I don't think it's as murky as Brian Kelly would have you believe. Dayne Crist is Notre Dame's quarterback. He's talented and savvy enough, and he's got more experience than the other three. Barring an unexpected development, he'll be the starting quarterback in the fall, and I believe he's poised for a very big year. But Crist has also gotten hurt each of the past two years. And before that, at Cincinnati, Kelly lost his starting quarterback for multiple games in both 2008 and '09. So he knows more than anyone the importance of having more than one capable guy ready to go at any moment and will continue to develop Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix accordingly.

But I also get the sense, both from Kelly's comments and the way he deployed him in the spring game, that he knows freshman early-enrollee Everett Golson is the Irish's quarterback of the future. A guy that can both run and pass is the ideal fit for his spread offense. The question is, does that future begin this fall, using Golson in situational packages a la Urban Meyer with then-freshman Tim Tebow in 2006? Or, with three other quarterbacks available, does he redshirt him and create more spacing between the classes? Either way, it's hard to imagine juggling all four guys for the next two seasons. Somebody's going to get lost in the shuffle.

Do you ever see Wisconsin going from an upper middle-class program to one of the elites? While I do enjoy the occasional Rose Bowl run, I would love to see them playing for a national championship.-- Chris, Milwaukee

The Badgers weren't that far off last season. Some years 11-1 is good enough to get to the national championship game, some years it's not. It depends on the rest of the field. But in general, it's only realistic to think Wisconsin will make that kind of run once every three or four years. It is not by nature a program built to reload year-in, year-out, nor does it generally recruit the caliber of athletes that assures an annual spot in the Top 10.

Dating to Barry Alvarez's tenure, Wisconsin is built on recruiting a certain type of player that fits a specific style of play and generally requires a few years of development. When all the pieces come together and the Badgers have a year with a lot of junior and senior standouts on both sides of the line and a reliable quarterback, they can rise up and go on a run like last season's. And with the addition of the Big Ten championship game, that's one more chance to impress voters and maybe move up that last notch from Rose Bowl to title game. In the meantime, Chris, appreciate the fact that your program has won at least nine games in six of the past seven seasons. Not many can say that.

How do you think BYU's status as independent affects the way people evaluate them. Do they get more respect for standing on their own, or do they get less attention by leaving the conference structure?-- Greg, Des Moines, Iowa

The closer it gets, the more and more I like the move. For one thing, the Cougars are going to be on widely seen national television (ESPN) far more often, and they're going to be able to play a more appealing schedule than they did in the Mountain West. You won't be fully seeing that yet this year, but even on less than a year's notice with most dates, they were able to land Ole Miss, Texas, Utah, UCF, Oregon State and TCU for this season. (The rest are mostly WAC opponents.) Boise State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and West Virginia come on in future years. By 2013, they will likely be playing a schedule that's not quite Notre Dame-like but still tougher and more compelling than they played in the Mountain West.

The one area that remains to be seen is how it will affect BYU's bowl prospects. On the one hand, the Cougars may have better BCS access -- considering the competition, they won't necessarily have to go undefeated to attain a high enough ranking, and their fan base makes them an appealing at-large pick for most bowls -- but may have few appealing options beyond that. Much like Army and Navy do, the school has already locked in conditional bids to the Poinsettia Bowl in 2012 and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in '13. (They'll have to take whatever's left this season.) Those are the same caliber games the Cougars were getting in the Mountain West. It will be interesting to see if they can land something better during the next four-year cycle.

Hmm. Have you noticed most of the questions so far have had little to do with actual football? Because this guy has.

Stewart, over time, and especially last year, fans and the media have spent increasingly more time focusing on issues such as rules violations, a playoff system, TV contracts, etc., and increasingly less time focusing on the players and the game of college football itself. Talking about peripheral stuff is getting old. This year, can you lead the charge in making a push to have more spirited debates about the games and players themselves? We desperately need to get back to our roots because I don't like where this train is headed.-- Brad, Charlotte, N.C.

It has certainly been the most tarnished year of college football since I've been covering the beat, and it's left a lot of us feeling pretty disenchanted. Believe me, I'd love nothing more than to focus on the game itself, but to ignore some of the issues out there right now would be very superficial of me as a writer, and I have to believe most fans that truly care about the game are concerned about these subjects, too (maybe some more than others). Having said that, it seems to me the media keeps harping on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs in other sports well past the point most fans have made it clear they no longer care, so I'm going to try my best to maintain some balance between the "peripherals" of the sport and the sport itself.

One thing you will not be seeing in this space: Over-the-top hand-wringing over the supposed hypocrisy of college sports and the "broken" system. Yes, there are plenty of things wrong with college athletics, but this is not a new development. Bear Bryant was orchestrating booster payments at Texas A&M back in the 1950s. The SMU death penalty case was roughly 25 years ago. The sport is considerably cleaner now than it was then, but that line of thinking doesn't make for provocative television specials.

The one thing that's changed from then to now is the staggering amounts of revenue now at play, which some suggest is leading to more corruption -- but that's because the sport has never been more popular. We can't have it both ways. We want to be entertained, we want to be able to watch every possible game on television, we want our teams to win national titles, hire the best coach, have the best facilities, the coolest stadium scoreboards -- but then we act shocked and disgusted at the fact that it requires large amounts of money to achieve these things, and that some figures act inappropriately in the face of it all. Unfortunately, to be a college football fan means accepting that the sport has its share of warts. But then, find me one that doesn't.

On that note ... you can look forward to more uplifting diatribes like that one in the weeks and months to come. I'm also open to suggestions for any new Mailbag segments you'd like to see this season. Perhaps I'll turn the tables and ask you guys for marital advice.

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