By Stewart Mandel
May 04, 2011

The state of Alabama has produced college football's past two national champions. It has also produced an endless string of headlines -- some scandalous, some absurd, but all the product of a rabid passion for college football.

Right now, however, a lot of people in that state are hurting. The pictures and videos that surfaced after last week's deadly tornadoes were staggering and heartbreaking. As of this writing, officials were reporting at least 45 dead and more than 300 missing in Tuscaloosa, where hundreds of homes were destroyed. At least 236 people died throughout the state. President Obama visited Tuscaloosa last week and proclaimed he'd "never seen devastation like this."

Football fans, Alabama could use your help. Sports Illustrated this week launched an Alabama Relief Auction in which fans can bid on a series of iconic Crimson Tide photos and covers. All proceeds will benefit the Red Cross' relief efforts. If you're by chance an Auburn fan, or if you simply don't need a Bear Bryant poster, you can of course donate directly to the Red Cross.

College football wouldn't be college football without the bitterness and the rivalries, but I'm hoping this is one time when fans can put aside their affiliations and come together for a greater cause.

And now on to the mail:

Now that more of these huge TV megadeals like the Pac-12's are coming in from different conferences based largely on the popularity of college football's extremely popular regular season, how much money do you think is really being left on the table by not going to a playoff?-- Taylor Cooke, Austin, Texas

You hit the nail on the head, Taylor, and it's something I touched on in my column from last week's BCS meetings. The playoff zealots keep telling us that the schools and conferences are committing a grave injustice by refusing to pursue the hypothetical windfall that would come from a hypothetical playoff. Well, there's nothing hypothetical about the Pac-12's staggering new contracts with ESPN and Fox. According to The New York Times, the deals are worth a combined $250 million per year -- and that's before additional revenue from a forthcoming Pac-12 Network. That's about nine times more than the league made from the BCS last season ($28 million) and about 17 times more than it made from the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament ($14.7 million). Each school will earn more than a $20 million share. And to get a sense of just how rapidly things have escalated, consider that just seven years ago no conference was yet earning $10 million per team.

And you wonder why these guys talk so much about protecting the regular season?

Now, it's not like these numbers would go down if college football suddenly adopted a playoff tomorrow (in most cases the contracts are locked in for 12-15 years). And some estimates do suggest that a playoff would net three to four times what the BCS contract does. But first of all, that doesn't mean each of the conferences would automatically make three to four times as much. An NCAA-sponsored tournament would require certain operating costs, would likely follow a performance-based distribution method and would be spread more evenly among all 11 conferences. And the well for TV sports properties is going to dry up at some point.

So if you're the Big 12 or Pac-12 and you're already reasonably pleased with the sport the way it is, and now the networks are suddenly tripling and quadrupling your revenue stream the way it is -- what's your incentive for change?

Answer: There isn't one.

Let me get this straight: Boise's program has "lack of institutional control" because tennis had a non-student play (OK, that's seriously stupid) and 21 other MINOR violations that included a bunch of players not paying to sleep on teammates' couches while they waited on getting their own rooms a few days later? The NCAA thinks crashing on a couch is improper benefits??? I best be getting my 50 cents back for that coke I gave Danny Wuerrfel back in 1996 or the Gators might have to give back their title!-- Tom Merritt, Oxford, England

If ever there were a definitive case for blowing up the entire NCAA enforcement process and starting from scratch, CouchGate (as I'm now calling it) is it.

In fairness, just because tennis isn't as popular as football doesn't mean its coaches and players should get a free-pass on rules violations, and it sounds like Boise State's coach went all-out rogue. (You can read the details here.) But according to the school's "summary of NCAA inquiry," the lack of institutional control charge was a result of combining the tennis case with a whole bunch of other minor offenses, like football's, and concluding (I'm paraphrasing here) that the school failed to adequately educate its coaches and staff on rules and regulations and did not properly monitor the athletics program. NCAA translation: Your compliance people have no idea what they're doing. (And that's hardly surprising considering the school apparently employed 1.5 full-time compliance officers.)

The ruling makes sense within the context of the NCAA's existing enforcement structure, but makes no sense to a reasoned general public. In what logical world does misinterpreting or disobeying obscure rules about lodging merit the NCAA's most serious charge, but a head coach (Jim Tressel) lying about knowledge of rules violations that would have rendered five of his best players ineligible doesn't? It's cases like these that have people across the sport -- including prominent commissioners like Mike Slive -- encouraging the NCAA to reexamine its enforcement model.

Interestingly, next week about 20 other writers from around the country and I will be participating in the NCAA's first-ever mock enforcement exercise, where we'll be given a hypothetical case and will get to see for ourselves what goes into investigating and penalizing a school. Hopefully I'll come back with a better understanding of how something like CouchGate occurs -- because right now I'm as baffled as Tom.

Congratulations on the nuptials, Stewart. Married for 13 years and The Redhead says I still love married life! Enjoy!

You can pretty well guess by my hometown who my team is. Can you make heads or tails of the quarterback situation at LSU? Does Les Miles stick stubbornly to his seniors, Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee? Does he throw all in on juco transfer Zach Mettenberger? There's no cupcake to warm up with as the Tigers open in Dallas against Oregon.-- Ron Fuchs, Baton Rouge, La.

Miles' message coming out of the spring game -- in which the oft-maligned Jefferson went 4-of-14 for 102 yards, two fumbles and an interception -- went like this: "Kindly disregard what you saw here. Jordan Jefferson is still our starter. He was fantastic the entire spring before today (unfortunately none of you got to see it), and we even gave him a leadership award." Tigers fans hoping former Georgia Bulldog Mettenberger would come in and usurp Jefferson were obviously disappointed.

I don't doubt that Jefferson improved this spring, but he's not suddenly going to morph into an elite passer after three years, new offensive coordinator or not. So Miles' continued loyalty to Jefferson either means that Mettenbeger still has a ways to go to make this a legit competition, or that Miles is trying to deflate some of the expectations hovering over a guy who has yet to take an SEC snap and has had only three weeks of practice. Perhaps Mettenbeger will make his run in fall camp. But remember, LSU managed to win 11 games last year using Jefferson and Lee, so Miles is only going to rock the boat if he's absolutely certain the new guy makes the Tigers better.

Ah, to be an Auburn fan and thus the proverbial stepbrother in the state of Alabama. Our team finally wins a title but no one can let the Cam Newton scandal go. Our beloved oaks get poisoned by a lunatic. And the first reference you make to Momma Goldberg's is for a branch in Tuscaloosa? Seriously, Stewart? Head to the original (it's what a college sandwich shop should look like) and get a Momma's Love all the way.-- Randy, Canton, Ga.

I should have known better than to try to fake any sort of culinary expertise. The first time I do, I show off my ignorance and potentially touch off the next Auburn-Alabama feud. Therefore, I'm going to resign my role as Sandwich Guru after just a week. But before I do, I should probably let you know (based on reader recommendations) to hit The Pot Belly Deli in Clemson; Hogan's Heroes in Gainesville; Zingerman's (a personal favorite) in Ann Arbor; Macri's Deli in South Bend; So Long Saloon in Manhattan, Kan.; and the world-famous Grease Truck at Rutgers. (Word of warning: Do not go near the Grease Truck if you have any sort of cholesterol issues.)

As a fellow Northwestern alum and hard-core sandwich aficionado, may I submit the roast beef with blue cheese sauce on a baguette from Al's on Noyes St. as a contender? Also, assuming our man Dan Persa is back to at least 85 percent come September, do you see the 'Cats as a top five team in the new Big Ten?-- Jeremy, Tenafly, N.J.

I've been told by many of you over the years that you read the Mailbag during your lunch break, which is good, because I would not want to read this week's edition on an empty stomach.

Persa was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the Big Ten when he went down -- and Northwestern was 7-3 at the time -- so certainly his health is the make-or-break issue surrounding the Wildcats this season. But that in itself is part of the problem: Northwestern was too dependent on Persa last year, and once he went down, its season was shot. The defense collapsed late last season, too, but injuries were a factor and that unit should be much improved.

As I mentioned when writing about Iowa last week, that division with most of the western-based schools is fairly wide open, so the Wildcats could certainly finish near the top. But they need to rediscover the running game (sophomore Mike Trumpy seemed to come on late last year) that mysteriously vanished the past couple of years.

Any word on when the NCAA will get around to (probably) hammering UNC? I realize that the NCAA usually takes a while in these cases, but at this rate, it might be midseason before the Heels know if they're allowed to play in a bowl this year.-- Brian Murdock, Charlotte

At this point, either the program has long since been cleared and no one told us, or we're not going to find out about sanctions for another two years. Believe it or not, UNC has not even received a formal Letter of Inquiry yet. That's the step that comes at the beginning of an investigation, usually well before the notice of actual findings, which itself precedes the hearing before the Committee on Infractions, which ultimately issues a ruling. Ohio State is about to go through that entire process in a roughly seven-month window; it's been 10 months since the first headlines about Marvin Austin and agents, and apparently, UNC's process hasn't even begun.

The NCAA doesn't comment on investigations past, present or future, so I have no informed insight to give you other than that the issues at UNC were obviously far more complicated and tangled than the fairly cut-and-dry Ohio State case. The situation presumably got muddier when one of the main parties allegedly involved, agent Gary Wichard, passed away from pancreatic cancer in March. Here's an educated but admittedly blind guess: The NCAA may be waiting to piggyback off the North Carolina Secretary of State's investigation, which, as of early April, was still very much active and had the benefit of subpoena power. Remember: It took more than four years from the time of the first Yahoo! report about Reggie Bush for actual sanctions to be issued against USC, by which measure UNC could still be in the very early stages.

Which brings us back to the whole NCAA enforcement process/blow-the-whole-thing-up matter.

I have a new conspiracy theory. It seems as if your decision to end the Mailbag Crush coincided with your relationship with your soon-to-be wife.-- Paul Kemp, Birmingham, Ala.

Busted ... sort of. My fiancee and I were already dating the last time I named a Mailbag Crush (Katy Mixon, who sadly showed up on just one Eastbound and Down episode last season), but it's true that there has been no new Crush since the engagement. It could be a coincidence, it could be a subconscious thing or it could just be that the gag got old, because my bride-to-be was actually fine with the Crush continuing. In fact, she enjoys it whenever I write about TV, celebrities or anything else that breaks up the boring (to her) football segments of the Mailbag.

In light of the recent Fiesta Bowl fiasco ... is it really necessary for bowl execs to travel around the country (in garish blazers, no less) and "view" each team in the weeks leading up to the bowl season? I don't know for certain, but I would imagine that they are living pretty high on the hog when they travel around the country to watch teams play live. Other than the junket aspect of this ... is anything gained from these trips? Wouldn't it be more cost effective to just stay home and watch 10 games on TV like I do each Saturday? Talk about corruption.-- Alex, Caldwell, N.J.

No question, the blazers are a relic of the old bowl era, when teams didn't play on TV every week and matchups were brokered before the season even ended. Nowadays many bowls practically have their participants decided for them, or are left to choose between at most one or two teams. There is no actual "scouting" necessary.

But keep in mind, other than during the very biggest games at the end of the season, the men and women in the blazers aren't usually the bowls' execs or staffers but instead their volunteers, for whom those trips are a reward for their work. They get to go to some exotic college town, see a game, schmooze a little, take some pictures and tell their friends about it. Also: Ever since the Fiesta Bowl story broke, I keep seeing this sentiment that the bowls ought to be operating like the Salvation Army. Shame on these so-called nonprofits for paying their CEOs high salaries and spending money on entertainment. Newsflash, people: Nonprofits are businesses, too. They spend money to make money. Bowls are no different. So long as there's no owner or shareholders profiting from the business, and so long as they're not doing anything illegal, I don't think society is going to crumble because the Chick-fil-A Bowl pays to send two of its volunteers to a Florida State-Clemson game.

You wrote: "The Tressel scandal has consumed college football for much of the past two months." No, it hasn't. It may have consumed a handful of sportswriters, but it's petty and boring to the rest of us.-- Charles, Oklahoma City

Well, that doesn't help explain why nearly half my e-mails this week were (again) Tressel-related. And why every time I do a radio interview, the host asks me about Tressel. And why a friend I haven't heard from in two years texted me recently to ask if Tressel is going to be fired.

But you'll note I spared you this week. We're going to try to keep the Mailbag a Vest-free zone until there's something new to discuss. Though I guess I botched that already by including this section.

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