The second-year coach to watch; more scandal-free Mailbag

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I have been a fan of your Mailbag for about four years now and have never written a question to you, so I figured I'd give it a try. Since I can remember, there have been several teams that have won a national championship in the second year of that coach's tenure at the school. Some names that come to mind include Jim Tressel (2001) and Gene Chizik (2010). So which second-year coach has the best chance of reaching the BCS championship game and winning it too?-- Preston, Jasper, Ind.

It's a surprisingly common occurrence: The new coach comes in, posts a modest but encouraging first season, then jumps up and wins the national championship in Year 2. We can add Bob Stoops (2000) and Urban Meyer (2006) to Preston's list as well. The common thread seems to be coaches who come into name programs with talent on hand and simply need a year to fully implement their systems and land a few key recruits.

Looking at this season's roster of second-year coaches, there are really only two realistic candidates: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher. (Lane Kiffin's USC team remains ineligible; Derek Dooley's Tennessee team remains tattered by Kiffin.) Both squads followed the arc breakthrough teams often take in the coach's first year: They struggled mightily at times (The Irish lost to Navy and Tulsa; the Seminoles lost 47-17 to Oklahoma) before finishing strong (ND won its last four, including wins over USC and Miami; FSU reached the ACC title game and beat South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl) and reeling in monstrous recruiting classes (Kelly's Top 10 haul included three five-star defensive linemen; most experts hailed Fisher's class as the best in the land).

But while I fully believe Notre Dame will make further strides and possibly reach a BCS game this season (insert skeptical eye-rolls here), I'll only believe the perpetually overhyped Irish can win a national title once I see them hoisting the trophy. The 'Noles have also been living in the past for more than a decade, consistently failing to deliver on all those "Florida State is back" predictions. And I'll admit I cringed when I saw FSU again showing up in the top five of some preseason polls.

That said, there are several reasons to believe Fisher is in fact capable of pulling off the latest second-year title. For one thing, the 'Noles won 10 games last year for the first time since 2003, finally validating the prognosticators by winning the ACC's Atlantic Division. The Oklahoma game was admittedly humbling, but it was also very early. Their two other regular-season losses (to NC State and North Carolina) came by a combined six points, and while they lost 44-33 to Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, they played one of their best defensive games of the year in their bowl win over the Gamecocks. (It should be noted they knocked out star running back Marcus Lattimore after just one carry.)

Coordinator Mark Stoops' defense is the main source of excitement surrounding FSU in 2011. Two years after the 'Noles bottomed out in Bobby Bowden's and Mickey Andrews' last season, Stoops' unit now seems to be brimming with the type of elite playmakers who once regularly roamed Doak Campbell Stadium. Cornerbacks Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Brandon Jenkins will all be playing on Sundays, and coaches raved this spring about defensive ends Bjoern Werner (a sophomore) and Tank Carradine (a juco transfer). Offensively, it's always nice when a team's "new" quarterback has already started two bowl games, as E.J. Manuel has for FSU. There are more questions on this side of the ball -- namely replacing stalwart guard Rodney Hudson and finding consistent receivers -- but not enough to temper enthusiasm.

Virginia Tech -- whose coach is in his 25th year -- remains the ACC's bell cow until proven otherwise, but Preston isn't interested in the status quo. He's looking for an up-and-comer, and Fisher and his program fit the key criteria. We'll find out quickly enough if FSU is a legit contender; likely preseason No. 1 Oklahoma visits Tallahassee on Sept. 10.

Now that Ohio State appears depleted this year, does that make Nebraska the hands-down favorite to win the Big Ten?-- Dave, Hangzhou, China

Before Monday (and Dave's question came before Monday) I might have said yes, but former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson's transfer to Wisconsin changed everything. While I'm not necessarily ready to pencil in the Badgers for a return trip to Pasadena, they certainly become the new favorite in the division we formerly assumed Ohio State would dominate. Even before Jim Tressel's resignation and Terrelle Pryor's departure, people were putting a little too much blind faith in the Buckeyes' ability to overcome five-game suspensions to four of their best offensive players and to replace eight senior starters on defense. Maybe Ohio State could have lost three games and still won the division by default if uncertain quarterback situations persisted at Penn State and Wisconsin. But now the Badgers have a quarterback, and a very good one at that. And, oh yeah, they also have Montee Ball and James White.

Having said that, Nebraska will be the most talented team in the conference. The Huskers' defense will be loaded (again), and fleet-footed quarterback Taylor Martinez has shed the recurring ankle injury that turned him into a shell of his former self down the stretch last season. It sounds like new coordinator Tim Beck's hurry-up playbook has injected life into the Huskers' stagnant offense. I presume the Huskers will begin the season as the league's highest-ranked team (unless voters stubbornly stick with Ohio State), but "hands-down favorite" is a stretch. For one, we've been down the reborn offense road before with this team. But more notably, Nebraska's first Big Ten schedule is a doozy, featuring road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan and home games with Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa. A couple stumbles could open the division door for the still vastly overlooked Spartans, Iowa or Northwestern (which avoids both Ohio State and Wisconsin).

(Readers: Please note that I've now answered several Big Ten-related questions this offseason without mentioning the names of the divisions. This is not a coincidence.)

The overall consensus is that Andrew Luck will be the No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft. However, Cam Newton was not on the radar at this point last year. Who do you think has the potential to be a dark horse No. 1 pick? Are there any transfers to big schools, great potential QBs finally getting a shot, or freak athletes who have had the misfortune to play at small schools?-- Mike, Austin, Texas

It's no surprise that trying to identify the "next Cam Newton" has become a popular parlor game this offseason, but the chances of another player going from junior college to Heisman/national title/No. 1 pick again anytime soon are very, very slim. Furthermore, Luck is not Jake Locker or Jevan Snead. He is easily the most coveted college quarterback since Peyton Manning came out of Tennessee, and the only way I could see his status as the presumptive No. 1 pick changing is if he suffers a serious injury or the top pick winds up going to a team (Carolina, Tennessee, Jacksonville, etc.) that took a quarterback high this year.

In the event of the latter, the type of "freak athletes" who could garner consideration as of today are guys like Florida State's Jenkins, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon or South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery (though it's very rare for a receiver to go No. 1), Alabama running back Trent Richardson, North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples or Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw. (Upshaw might be considered the "sleeper" of this group, but not to those who watched the Iron Bowl or Capital One Bowl last year.)

There's also the possibility that USC's Matt Barkley could supplant Luck as the top quarterback on the board. It seems improbable now, since Barkley hasn't been nearly as consistent or successful, but the NFL has long since shown that neither issue is a deal-breaker.

Every season it seems as if announcers and analysts pick up a few catchphrases and drive them into the ground -- "de facto national championship" for half of all SEC matchups, or "game-changer" for any kick returner who has ever scored a touchdown. What will be this year's catch phrase?-- Russell, Tallahassee, Fla.

Great question. Thanks to Chip Kelly, I'd imagine "pushing the tempo" -- a catchphrase previously reserved for basketball -- will soon become a football fixture. Also, every time a quarterback breaks a tackle and runs for positive yardage, there's about a 65 percent chance the announcer will say "shades of Cam Newton." I'm sure there are many other possibilities I'm not considering, so please, pass them along.

OK Stewart, here's your challenge if you choose to accept it. From any given year, the team that is usually remembered most is the one that won the BCS title game, or, before this, won the vote to be declared national champion. But what about the teams that didn't play in that game or win the popular vote? Over the last 30 years, what teams are remembered most for not getting to number one?-- Brad, Huntington Beach, Calif.

The readers are bringing it strong this week.

The first obvious choice is the 2005 USC team. ESPN spent weeks debating its place among the greatest teams of all time, and while Texas ultimately rendered the subject moot, those Trojans were incredibly fun to watch, and I'll always remember the Bush Push and Fresno State games (even if officially they never took place). Auburn's 2004 team and Penn State's 1994 team are both remembered for going unrewarded for undefeated seasons as well as for their incredible star power on offense (Jason Campbell, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown for Auburn, Heisman finalists Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter for Penn State). Eight years earlier the Nittany Lions vanquished Michael Irvin and the brash 1986 Hurricanes, who remain known as much for their fatigues as their football prowess.

Of course, Miami initially burst into the national conscience by upsetting what had been considered one of the most dominant teams of all time, the 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers, led by Turner Gill and Mike Rozier. To this day, the most memorable play of that Orange Bowl is Nebraska's deft fumblerooski, which became so famous it's easy to forget the Huskers actually lost the game.

And while it's too soon to say, it will be interesting to see how history remembers either or both TCU and Boise State from 2010 -- the Horned Frogs for winning the Rose Bowl, the Broncos both for becoming the unwitting subject of a season-long debate and for eventually losing in such excruciating fashion.

You had a question in last week's Mailbag asking which of two New Year's Day bowl scenarios would seem more shocking from the perspective of 1986. Wouldn't "Joe Paterno will still be coaching" trump anything?-- Michael, New York

Well of course. But so, too, would the fall of Communism; the idea of corresponding with your friends using a computer; pausing a live football game; compact discs; the eventual extinction of compact discs (and record stores, for that matter); frappuccinos; Extreme Couponing; and people taking pictures of their junk with their phones and sending the photos to other people. None of these developments would have been any easier to comprehend than the possibility that JoePa would still be Penn State's coach at 84.

I know it's very early with no games having been played yet, but as far as program transition and recruiting go, who have you been more impressed with so far between Al Golden at Miami and Brady Hoke at Michigan? And who do you have higher expectations for THIS year?-- Dana, Burlington, Ontario

I've spent more time so far with Golden (in-person visits both in Miami and New York) than Hoke (one phone interview), and I'm definitely impressed. He's one of those guys who just screams "head coach," and he's done some nice things to build enthusiasm in Miami's notoriously fair-weather backyard.

And yet, my answer to the first part of Dana's question is Hoke. First, consider the situation he walked into. One of the nation's proudest and demanding fan bases had been severely fractured by the tumultuous RichRod era, only to be frustrated further by AD Dave Brandon's failure to land consensus first choice Jim Harbaugh and apparent apathy toward Les Miles. The immediate reaction to Hoke's hire was heavy on frustration and anger. But unlike RichRod's doomed tenure, which began with an ominous swirl of lawsuits, transfers and ticked-off former players, Hoke has quickly won over much of the faithful by landing a renowned staff, getting off to a sizzling recruiting start and, most notably, constantly hammering home his love of all things maize and blue (and not red). The fact that his archrival has been thrown into turmoil before he even coaches his first game is a convenient bonus.

As for the second part, though, I have higher expectations for Golden THIS year. He inherits a more veteran squad equipped with players who fit his system. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the 'Canes win nine or 10 games this fall, while I'm skeptical the Wolverines will do much better than last year's 7-6 team as Denard Robinson adapts to a pro-style offense and the defense -- while sure to be improved under coordinator Greg Mattison -- still lacks elite Big Ten players. Long term, however, my grades for both hires remain unchanged.

Since 2008, my hometown Chattanooga Mocs have played not only the Heisman winner but a team that went on to play in the BCS national championship every year (2008: Sam Bradford and Oklahoma, 2009: Mark Ingram and Alabama, 2010: Cam Newton and Auburn). Two questions: First, has any team played the Heisman winner and title-game participant in three consecutive seasons? Second, the Mocs open the 2011 season with a trip to Lincoln to play Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska Cornhuskers -- will the streak continue?-- Scott Davis, Chattanooga

Wow. That is remarkable. Did anyone outside of Chattanooga realize this? It's unbelievable. I expressed my concerns about Martinez and the Huskers earlier, but now I might have to reconsider.

While I didn't undertake a complete research project to answer Scott's question, I did load up to look for clusters of years where the winners came from the same conference or region. Facing three straight Heisman winners is not unprecedented. Navy did it from 1945-47 (Army's Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis and Notre Dame's Johnny Lujack), in the process facing two national champs ('45 Army and '47 Notre Dame) and a team that finished No. 2 ('46 Army). That's essentially equivalent to Chattanooga's streak.

Meanwhile, Iowa had the distinction of facing four straight Heisman winners from 1953-56 (Notre Dame's John Lattner, Wisconsin's Alan Ameche, Ohio State's Hopalong Cassady and Notre Dame's Paul Hornug), though none of those teams finished No. 1. More recently, Kansas State faced Nebraska's Eric Crouch, USC's Carson Palmer and Oklahoma's Jason White from 2001-03, with the Huskers and Sooners reaching the title game. It's entirely possible I overlooked another such confluence along the way, and I'm sure you'll let me know if I did.

Love reading your columns the last few years. I've always wondered what you sound like, and having just got finished listening to your radio interview here in Charlotte, for what it's worth, it's EXACTLY what I expected.-- John, Waxhaw, N.C.

And you can hear more of that rhapsodic voice every week on The Mandel Initiative podcast, which, while admittedly sporadic so far this offseason, will return to its weekly frequency after July 4th. Promise.