Why Alabama, not Oklahoma could win title; LSU's surprising ranking

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Can you feel it? The season's so close. Everybody's practicing. The first official preseason poll is out. Of all the questions one could ask about the 2011 season, why not start at the top?

The last preseason No. 1 team that actually won the national championship was USC in 2004. Do you see Oklahoma actually winning it all this year to end the SEC's title run?-- Shane Hale, Las Vegas

No, I do not. And lest you think this is a cop-out answer in light of the news Tuesday that star Sooners linebacker Travis Lewis will be out for eight weeks, please note that I've felt this way since the spring.

Oklahoma will be very good, no question. The Sooners are so loaded that they're able to replace Lewis with a guy, Corey Nelson, who Bob Stoops said in April "looks like our best player on defense. In fact, it's not even close." That's luxury. With Landry Jones, Ryan Broyles and Co. back on offense and an experienced defense, Stoops' team may well be on the same track as its prolific 2008 squad. But you remember what happened when that 60-points-per-game team met the SEC's best team in January.

It's the same thing that happened once Oregon's offense met Auburn's defensive line last January. After five straight years of this, voters could legitimately be defined as "insane" for picking anyone but an SEC team and expecting a different result.

My preseason favorite is Alabama, and the reason is pretty simple: The Crimson Tide have the most talent in the country, period. As much as some like to dismiss them, there's actually a pretty strong correlation between recruiting rankings and on-field performance. To that end, Rivals.com has ranked Nick Saban's last four classes as follows: No. 1 (2008), No. 1 ('09), No. 5 ('10) and No. 1 ('11). That's the type of dominance we last saw from Pete Carroll at USC (five straight classes ranked No. 1 by at least one major service) and Urban Meyer at Florida (four top-three classes in five years), and both men parlayed those hauls into multiple national titles. Saban (whose classes look even better after some of his patented oversigning and roster purging) is in prime position to do the same. Last year too many of those four- and five-star guys were either inexperienced first-year starters or limited by injuries, and thus, the Tide lost three games. A year later, guys like Courtney Upshaw and Dre Kirkpatrick are both seasoned veterans and projected first-rounders. Combine that with a more favorable schedule (LSU and Arkansas both come to Tuscaloosa), and you've got all the ingredients to be the SEC team that makes it six straight.

The streak will end at some point, maybe even this year. But after watching Auburn spring from middle-of-the-pack to become champs last season, I'm going to have to see it to believe it. Also, just because I'm high on the Tide this year doesn't mean I have blind faith in the rest of the SEC. Case in point ...

Stewart, I'm a devout LSU Tiger fan living amidst the Pac-12 conference fans in Northern California. As much as I love the Tigers, can you explain to me how they can possibly justify their high preseason rankings given they have one of the toughest (if not THE toughest) schedules in football this year?-- Curtis Barthold, Danville, Calif.

Knowing the way the voters think, it's no secret how the Tigers garnered such a lofty ranking. They went 11-2 last year while playing in the big, bad SEC; they won a January bowl game; and, like Alabama, LSU is a recent national-championship program that recruits well year in and year out. But is it asking too much of the pollsters to dig a little deeper?

This is a team that caught every imaginable break en route to 11 wins last season -- the last-second mulligan against Tennessee, the fake field goal that bounced just right against Florida, the remarkable Les Miles fourth-down reverse against Alabama. I know many feel Miles is immune from typical football karma, but generally speaking, teams that eke out so many close wins one year tend to go the other way the next.

For example, Iowa, which went 11-2 in 2009 with a slew of comebacks and last-second miracles, then, with mostly the same core of players, reverted to 8-5 last year with several last-minute losses.

Throw in a murderous early schedule (non-conference games against Oregon and at West Virginia, and a trip to pesky Mississippi State all in September) and the continual enigma that is quarterback Jordan Jefferson, and you've got all the ingredients for a textbook "flop" team. In fact I'm puzzled why the Tigers are 10 spots ahead of the same Arkansas team that both beat them head-to-head last season and earned a BCS berth. Mark it down here: The Razorbacks will finish at least 10 spots higher than LSU in the final poll.

How do you grade Brady Hoke's handling of Darryl Stonum's DUI (i.e. forced redshirt for 2011)? Do you think future coaches will take the same approach and will there be any backlash for Brian Kelly's restraint shown toward a star player (Michael Floyd) for similar transgressions?-- Matt, Atlanta

Stewart, I don't understand how the Michael Floyd issue can be painted as anything but a superstar athlete getting preferential treatment. While I don't claim to know all of the particulars of all of the prior incidents, we're talking three alcohol-related offenses in two years, with the last being a DUI. An athlete accepting a lunch from a booster sees a greater on-field punishment than Floyd got.-- Tim, Douglassville, Pa.

First let's get some important facts out there, because Stonum and Floyd's situations are much different. The Michigan receiver's DUI charge this summer was the second of his career. Furthermore, he served three days in jail last year for probation violations stemming from the first arrest. Conversely, Floyd's two previous "alcohol-related offenses" were underage drinking citations. Big difference.

But driving while intoxicated is a serious offense, regardless of prior history. Of course Kelly is giving Floyd preferential treatment. I don't care what his stated rationale was for the punishment; we're not stupid.

But I don't necessarily blame him, either. That may sound cynical, but the fact is, a coach's job performance is evaluated solely by wins or losses. If Kelly suspends Floyd for the opener against USF and Notre Dame loses at the last second when some inexperienced receiver fails to make a key catch to keep a last-minute drive alive, do you think the fans are going to say, "Oh well, at least he did the right thing?" Of course they're not. They're going to say "I can't believe we lost to those guys, Kelly's play calling was awful in the fourth quarter and I no longer think he's the right guy for the job."

All credit to Hoke for taking a tough stance on discipline, but this is also a time in his tenure when it's both important to set that tone and more feasible because he's still in his honeymoon period. If, two years from now, he's still taking that hard-line stance with troublemakers, and treating starters the same as third-stringers, than he's either the most ethical coach in college football, or, he will have just won the national championship and can do no wrong.

Regarding your Aug. 3 Mailbag about fans not actually complaining when their school plays an FCS team, apparently you haven't heard any Cal fans complaining about the upcoming game versus Presbyterian. -- Natalie, Oakland, Calif.

Is this considered a formal complaint? If so, yes, yours is the first. However, I was encouraged by the fact that a whole bunch of you did chime in last week to lament your own team's role in this growing trend.

Like ...

Regarding BCS teams scheduling FCS opponents, I am a Penn State alum and diehard fan that hates our annual scrub game. It's bad enough that we schedule two MAC teams each year, but Indiana State? I hate this practice, never attend these "scrimmages," and don't buy season tickets due to the non-conference dreck. (I'll still be at the Alabama game though.) Enjoy your writing and podcast.-- Morgan, Philadelphia

You alluded to part of the problem. A school like Penn State feels like as long as it's got one marquee non-conference opponent per year like Alabama, it can fill those other three slots with whatever dregs are willing to come to State College. That's pretty much become the standard scheduling formula in the leagues with four non-conference games, but for a few notable exceptions (like LSU's slate mentioned earlier). Last week the Big Ten announced it will be going to nine conference games in 2017, a move I wholeheartedly favor. However, it will be interesting to see which non-conference game fall off teams' slates first: The Alabama slot or the Indiana State slot. Skeptics assume it will be the former, but the Pac-12 already plays nine league games, and 11 of the 12 teams (all but Washington State) are playing at least one BCS opponent. It can be done.

(Weird but related side note: Cal and fellow Pac-12 member Colorado are playing each other in a "non-conference" game this year as part of a previously scheduled home-and-home. Funky, right?)

Stewart, listening to your Podcast discussion about Dan Persa's Heisman media campaign got me thinking -- how many times do these preseason Heisman media campaigns actually do anything? The last two Heisman winners, Cam Newton and Mark Ingram, had zero preseason campaigns. Are they a waste of money? Or are they just a way of drumming up excitement before a season?-- Gary, Houston

No Heisman winner in at least the past 20 years has done so because of a promotional campaign. They're fun, they create some buzz, but in today's media environment, the best players are on TV almost every week, discussed endlessly on ESPN's various platforms, featured in Sports Illustrated and other outlets. You didn't need Alabama or Auburn's p.r. department to tell you about Ingram or Newton.

But that particularly creative campaigns can still pay major dividends for a program like Northwestern, which doesn't generally get a lot of media coverage. Last week I saw "PersaStrong" mentions constantly on Twitter and in blogs. It created some nice buzz, and will likely continue to whether or not the senior quarterback actually winds up in Heisman contention. It's just good marketing. As much as it was mocked, the Joey Harrington Times Square billboard in 2001 really marked the beginning of Oregon's ascent as a national program. It wasn't enough to land him the prize (he finished fourth), but it garnered a lot of p.r. for a school that, at the time, was rarely mentioned outside of Pac-10 country, and years of similarly splashy marketing (most notably with its uniforms) helped transform that program's image. I'll be curious to see how Northwestern follows up on PersaStrong.

At the end of the 2009 season, Oklahoma was unranked. At the beginning of the 2011 season, the Sooners are ranked No. 1. Do you recall another team that -- in one season - moved from unranked to No. 1?-- Steve, Nashville

Auburn did the same thing, only quicker: The Tigers were unranked at the end of '09 and finished last season No. 1. And in 2007, Missouri went from unranked to start the season to No. 1, albeit briefly, the second-to-last week of the year.

What I love most about college football (other than Notre Dame losing) is an upset victory by an unranked team over a ranked team. Now that we have our first "official" preseason poll, if you had to choose the most likely Top 25 team to be upset by a non-ranked team in its first game of the season, who would it be? Of course, I've got South Florida upsetting Notre Dame.-- Michael Kurtz, Roseburg, Ore.

You know Notre Dame is back in the Top 25 when the anti-Notre Dame e-mails start popping back in.

Considering USF is my sleeper pick to win the Big East, it would make sense for me to go along with your upset selection, but no, I do not see Skip Holtz's team going into South Bend and knocking off an Irish squad that many (myself included) think will win nine or 10 games this year. Remember, last year Connecticut got whupped by a mediocre Michigan team the first week and still went on to win the Big East. The threshold isn't very high.

Put this one in pencil for now, because I don't like making game picks until the week of the game, but the best bet might be Baylor over TCU.

It requires a bit of a leap of faith, since Robert Griffin and the Bears were rendered mortal last season seemingly whenever they faced an above-average defense (and TCU tends to field way-above-average defenses). But the Horned Frogs will be breaking in a whole lot of new faces that Friday night in Waco, including a quarterback (sophomore Casey Pachall) making his first career start on the road. If you remember, last year, an Oregon State team that ended up going 5-7 was able to find some seams and make some big plays against the Horned Frogs' vaunted defense, mistakes they quickly wiped out within a few weeks. If this game were in October, I'd give Baylor almost no shot, but on the first Friday of the season, at home ... why not?

I see that only eight of the 12 teams in the SEC are ranked in the Coaches' Poll. What do the coaches have against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky?-- Kirk, Lincoln, Neb.

Beyond the absurdity of Georgia being ranked coming off a 6-7 season and Florida being ranked coming off a mediocre season followed by a drastic coaching change, the most remarkable aspect of the SEC having eight teams ranked in a poll is that Tennessee is not one of them. Imagine if I'd laid out that scenario for you in, say, 1997. Or 2007.

After listening to your B1G podcast, I heard Penn State mentioned once: As a second-tier program. Is it safe to assume then that you don't think they'll improve much from last year? If so, would that feeling change if they somehow manage to beat Alabama?-- Eli, New York

I've noticed the "B1G" moniker has caught on with much less resistance than the divisions-that-shall-go-unnamed. How do we feel about this? Do I need to update the Mailbag Style Guide?

You are correct, I don't see a whole lot about Penn State that excites me this year. (Like Florida and Georgia, I'm not sure why this team is ranked, either.) Tom Bradley's defense could certainly be very good. With Devon Still and Jack Crawford up front, you've got the makings of a classically tough Nittany Lions front four.

But offense was the issue last year, and offense remains the issue, even more so with the recent rash of attrition on their offensive line. Over the last decade or so, Joe Paterno's best seasons have come when he's got an experienced, reliable O-line, but this year's, like last year's, looks very much like a work in progress. Until that unit improves, it's going to be hard for either the quarterback (Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin) or the running game (which was abysmal last year) to be notably more productive.

The Nittany Lions have surprised me before when I wasn't expecting much, like the 2008 Rose Bowl season. But if Penn State manages to beat Alabama this year, it will be a bigger upset than the '87 Fiesta Bowl win over Miami.

Hey Stewart, I'm getting married on Saturday. Do you, as a newlywed, have any advice for a fellow college football fan whose soon-to-be wife isn't particularly interested in football? Thanks.-- Louie, Pittsburgh

I'll give you the same advice so many married friends gave me before my wedding, and which I'm sure many married Mailbag readers would surely agree: Make sure to take a few moments during the festivities to stop and soak it in all in, because the whole night goes by in a blur.

Also -- make sure you have more than one television in the house.