By Stewart Mandel
September 07, 2011

The 2011 season began amid an unusual backdrop. Last Saturday, less than an hour before the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the county were set to kick off, media covering the LSU-Oregon game converged around Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "So," Scott joked, "are we here to talk about Oregon's gameplan tonight?" Umm, no.

It was a fascinating first weekend of football, but the game currently taking place off the field is proving equally mesmerizing.

Stewart: Why is the 16-team superconference the latest obsession? I can understand the desire to get to 12 and have the conference championship game, but why is 16 suddenly a magic number? It seems that to get to 16, almost every conference would have to take in teams that won't increase their television markets. Add to that the end of compelling rivalries (without any assurance that the new ones will catch on) and I wonder if the game is shooting itself in the foot?-- Michael, Baton Rouge, La.

You're not alone, Michael. What's truly bizarre about the latest conference missile crisis is that as best as I can tell, almost no one (with the exception of Texas A&M) actually wants superconferences. Not the great majority of fans. Not the television networks (fewer leagues means more intense bidding wars). Not bowl executives. And while this may sound strange, not even the conferences themselves.

STAPLES: SEC accepts A&M; Baylor standing in way

For obvious reasons, most assume Scott is driving the superconference bus. He's the one who first put this chain of events into motion last summer, apparently stamping the number 16 onto every media member's forehead. But I listened carefully to his comments last Saturday, when he repeated his oft-used line that "we will see further consolidation [of conferences]" because of "instability in certain parts of the country." By which he means: Because the Big 12 is such a dysfunctional mess, the rest of us will end up absorbing its parts.

But much has changed since Scott's push for 16 last summer. At that time, Pac-10 expansion was directly tied to the league's impending television negotiations. I'm not sure even Scott would have predicted the league could land a $3 billion deal -- AND start its own network -- after solely adding Colorado and Utah. But now that it has, "We haven't felt one iota of need," Scott said. The league would be just fine staying at 12 teams. Really. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury Newsreported Tuesday that Pac-12 presidents and chancellors do not want to expand. I've even been told that last year's Pac-16 plan wasn't as close to a done deal internally as was reported at the time. Still, Scott is probably going to tell his member schools: You don't pass on programs like Oklahoma and Texas. But Texas isn't keen on joining the Pac-12, with its equal revenue sharing and pooled network, and there's no guarantee the presidents would take the Oklahoma schools on their own.

Meanwhile, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany says his league is happy where it is, and I believe him. "It's about quality, not quantity," he told the New York Times. Translation: There will always be a spot waiting for you, Notre Dame, but until then, we're not going add teams for the heck of it. And Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek raised eyebrows Monday when he said that when SEC presidents and chancellors met last month, they made it clear "we would prefer to stay at 12." Seeing as they're about to go to 13 (and presumably eventually 14), Mike Slive apparently convinced the league getting into Texas was too good an opportunity to pass up.

If both the SEC and Pac-12 move to 14 or more, then it's every man for himself. The Big East plans to be aggressive and go after most or all of the Big 12's leftovers, largely to protect itself if the SEC or ACC comes raiding. The ACC isn't actively looking to expand but knows the SEC could poach one of its schools to accompany A&M. Essentially, we're watching a big nationwide stare-down, where no one wants to get caught blinking.

Stewart, the news that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State brought up this week led me to think that no team wants to deal with Texas anymore. It is clear that the Big 12 needs Texas, but does Texas really need the Big 12 besides the automatic BCS berth? I truly see Texas as becoming the next Notre Dame, able to carry their own network and BCS deal independent of what all the other Big 12 teams do. Thoughts? -- Jim, Sterling, Va.

Independence is definitely one of the options Texas is pondering, but there's one big problem: Texas fields 17 athletic teams besides football, and they need a conference. Can you imagine trying to put together a 27-game basketball schedule as an independent? Or a 50-something game baseball schedule? That's why Notre Dame is in the Big East for all its other sports, Army and Navy in the Patriot League, BYU in the West Coast Conference. If the Big 12 dissolves, there's no logical landing spot for Texas' other teams. Do you think Rick Barnes wants to compete in the Mountain West? It's the biggest reason why Texas is still fighting to keep the Big 12 intact in some form.

My suggestion: Get the band back together. Re-create the Southwest Conference (mostly). Texas, Texas Tech, Houston, Rice, SMU, Baylor and maybe throw in UTEP and Tulsa. Only this time they'll call it the Longhorn Conference, and all games involving Texas will be shown on The Longhorn Network. The league probably won't get an AQ bid, but Texas won't need one. It will schedule Oklahoma, Notre Dame and BYU out of conference to impress the voters, and get its own qualification provision written into the BCS, a la the Irish. Problem solved.

Stewart: Oregon always gets shut down when it plays legitimate defenses. It got bushwhacked by Ohio State in the Rose Bowl two years ago, Auburn last year, now LSU. When will we stop hearing about the "speed" of the Oregon offense? They're the Pac-12 version of West Virginia a few years back -- when they play a good team, their offensive "speed" just makes them lose faster. Until he proves otherwise, Chip Kelly is the Rich Rodriguez of the Pac-12.-- Gavin, Columbus, Ohio

After seeing Oregon's offense lay another egg against another good defense, I'm wondering what is the difference in their version of the spread and Florida's under Urban Meyer? Is the spread that dependent on having a Heisman-caliber QB that without one you can't succeed against good defenses?-- Todd, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

It's a corny football cliché, but it's the answer to Todd's question: It's not the Xs and Os, it's the Jimmies and Joes. Meyer's and Kelly's offenses have their respective wrinkles (Oregon runs the quarterback less and emphasizes the hurry-up more), but they're based on the same concept: getting playmakers open in space. Here's the difference: When Florida won its 2008 BCS championship, it had future first-round pick Tim Tebow at quarterback, future first-round pick Percy Harvin and NFL starter Louis Murphy as receivers and future first-rounders Mike and Maurkice Pouncey on its offensive line. While we don't yet know the futures of LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, consider that Oregon's go-to receiver last year, Jeff Maehl, went undrafted and recently signed with the Houston Texans' practice squad, and none of its three departed offensive linemen were drafted. At least half the LSU defense that Oregon faced last Saturday will eventually get drafted. Think Kelly might have fared better with Harvin and a Pouncey or two?

So while Gavin's Kelly-Rodriguez comparison was obviously a dig, it should probably be a compliment. With decent but hardly elite talent, Kelly has managed to go 22-5 as a head coach and, lest we forget, lost last year's national championship game on a last-second field goal. Last Saturday's game was a blowout on the scoreboard, but the Ducks actually outgained LSU and, if not for a true freshman's pair of fumbles, may well have taken the game to the wire. But clearly, these nonconference games have exposed the limitations of the Ducks' offense. Quirky play cards and a frenetic tempo only get a team so far against superior talent. The good news is, Oregon is now able to recruit more of those elite players (like De'Anthony Thomas) thanks to its newfound national stature. Now it needs some dominant o-linemen. But until the Ducks actually win one of these high-profile nonconference games or BCS bowls, the public and the pollsters are going to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Just finished watching Boise State handle Georgia with ease on the road. Can the announcers and writers please stop talking about Boise as if they are still a surprise with limited depth, a bag full of trick plays and a glass slipper that expires at midnight? The Oklahoma win was years ago; this is a power program with strong coaching that can now reload and it deserves to be spoken about as such.-- J Taylor, Columbus, Ohio

Here's the funny thing about Boise: It's the anti-Oregon. (I swear I'm not trying to rag on Oregon, it's just an apt comparison.) The Broncos continually legitimize themselves in big nonconference games. They've beaten Oregon head-to-head twice since 2008, and when all is said and done, they will likely have several more players drafted from their 2010 and '11 teams than will the Ducks (especially from that defensive line). Yet we're so conditioned to the AQ/non-AQ distinction that we never heard a peep last year about whether Oregon "belonged" in the title game, whereas that's all we heard about Boise up until the Nevada loss.

In fairness, it seems like Boise earned a whole lot of respect Saturday. I'm not hearing nearly the same backlash yet, except of course from...

How does Georgia go from a team that started 1-4 with a loss to Colorado, to being ranked this year? Boise State is a great team but beating Georgia should not make it appear that it beat an SEC powerhouse.-- David Horn, Irvington, Ala.

Funny, I didn't hear any complaints about Georgia's ranking until after the game.

Stewart, your Overtime column about the Pac-12's failure to deliver on its reputation was interesting, but couldn't you have written the same column about the SEC? Aside from LSU's impressive win over Oregon, the league looked pretty mediocre -- especially against anybody that's ever been a part of the WAC.-- Dan, Washington D.C.

What, you weren't impressed with Auburn's dramatic rally against Utah State? Or Ole Miss' first three quarters against BYU? Or Kentucky's ... never mind. No, it was not a great opening week for the SEC, either, though with the exception of Georgia, the teams that struggled or lost were the teams picked to finish at or near the bottom of their divisions. LSU got a marquee win and Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Florida all rolled. It may be that the league isn't as deep as in past years. We'll find out more soon enough. And we'll find out a lot more about Alabama when it visits Penn State on Saturday.

My point in the column is that no team in the Pac-12 -- with the possible exception of Stanford -- seems to be playing much defense lately. I have no such concerns about the SEC's top teams. But the Pac-12 has two great chances to prove me wrong this week when Arizona visits Oklahoma State and Arizona State hosts Missouri.

Which fan base should worry more, USC or Auburn? Both struggled at home against inferior opponents. I am not a fan of either school, but watching both games, I never got the feeling USC was going to lose, but I felt that Auburn was lucky to win. Your thoughts?-- Rob, Tustin, Calif.

I'd say USC's. Auburn fans knew this year was going to be rough. Maybe not need-a-perfect-onside-kick-to-survive-Utah State rough, but quite possibly 6-6 rough. You don't lose Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and 14 other starters and expect a smooth transition. But there's still plenty of cause for long-term optimism, because Gene Chizik has recruited extremely well since he's been there, and many of those blue-chippers he brought in saw their first action Saturday. (Auburn played 13 true freshmen, second-most nationally behind Texas' 18.) They're only going to get better, though they'll certainly take some lumps this season.

For USC, however, the window for success is closing. The scholarship reductions start kicking in next year and continue through 2014. If Lane Kiffin's program wants to make significant strides, this is the year to do it, what with a talented, veteran quarterback (Matt Barkley), an elite receiver (Robert Woods) and several big-time defensive players. But Kiffin bolstered nobody's confidence with Saturday's game. USC has its holes, but it's talented enough to have crushed Minnesota. It was very reminiscent of last year's Hawaii opener, when we got a glimpse of just how undermanned the USC defense was -- a recurring theme throughout the season. And just like in that game, Kiffin outsmarted himself by going for two after the Trojans' first two touchdowns -- only this time it only burned him at the end. People there aren't going to be too pleased with another eight-win season, but that's about what the Trojans looked capable of, if that.

The wimpification of the United States continues with five -- count 'em five -- games delayed/postponed by weather. Isn't football the game that is played in all elements? I can't believe the fans/pundits are not up in arms about this garbage. How many people at a college football game have been hurt or injured by lightning as compared to intoxication, fighting, etc. What's your take?-- Mark Grabowski, Atlanta

My take is that's all well and good until the first time some school tries to ride it out, a fan dies and the entire country goes apoplectic about how that school could be so negligent as to let this happen. It was an odd weekend, that's for sure, but those schools absolutely did the right thing.

At Georgia Tech's Thursday night game last week I saw this really cool trick play that I just have to ask about. The QB snapped the ball and, instead of running or pitching the ball, he then threw it forward in a spiral motion to one of his players. This player then caught the ball. Apparently it is being called a "pass." It seemed effective, as the Jackets pulled this trick play many times and got more yards "passing" than running. Do you think Paul Johnson will use this play more this year?-- Charlie, Atlanta

I certainly hope so. Paul Johnson may run the triple option, but it's always more effective when the quarterback is an actual threat to pass. When the Jackets won the ACC title in 2009, Josh Nesbitt (with the help of big-time receiver Demaryius Thomas) had a 148.7 efficiency rating, which would have ranked 14th nationally if he had enough attempts to qualify, and averaged an insane 10.5 yards per attempt. Last year, with Thomas gone and Nesbitt hurt for part of the season, the Jackets' pass efficiency dropped to 102.0, their yards per attempt to 6.5 -- and their record to 6-7.

So it was certainly encouraging for Tech fans to see Johnson air it out last week against Western Carolina, with Tevin Washington completing 8-of-13 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. That's 20.8 yards per attempt. That's absurd. But ... it was also Western Carolina. Let's see how he does over the next few weeks.

Stewart, for years I thought at times you bordered on being a moron. But after Friday, no more. I mean, who picks Baylor for the upset? Baylor? You, Sir, are officially a football god.-- Michael, Mobile, Ala.

Thanks. And thanks for sending this at 7:56 a.m. on Saturday before you had a chance to see me blow the weekend's two biggest games.

The LSU game against Oregon went according to script and what was expected from LSU. Oregon did not look like a top 20 team in any phase of the game. What gives with the high rankings for Oregon? They looked like a junior college team physically on the field against LSU.

If Oregon was in the SEC West, Oregon would maybe only win one or two conference games.-- Alan C Brown, Baton Rouge, La.

One or two games, huh? Does that mean Utah State would go .500?

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