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As the Mailbag celebrates 10 years, realignment talk still leads the way


Once upon a time, in a world before Twitter, blogs and 14-team football conferences, there was this novel thing called "the offseason." Weeks would pass with no college football news of consequence save for the occasional police-blotter item. Schools didn't hop conferences every other month, commissioners didn't suddenly resign and coaches didn't get into motorcycle crashes with their mistresses. Any talk of a four-team playoff was purely the stuff of fantasy.

One of the reasons I launched the Mailbag in the spring of 2003 was to help alleviate the boredom of those long months until kickoff. Why not bide the idle time discussing Brock Berlin's potential and John Navarre's Heisman hopes (real topics from the debut 'bag)?

Obviously, the climate has changed significantly. As we kick off the Mailbag's 10th season, there is no shortage of offseason news to discuss. Two years ago it was the possibility of the Pac-16 and USC's sanctions; last year Jim Tressel, Willie Lyles and SEC expansion. This year we've already got a lot to catch up on, and Playoff Watch figures to continue well into the summer.

But I also like to have some fun with this column, and this year, some of that fun is going to center around the aforementioned 10-year milestone in the form of a "greatest hits" component -- though "hits" won't always be the appropriate description. I'll look back on a random question-and-answer from a prior year that proved either eerily prophetic or regrettably off-base. Please feel free to put that Google bar or SI Vault to use and submit nominees. Ideally, these flashbacks won't be too specific to a given week or season but rather more evergreen, perhaps even so timeless that I could answer them again.

As an example: Let's take a look back at the second topic from that debut Mailbag (and please, spare me the snipes about the horrifically schlubby, pre-LASIK headshot). It's hard to believe that something written nine years ago could remain so timely today:

It took nine years, but that future is (mostly) here, Okinawa Marine. (I've long since stricken the use of pseudonyms in this space.)

Anyway, you get the idea. Have some fun with it. But also keep sending original questions germane to the present. And as always, remember: Concise, profanity-free e-mails that don't include the words "How do you think [Favorite Team] will do this season?" stand the best chance for publication.

Away we go.

Hey Stewart, I'm curious to see what you're more excited for next season: the slew of new Pac-12 coaches or the new layout of the SEC and Big 12?-- Kyle C., Omaha

I'm certainly eager for the Pac-12 debuts of Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez and intrigued by the start of the Jim L. Mora era in Westwood. (I'd be lying if I said I'm counting down the days until Todd Graham leads ASU out of the tunnel.) Meanwhile, less than a year ago, I was pretty adamant that the SEC would rue the day it diluted a perfectly good product by adding two second-tier programs with limited national appeal. But Mike Slive's master plan must be working, because every time I look at the 2012 early-season schedule I find myself circling Sept. 8, when Georgia visits Missouri and Florida plays at Texas A&M. I can't wait. It makes absolutely no sense.

Maybe it's the fact that there have been far sillier geographic alignments since (like Boise in the Big East), or maybe I've just had more time to absorb the idea of Alabama playing a conference game in College Station. Whatever the case, I'm absolutely fascinated to see it all play out. As for the Big 12, I don't think I'll get the chills the first time Oklahoma visits Fort Worth or Morgantown, but how can you not be intrigued at the football side of it? Have you tried forecasting that conference's standings this season? It's impossible. The Sooners will inevitably go in as preseason favorites, but teams two through six -- Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas State, TCU and West Virginia -- are virtually inseparable in my mind. That round-robin slate is going to be brutal, particularly for the defenses.

Some of the sizzle from these new conference lineups will likely fade once the teams start playing the games. I was there for Nebraska's first Big Ten game in Madison last October. After a month of buildup, the historic significance went out the window around the time Russell Wilson or Montee Ball scored their second or third touchdown each. Similarly, once the novelty wears off, I'm sure I will tune into a Missouri or A&M SEC game in October and think, "What was the point of this again?" I may well be steaming mad come Thanksgiving when I'm force-fed Texas-TCU instead of UT-A&M. But Georgia-Missouri? For some reason it can't get here soon enough.

After that I'll start watching Washington State games every week.

How is the Arkansas job viewed nationally? After watching what Bobby Petrino has done in the past four years, the U of A shouldn't have to settle for an up-and-comer, not to mention the new football complex and pending stadium renovation. Arkansas has the resources to compete with the best. Toss out some possible names you think would accept the challenge of becoming the next head coach of U of A. I don't consider John L. Smith a viable candidate due to his ties to Petrino.-- Jamie Smith, Vilonia, Ark.

Arkansas should have little problem attracting a high-caliber coach, if for no other reason than this: Petrino was one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the country, making $3.5 million a season. Since the school did not have to pay Petrino a buyout, AD Jeff Long can presumably afford to throw a similar amount at the next guy. And plenty of candidates will look favorably upon a high-paying SEC head-coaching job at a program that's shown recently it can win at a high level.

Unfortunately, as of now, there's no Urban Meyer or Leach sitting there for the taking like there was last offseason. The best bets for currently unemployed coaches are Phillip Fulmer (who wouldn't excite the fan base), Butch Davis (scarred by UNC's infractions) and Mike Bellotti (who's shown minimal enthusiasm to date about returning to the sidelines). And because I'm no fan of hiring NFL coaches, I'm not going to bother throwing out the obligatory Jon Gruden reference. (Unfortunately, I just did.) I can't say for certain whether any of these sitting college head coaches would "accept the challenge," because they're pretty happy where they are, but Long should at least make a run at Gary Patterson, Chris Petersen and Art Briles. If Tommy Tuberville finally has a good season at Texas Tech he could work his way into the mix, as could native son Gus Malzahn if he has a great first season at Arkansas State.

I was in Boise recently and the local chatter was that with the BCS dropping the AQ concept and the apparent demise of the WAC, where Boise was playing all sports but football, the Broncos would stay in the Mountain West. The only thing keeping them in the Big East is television dollars. Is the new look Big East really going to get a much sweeter TV deal than the Mountain West? It seems the media markets are similar, as are the national reputations of the respective teams.|-- Scott F., Portland, Ore.

I don't believe Boise will go back, but if it does, the issue of where to place its other sports will be a more pressing reason than AQ status. You may not believe it, but the Big East, even in its depleted state, will fetch a hefty payday when its TV contract comes up this fall. Television networks covet live sporting events because of the DVR factor, and the Big East stands to provide a lucky network or networks with a massive amount of inventory (with 12 teams in 2013), some very attractive television markets (Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Orlando) and an extremely popular multi-day event, the Big East basketball tournament. With multiple bidders (ESPN, Fox, NBC) likely to drive up the price, TV consultant Neal Pilson told the New York Times this week that the league could approach or exceed the ACC's $155 million annual deal with ABC/ESPN. Contrast that to the Mountain West, which is getting a measly $12 million a year from its current partners in a deal that's locked in through 2016.

But the issue with the other sports is a real concern. Even if the WAC manages to rebuild, it will probably rank among the lower tier of the 31 Division I conferences. The Mountain West is adamant that it will only take Boise back as an all-sports member. The Big West already passed on Boise once, taking San Diego State's strong basketball program instead. Presumably Boise will make another run at that league (which will discuss expansion again next week) but it doesn't have much to offer. The MWC may be its only appealing fallback. But with so much potential new Big East revenue on the table, I have to imagine Boise will find a way to make it work.

When are people going to realize that Lane Kiffin has only succeeded due to his father's presence? Without Monte Kiffin, Lane Kiffin would be unemployed like the rest of us.-- Rob, Portland, Ore.

Did you send this e-mail in 2009 and it only now reached me?

USC's 10-2 team last season had a significantly higher-rated offense (21st) than defense (54th), and that's not likely to change this year with the presence of Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. If anything, one might argue it's the other way around.

With all the heat coming down on the NFL over concussions, do you see college football taking any greater measures toward player safety like Greg Schiano's push to eliminate kickoffs?-- Brandon Mettler, Austin, Texas

We better hope so. Concerns over player safety at all levels of football are going to greatly intensify over the coming years due to increased media scrutiny, advances in science and eye-opening tragedies like Junior Seau's. Some alarmists like acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell and acclaimed author-turned-professional hothead Buzz Bissinger are skipping ahead to the most extreme possible outcome and arguing college football should be banned entirely. Fortunately, more level-headed parties are exploring the topic in a more constructive manner. Last week the Fiesta Bowl hosted a summit panel on concussions, moderated by NCAA president Mark Emmert and featuring four leading experts in the field. According to's Ted Miller, the attendees included Stanford coach David Shaw, Wisconsin's Brett Bielema, Texas Tech's Tuberville and UTEP's Mike Price.

The NCAA made one minor related rule-change for this season, moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line and rewarding touchbacks by moving them from the 20 to the 25. When I tweeted this news a couple months back, the reaction was almost universally negative, with fans lamenting the likely reduction in the number of ever-exciting long kick returns. That's a huge part of the problem. Cutting down on life-altering health consequences for the players is far more important than our viewing enjoyment. If it can be conclusively proven that eliminating the kickoff would have a discernible effect on long-term injuries, then by all means, do it. But ultimately, a rule tweak here or there is not going to make as big a difference as greater awareness of the symptoms and effects of head injuries and improved medical treatment, both of which are already well underway at the college level but need to progress earnestly and quickly.

Obviously college football will never be injury-proof. But as Every Day Should be Saturday points out, the same holds true for a lot of things.

The Pac-12 and the 10-team Big 12 currently play nine-game conference schedules. The ACC will move to a nine-game schedule once Pitt and Syracuse are aboard, the Big Ten as well in 2017. The SEC currently seems content to stick with an eight-game schedule, despite the obvious headaches that creates in a 14-team league. Just curious on your thoughts about what the SEC should do with its schedule?-- Brian, Dickson, Tenn.

The SEC is the last major holdout left on the nine-game train, but so far there's very little support within the conference to change that stance. It's understandable. The current setup has been working pretty darn well for that league. Every team gets to play as many home games as possible, and it's obviously yet to work against them in the national championship race. As long as pollsters continue to perceive the SEC's eight-game slate as tougher than everyone else's regardless of the number of games, and reward it accordingly, why change?

But it will be interesting to see whether the as-yet undecided parameters for the forthcoming four-team playoff force the league's hand. One of the reasons I adamantly oppose restricting the field to conference champions is the inequity by which leagues crown their champions, not just from conference to conference but within each conference. For instance, Alabama this season misses two potential top 10 teams from the East, Georgia and South Carolina. Yet if the Tide go 11-1 again, their 11-1 record will undoubtedly be viewed more favorably than nearly any other team's 11-1 record, even though the entire Big 12 will not only play an extra league game but may well play more Top 25 opponents.

Whatever new selection system emerges will almost certainly place more emphasis on an objective strength-of-schedule metric. If, heaven forbid, an SEC team ever misses out on a playoff berth due to its schedule, the league will go to nine games the next day.

Regarding your column about John Marinatto's resignation, you are ignoring a key piece of the puzzle in saying that school presidents should not be involved in the decision making of the conferences: This is COLLEGE football. Hundreds of millions are at stake. It is their job to be involved in these sorts of decisions.-- Mark, Madison, Wis.

Of course college presidents should be "involved in" conference decisions. I never said they shouldn't. In fact they should have final approval on all matters (which they do). But presidents don't spend all day, every day immersed in the world of college athletics. Most don't fully understand the greater landscape beyond their campus. How could they? That's why, in theory, they entrust a hired commissioner (and conference staff) to do the legwork and make recommendations. Conferences like the Big Ten, SEC and (recently) the Pac-12 are so stable and fruitful because they follow the lead of their commissioner and athletics director.

However, in the Big East's case, John Marinatto failed to garner full support from his presidents, and they in turn made his job that much harder. There have been many great nuggets the last couple of days from various reporters about the extent of dysfunction in that conference. One of my favorites: According to Brett McMurphy of, USF president Judy Genshaft continually blocked the Big East from inviting UCF last year, because, you know, USF hates UCF. At a time when the league sorely needed to fortify its football lineup, a successful program with pristine new facilities sitting in the league's existing footprint was readily available, and one spiteful president prevented it. Months later, Syracuse and Pitt bolted. Around the same time, the presidents shot down Marinatto's recommendation to accept ESPN's reported nine-year, $1.4 billion contract proposal. That of course backfired spectacularly, leaving Marinatto to undertake a massive rebuilding effort, which, of course, wound up including UCF.

Think of a conference as an NFL team, and the presidents as the owners. All owners have last word on key decisions, but most trust their general managers/coaches to do what's best for the club. Others, like Jerry Jones, meddle, make bad draft choices, give out excessive free-agent contracts -- then fire the GM and coach when things predictably don't work out. That's what just happened in the Big East.

I bought your book, Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls: Tackling the Chaos and Controversy that Reign Over College Football, and loved reading it. Now, just under five years after you released it, how dated does this book feel today?-- Stephen, Chicago

Certainly the sport has changed dramatically in five years, yet many of the recurring themes endure. In 2007, Notre Dame was coming off consecutive BCS berths under Charlie Weis. Obviously, the end of that chapter is now incredibly dated. The conference realignment chapter might as well be scrapped entirely. And the NFL chapter regrettably begins with bewilderment over Matt Leinart's draft-day plunge. On the other hand, the opening-chapter discussion about the politics of the BCS is all the more relevant today as the various parties go about changing it. The polls are just as mind-numbing as ever, the Heisman race is full of all the same fallacies, recruiting is full of all the same hyperbole. And that chapter "Everybody Cheats -- Just Not My School" gained a lot of new material the last couple of years.

I think we're going to see much the same dichotomy with these forthcoming Mailbag flashbacks. College football is at a crossroads, stuck between trying to preserve traditions and embrace innovation. I don't know whether the sport will be better or worse 10 years from now, but it will definitely be different. And I look forward to continuing to chart those developments along with you in this space.

We're going to go every other week until we get farther into summer, so the next Mailbag will appear May 23. Fire off those e-mails.