By Stewart Mandel
August 01, 2012

The calendar has turned to August, which means preseason polls are nearly here, and it's a 99.9-percent certainty the top spot on each ranking will go to either LSU or USC. After a two-year hiatus, and while still in the midst of NCAA sanctions, the Trojans have returned to their annual role of short-list national title contender. But unlike in the past, their head coach is no longer a primary reason.

In fact, many probably view him as a hindrance.

Stewart, USC is receiving a lot of preseason attention as one of the favorites for the national championship. No question the Trojans have a lot of talent coming back from a team that performed well last year. But, in your opinion, is Lane Kiffin a good enough football coach to lead them to a championship? How much of last year's success can be attributed to player talent as opposed to Kiffin's coaching?-- Jake Dawson, Reynolds, Ill.

I know there's a large contingent of you that doesn't want to believe it, but after bungling his first season at Tennessee, Kiffin is blossoming into a very good college head coach. Obviously he hasn't won anything of consequence yet, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest he knows what he's doing.

First of all, Pete Carroll didn't leave behind a finely tuned roster on his way to Seattle. Carroll and his staff made recruiting mistakes near the end of his tenure, and the talent drop-off was evident when the program went from producing 11 combined first- and second-round draft picks in Carroll's last two years (2008 and '09) to three in the two springs after he left. Attrition and the NCAA's transfer freedoms left Kiffin well short of 85 scholarships during his 8-5 debut season. It's a credit to his and his staff's recruiting prowess that USC was able to restock in such a short time, but it still took some serious coaching to get to 10 wins.

Last year's Trojans were incredibly young. By season's end they were starting eight first- or second-year players. Even when those youngsters are as gifted as receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, there's bound to be growing pains, and USC looked fairly average during the first half of the season. But all a coach can ask for is that his team get consistently better, and the Trojans did just that. The defense allowed 17 or fewer points in five of their last seven games, and Matt Barkley and the offense were virtually unstoppable aside from an unfortunate end zone fumble in triple overtime against Stanford.

USC may not win the national championship, but I don't envision coaching being its downfall. I had two major preseason questions about the Trojans. One of them, running back depth, magically turned into a big strength with the addition of Penn State's Silas Redd. However the other, an inexperienced defensive line, looms even larger in the wake of starting defensive end Devon Kennard's torn pectoral muscle. USC's season may come down to its two possible meetings with Oregon, the one team in the country against which the ability to rotate fresh linemen is essential. Remember, USC is still under sanctions and still down 10 scholarships from its competition. The Trojans may or may not be able to overcome that, but Kiffin will manage the situation as well as any coach could. Really.

As a West Virginia alum, I'm excited about all the preseason publicity the Mountaineers have garnered, but I'm wondering how much is warranted and how much is a product of the Orange Bowl victory. This is still a team that was blasted by Syracuse, needed three late-season close victories to win the weak Big East, has numerous defensive changes in personnel and coaching and is making a huge step up in competition. Is WVU really a legitimate Big 12 title contender or should I anticipate something more along the lines of an Alamo Bowl berth instead?-- Chris Errington, Largo, Fla.

Every year there's at least one team that gets a bump in the preseason rankings from a particularly impressive bowl showing, so it should be no surprise that the first team ever to score 70 is enjoying a particularly hefty spike. Big 12 media members were so deferential to the newcomers that they picked the Mountaineers to finish second to Oklahoma in their preseason poll, making them the only team besides the Sooners to earn multiple first-place votes. Chris is right, though: The Orange Bowl has made everyone forget that West Virginia finished the 2011 regular season 9-3, in a three-way tie for first in the Big East and behind five current Big 12 teams at No. 22 in the final BCS standings.

There's no question Dana Holgorsen's team has the makings of a lethal passing attack; I agree with those same media members' choice of Geno Smith over Landry Jones as the Big 12's top quarterback, and Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey may be the league's two best receivers. But in the Big 12, unlike in the Big East, WVU is now one of many teams that can zing the ball around and score in a hurry. I'm skeptical of the Mountaineers' ability to stop the others. Last season WVU finished dead last in scoring defense during Big East play (28.9 points per game), in a conference where no team other than WVU averaged 30 points. In the Big 12, six did. And that poor average came before WVU lost longtime coordinator Jeff Casteel and first-round pass-rusher Bruce Irvin.

West Virginia's games should be highly entertaining. But in terms of wins and losses, I have a hard time believing the Mountaineers will post a better record in their first year in a tougher conference than they did in their last year in the lighter one.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron is often referred to as a "game manager." Is it better to be a "game manager" or a "system quarterback"?-- Keith, Enterprise, Ala.

It depends -- are we using "game manager" as a compliment or a criticism? I've seen both.

I'll admit it, I didn't fully appreciate McCarron's contributions at the time last season. Like most people, I associated Alabama with a powerful running game and a dominant defense, so it was easy to think McCarron mostly stayed out of the way (at least until the BCS championship game, where he shined). In reality, McCarron was a highly effective quarterback all season. While he threw for a relatively modest 2,634 yards, McCarron averaged 8.03 yards per attempt, good for 24th nationally, and higher than some surprising names (Matt Barkley, Kirk Cousins and Aaron Murray among them). Throw in a 66.8 completion percentage and a 1.52 interception percentage (about the same as Robert Griffin III's 1.49), and you could argue McCarron excelled in his team's chosen system as much as some of those other "system" quarterbacks whose offenses throw more often. It goes without saying, then, that he was also an outstanding game manager, but I'm guessing most people who reference him that way aren't doing so as a compliment.

In light of the Chronicle of Higher Education report that someone connected to the Freeh investigation has called out the NCAA for using the report as its basis for punishment, is there a possibility that Penn State may not be bound by the sanctions levied?-- Corey Krall, Charlottesville, Va.

No. Bill O'Brien can unleash all the wishful proclamations he wants about some sort of reduced sentence for good behavior, but the NCAA is not going to reverse course after making such a highly publicized show of its sanctions. That's especially true considering this case, unlike the usual infractions cases, cannot go before the appeals committee. Presumably by signing that consent decree, Penn State locked in the sanctions for their duration, and after learning what the NCAA's preferred alternative was (a four-year Death Penalty), that's probably for the best.

While it doesn't do Penn State much good, the fact that not even the Freeh Report thinks the NCAA should have used the Freeh Report just reinforces everything I felt last week about the dangers of making up an entirely new disciplinary process on the fly. The NCAA would say this case was simply too important to let run its course; I'd say, this case was too important to handle so haphazardly. The NCAA would point out that Penn State's own leadership accepted the Freeh Report as fact, and I can't argue with that. But what happens if Tim Curley and/or Gary Schultz gets acquitted in court over his alleged role in the very crime for which the NCAA is punishing Penn State?

The more we find out about this, the more it seems like the NCAA based its ruling on the same knee-jerk emotional reaction so many of us had to the Freeh Report. That doesn't mean the NCAA was wrong. It's punished schools based on far less tangible evidence than it did with Penn State. But this isn't a running back getting a free hotel room; this is an alleged cover-up of a serial pedophile. The NCAA needed to be absolutely, positively sure it had all the facts.

Is it not rather ironic -- I'd say absurd -- that PSU running back Silas Redd is transferring to USC, a school emerging from severe NCAA sanctions because its athletic department ignored payments made to its (wait for it) star running back? How is this considered part of the big reform?-- Rex Roberts, New York

Sorry, I'm not getting the Redd/USC backlash. If the NCAA is going to decimate a kid's football program for something he didn't do, it can't then put stipulations on his alternatives. Redd is a college football player, not a professional. Like the rest of us, he deserves the right to attend any college that wants him.

Schools offering scholarships to transferring Penn State players will be allowed to go over their scholarship cap, EXCEPT for those schools with scholarship reductions. This affects just a handful of programs, most notably USC. Do you think, maybe the fact that USC may be ranked No. 1 in the preseason, despite these punitive sanctions, sticks in the NCAA's craw?-- Jonathan, Pasadena, Calif.

See: earlier comment about making things up on the fly.

Both Stanford and Baylor had uncharacteristic success last year. While each had exceptional quarterbacks, neither was a situation of the "QB and the little dwarves," to paraphrase David Shaw. Which team do you anticipate will fare better this year?-- Adam Ballew, New York

Both programs are set up well for the future, with coaches who have recruited personnel to fit a specific, highly effective system. But Stanford is a little better suited to absorb the blow of losing the No. 1 draft pick.

While Andrew Luck was an incredibly efficient passer and, just as importantly, an impeccable decision-maker, he played within the confines of a traditional pro-style offense. Whereas Griffin accounted for 65.4 percent of Baylor's total offense, Luck's share of Stanford's yardage was 57.6. In addition to Griffin, Baylor must replace underappreciated running back Terrance Gannaway, the nation's 10th-leading rusher (1,547 yards), while Stanford brings back top tailback Stepfan Taylor (1,330). And the Cardinal at least had a functional defense that should improve with the return of star linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov (who missed most of last season), whereas Baylor needed every last Griffin/Gannaway touchdown to compensate for a defense that allowed more points (484) than all but four teams nationally.

Finally, the top half of the Big 12 is stacked, and a rebuilding Baylor team will be hard-pressed to finish ahead of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State, TCU, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. In the Pac-12, Oregon and USC are probably a level above Stanford, but for now I'll still take a transitioning Cardinal ahead of Washington, Cal, Utah or any other team in that conference.

With UCF's just announced bowl-ban and of course Penn State's, North Carolina's, Ohio State's and maybe Oregon and Miami... how close are we to not having enough eligible teams for this year's bowls?-- Joe, Ashburn, Va.

I think we're there.

Mind you, UCF has already announced its intent to appeal the bowl ban, which, given the glacial nature of those proceedings, might give the Knights a reprieve until 2013. (It has no earthly chance of winning the appeal; the athletic director was in bed with an agent's runner, for crying out loud). Still, that's a minimum of three ineligible teams with a possibility of more. Last year, with USC and Miami (voluntarily) ineligible, we ended up with 72 eligible teams for 70 spots. The year before, with USC ineligible, there were also 72. The year before that, with no such restrictions, there were only 71. That's cutting it awfully close. And keep in mind, by NCAA rule, none of the teams reclassifying to FBS this year (South Alabama, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and UMass) are eligible, either.

In years past the NCAA put off making any sort of contingency plan and hoped for the best. This year it is already being proactive in discussing potential options. Few in the industry believe the NCAA would actually force a scheduled bowl to go dark, so unfortunately -- embarrassingly -- it means we may see at least one 5-7 team. And just when we thought we might be moving away from that possibility after several major commissioners spoke openly this spring about raising the threshold back to seven wins even if it meant killing off several lower-end bowl games, it appears the majority has squashed that movement. We may learn soon enough whether failing to reach 70 teams changes a few minds.

Stewart -- you listed Nebraska in your Kings category (which I wholeheartedly support) in your Program Pecking Order Mailbag and said that Notre Dame is the only school in the Kings category that you have trouble envisioning eventually returning to national championship contention. How close do you think Nebraska is to returning to national championship level?-- C.J. Davis, Kansas City

Notre Dame and Nebraska share many of the same advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, they're both national brands with tremendous tradition that can thus recruit from across the country. On the downside, they have no choice due to their geographic locations. And because of that, one might be inclined to say the Huskers are no closer to reaching that level than the Irish.

But the one big difference is recent history. In 2009, if Nebraska had even a borderline average offense, it could have played for the national championship. That Ndamukong Suh-led defense was positively stifling, leading the nation in points allowed (10.4 per game), and who can forget the way the Huskers practically decapitated Colt McCoy in the Big 12 championship game? Ultimately their anemic offense resulted in four losses, despite only one opponent scoring more than 20 points. The Blackshirts regressed last season, as did quarterback Taylor Martinez, so I don't have as much confidence in Nebraska now as I did a year ago. But that '09 team ultimately produced at least 13 NFL players, which proves the school can still recruit well enough to compete at an elite level, and the Big Ten move should theoretically help in that department. We'll have to see if Bo Pelini can ever get over the four-loss hump.

As a fan of a Peasant Program (USF), I would like to introduce a litmus test for those who feel disrespected by your Kings/Baron power rankings. If your school's coach is experiencing success and is at risk to leave your school or is constantly named for open King or Baron coaching jobs, then you are at best a Knight and probably a Peasant.-- Shamus, Tampa

That's better than I've ever put it. Just don't tell that to Louisville. The Cardinals have not taken kindly to that column.

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