Dark horse 2012 Heisman Trophy contenders; more Mailbag

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Can we please just go ahead and fast forward to this time next week? Or better yet, next Thursday night?

Hey Stewart -- I saw the video of you and Andy Staples discussing Heisman candidates. What is your recipe for dark horse candidates? Do you see anyone other than a QB or RB who will get enough votes to end up at the ceremony this year?-- Will, Hoboken, N.J.

Twice in the past three years a defensive player has reached New York, and both times the player was barely on the radar going into the last week. In 2009, Ndamukong Suh garnered a little bit of Heisman buzz during the season, but I'd guess 80 to 90 percent of the votes he got came from a dominating performance (12 tackles, 4.5 sacks) against Texas in a much-watched Big 12 title game. Last year, Tyrann Mathieu became a household name starting in Week 1 against Oregon, but most assumed he'd lost his shot at the Heisman following his one-game suspension midway through the year. But his game-turning punt returns in the SEC title game against Georgia (on the heels of another the week before against Arkansas) likely pushed him past idle Matt Barkley as the fifth finalist.

Last impressions are always powerful, but I've noticed the past few years that the first Saturday of December is carrying more and more weight in the Heisman race. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising in today's media climate; on Twitter, guys win, lose, then re-win the Heisman with each drive of each game. It's not like a player can be a complete nobody the first 13 weeks and then win with a huge final performance, but RGIII doesn't win last year without the strong finish against Texas. Ditto Mark Ingram against Florida in 2009. Unless a guy completely blows away the rest of the field, a la Cam Newton two years ago or Tim Tebow in 2007, that last game takes on paramount importance. And that in turn can benefit a so-called dark horse candidate who makes a strong last impression.

As for this year, if ever an offensive lineman was going to make it to New York (for the first time since Ohio State's Orlando Pace in 1996), you would think Andy's favorite guy, Alabama center Barrett Jones, would be the one. He's been around so long and received so much acclaim that he's got to be the most recognizable offensive lineman in many years. Considering Tide quarterback AJ McCarron isn't likely to put up Heisman-type numbers, Jones or one of the Tide's other preseason All-America O-linemen (tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack) might be that team's best bet. But it would likely require both 'Bama reaching the SEC title game and Gary Danielson spending at least a quarter dissecting isolation shots of the Tide's blocking techniques.

A quarterback or running back will still win the thing.

Do you think we've seen Brian Kelly's "true" offense at Notre Dame? When he was hired from Cincinnati a few years back I thought he'd bring a fast-paced, quick strike offense to South Bend. If we haven't seen it, why? Is it the QB options he had available to begin with? Would making Everett Golson the starter make a difference?-- Micah, Colorado Springs, Colo.

I suppose you want me to answer this differently than most of the readers would like me to, which is of course, Notre Dame's overrated/the coach is a joke/the program is irrelevant/why are you even writing about them?

I don't think you can pin Kelly's offensive struggles entirely on the quarterback. For one thing, to run a fast offense, you need fast players. Kelly has more now than when he got there (particularly at running back), but he started with very little speed. He also needs the offensive line to execute better than it has. But yes, the single biggest sticking point has been quarterback. To run an up-tempo offense with precision you need a quarterback who makes quick and correct decisions. Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees weren't that guy. Rees alone had 19 turnovers last season. Nothing slows an offense to a halt more than that.

Though Kelly hasn't made it official yet, it sounds like the redshirt freshman Golson will be his guy. I remember talking to the coach the day after Signing Day in 2011, and you could tell even then this day would arrive quickly. It was clear he envisioned the dual-threat quarterback from South Carolina as the ideal fit for his preferred style of offense. According to this excellent South Bend Tribune profile, Kelly toyed much of last season with pulling Golson's redshirt and using him as a "changeup" guy but never pulled the trigger, in part because Golson was struggling academically. Golson could certainly become the playmaker Kelly needs to keep that offense humming. The question is, will a redshirt freshman quarterback be any less turnover-prone than his predecessors?

Is Dabo Swinney in trouble with a 7-6, or even an 8-5 season, depending on the identity of the opponents to whom he looses and the magnitude of the losses?-- Oleg Zinchuk, New York

Are you kidding me? The guy just produced the school's first conference title in 20 years and you want to get rid of him?

If anything, Clemson has gone all in on Swinney and his staff. Swinney just got a three-year extension in June through 2017. Second-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris got a staggering six-year contract worth $1.3 million annually after Ohio State coach Urban Meyer tried to pry him away last December, and former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whom Swinney brought in to replace Kevin Steele following the 70-point Orange Bowl debacle, has a guaranteed four-year deal that pays $800,000 this season. That's about as big a commitment as you're going to find for a head coach/offensive/defensive coordinator triumvirate. Clemson is banking on the hope that the long-middling program took the right step with last year's 8-0 start and ACC title game upset of Virginia Tech rather than hedging its bets after three late-season blowouts.

Of course, all of that will make Clemson fans extra frustrated if the Tigers regress this season. Swinney will certainly feel the heat if they don't at least contend with Florida State in the Atlantic Division. But there's reason to believe the offense will be even more dangerous in Year 2 with Morris, Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and while Venables had a rough ending in Norman, most programs would be very happy to land a guy who helped produce seven Big 12 championship defenses. Clemson has the makings of a consistently competitive program in the years to come, a stark contrast from the perennial underachievers we once all knew and loved.

Is there any remote possibility that preseason polls could be done away with moving forward? As the playoff structure seems to be unfolding, it seems much like the BCS that starting outside the Top 25 makes it extremely difficult to make the jump to the top four in the country, even with a perfect season. If the polls didn't come out until after the third week, it would at least be based on what is actually being done on the field.-- Dan, Astoria, N.Y.

There will always be unofficial preseason polls (in large part because we know you will read them), presumably including the AP's and USA Today's. But the commissioners have stated pretty emphatically that once the playoff arrives, the selection committee will not use any criteria that include a preseason component.

Ideally, the members would sit down at the end of the season with a blank piece of paper, but that's probably not realistic. Much like the BCS standings, I imagine the new organization will send out periodic rankings starting in mid-October so that fans can follow along. Even if they don't, it would be naïve to think the selectors would not be aware of the prevailing consensus, because they'll see the numbers in front of the teams' names when they watch games. But theoretically, preseason rankings will hold no official bearing on the playoff selection process. And that of course is a good thing.

Can we have a moment of silence for the death of the WAC?-- Matt, Ypsilanti, Mich.

We can, and we must.



RIP, conference that brought us Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, David Carr, Colt Brennan, Ian Johnson, Kellen Moore and so many late-night score-a-thons. It's astounding that a conference can go from three BCS berths in four years (2006-09) to extinction less than four years later.

Stewart: What is going to happen to Idaho and New Mexico State now that the WAC won't have enough teams to qualify to be a FBS conference? Is independence the only possibility?-- Steve, Chicago

Both schools have said they plan on playing as independents next season (Idaho is expected to join the Big Sky in other sports), which will undoubtedly be a scheduling nightmare. To maintain FBS status, they must play 60 percent of their games against FBS foes as well as play at least five home games against FBS foes. Idaho only has four opponents set for 2013 (Northern Illinois, at Ole Miss, at Wyoming and at Washington State). AD Rob Spear told the Idaho Statesman the Vandals may play New Mexico State twice next year. So mark your calendars for that.

Do you see yet another 10-win season for Virginia Tech? They do it more than any other school but their schedule is tougher this year as they play Pitt, UNC, Clemson, and Miami away.-- Nick, Winchester, Va.

Of course I see the Hokies winning 10 games. It's the easiest annual prediction in college football. For eight straight years, Frank Beamer's team has won either 10 or 11 games, no more, no less. I do worry that we're putting an undue amount of faith in quarterback Logan Thomas. While the guy is a 6-foot-6, 260-pound freak capable of full-on world domination, there's a bit of revisionist history out there in regard to his 2011 season. Yes, he threw for a school-record 3,013 yards, but in the Hokies' two blowout losses to Clemson, Thomas threw one touchdown, three interceptions and managed a combined 10 rushing yards. And he was a modest 19-of-28 for 214 yards and a pick in the Sugar Bowl.

And now, Thomas is without star tailback David Wilson, four of last year's starting offensive linemen and top receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin. We can reasonably assume Bud Foster's defense will be stout (as always), but can the offense move the chains with such little experience surrounding Thomas? I've been skeptical all offseason, but I've warmed up since the start of preseason practices. It sounds like early enrollee J.C. Coleman could be Beamer's next stud tailback. Seniors Dyrell Robets, D.J. Coles, Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller are all capable receivers. And I wouldn't worry about the schedule that much. Pitt isn't on Tech's level yet, and Miami, to be blunt, is going to flat out stink. Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and possibly UNC will pose problems, but split those and voila, you've got your 10 wins.

And now, we switch to the nation's hardest team to predict year-in year-out.

Is it just me, or does this have the making of typical surprising Iowa football team? It doesn't play a very tough schedule, there's a veteran quarterback returning (James Vandenberg), a potential stud for a tight end (C.J. Fiedorowicz) and the usual solid overachievers on defense. Could the Hawkeyes sneak into the Big Ten title game?-- Tommy Roth, Prague, Czech Republic

Help refresh my memory: Is it in odd-numbered years the Hawkeyes exceed expectations, and even years they flop? Or vice versa?

On paper, I don't see much reason for optimism with these Hawkeyes. I do like the underappreciated Vandenberg (3,022 yards, 25 touchdowns, seven interceptions last season) and his receiving targets Keenan Davis and the 6-7, 265-pound Fiedorowicz. They give new offensive coordinator Greg Davis some nice pieces for his passing game. But the Hawkeyes' longstanding running back curse is just getting ridiculous. Freshman Barkley Hill's torn ACL this week -- coming on the heels of 1,400-yard rusher Marcus Coker's suspension and subsequent transfer, replacement Jordan Canzeri's torn ACL and projected No. 2 De'Andre Johnson's dismissal -- leaves Iowa with just two scholarship running backs, sophomore Damon Bullock and true freshman Greg Garmon.

Can this team really win a championship with such a perilously thin backfield? And is it really such a sure thing that another mass of overachievers will excel on defense? I see something closer to a six- or seven-win team, which means of course that Iowa will somehow find its way into a BCS game.

Cincinnati Bearcats football -- great team or greatest team?-- John, Cincinnati

Wouldn't they best be described as Graeter's team?

OK, OK, I know I'm a homer. But looking through Tennessee's first six games, I think they have a real shot at 5-1 or 6-0 (with an upset over UGa) before heading into the Bama game. The offense is top three in the SEC, the defense looks to be improved from a terrible year, based simply on experience. Is it possible, with a few breaks, the Vols could be a sleeper top 15 team this year?-- John Armour, Nashville

I do think Tennessee will surprise some people. Top 15 seems optimistic, but the prevailing consensus out there that Vols will go 6-6 or 5-7 again and Derek Dooley won't be wearing orange pants any longer doesn't do justice to the talent on hand. Just the passing trio of Tyler Bray, a healthy Justin Hunter and fellow receiver Da'Rick Rogers (1,040 yards last season) should scare defenses, and finally Tennessee has some veterans to protect Bray. The schedule sets up interestingly into three distinct blocks. You've got NC State, Georgia State, Florida and Akron the first four weeks. Tennessee really needs to emerge from that group with at least three wins, because the next four games (at Georgia, at Mississippi State, Alabama and at South Carolina) are brutal. Then the last four are relatively soft (Troy, Missouri, at Vanderbilt and Kentucky), but if Dooley is 3-5 going into that stretch the noise is going to be deafening and the season might crumble. Instead, I see him finishing around 8-4 and earning a reprieve.

I'm not sold that Dooley is the long-term answer there, but can we at least put one silly notion to rest? There is no chance Tennessee would hire Bobby Petrino to replace him. Not after getting burned by Lane Kiffin and Bruce Pearl. Besides, if my prediction is correct and Dooley holds on through 2013, Petrino will already be off the market and gainfully employed ... one state to the north.

"Eighth year senior" submission: Kansas tight end Mike Ragone, a sixth-year player and transfer from Notre Dame.-- Joe T., St. Louis

He arrived in South Bend the same year as Jimmy Clausen. Enough said.

Other additions to last week's roster: Sixth-year Boise State tailback D.J. Harper (the Broncos' leading rusher in the LeGarrette Blount punch game three years ago), Oklahoma punter Tress Way and Mississippi State tight end Marcus Green. And a correction: Team captain Robert Marve originally committed to then-Alabama coach Mike Shula before an 11th-hour switch to then-newly hired Miami coach Randy Shannon. The guy passed on playing for Nick Saban and is now finishing his career under Danny Hope.

With C.J. Brown done for the year and Maryland down to two freshmen and one converted wide receiver at quarterback, how many wins do you honestly see for Maryland this year? One? Two? A more important question: Do you think Randy Edsall gets a pass this year (I know, it's funny to write that), no matter how abysmal this team is? Maryland can't afford to fire him, and AD Kevin Anderson would likely be following Edsall out the door, seeing as how Edsall is his guy.-- Matt, Washington D.C.

It certainly has the makings of another ugly season in College Park. Unless new starting quarterback Perry Hills is the second coming of Boomer Esiason, it's hard to envision Maryland being much better offensively. The defense has more room for growth -- it was clear that unit checked out at a certain point last year -- and maybe that's how the Terps claw to four or five wins. (They open with the unimposing trio of William and Mary, Temple and Connecticut.) Given the low circumstances, just a little improvement in the wins column might constitute a pass for Edsall. But there's no way he'd survive a second straight 2-10 season, freshman quarterback or not. See Turner Gill at Kansas. Anderson may still save himself if he pulls the plug quickly enough.

Hi Stuart, I was cleaning out my bookshelf and came across your book Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls that I read a few years back. It reminded me of a question I had back then: Can I get my $19.99 back plus shopping and handling?-- Chad L, Hilton Head

Drop this Stuart guy a note, I'm sure he'd be happy to refund your $20, but you may have to find someone else to do your shopping and handling for you.