By Stewart Mandel
September 05, 2012

A week of football is in the books. Some highly rated teams disappointed. Some freshmen burst onto the scene. But the topic my audience seemed most interested in discussing was ... helmets.

Stewart, I noticed a couple of times during the Clemson-Auburn game where it looked like Auburn's defense was purposely trying to pull off Tajh Boyd's helmet knowing he would have to sit out a play. With this rule change, do you think this will be the new way teams try to slow down no-huddle offenses instead of the old "fake" injuries?--Jim, Brunswick, Maine

How long until the new rule that mandates a player must sit out one play if their helmet falls off costs a team a game? For example: Let's say LSU is playing Alabama, it's fourth-and-goal -- but AJ McCarron's helmet fell off the previous play and Alabama is forced to use the backup quarterback because of this rule.-- Nathan Leingang, Fargo, N.D.

Rarely has a rule change been so visible so quickly as the helmet rule was last weekend. Not surprisingly, the reaction has been almost universally negative, not just among fans, but among coaches. Even FOX officiating guru Mike Pereira said the NCAA rules committee has "gone too far."

The funny thing is, for the past several years I've been getting regular e-mails during the season from people alarmed by the growing number of helmets falling off (an average of two per game, according to the NCAA). Now we have an actual rule addressing the issue and ... people aren't happy. This reaction fits with an ongoing contradiction: While most reasonable fans agree that football has serious safety issues that need to be addressed, every time the NFL or NCAA does something to address them (the NFL's fines for illegal hits, the NCAA's leading with the shoulder rule, kickoff changes, etc.), we all freak out. We want to make the sport safer without changing any rules.

I like the intent of the helmet rule. You might say, c'mon, how often does a player get injured from his helmet falling off? Well, first of all, one catastrophic injury to a player's unprotected head is one too many. But the overarching goal right now is to reduce concussions, and incentivizing players to properly lace up their helmets can help achieve that. In theory, the potential gain from a player purposely pulling off an opponent's helmet is negated by the fact that, if he gets caught, the player's team will lose yards while his opponent won't have to come out. But I realize the officials can't catch every such instance. Enforcement might be clunky. I also realize fans will never accept an outcome being decided by this call, as in the example Nathan describes.

So it's possible the rule may eventually need to be revised, but I'd like to give it a chance first. And I'll probably say the same about nearly any player safety initiative.

With LSU's beatdown of the Pac-12 last year, and now Alabama showing no mercy to the Big Ten, do you see other teams/conferences being hesitant to play the SEC in the opening classic in Jerry World?-- Sean O'Brien, New Orleans

Indeed, I think the rest of the country will collectively agree to throw up a white towel after the results of those two games. The shame is just too much to bear. Have fun with those SEC-Sun Belt games from here on out, Jerry.


As much as we love painting these games as conference vs. conference, the SEC's all-stars did not play the Big Ten's all-stars last weekend. Alabama, the defending national champion and now the No. 1 team in the country, played Michigan. LSU, the No. 1 team in the country for 12 weeks last year, played Oregon in 2011. The victors in both cases happened to be the very best in the country. However, I seem to recall Boise State handling Georgia at a not-so-neutral site to open last season. Clemson beat Auburn at the same event last weekend, and Virginia Tech will take on Alabama there next year. No SEC nonconference games are currently scheduled for Jerry World in the immediate future (Notre Dame plays Arizona State there next year, Texas plays UCLA in 2014), but if 'Bama or LSU would like to come there again, I'm sure someone would sign up as a challenger.

In hindsight, Michigan would have been better off avoiding the Tide, since it dropped 11 spots in the polls as the result of its whipping. It fell one spot behind Oklahoma State in the AP poll, so perhaps the Wolverines would have been better off scheduling Savannah State. The problem is that the current BCS system seems to disincentivize playing tough nonconference foes. In theory, the 2014 playoff selection committee should change that. The Big Ten, for one, has already encouraged its members to upgrade their schedules, and considering the league already has three annual bowl games against SEC opponents, I don't think it will shy away from facing them in neutral-site openers if the opportunities arise.

I'm trying to figure out why everyone is already writing off Boise State as a BCS buster this year. As I understand it, all they have to do is finish ranked in the top 16 and ahead of the Big East or ACC champion in the polls or the top 12. If the Broncos are able to get their offense going and finish 11-1, I would put their chances of ending the year in at least in the top 16 and ahead of the Big East champion as favorable. It's always better to lose early rather than late.--Trent, Layton, Utah

You are correct in thinking that an 11-1 Boise team would probably rise back up as high as you're saying. I'm just not sure how anyone who watched the Michigan State game would have much confidence in the Broncos to win out. Yes, the 17-13 final score was close (in part because the Spartans took a knee inside Boise's five-yard line in the waning moments), but Michigan State dominated the game statistically and exposed both of Boise's big concerns heading into the year. New quarterback Joe Southwick struggled (including misfires on two downfield throws to open receivers late in the game), and the Spartans ran right at Boise's rebuilt defensive line all night. The Broncos will assuredly get better and were facing a Big Ten team that I think will win 11 or 12 games, but they'll likely be the underdog for their Sept. 20 matchup with a very good BYU team. And there's reason to think Nevada, coming off its upset of Cal, might challenge the Broncos for Mountain West supremacy.

One other thing worth noting here: I wouldn't call it a given that the Big East champ finishes outside the top 12. Did you watch the Louisville-Kentucky game? The Cardinals looked pretty darn good, admittedly against one of the SEC's worst teams. But considering they're already ranked, it's not a stretch to think Charlie Strong's team could win 11 games. Previous Big East teams with that type of record have finished in the top five to 10.

So your upset special was Ohio over Penn State, 24-20, and Ohio beat Penn State, 24-14. Not too shabby.--Dave, Washington D.C.

Indeed, the Upset Special -- and the Weekend Pickoff itself -- got off to a nice start in Week 1. But a lot of those games were layups. It's about to get a lot harder. You know that cliché that teams make the most improvement between Week 1 and Week 2? It's a near mortal lock that won't hold true here.

Survey Monkey would have made your reader survey a LOT easier on you ... or rather, easier on the poor intern who has to collect and compile the data one e-mail at a time. (You know what I'm talking about, intern).--Robert, Houston

Nope, no interns. And yes, I sincerely regret not using Survey Monkey (or perhaps the monkeys once employed to rank football teams). The reader survey was very enlightening for me, but I did severely underestimate the response rate. I figured I'd get a few hundred emails; instead, I've now received roughly 2,800 -- and they're still coming. I do appreciate all of you who participated, but now I'm going to have to ask you to PLEASE STOP.

Over the past week I managed to skim through about 30 percent of your responses, and, on Monday, I sat down to formally tabulate as many as I could before hitting a wall. That number turned out to be 375. I'm sure it's not mathematically sound to extrapolate from such a small sample, but hey, this isn't exactly the New England Journal of Medicine.

Some highlights:

• I'm in my mid-30s, and as I've long suspected, so, too, is a great deal of my audience. Readers aged 30-39 accounted for 49.1 percent of the responses, followed by those 20-29 (22.7 percent), 40-49 (15.7), 50-59 (8.8) and 60-67 (3.7). I did notice one e-mail after the fact that came from a 72 year old, but 67 was the highest age included in this sample. And 35 was the most commonly listed age.

• It was quite humbling to learn that about two-thirds of you have been reading the Mailbag for five years or longer, and many of those said "from the beginning." I appreciate your loyalty. On the flip side, almost no one said they'd come on board in the last two years. Interestingly, that's around the same time I retired the Crush. Hmm ...

• I didn't formally tabulate the last two questions, but I'd estimate at least 70 percent of respondents said they read on computers (not mobile devices), and a majority read during a break at work.

• As for favorite teams, there were 66 different FBS teams represented, as well as eight others (and eight Switzerlands). I was initially surprised at the noticeable Northern/Midwest slant, given how much the sport currently revolves around the South, but the results generally mirror those of other research studies on the most popular college football teams.

If you've ever felt like Ohio State fans are everywhere, they are. If you've ever doubted Notre Dame's continued popularity, you're wrong. The most populous fan bases among these Mailbag readers were: 1) Ohio State (by a considerable margin) 2) Notre Dame 3) Michigan 4) Texas 5) USC 6) Alabama 7) Penn State and Wisconsin 9) Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oregon 12) Florida 13) BYU 14) Florida State 15) Auburn 16) LSU, Georgia and Iowa 19) Michigan State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

Thanks again, everyone, I learned a lot and enjoyed getting to know you. And now, for the sake of our servers, I kindly ask that you please go back to being random strangers asking football questions.

Since you have consistently refused to answer any of my Oklahoma or Arkansas questions over the years, I thought I would try a new approach. Who are the five best college football players during the 10 years of the Mailbag who did NOT win a Heisman? Adrian Peterson? Darren McFadden? Who?--Chris, Charleston, W. Va.

I don't know what your previous questions were, but I can assure you I did not intentionally refuse to answer them. They probably just weren't very good. This one, however, is fantastic.

I'd start with two players I voted for myself who did not win the Heisman: Peterson (in 2004) and Ndamukong Suh (in '09). Peterson (1,925 yards, 15 touchdowns as a freshman) was the best running back of the past decade, and Suh had the most dominant season of any defensive lineman (85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 10 pass breakups). Vince Young (3,036 passing yards, 1,050 rushing yards in 2005) is such a no-brainer that I sometimes hear people mistakenly refer to him as a Heisman winner. In hindsight, Larry Fitzgerald should have won the award for the ridiculous receiving season he registered in 2003 (92 catches, 1,672 yards, 22 TDs), and while I felt perfectly comfortable with Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III winning over the past two years, I'm certain we'll look back 10 years from now in astonishment that Andrew Luck (71.3 percent, 3,517 yards, 37 TDs, 10 INTs in 2011) never won.

Do you think that smaller programs hiring experienced coaches, à la Ohio and Frank Solich, will become the norm instead of up-and-comers who are going to bolt for BCS schools in the future to get the big payday? It certainly has worked out well for Ohio and Solich.--Rusty, Cincinnati

It was certainly a big weekend for former BCS coaches-turned-mid-major rebuilders between Solich and Texas State's Dennis Franchione. Heck, Mike Price gave Bob Stoops a tougher fight in El Paso than he did in the 2003 Rose Bowl. UTSA's Larry Coker returned to the FBS realm for the first time in six years. And who would have guessed 10 years ago we'd one day watch George O'Leary take on Terry Bowden in a UCF-Akron game?

But no, I don't think it will become the norm for the simple fact that there aren't very many experienced coaches available for the taking. For example, three notable head coaches fired after last season are now working in television: Houston Nutt, 54, Ron Zook, 58, and Rick Neuheisel, 51. Of the three, Nutt seems the most likely to wind up head coach at a Sun Belt or FCS school. I'd hire him if I were one of the many Southern schools (like Georgia State) about to transition to FBS. Neuheisel, on the other hand, is living in Manhattan Beach and talking about Pac-12 football for a career. He's not giving that up to go to Central Michigan. I don't know what to make of Zook, but I could see him going back to the NFL. Meanwhile, Bobby Petrino will likely hold out for a BCS job. Who else is out there? Phillip Fulmer, Dan Hawkins ...

In other words, there will maybe be one or two candidates out there who fit the Solich/Franchione mold, and based on recent history there will be around 15 mid-majors with job openings. That's how a special teams coordinator winds up as the head coach at Houston.

No apology necessary, Stewart. Just publically proclaim that the 'Canes don't stink, and all will be well with the world.--Mark, Miami

Congrats on beating BC, but are you really suggesting that a game in which Eagles quarterback Chase Rettig threw for more yards (441) than any Miami opponent besides Doug Flutie (472 in the 1984 Hail Mary game) and Cade McNown (513 in the season-ending upset of No. 3 UCLA in 1998) should debunk my pessimism for The U's prospects? Ask BC fans. They have no such problem admitting their team stinks.

Hey Stewart, I couldn't help but notice that much of the Big Ten struggled in their season openers. Am I being too much of an unrealistic home-teamer to think that Nebraska looked like the best team?--Kyle, Omaha

If you were to forecast the rest of the season based solely on the first weekend, then yes, absolutely, the Huskers are headed to Pasadena. ... Wait, what's that? They're headed to Pasadena this weekend?

I'm very intrigued by Saturday's Nebraska-UCLA game in large part due to their opening performances. Against Southern Miss, Taylor Martinez (26-of-34, 354 yards, five TDs, no INTs) looked better than we've ever seen him as a passer. The Huskers appear to have a better receiving corps than in recent seasons. And the defense completely negated Southern Miss's passing offense. But I'm not sure the Eagles are anywhere near at the same level as they were under Larry Fedora. That's why we'll learn a lot more about Nebraska on this weekend -- as we will UCLA. Brett Hundley and the Bruins' offense looked far more dynamic against Rice than they ever did under Neuheisel -- but it was Rice. Let's see how they fare against the Blackshirts. If Nebraska dominates this one, too, then I'll start taking the Huskers' Big Ten title chances more seriously.

Stewart, I realize your column was regarding teams that shouldn't panic (or should), but I thought it was funny you criticized ESPN for going to the losing coach first after the Penn State-Ohio game, when you didn't give any credit to Youngstown State for simply outplaying Pitt.--Eric Planey, Youngstown, Ohio

Fair point. Hearty congratulations to the 'Guins on their first win over an FBS foe since 2000 (Jim Tressel's last season in Youngstown). Another random note from that game: Youngstown quarterback Kurt Hess became the fifth-leading passer in school history, moving ahead of one Ron Jaworski.

Once again, you fail to see the point. There are more 9-6 and 21-0 games on the horizon when LSU and 'Bama play. The rest of the country is soooo far behind the SEC. We play defense. You think 'Bama is going to score 41 on LSU? You guys need new writers at ESPN. You still don't get it.--Wade, Chicago

I'll be sure to let ESPN know.

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