By Stewart Mandel
September 19, 2012

Later in this column, we're going to take a trip down memory lane and revisit a prominent figure from Mailbags past. Hint: It's a lady.

In the meantime, looking back at more recent history, the first Mailbag mention last year of a possible Alabama-LSU rematch came on Oct. 18. I, of course, dismissed the notion as silly and presumptuous. Whoops. I should probably not repeat that mistake ... but c'mon. We haven't even reached Week 4!

Here we go again! Everyone has said two SEC teams will never be in the National Championship Game again. Being still early in the season, LSU and Alabama are head and shoulders above the rest of college football. If the game Nov. 3 in Tiger Stadium is close, what's the chance we possibly see a repeat of last year?-- Derek, Baton Rouge

So with USC now out of the picture (sure they could bounce back, but let's be real, their lack of depth was exposed), are we doomed to another year of SEC oppression?-- Adam Lienau, Not the South

News flash: USC was never the country's lone non-SEC team capable of winning a national championship. The reason it may seem that way is because several other viable contenders have yet to play their first meaningful game.

Oregon, overlooked all preseason amid the USC hype, has continued to fly under the radar thanks to three opening games against non-AQ opponents. This week the third-ranked Ducks face No. 22 Arizona, and if Chip Kelly's team hangs half a hundred on Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats (Oregon is averaging 54.0 points), I expect Oregon will become a standard part of the conversation. No. 4 Florida State plays a showcase game against Clemson this week. If it wins, people are going to start looking at the Seminoles' schedule and realizing just how few obstacles they have the rest of the way. No one's really seen No. 6 Oklahoma play yet, but they will against No. 15 Kansas State this weekend. In fact, it feels like the entire Big 12 has had a bye to this point. I'm eager to see No. 8 West Virginia and No. 12 Texas face tougher conference competition.

And as vulnerable as USC looked last weekend, I wouldn't rule the Trojans out just yet, either. They lost on the road to a team that went 23-3 over the last two years. It happens.

It's entirely possible Alabama and LSU are indeed the cream of the crop again. The Tide have outscored their first three opponents (including two preseason top-10 teams) 128-14, and a purportedly inexperienced defense has pitched consecutive shutouts. I'm certainly not picking against them anytime soon. Meanwhile, the Tigers have won their first three games by a margin of 145-31, but I'd like to see them play someone better than Washington, which has the look of a 6-6 team, before fully jumping on board. This week's opponent, Auburn, might not be any better.

That brings up a different point. One reason to feel confident in Alabama and LSU running the table outside of their head-to-head meeting is the rest of the SEC West, which doesn't look nearly as imposing as it did before the season. In fact, it's pretty darn bad. On the other hand, the East may produce a champion this year (possibly Georgia) with an actual chance of winning in Atlanta.

Finally, at the risk of looking stupid again, I'd be willing to bet three months of Andy Staples' barbeque expenses that voters will not allow another SEC rematch this year. There was too much backlash to last year's game, and even though it's not voters' fault the second game was lopsided (Alabama may well have beaten a different opponent by far more than 21 points), the dissatisfaction is still going to factor into their thought process this time. The people desperately want to see the SEC play someone else, and they're going to get their wish. I don't know who that team will be, but you might want to tune in this weekend for possible clues.

This Saturday, I would watch Florida State-Clemson, Oklahoma-Kansas State and Notre Dame-Michigan if they were televised in separate time slots. Instead, I will watch only one of those night games and none earlier in the day because there are none worth watching. Do the networks really garner better overall ratings by having such premier games go head-to-head at night rather than spreading them throughout the day?-- Gary Swider, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

The migration of more big games to prime time began six years ago when ABC figured out it could draw better ratings on Saturday nights by showing college football instead of scripted dramas or second-rate reality shows. We had previously counted on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) to show the biggest games in the afternoon, with evening spots primarily reserved for ESPN's SEC and ACC broadcasts or Fox Sports Net's old late-night Pac-10 games. But with FOX joining the fray this year, yet another marquee game moves from 3:30 p.m. ET to 7:30 or 8 (like Kansas State-Oklahoma). Even NBC is even doing it now, with Michigan-Notre Dame this week.

The result, unfortunately, is that fans are now forced to pick and choose between high-profile matchups. Last year in Week 3, ABC garnered a very good 5.8 rating for its prime time game, Oklahoma-Florida State. A year earlier it notched a 4.7 for Texas-Texas Tech. This year it got just a 3.2 for Notre Dame-Michigan State. ESPN's Florida-Tennessee broadcast, which overlapped during the second half, produced a 3.1, and FOX's USC-Stanford showing netted a 2.5. Granted, there was a lot more buildup leading into that Oklahoma-Florida State game last year, but networks can usually count on Notre Dame to draw a big audience, especially against a top-10 team. However, if you combine the ratings for the head-to-head ABC and FOX games you get 5.7 -- almost identical to ABC's number last year.

On the bright side, the afternoon options should improve once teams get into conference play and there are multiple games of interest in each league. Unfortunately, though, the cluttered prime time lineup is here to stay.

Stewart, through three weeks, Ohio State's Braxton Miller has accounted for 988 yards, 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Through three weeks in 2007, Tim Tebow had 1,027 yards, 13 touchdowns and only one interception. Does Miller have any chance to repeat Tebow's feat of winning the Heisman as a sophomore playing for Urban Meyer? Or will the Buckeyes' lack of postseason eligibility take him out of the race?-- Josh L., Columbus, Ohio

It's a good question. Miller is already starting to pop up in the top five of various Heisman watches -- but it's early. I certainly think he can continue putting up his current numbers over the course of the season (though probably not Tebow's 51 touchdowns in 2007), but as the year progresses, our attention will increasingly turn toward the BCS race, one in which the Buckeyes won't be involved. Will Miller get overlooked? It's possible. Last year, USC folks felt the Trojans' ineligibility cost Matt Barkley a trip to New York. Then again, Barkley and his team started slow and had to play catch-up. Miller is already gaining acclaim, and his team has yet to lose.

My guess is if Miller has a truly spectacular season, his team's postseason status won't affect him very much. Ohio State needs to win, and he needs to perform well in big games. Other than that, he plays for one of the most visible teams in the country, and the votes are tallied before the bowl games. And lest we forget, Tebow's team lost three regular-season games the year he won the Heisman. Florida was playing for the Capital One Bowl by late October, yet he still ran away with the trophy. Miller could do the same, but he'd have to truly distinguish himself. If, for example, Geno Smith keeps putting up the same gaudy numbers and West Virginia contends for the Big 12 title, the advantage goes to Smith.

Just when I thought you were going to ignore another classic, absolutely bizarre Holy War, you go and post something like this ... AND TOTALLY REDEEM YOURSELF.-- Nick Driggs, Los Angeles

If I know Utah fans like I think I do, they'll invite me right in for tea and strumpets.

What do you think Jim Delany's honest (behind closed doors) reaction is to Notre Dame's move to the ACC? Is he glad the conference stuck to its principles and refused to allow entrance without football, or is he perhaps second-guessing himself for not yielding to Notre Dame's stance before the ACC did?--Kristopher, Roanoke, Va.

I never got the sense that the Big Ten was a realistic option for either party during this most recent realignment wave. I understand what the ACC gains from its Notre Dame arrangement. The deal ensures a marquee television opponent for five schools each year and allows the league to negotiate better bowl arrangements in the next cycle, both in enhancing its Orange Bowl partnership (it's been reported Notre Dame will be part of the rotation as the ACC's opponent) and landing more appealing non-BCS partners. And obviously it benefits the ACC in basketball and other sports.

But the Big Ten doesn't share the same needs as the ACC. No one's threatening to leave the Big Ten, as some Florida State officials did with the ACC this summer. Its football brand is already strong and wouldn't gain much from a Notre Dame partial membership. It's got the Rose Bowl/Pac-12 partnership sewn up. And given the importance of the Big Ten Network, there's no way it would stand for one school having its own separate TV deal. It's possible Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue will be negatively affected by losing annual games with the Irish, but that can be negated by signing home-and-homes with other brand-name programs.

I think Delany's bigger concern right now is on the field: His conference may have eliminated itself from the national title race before the official start of autumn.

How does adding Notre Dame without football add value to the ACC? Shouldn't the ACC be more concerned about adding football powerhouse schools to increase their revenue?-- Jason, Chicago

I see what you did there.

Stewart, with the way Colorado and Utah are playing so far this year, do you think that the Pac-10 made a mistake in expanding to the Pac-12? Utah did all right last year, but Colorado seems to be hurting the conference more than they are helping it.-- Dan, Boise

I wouldn't say that -- at least not yet. On-field football results may drive some realignment decisions, but they weren't near the top of the list in 2010 when the Pac-10 expanded. At that time, Larry Scott was on the brink of negotiating a new television package and was trying to make over the league. Obviously, he did not succeed in his original goal of luring Texas and Oklahoma, and there's no question Colorado and Utah are far less sexy substitutes. I've also been told repeatedly by industry sources that the conference would have gotten its sweet deal with or without those schools. Good timing played a far bigger role than expansion. Still, moving to 12 teams and adding a championship game helped create buzz for that conference. The influx of two teams also increases the number of conference games, which, in turn, creates more programming for the Pac-12 Networks.

The only way it becomes a real problem is if Colorado -- which appears to be in the throes of an all-out implosion -- sinks into an extended state of disinterest and non-competitiveness, à la Temple in the mid-2000s (when it got kicked out of the Big East). Every conference has bottom-feeders, but a league never wants things to get so bad that the program becomes an embarrassment for the conference. I don't think that will happen. As I've said a million times before, everything is cyclical. Colorado has a history of success and, now, access to the same resources as the rest of the Pac-12. It will eventually dig out of this rut -- but heaven help the 2012 Buffs when they go up against USC, Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks.

What do Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all have in common? Each won a mythical national championship at Notre Dame in their third year at the school. This is Brian Kelly's third year. Will ND not only return to relevance, but win the national championship this year?-- Michael, Kennett, Mo.


So, with Virginia Tech's annual failure to live up to its ranking, is anyone going to admit that perhaps VT isn't really an elite program? Perhaps writers just like Frank Beamer too much and keep fooling themselves into thinking that VT is an elite program.-- Jeremy Entwistle, Colorado Springs, Colo.

First of all, Virginia Tech was ranked a modest No. 16 coming into the season. One admittedly humbling loss to Pitt does not mean the Hokies can't rebound and finish that high. Two years ago, they lost to James Madison, came back to win 11 games and finished ... No. 16. Keep in mind, they play in a division with Georgia Tech (which they already beat), Virginia (which Georgia Tech just beat 56-20), Miami (which lost 52-13 at Kansas State), Duke (which lost 50-13 at Stanford) and North Carolina (which is already 1-2). I'll take the Hokies.

As for whether Virginia Tech is an elite program -- what, may I ask, is your definition of elite? If it's a program that regularly contends for national titles, then no, Virginia Tech is not elite. It reached the BCS championship game once, 13 years ago, with a transcendent quarterback. It has really only come close to going back on one occasion since, in 2007. But then again, how many programs would fit that specific definition right now? Maybe eight? Ohio State hasn't played for the BCS title since 2007, either. Does that mean the Buckeyes aren't elite? Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is the only program in the country to win at least 10 games in each of the past eight seasons. Since 1995, it's won more games (170) than any program except Florida (171). There are a whole lot of programs out there that would kill to be that not elite.

Stewart, the LSU athletic department recently announced an agreement to annually transfer $7.2 million or more each year to the university. I'm kind of torn on this. As an LSU alum, I'm proud that the LSU athletic department is taking unprecedented steps to provide funding for the academic mission of the university. On the other hand, I wish the move wasn't "unprecedented." How common is this?-- Ben Caire, Golden, Colo.

The amount may be unprecedented (and I'm not 100 percent sure whether it is), but the gesture is not. Florida's athletic department annually gives revenue to the university, reportedly $6 million each of the past few years. Texas donates about the same amount, plus half of its Longhorn Network revenue is slotted to go toward academics. And the revenue from Notre Dame's much-reviled NBC contract actually helps fund financial aid for the general student body. These are just a few examples; others do much of the same.

Ideally, this becomes the industry standard for major-conference programs, as nearly every league has signed a new, exponentially richer television contract in the past few years. There's no earthly way the schools could possibly spend all of their new money on weight rooms and training tables. The flip side, however, is that filthy rich programs like Texas and Florida are in the minority nationally. For the vast majority of schools, it's the exact opposite: The university subsidizes athletics. According to Inside Higher Ed, current darling Ohio, among others, spent more in 2010-11 to subsidize athletics ($19.6 million) than it spent the year before on libraries ($13.2 million). So don't be torn. If your school is one of the fortunate ones with enough athletics cash lying around to give back to the university, celebrate it.

More of a comment than question re: your Weekend Predictions. ... I believe in all cases (except "Upset Special") you simply took the favorite in the published point spreads. In your wild and crazy Upset Special ... um, Indiana is only a three-point favorite. Sooooooooooo ... is this what you went to school for? I.e., simply to mouth what we already could see for ourselves?-- Jim Roberts, Fifield, Wisc.

This may come as a surprise, but they did not offer a class at Northwestern on predicting football games. Somehow I was able to overcome such meager training to successfully deliver you Ball State over Indiana. You're welcome.

One of the most frequent responses to Question 6 in last month's Mailbag Reader Survey was, "Bring back the Mailbag Crush." The main reason I discontinued that little tradition is it had become a bit too polarizing.

So, if you're one who never dug the Crush ... no hard feelings. We'll see you next week. There happens to be a pertinent reason this week to bring it back.

On Monday, FOX debuted a new prime time drama, The Mob Doctor. If you've watched a football game on FOX this season, you've probably seen the promos, in which case you may have recognized the star: Jordana Spiro, whom Mailbag readers first met five years ago, back when she was still on basic cable. Early reviews of the show, in which Jordana plays a sassy Chicago surgeon who's indebted to the mob (hence, the title), say she "is an appealing lead" (Chicago Tribune) who "imbues her Dr. Grace Devlin with equal parts brass and cleverness" (Boston Herald) and is "one of the freshest and brightest stars on TV this season" (New York Daily News).

What can I say? I've always had an eye for up-and-coming talent.

So purely as a service to you loyal readers -- and not at all because we once had a baseball date -- I tracked down Jordana last week.

Stewart: So -- it's been a while.

Jordana: I know! How have you been?

Stewart: Well, a lot has changed in four years. I got married, and I moved from New York to California.

Jordana: Awwww. I'm so happy for you. ... You found someone that will tolerate you.

Stewart: And what have you been up to?

Jordana: Actually, I moved back to New York three years ago. I [enrolled in] the two-year Film Program at Columbia. I've still got to write my thesis.

Stewart: And somewhere in there you found time to land the lead in a network drama. How would you say your time as Mailbag Crush helped your career?

Jordana: It's really opened every door that's ever existed in my life since then. The amount of respect I get now is exponential.

Stewart:My Boys was a pretty light show. Your character was always smiling. From what I can tell, your new character is in a chronic state of personal conflict.

Jordana: It's different. The difference is what makes it fun for me. It's a new challenge. Unfortunately, I have less time to go to sporting events.

Stewart:Friday Night Lights fans will be interested to learn that Zach Gilford -- or as we know him, Matt Saracen -- plays your love interest on the show.

Jordana: Yeah, lots of my girlfriends are jealous of me for that. A lot of my friends were crazy Friday Night Lights cult heads. Already people are mad at me because there's a few times I have to lie to "Dr. Matt Saracen."

Stewart: It's funny, when FNL ended, Matt had moved to Chicago to become an artist. He's still in Chicago, apparently, but that's quite a career change.

Jordana: He went through medical school very fast.

Stewart: What else should the readers know about this show?

Jordana: If it was a strict medical procedural show I wouldn't be as interested as I am, because it's not the type of show I watch. What was compelling to me is that at the heart of it is a story of a transformation -- a woman who grew up feeling very powerless, who grew up to become a surgeon, only to be pulled back into her former world.

Stewart: Well, thanks again, Jordana.

Jordana: My pleasure. And sorry I missed you [for a previously scheduled interview]. ... I guess you were too good for me.

Stewart: No, it wasn't that. Unfortunately I had a bad flight delay.

Jordana: Sure -- that's what they all say.

See -- why name a new Crush when I can just call up and take abuse from an old one?

I assure you this will not become a regular thing again, but I have to admit, this job has its perks.

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