Florida State and Alabama will open the season, but will they also close it?

Please excuse the delay in posting this Mailbag. I filed it on United, so it took a few extra hours.

Unfortunately, I ran out of room toward the end and had to re-accommodate a couple of questions.

Now that it’s here, hopefully you’ll find time to read it — even if it means bumping someone else’s column from your day.

Stewart: Is an FSU-Alabama rematch in January a realistic conclusion this season? Cam Akers looked like the hype that had surrounded his recruitment and Derwin James appears ready to wipe away an injury-plagued season from a year ago. Has Jalen Hurts improved his pocket awareness to a point where they meet?  
Adam Gradyan, Keesler AFB, Mississippi 

First of all, can we take a minute to appreciate that this game is being played? While the Tide have already played other neutral-site glamour matchups recently –  vs. Michigan in 2012 and USC in 2016 – in neither case did their opponent come into that season as highly regarded as the ‘Noles should be this September. In fact, I seriously doubt the schools would have agreed to the game were this still the BCS, where one loss could doom your season. So far, the playoff has rewarded teams for challenging themselves more often than it’s punished teams for losing.

(Florida State and Alabama did meet in Jacksonville in 2007, but at the that time the Tide hadn’t contended for a national title in 15 years.)

Could the teams both reach the playoff this season? Sure, though the losing team won’t have much margin for error. At this point, I assume Alabama will be there regardless of which players it suits in a given year. At some point, that will be wrong, obviously, and maybe that time will come this year if, like you said, Hurts and the passing game don’t take the next step. But there’s going to be an SEC team in the playoff. You ready to put money on someone else?

As for FSU, I watched much of the ‘Noles’ spring game, and without question, James stole the show. Last year’s preseason All-American seemed like he was absolutely everywhere, and I fully expect him to return to dominance this fall. Akers, a five-star early enrollee running back, showed flashes of his potential. I already liked veteran Jacques Patrick, so if Akers winds up ahead of him, that should tell you he’s pretty darn good.

But I’m more concerned about the ‘Noles’ passing game than I am the Tide’s. Deondre Francois is a talented guy, but last year FSU couldn’t protect him (he took 34 sacks and a whole bunch of hits beyond that). And this year the ‘Noles are largely starting over at receiver. FSU will face two of the best defenses in the country against Alabama and Clemson, while Miami, Louisville and Florida have some pretty athletic units. The ‘Noles can’t afford to be one-dimensional.

With 17 returning starters, Jimbo Fisher’s team should be much further along to start the season than it was last year when it dug such a big hole against Ole Miss and suffered that embarrassing blowout against Louisville. A win over Alabama will crank up the playoff talk to 11 and basically afford the ‘Noles a mulligan along the way.

Reverse the scenario, though, and I have a harder time believing FSU would turn around and win 12 straight. Which would likely doom said rematch.

Stewart: If you had to pick (or United Airlines will drag you out!), what college player(s) will we be talking about 10 years from now as being the “steal” of this draft (a Tom Brady)? And who is this year’s big bust (Johnny Manziel or Ryan Leaf)?  
Allan from Chicago.  

Answering this pretty much guarantees I’ll be showing up on Freezing Cold Takes in a couple of years.

Of this year’s quarterbacks, I feel like Miami’s Brad Kaaya could eventually assume the Brady role. He was talented enough to start as a true freshman in the ACC and play fairly well. He wound up with three years of tape. Maybe that worked against him as teams find more flaws to uncover, because he’s largely showing up as a third/fourth-round prospect.

But in a draft with few proven guys at quarterback outside of Deshaun Watson, I’m not sure why there’s such a gap between Kaaya and likely first-rounders Mitch Trubisky (one year as starter) and DeShone Kizer (12-11 as a starter).

Brad Kaaya (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

It’s much harder to predict a bust since those stories often involve character or work ethic issues we’re not even aware of. But color me highly skeptical that Trubisky will ever be an All-Pro quarterback, or even a long-term starter, as will be expected of him if he’s the first quarterback taken. Much like Jared Goff may be setting up for disappointment, not because of any particular deficiency but because the Rams staked their entire franchise on a guy who was good but hardly Andrew Luck or Marcus Mariota as a college player.

Ohio State Malik Hooker. Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports/Joseph Maiorana

I know people are often excited about spring games, partly because, hey football! But do they generally have any bearing on what happens in the fall? If your team (or part of your team) looks terrible in their spring game, is it a harbinger of doom? Or vice versa? 

— Philip Allison, Starkville, Miss. 

They’re not the best big-picture indicator of how good or bad a team is going to be since any good offensive play is also a bad defensive play and vice versa. I do think they’re useful for noticing individual players you might not be familiar with.

I vividly remember watching Ohio State’s game on TV last year and noticing a big-time playmaker on defense whose name I’d never previously heard. That guy was Malik Hooker. I remember watching Oregon’s in 2012 and doing a double-take at then-unknown Marcus Mariota’s breakaway speed. Jameis Winston had a highlight-heavy spring game heading into his first year as starter. And last year, Alabama early enrollee Jalen Hurts offered the first hints he was to be taken seriously in the Tide’s quarterback race.

I’m sure we could crowd-source this and come up with a long list of spring game standouts who emerged as breakout stars. They would likely be overwhelmingly quarterbacks and running backs since they are the easiest to identify. Conversely, I’m sure fans can recall plenty of spring game MVPs who never became major contributors in the fall, but that’s true of any scrimmage.

One other area where spring games are valuable is if you’re a fan of a team with an ongoing quarterback competition. Whether they play well, it offers a glimpse of where each guy stands. Florida’s game last Friday revealed that redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks has already pulled away from the competition.

 

Rob Foldy/Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, Stewart. How big is Skai Moore’s return for South Carolina as they rebuild the program? 

— William Felder 

Huge. In fact, he’s the living embodiment why “returning starters” is an often misleading number. Moore, a fifth-year senior linebacker, doesn’t count for the 2017 Gamecocks because he missed all of last season following neck fusion surgery. But getting back a former All-SEC player who was your leading tackler for three straight seasons is arguably more valuable than returning, what, two or three average starters?

In an unusual reversal for Will Muschamp, South Carolina finished spring with more questions on defense than offense. Quarterback Jake Bentley, last year’s breakout freshman, is the new face of the program, and North Carolina transfer running back Ty’Son Williams burst for 83 yards on 11 carries in the spring game. The offensive line garnered rave reviews. The Gamecocks should be able to move the ball this season.

But if South Carolina wants to get back to contending in the SEC East, it needs to get back to playing stingy defense like it did during Steve Spurrier’s peak 2011-13 seasons. I don’t know if that’s possible yet given the holes on that side of the ball, but a steadying presence like Moore could help elevate the whole unit.

Will any teams be flying United this fall?
— Russell Brandt

Well, most FBS schools fly charter. Ostensibly the advantage is not trying to cram a 100-plus party through the TSA line, but now there’s the added incentive that you can’t get bumped from your own charter.

That being said, I’d love to know how many people it would take to lift a 350-pound offensive lineman out of his seat (if they could do it without the violence).

Stewart: What’s your reaction to Maryland president Wallace Loh calling for the Death Penalty for UNC?  

— John Benal, Ridgeland, MS 

That was pretty bizarre. Believe me, I’m all for higher-ups in college sports acknowledging the severity of the North Carolina academic fraud scandal. Because the case has dragged on for so long, I wonder at times whether anyone is still paying attention. Still, it’s rare to hear a university president so gratuitously call out another school.

To be clear, Loh made these comments during a university senate meeting as part of response to a general question about “the corrupting influence of athletics.” Also, I did not interpret “I think this would lead to” the death penalty as him calling for it as much as predicting it. But that in itself comes out of nowhere. What in the NCAA’s last 30 years of enforcement history suggests it is ever going to use that punishment again, much less for this particular case?

Finally, as others have noted, Loh may have a bitter taste for the ACC, and by proxy North Carolina, from the two-year legal battle over Maryland’s exit fee from that league. (The parties ultimately settled at $31.4 million.) Maybe he doesn’t make the same comment if it’s the exact same scandal but in the Pac-12.

I continue to maintain that heavy sanctions are coming. The NCAA has invested too much at this point, and too many people are watching, for this whole thing to end with a couple of vacated banners. But I’d still be highly surprised if those sanctions include the Death Penalty.

Stewart: TV schedules are starting to get finalized for the early part of the upcoming season. I always wondered why more teams don’t schedule on the Sunday before Labor Day? It seems that the networks would love the extra inventory on the last non-NFL Sunday of the year, and many teams, especially non-P5 or mid-card P5 teams, would love the extra exposure.  

— Jerry Franklin, Cleveland, OH 
 
It’s not something I’d really considered prior to that Sunday night Notre Dame-Texas game last year. For so long it’d been a day reserved for Purdue against a MAC team, with an occasional Louisville-Kentucky opener, that it never occurred to me what an opportunity schools were missing out on.

But then came Notre Dame-Texas. Once it happened, and once it drew the highest rating (6.4) of any 2016 regular-season game up until Ohio State-Michigan, I figured the floodgates would open. Sure enough, we’re going to have dueling Sunday prime-time games this year with West Virginia-Virginia Tech (ABC) and Texas A&M-UCLA (FOX). Neither is as glamorous as ND-Texas, but both will get considerably larger audiences than they would have on a crowded Saturday that also includes Alabama-Florida State and Michigan-Florida.

Why don’t more schools do it? Partially because much of college football remains averse to change, as evidenced by Big Ten schools’ massive (and in my opinion, short-sighted) uproar over Friday night games coming this year. But also, there’s not necessarily a bunch of available windows. There are a lot of other televised sporting events on Labor Day weekend, including the U.S. Open and preseason NFL. I don’t see that Sunday necessarily becoming an all-day college football marathon. I do think prime-time games like this year’s will become the norm.

As someone who travels a lot for work, what’s your worst travel experience?
Al Caniglia

Considering just how much I’ve traveled over the years – enough to earn Marriott’s Lifetime Platinum status, thank you very much – I consider myself fortunate. Not only have I never been assaulted and dragged off an overbooked flight, I’ve never spent a night stranded at an airport, and as best I can recall, never endured a flight-related fiasco unrelated to weather.

I did miss covering a Duke-North Carolina basketball game once because of weather at LaGuardia, a harsh reminder that it’s always wise to fly the day before. I’ve also had a couple of departing flights where I had to go home and come back the next morning.

But the worst would be the time I was in Omaha for a story when a massive snowstorm hit the East Coast. I was supposed to fly home Monday morning; the day before, I got a notification I’d been rebooked — to Thursday. The only saving grace was I got the airline to allow me to at least fly the first leg to Cincinnati, where I could stay with family for a few days.

That seemed pretty bad at the time, but is admittedly mild compared with some of the horror shows I’ve read about passengers stranded for days. Which of course means I just jinxed myself.

All has been pretty quiet on the bowl scandal front lately — is this because of changes made with the switch from the BCS to the playoff, or have we just accepted the payout sham/schools losing exorbitant amounts of money for an exhibition?
— Adam, Columbus, Ohio

I take it you were a big fan of the book “Death to the BCS.”

Lest I’m forgetting something, I only seem to recall one scandal involving one bowl, the Fiesta, about six years ago. It was a big one, no doubt, but if you’re insinuating lots of bowl directors throw themselves lavish birthday parties on the company dime, I haven’t heard that.

The “losing exorbitant amounts of money” part was also a very misleading storyline from that era. Bowl payouts as a whole far surpass team expenses, but the bowls pay the conferences, not the individual schools. And conferences choose to distribute that bowl revenue to all of their schools, not just the participants. Hence, on paper, it may look like a school took a bath on its bowl trip, mainly due to unsold tickets. But then three months later, that same school gets a big check from its conference for its share of the larger pot.

One reason you might not be seeing as many of those “School X lost $2 million on its bowl trip” stories is that most conferences sought and received more favorable agreements from their partners when contracts lapsed after the 2013 season. Notably, the New Year’s Six bowls (not including the Rose Bowl) had to lower their ticket guarantees from 17,500 to 12,500. The CFP also covers $2 million in team expenses for its games.

The more common headline you’re likely going to see in the coming years is about how many bowl games are themselves taking a bath financially. Already this offseason we saw the Poinsettia Bowl go out of business, and I fully expect more to follow. Because more and more people, like Adam, now view the non-playoff bowls as “exhibitions,” it’s a lot harder to sell tickets and sponsorships.

It’s much more lucrative to be an SEC school that received an average $11.6 million in “postseason revenue” distribution (which includes basketball) in 2015-16 – regardless of what bowl it played in, if any — than it is to stage a football game in front of 40,000 people.

Stewart: In light of the recent United debacle, give me your top guys in college football who would most likely whoop the aviation policeman’s ass if he tried to force him out of his seat?
— Jordan DSilva, Norman Oklahoma

I think we can agree Ed Orgeron’s not getting dragged off that plane. Will Muschamp would get his face bloodied and come back for more. Mike Leach would pull out his law degree and talk his way out of it.

And Mike Riley would politely grab his bags, deplane and thank the gate agents for doing such a great job on his way out.