Mailbag: How Auburn, UGA make playoff, Alabama doubts and more

Is it possible both Gus Malzahn and Mark Richt can get their teams in the playoff this season?

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Rejoice — the season is upon us!

Earlier this week, I introduced a new weekly column, Forward Pass, and on Tuesday made a futile stab at predicting all 38 bowl matchups.

Both stories included my predicted playoff field of No. 1 Florida State, No. 2 Auburn, No. 3 UCLA and No. 4 Georgia. Which may naturally lead some of you to ask: How?

Stewart: I tend to follow your logic pretty well even if I don’t agree with it, but UGA the No. 4 seed?!? Seriously? You’re going to have to explain how you came up with that garbage. UGA and Auburn will play in the regular season. If Auburn wins, then that must mean UGA meets them again in the SEC championship and wins. But then how is Auburn No. 2? If UGA wins in the regular season and loses in the SEC championship against Auburn, then UGA would have to be undefeated (laughable) to only drop to No. 4.

— Ryan, Atlanta

I can’t figure out if Ryan is a Georgia fan who finds the scenario to be “garbage” because he thinks the Dawgs should be a higher seed or a Georgia Tech (or perhaps Florida) fan who, as the “laughable” part might indicate, thinks Georgia shouldn’t be in there at all. I haven’t seen many others pick Mark Richt’s team to reach the playoff, so given the fact I’m going out on that limb – for a team that hasn’t won a national title since 1980, no less – I sure hope he’s NOT a Dawgs fan preemptively nitpicking about mythical seeding.

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Of course I will admit the UGA/Auburn scenario might be a tad far-fetched. While we know it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that two SEC teams will get in, we assume they’d come from the same division. In this case, I’m picking the Dawgs and Tigers to both get in after meeting twice. I have Georgia winning the Nov. 15 meeting in Athens, then Auburn winning the Dec. 7 rematch in Atlanta.

If this were the BCS, Georgia would be done. In the playoff, however, if the committee feels the Dawgs are still one of the best four teams, then so be it. They’d have a strong case, too, having beaten three preseason Top 15 teams in Auburn, Clemson and South Carolina. They probably would have to be undefeated going into the SEC title game, though, and maybe that’s a stretch. But hey, the committee’s going to pick the best four teams; as of today I think FSU, Auburn, UCLA and Georgia are the best four teams. That could go up in smoke as soon as this weekend.

One important thing to note, both now and throughout the season: If the football committee operates much like the basketball committee – and I believe it will, based on several of the commissioners’ involvement in both – then non-conference games are going to prove vitally important. In this case, both Auburn (at Kansas State) and Georgia (vs. Clemson) could boast impressive wins outside of the SEC. The two predicted Power 5 champs I left out, Oklahoma and Ohio State, won’t likely have that same opportunity. The Sooners face Tennessee, who I’m not expecting to reach a bowl, and the Buckeyes’ best test comes from Virginia Tech, who I’ve predicted to reach the newly minted Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. 

The Alabama quarterback duel between Blake Sims and Jacob Coker is interesting to me not because there appears to be two capable athletes competing for a starting position but that the media has rated a team without a starting quarterback the second-best team in the country. I don’t recall any team rated so high in a similar situation. Do you?

— Tom Eiland, Portland, Oregon

Actually, Alabama was rated just as high three years ago when the Tide went into their opener with Nick Saban still undecided between AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims. The two shared series against Kent State before future Heisman runner-up McCarron took over for good the next week at Penn State, and the Tide went on to win the BCS championship. But Alabama is the rare program to reach such elevated status that people just assume whoever gets the QB job will do fine. And in this case, the Florida State transfer Coker had been built up all offseason as not only the likely starter but a potential standout due primarily to the fact he gave Jameis Winston serious competition for the ‘Noles’ job last year.

As it turns out, Coker has not come in and grabbed the reins like many assumed he would. Saban’s recent comments indicate that Coker has not fully grasped his new offense yet and thus is not playing as “fast” as fifth-year senior Sims. Furthermore, Sims made significant strides from April to August, impressing the coaches. Personally, the quarterback uncertainty is one reason I’m not as high on the Tide as most. While Alabama’s offense doesn’t need its quarterback to throw for 3,500 yards, it does need him to be consistent and mistake-free. Between Sims struggling so visibly in the spring game and Coker still figuring out the playbook, I’d be a tad bit nervous if I were a ‘Bama fan.

I noticed you picked UCLA to make the Playoff. I’ve also seen countless preseason shows on countless networks and all the hosts are making similar predictions. Is UCLA really THAT good, or are they the trendy pick who has a hot new coach but is still a couple years away from reaching their full potential? (We’ll call this the Florida State Syndrome from Jimbo’s early teams when everyone thought they would dominate only to fade out of contention).

— Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Oregon

I’ve had it my mind since the spring that UCLA would probably be my Pac-12 title pick (and as such, a likely playoff team). I did not realize just how trendy that pick would become. It’s a lot of collective faith in a team that has not finished a season in the Top 10 since 1998 and did not win its own division last season.

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Interestingly, I first became intrigued by Jim Mora’s Bruins while covering two of their games last season, both of which they lost, 24-10 at Stanford and 42-14 at Oregon. Despite an absolute mess of an offensive line due to youth and injuries, UCLA was within one score of those clearly superior opponents heading into the fourth quarter of both games. From there they went on to win at Arizona, beat a good Washington team at home and crush USC and Virginia Tech but lose to Arizona State. Their talent was undeniable but experience and consistency weren’t there yet.

While stars Brett Hundley and Myles Jack are the headliners, the Bruins should be particularly strong across their defensive front. Ends Owa Odighizuwa and Eddie Vanderdoes could be the best one-two tandem in the country. With all those dangerous Pac-12 quarterbacks this year, the champion will be the team that fields the best week-in, week-out defense. Admittedly, that could be Stanford or even Washington, but not likely Oregon. The questions are whether Hundley can stay healthy — because UCLA will be in big trouble if he doesn’t — and how the Bruins will deal with their loftiest expectations in 14 years.

Stewart, in five of the last seven years, a redshirt freshman or sophomore has won the Heisman Trophy. Do you see the trend continuing for the underclassmen or do you see an upperclassman winning the trophy this year? With Jameis Winston removed (because I don’t see any repeat winners again), who’s your pick?

— Shawn, Elida, Ohio

The Heisman has undergone an interesting transition over the last 15 years. For most of the award’s history, the electorate was clearly biased in favor of established upperclassmen. No underclassman had won it prior to Tim Tebow in 2007. We’d assumed that was due to some unwritten tradition. Now, I think it was more a reflection of the media industry, which produces most of the 900-plus voters, which of course has changed dramatically.

There was a time when many of the reporters voting on the Heisman saw very few of the candidates actually play. Now you can see pretty much everyone, every week. So while there was definitely a time when preseason name recognition mattered, now someone like Johnny Manziel can vault from obscurity to frontrunner in a matter of weeks. If anything, the Heisman has now gone in the opposite direction, where voters are increasingly drawn to the Next Big Thing. So I’m not even bothering with a preseason pick this year. Winston, Marcus Mariota and Hundley are probably too well known for their own good. They will be held to an impossible standard. The winner will likely be someone who started with no bar to reach.

Hey Stewart, I’m wondering why you’re so high on Duke this year. Obviously last year was a great season for the Blue Devils, but even though they bring their starting QB back in Anthony Boone, Brandon Connette, who transferred to Fresno State, was the one who got them in the end zone. Plus, losing their All-ACC tight end (Braxton Deaver) and middle linebacker (Kelby Brown) to injuries can’t help. I get that the Coastal is wide open, but I’d say they are rightfully outside the Top 25 with all those questions of their own.

— Mark, New York

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It’s admittedly not been a great preseason for Duke with those two key injuries. I questioned the coaches poll voters for leaving the Blue Devils out of the top 25, but that was back on July 31, before the injuries. I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving them out now. But, when I sat down to write my ACC picks last week, I still placed Duke on top in a very mediocre, very closely bunched Coastal Division, albeit in a tie with North Carolina. Everyone in that division is flawed and a bit of a mystery. A team like Virginia Tech could finish anywhere from first to fifth.

But I look at Duke and see a team that won 10 games last year while still fairly young. Nearly half the players on the two-deep for the Chick-fil-A Bowl were sophomores or freshmen. This team should be better than that one. Furthermore, its schedule is quite favorable, with no Florida State, Clemson or Louisville. North Carolina may be a better team by season’s end, but over a four-week stretch beginning Sept. 20 it plays at East Carolina and Clemson, hosts Virginia Tech, then visits Notre Dame. Only two of those count in the conference standings but the entire stretch could take a toll. So I’ll stick with Duke.

Now watch Georgia Tech win the thing.

Stewart — With the very real possibility of the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas starting 0-16 in SEC play, what are the chances of Arkansas dumping Bielema and going after a more hurry-up/spread oriented coach? Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery’s offensive philosophy and his connections to Texas recruiting would be an attractive candidate to replace Bielema’s ground n’ pound regime.

— Dave, Murfreesboro, Tennessee

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You’re writing him off already, are you? I don’t believe Arkansas will go winless in the conference again this year. The Razorbacks got better toward the end of last season, taking Mississippi State to overtime and nearly knocking off LSU. And that was with Bielema starting seven freshmen. It’s a tough division for a rebuilding team to see its record improve considerably, especially given the dearth of talent left behind by Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith, but winning two or three SEC games is not out of the question. Even if that doesn’t happen, I just can’t see AD Jeff Long axing a three-time Big Ten champion coach after two seasons.

Now, I’m not guaranteeing Bielema will ultimately be successful. He’s already dug himself quite a hole. I’ve likened his situation before to that of Rich Rodriguez’s at Michigan. Continuing that parallel, I’d be cautious about pushing for yet another radical change in style. It takes two to three years for a coach to reinvent the roster to fit his system, as Bielema is doing now. If you fire him and bring in a Baylor guy, it’s going to take him another two to three years to switch back from a ground-and-pound team to a spread passing team. It’s the inverse of what Michigan has gone through in yo-yoing from Lloyd Carr’s pro-style to Rodriguez’s spread back to Brady Hoke’s pro-style. I’d advise against it unless absolutely necessary.

A 6-7 season was cause for celebration in Durham just two seasons ago, so I don’t think it’s possible for David Cutcliffe to fall victim to Ole Miss/Clemson syndrome a second time, but are there any deluded fanbases out there whose expectations currently surpass what they should reasonably expect from their programs?

— William Kimmitt, location unknown

Definitely Oregon. Mark Helfrich may be the first coach in history to garner skepticism for going 11-2.

Stewart, I see you have my East Carolina Pirates in the Peach Bowl? Finally someone in the national media recognizing what we have this year. Do you think it is our schedule that will allow us to play in the Peach? Most “experts” think it kills us to play South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. So, why are you so big on my Pirates this year?? Thanks.

— Chris Allen, Roxboro, North Carolina

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Well first of all, obviously, I think East Carolina has a very good team, though it certainly has its work cut out in the American contending with Cincinnati, UCF and Houston. But if the “experts” think those three tough out-of-conference games kill their chances, then clearly they don’t yet understand one of the key changes in the new system. Which is, the selection committee, unlike BCS voters, will look at more than just record in determining which of those Group of 5 champions actually deserves the highest ranking.

In the BCS era, we basically just lumped all the non-power conference teams together, and if someone from that group managed to go undefeated, it rose to the top of the heap. There was no attempt to differentiate between an undefeated team that played a horrific schedule and a one-loss team that may have actually been a better team.

Consider this: Had the American lost its AQ status a year earlier, UCF never would have made a BCS game last year because of its loss to South Carolina. Never mind that it won at Louisville and at Penn State. So those three tough games should help ECU with the committee, not hurt it, but the Pirates probably need to win at least two of them. And then, obviously, they need to run through their conference.

Your Bowl Projections article on Fox Sports today is just completely ridiculous my man. To put Oregon below Washington, UCLA, and Stanford this year is just an irresponsible call, and you know it.

— Matthew Shanon, Phoenix

Irresponsible? I may well be wrong about the Ducks’ season, but I don’t think I’ve put someone in harm’s way or run up a budget deficit.

Hi Stewart: While I certainly appreciated your responses to the brainwashed Notre Dame faithful, their naivety actually raises an interesting question. What percentage of NCAA investigations are launched after a school self-reports as opposed to the alleged infraction being "reported by a third party?”

— Kyle, Miami

According to an NCAA spokesperson I contacted, only about 18 percent of major violations (now referred to as Level I and II) are self-reported, as opposed to nearly all secondary violations (now referred to as Level III). If Notre Dame did uncover widespread academic fraud with institutional involvement that would certainly fall under major violations, so give some credit for turning themselves in.

That being said, the assumption made by so many of my Domer e-mailers – that they’re the ONLY one who would do that, and that EVERYBODY ELSE would cover it up – comes off just a wee bit arrogant. Oklahoma turned itself in when it found out its starting quarterback at the time had a phony job with a local car dealership. Miami alerted the NCAA about Nevin Shapiro months before that story went public. This may be hard to believe, but the non-Notre Dame programs of college football are not all circa-‘80s SMU replicas.

Observation — These are your worst bowl projections ever. My LSU Tigers ARE NOT being relegated to the Capital One Bowl.

— Russell Macomber, Ormond Beach, Florida

Yep. It’s football season.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. Before joining FOX Sports, he covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.