Mailbag: Big 12 sleeper pick, UGA's suspensions & new Coastal colossus

Besides Oklahoma and Baylor, which under-the-radar program has a chance to grab the Big 12 crown this season? Stewart Mandel answers that question and a variety of others in his weekly mailbag.

Joel Klatt's Big 12 players to watch

JUL 21, 7:23 pm
Joel Klatt discusses the top players to watch in the Big 12 and gives his conference winner.

We’re about halfway through “talking season,” as The Ol’ Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, recently dubbed the annual conference media days circuit.

The Big 12 completed its two-day event Tuesday, and not surprisingly, defending champion Baylor and consensus 2014 pick Oklahoma garnered the lion’s share of attention.

What about the other eight teams?

(To submit Mailbag questions, email

Fox Sports is collecting all of my favorite print/web journalists. Between you and David Ubben of Fox Sports Southwest I’ll have to abandon my other sports websites.

Here’s my question: Other than Baylor and Oklahoma, who do you see as a team that could take the Big 12 title this year? Which team is likely to play the spoiler and keep either OU or Baylor from making the College Football Playoff?

-- Ralph Romig, Houston, Texas

Your man David tweeted out an interesting tidbit last week of particular relevance to this question. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma’s coach since 1999, has won a Big 12 title every single even-numbered year since he’s been there. So one has to go way against the grain to suggest the Sooners, a preseason Top 5 team, will NOT win the Big 12 in 2014. Having said that, OU’s 2012 title was a shared crown with BCS representative Kansas State. And while the Big 12 made a show this week of trotting out its new slogan, “One True Champion,” it does in fact still recognize … more than one champion. So Stoops could still continue his streak while someone else does emerge as the sleeper champion.

And that sleeper’s got to be Kansas State.

Never underestimate the Wizard, Bill Snyder. Sure, OU’s got all those fantastic pass-rushers while Baylor’s got Bryce Petty and his 50-points-per-game offense. Watch Snyder still find a way to win 10 games. Last year’s rebuilding Wildcats started with a clunker, falling at home to North Dakota State, and at one point stood just 2-4. From there, K-State did what a well-coached team often does. It got better.

It won all but one of its remaining games, crushing Texas Tech 49-26 on the road and throttling Michigan 31-14 in the bowl game. Even its one loss during that stretch, 41-31 to Oklahoma, provided its fill of excitement when quarterback Jake Waters hit star receiver Tyler Lockett for touchdowns of 48, 30 and 90 yards in the second quarter alone.

Both Waters and Lockett, now seniors, are back. Replacing productive running back John Hubert is a challenge, but I wouldn’t worry much about a Snyder offense’s ability to run the ball. The defense has more holes to fill, but it’s not like that unit was brimming with stars during its 2012 Fiesta Bowl run. The biggest cause for concern for K-State is that it faces both Oklahoma and Baylor on the road. So perhaps a conference title is asking too much. But it could play spoiler to one of those playoff aspirants, as well as another, Auburn, which visits Manhattan for a tricky Thursday night game Sept. 18.

Is Boise State a program that will continue to be a team that regularly wins double-digit games or will they take a major step back after losing Chris Petersen? Are we talking not even making a bowl sometime soon?

-- Lars, Bowling Green, Kentucky

Sometimes we don’t truly appreciate a sustained run of excellence until we have some distance from it. Take a second and reflect on just how ridiculously good Boise State was during the Kellen Moore era (2008-11). The Broncos went 50-3, with two of three losses coming on last-second missed field goals. It wasn’t all Moore’s doing, mind you; if anything, Boise’s deep and talented defensive line was the backbone of those teams. But it was never realistic that Boise would keep winning at that level every year, and last season, we saw that the Broncos are mortal. They went 8-5 and failed to win their division. And that was before Petersen left.

I do think Boise made the absolute right hire in bringing back Bryan Harsin, who knows the program as well as anyone. I could see him having his own long run there. And double-digit wins remain a realistic year-in, year-out goal. For one thing, Boise is far and above its Mountain West competitors in resources, exposure and recruiting pull. There are only a few programs -- Fresno State, San Diego State and Utah State -- anywhere near the same level.

That doesn’t mean Boise will beat everybody else every year, but three conference losses is likely its worst-case scenario. Then it’s just a matter of how they fare in challenging non-conference games like this year’s against Ole Miss and BYU. I would expect Harsin’s teams to regularly win the Mountain West and be in the mix for the five smaller conferences’ guaranteed New Year’s Six bowl berth. I would not expect another 50-3 four-year run anytime soon.

Stewart, I am a new reader to your column, and I've enjoyed it since your move to Fox Sports. Keep it up. My question regards the University of Georgia's seemingly routine spring suspensions that Steve Spurrier and everyone else seems to enjoy poking fun at. I am a UGA alum, and from what I have read and understood over the years, nearly all of these suspensions are not NCAA sanctioned, but are actually Richt's personal choice. Is this more or less true?

-- Kyle Cheesborough, St. Louis, Missouri

First of all, welcome. Tell your friends. Secondly, there are very few NCAA-mandated suspensions. The only way that would happen is if the NCAA deemed a player ineligible, either academically or for taking impermissible benefits, or, in the rare event a player failed an NCAA-administered drug test at a postseason event. Recent Michigan basketball player Mitch McGary garnered a one-year suspension for this very thing after he tested positive for marijuana last spring, so he turned pro instead. I’ve rarely heard of others. And everything else is at the school’s or coach’s discretion.

What doesn’t often get discussed about Georgia is the athletic department’s own rigid protocols that take many of the decisions out of Mark Richt’s hands. One failed drug test costs a player 10 percent of his season (one game in football), a second results in missing 30 percent. How strict is that compared to the Dawgs’ peers? Well, let’s just say that if the Honey Badger played at Georgia he may never have seen the field. Meanwhile, a DUI arrest necessitates a 20 percent suspension, which is two games in football, one game longer than most you’ll see. Even missed classes carry a preordained punishment; 10 percent once an athlete misses three in one course.

Of course, Georgia and Richt hardly get lauded for any of this. When he kicks a player off the team it elicits a whole new round of “Mark Richt has lost control of his program” jokes. Yet Auburn and Louisville take no such flack when they inevitably pick up one of those castoffs. I’m not saying Georgia and Richt should get a free pass. They’ve had an awful lot of athletes run afoul of the law the past few years. But when that happens, they more than most do genuinely seem to try to do the right thing.

Stewart: In 2010 you tweeted that you had a "man-crush" on Jordan-Hare Stadium and said it was easily one of the top five places to watch a game. I know you consider the Rose Bowl one of the best, too. What are your other favorite places to watch a college football game?

-- George Wrong, Birmingham, Alabama

First of all, great memory on your part. Having now sent more than 23,000 tweets I have a hard time remembering ones from last week much less four years ago.

Athlon just happened to ask me a couple of weeks ago to participate in a media poll asking for my 10 favorite places to watch a game. I did not include the Rose Bowl on that list because they asked us to consider campus atmosphere, tailgating, etc. Know that from a pure viewing standpoint, the Pasadena venue is on a whole other stratosphere. But the 10 I did list were, in order:

1) LSU, 2) Auburn, 3) Alabama, 4) Notre Dame, 5) Ohio State, 6) Oregon, 7) Georgia, 8) Washington, 9) Wisconsin, 10) Michigan. So the man crush continues.

Maybe your papers got shuffled a bit in the move, but did you really list Duke first as the list of power teams in the ACC Coastal? I mean even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but do they have the ability to go to the conference championship again?

--Matt, Atlanta

Of course they do. Sleep on Jamison Crowder at your own risk. I’m not alone, by the way. The Blue Devils got the most first-place votes of any Coastal team in the ACC’s preseason media poll. Though they still somehow finished third overall, which does seem very Duke-like.

Stewart, last week you talked a little about the correlation between returning starters and who should be contenders the following year. I'd like to branch off of this and ask, which do you think is a more important on the defensive side of things: The front seven or defensive backfield? It seems like everyone always stresses more about losing the front seven, but times have changed and this sport is mostly wide open now. Shouldn't losing three defensive backs (Virginia Tech) be harder for most teams to overcome?

--Shawn, Elida, Ohio

I agree that this answer has probably changed over the past five to 10 years. Mind you, nearly ever defensive coach will say that there’s nothing more important than a strong defensive line. If you can shut down the run and get pressure on the quarterback with just your front four, you’re probably going to be pretty darn good regardless of attrition in the back seven. I certainly look favorably on a team that returns a proven D-line. A good example of that this year is Clemson. Having said that, I don’t necessarily view a young defensive line as cause for as much concern as I do an inexperienced secondary. And that’s precisely because of the more wide-open game.

For example, going into last year, Michigan State’s biggest loss on defense was star end William Gholston. One might have expected the unit to take a step back. However, with lockdown cornerback Darqueze Dennard, budding standout Trae Waynes and two veteran safeties, coordinator Pat Narduzzi could confidently leave his corners on an island and blitz like mad. Michigan State, 7-6 the year before, fielded the No. 1 defense in the country and went 13-1.

Conversely, Alabama brought back all manner of studs up front but no comparable replacement for first round cornerback Dee Milliner, as Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans exposed quickly enough. Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart were thus limited in what blitzes they could run and the two-time defending national champs, while still very good, fell short of expectations.

Long story short: It’s awfully hard to field an elite defense without a reliable secondary when facing so many pass-heavy attacks, and while some freshmen – like Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson last year -- can step in and play those positions right away, you’d much rather have a bunch of third-year starters.

Mountaineer Nation seems to be split into two camps. One camp is ready to pull the plug on the Dana Holgorsen experiment and hire someone else. They really only have eyes for one person: RichRod. They seem to think that one phone call would bring him right back. The other camp (which I am in) feels that more patience is needed, given the adjustment of changing conferences and having to recruit better players as a result of the still-lingering Bill Stewart effects. What do you think?

-- Jonny, Summersville, West Virginia

I’m not particularly confident in Holgorsen, who, after a 15-3 start in Morgantown that included a 70-point Orange Bowl performance, has since gone 6-14. It’s possible no one else would be faring much better given the challenge West Virginia took on when it moved from the Big East to a conference, the Big 12, that’s both tougher and puts the program at a geographic disadvantage. WVU will be a hard job for anyone going forward but perhaps even more so for Holgorsen, who continues to try to beat Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor by running a similar system with less-talented players.

But … RichRod? Seriously? If in fact this is a widespread sentiment among WVU fans than apparently losing causes quite an attitude change, because I’ve never seen an uglier coaching divorce than his was at West Virginia. Practically the entire state branded him a traitor. The school sued him for $4 million (and got it). And you’re telling me these very same people think they can just pick up the phone and woo him back?

Anything’s possible, I suppose, but he’s quite happy at Arizona and grateful to be somewhere he’s appreciated after the ugly situations at both WVU and Michigan. I don’t think that would be a wise reunion on either side, and I’m guessing West Virginia AD Oliver Luck realizes that as well.

Stewart. What will happen at West Virginia after they lose to Towson on September 6th?

-- Matt, Atlanta

I would imagine a lot of heavy drinking.

Here in Iowa there is a lot of talk of the Hawkeyes starting 10-0, based solely on one of the nation's weakest schedules instead of the team's talent. Do you see this as a real possibility or the usual case of Iowa fans being delusional?

--Grant, Des Moines

Iowa fans are delusional? That’s not been my recent experience. Words like defeatist and defensive come to mind. But while I do believe the Hawkeyes will be a decent team this season, there’s a better chance of Iowans throwing me a ticker tape parade than there is of this year’s team starting 10-0.

First of all, it’s the Rule of Ferentz that no Iowa team will ever match its preseason expectations. The ones that get hyped up inevitably flop, and without fail, the ones we overlook end up surprising everybody. I swear this has happened every single season of Ferentz’s 15-year tenure. And while Iowa’s schedule does on its face seem preposterously easy, rarely does it play out that way. At least a few teams that looked like gimmes in July will prove thorns in Iowa’s side.

The most likely candidates in those first 10 games are pesky rival Iowa State, which won the two meetings before last year’s; Northwestern, which has won six of its last nine against the Hawkeyes and took last year’s game in Iowa City to overtime; and Maryland, which I believe will be the Big Ten’s surprise team this year. Even the Sept. 20 game at Pitt is hardly a automatic W.

Put me down for 7-3.

What, if any, are your expectations for former five-star quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel with Cincinnati? He appears to have an edge going into camp, had good numbers in the spring game with a solid receiver corps, and outside of the Buckeyes has a not-so-daunting schedule. Can he begin matching all that praise coming out of high school? Appreciate your work.

-- Vince, Austin

There’s little doubt about Kiel’s physical talents. He didn’t get all those lofty rankings and all those scholarship offers by accident. Tommy Tuberville and his staff are very high on him and plan to incorporate a lot of downfield passing. But there’s no way to know how a guy’s going to fare until he plays for real. Kiel has not played in a real game since his 2011 high school season. The good news is he’ll be facing less formidable competition in the American than he would have had he remained committed to Indiana or LSU or stayed longer than a season at Notre Dame. Memphis, USF, UConn and Temple don’t strike fear in opposing quarterbacks.

But Ohio State is not the only quality foe on Cincinnati’s schedule. The Bearcats also visit Miami (the one in Florida, though they also host the one in Ohio) and SMU and face decent foes East Carolina and Houston at home. I do believe Tuberville’s is the team to beat in that conference and it should help Kiel that Cincinnati has a nice stable of running backs. Expectations will be high, but not as through-the-roof as they would have been at Notre Dame, so perhaps the third-year sophomore will have a smoother and less pressure-filled transition.

Can you please tell sportscasters to stop calling Steve Spurrior “The Ol’ Ball Coach.” Look, I’m a Texas fan and could really care less about Spurrior, and yes he’s old, but calling him “The Ol’ Ball Coach” makes the one saying it look stupid.

-- Luke Belton, Texas

How can we expect to reach consensus on his nickname if we can’t even agree how to spell his last name?

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for 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,” will be released in August. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to

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