Mailbag: Will Big Ten’s reputation hurt Spartans, Buckeyes in playoff?

By the time the Big Ten finally took its turn in the spotlight earlier this week, I think we’d all hit Media Days burnout.

Can’t we just skip ahead to the start of fall camp, that strangely named rite of football season that actually takes place in the hottest part of summer?

But seriously, let’s show the conference of Bo and Woody some Mailbag love.

(To submit Mailbag questions, email Stewart.Mandel@fox.com)

Mr. Mandel, This upcoming season, the Big Ten has two strong College Football Playoff contenders in Michigan State and Ohio State. Does the conference’s perception and recent bowl game struggles damage their playoff hopes to a degree?

— Samuel Ensign, sophomore, Purdue University

I was told the FOX Sports audience skewed younger, and sure enough, I’m now getting them as undergrads. Good question, Samuel, but for future reference, no need for all the formality. You can just call me Dr. Mandel.

I’ve been told repeatedly that conference perception will carry no relevance with the selection committee; however, I do think team-specific perceptions will be hard to ignore. To that end, these two should have no such problems. Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl win over a widely respected Stanford team and has another chance to prove itself Sept. 6 at Oregon. Ohio State did lose to Clemson in last year’s Orange Bowl, but it’s still a program that started 24-0 under Urban Meyer. And it gets to test itself against … Michigan State.

The question is what happens if there’s a surprise contender from the conference? The Spartans, coming off a 7-6 season the year before and generally not a traditional power, faced a lot of skepticism last year right up until the Rose Bowl. If Iowa, for example, becomes this year’s Michigan State, will the Hawkeyes get the same benefit of the doubt as a 12-1 SEC team or will the committee consciously or subconsciously downgrade the Hawkeyes because of lack of recent history? What about Nebraska, with its long lineage of big-game meltdowns under Bo Pelini?

One of the biggest draws of the selection committee era is that it theoretically eradicates the effect of preconceived notions built before the season even begins. Like, for instance, the fact that we all assume right now the Buckeyes and Spartans are legit playoff contenders. I’ll be curious to see whether that’s true in reality.

Stewart: I sense that Nebraska fans are beginning to re-embrace Bo Pelini and trace that directly to his own embrace of @FauxPelini. Is Pelini’s public acknowledgment of a mocking twitter account the best PR coup for a college coach in recent history? Also, given the media love bestowed on Pelini, do you see other coaches willing to remove their self-created gravitas in order to better connect to fan bases through unconventional methods?

— John M., Cary, North Carolina

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My two favorite moments from watching the Big Ten coaches’ press conferences Monday were Pelini saying he left his cat in his hotel room and Mark Dantonio saying, “I’m happy to be here,” with his trademark emotionless death stare. Pelini’s had a great PR offseason, no doubt, and it helped soften the public discourse surrounding him. Remember, this is a guy who all but dared the school to fire him after last season’s loss to Iowa in the regular-season finale.

This offseason could have been entirely about his job security; instead, it’s been about his cat. Which is great, but when the games get going you’re not going to see fans and media take it easy on him if he loses to Miami on Sept. 20, just as I can’t imagine this new lighthearted persona will last long either if that happens.

As for other coaches following in his footsteps, I’d note that most youngish coaches at major programs already embrace social media as a means to cultivating their brand. Penn State’s James Franklin, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, even LSU’s Les Miles are good examples of that. Hey, when Nick Saban is willing to go on TV donning a Luigi hat, you know this profession is collectively softening up. But it will probably be another generation before the stereotypical, steely-eyed, all-business coaching persona truly dissipates. Put it this way: I don’t see Dantonio bringing his pet to the spring game anytime soon.

And lest you think Pelini has completely softened, he did gripe this week about “clueless” parents in recruiting.

Stewart, James Franklin is a great coach, but the impact of Penn State’s NCAA sanctions, which have typically been described as "crippling,” has yet to result in a losing season. At Big Ten media days, Penn State players were asked to speculate about a bowl ban being lifted. But regardless, do you think it’s a sure thing that Penn State will finish with a bowl-eligible record? What should Penn State fans expect in Franklin’s first year?

— Foster, Providence, Rhode Island

I wish I had the time, resources and was allowed to watch every team in the country practice once, either in spring or August, prior to the season. If so, I believe I’d be a tremendous preseason prognosticator. As it stands, I may see only three or four teams in a given offseason, but the ones I do, I usually come away with a pretty accurate read on where they’ll end up.

It’s not like I’m some sort of talent evaluation savant; it’s just when I see a team’s size, athleticism, strengths and weaknesses up close — and when I have others to compare it with — I’ve often found the ones that look like national championship teams wind up right in the hunt and the ones that look like 8-4 teams wind up going about 8-4.

In this case, Penn State was one of the few I saw in person last spring, and your concern is warranted. Mind you, the Nittany Lions’ schedule is not overly imposing. They can get to six wins simply by beating Akron, Rutgers, UMass, Northwestern, Temple and Illinois. But I’m guessing this won’t be an easy season. Penn State has an elite quarterback in Christian Hackenberg but very few difference-makers around him, and an already thin offensive line lost veteran guard Miles Dieffenbach to a torn ACL in the spring. The defense is in slightly better shape, especially in the secondary, but still light on standouts. And depth is a concern all around. As you said, the scholarship reductions were crippling and the effect is now being felt.

The good news is Franklin and his coordinators are adept at playing to their strengths. For Penn State that will mean its running backs and tight ends. I anticipate the Nittany Lions having an up-and-down season. I do think they’ll hit six wins.

Hi Stewart. Michigan opens against Appalachian State again this year. Do you think the Mountaineers will embarrass the Wolverines a second time?

— Trent, Nolensville, Tennessee

You’ve reminded me that a reader asked this same question the summer before that famous 2007 game, with me replying something to the effect of “No chance.” Hopefully I don’t make the same mistake twice. But Appalachian State in 2007 was the reigning Division I-AA champion, a likely Top 40 team if it played in the highest division. But a few years ago the school ran off the coach of that team, Jerry Moore. It is now a first-year FBS and Sun Belt member but coming off a 4-8 season.

While Michigan’s offensive line may very well struggle to block a Sun Belt-caliber foe this season, the Mountaineers aren’t likely to be a particularly good Sun Belt team. So the Wolverines should be safe this time.

Stewart, with the upcoming four-team college football playoff, what do you anticipate will be the biggest drawback from the system? Do you think that people will still criticize the selection process as they did with the BCS?  

— Phil, Chicago

First of all, this question gives me a convenient excuse to mention that my new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” will likely be available NEXT WEEK on Amazon.com. I wish I could give you an exact date, but I went a less-traditional route publishing this one, which carries with it a little uncertainty. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll know exactly when it’s available. And no, this is not the last time I will shamelessly plug it.

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Of course people will criticize the selection process, and in fact I believe more so than with the BCS. That’s simple math. Two more berths means at least three or four more legitimate claimants than before, which will only amplify the controversy. The difference is because the BCS standings were so obtuse, people focused their outrage less on the selection mechanism and more on the entire flawed system. While the calls to expand to eight teams will no doubt begin immediately, the actual year-in, year-out outrage will likely be directed specifically at the selection committee.

But I don’t think that will be nearly the biggest drawback. Over time I think we’ll see a narrowing of fan interest and media coverage of the sport to primarily the 15 to 20 teams that regularly contend for the playoff. As of now, less prestigious power-conference teams like Northwestern, NC State, Washington State and so on still draw interest on a typical Saturday simply by playing college football. But part of that is they’re playing for something — the best possible bowl.

Within a few years, no one but a team’s own fans will care about who makes the Outback Bowl, and all but the diehards will probably tune out if the teams/games have no playoff ramifications. A mid-November game between two 7-3 teams could become the equivalent of a Week 15 NFL game between two 5-8 teams. It’s unfortunate but probably unavoidable.

Less than 10 years ago, Chip Kelly was an offensive coordinator at New Hampshire and Guz Malzahn was a head coach at Springdale High School in Arkansas. My question for you is who is going to be the next coach to come out of nowhere?

— Al Caniglia, Frankfurt, Germany

I know exactly who it will be, but I can’t tell you, because then he’d no longer get to come out of nowhere.

I’d be all for that, but it’s probably not going to happen. Any time I’ve brought up the possibility of a football equivalent of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in basketball to people in the sport, they’re generally dismissive. I don’t entirely understand it. Why couldn’t 10 SEC teams and every Big 12 team hold open a spot on its schedule, and in February or March the conferences would announce who’s paired with who? Home and away teams would be designated years in advance so they could plan the rest of their schedule accordingly. Remember, the Big Ten and Pac-12 initially announced an agreement much like this back in 2011 only to have several Pac-12 schools balk. They called it off several months later.

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With the playoff upon us it seems like everyone’s talking about equity in scheduling. As Stanford coach David Shaw told me last week, “I couldn’t imagine if I coached the Raiders, the Kansas City Chiefs were allowed a different way of scheduling than we were.” The problem is even schools within the same conference have different scheduling priorities. Some are trying to play the best possible games and impress the committee; others are just trying to get to six wins and a bowl.

Some need a certain amount of home games to meet their budget, while others are more flexible. Some need a marquee name to sell out their stadium, while others could draw 100,000 for Gardner-Webb. And many already have annual out-of-conference rivalry games that complicate matters. Why would Florida blindly agree to face a comparable Big 12 opponent when it knows it’s already going to face Florida State? And so, scheduling remains largely decentralized, much to Shaw’s and many other’s frustration.

Hi Stewart. We often hear about coaches "winning February." Now that you’ve survived conference media days, who would you crown July National Champions this year?

— Nick, location unknown

It’s got to be Bob Stoops. He managed to throw zingers at Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin, dropped some news that Texas Tech transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield might be eligible this season, talked up starter Trevor Knight and called Blake Bell “the prototype tight end.” If you were buying a team strictly off media day hype you’d probably jump all over the Sooners. Just like we used to swoon over Brady Hoke every February.

Stewart, I saw your tweet and read the story about Marcus Mariota’s semester workload. It made me wonder how common this scenario is and how much of an advantage does it give an athlete? I imagine huge, especially for a quarterback, now with no tests or midterm papers to get in the way of studying game film and preparing for next week’s opponent.

— T.J., Covina, California

First of all, I just want to clarify something. Oregon fans thought I was ripping Mariota for taking yoga and golf classes. On the contrary, I commended him for achieving such a “relaxing and flexible” workload. I know if I got to spend the week playing golf and doing yoga I’d be far more relaxed and far more flexible.

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I remember USC’s Matt Leinart took some flak as a fifth-year senior for taking ballroom dancing to complete his degree. In Mariota’s case, he’s already completed his degree requirements. Anything he takes at this point is to be eligible to play football. Good for him. I, for one, took the easiest possible curriculum at Northwestern during the quarter I spent on the road covering the basketball team. One of the classes was “Introduction to Computers.” I’m guessing they don’t teach that anymore.

Anyway, I don’t know how common Mariota’s plan is, but I don’t know that it gives him any tangible advantage. He didn’t seem to have much problem studying and preparing for opponents last year with a full course load.

Here’s your starting eighth-year senior running back Louisville’s Michael Dyer.

— Joe, Greenville, South Carolina

Thank you for reminding me we haven’t played the eighth-year senior game yet. It got lost in the shuffle during my transition. For 2014 I nominate Dyer, Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown, Miami quarterback Jake Heaps, Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux (and thank heavens he’s back), Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Texas running back Malcolm Brown and cornerback Quandre Diggs, Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, USC linebacker Hayes Pullard and Eastern Michigan er, something, Rob Bolden.

And the captain of the team is of course Florida receiver Andre Debose, who I’m pretty sure was part of Urban Meyer’s first recruiting class at Florida and is entering his fifth straight year as the Gators’ great untapped hope at receiver.

This list, as always, is not comprehensive, and I welcome your nominations. This year’s Eighth-Year Senior Hall of Fame inductees – Jason White, Mitch Mustain and … well, let’s go ahead and put Bolden in now thank you.

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,” will be released in August. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.