Mailbag: Who will be 2014 versions of Auburn & Florida State?
In Stewart Mandel's first Mailbag for FOXSports.com, he covers which teams have a chance to be this year's Auburn and Florida State, the rising pressure at Oregon, Notre Dame's impact on the ACC and much more.
After great runs in 2013, Auburn's Nick Marshall and Florida State's Jameis Winston both return to try again.
By Stewart Mandel
Welcome to my first FOXSports.com Mailbag. To those of you who followed me over from SI.com, it’s good to see you again.
For those of you new to this column, it’s my weekly space to interact with you, the readers, answer your pressing college football questions and hopefully have a little fun along the way.
For future editions we’ll be providing a mechanism for you to submit questions that don’t fit into 140 characters, but for this week I called on my Twitter followers to provide material.
Last year’s BCS title game had the AP’s preseason No. 11 team, Florida State, vs. a team that did not get one vote, Auburn. Who could pull off either role this year?
-- Jimmy Dugan, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Based on the early consensus among the preseason magazines, one candidate to fill Florida State’s from-outside-to-the-Top 10 role might be the Seminoles’ own division rival, Clemson. The Tigers, who finished 11-2 last season thanks to an Orange Bowl win over then 12-1 Ohio State, find themselves in much the same position that FSU did last preseason. Many expected the ‘Noles, themselves 12-2 and Orange Bowl champs the year before, to take a step back without first-round quarterback EJ Manuel and 10 other departed starters. It turned out they had an even better passer, Jameis Winston, waiting to take his turn and a whole bunch of quality veterans.
Similarly, one might assume the Tigers’ best days are behind them with the departure of three-year offensive standouts Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. But as our old friend “anonymous NFL scout” told us during Boyd’s puzzling descent to sixth-round pick, coordinator Chad Morris deserves as much credit as anyone for Clemson’s explosive offense, and he’ll be working with a senior, Cole Stoudt, who has three years’ experience in the system. More notably, Clemson should have its most talented defense in years, led by All-American defensive end Vic Beasley. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has assembled four straight Top 15 recruiting classes and several of his most touted signees, like five-star linebacker Stephone Anthony, are now seniors.
Of course, to buy in on Clemson as a playoff contender one has to overlook the fact the Tigers lost 51-14 at home to Florida State last year and hasn’t beaten South Carolina since 2008. But hey, you asked for someone less obvious. And I can’t even take credit for this one. Pete Roussel of CoachingSearch.com already picked Clemson to win it all.
As for replicating 2013 Auburn, how can one possibly look at one of last year’s rock-bottom teams and say, watch out, America? I suppose Florida, which limped to a 4-8 finish last year, will be a trendy pick, but last I checked Will Muschamp, not Gus Malzahn, is still coaching the Gators. That doesn’t help.
However, I’ve noticed Texas A&M isn’t showing up in many Top 25s. That seems like a mistake. Yes, Johnny Football is gone, but does anyone really think a Kevin Sumlin-coached offense is going to struggle at quarterback? Doubtful. There’s still plenty of playmakers on that side of the ball. The Aggies’ problem last year of course was its defense, last seen making Duke quarterback Anthony Boone look like Peyton Manning. But A&M could not have been younger or thinner on defense in 2013. With 10 starters back they should be much improved, and a return to 10-win territory – and thus playoff contention – is not inconceivable.
Do you think Mark Helfrich has any extra pressure to succeed this year, especially with the way last season ended for the Ducks?
-- Josh Peterson, Omaha, Neb.
I do. Helfrich faced the near-impossible task of following in Chip Kelly’s footsteps, where anything short of a national championship game trip would be viewed as a disappointment by victory-spoiled Ducks fans. Sure enough, Oregon not only fell short of that ambitious goal, but it suffered humbling defeats at Stanford (where they trailed 26-0 in the fourth quarter) and Arizona (where it lost 42-16). They then narrowly escaped Oregon State, 36-35, and scored one offensive touchdown in a 30-7 Alamo Bowl win over Texas. To be clear, Oregon’s offense was not the same following Marcus Mariota’s MCL injury in late October, but even before then, the Ducks didn’t seem as frightening as they did for much of Kelly’s tenure.
With Mariota, arguably the nation’s top returning quarterback, back and healthy, expectations for Oregon will once again be through the roof in 2014, especially with division nemesis Stanford suffering so many key losses on defense. But the Ducks have a couple of pressing concerns.
For one, Bralon Addison’s spring ACL injury leaves Mariota with a largely unproven receiving corps. But the real question is how Oregon’s defense will fare without perennially underappreciated coordinator Nick Aliotti, who retired after last season. Helfrich promoted Don Pellum, the Ducks’ linebackers coach of two decades, so continuity won’t be an issue, but it’s still a significant change.
To be clear, Helfrich is not remotely close to any hot-seat list. If anything, his situation reminds me more of when Les Miles followed Nick Saban at LSU. It took Miles years to win over skeptics despite notching 11 wins in his first season. A Pac-12 title and/or playoff berth would help Helfrich considerably.
Should the NCAA allow Dorial Green-Beckham to play for Oklahoma right away? Why or why not?
--Mark Helfin, Santa Clara, Calif.
What’s this? A college football fan in Santa Clara? That’s one more than I came across in my nearly two years living there before moving up north a bit last year.
I don’t know the particulars of any possible hardship waiver by DGB. The NCAA’s requirements are admittedly subjective. Sometimes guys you’d never expect to get one do so and vice versa. Generally speaking, you get to play immediately only if you’re returning closer to home to take care of a sick family member.
However, John Infante of the Bylaw Blog suggested OU might pursue a so-called “run-off” waiver, intended for athletes who essentially get cut by their former team, which would require Missouri to supply supporting documentation. Barring extenuating circumstances of which we’re not aware, neither scenario seems likely to be granted, as Green-Beckham is clearly transferring because his own self-inflicted disciplinary issues got him kicked off the Tigers.
If so, that’s probably for the best. It hardly seems fair that Green-Beckham should be treated differently than the many other players who get dismissed from one school and have to sit out a year at their next. I found it troubling back in 2010 when castoff Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was able to find immediate refuge at Ole Miss despite pleading guilty to second-degree burglary, but that was a different process. Those were the nascent days of the graduate transfer rule. Masoli had secured his undergraduate degree and could play immediately.
As for Green-Beckham, I’m a bit surprised Bob Stoops is willing to take the publicity hit for a guy who may never see the field in Norman. Assuming the waiver is denied he could well bolt for the NFL after a season on the scout team. But if there’s even a slight chance of adding a Top 10 talent to the Sooners’ thin 2014 receiving corps, he may prove worth it.
What is your outlook for “The American” in 2014 and beyond. It looks to be building a solid league for the future.
-- Robert Hayes, West Palm Beach, Fla.
At first glance I thought you were asking my outlook on the next season of “The Americans,” a phenomenal spy drama that happens to air on … FX. Just trying to get in good with my new corporate overlords.
As for the football conference, it’s not going to be confused with any of the Power 5 leagues anytime soon. Losing Louisville a year after it finished 12-1 did not help matters. But the league does boast a reigning BCS bowl champion in UCF and two other programs, Cincinnati and UConn, that have reached BCS bowls. Houston fared well in its first season in the league. East Carolina has long been a solid program that could come in and compete at a high level. And USF has always been considered a sleeping giant but has serious rebuilding to do. It’s not unrealistic to expect the league to produce a couple of Top 25 teams every year.
But the American is going to suffer on three fronts. For one, it no longer enjoys automatic qualifying status in the new postseason system and will instead be lumped in with the Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt. That won’t help with perception and, in turn, recruiting. Secondly, it’s depending heavily on programs in predominantly pro-sports markets that often struggle for fan support.
And finally, it’s going to be very hard for schools to retain successful coaches due to the disparity in revenue between the Power 5 and the American. Houston’s Tony Levine, 41, and Memphis’ Justin Fuente, 37, both made about $900,000 last season. The minute one takes his squad to the Cotton Bowl, a power-conference school will swoop in and offer at least three times that. It’s difficult to sustain success when your league becomes a stepping stone.
If Marshall beats everyone on their schedule (including the West Division champ in the Conference USA title game) by 50, can the Thundering Herd make the College Football Playoff?
Not with this schedule. But thank you for asking a relatively easy question, not a brain twister like, who else is in Conference USA?
How (or will) Notre Dame's half-membership in the ACC change perception of the strength of the conference?
-- Ken A. Bugajski, Ft. Wayne, Ind.
It will certainly boost strength-of-schedule perception of the teams Notre Dame faces in a given year, provided the Irish pull their weight. Just look at Florida State. Each of the past two years the ‘Noles could not afford a loss and still reach the national title game due to their weak conference schedule. This year, though, the additions of Louisville in-conference and Notre Dame and Oklahoma State out-of-conference give the appearance that FSU will play a decent schedule in 2014. Depending on how those teams shake out, the ‘Noles could have a legitimate argument against an SEC or Pac-12 team with the same record.
The ACC’s perception is already improving due to FSU’s national title and Clemson’s BCS bowl win last year, as well as the swap of Louisville for Maryland. In fact it’s remarkable how much the conference has changed in just a few years. It wasn’t that long ago we viewed the ACC as primarily being the domain of Virginia Tech. Now the Hokies barely enter the conversation. We’ll have to see whether Notre Dame becomes a fixture in ACC football conversations despite it not playing for an ACC championship, but all in all, there’s no question the Irish’s affiliation benefits the league.
Baylor AD Ian McCaw is standing firm on a "three easy wins" non-conference schedule, citing Big 12's difficult round-robin schedule. Will this bite them in '14?
--Austin Hooper, Waco, Texas
If you believe Baylor will field another Top 10-caliber team, then yes, absolutely, it could get burned by a schedule that includes SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. And just wait until 2019 when Incarnate Word joins Rice and UTSA.
On the one hand, the Big 12 does play nine conference games, so Baylor’s 12-game schedule is not that different than that of an SEC team that plays eight league games, one early-season power-conference foe and three cupcakes. On the other hand, committee members may place particular emphasis on the games a school controls. In my Tuesday article about this very subject, Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez said he’ll look at a school’s “intent” with its schedule. Baylor’s intent is quite clearly to get three wins.
To be fair, the notion that Baylor would even entertain the thought of fielding a top-four team seemed preposterous prior to last year. However, the committee’s work isn’t limited to the playoff. Its rankings will also be used to fill any open spots in the other New Year’s Six bowls. If Baylor wins the Big 12, it’s guaranteed a spot in the Sugar Bowl when that game’s not hosting a semifinal, or the Fiesta, Cotton or Peach bowls in seasons like this one. If it’s an at-large team, though, Baylor puts its fate in the hands of the committee.
What if the Bears are one of three 10-2 power-conference teams vying for an available berth in the Fiesta Bowl? Chances are the others will have played a better schedule, in which case Baylor would go slinking off to the Alamo Bowl.
What are KU's chances of winning the football national championship? Or at least getting a real coach?
Well, I’d say you have a much better chance of one than the other. But it sounds like you’d take either at this point.
Texas A&M seems to have the better of Texas recently, at least in recruiting, Michigan State the better of Michigan, South Carolina the better of Clemson. Which "little brother" is the most surprising?
--Oliver Buxton, Austin, Texas
First, let the record show that Oliver used the term “little brother,” not me. Direct your tweets accordingly.
Of the three, Michigan State is the most surprising precisely because it hasn’t out-recruited Michigan, at least according to the recruiting sites. The Spartans have won five of six against the Wolverines and posted three 11-win seasons in four years despite the fact Michigan State rarely finishes ahead of Michigan in recruiting rankings and has often finished well outside the Top 25. That’s a testament to the job Mark Dantonio and his staff, most notably renowned defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, have done evaluating and developing overlooked prospects.
Counterpart Brady Hoke has not yet delivered on the hype he generates each February. Mind you, for all the Spartans’ success, cornerback Darqueze Dennard was Dantonio’s first-ever first-round pick last spring and the lone player drafted off MSU’s Rose Bowl championship squad. On paper the Spartans should not be able to beat teams like Ohio State and Stanford, but they do.
As for the others, Clemson certainly has more success historically than South Carolina but their current dynamic is only surprising in that it’s rare for both to be fielding 11-win teams at the same time. South Carolina now has Steve Spurrier and the prestige of SEC affiliation. Both get their fair share of talent but the Gamecocks have dominated the series recently. And Texas A&M has not always played distant second fiddle to Texas, though it did for most of Mack Brown’s tenure in Austin.
Right now the Aggies are enjoying the perfect storm of Johnny Manziel, Kevin Sumlin and joining the SEC all while Texas undergoes the transition from Brown to Charlie Strong. This one will likely even itself out soon enough and could in fact become a heck of a rivalry, save of course for the fact they stubbornly refuse to play each other.
Dabo Swinney: Great coach or greatest coach? Ok. I'll hang up and listen.
Yeah … I really need to get my new e-mail address up and running. For all our sakes.
This was fun. Let’s do it again next Wednesday. And the Wednesday after that.
Editor's note: Send questions for next week to MandelMailbag@gmail.com.
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.