Mailbag: Why college football Saturdays beat NFL Sundays any day of the week

Jalen Hurd. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement/WPPROD

This Mailbag is very heavy on questions about the Big Ten (because of this week’s Media Days) and Big 12 (because, expansion), but we’re going to start with one from the SEC. Mostly because I’d rather see a picture of Jalen Hurd here than Jim Delany.

All four of Tennessee’s losses last year were by a touchdown or less and in the final minutes of most of those games. Now there’s lots of hype surrounding the Vols going into this season. Do you see them closing out those close games this year? If so, will it be the offense or defense getting the job done?

— Jeff Hostetler, Pensacola, Fla.

At some point a narrative emerged — which I’ve perpetuated — that Tennessee constantly fails to live up to its preseason hype. In actuality, the Vols barely cracked last year’s preseason AP poll at 25th, and remarkably, that was their first appearance since 2008. In fact Tennessee technically overachieved in 2015, finishing the year 22nd.

And yet … it still feels like Butch Jones’ teams have a penchant for choking. Perhaps it’s because of his relentless optimism or keen Signing Day acumen, but mostly because he blew a 27-14 fourth-quarter lead against Florida last year and a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead against Oklahoma.

But the Vols unquestionably improved over the course of last season, beating Georgia at home, taking Alabama to the wire in Tuscaloosa and throttling a 10-win Northwestern team in the Outback Bowl. Not only will Tennessee be extremely experienced in 2016 with 17 returning starters, but it also boasts a number of players — running back Jalen Hurd, defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, defensive backs Cam Sutton and Evan Berry — who I’d rank among the top five to 10 nationally at their positions.

On paper, this is a very good team. And that’s before factoring in the addition of respected defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, the architect of two highly ranked defenses at Penn State. If the Vols’ defense plays to its potential, then it should have little trouble closing out close games, because opponents should struggle to get into the end zone against them.

Tennessee should be expected to win 10 games at a minimum, and if it doesn’t win the SEC East, it did something terribly wrong. But I still can’t help shaking the feeling the Vols will lose a game or two they shouldn’t. For Jones’ sake, better hope it’s not the heavily anticipated Week 2 Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech. The Hokies are rebuilding under new coach Justin Fuente. The Vols should be well past that point.

With Jim Delany possibly stepping down as Big Ten commissioner in 2020 (after 31 years at the helm), who would be the top candidates to step in and negotiate the next TV deal in 2023? Also, where would Delany rank in your list of all-time commissioners?

— Mike Kayle, Raleigh, NC

First of all, I’d be surprised if Delany, 68, stays that long. Once he gets the league’s new TV deals up and running in 2017-18, the last leg of his legacy will be complete. It also would be a fitting end point given that’s the year the league will play its basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden, much to his delight. Regardless of when he leaves, that conference is running so smoothly it would make sense for him to pass the baton to a current lieutenant much like Mike Slive did Greg Sankey. Candidates would include deputy commissioners Brad Traviolia and Diane Dietz or longtime TV/bowl liaison Mark Rudner.

As for where he ranks, I must confess I don’t have a thorough knowledge on the entire history of conference commissioners. But there’s no question in my mind that Delany will go down as the most influential figure in college athletics of the past quarter-century. His ambitious pursuit and addition of Penn State a year into the job set in motion a chain of events that reconfigured the entire concept of conferences. In the mid-'90s, he played an instrumental role in convincing the Pac-10 and Rose Bowl to go in on the formation of the BCS. And he completely reshaped the relationship between conferences and TV partners with the launch of the Big Ten Network.

And if this is indeed his last round of TV negotiations, he will leave behind a nice little $430 million-a-year souvenir to remember him by. Might as well go out on top.

The questions at Big Ten media days to Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer regarding “negative recruiting tactics” against Penn State really caught my attention. Is this sort of an unwritten rule in recruiting similar to the unwritten rules of baseball? I assumed this was commonplace if a school got into trouble, as it seemingly would be a large recruiting advantage if a competing school received severe sanctions. Why would James Franklin and Penn State be surprised or upset about it?

— Nicholas Michael, Haslett, MI

The fact that this became a story at all is pretty irresponsible, in my opinion. One reporter with a microphone at a nationally televised press conference frankly misconstrued a recent interview with Franklin, or at the very least made his comments sound far more accusatory than they were. (He also pronounced the paper in Pennsylvania as the Reeding Eagle, which sounds like a school mascot.) Dantonio and Meyer, standing there at a podium, gave it credence simply by having to give an answer, and suddenly, “Penn State accuses rivals of dirty recruiting” is a headline.

I did not get the sense from Franklin’s interview that he was either surprised or upset, but more just conceding it comes with the territory. But Penn State AD Sandy Barbour, speaking to reporters in Chicago, went a lot further than Franklin had, accusing recruiters of “making stuff up, and things that are not factual.” She presumably means that because Jerry Sandusky has been back in the news, they’re suggesting Penn State might get further NCAA sanctions, which is not remotely on the table.

Is that shady? Of course. But I’ve heard worse. As one longtime analyst once told me, all is fair in love and recruiting.

 

If you were a UConn fan, would you prefer the immediate gratification of being offered a spot in the Big 12, or would you rather wait and hope that whenever Notre Dame joins the ACC (even if it means 10 or more years of waiting) that they'd see UConn as a natural partner to add with Notre Dame given location and basketball history and keeping the membership even for division purposes? 

— John Hayes, Spokane, WA

While there’s no question UConn makes more sense in the ACC, the stakes of getting or not getting a Power 5 invite are far too great to turn one down. In fact, let’s say for hypothetical sake that the ACC came out tomorrow and offered Connecticut a spot beginning in 2023, but with the condition that if the school tries to join another league in the meantime, the invite gets rescinded. Not to be outdone, David Boren turns around the next day and offers the Huskies a spot next year. UConn would go running to join Texas Tech and Oklahoma State because you can’t simply can’t turn down $32 million a year.

Having said that, I keep thinking at some point Boren will come out and say, you know what? It’s Tuesday. We’ve changed our minds again. No expansion. Until then, though …

We've talked a lot about what teams the Big 12 takes. What teams will the AAC take to replace Cincinnati and Houston?

— Crawford Clay, Stafford, Va.

Hey Stewart, I love all of college football but I'm a MAC fan at heart. Since the realignment shuffle began, the MAC's 12 full-time members are still together. Once all the domino effects from the Big 12 expanding are over, will the MAC stand intact or will it finally have a program poached by Conference USA or the American?

— Kevin Connors, Chesterfield, Va. 

Wow, we’re going deep down the expansion rabbit hole, huh? Sure, why not?

First of all, it would be much more crushing to the AAC if the Big 12 takes UConn, whose basketball programs are by far that conference’s jewel. But losing Houston football at a time when it’s just starting to break out nationally would be less than ideal, too. If the conference looks to replace those programs with others in or near the same markets, Rice becomes an obvious substitute for Houston, but I’d imagine Marshall and Southern Miss are more attractive in general. Also: Would the conference try to convince Army to join Navy in relinquishing independence?

As for the MAC, at first glance that’s a remarkable testament to the league’s stability. On the other hand, it says that the league’s programs aren’t all that attractive. One thing worth noting: The MAC is now in much better long-term position than Conference USA, which recently had to settle for a measly $2.8 million-a-year TV contract. The MAC by contrast has a 13-year deal with ESPN worth a reported $8 million a year. So I can’t see a MAC school leaving for C-USA, and the only one I could realistically see the AAC target is NIU.

Invariably over the next few months, I am going to try to convince an NFL nut that college football is infinitely better. My argument always ends up with traditions and the bands (the most underrated part of the game day experience). What other points should I use?

— Steven Cain, West Palm Beach, FL

Gosh, where to begin?

Only in college can you watch a team run the wishbone against a team that goes five-wide.

Only in college does one game swing an entire season. Ohio State loses one game all year and misses the playoff. The Steelers lose six and still make it.

But the biggest reason college football is better than professional football is that professionals don’t play it. College players drop passes, miss field goals, lose coverage, misread defenses. As a result, the games are wilder, the big plays are bigger and the whole thing just feels more wild and unpredictable.

Does that sell it?

As a lifelong fan of college football in Texas, I've always had a soft spot for Mike Leach.  He's a heck of a coach that made Texas Tech nationally relevant before getting a seriously raw deal from his administration. After going 9-4 last year (6-3 in conference) at Washington State, Leach seems to be almost done with his second program turnaround, and this one was a doozy.  If WSU has another solid year, would you expect to hear Leach's name mentioned for some higher-profile jobs?

— Mark H., Ft. Worth

I’m not sure most people realize just how successful a season the Cougars had in 2015, probably in part because their regular season began with an inexplicable loss to FCS foe Portland State and ended with an Apple Cup blowout defeat. Not only did Wazzu — 3-9 the year before — improve by six wins, but it came dangerously close to winning the Pac-12 North. It lost to eventual champ Stanford on a late field goal. Reverse that outcome and the Cougars, who previously beat Oregon, win the division. With star QB Luke Falk returning, Leach’s team is one of four (along with Stanford, Oregon and Washington) I could see winning the North this year.

Would I expect to hear Leach’s name mentioned if that happens? Absolutely. But I’d put low odds on a glamour program actually hiring him. As you undoubtedly know, Leach is an odd duck. It’s not a coincidence that his two head-coaching stints have come at off-the-beaten-track locales where there’s no expectation of him being buttoned-up and traditional. I could never, for example, see him coaching in the SEC (though from a selfish media perspective, it would be absolutely glorious if he did).

But there is one spot that already has an opening: Baylor. One might assume it a natural fit for him to return to the Big 12 and the state of Texas. But he’s also got it pretty good in Pullman, and whoever takes that job is going to be in for a turbulent few years, so it’s not necessarily automatic he’d make that jump, nor is it easy to predict whether Baylor would offer him. I expect the Pirate to remain on the Palouse even if the Cougars make it back to Pasadena.

Stewart, one of the arguments made for paying college football players is that there are guys who clearly have no interest in getting a college education, but they can't go the NFL. I've always thought that the NFL is taking advantage of the NCAA by using it as a farm league. Maybe it's a crazy idea, but wouldn't a legitimate NFL minor league system that could pay 18- to 20-year-old guys an actual salary fix everyone's problems?

— Caleb, Columbus, OH

It’s not crazy. Delany urged much the same thing (and not for the first time) during his Big Ten Media Days address, saying, “… We believe it's incumbent for professional sports to evolve, especially football and basketball, to increase choice[s] for high school students hoping to pursue athletic opportunities with professional leagues that don't necessarily require academic progress or have Title IX obligations. This would require professional football and basketball to do what baseball, golf and tennis now do, which is actively invest in minor leagues or circuits below the majors.”

It makes sense in theory. It’d certainly benefit the athletes, and college presidents would be thrilled to not only weed out some less-serious students but also to shift the the burden of expectation that pre-professionals be paid. The problem is, what possible incentive do the NFL and NBA have to comply? Why would they invest millions in salaries, training, facilities, travel, etc., when colleges are currently providing all of that for free? Roger Goodell would rather spend that money on fraudulent concussion research, Adam Silver on Timofey Mozgov.

Stewart: Why can't a school as large as Purdue not be able to place a competitive product on the field? Darrell Hazell is being paid $2.2 million a year plus incentives and he wins two games a year if lucky. AD Morgan Burke hired him, and thankfully he is retiring next year. Why can't Purdue at least be good enough AGAIN to go to some crappy bowl game every year? The fans here would enjoy a trip to San Antonio or El Paso.

— Wayne Cochran, Lafayette, IN

Actually, it’s been so long since Purdue’s glory days that neither San Antonio nor El Paso are Big Ten bowl cities anymore.

Credit Burke, who’s been on the job since 1993, for hiring the grossly underappreciated Joe Tiller, who took Purdue to the Rose Bowl in 2000, groomed a guy named Drew Brees and had a heck of a 12-year run from 1997-2008. Burke’s two hires since then, though, Danny Hope and Hazell, have been less than impressive. He strikes me as being stubborn in his ways and taking some sort of moral stance against rising coaching salaries. Houston is paying its football coach, Tom Herman, more per year ($3 million) than a Big Ten school despite a roughly $30 million gap in athletics revenue.

You get what you pay for.

I’m not going to rule out Hazell turning things around this year. His team is experienced, and he benefits from playing in the weaker Big Ten division. In general, though, coaches who have success at non-traditional programs do so by differentiating themselves from their more-talented adversaries. Tiller caught the conference flat-footed with his “Basketball on Grass” offense, doing so years before the spread went mainstream. Hazell, on the other hand, is mostly running the same plays as everybody else with less athletic players. If he doesn’t make it past this season, then Burke needs to think more creatively with his next hire — if he’s willing to spend the money.

Hello Stewart: With all of the talk of the Big 12 expansion, there is one school that I have not seen as even a dark horse candidate.  What about the Hawaii Warriors?

— Billy Graham, Bay City, Michigan

Love it. Mostly because of the possibility of a late-November Oklahoma-Hawaii game where the Sooners’ playoff hopes are on the line.

Gotta approve that trip, editors.

Butch Jones and the Vols had better pick up where they left off in the Outback Bowl. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
James Franklin knows what he’s up against in the recruiting wars. Tae-Gyun Kim/AP
Houston, don’t take your love away from the AAC.
Don’t expect Mike Leach to leave Pullman, even if the Cougs continue to attract attention.