Mailbag: SEC West is so deep it could ruin league’s playoff shot

Derrick Henry (left), Jeremy Johnson (middle) and Leonard Fournette will be three of the SEC West's biggest stars in 2015.

Derick E. Hingle/Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

One of the perils of covering a college football season is that I unavoidably draw grand conclusions based on a very small and evolving sample size. Last November, I outdid myself in regrettable fashion, proclaiming the SEC West to be "the most dominant division ever," only to watch its teams go 2-5 in bowl season, 0-3 in New Year’s Six games.

Lesson learned. I should really leave such delusional grandiose to the people who do it best — rap moguls. It was a pretty bad swing and a miss on my part — like trying to fling a kettlebell at someone.

Hence, I now approach questions like this one with newfound caution.

Hey Stewart. I like to judge the strength of a conference or division by the quality of the weakest teams. That said, the SEC West is absolutely loaded, with Vegas currently predicting Mississippi State and Texas A&M to finish near the bottom. Do you think this could be the year where all the SEC West teams finish the regular season with three-plus losses? If this were to happen, and if the West champion wins the SEC championship, would the SEC be shut out of the playoff?

— Jeff Pretzel, Houston

Instead of the phrase "absolutely loaded," let’s go with "unusually deep and competitive." That’s why this year’s SEC West is fascinating. I could see as many as five teams (all but Arkansas and Mississippi State) winning the division, and I could see all but two (Alabama and Auburn) finishing seventh. Which means some coach that makes $4 million a year, regularly recruits top-15 classes and whose fans genuinely believe right now they can win the division is in fact going to finish seventh.

The operative word here is "parity." In fact, the SEC West has become a lot like the NFL, where essentially three-fourths of the league could finish anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6, which itself can be the difference between one or two last-second plays going for or against you. Most of the SEC West teams are similarly bunched together talent-wise, and the difference between 10-2 and 7-5 will come down to who stays healthy, who doesn’t fumble at the 1-yard line in the closing seconds, etc.

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I could definitely see everyone finishing with at least two losses. It’s happened before — LSU in 2007 — and it will happen again. But three losses across the board seems far-fetched. A three-loss team has not represented that division in Atlanta since Arkansas in 2002, and even then only because 10-2 Alabama was ineligible. The notion that not one team would manage to distinguish itself seems highly unlikely, especially given the disparity in crossover games.

But if — if — Jeff’s scenario comes true and the SEC produces a three-loss champ, of course it’s going to be left out of the playoff. The way last season turned out, a two-loss champ wouldn’t have made it. It’s time to move away from the BCS-era mindset that the SEC is untouchable. The past two postseasons have shown otherwise. It’s still the most competitive conference, it will still likely have more top-25 teams than anyone else (though the Pac-12 will challenge that), but it’s not like it’s in the SEC charter that it automatically earns a playoff berth.

Mind you, I would pray for new commissioner Greg Sankey if that did happen in his first year on the job.

If you were Urban Meyer, what would you do with Braxton Miller if he isn’t named starting quarterback (or part of a two-QB system)? Position switch? If so — where? I think folks forget sometimes how dynamic of an athlete he is.

— Brian, Cleveland

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Without question, it will be the toughest part of sorting out that derby. Cardale Jones is no risk to transfer if he doesn’t win the job. J.T. Barrett still has three years of eligibility and is all but assured to regain the job in 2016. (And I find it hard to believe Meyer won’t play him extensively this year as it is.) But what do you do with a two-time Big Ten player of the year who was once the lifeblood of the program, stayed loyal when he easily could have transferred and put in 18 months of rehab to be able to play one last season? Tell him to go hold a clipboard all year? Knowing Meyer, I don’t think he could stomach that.

Much will depend on the health of Miller’s shoulder. He’s attempting to come back from an injury that’s far more serious than many initially realized. But it’s a different story if Miller is a picture of health but simply can’t perform at the same level as Jones and/or Barrett. He is indeed a special athlete. Ohio State essentially ran the option with he and Carlos Hyde in 2013, with Miller rushing for 1,068 yards. If I were Meyer I’d nudge him to give receiver a try, seeing as it’s one of the Buckeyes’ few positions of need this fall, but also because a position switch is likely Miller’s most realistic entry point to the NFL. That risks alienating Miller, though, if he still harbors hopes of playing quarterback at the next level.

Mo quarterbacks, mo problems.

Hey Stewart, I recently saw that LSU currently has the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. I’ve also seen where Al Golden and Miami are recruiting at a very high level despite his questionable future at the school. If LSU and Miami struggle on the field this season, would their strong recruiting classes keep them employed? Would a school really fire a coach with so much talent committed to playing for them?

— Michael Wayne Bratton, Los Angeles

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First of all, credit to LSU, which has long recruited well but has seen a resurgence the past couple of years, starting with that loaded 2014 class led by Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupree. But I’m not under the impression Les Miles is in any jeopardy of losing his job. Admittedly the Tigers have slipped a bit of late, going 9-7 in SEC play in 2013-14 following a 20-4 run from 2010-12, but it would take another mediocre season for Miles to even merit hot-seat rumblings heading into 2016. Which is entirely possible given LSU’s ongoing quarterback deficiencies and its recent (and disturbingly commonplace in that program) spat of player arrests.

Golden is another story. It’s no secret he needs an improbable resurrection this season to save his job. Given that program’s woes, I, too, was surprised how quickly Miami jumped out of the gate this recruiting season, securing 18 commitments nearly a full year before 2016 Signing Day. (The total is now at 21.) But pump the brakes a bit. For one thing, class rankings are skewed right now toward those with the most commitments. If you go by average star ranking Miami drops from No. 6 to No. 22 on Scout.com. And of course commitments this early aren’t exactly ironclad. Miami’s already had at least four decommits, and we haven’t even gotten to heavy poaching season.

So while there’s still plenty to like about the ‘Canes class, it feels like a lot of smoke and mirrors. It appears Golden and his staff intentionally sought out a bunch of early commits — and not necessarily from the most sought-after players — to quell criticism and give the appearance of momentum around the program. End of day, if Miami goes 6-6 again, the school will make the necessary change because its long-term future is more important than any short-term recruiting bump.

Thanks Drew, but actually, if I was going to put UCF on either list it would be with the winners. That may seem counterintuitive given that, yes, the conference it joined deteriorated shortly thereafter, but George O’Leary’s program certainly made the most of its one season in the BCS holy land. The publicity from that Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor and Blake Bortles’ accompanying ascension immeasurably elevated that young program’s profile. And that opportunity likely would not have come if not for the initial realignment tremors that prompted the Big East to finally take some preemptive measures, albeit too late. UCF lost some of that momentum now that the American is considered a lesser conference, but it’s in a better place now than it was in Conference USA.

In terms of the "biggest hires" in college basketball and college football over the last 30 years, where does Michigan/Harbaugh rank? When Alabama hired Nick Saban he had a national title on his resume but had been mediocre in the NFL. Urban Meyer’s Tebow run at Florida was fantastic but he left the program in a poor place and he had health issues. Roy Williams to North Carolina comes to mind, but he seems a shade below. Harbaugh built Stanford from the ground up and was generally considered one of the top NFL coaches. Thoughts?

— Joe Niewiadomski, Brooklyn, New York

My first thought is phew, the long drought without Harbaugh-related questions in the Mailbag is finally over after an interminable two weeks. My second thought is, shouldn’t we wait to see how he does before trying to put the hire into perspective? And my third thought is, if you’re suggesting that Harbaugh doesn’t have the same cautionary asterisks on his resume as Saban and Meyer, I’d argue that the 49ers wanting nothing to do with him anymore despite his unquestioned coaching abilities is no less concerning than Saban’s NFL blip or Meyer’s health scare.

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But if we’re going purely on potential impact, Harbaugh ranks right up there with all of those. Alabama had endured 15 years of mediocrity and multiple NCAA scandals, not to mention getting turned down by Rich Rodriguez only a few weeks earlier, when it hired Saban the savior. Ohio State had gone through a year of NCAA turmoil and lost a Hall of Fame coach, Jim Tressel, when a two-time national champion came to the rescue. And Williams coming in to rescue UNC hoops and promptly winning two titles (pending NCAA review) was no small moment.

Michigan landing Harbaugh after roughly a decade of futility, and doing it to try to counter Meyer’s dominance at the Wolverines’ archrival, could be just as significant as any of those, but he’ll have to defy two bits of history. He’ll have to win a national championship at a school that’s claimed one in the last 60 years, and he’ll have to make it more than four years without wearing out his welcome.

Stewart, why is that we read about potential meaningless games being scheduled more than a decade in advance, yet somehow Florida State and Alabama can find a way to open up a season just two years away? Are scheduling strategies that disparate, are we just lucky both had an open date, or is this a positive sign of better non-conference matchups on the horizon?

— John L., Kildeer, Illinois

Great question. I’ve asked several ADs to try to explain to me why it is they continue to lock their programs into games so far down the road — 2027, for example — and no one has a good answer. It’s mostly a byproduct of their shared paranoia that there aren’t enough attractive opponents to go around and they’ll get squeezed out if they wait too long. But then they always seem to find a short-turnaround opening when they need one.

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Case in point: When I visited Baylor the last week of the 2014 season, at the height of the playoff debate, AD Ian McCaw defended the Bears’ non-conference schedule by saying, essentially, the games were agreed to years ago and there’s nothing they could do about it. Now, he’s reportedly in talks for a neutral-site opener in Australia, possibly against Cal, NEXT SEASON. Funny how that works.

In general, though, the trend we’re seeing of more and more high-profile home-and-homes and glamorous neutral-site openers is a good thing for the sport, and I only expect it to continue in the selection committee era. Which means schools will need to keep more dates open to allow for some flexibility.

As an A&M fan the realignment podcast interested me. How do you rate Notre Dame’s realignment outcome? I understand a lot of the alumni want to remain independent in football, but at a certain point is it financially irresponsible to turn down Big Ten money? If they (and maybe a Syracuse) joined the Big Ten I imagine they’d make a lot more money than they do now. 

— Ben Bittner, Houston

Thanks for listening to the podcast, and thanks for continuing the now 12-years-long quest by Mailbag readers to get Notre Dame to join a conference.

Notre Dame fared reasonably well in realignment. It found a logical home for all its non-football sports. Notre Dame may be in Indiana but it resonates more as an East Coast institution than a Midwest one and probably fits better culturally with schools like Syracuse, BC, Duke and North Carolina than Ohio State or Iowa. Football-wise it gets opportunities with the ACC’s bowl lineup that it lacked during its latter years in the Big East, including its Orange Bowl tie-in. The scheduling agreement is a bit of a mixed bag; it builds in high-profile matchups like Florida State last year and Clemson this year, but it cost the school its annual rivalry with Michigan and disrupted the Michigan State series.

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As for the Big Ten part of your question, first of all, that move’s no longer tenable given both Notre Dame and Syracuse signed away their conference TV rights to the ACC through 2027. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has its own separate NBC deal for its home football games, reportedly worth at least $20 million a year. As rich as the Big Ten’s next deal will be, Notre Dame doesn’t depend on that revenue like most schools do. As a private school with loyal, deep-pocketed boosters, it relies primarily on its athletics endowments to fund the department. In fact, the athletic department does not even see that NBC money; it goes toward financial aid packages for regular students.

AD Jack Swarbrick has acknowledged that, like all Power 5 schools, it’s under pressure to ramp up funding for coming cost of attendance and O’Bannon licensing payments, but in Notre Dame’s case that’s more about athletics remaining as profitable as it is now, not struggling to balance the books. If the time ever comes where that changes, joining the ACC as a full member would be far more likely than taking just football to the Big Ten. But I welcome all suggestions and theories otherwise for the time being.

I was surprised to see only four players from the Big 12 (and none from Texas or Oklahoma) for the 50 man roster Dream Teams chosen by you and Bruce Feldman. Has talent in the Big 12 really fallen that far behind everyone else (including BYU)?

— Mike, Norman, Oklahoma

I was surprised myself, but that’s largely a reflection of the downturns at Oklahoma and, especially, Texas. OU at least had a few players — RB Samaje Perine, linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Zach Sanchez — who one or both of us strongly considered. I don’t know that any Longhorn came up for consideration. Given the Big 12 has just 10 teams, if the two strongest traditionally see a dip in talent, it reflects poorly on the whole conference.

As for where it stands nationally, I find it hard to make comparisons between 14- and 10-team conferences, but you could certainly make a case it’s fallen to fifth out five among the power leagues. The ACC and Big Ten both have more dead weight, but the ACC for one put nearly twice as many players in last spring’s NFL draft (47) as did the Big 12. Is that just a matter of having more teams, or is it a reflection of a larger talent disparity? I tend to think it’s the latter.

Stewart, first, thank you for producing a quality podcast. I listen to quite a few when I run (more than 10 a week), and I look forward to The Audible second-most only to The Tim Ferris Show. My question is related to a book Tim referred his listeners to in a podcast. In Peter Thiel’s Zero to Onehe asks, "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?" Obviously, this is a very hard question to answer and can get philosophical, but what’s your college football truth that very few other people agree with you on?

— Bob, Indianapolis

First of all, thanks for your podcast loyalty, which reminds me: If you haven’t already, please take two minutes out of your day and fill out our survey about The Audible. You’ll be doing Bruce and me a solid.

Second of all, my gosh, I’m not sure I can handle this level of intellectual curiosity. This has got to be the first question in Mailbag history to cite both a best-selling self-help author and billionaire tech entrepreneur.

But my answer to Peter’s question is fairly simple: Clearly nobody that reads this column agrees with me that Notre Dame will be fine without joining a conference.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.