Mailbag: Why Georgia’s SEC dreams are legit — and who’ll have to deliver

Georgia's schedule is shaping up nicely for a run at the SEC championship this year, assuming the chips fall the right way for the Dawgs.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week that Georgia coach Mark Richt’s 2015 team “looks a lot like some of our teams from the past.” That’s high praise. Also this week, a Dawgs fan paid tribute to Richt’s 15 seasons in Athens by constructing a five-acre corn maze of the coach’s likeness on his farm.

It’s good to be Mark Richt these days. It will be better if he beats Alabama.

Stewart: Georgia has a very favorable schedule and seems to be hitting on all cylinders. Could this be the year they win "the big one"? Maybe make it to the playoff? (P.S. — I’m a Gator fan so of course I hope they lose Cocktail Party and any chance of a playoff bid.)

–Lyle Saunders, Stockbridge, Ga.

Indeed, the way the schedule is shaping up, this may be Richt’s best opportunity to win an SEC championship since his last one in 2005. After this week’s Alabama game, the Dawgs face only one other team currently ranked in the Top 25, and that team is Florida, whose tenure as a Top 25 team may last only a week. (Then again, they weren’t last year, either, and still ruined the Dawgs’ season.) Even if the Dawgs don’t beat Alabama this weekend, they should still win the East. If they don’t, something went very wrong. And once in Atlanta they’ll meet someone pretty good from the West, but not of the same caliber as the 2011 LSU and 2012 Alabama teams that beat them there.

But all of this will depend largely on one guy: Greyson Lambert. Yes, he broke the NCAA completion percentage record against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks are terrible — as are every team he’s faced. Beginning this week, Georgia will not be able to win with Lambert throwing mostly screens and quick slants and letting his receivers do the rest. Unless Nick Chubb goes full-on Fournette against Alabama’s defense, Lambert will have to make some of the deep throws into tight windows that Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly did in beating the Tide two weeks ago. If Lambert does that, and if Georgia beats Alabama, I’ll line up to buy stock in the Dawgs’ SEC title chances.

It seems every year there is a team or two that is rated very highly in the preseason polls and is picked to challenge for the national championship, only to flame out and lose four or more games. Although it’s still early in the season, it looks like Auburn is the leader in the clubhouse for that distinction this year. Why are the pundits so wrong on these teams? Is there a common thread among teams that fall into that category?

–Philip, New Orleans


It varies from year to year, team to team, but Auburn is a pretty clear poster child for one of the cardinal sins prognosticators commit every year, one I myself fell for yet again despite knowing better. And that is, never underestimate the difficulty of replacing a bunch of starting offensive linemen.

Jeremy Johnson may be the poster child for Auburn’s false hype, but the Tigers haven’t exactly run the ball well, either. And that’s assuredly tied to losing Rimington Trophy center Reese Dismukes, four-year starting guard Chad Slade and 20-game starting tackle Patrick Miller. Clearly their replacements are struggling. Furthermore, Auburn’s H-backs (lead blockers) are all freshmen. Think it’s a coincidence that the Tigers rank 103rd nationally in red zone conversions?

Auburn entered the season 71st in the country in career offensive line starts returning, according to Phil Steele. Look a little further down the list and you’ll find another one of this season’s early disappointments, Arizona State (81st). Conversely, four of the top five most experienced units were those of UCLA, Bowling Green, Ole Miss, Baylor and North Carolina, the first four of which are doing pretty darn well.

It’s not the only factor, obviously, but it’s silly to overlook before going all in on a team in the preseason. Next year I’m going to set a daily calendar reminder for August that just says: "OFFENSIVE LINE."

Stewart, why do you think Utah is being overlooked as a Pac-12 favorite at this time? With quality wins at Oregon and the Michigan win suddenly looking better … shouldn’t we be talking about Utah and not UCLA?

–Mike Wladischkin, San Antonio

That’s easy — it’s because of the name on their jerseys.

On our podcast earlier this week, Bruce and I agreed that if USC had started the season unranked, beaten Michigan the first week of the season and subsequently won 62-20 at Oregon, it would be the No. 1 team in the country this week. Utah rose to only 10th in the AP, 12th in coaches. Brands carry a lot of weight in college football, and Utah’s brand to many people is still that of a former BCS buster from the Mountain West. It’s going to take the Utes more than one big win to be viewed the same way as, say, Baylor and TCU are in the Big 12.

And I fully admit I’m guilty of this myself. I currently have UCLA, not Utah, projected to reach the playoff. In the FOX Four ballot I submitted on Saturday night, I had the Bruins No. 1 and the Utes No. 4. Part of that is an admittedly subjective hunch that UCLA is the more talented team. Part of that is skepticism that Utes quarterback Travis Wilson will consistently play the way he did at Oregon. But brand psychology likely played a part as well in me hesitating to elevate the Utes to front-runner status.

Is it too soon to mark Nov. 21 in Rice-Eccles — UCLA at Utah — as the de facto Pac-12 Championship game?


–Andrew Tollefson, Henderson, Nevada

Yeah, it really is.

As a longtime Oregon fan I have enjoyed the ride these last six years and have known this day might come when we cannot just "reload." I fear that day is here. One thing that nagged in the back of my mind was the fact we had a transcendent coach (Chip Kelly) that elevated our program followed by a transcendent player (Marcus Mariota) that maintained the momentum. Now that both are gone, will the Ducks fall back to earth?

–Ben Currin, Milton-Freewater, Ore.

That may be the most rational bad loss aftermath e-mail I’ve ever seen. Hopefully your fellow Ducks fans are equally level headed.

Because Oregon achieved success in such unorthodox fashion and is still largely viewed as being outside the establishment, there’s definitely a "well, that was fun while it lasted" feeling to last week’s debacle against Utah. While I, like everyone else, put a fork in Oregon’s Pac-12 title chances after the 62-20 loss, I don’t view it as a sign that the entire program is irreparably broken. Mark Helfrich made one unfortunate mistake two years ago when he opted to promote longtime assistant Don Pellum to defensive coordinator. It’s been a disaster, and barring a miraculous turnaround, Helfrich will have to make a change after the season.

Beyond that, Oregon is still undeniably talented, especially at the offensive skill positions. I’m a little puzzled that there’s such a drop-off from healthy Vernon Adams Jr. to every other quarterback on the roster. One of its freshmen will have to evolve into that role next season. But the days of Oregon striking fear into its Pac-12 opponents simply by coming out onto the field? They’re over. Going forward, talent will dictate the team’s success much more so than a system. But with the right quarterback, that offense should still be able to score 40 to 50 points at will, and there’s no reason the Ducks can’t continue to be regular conference title contenders. Just not this year.

Is this the worst Oregon team in the last 10 years? After watching the Ducks on Saturday, someone talk me off the ledge!

–Randy Everist, Wake Forest, N.C.

I can’t help. You should probably talk to Ben.


Stewart: How does one get to be a head coach at an FBS football team without knowing the PAT conversion chart, because I think I’m qualified to coach. I CAN DO IT!!!

–Stephen Simmos, Fayetteville, Tenn.

Butch Jones’ fourth-quarter blunders Saturday — which also included mind-numbing clock management on his team’s last two possessions — reaffirmed an admittedly unorthodox crusade I began last winter and which I’m going to renew now. College football teams need to completely rethink what the job of a head coach should be. Hear me out.

Jones is a tremendous recruiter. He’s also a savvy salesman who comes up with clever themes like "brick by brick." These skills, along with handling media and booster obligations, comprise the overwhelming majority of his time nearly every day of the calendar year. Unfortunately for him, though, his success or failure is measured entirely by what takes place for three-and-a-half hours on 12 days a year, in which he’s charged with entirely unrelated tasks like managing the clock and deciding whether to go for it on fourth and 2. He’s apparently not nearly as good at these.

In a radically reinvented football model, Jones would be the president/GM of Tennessee football, focusing on the program’s bigger-picture strategy and logistics. He would then hire a coach who blows the whistle at practices and calls the plays on Saturdays. Note: This would mirror pretty much every other type of business, where the CEO implements a strategy but someone below him actually executes it. Why shouldn’t a business with 150 or so "employees" (coaches and players) and millions of "customers" (fans) operate the same?

You watch; one day some low-level program will implement my concept and win a bunch of games. In the meantime — Jones better get himself a new PAT chart.

Stewart, I’ve been reading your Mailbag for more than 10 years and always respected your opinion. This week marked the first time I’ve ever seen a game I believed to be fixed. The Texas-Oklahoma State game was filled with bizarre calls that went Oklahoma State’s way at every crucial point in the game (defensive holding on a run play?). Do you think it’s possible the officiating could have intentionally altered the game a la 2002 Kings-Lakers?


–Ryan, Portland, Ore.

If you’ve really been reading for 10 years, you already know how I feel about officiating conspiracy theories.

Typically complaining about officiating is poor form, that’s why I’ve never done it. But I’m curious to hear your take on Texas-Oklahoma State. There were a lot of phantom calls and the final straw, the unsportsmanlike conduct on Charlie Strong, looked as if the line judge intentionally instigated contact with the coach before throwing the flag. I find it hard to believe that refs have an ax to grind or secret agendas, but after what happened in the NBA, is anything really off the table?

–Kyle McDaniel, Dallas

So this is really a thing, huh? But only among Texas fans, I assume … What’s that? Former Tulane and NFL quarterback Shaun King is among those alleging something dirty went down? Has everyone lost their minds?

Clearly, that was a horrendously officiated game, and the bad calls went disproportionately against Texas. But there’s a big difference between incompetence and corruption.

Frankly, I don’t even know how you could get away with fixing a football game. Basketball seems a lot easier to manipulate than football. For one thing, there are only three officials, not eight. And whereas in basketball, every foul is basically a judgment call, nearly every controversial call in that Texas game was either right or wrong. And the people who evaluate the officials — who in doing so have the ability to suspend or reprimand them and who dictate the quality of their assignments and potential postseason opportunities — know full well the answers. Presuming these guys want to keep working, it would not be in their best interests to intentionally screw up an inordinate number of calls.

It’s unfortunate that the refs became such a storyline, because as’s Jake Trotter aptly tweeted: "[Texas] didn’t lose because of officials. They lost because they gained 48 yards after half and their punter dropped the ball."


Why do those mean refs hate the Longhorns?

–Matt Dozier, Woodlands, Texas

Hey, you’d be upset, too, if your bosses sent you to Austin, Texas, for the weekend while giving someone else the plum assignments in Waco, Morgantown and Lubbock.

Stewart, you predicted the Gators to finish 5-7 (2-6 SEC) and not be bowl eligible. After Saturday’s epic game, don’t you think they can beat at least two of these four — Mizzou, Vandy, SC and FAU — and become bowl eligible?

–Martin Tetrault, Sainte-Julie, Quebec

Well, I had Florida losing twice by now, to Kentucky and Tennessee, and the rest of the East is even worse that I could have foreseen, so getting bowl-eligible should no longer be a question for the 4-0 Gators. Their ceiling now is closer to eight or nine wins — which is why Jim McElwain would win my quarter-season coach of the year award if such a thing existed.

Remember all that stuff I said earlier about inexperienced offensive lines ruining teams’ seasons? Florida on paper looked like it would be Exhibit A. Again, according to Phil Steele’s data, the Gators’ line ranked 126th out of 128 teams in career starts with 10. Of course that did not count 34 starts by Fordham transfer Mason Halter, who became Florida’s starting right tackle. And yet McElwain’s offense, while hardly Baylor’s, is at least competent (54th nationally), which is more than could be said for most of the Will Muschamp era.

But what I’ve enjoyed most of all about McElwain is his swagger. It seems so Spurrier/Meyer-esque. Like how he said of his players’ comeback after Saturday’s game: "You just don’t lose to Tennessee, and they didn’t." Earlier this week he told Sports Illustrated: "This is where the Florida Gators should be." There will be setbacks, no question, possibly beginning this week against Ole Miss, but I like where the Gators are headed. It’s rare that Florida has the opportunity to overachieve.

Ohio State at Indiana this week — is there any chance of an upset? Indiana is 4-0 and gave the Buckeyes fits last year for three quarters. The game is also in Bloomington. What are your thoughts?


–Carey Wilson, Washington Court House, Ohio

There’s always a chance. It’s just not a very good one. Indiana’s got firepower on offense, no question, first and foremost UAB transfer RB Jordan Howard, who’s sitting behind Leonard Fournette on the national rushing list. But Ohio State’s defense is playing at an extremely high level. And I believe this is the week the Buckeyes’ struggling offense will finally look like itself again, if for no other reason than the fact it’s leaving Columbus.

Yep, you read that right. Don’t be surprised if Ohio State plays better away from home. We see this sometimes with teams playing under the weight of enormous expectations. Sometimes they just play better away from home. Going back to last season, the Buckeyes’ only loss was at the Horseshoe. Their three postseason triumphs all came away from home. And they opened this season with a sterling performance in a hostile environment in Blacksburg that they’ve thus far been unable to replicate.

Also, Indiana is ranked 112th in the country in total defense. So hello, Ezekiel Elliott (among others).

Can we get those Texas fans on a plane? The river they’re crying is desperately needed here in California.

–Michael, Silicon Valley

Indeed, it feels like the drought has been going on forever. But I’m sure Texas will win a Big 12 game again at some point.

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