Mailbag: Sizing up UGA and South Carolina, early playoff noise, more

We begin with this:

Now that "College Football Playoff" is here to save us from the tyranny of the BCS, should I and every other deluded fan stop complaining about polls? In theory they don’t matter any more, but is it hopeless to think we will ever get past the urge to argue "How dare you rank [Team A] 21, when it is clearly better than [Team B], which you have at 19?

— Guy, Naperville, Illinois

My short answer: BWAHHAHAHAHAHA.

Complaining about polls – even completely meaningless ones that permeate the Internet every day — is part of our very essence. It’s probably evolutionary. Legend has it that one of our earliest ancestors ranked the top 10 hunters in his cave, and another immediately responded incredulously: “What? You have that guy No. 2? Who has he played?!”

If anything, it appears the poll landscape has managed to become even more cluttered with the advent of the Playoff.

Stewart, I failed to anticipate a major downside of the new playoff system — weekly top 4 rankings by every talking head and writing hand in America. Every team has at least 11 more games to play. Why can’t we sit back and enjoy the season without a constant barrage of meaningless rankings?

— Jason, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Yes, I noticed this trend, too. Somehow, despite writing a book about the playoff, I seem to be the one college football writer in America who did not publish a Playoff Four after last weekend’s games. I certainly intend to later in the season, but I resisted for now because there’s simply not enough data yet to do it right.

WEEK 3 WINNERS & LOSERS

Most playoff lists I’ve seen so far include four of the following five teams — Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida State, LSU and Alabama. If you’re trying to emulate the selection committee’s strength-of-schedule criteria then no question, those teams all posted quality wins against respected Power 5 opponents. In fact, it’d be nice if all AP and coaches poll voters followed the same philosophy of chucking out their preseason rankings and starting from scratch. It’s patently absurd that after Texas A&M went on the road and hung 52 on South Carolina that the Gamecocks even remain in the Top 25 at all.

And along those same lines, that’s why it’s foolhardy to start invoking “strength of schedule” already. We’re still basing our judgments on preseason perceptions. What if it turns out that South Carolina, a preseason Top 10 team, was in fact massively overrated and winds up going 6-6? Kudos to LSU for rallying to beat Wisconsin, but was Badgers quarterback Tanner McEvoy’s horrific performance more a function of the Tigers’ defense or a sign that Wisconsin is in for a long year if Joel Stave doesn’t recover from his mysterious condition? Conversely, UCLA’s offensive woes against Virginia were unquestionably troubling, but what If Virginia winds up one of the nation’s surprise teams? Eight weeks from now we might look back at that game as a strong road win for the Bruins that actually enhanced their resume.

But all in all, I’m hardly surprised that we’re already beginning to view the season through the prism of the playoff. That’s what this sport is about now. Just be prepared for some confusing contradictions between the traditional polls and the various playoff projections, as the latter figure to be more far more fluid than the former.

Dearest Stewart. As a Georgia fan who is still deflated after the 2012 SEC Championship Game loss, what are the odds that the Dawgs will s–t the bed against South Carolina in Week 3? I’m trying to ignore the hype after the outstanding Clemson win, but the Dawgs did draw an incredibly favorable SEC schedule, and, well, this positive national attention is all very heady stuff.

— Skye Kennedy, Hammond, Louisiana

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

With the aforementioned caveat that we don’t truly know yet the strength of teams’ various opponents, Georgia’s second-half beatdown of Clemson was the most impressive thing I saw last Saturday. Mind you, this is coming from someone who’d already tabbed the Dawgs as a playoff team before the season, but while I expected to see a much-improved Georgia defense, never would I have foreseen Jeremy Pruitt’s unit holding a Chad Morris-coached offense to ONE first down and 15 total yards in a half. It looks like the Dawgs will have quite a pass-rush. Amarlo Herrera and Leonard Floyd each notched two sacks and were credited with a combined 10 quarterback hurries.

I certainly would not write off the Gamecocks just yet. Williams-Brice remains a tough place to play, as Georgia fans know well from the 35-7 beatdown there two years ago. But I felt all offseason that people were underestimating the loss of defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and, in particular, tackle Kelcy Quarles. It certainly showed against A&M, whose offensive line did anything it wanted. Georgia’s blockers are not as highly regarded as the Aggies’ but they did help blow open quite a few holes for Todd Gurley and Co. against Clemson’s veteran front. Let’s see how Steve Spurrier’s team rebounds this week against East Carolina and revisit the topic then.

Hi Stewart. It’s great to see you’re hitting the ground running at your new gig with lots of the familiar stuff I’ve basically planned my weekly Internet surfing around during the season. With Texas A&M showing basically no drop-off in offensive production or quarterback play, does that make you think Johnny Manziel was more of a system QB and thus worsen his NFL prognosis? Is Texas A&M different from Texas Tech back in the Mike Leach days?

— Dan C., Los Altos, California

Flattery will get you … well, everywhere, in the Mailbag.

It’s really time to retire the system quarterback label. It dates to a time when a few outlier teams were utilizing really out-there systems, like Houston’s Run ‘n’ Shoot, at a time when most teams still ran it up the gut 50 times a game. If a quarterback posted inflated passing stats then faltered at the next level, it became a knock against the system he played in.

FREAKS WEEK 2014

Well, in 2014, almost everyone’s stats are inflated in anything other than a traditional pro-style offense. Former Fresno State star Derek Carr, who earned an opening day start this week for the Oakland Raiders, threw for a national high 5,083 yards last season while averaging 50.7 attempts per game. Yet he did not come close to sniffing the Heisman in part because of the stigma that comes from playing in a pass-heavy offense. As it turns out he was just really good.

Obviously A&M relies on a specific system, but I don’t think Kevin Sumlin could put an untalented quarterback in the gun and have the same success. Manziel’s physical gifts were obvious to anyone who watched him. If he doesn’t succeed at the next level it will be for any number of reasons, but the offense he ran in college won’t likely be one of them. If he’s a system quarterback, then you’d have to say Robert Griffin III is too in light of the subsequent success Nick Florence and now Bryce Petty have had at Baylor. Shoot, maybe Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel were, too, at Florida State, since they are shaping up to be first-round flops while successor Jameis Winston is leading the ‘Noles to greater heights. You get my point.

Stewart: Louisville vs. Miami — same teams, similar results but different feel. In the first matchup, Miami’s D struggled. In this matchup, Miami’s O struggled. Do you see any progress in Year 4 for Golden? And on that subject, what progress should Golden be held to due to the "cloud" just being lifted late last season? Where should Miami be in Year 4?

— Josh, Deltona, Florida

Monday’s game confirmed what I’d already suspected about Miami – the quarterback position could wind up being Golden’s downfall. Brad Kaaya seems talented enough, but he’s a true freshman and he played like it at times, not to mention the coaches seemed reluctant to turn him loose, even with Louisville stuffing the box to slow down Duke Johnson. However, Kaaya’s biggest play of the night didn’t count. Miami was still in the game, down 24-13 early in the fourth quarter, when he hit Johnson on a wheel route for 36 yards. The ‘Canes would have had the ball on the 3-yard-line in great shape to cut it to one score, but guard Danny Isidora strangely wandered several yards downfield and got flagged for ineligible receiver. Miami still might not have won if the play was upheld, but the final score would have looked better than 31-13.

So ‘Canes fans might take encouragement in the fact this was a much more competitive game than last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, and their long-suffering defense played admirably, allowing just 4.7 yards per play against a Bobby Petrino-led offense. But Miami’s own offense could be a real problem, and that’s a problem for Golden, who can’t hide behind the “NCAA cloud” excuse any longer. The recruiting rankings suggest he’s got plenty enough talent at this point to be an ACC contender, but we certainly didn’t see that Monday night.

Auburn 45 Arkansas 20 — you were only off from perfection by an extra point! Now I know you do not profess to be a prognosticator, and the powers-that-be probably have a gun to your head to make you do it each week, but kudos still should go out for knocking that prediction out of the park!

— Wes, location unknown

Why thank you. It wasn’t a bad first week for picks, going 8-3.

Utah State 24, Tennessee 21. Great upset pick there, Mr. Mandel. Final Score: UT 38, Utah State 7 (With a FRESHMAN heavy team). Please tell me who you’re picking for the upset this Saturday, Stewart, so I can bet the entire farm on the favorite.

— Jack Lail, Knoxville, Tennessee

But I did miss three.

Mr. Mandel: There is no doubt what Jim Mora has done to turn the image of UCLA around going into his third season. The defense, Mora’s specialty, has proven to be more physical and talented every year. However, the question that never seems to be answered is the offensive line. Is this a scheme problem (this is also coordinator Noel Mazzone’s third year) or a talent issue?

— David H, Dallas

In Mora’s first year you could blame the offensive line’s struggles on lack of talent and experience. Last season it was injuries. This year, though, it’s a bona fide experienced group almost entirely recruited by Mora and his staff, so those excuses go out the window. One mitigating factor last Saturday was the absence of center Jake Brendel, a third-year starter dealing with a knee injury. Still, position coach Adrian Klemm – Mora’s most valuable recruiter but also the guy who’s overseen this group for three years — called it “one of the s–tiest performances I’ve been a part of as a player or coach.” (Apologies that this week’s Mailbag is particularly heavy on the s-word.)

TOP 20 PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

To my untrained eye, it looked like Virginia defensive tackle David Dean and inside linebacker Henry Coley were blowing the Bruins’ interior linemen off the ball. I talked about this very thing Saturday with my colleague Joel Klatt, and he believes Mazzone’s scheme is at least partially to blame. Says Joel: “He runs lots of ’scat’ protection, which sends all five eligible receivers out without any protection responsibilities. This is fine by itself, but Hundley tends to hold the ball as if there are no answers built into the scheme when the defense brings six rushers. There has to be built-in ‘sight adjust’ routes or ‘hot’ routes in order for the QB to protect himself.”

Hi Stewart, Love the mailbag; read it every week. I was in Gainesville for the Florida vs. non-game game on Saturday and it got me wondering how this could affect a playoff-contending team. Unfortunately, Florida is unlikely to be a playoff contender this year, but hypothetically if this had happened to a team like Oregon, FSU, or Georgia, and the game is not rescheduled, how could this affect their playoff chances?

— Kevin McQueen, St. Petersburg, Florida

There’s a lot we don’t know about how the committee will operate, and this bizarre possibility is one the members themselves have probably not even considered yet.

It would depend on how heavily the committee is relying on metrics to assess schedule strength as opposed to personal opinion. Theoretically, if the game never gets rescheduled, it would actually benefit Florida in that the Vandals are expected to be among the dregs of FBS and would drag down any computer-calculated SOS ratings. On the other hand, subjectively, the committee members might dock the Gators for playing only 11 games whereas other contenders put themselves on the line 12 or 13 times.

Stewart, why did Nick Saban put his players and the WVU players at so much risk by running the hurry-up/no-huddle for three quarters of last week’s game?

— Bart Prorok, Auburn, Alabama

I believe he did it only in the second quarter, but touché nonetheless.

With teams like North Dakota State and the like having more and more success against FBS programs, and with the non-Power 5 teams having virtually no chance at actually making the College Football Playoff, do you think the top-flight FCS programs might eventually become a more desirable landing spot for recruits than your average non-Power 5 FBS schools? Would we start to see some programs desiring to move down from FBS to FCS?

— Tom, Oklahoma City

I’d be curious to hear from some fans of schools that have made the jump recently – Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, et al. – and see how they feel. I know there’s a stigma that comes with being FCS instead of FBS, but strictly from a fan’s perspective, I would think it’s more satisfying to take a shot or two each season against a Kansas State or Iowa State and then play for a national championship, rather than play the same one or two early games against the big boys, and then play for a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. But that’s just me. I don’t have a personal investment in one of these schools.

I would not be surprised if we eventually see a move by some programs to scale down, particularly as the autonomy arms race kicks in, but not anytime soon. There’s one crucial thing FBS provides that makes it more desirable to recruits – TV exposure. North Dakota State may be a better team than two-thirds of FBS programs but it will not appear on national cable the rest of the regular season. Its game this week against Weber State will be shown on something called Altitude. Other than that it’s local TV and/or ESPN3. Conversely, FBS bottom-feeder New Mexico will appear on an ESPN network or CBS Sports Network five times. That’s not the only selling point for recruits at that level, but it’s a big one.

— Alex, Boulder, Colorado

Ah, college football. You spend eight months getting your hopes up only to have it crush your spirit the very first weekend. And yet we keep coming back.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. 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,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.