Mailbag: Michigan’s mind-numbing dysfunction, Notre Dame, SEC, more
Editor’s note: To submit Mailbag questions, email Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.
This Saturday we’ll bask in the opportunity to watch Top 25 teams square off in six different matchups.
In the meantime, though, college football is captivated by the drama surrounding a 2-3 team.
I was pretty surprised to wake up Monday morning and find that Brady Hoke hasn’t been fired yet. The poor performances are bad enough, but the disregard (and flimsy excuses) for player safety should’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal. Is there any good reason for having him finish the season? The only thing I can think of is recruiting, but come on. Everyone in the nation knows he’s gone after this year.
— William Daniels, Mt. Morris, Michigan
Well then I can only imagine how surprised you were to wake up Tuesday morning and find out that Shane Morris was diagnosed with a concussion on Sunday but no one thought to inform the head coach by the following day.
The Morris situation has provided a mind-numbing window into the level of dysfunction within the Michigan athletic department. Hoke’s days were already numbered due to the program’s on-field deterioration into a poster for offensive ineptitude. The only way Hoke’s team is going to a bowl game this year is if there aren’t enough eligible 6-6 teams. The Morris story only intensified the level of outrage surrounding Hoke. Mind you, if Michigan were 5-0 when this happened, media would not be covering the story less intently, but Wolverines fans would likely be circling the wagon to defend their coach, much the way many Florida State fans continue to defend Jameis Winston. Instead, the Morris story has served as a powder keg for an already disillusioned fan base.
But if anything, the Morris situation may actually have delayed, not expedited Hoke’s pink slip. While Brandon painted a picture of incompetent sideline management in his description of events Saturday, you’ll notice his carefully crafted statement did not specifically place blame on Hoke. That’s not an accident. If Michigan were to fire Hoke right now, thus connecting it in the public’s minds to the Morris situation, he’d likely have a wrongful termination suit on his hands. Unless there’s some smoking gun to come that specifically reveals negligence on Hoke’s part, this is not an obvious fireable offense. Some may scoff at that notion, but former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel and former Ohio State basketball coach Jim O’Brien both won enormous settlements despite blatantly violating NCAA rules. Schools are petrified about potential litigation.
However, a month or more from now, Michigan will likely have an inarguable case for firing Hoke based on overall job performance. Logically speaking, you might say they do right now, but the Wolverines are just 0-1 in the Big Ten and still technically in the hunt to win a Big Ten championship. A month from now, when they’re 1-3 in the league at best, Brandon will have enough distance to safely make a move. But keep in mind, Brandon himself might not be long for that job. That is, if the new university president, Mark Schlissel, who arrived from Brown less than three months ago and has admitted to little experience dealing with a high-profile athletic program, would make such a drastic move so quickly.
It’s quite the soap opera in Ann Arbor right now. If I were a Michigan fan I’d probably put on 15 pounds stress-eating at Zingerman’s.
Stewart, I’ve followed SEC football my whole life and the teams from Mississippi have typically been doormats. Is it possible that both are really good teams this year, or will one or both of them be exposed as pretenders in the coming weeks?
— Jason Roberts, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Well, as I discussed on The Audible this week,I’m a bit torn on the Mississippi schools. On the one hand, Ole Miss looks more like a pretender than Mississippi State, which notched an impressive win at LSU. The Rebels by contrast have only two sloppy wins over Boise State and Memphis to their credit. Furthermore, looking at this week’s games, I give the Bulldogs a much better chance to beat Texas A&M, what with the Aggies having to turn around and go on the road a week after their tough overtime win against Arkansas, than I do the Rebels upsetting an Alabama team coming off a bye week.
And yet, if I had to predict which one might legitimately challenge for the SEC West title, or at least a New Year’s Six bowl berth, I’d pick Ole Miss. Why? Recruiting. Over the years we’ve seen plenty of teams rise up and win power conference championships with primarily lightly recruited players. See: Michigan State. But that’s a lot harder to do in the SEC West, where more than half the teams — Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M — are pulling in annual Top 10 classes. You’ve got to have elite players. Ole Miss might not have as many of them as Alabama, but guys like receiver Laquon Treadwell, tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive end C.J. Johnson and defensive back Tony Conner could have played anywhere, and they’re now starring for Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, have fewer obvious NFL-caliber players. Quarterback Dak Prescott is an undisputed difference-maker, and there’s some great players in that defensive front, but in general, this is a roster built on three-star guys. That doesn’t mean Dan Mullen can’t get them to overachieve and beat more talented teams, like they did at LSU, but probably not often enough to field a Top 10 team. We’ll find out more this weekend, but Mississippi State’s big win in Baton Rouge may indicate that this is not one of Les Miles’ better teams. And even if Ole Miss falls this week, its stingy defense may still help win 10 games.
Stewart, I haven’t rooted for Notre Dame since the Tyrone Willingham firing but find myself rooting for Everett Golson’s redemption story. How surprised are you that Notre Dame has done so well after the suspensions that were supposed to destroy the season? How much credit do you give Golson for the strong start, and if ND was to beat Stanford aren’t they in a strong position to make the top four even with a loss to Florida State or USC?
— Tyrone Johnson, Bordentown, New Jersey
I’m definitely surprised, for a very simple reason: I attended one of the Irish’s preseason practices and while I saw some good players out there — Golson in particular — they did not look like a Top 10-caliber team to me. And that was before the suspensions. I’m a little less surprised now, though, given the fact Notre Dame’s big statement win was a 31-0 rout of Michigan that is now completely devalued. Is Minnesota a Top 10 team too? So Notre Dame has beaten four teams – Rice, Michigan, Purdue and Syracuse – with a combined 7-11 record. Saturday will be its first game against a legitimate opponent.
Golson is the real deal, his four turnovers the other night notwithstanding. And I’m leaning right now toward the Irish against Stanford due mostly to the Cardinal’s offensive struggles. I’d said since the preseason that if the Irish go 11-1 they’ll almost certainly be in the mix for the playoff, but that was with a perception of their schedule that is starting to crumble. In addition to Michigan, upcoming opponents North Carolina, Arizona State and Louisville have been disappointing. A win at Florida State would certainly counterbalance that. But quite frankly, playoff talk is premature for a Notre Dame team that, as I said before, is only now playing its first quality opponent.
A week after all the panic post-Tallahassee, how much better is Clemson with Deshaun Watson playing? Would the season be different if they’d started him against Georgia and Florida State?
— John Mclaughlin, Clemson, South Carolina
It’s amazing how often something like this happens. In fact it’s also happening at LSU, where Les Miles is only now elevating freshman Brandon Harris over Anthony Jennings. The coaching staff starts the season with the more experienced but less heralded guy, he struggles, they turn to the younger backup and you wonder how they ever started the other guy in the first place. What didn’t they see during weeks of practice that seemed so obvious to the rest of us during the game? Partially that’s coaches’ conditioned nervousness about starting a freshman quarterback, but also, it’s the one position where practice performance often does little to predict how a guy will play once he’s actually under pressure (and can be tackled).
Watson has certainly boosted the Tigers’ offense, but would their record be different right now? That’s hard to say. For one thing, that North Carolina defense Watson shredded last week is truly awful. It’s given up more passing plays of 20 yards or more (23) than all but three teams nationally. Secondly, Watson did play most of the Florida State game. He threw for 266 yards, but the Tigers still lost.
The one you wonder about is Georgia. The Dawgs shut down Clemson’s offense in the second half of a 45-21 rout, but subsequent performances against South Carolina and Tennessee have shown that the Dawgs are still plenty vulnerable. Maybe Cole Stoudt wasn’t the right guy to exploit them. Either way, Clemson still has a lot to play for. It might not win the ACC but it may be favored in every game the rest of the way. NC State won’t be easy this week, though.
The term "Clemsoning" is so last week. I submit, for approval of the Mailbag Dictionary Committee, the term "Sun Deviling." This is a situation where an otherwise good team has a big, important, nationally televised game at home against a big-name, ranked opponent. The Sun Deviling team responds to this situation by playing exponentially below its normal level and embarrasses itself.
— Mark, Baltimore, by way of Tempe, Arizona
That does seem to happen at Arizona State almost every year, but it’s actually pretty commonplace around the country. I refer to it as “a fraudulent team playing a decent opponent and getting exposed.”
— Bernard Diggins, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Well when you put it that way …
No question, Ohio State was already inexperienced at a lot of key spots before it lost Miller, unquestionably a game-changing development, and Spence, whose suspension for a second failed drug test hasn’t gotten as much attention but probably should. Buckeyes fans have expressed frustration after last week’s Cincinnati game at what appears to be a continuation of last year’s shaky pass defense. Well, one of the primary reasons we figured they’d be better this season was the presence of such a loaded defensive line. Take away a disruptive pass-rusher like Spence, though, and, even with Joey Bosa on the other end, opposing quarterbacks are going to have more time to throw downfield.
Having said all that, no, you’re not crazy to be optimistic, but why are you already writing off 2014? Beyond the fact I’ll believe it when I see it that Miller comes back next year, Ohio State’s offense already appears to be much better than it was against Virginia Tech. Cincinnati’s defense probably isn’t the best measuring stick, but producing 710 yards and 45 first downs is no small feat. Even with that miserable night against Virginia Tech on his resume, J.T. Barrett is currently a Top 10-rated passer. This week’s Maryland trip could be tricky, but if the Buckeyes get past the Terps, my guess is we’ll be back to talking about their playoff chances by the time of their Nov. 8 game at Michigan State.
Stewart, Minnesota continues to win games that most pundits thought they had no chance of winning. Jerry Kill has done an amazing job with this team and at least getting them back to where they were under Glen Mason. The Gophers have four winnable games coming up against Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue and Iowa. Do you see a way where the Gophers have a chance to beat either Nebraska or Wisconsin on the road and make a shot for the Big Ten West?
— Andy York, West St. Paul, Minnesota
It’s nice to see the Gophers back to respectability. David Cobb is a big-time running back. But let’s not get carried away in our post-Little Brown Jug haze. This is the same Minnesota team that TCU held scoreless for three quarters in a 30-7 win just two weeks ago. Granted, the Horned Frogs may well be better than most of the teams on Minnesota’s Big Ten schedule. We’ll get a better idea this week when TCU hosts Oklahoma. I still consider Nebraska and Wisconsin the class of the Big Ten West, with the Gophers mixed in there with Northwestern and Iowa in the next tier.
Stewart, Kentucky is back, baby!!! The Wildcats tallied their first SEC win since 2011 and have already won more games this season than they did all of last year. However, making gains in the SEC pecking order seems like a difficult task. What’s the ceiling for UK’s football program? 7-5 and the Belk Bowl? 9-3 and the Outback Bowl?
— Bret, Atlanta
The ceiling is higher than most people realize. Whenever Kentucky dips into one of its frequent valleys, we often forget the peaks. But remember, Rich Brooks took Kentucky to four straight bowl berths from 2006-09. His 2007 team knocked off eventual national champion LSU and beat Florida State in a bowl game. These are not unattainable goals. At the same time, the Wildcats have still not finished a season in the Top 25 since 1984, and the SEC it plays in today is substantially tougher than it was then.
But hey, Vanderbilt went 5-3 in the conference under James Franklin. With the combination of imbalanced schedules and a weaker SEC East, there’s no reason Kentucky couldn’t eventually do the same. The Wildcats aren’t there yet, but they’re heading in the right direction under Mark Stoops. He’s bringing in the players. Give him a couple of years to see if it translates on to the field.
Another Michigan question for you. Instead of talking about how bad Michigan is, could you maybe give a little credit to the Gophers?
— DJ, Minneapolis
Man, you chest-puffing Gophers fans better hope TCU beats Oklahoma by 30 this weekend.
Stewart, Please, please, PLEASE do NOT mention TCU in your mailbag this week. We Frogs fans like our status as the overlooked underdog, and whenever you guys build up TCU (the last two years), our Frogs snap like Casey Pachall’s left arm. I would prefer that you embargo all stories written about TCU until after the Baylor game.
— Joe, Lincoln, Neb.
Blame the Minnesota fans.
Stewart: Give me your incredibly wild guess as to who is the head coach of Michigan, Florida and Illinois come Signing Day?
— Chris H., Parkland, Illinois
Someone who will be stretched extremely thin trying to coach three teams.
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.