Mailbag: Dire situations at Florida & Michigan, ‘Clemsoning,’ Big 12

I can think of only one thing worse than being a Michigan or Florida fan right now.

And that’s being a fan of both.

I’m a huge Michigan fan but also spent time in Gainesville, so I’m familiar with the culture down there. If you were forced to choose which team you were a diehard fan of at this point in time, which would it be, Michigan or Florida? Which team has the longer dark age ahead? Give me a reason to feel any optimism whatsoever about the near-mid future of my Wolverines!

— Dan C. from Los Altos, Calif.

Is there an option C?

I’m not going to say “I’d rather be a fan of [blank]” because then I would be accused of BIAS or branded a HATER by fans of the other. Both teams are lacking for a consistent quarterback, obviously, and it appears Will Muschamp and Jeff Driskel are going to live or die while tethered at the hip. But Florida as a whole has talent. Even if the current roster has some holes, the next coach doesn’t have to look far for reinforcements. It’s sitting in one of the three most fertile recruiting states in the country. It’s also not far removed from winning two national titles in three years. That program should never be down for long.

With Michigan, on the other hand, there’s a more dire level of dysfunction that two free Cokes isn’t going to solve. While the recruiting rankings say Hoke should have quite a talented roster by now, I’m just not seeing it. It was plainly obvious last week who had more speed, Utah or Michigan, and obviously the Wolverines’ offensive line is atrocious. It seems like the farther we get from the Rich Rod era, the fewer playmakers Michigan has, which is odd, seeing as Hoke has now had four years to assemble a roster that best fits his preferred style of offense.

Here’s one theory I haven’t seen floated. One of the ways Hoke initially made waves in recruiting was to get in earlier on guys than most everyone else. Quarterback Shane Morris, for one, committed as a high school sophomore. The benefit of that strategy is that it creates buzz for the program. The downside is there’s much more bust potential. I’m not ruling out Morris yet, but if he were performing as projected he would have certainly supplanted Devin Gardner by now. And a lot of those offensive line recruits clearly aren’t panning out. Mind you, many other programs nationally, particularly in the SEC, offer sophomores, but the early commits often don’t hold and/or the schools over-sign, so no one bust is as costly as it is at Michigan.

Long story short: I don’t see a quick fix in Ann Arbor.

— Gerry Swider from Sherman Oaks, Calif.

I expressed my concerns about Florida State in Monday’s Forward Pass column. It was fairly jarring to see an admittedly talented Clemson defensive front manhandle Florida State’s offensive line the way it did. And the ‘Noles did not run the ball well against Oklahoma State either. Jimbo Fisher’s team is unquestionably dripping with elite talent, and so many expected FSU to easily reload, but the fact is it lost a lot of a great players from last year’s team. The ‘Noles seem to be particularly missing explosive running back Davonta Freeman and big-time receivers Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin. The O-line returned largely intact but did lose an All-American center, Bryan Stork. Not coincidentally, Clemson repeatedly blitzed right up the middle with great success.

But while FSU does not look like the No. 1 team in the country right now, I wouldn’t go writing the ‘Noles out of the playoff just yet. For one thing, that defense is still loaded. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, for one, affected the Clemson game like few at that position can. And secondly, even if you believe that FSU has some issues, who on its remaining schedule is capable of exploiting them? The ‘Noles may have already survived two of the four toughest teams they’ll play all year. Their most daunting remaining obstacles are an Oct. 18 home game against a Top 10 Notre Dame team and a Thursday night trip to Louisville. Anyone else would have to pull a monumental upset.


As for Auburn, I seem to be hanging out on a lonely island. I was one of few who had the Tigers as my projected SEC champion and playoff entrant before the season and I’m holding strong. I was at the Kansas State game and I would not quantify it as a “close call.” The Wildcats certainly blew quite a few opportunities, and Auburn was certainly sloppy, but the Tigers still led a Top 20 team 20-7 on the road midway through the fourth quarter, and then quarterback Nick Marshall made the big play when he needed it most to close out the game.

I’m encouraged by Auburn’s defense, which looks far stingier than it did a year ago. K-State came in averaging 236 rushing yards and managed just 40. On the flip side, Gus Malzahn’s team had the worst rushing night of his tenure, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. Neither Cameron Artis-Payne nor Corey Grant is the home-run threat that Tre Mason was. But with Malzahn’s teams I don’t worry about the offense. What I’d worry about more is its ridiculous schedule.

The good news is, that win over No. 20 K-State could come in handy if it goes before the committee. The bad news is, it still has to play No. 3 Alabama, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 10 Ole Miss, No. 12 Georgia, No. 13 South Carolina, No. 14 Mississippi State and No. 17 LSU. My lord.

Hi Stewart, the saying goes that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. But I hear announcers talking about teams with a “stable of running backs” as an advantage. Watching the LSU-Mississippi State game this weekend, it seemed like the LSU running backs never got into the flow of the game. Leonard Fournette had seven rushes for 38 yards, Kenny Hilliard nine rushes for 30 yards, and Terrence Magee and Darrel Williams had two carries each. In contrast, Kenny Hilliard carried the ball 18 times for 110 yards against Wisconsin. Do "fresh legs" trump "gets better as the game goes on"?

— Chris from Shreveport, La.

Interesting question. Most coaches would tell you the more running backs, the better, simply because of the wear-and-tear at that position. These days there aren’t many guys capable of carrying 30-35 times a game — Pitt’s James Conner is one of a few throwbacks in that regard — and even those that do put themselves at injury risk. So you want to at least have a 1A qualified to spell your No. 1 guy. But increasingly we’re seeing the three- or even four-headed approach. LSU has done it throughout Les Miles’ tenure with great success. But once you get into the game, it’s definitely important to ride the hot hand. Most running backs I’ve spoken to say it’s difficult to get into a rhythm if you’re constantly coming off the field.


The sport’s two recent models for backfield rotation are Alabama and Wisconsin. The Tide have had a clearly defined 1-2 punch throughout Nick Saban’s time there, from Mark Ingram/Trent Richardson to Richardson/Eddie Lacy to Lacy/T.J. Yeldon to now Yeldon/Derrick Henry. So far this season, Yeldon (57) and Henry (53) have nearly equal attempts, with Kenyan Drake (22) is the clear No. 3. Wisconsin usually has a more pronounced distinction between Nos. 1 and 2, but even when it had workhorse Montee Ball it still found carries for James White. As talented as Melvin Gordon is, Corey Clement sees the field plenty. This keeps both guys fresh while allowing both enough time to get in the flow. LSU’s distribution Saturday seemed more a product of frustration than distribution.

Stewart, I was shocked to see Jameis Winston enjoying and participating in the Clemson game from the sidelines. Later I was amazed to find out he initially suited up for the game. Do you think Jimbo Fisher really knows the definition of “suspension” or for that matter even cares?

— Mark from Ogden, Utah

Well, put it this way: According to the official box score, 48 Florida State players participated against Clemson. That leaves another 30-plus who stood on the sideline in uniform but never played in the game — just like Winston. I guess they were all “suspended.”

— Eric from San Diego, Calif.

Yes, you know me, the Bay Area resident always ragging on the Pac-12.

The Oregon-Oklahoma comparison seems like a valid point until you remember that the Sooners were playing a team that also put up 5.7 yards per play against Alabama and 40 points at Maryland, while the Ducks were playing a team that lost to Rutgers and Nevada. I don’t generally begrudge a team for struggling in a conference road game, as Oregon did, and also acknowledge it’s unlikely that All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olumu will often get burned for two touchdowns like he did Saturday. But Oregon currently ranks 87th in total defense, allowing 5.7 yards per play, so I’d say my concerns are warranted. (And even then I do still currently have the Ducks predicted to make the playoff.)

As for the Pac-12 as a whole, I believed going into the season that conference and the SEC would separate themselves from the other three, and so far that’s held true. The SEC is 31-3 non-conference, including 5-2 against the Power 5 and 3-1 against the Top 25. The Pac-12 is 29-4, 6-2 and 1-0. So why then, you might ask, do I have four SEC teams in my New Year’s Six projections and just one Pac-12 team?


Mostly because the Pac-12 is still a jumbled maze to me. At least one of the following — Stanford, UCLA, USC, Arizona State or Utah — is going to contend with, if not beat out, Oregon for a playoff spot, but I have no idea who. I may get a better sense after this week’s games, which include UCLA-Arizona State, Stanford-Washington and Oregon State-USC.

Stewart, Can you please set America straight on the definition of "Clemsoning" and how Clemson’s extremely painful loss to Florida State didn’t actually fit into that definition?

— Sam from Greenville, S.C.

I’m not one of the people most qualified to answer that, so I called on Dan Rubenstein, co-host of the tremendous Solid Verbal podcast, which literally wrote the dictionary definition of “Clemsoning.” He said:

“As it related to losing at No. 1 Florida State when big Clemson expectations were already tempered after the second half of the Georgia game, the Tigers very clearly weren’t involved in a traditional Clemsoning. BUT, if we’re to believe that Clemsoning is a real, higher-college-football-forces-at-work phenomenon (which, obviously it is), Clemson’s late stumble did kind of feel like some sort of weird correction of the college football universe, which I called a ‘Clemsoning Express.’


"Ruling: Not a Clemsoning, but much in the way post-halftime fireworks smoke always seems to hang over the Holiday Bowl field, a Clemsoning haze was present for the late minutes of Saturday night’s game.”

There seems to be consensus that if Oklahoma or Baylor runs the table, they are pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot. But if both teams win every other game they play, it is very possible that Kansas State and Oklahoma State, the only other currently ranked Big 12 teams, will no longer be ranked. That means the winner of Oklahoma vs. Baylor will have defeated one ranked team. Add in that Iowa State has lost to an FCS school, Kansas is Kansas and Texas and Texas Tech are struggling. Why would an undefeated Big 12 champion be guaranteed a spot?

— Jason from Dallas, Texas

No one’s guaranteed anything — especially Baylor with its SMU-Buffalo-Northwestern State trifecta — but I still believe it will be highly unlikely for an undefeated Power conference champion to be left out. For one thing, the Big 12 might not be as stacked as the SEC or Pac-12, but it’s not ACC or Big Ten bad, either. Secondly, you’re assuming the committee will use the same arbitrary Top 25 demarcation to assess the value of opponents as the public does. Based on what we’ve been told about the process so far, I don’t think it will be that simple. Anyone who watched Kansas State against Auburn or Oklahoma State against FSU knows they’re good teams, regardless of whether there’s a 22 or a 27 next to their names. And remember, the committee will be using its own rankings, not the AP’s or coaches’, which may differ accordingly.

As we get farther into the season you’re going to see a lot of playoff selection analysis, including from me. But while much of it will focus on strength of schedule, they intentionally worded the main qualification — “best four teams” — to be open-ended. Oklahoma, in my admittedly subjective opinion, has been the most impressive team in the country so far. If the majority of the committee feels the same come Dec. 7, then the data quite frankly might not even matter.

— David from New York, N.Y.

First of all, I agree, the Holy War should never be on hiatus, and it figures that the year it dropped off the schedule it appears that both teams are back on the rise. I would consider the chances slim. BYU is locked in to the Miami Beach Bowl against a team from the American. Both the Utes and Cougars would have to qualify for a New Year’s Six Bowl, and the committee would have to intentionally pit them against one another (most likely in the Fiesta), which, while incredibly appealing to fans of those two schools, wouldn’t be very compelling nationally.

— Calvin Eshbaugh from Temple, Texas

Consider this e-mail definitive proof that there is nothing that can possibly happen in this world that someone won’t get upset about.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for 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