Top 5 underrated teams for 2015: Notre Dame is a playoff contender

Editor’s note: Send questions for future Mailbags to stewart.mandel@fox.com.

I usually like to lead off the Mailbag with a deep, thought-provoking, carefully constructed question. But sometimes it’s more fun to cut straight to the point.   

Stewart, What are the top five underrated teams heading into the 2015 season?

— James Philion, Ottawa, Ontario

I know a couple of FOX Sports Live personalities who will be fired up to see a Canadian kicking things off this week. You ask, I answer.

Virginia Tech. Podcast listeners already know how bullish I am on the Hokies. I believe Frank Beamer’s program will break out of its recent slump. Last year’s team went just 7-6 but did win road games against Ohio State (remember that one?) and Duke. Its offense was mostly abysmal, but quarterback Michael Brewer, entering his second year in the system, put up big numbers in his spring scrimmages. The backfield is deep and healthy. And the defense returns standouts like cornerback Kendall Fuller and defensive end Dadi Nicolas. 

I could see this team winning 10-plus games.

Texas A&M. The Aggies, just 3-5 in SEC play last year, may take the biggest jump of anyone in the conference. Kevin Sumlin has recruited a ton of big-time players the past couple of years, most notably DE Myles Garrett and incoming WR Christian Kirk, but thus far he’s struggled to field a competitive D. That changes this year due both to more experience and the addition of accomplished coordinator John Chavis from LSU.

Notre Dame. Obviously anytime you include the Irish and "underrated" in the same sentence you’re setting yourself up for ridicule, but I believe Brian Kelly’s team is a legit playoff contender. They looked that way early last year before an injury-plagued defense imploded en route to 8-5. But now they return 19 starters and no longer have a quarterback controversy. Malik Zaire is the guy and should add to a promising rushing attack.

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Arizona State. It’s tough to get too high on any one team in the loaded Pac-12 South, but the Sun Devils are my early pick to win it. As talented as Taylor Kelly was, QB Mike Bercovici was arguably more productive during his fill-in starts last year. The backfield is so strong that Todd Graham felt comfortable moving star D.J. Foster to receiver, and the defense brings back a wealth of experience.

Temple. No, the Owls aren’t on the level of the other teams on this list. But coach Matt Rhule already engineered an improvement from 2-10 to 6-6 last season while quietly producing a top-15 defense nationally. Most notably, they held explosive East Carolina to a season-low 10 points. Now, that same unit returns all 11 starters. Temple could well win the American.

Stewart, it’s been 16 years since Nebraska last won a conference title. Do you think Mike Riley wins one within four years, ending the drought before it hits two decades?

— Josh, Tampa

I’m as curious as the next guy to see how Riley does at Nebraska. He’s a good fit in a lot of ways, and not just because of his Nice Guy persona. He has a proven history of developing unheralded players into college standouts and often NFL players, and I believe Nebraska in 2015 needs someone like that more than a flashy recruiter. Location dictates the Huskers will always be reliant to some degree on diamonds in the rough. At the very least he should win more big games than Bo Pelini did and win a couple of division titles in that four-year span. As for something more, though …

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Interestingly, if he’d entered the Big Ten three years ago, I’d have said yes, absolutely he’ll end that drought. That conference was ripe for the taking. But today? Even as an avowed Mike Riley fan, I have a hard time saying that knowing even if he gets the Huskers to Indianapolis (which I believe he will), he then will have to beat Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio or Jim Harbaugh in a championship setting. (James Franklin could eventually join that list, but all we know of Franklin to this point is he’s an excellent recruiter.) An Oregon State fan might counter that Riley took it to Pete Carroll a couple of times at the high point of USC’s run, but those were midseason games. A championship game, where motivation is an unlikely factor, is a different story.

Stewart, TCU’s offense is returning so many starters (10) that I think we can expect the same sort of numbers on the scoreboard that we saw last year. But what impact will coordinator Dick Bumpas’ retirement have on the defense? Especially with the loss of Paul Dawson and Sam Carter?

— Katie Van Dyck, Washington, D.C.

If it were most programs, I’d certainly be concerned about a highly respected coordinator of 11 seasons stepping down. But TCU’s program is Gary Patterson’s program, and TCU’s defense is Gary Patterson’s defense. He’s arguably the most hands-on head coach in the country, particularly on that side of the ball. I was among a group of writers who talked with Patterson at last week’s Big 12 meetings, during which we learned both that he’s already watched the televised spring games of his opponents this season (watch out for Texas Tech, if his scouting report is to be believed) and that he watches college basketball to glean nuggets from the teams’ defensive schemes. Also, he’s still got co-DC Chad Glasgow, who’s been with him there for all but one season.

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Having said all that, replacing not only standouts Dawson and Carter but middle linebacker and second-leading tackler Marcus Mallett is no small matter. TCU’s defense struggled at times during the season, most notably the second half of that 61-58 loss to Baylor, but was thoroughly dominant by end of the year. See the Peach Bowl against Ole Miss. The linebacking corps was a big part of that success but is now the biggest area of uncertainty coming out of spring. Obviously, in the offense-happy Big 12, inconsistency at any position on that side of the ball can be devastating, so TCU has a lot to figure out in August. 

With the deflated balls "controversy" coming to a head in the NFL, do you know if there are similar PSI requirements in college football? I assume it’s different by conference, but I’m wondering who is responsible for the balls before and during the game, if the referees are testing the balls before the games, and if FSU’s Red Lightning and Oregon’s Flat Top Ball Boys are now more important than ever.

— Doug Wicinski, Natick, Massachusetts

There’s actually an entire section in the NCAA football rules book entitled, "The Ball," and it lays out standards and procedures that largely mirror those we’ve now heard about incessantly with the NFL. The home team provides the balls and must present them to the referee for testing 60 minutes before kickoff. They must be inflated to between 12.5-13.5 PSI and weigh 14-15 ounces. And "the referee or umpire shall determine the legality of each ball before it is put in play."

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You may recall that USC got busted for deflating balls during Lane Kiffin’s last full season. The punishment, needless to say, was much less severe than that of the Patriots: a fine and a reprimand by the Pac-12. I imagine these were not the only instances in recorded football history of intentional deflation, and you’ve got to think many coaches, already paranoid enough as it is, will be on heightened lookout this season. By the same token, if Red Lightning or his ilk had any devious intentions before, DeflateGate should have scared it out of them.

Hi Stewart, I’m thinking of starting a college football program. Since I don’t want to recruit or develop my players, I’m going to fill my team entirely with graduate transfers. Will I be able to field a full squad this year? Will we be any good?

— Michael Kasa, Lincoln, Illinois

You’re going to be set at quarterback. Will you start Everett Golson or Vernon Adams? But the rest of your lineup is likely going to be filled with guys who weren’t quite good enough to be full-time starters elsewhere. That makes you Kansas.

After decades of breaking scandals about illicit benefits going to prospects, their families, and/or high school coaches, NCAA violation stories in the press have almost completely dried up over the last couple of years. Do you think the sports media has lost interest, or decided that those rules aren’t worth enforcing? Won’t a "who cares if somebody got paid?" attitude result in the more unscrupulous programs getting a competitive advantage on the field?

— Will Collier, Atlanta

You’re absolutely right. I wouldn’t necessarily say the media has lost interest in those stories, but much of their audience has. And investigative journalism is time-consuming and expensive. So if you’re a media organization, why would you devote all those resources in an attempt to expose something that a great deal of the public believes is not that big of a deal? Or where they feel the rules are the problem, not the violators? Obviously, not every story is the same. Were there to be another Cam Newton-type situation in 2015, where a mega-star player’s family member is suspected of soliciting six-figure payments, you better believe the media is going to chase it and the public is going to eat it up. But stories of run-of-the-mill players taking money, guys selling their autographs, etc., are now being met with a mixture of apathy and empathy.

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I’ve long believed that Jerry Sandusky reset everybody’s compass of what constitutes a college athletics scandal. That story broke in November 2011. Consider that just a few months before that came Yahoo’s Miami/Nevin Shapiro expose, which was met with general hysteria. By the time the NCAA finally got around to punishing the school two years later I sensed a general disinterest. When Sports Illustrated ran its investigative series about Oklahoma State in 2013 (when I still worked there), we saw a whole lot of "Who cares, this goes on everywhere?" responses. I don’t think that sea change dates entirely to Sandusky, but that moment coinciding with massive TV deals, realignment, the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit and more have changed the narrative on NCAA matters.

All of which could prove very problematic for the NCAA enforcement department, which has long benefitted from the de facto police work of media members. While staffers do receive and follow up on tips of their own, nearly every major infractions case involving a high-profile program originates either from a legal proceeding or a media report. On the one hand, stiffer penalties put in place last year were intended to deter rule-breakers, but if said people hold no fear of ever being caught, there goes that. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic evolves over the next couple of years.

Hey Stewart, what is the key to a championship-caliber defense these days? It doesn’t seem like any team can stop anyone else. The team I follow, Oklahoma, has tried many defensive schemes with … mixed results. Even the SEC defenses, which used to be considered on the level of mythical Greek heroes, seemed lackluster last season. Is there a scheme or game plan that can work against these no-huddle spread or Air Raid offenses?

— Jake Hayes, Ypsilanti, Michigan

There’s no one magical scheme to stop today’s offenses. If there was, everyone would be running it. Besides the Captain Obvious qualities that were true in any era — good players, solid fundamentals, communication, etc. — perhaps the most important element of an elite defense today is quality depth. Given the number of teams running hurry-up no-huddle offenses, it’s unrealistic to expect to make it through an entire game with the same 11 players, much less an entire season. In many cases coaches now try to have a hockey-like line shift worth of backups — especially up front — that they feel confident playing in key situations.

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A good example of this is Stanford. The Cardinal have fielded one of the nation’s top defenses each of the past three seasons, allowing 17.2 points per game (No. 11 nationally) in 2012, 19.0 (No. 12) in ’13 and 16.4 (No. 2) in ’14. And they play a lot of guys. Michigan State, also one of the stingier defensive teams in recent years, employs a similar philosophy.

Mind you, both of those teams themselves run traditional pro-style offenses. If you’re trying to marry an up-tempo offense of your own, as is the case with Oklahoma, then you likely have to concede that you’re going to give up yards and points. That doesn’t mean you can’t compete for championships, though. See Oregon. The Ducks’ defense takes more chances, knowing they’ll likely have a little cushion, and hope to create turnovers or generate drive-stopping sacks, even in the red zone. It’s a riskier but sometimes unavoidable strategy.

Stewart: What do you think of the job Jerry Kill is doing at Minnesota, especially considering the wreckage that was left from Tim Brewster? Do you think he can get them over the proverbial hump and into the Big Ten title game?

— D.J., Plymouth, Minnesota

He’s doing well. He got the Gophers into the top 25 last year and made them part of the conversation (albeit largely for losing to TCU and Ohio State). They tied for second in the division with Nebraska (whom they beat), a game ahead of Iowa (whom they also beat), which is a pretty good year by modern Minny standards. And yet for all that, Kill hasn’t yet matched the staying power of the forever-underappreciated Glen Mason, who took the program to seven bowls in eight years and notched a 10-win season in 2003. So far Kill is at three straight bowls and a pair of eight-win seasons.

Kill could certainly win the division, and in fact this season may be his best window. Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin, each in a various degree of transition under a first-year coach, all come to Minneapolis, and every other game is winnable, save for a trip to Ohio State. If Minnesota could win one of its two tough season-opening dates with TCU (home) or Colorado State (away) and go 6-2 in the Big Ten, it could possibly win its division and would win at least nine games prior to a bowl for the first time since ’03. It’s a reasonable goal.

Stewart, Explain to me why Texas A&M gets so much press for being the new "it" school in Texas despite the fact the Aggies have accomplished absolutely nothing on the field? They beat ‘Bama 3 years ago but lost 59-0 last year. They’re picked about 10th in the SEC. Do you actually think aTm runs the state at 7-5? You are a college football historian. Since Pearl Harbor, what exactly has A&M done??

— Kevin Oliver, probably somewhere in Texas

There must be a whole lot of burnt orange in your closet, Kevin. But you’re right. By no means does A&M run the state of Texas right now. Baylor does.

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.