Mailbag: Braxton Miller has an NFL dilemma, Irish scandal and more

It’s hard to remember a more crushing recent preseason injury to a preseason Top 5 team than Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury this week.

The closest comparison would be Oklahoma losing Sam Bradford in the 2009 opener against BYU. Those Sooners, like these Buckeyes, were also replacing four starters on the offensive line, and, like Ohio State will do, replaced its multi-year standout quarterback with a redshirt freshman, Landry Jones.

I don’t expect Ohio State will slink to an 8-5 season, as that Oklahoma team did, both because the Buckeyes have too much overall talent and because the 2014 Big Ten is much less daunting than the 2009 Big 12.

But I can’t imagine Urban Meyer’s team will still be one of the five best in the country, which is perhaps why some fans are already turning the calendar.

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It would certainly be unusual for a quarterback to start an entire season, then sit the entire next season, especially when he’s already used his redshirt. I have no idea how Barrett will fare, but the safe guess is Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman will at least start out playing very conservatively, relying on their run game and defense, before asking Barrett to do too much. So it may be that we don’t get a true read on him until later in the year, at which point, if the coaches are comfortable enough opening up the playbook, Barrett will make his case one way or the other whether he’s the Buckeyes’ quarterback of the future.

Whether he is or not, I just don’t see Miller coming back. I know he said in a statement that’s his plan, and why wouldn’t he? He’s got plenty of time between now and January to make up his mind. But given the fact he’s already played three years of college football, will already have his degree and will turn 22 this fall, I just think he’ll want to move on to the next stage in his life. I wish that weren’t the case, because I hate that an otherwise superb career ended in such disappointing fashion, but if he has NFL aspirations, waiting until 2016 is probably not in his best interest.


Speaking of 2016 …

Stewart, Sept. 3rd, 2016 looks like it could be the greatest early fall afternoon in the history of college football with 10 of the elite programs in competition with each other: USC-Alabama, Texas-Notre Dame, LSU-Wisconsin, Auburn-Clemson & UCLA-A&M. Who do we have to thank for this September version of a New Year’s Day in the ‘80s?

— Jed Walker, Texas

It’s without question a direct consequence of the selection committee/playoff era. It’s not like high-profile programs did not schedule home-and-homes or neutral site showdowns before. Vince Young and Texas began their 2005 national title run with a win at Ohio State. LSU and Oregon faced each other as Top 5 teams to kick off the 2011 season. But it’s rare to see so many in one season, much less on one day. Teams have clearly gotten the message that schedule strength matters. They also really like those paychecks to play in NFL stadiums, as a couple of those games will be.

Now, not to be a party-pooper, but all these “greatest day in football history” comments are clearly coming from either young fans or those with a short memory. There was a time 30 years ago — pre conference-consolidation — when games like this were commonplace. For example, Alabama’s 1978 national championship team faced Nebraska, USC and Washington. Georgia’s 1980 title team played Texas A&M, Clemson and TCU. Somehow it took the arrival of a playoff to get schools to start scheduling more like they did when the national title was still entirely mythical.

Notre Dame plays Michigan for the last (scheduled) time in Week 2 under the lights. As someone with some behind-the-scenes perspective, how do you think the academic scandal of a few players impacts the team as a whole, especially this early in the season?

— Martin, Atlanta

It will affect the Irish dramatically. First of all, the investigation figures to drag out for a while. We don’t know all the details yet, but it’s safe to say the school would not put the NCAA on alert and bring up the possibility of vacating wins if its leaders were confident the scandal was contained to just these four insolated incidents. As more developments trickle out, this story could hover over the team well into the season.

And then there are the on-field ramifications. Notre Dame just lost one of the best cornerbacks in the country, its top returning receiver and an important defensive end. There will be inevitable injuries that sideline some other key players, too. This could end up being a shell of the Irish team we thought we’d see in 2014.

If there’s any silver lining for Notre Dame in regards to that Week 2 game, it’s that Michigan might not be very good. An offense that struggled so badly on its offensive line last season and in turn could not run the ball, has, both in the spring game and a recent scrimmage … struggled on the offensive line and been unable to run the ball. It may turn out that its defense is just that good, but it seems increasingly likely that Brady Hoke and his staff just whiffed in its offensive line recruiting and/or development. It will be starting a true freshman, Mason Cole, at left tackle. Notre Dame standout Sheldon Day could cause him a long night.


Put it this way: As of today, this is not one of the four or five most troubling games on Notre Dame’s schedule, so if it loses to the Wolverines, it could be a long season.

You missed it completely. Notre Dame caught it themselves, suspended the athletes and notified the NCAA. Most other institutions cover it up unless reported by a third party and go on their title-chasing merry way. Your article classifies you as a Notre Dame hater who once again didn’t do his homework and/or doesn’t want to recognize Notre Dame’s high standards. THEY TURNED THEMSELVES IN!!

Ken Devine, location unknown

Welcome to a small sampling of my inbox since past Friday. Not only was I wrong to suggest that a series of high-profile academic fraud cases among Notre Dame’s athletes is a blow to its high-and-mighty academic image, but in fact I should be PRAISING the school for punishing the athletes at all.

As one college football writer said to me recently, isn’t it amazing how a school’s fans can be angrier at your opinion about a story than the story itself?

So, I’ve read “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” and I feel like I am up to speed. Thanks for writing it. One of the most interesting questions that you raise in the book is how well fans will travel for a semifinal game and then a national championship game a week or so later. What do you think about the probability of the entire playoff becoming a “corporate” event as the years go by?

— Roger O’Connor, Dayton, Ohio

First of all, thank you very much for your kind words about the book. I’m thrilled at the response so far from the first wave of readers.

The entire industry is deeply curious to see how the fan-travel issue plays out over the next few years. If anything’s going to go corporate, I would guess it’s the championship game. Face value for this year’s game STARTS at $450 and most average fans aren’t going to be fortunate enough to pay that little. (If you’re really confident in your team you can pay a little extra to reserve a seat now.) Flights and hotels are going to be terribly expensive, too, especially if people wait until after the semifinals to book them. Bill Hancock says in the book that the college event will not become a “junior Super Bowl,” but I’m not so sure.

As for the semifinals, call me naïve, but I think those games will be fine. Making the playoffs will be the equivalent of making the Final Four in basketball. There will be a very special feel to seeing your school on that bracket. The bowls are played on a holiday, and fans have three to four weeks to make arrangements. I could only see it being a problem for bowls where a certain team has made the playoff several years in a row and it’s playing far from home. Otherwise, I just can’t see people taking that opportunity for granted. Those games will be filled almost entirely by the schools’ fans. The title game might not.


Four years ago I answered this very question in a piece Andy Staples and I wrote making predictions for the new decade. I predicted UCLA and Tennessee. Within two years they’d both fired their then-coaches, Rick Neuheisel and Derek Dooley. But hey, I’ve still got six years left to get it right, and I’m even more bullish on the Bruins and Vols than I was then.

Jim Mora has proven the perfect hire in Westwood, and after spurning both Texas and alma mater Washington last year there’s reason to believe he’s in it for the long haul. I’m one of many who believe the Bruins will contend for a playoff spot this season, and even though this will be their last with Brett Hundley, the future is bright.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is a sleeping giant that’s simply botched its last couple of coaching hires. It’s still early, but Butch Jones is a good coach who’s generated a lot of excitement both on the recruiting trail and in the community. The Vols have more rebuilding to do, but I could see them back competing for SEC titles over the latter half of the decade.

You really should be careful about convicting any players before the actual facts are revealed. My sources on campus are telling me players named by the media have contacted lawyers about suing media members for slander as their NFL careers have been jeopardized.

— Regards, Greg, location unknown

Do your sources include the athletic director, who named them at his own press conference?

Hi Stewart: What are your thoughts on this new trend of colleges paying players’ insurance premiums from their Student Assistance Funds? While the schools have said nothing prohibits it, I wonder if the NCAA actually envisioned this occurring and is happy with payments of up to $50,000 or $60,000 (reportedly) for the benefit of a single student who’s an NFL draft prospect, rather than for true “hardships,” which is what the funds were created for.

— David Sharp, Chicago

I don’t have a problem with schools paying insurance premiums. It’s nice to see someone take a common-sense acknowledgment of the fact these athletes are taking a considerable financial risk to come back and play for them rather than completely ignoring that reality. However, it doesn’t seem right that those payments are coming from a fund that could otherwise be used to cover true hardships.

In A&M’s case, it used roughly 15 percent of its allocation on one player. I expect this is one of the first issues you’ll see addressed in autonomy. The power conference schools will seek an NCAA-approved means to cover these players’ expenses with their own program-generated revenue rather than having to tap into the Student Assistance Fund.

Stewart: I keep hearing and/or reading that Penn State may get its bowl ban overturned during this season. Would that affect their eligibility for this coming postseason or just 2015 and beyond? And, under their current punishment, when are they bowl eligible?

— Matthew, Brooklyn, New York


Currently Penn State is halfway through the ban and will be eligible again in 2016. Your guess is as good as mine whether it will be lifted early. Mark Emmert made up the penalties in the first place, and apparently he can make up the appeals process as well. The optimism in Happy Valley stems from the fact the NCAA lessened some of the program’s scholarship sanctions last fall following a positive report from NCAA-appointed “integrity monitor” George Mitchell. The hope is he’ll have similar things to say in this year’s review, and the NCAA will further reduce the sanctions, only this time taking the form of a shorter bowl ban.

I’d be extremely surprised if Penn State is suddenly declared eligible this coming season; reducing it by one year seems more reasonable. But then, no one knows where Emmert came up with four years in the first place.

— Frank DeRosa, location unknown

You all usually ask the questions, but this week I have one of my own: Does the brainwashing occur when you arrive as freshmen at Notre Dame or not until graduation day?

Stewart: There are five SEC teams that have finished in the Top 25 each of the past two years: Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. But with four starters back on the O-line and the prized James Franklin-era recruits just now starting to play, why are media expectations so low for Year 1 of the Derek Mason era?

— Mark Halling, San Diego

When you’re Vanderbilt, it takes more than a couple of good years for people to believe you won’t eventually return right back to the cellar. Duke is dealing with much the same thing right now, getting no love in the Top 25 polls despite winning 10 games last season. Northwestern’s been getting that treatment for nearly 20 years. In the Commodores’ case, that doubt is likely exacerbated by the fact that savior Franklin left and took most of his best recruits with him. Also, there was always a contingent that liked to diminish Vandy’s consecutive nine-win seasons because so many of the wins came against downtrodden teams. It hasn’t been knocking off the upper-tier teams.

Mason is a great football mind, and guys love playing for him. You never really know how a first-time head coach will handle the CEO role, but he’s as equipped as anyone, especially having coached at a similar institution at Stanford. My concerns with Vandy are the departure of all-everything receiver Jordan Matthews and the entire secondary. But its schedule is not overly daunting. It plays only four road games. And it should win all four non-conference games easily. Ole Miss at home in Week 2 could be a swing game. I could see them finishing anywhere from 5-7 to 8-4.

— Sincerely, A Disappointed Former Fan, location unknown

Well, the 2004 Stewart Mandel did write a column arguing that Ohio State deserved the death penalty for its Maurice Clarett-era scandal, so, he’d probably think the 2014 version has gone soft in his old age.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for Before joining FOX Sports, 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