Mandel’s Mailbag: Panic sets in after Week 1; it’s all (mostly) premature

Over the years my role as Mailbag author has sort of morphed into that of a college football therapist. (If only I could charge you all $150 an hour to read this.) Just as people don’t generally send emails to airlines to thank them for their great service, fans seem most motivated to write me when they’re troubled about something.

In your opinion, did Urban Meyer make the correct decision starting Cardale Jones for the season (not just Game 1)? Because J.T. Barrett just looked more efficient and more in command, even in the little playing time he had against Virginia Tech (look how easy it was for him to score). Is it wrong for me as an OSU alum to think Jones will personally cost OSU a game based on how careless he is?

— Jonathan, Westerville, Ohio

So if I understand this correctly, you just watched your favorite team put up 42 points on one of the best defenses in the country and still found something to worry about. Please, by all means, take a seat on the couch.

Meyer’s decision certainly surprised me. I thought for sure Barrett would get the nod. But it’s not exactly outrageous, either, to opt for a guy who beat the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country the last time he played. Meyer boiled it down in pretty simple terms afterward: Jones ended last season the starter, and Barrett didn’t beat him out. Fair enough. Though among the many surreal sights Monday night — like, oh, Braxton Miller wearing a different number and breaking off 50-plus-yard touchdowns — seeing a returning Top 5 Heisman vote-getter relegated to garbage time duty ranked pretty high up there.

Jones actually looked much more in control to me than he did in last year’s postseason games. He really only made that one bad throw, forcing the ball that got tipped and intercepted. It’s almost as if his ability to extend plays (because he’s a brick and no one can tackle him) works against him sometimes. Also, Monday night reminded me that we don’t give him enough credit as a runner. Yes, Barrett is faster, but once Jones gets out of the pocket he’s going to get you a first down. I can see where Meyer felt that was an advantage against Virginia Tech’s defensive front (which finished the night with zero sacks).

But as you said, Barrett did come in and immediately throw a right-on-the-money touchdown. I have to believe he’ll see the field before garbage time some weeks. But really, Meyer couldn’t go wrong either way. Ohio State’s not going to play anybody that Jones could feasibly lose to until at least Michigan State on Nov. 21.

Most people say that it’s too early to tell how the season will end … but how can you not write off Texas after Saturday’s horrible performance? How does a team that excelled so well in the first decade of the 21st century completely fall off the track? And how do you perform so poorly after KNOWING who and what type of team you are playing eight months in advance?

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–Brad Conner, Hartsville, S.C.

Brad, I’m sensing from your tone that you’re angry. Let’s talk about your childhood …

Personally, I wrote off Texas for the season as soon as I saw that Charlie Strong planned to both stick with Tyrone Swoopes as his starting quarterback and, more disturbingly, start two true freshmen on his offensive line. He wouldn’t be doing that if he had a better choice. So I fully expected a very good Notre Dame team with a bunch of NFL-caliber studs on defense to shut down a likely-to-be-overmatched ‘Horns offense.

I did not, however, expect the margin to be quite as bad as 38-3. And apparently neither did Strong, who already shook up his staff this week and made receivers coach Jay Norvell the new playcaller.

Texas will get better as the season goes along. Norvell’s new role and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s demotion may signal that Strong will soon hand the reins to redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard. He will likely struggle himself but provide glimpses of his potential. But I do worry about the tenor of criticism already being leveled at Strong one game into his second season. It’s tough in today’s climate for coaches to dig themselves out from under an ugly first impression.

Texas may lose a bunch of games this year, but it needs to stop getting blown out. And come the second half of the season, it needs to visibly look like a much better team. If those things happen, the initial panic will die down and the hot-seat talk will quiet. These next five weeks, however — which include games against Cal, Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma — could get pretty ugly.

I’m already nauseous over hearing the talking heads gush about Josh Rosen. He played well, no doubt, but let’s be honest, it was against Virginia, a 5-7 team last year. But to hear the pundits, Rosen just won the Heisman. After hearing so much hype year after year over Brett Hundley and then watching him fail to impress, can’t we hold off at least a few weeks before anointing Rosen?

— Bret, Tallahassee, Fla.

Are you referring at all to a pundit who put Rosen atop his Week 1 Heisman list?

I understand the skepticism over one performance; if those of us who cover the sport did nothing but write and say, "It was only one game, let’s not draw any conclusions," you would stop reading and watching us. Second of all — did you watch him play? My lord. No, Virginia’s not great, but it’s at least a Power 5 foe.

As I illustrated in Forward Pass, a whole lot of other heralded true freshman had far less productive debuts against comparable or weaker competition. And finally, Hundley and Rosen have almost nothing in common. Hundley was an exceptional athlete with a lot of raw potential who spent three seasons trying to become a more polished passer. Rosen showed up Day One with a better arm and more pocket presence than Hundley ever achieved.

I’m as curious as anyone to see how he develops from here. Keep in mind, Rosen’s not doing this alone. He’s got great skill talent around him, and the Bruins’ offensive line — such an Achilles’ heel during the Hundley era — played superbly against an athletic Virginia front. Rosen’s got all the talent, but the challenge will be maintaining consistency over a 13-game grind. I’ve seen many other freshmen start hot before hitting a wall. (Tate Forcier, anyone?) And he will also now have to deal with possibly unreachable expectations.

Stewart, most of my fellow Crimson Tide fans have deemed Auburn as unimpressive. While it’s fun to joke about Jeremy Johnson losing his opening-Saturday-before-lunch Heisman, I expect Johnson, and Auburn, to be very good by the end of the year. What are your thoughts?

— Clinton G. Eubanks, Centre, Ala.

Maybe I’m clouded by having picked Auburn as a playoff team, but I came away from the Louisville game mostly encouraged by the Tigers’ performance. While not quite as dramatic as John Chavis/A&M against Arizona State, Will Muschamp’s defense looked the part, at least before Carl Lawson went out with an injury. Lawson was in the backfield seemingly every play, and Auburn looked like a much faster defense in general. Cardinals freshman QB Lamar Jackson gave the Tigers problems in the second half, but it’s hard to say how much of that was the fact they’d never seen him on tape and/or losing Lawson.

Johnson admittedly did not deliver on the hype. Those were some ugly interceptions. But he also made some really deep throws, one of which would have been a touchdown if not for the receiver’s drop. He’s got the talent. The question is, was this a one-time thing or will he be turnover-prone all season? If it’s the latter, Auburn’s going to lose a few. But given Gus Malzahan and Rhett Lashlee’s track record with quarterbacks — including reaching the BCS championship game with a very raw Nick Marshall — I’m inclined to think they’ll figure it out and will in fact be very good long before the end of the year.

I asked you this summer if the season goes bad for Washington State, would Mike Leach be on the hot seat, and you said no. I know one game doesn’t make a season, but losing to a FCS opponent has caused a serious panic for the WSU fan base. Would you reconsider your assessment?

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— Forest Worgum, Montesano, Wash.

Not yet, but I’m happy to prescribe some Xanax for your symptoms.

Stewart, how do you think Saturday’s cancellation of the LSU game could affect the Tigers if they have one loss and were fighting for a playoff berth in early December? Especially if they lose to the division champ but have a shot to get in as the second SEC team? It’s unprecedented, obviously, but how would one less game possibly affect their standing by the committee?

— Kenneth C, Pasadena, Calif.

I’ve seen some people suggesting it could hurt LSU, but in actuality it would have zero effect. When Jeff Long says (as he’s done many times) that Ohio State’s 13th game made a difference in edging out Baylor last year, it’s because that 13th game was against 10-2 Wisconsin, not McNeese State. As I wrote last week in a story about selection committee truths, I believe the single most important criterion for the committee is Top 25 wins. Even if LSU finishes 10-1, it likely will have beaten several Top 25 foes, especially considering its entire division is now ranked in the AP poll. (Mississippi State’s big win at Southern Miss apparently won over a lot of voters.)

One thing I wish I’d mentioned in that article but didn’t is that at no point last season did Long ever mention a team’s strength-of-schedule rating. That’s because they don’t use one officially. Individual committee members may look at Sagarin or whatnot, but on the screen they look at in the room, it just shows the records of the opponents you face and those opponents’ opponents’ records. That’s why you heard a lot of references to number of bowl-eligible teams, etc. Long story short, McNeese State isn’t going to appear in any of those categories, so for all intents and purposes, that game might not have come up even if it had been played.

Hi Stewart: Was Stanford’s anemic offense against Northwestern more an indictment of the Cardinal or a credit to the ‘Cats? Is there any way to tell?

— Michael Kasa, Lincoln, Ill.

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That was without question the strangest result of the entire weekend. All I can tell you is that is not the Stanford offense I saw in a scrimmage just a couple of weeks beforehand. Quarterback Kevin Hogan looked as sharp as I’ve seen him throughout his career that day; against Northwestern he looked flustered and routinely sailed passes. (His receivers did him no favors, either, with some bad drops.) A veteran Cardinal O-line that I assumed would come out and control the game instead got absolutely dominated by the Wildcats’ defensive front, which left few opportunities for anticipated breakout star Christian McCaffrey to do any damage.

Like many Week 1 outcomes, I don’t think we can say yet what it all meant. Northwestern figured to have a solid, experienced defense, but I would not have foreseen it smothering that offense. Maybe it means the Wildcats are going to have a great year. I do think you’ll see a much better Stanford offense over the course of the year; however, Saturday’s game didn’t do much to answer questions about the Cardinal’s inexperienced defense. Northwestern mostly kept things simple for first-time starting quarterback Clayton Thorson because it could. We’ll find out a lot more about both teams in two weeks when Stanford goes to USC and Northwestern visits Duke.

Stewart, considering the growing pains at O-line for Penn State seem to still be going on, would you say Christian Hackenberg made a mistake by committing to Penn State? With the NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions, was it not obvious that the O-line would suffer for years, and anyone under center with it?

— Blaise, Idaho Falls, ID

I’m reticent to ever criticize a high school player’s college choice. Who am I to say what’s best for an 18-year-old’s future? I’d say the only obvious mistake — but one that an overwhelming majority of recruits make — is choosing a school primarily for the coach, because coaches change jobs. Hackenberg by all accounts saw Bill O’Brien as a guy who could groom him into an NFL quarterback, and it’s easy to see why. Have you watched "Hard Knocks"? Who wouldn’t want to play for that guy. But even I assumed O’Brien would get out of there as soon as possible once the sanctions came down and once he tired of dealing with all the post-JoePa firing acrimony that only now seems to be fading.

It’s unfortunate that a potentially great college player’s development is being so severely hindered by circumstances not of his doing. But, as I’ve said a few times already, it’s only one game. That O-line should get better over the course of the year, and once it does Hackenberg should have opportunities to shine. And when the time comes, NFL scouts will put on the tape and they’ll be able to tell better than the casual fan how much of his struggles were of his own making or whether Aaron Rodgers himself would have performed just as poorly with such meager protection.

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Stewart, I know it might be too early in the season for this question with all the great games starting. But watching TCU’s fast-paced offense against Minnesota, I was wondering whether Illinois should go after a coach with experience running the type of wide-open offenses Big 12 teams typically run? It’d be like when Purdue hired Joe Tiller a while back and his offense was very innovative compared to many of the stale Big 10 units we saw.

— Morgan Jones, Gaithersburg, Md.

Yes, and I actually have the perfect candidate in mind: Bowling Green’s Dino Babers. Some Illini fans may remember him from a two-year stint at Eastern Illinois, where he coached now-famous Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo. Babers just began his second season at BG, where his quarterback, Matt Johnson, went to Nashville last weekend and threw for 424 yards against Tennessee. The Falcons were already my pick to win the MAC, and now I feel even better about it.

Here’s the thing about Babers: He coached under Art Briles at Baylor, and when he left to become a head coach he took the entire offense with him. Remember when I wrote a couple of weeks ago how puzzling it is that no one’s tried to hire away someone from Oregon to install that system? This is the same idea. Baylor’s offense works. See Tulsa, which hired Baylor OC Philip Montgomery last offseason and in his first game put up 618 yards on FAU. No one in the Big Ten runs a pass-heavy offense. Penn State was the conference’s highest-ranked team in pass attempts per game last season … at 25th nationally. So, whoever does it first will likely take the conference by storm.

First of all, congratulations on getting your Upset Special correct last week, but this had to be worse than you expected since you had Temple winning by three — not 17! At what point do recruits start to decommit when Penn State is playing this bad?

— Richard Caceres, Long Valley, N.J.

Thanks — I actually achieved something unprecedented in my long prognostication career and went 11-0 in my Week 1 picks (thanks in part to a Hail Mary). So I’m feeling pretty high on life right now.

But man, you’re already worried about recruits decommitting after one game? I may have to steer you to a real therapist. That’s way above my pay grade.