Mailbag: Ohio State vs. Nick Saban, Mariota's Heisman, Michigan's search & more

BY Stewart Mandel • December 17, 2014

Editor's note: To submit Mailbag questions, email Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.

Marcus Mariota’s game is so smooth it often looks like he’s throwing against air, but his dominance of this year’s Heisman race was not nearly as easy as he made it look.

Stewart, From day 1 the Heisman Trophy belonged to Marcus Mariota. All he had to do was live up to everyone’s expectations, and he did that and then some. Conversely, last year Johnny Manziel was the front runner, but he faltered. Outside of Mariota, can you think of a preseason Heisman favorite that actually won the trophy?

— Chris K., Torrance, California

Mariota certainly defied the recent trend of Heisman winners — Jameis Winston last season, Manizel in 2012, Robert Griffin III in ’11 and Cam Newton in ’10 — who either had not played the year before or were not on many preseason watch lists. It’s both a credit to him and an indictment of the rest of the field. For one thing, timing may be the single most important element to a Heisman race. While Mariota did suffer a loss — one in which his own fumble sealed the game for Arizona, no less — it happened early enough in the season to overcome. Stanford’s Andrew Luck in 2011 was the last guy to hold the frontrunner spot for as long as he did, but a mid-November loss to Oregon did him in.

It also helped that Mariota’s chief competitor early on, Georgia star Todd Gurley, got shelved for his NCAA autograph investigation less than a week later. Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott posed a threat, but he would have needed to beat Alabama. He struggled and lost instead. And the guy who came the closest to playing the Manziel/Winston breakout role, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, made such a bad first impression against Virginia Tech that it took him nearly the entire season to get taken seriously (and then unfortunately broke his ankle against Michigan). And too many voters became uncomfortable with Winston that he probably never had a shot, even without throwing 17 interceptions.

Mariota is the closest thing to a wire-to-wire winner since Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006. Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn was more the consensus preseason favorite, but Smith was right there with him and led from mid-September on. Regardless of what happened with his competition, the Oregon star was just so consistent it made it impossible to argue against him (though 10 voters apparently believe he wasn’t even one of the three best players.)

Now we’ll see if he can pull off something even more difficult: make it through four months of buildup without the NFL draft hype industry detecting some previously undetected flaws. So far the best they’ve come up with is he’s too nice and his receivers are too open. They’re going to have to do better than that.

Stewart, while some game film is better than no game film, how much can the Alabama coaching staff realistically glean from seeing Cardale Jones once? And in your estimation, is it possible that Urban Meyer, being the cagey tactician he is (although not being certain of his next opponent — but probably having a pretty good idea) had Jones hide some of his tendencies, or threw some wrinkles in there (like that shoulder dip) as misdirection?

— Brian Meyers, Oregon, Ohio

Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman — soon to be Houston’s head coach — were trying to win a Big Ten championship. I doubt they were looking too far ahead until the game was clearly out of hand. More problematic for Alabama is that Ohio State has nearly a month now to build a game plan around Jones. Knowing that staff, it likely went into the Wisconsin game planning to do only what the quarterback was absolutely comfortable with.

Obviously the Buckeyes’ success running the ball that night created play-action opportunities for Jones, who had to attempt only 17 passes. The Sugar Bowl could play out entirely different, with the quarterback having to throw 40 times. On Tuesday, Nick Saban said Jones is essentially the same style of quarterback as Barrett and can do all the same things.

Saban undoubtedly has watched tape of every Ohio State game from this season, and perhaps even last season, and in doing so will likely have a pretty good grasp of the Meyer/Herman offense. He may also want to look back at Florida’s bowl games under Meyer to see just how much he tends to change. “Philosophically, they’re going to run their offense,” Saban said. “It’s just what part of it they might feature different.”

Ultimately, though, Ohio State has its own burden preparing for Saban and Kirby Smart’s defense and its myriad blitzes and disguises. But the Jones angle makes this a very unique game. Rarely do you see a game of this magnitude where one of the quarterbacks is still largely a mystery.

Stewart, While I understand why some would want an eight-team playoff so no major conference gets left out, do we really want to guarantee the conference champs a spot in the playoffs? I think the possibility of a three- or four-loss team emerging as the conference champ is too high to guarantee them a spot. What do you think?

— Jim Pattison, Mossyrock, Washington

It depends on whether you feel college football’s postseason should more closely resemble the NFL’s, or whether you appreciate college football because it’s NOT the NFL. Those who fall in the former camp don’t particularly mind that a 7-9 team can get in the NFL playoffs over a 10-6 team if the former happens to play in a weaker division. Thus, they’d be perfectly fine with a 9-4 Pac-12 champion getting in the college playoff over a 10-2 SEC third-place team because at least it would be based on objective, predetermined rules. A good chunk of fans won’t be happy until college football finds a way to whittle 128 teams down to eight, 12 or 16 postseason teams without humans picking them.

Longtime readers know I fall squarely in the opposite camp. College football’s method for determining a national champion will never will be perfectly clean, and I’m fine with that. I’d rather reward season-long excellence — though the more teams you add to the field, the farther we get from that mission — than the equivalent of a 10-6 wild-card team winning the Super Bowl.

Still, if it has to be eight teams, let it be the eight best teams, not the Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 14 and 27 teams. The last part is made possible because any playoff that guarantees berths for the major conference champions is going to have to include a Group of 5 champion as well. That, or prepare for more lawsuits, Congressional hearings and antitrust investigations than the BCS ever had.

I don’t embrace that version of college football, but I get the sense I’m fighting a losing battle.

Hi Stewart, frustrated Michigan fan here. In the past couple of weeks, Florida, Nebraska, Oregon State and Wisconsin have all lost or fired their coaches and replaced them within a week, yet there is nary a peep out of the guys in Ann Arbor. So what's the deal? Is this a shrewd, calculated effort by the interim AD to get the right guy? Or is this 2007 all over again where the AD sat back and waited for the right guy at the time, Les Miles, to become available, and meanwhile LSU re-signed Miles?

— Dave, Cincinnati

Well, for one thing, the guy doing the hiring, interim AD Jim Hackett, has never worked in college athletics and was unlikely to pull off the same kind of quick-strike operation as seasoned pros like Jeremy Foley or Barry Alvarez. Michigan did not even announce it had hired a search firm until late last week. But in this case, there’s really no reason to rush. We all know Michigan’s No. 1 target is Jim Harbaugh, and it can’t meet with Harbaugh until after the 49ers’ season ends Dec. 28. Even if the school learned through back channels that Harbaugh wasn’t likely to come, the fan base would surely revolt if it did not at least make the appearance of trying. In the meantime it can interview other candidates, but it can’t get very far in that process if it’s planning to offer Harbaugh. (Editor's note: FOX Sports NFL insider Mike Garafolo reported later Wednesday that Harbaugh is considering the move to Michigan and that the Wolverines are ready to pay big.)

I know fans want resolution on these things sooner than later, but this perception that you HAVE to have a coach in place immediately or the program will fall to shambles is misguided. And once last weekend passed, any urgency truly did dissipate because we’re now in a recruiting dead period until Jan. 14. While a new coach could be in contact with recruits during this time, he couldn’t meet with them face-to-face, and kids aren’t going to commit to a new coach without a visit. Of course, it would help if most of the new staff was in place before then. Michigan’s class right now is a disaster — just six commitments — but a good coach can make up a lot of ground in short time.

But most of all, it’s more important the school get the right guy for the long-term than focus on the short-term. Alabama went five weeks without a coach in 2006-07 but ultimately landed Nick Saban. Well worth the wait. If Hackett lands Harbaugh, no one will care it took nearly a month. If he doesn’t, though, he better have a home-run guy in the bag that he knows will accept. I still can’t believe Michigan is putting such an important decision in the hands of an interim AD, not to mention asking a prominent coach — someone who presumably has options — to accept the job without knowing who his boss will be.

Within two years, we've seen a coach (Bret Bielema) leave Wisconsin for a lower-tier SEC job and another coach (Gary Andersen) leave for arguably the least desirable coaching job in the Pac 12. These moves are rare and weren't obvious steps up (except money-wise, in the case of Arkansas). Is this a reflection on the Big Ten, or is there something toxic about the Wisconsin job?

— Josh Coates, Columbus, Ohio

No question, it’s a bad look for Wisconsin, but everyone wants to connect the two as part of a larger thread when it appears each left for different reasons. Bielema was frustrated at losing good assistants because he couldn’t pay enough to retain them, but also just seemed to want a new challenge in the SEC. AD Barry Alvarez mentioned frustrations Andersen had with Wisconsin’s admissions department, but that alone isn’t reason to leave for a much harder job with very little pay raise. Word is his family simply wasn’t happy in Madison and wanted to go back west. Sometimes coaches make career decisions for reasons other than “Where am I most likely to win the national title?”

Obviously Alvarez wanted to be absolutely sure his next coach wouldn’t treat the program as a stepping stone and thus zeroed in so quickly on Madison native and former Badgers quarterback Paul Chryst. That’s one guy who can say with a completely straight face that Wisconsin is his dream job. And he’s only three years removed from coaching Russell Wilson and Montee Ball. His 19-19 record at Pittsburgh admittedly is underwhelming, but it’s probably more important for Alvarez right now to hire someone loyal than someone splashy.

The school that’s truly got a revolving door problem right now is Pittsburgh. Whoever succeeds Chryst will be the Panthers’ FIFTH coach since 2010, not even including interim coaches. The program continues to produce great players like Aaron Donald and James Conner but has no identity. If Chryst is successful, he’ll be at Wisconsin for a long time. Best of luck to Pitt AD Steve Pederson, who has such a wonderful track record for football hires dating to Nebraska, in finding the Panthers’ equivalent. (Editor's Note: Pitt fired AD Steve Pederson on Wednesday.)

Please help me the average fan understand some of these personnel moves. Why would Bo Pelini take the Youngstown State job? Why wouldn't he be in a position to be a seven-figure defensive coordinator like Will Muschamp? And why would Tom Herman take a job at Houston? I have to think he could have received a head-coaching job at an average Power 5 school this year or next.

— Mark, Orinda, California

The Pelini answer is easy. He’s going home. He gets to remain a head coach, at a national championship FCS program, and his university president is Jim Tressel. You can see where that’d be far more appealing than going back to the coordinator ranks, especially when Nebraska still will be covering the difference between his salary and his remaining buyout. All in all, that’s a pretty good landing spot.

Herman is an interesting example of the new coaching career path. The days of big-time programs hiring promising coordinators, like Oklahoma hiring then 39-year-old Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops in 1999, are over. You need to make a stop in between. If you’re Herman, who has considerable experience coaching in and recruiting the state of Texas, Houston is a logical first head coaching job. Win big at an upper-level Group of 5 program, like Kevin Sumlin did at Houston or Brian Kelly did at Cincinnati, and you can write your ticket a few years down the road.

The alternative is to wait a year and see if an Indiana or Illinois opens up. But while he might get paid more at one of those schools, it’s also much harder to win and your stock might plummet.

Mr. Mandel, I wanted to ask your thoughts on this year’s seeming lower allotment of tickets from bowl games to schools. I have a good buddy who’s an Auburn fan, and he’s planning on taking his family to see the Outback Bowl. According to him, the schools were only given 8,000 tickets to sell each, with those seats located in opposite end zones. In a stadium that holds over 65,000, why limit the ability of the people that really want to go (the fans of the two schools) to get good tickets?

— Marcus, McCalla, Alabama

I can’t speak to seat locations, but in general, the feedback from schools and conferences to the bowls has been the exact opposite: stop making us sell so many tickets. With cheaper and often better tickets readily available on sites like StubHub, schools often get stuck with the tab for unsold tickets, so conferences demanded more favorable arrangements in their new deals. The College Football Playoff folks lowered the school allotments for the New Year’s Six bowls to 12,500 from 17,500 for the former BCS bowls, and even then, it appears Michigan State (Cotton) and Boise State (Fiesta) will be stuck with unsold tickets. Just this week Michigan State AD Mark Hollis called the whole process “antiquated.”

The flip side, of course, is that if fan bases are particularly excited about a certain bowl then suddenly the school doesn’t have enough, as was the case for Hollis just last year when the Spartans made the Rose Bowl. Ohio State and Alabama probably could have used three times as many Sugar Bowl tickets. Baylor not surprisingly sold out its Cotton Bowl allotment. And yes, Auburn sold out those 8,000 Outback Bowl tickets. But tell your friend not to despair. As of Tuesday, lower-level sideline tickets were available for less than $100 on StubHub.

Hi Stewart. While looking at the AP All-American team, one thing jumped out to me. Washington had three defensive players listed as first team All-Americans! I will admit that I did not see a lot of the Huskies’ games but I imagine they must've played like the Miami defenses in the early 2000's. So I looked them up and they were ranked 47th in scoring defense and 76th in team defense. Um, what??

— Chris, Dallas, Pennsylvania

They’re all deserving. LB Hau’oli Kikaha led the nation in sacks (18). DT Danny Shelton had nearly as many tackles for loss (16.5) as Vic Beasley and more tackles (89) than most linebackers. And LB Shaq Thompson is a freak and scored four defensive touchdowns.

The moral of the story: It takes more than three great players to produce a great defense.

Stewart, Which upcoming bowl game has the best chance to falsely distort a team’s 2015 preseason ranking much like last year's Oklahoma win over Alabama?

— Dave, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Given the above nugget about Washington, and given that Oklahoma State barely got bowl eligible before and has since dismissed its best playmaker, Tyreek Hill, and given the game has a deceiving Jan. 2 date, I’ll go with the Cactus Bowl. The inevitable Washington blowout will probably prompt idiots like me to jump on the Huskies’ bandwagon.

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.


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