Mailbag: Why Miami's still a big gig, and in some ways better than ever

Published Oct. 28, 2015 9:30 a.m. EDT

NOTE: This Mailbag went out shortly before the stunning news Wednesday morning that Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is resigning due to health reasons. It’s heartbreaking to see a man who gave his life to the sport now have to give it up in order to save that life. Wishing all the best to Kill and his family in putting this chapter behind him. Whatever he does next, he will undoubtedly do it with his usual dignity and grace.

Original story follows:

First, I've got a quick programming note. The selection committee releases its first rankings at 7:30 p.m. ET next Tuesday. Suffice to say they will quickly become Mailbag fodder, so perhaps set a calendar reminder now to email me at 8:01.

Until then ...


Stewart, last week I asked about whether you thought George O'Leary might step down. You didn't answer my question, and now I can't ask it again because ... he retired. My question this week is, do you think Miami is still a big-time job? It has a small student body, a stadium about 45 minutes from campus and they compete with the NFL for the football dollar in South Florida. Compare them to UCF, which nobody is going to say is a big-time job. UCF has 60,000 students, an on-campus stadium and no NFL team in its city.

— David Tse, Melbourne, Fla.

Yes, yes, 1,000 times yes, Miami is still a big-time job. Does it have some obstacles that other aspiring powerhouses don't? Absolutely. But almost everything you listed there was also true in 1987 or 2001, when the 'Canes were lording over college football. The only thing that's changed for the worse is the stadium. No question, Miami lost a big part of its identity when the Orange Bowl imploded. But you can't tell me a stadium was the reason Miami lost 58-0 to Clemson last week or lost its regular-season home finale to Pitt last year. The 'Canes lost because they were a poorly coached team.

Meanwhile, here is a short list of reasons Miami is actually a better job than it was in 1987 or 2001. The program is far better funded than it was then thanks to the ACC's TV contracts. Its facilities were downright decrepit during the U's heyday and substandard only a few years ago, but last year the school installed a new practice field and this year opened a brand-new $15 million building with all the same bells and whistles (players' lounge, snazzy locker room) as everyone else. And it plays in a Power 5 conference with arguably the easiest path to the playoff: beat annual rival Florida State and one or two other Top 25 teams tops.

Most importantly, there's a national championship-caliber roster of recruits right in its backyard. The competition for that talent is cutthroat, but Miami has a built-in advantage over all of the other schools trying to pry those kids away.

UCF is a good job, too. The program has grown its profile substantially in recent years. But it's not Miami in prestige and brand awareness, most of all because it's not in a Power 5 league. Coaches and recruits alike want to go where they can compete for a national championship, a virtually impossible goal while playing in the American. It's a very attractive job for a young coach trying to make a name for himself in the profession, arguably more so than some of the Power 5 jobs that likely will come open this year (Purdue, etc.), but that young coach will inevitably use it as a springboard to an upper-tier Power 5 job.

Like, for example, Miami.

How strongly will the playoff committee let injuries like Seth Russell's at Baylor affect their rankings? Being the realist that I am, I wouldn't even have Baylor in the top 10 now. Yes, I realize that Ohio State won with a third-string quarterback last year, but Baylor isn't three-deep like that ... I don't think.

— Charles Blaylock, Alliance, Neb.

We know the committee factors in injuries because there were a couple of instances last year when chairman Jeff Long specifically mentioned them. However, as far as I know, they were all retroactive injury issues. For instance, when Oregon moved into the committee's top four for the first time, Long cited the Ducks' offensive line injuries at the time of their early-season loss to Arizona. Taking previous injuries into account is a different matter than docking a team due to a current injury before we even see how it affects them. If the season ended today, and the committee members believed Baylor was, say, the second-best team in the country, I cannot imagine them leaving the Bears out of the playoff entirely based solely on the assumption they won't be the same team without Russell.

Whether Baylor checks in at No. 2 or No. 12 in these first rankings doesn't really matter, because they have all their biggest games ahead of them. We'll find out one way or the other whether the Bears can beat good teams with a true freshman quarterback. Jarrett Stidham may not have three years in a system like Cardale Jones did, but he was one of the top-rated quarterback recruits in the country last year. And he's taking over a loaded offense. My concern, though, is that Stidham will make three of his first four career starts on the road. That's a lot to ask of a fifth-year senior, much less a true freshman. And if Baylor loses even once it may find itself in the same perilous situation with the committee as last year because, once again, it scheduled SMU, Lamar and Rice.

Since this is Year 2 of the playoff, it seems likely that we will draw some comparisons to last year's teams and the committee thought process. To kick it off, is Stanford this year's Ohio State (questionable loss then rolling) and is Michigan State this year's Florida State (undefeated but not dominating)?

— Matthew Levitt, Aurora, Illinois

There are certainly a lot of parallels between 2014 Ohio State and 2015 Stanford. Both had inexplicably poor offensive performances in early-season losses, then immediately turned around and started rolling people. After losing 35-21 to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes beat their next four opponents 66-0, 50-28, 52-24 and 56-17. Since losing 16-6 to Northwestern, the Cardinal have won six straight by scores of 31-7, 41-31, 42-24, 55-17, 56-35 and 31-14.

Two key differences, though: 2015 Northwestern is 6-2 and not nearly as galling a loss in hindsight as 2014 Virginia Tech (which was 5-6 before winning its next two). Also, Stanford is considered a more serious contender now (ranked No. 8 in this week's AP poll) than it was coming into the season (No. 21), whereas the Buckeyes, No. 5 in last year's preseason, were only 16th at this time last year. Were it to happen, the real 2015 equivalent of Ohio State's run last season would be if current No. 16 Memphis won the national title.

As for the 2014 Florida State comparison, I'd go with TCU. Both teams came into the season with extremely high expectations (FSU was No. 1, TCU No. 2). Both teams brought back Heisman-contending quarterbacks (Jameis Winston and Trevone Boykin). And in both cases, it became clear pretty quickly that those QBs were going to have to compensate for worse-than-expected defenses. TCU has struggled to survive against inferior foes Texas Tech and Kansas State. FSU needed huge comebacks against N.C. State and Louisville.

One difference: FSU by this point had secured one big-time win against then-fifth-ranked Notre Dame. The Horned Frogs have not yet played a current Top 25 team but still have Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor ahead of them.

I was amazed at how USC dismantled a very good Utah team last week. What does it say about USC as a program that twice in the last three years the team has played its best football for interim coaches? Is the fact that USC can't seem to do this week-in, week-out an indictment of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian or does the sanction-related lack of depth make USC more prone to big swings?

— Nick Nelson, Paradise, Calif.

It's pretty clearly an indictment of Kiffin and Sarkisian. Sanction-related depth issues were still very much a factor during Kiffin's time, but they're pretty minimal at this point. Heck, the Trojans' offense has rediscovered itself the past two weeks against a pair of top 10-caliber opponents (Notre Dame and Utah) despite losing its All-America center Max Tuerk for the season. It's relying on young players, but some of those youngsters —€“ most notably true freshman linebacker Cameron Smith, the undisputed star against Utah —€“ are already some of the best players on the team. The Trojans are hardly lacking for talent.

One of the reasons so many of us (Vegas included) saw that USC victory coming is that you could already see the parallels to 2013 the previous two weeks.

Against Washington in Sarkisian's last game, the Trojans looked lethargic and directionless, which, as we soon learned, probably came from the top. As soon as Helton took over, they went to South Bend and, while they didn't pull out a victory, played visibly looser, like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders. With the Trojans coming back home, without the chaos of the previous week, I had a feeling they'd play well, though I certainly would not have forecast Utah QB Travis Wilson throwing four interceptions.

It will be interesting to see how the Trojans play the rest of the way. The Pac-12 South is hardly out of reach if they run the table --€“ they just need Utah to lose once more — and this week's game at 5-2 Cal will be a good indicator whether they can keep this thing going the rest of the way.

Stewart, were your preseason conference predictions legitimate, or were they really just for "getting more eyeballs"?

— Ryan, Atlanta

Which predictions could you possibly be referring to? It's not like I picked Texas A&M to win the SEC or Virginia Tech and Louisville to win their ACC divisions. ... Wait, what?

Believe it or not, I put more time and energy into this year's predictions than any other season in recent memory. I made spreadsheets! But, hey, lesson learned. Next year I'll spend 10 minutes on them and be as generic as possible.

Mike Riley is off to a poor start at Nebraska. 'Huskers fans are feeling uneasy. What has caused the worst start to a season at Nebraska since 1960? Is Riley the right coach to return the 'Huskers to their former glory?

— Dennis P Crawford, Lincoln, Neb.

A-ha! Here's one I did see coming (minus the crazy endings).

Mike Riley's a good coach, and his nice-guy personality was a logical fit at Nebraska, but his preferred style of offense was not. He's a career-long pro-style offense guy taking over a roster recruited to run the spread. He said all the right things in the preseason about watching and adapting other teams' QB run games, but that would be like me, a career-long sportswriter, watching a bunch of "Homeland" episodes and thinking I could now write a suspenseful TV drama. 'Huskers QB Tommy Armstrong has dropped from 55th to 74th nationally in pass efficiency, and Nebraska's rushing attack has fallen from 18th to 33rd. Defensively, they weren't that good to begin with, and I'm not seeing much improvement.

With all that being said, if Nebraska doesn't allow a Hail Mary to BYU and so badly botch its end-game clock management against Illinois, the 'Huskers are 5-3, not 3-5, and you're probably not sending me this question.

As for returning the Huskers to their "former glory" — it might be time to reset the bar a little bit. Remember all that stuff I said about Miami still being a place you can win national championships? I don't feel that way about Nebraska. There are no recruits there. Kids in Dallas or L.A. did not grow up watching the 'Huskers like kids in South Florida do The U. And Nebraska's path is harder in the Big Ten than it was in the Big 8. A more realistic goal, and one I believe Riley can reach, is compete regularly for titles in the very winnable Big Ten West, get to Indianapolis and upset Ohio State/Michigan/Michigan State/Penn State. I just worry Riley is digging himself too deep a hole in Year 1 to ever fully win back the fan base unless he turns around and goes 11-2 next year.

After a rough start to the season, Mike Leach seems to be back in the good graces of Coug fans. But if he finishes strong, do you think he'd take the opportunity to get out of Pullman for one of the many openings? Wasn't he living in Florida (Key West) while out of coaching? Maybe the UCF position.

— John Hayes, Spokane, Wash.

Boy, Mailbag readers sure are high on the UCF job. Maybe Urban Meyer will decide he's got an itch to get back to the Sunshine State by the time of next week's column.

Leach is pretty happy in Pullman. It suits him. He walks three-and-a-half miles to work every day. He has a great relationship with his AD, Bill Moos. And he's finally got his roster pretty close to where he'd hoped, led by talented sophomore quarterback Luke Falk. And on Tuesday he described the expected atmosphere Saturday night against Stanford as being "probably on the scale of Woodstock as far as being a historic event where people gather."

I'm not saying he'd never leave, but I wouldn't think of it as a situation where he's desperate to escape at the first possible opportunity.

Which happens first, Missouri scores its 150th point of the season or gives up its 150th point of the season?

— Rusi Patel, Atlanta

Good question. Given they've scored 12 points combined the past three weeks, I'll go with the latter.

I wonder if some brave Columbia bar will start giving away free beers any time the Tigers manage to score a touchdown.

Stewart, is Clemson's Brent Venables a good defensive coordinator? If so, why did three of his last four defenses at Oklahoma rank 52nd (2008), 35th (2010) and 38th ('11) in yards per play, and why did he make a lateral move at the time? If not, why is he having so much success there?

— Garrett, Los Angeles

Is he a good coordinator? Is that even a question? Clemson led the country in total defense last year. After losing eight starters and several key contributors, it's turned around this season and fallen to ... sixth. Putting that in perspective, the Tigers ranked 71st the season before he arrived and 69th his first season. So clearly Clemson has upgraded its talent on that side of the ball considerably, but Venables is the one making the calls and putting them in the right positions.

He left Oklahoma because Bob Stoops opted to bring back his brother, Mike, after his dismissal as Arizona head coach in 2011, and Venables would have been demoted back to the co-coordinator role he held earlier in his tenure. OU was coming off a disappointing 10-3 season in which it got torched by Texas Tech's, Baylor's and Oklahoma State's offenses, but in the three seasons after Venables left, the Sooners finished 78th (2012), 52nd ('13) and 31st ('14). So whatever issues he supposedly had, they apparently remained behind in Norman when he left for Clemson.

So far this season, the Sooners are up to 13th, and outside of the Texas game, have performed very well. Just not quite as well as Clemson.

Stewart: Is there any chance Bowling Green QB Matt Johnson gets invited to the Heisman ceremony? His stats (70.1 percent, 3,321 yards, 29 TDs, three INTs) are pretty similar to the last five Heisman-winning QBs (Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota).

— Tom Koziara, Chapel Hill, N.C.

There's always a chance — but it's not a very good one.

No question Johnson is having a phenomenal season in coach Dino Babers' offense. And there's certainly precedent for MAC quarterbacks making it to New York, most recently NIU's Jordan Lynch just two years ago. But Lynch had the Huskies in the running for a BCS bowl up until the last weekend of the season. It's hard enough for a Group of 5 player to get a Heisman invite, much less one who, like Johnson, had two losses by mid-September (to Tennessee and Memphis) and thus fell off the national radar.

Johnson's adversary in that 44-41 shootout with Memphis on Sept. 19, Paxton Lynch, is probably the Group of 5's best hope for a Heisman invite. He's just one spot behind Johnson in passer rating, he beat Ole Miss and his team is in the mix for a New Year's Six bowl.

Given the trend of firing coaches midseason seems to have gone from unacceptable a decade ago to commonplace recently, how early in the season can this go?

— Mike Clark, Omaha, Neb.

At the current rate it's only a matter of time before someone fires its coach at halftime of the season opener. My money is on Rutgers.