Mailbag: What is Alabama's greatest roadblock to repeating as national champions?

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after defeating the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Crimson Tide defeated the Tigers with a score of 45 to 40. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after defeating the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Crimson Tide defeated the Tigers with a score of 45 to 40. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Welcome to the first mailbag of the 2016 season. As long as you keep sending questions (to, I'll keep producing answers (almost) every Wednesday between now and the crowning of a national champion next January.

So let's begin by checking in on ... last year's national champion.

What do you think are Alabama's biggest roadblocks to repeating this year? The Tide have proven they can repeat in this era of football. They have proven they win championships with first-year starters at quarterback. And they have the talent and coaching. Is it internal motivation? New leaders needing to step up? A once-again difficult SEC schedule? A guy named Deshaun?

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-- JP from Chattanooga

Nearly as amazing as Alabama's four national championships in the past seven years is how close the Tide came in two of the other three. In 2013 they were 11-0 and No. 1 in the country when they lost to Auburn on the improbable Kick Six. The next year they won the SEC and reached the playoff but lost to Ohio State. They've been in contention through at least Thanksgiving in all but one of the past seven seasons. That's insane.

But it also shows you just how little margin for error there is when attempting to repeat. After all, both the 2013 (Florida State) and 2014 (Ohio State) national champs lost just one game the following season yet did not reach the title game. So the biggest roadblock for Alabama, like any other defending champ, is that one ill-timed loss can derail the whole thing.

In terms of specifics for the 2016 Tide, anything I point out is just going to sound nitpicky. This Tide will be loaded, again, and Nick Saban is still their coach. But start with the fact that Kirby Smart's departure to Georgia is easily the most notable staff change of Saban's tenure there. Smart was his defensive coordinator and right-hand man for all but the first of his nine seasons so far. Bringing back former assistant Jeremy Pruitt to replace him should theoretically make for as seamless a transition as possible, but you never know how any such change will affect staff chemistry.

Roster-wise, Alabama will be somewhat young in 2016. It lost 12 senior starters from last season and may only start half that many this season. But "returning starters" is a deceiving stat when it comes to the Tide's defense. Linemen Dalvin Tomlinson, Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand and linebacker Ryan Anderson all played big roles in 2015 without ever starting a game. Meanwhile, new starting tailback Bo Scarborough didn't play much as a freshman but has run for 243 yards on 21 carries in two spring scrimmages and is already showing up on early Heisman lists. And at this point I'm not sure it really matters who wins the quarterback job. Saban has proven he can win with just about anyone.

Finally, even if 'Bama starts 13-0 and wins the SEC, it's going to take two playoff wins rather than one BCS championship game victory for this repeat quest. That quarterback named Deshaun could derail the Tide, as could any number of others. But by now I've learned it's safer to just pick the Tide to win it than try to talk myself into someone else. After all, they succeed more than half the time.

Stewart, It's definitely been interesting watching the reactions of people to the satellite camp ban, which apparently had consequences that no one who voted for it considered. What I found most interesting is the reaction from some writers/coaches/fans who are blaming Jim Harbaugh for the ban, saying he should have "kept quieter" or done fewer camps. Are people really blaming Harbaugh because he's outworking other coaches?

-- Gautam, Chicago

Harbaugh has quickly become the most polarizing coach I can recall. In less than a year-and-a-half at Michigan he's tossed so many flames at so many different coaches, administrators and the like, I can barely keep track. I now hope Michigan and Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels meet in a bowl game.

But even if you despise the guy, you can't justifiably blame him for doing something creative, within-the-rules and -- as I keep saying about satellite camps -- harmless. The fault here doesn't lie with Harbaugh, it lies with the self-interested, reactionary administrators that needlessly turned a recruiting stunt into a crisis.

On Monday, I wrote my open letter to the NCAA Board of Directors urging them to reject the measure when it comes up for their approval April 28. And the more backlash I see out there, including from coaches in some of the very conferences that voted for it, I'm starting to sense there will be some sort of reversal. We've seen many occasions when the board either reverses itself or tables something that proves controversial.

To be clear, I have no problem if the NCAA wants to more strictly regulate these camps if they're concerned about abuse or manipulation by the coaches working them. But an all-out ban is just nuts. Far too many recruits will be disadvantaged because of it. Say what you will about Harbaugh -- and I've criticized him plenty of times -- but his calling out the hypocrisy of a purported student-athlete-first organization enacting something that harms prospective student-athletes is spot on.

As a diehard Buckeye fan, I'm trying to reconcile the loss of 16 starters with Vegas making us a top four pick to win the national championship. Surely I should be lowering my expectations, right? But Vegas... those guys are smart.

-- Kevin, Nashville, TN

As a general practice you should never question Vegas. It's ridiculous how often an NCAA tournament game or a Saturday night college football game comes right down to their predicted point spread. But I would take these "futures" bets with a grain of salt. Whereas professional gamblers study the day-to-day and look for any possible advantage in-season, futures odds are basically sucker bets designed for the casual player. Like, for example, an Ohio State fan on vacation in Vegas who sees the Buckeyes at 8-to-1 and says, what the heck, I'll throw down $20 on my boys. It's a win-win for the sports books; the chances that a large number of bettors will throw down on a 50-1 longshot that then goes on to win the championship, thus bankrupting the casinos, are slim-to-none.

Having said all that, it's not entirely surprising the oddsmakers would look favorably on the Buckeyes. For one thing, they've gone 50-4 in four seasons under Urban Meyer. They've recruited at an extremely high level. And they have a proven quarterback returning in J.T. Barrett. It's certainly possible this is the year Michigan (which is right behind Ohio State at 10-1) knocks off the Buckeyes, but that's far from a given. Many will likely have Tennessee (14-1) ranked above Ohio State in the preseason polls because the Vols bring back more proven talent, but Tennessee hasn't fielded a better team than Ohio State since, what, 1999?

So a betting man is still more likely to put his money on the Buckeyes than most of the other teams on that list.

Any news on the long-running UNC fake classes scandals? NCAA penalty?

-- Stone Harker, Chapel Hill, NC


Do you think UNC will be on probation by opening day?

-- Crawford Clay, Stafford VA.

It seems the Tar Heels' NCAA tournament run in basketball created increased concern for the football program.

There's nothing new to report, and I doubt there will be a resolution before this coming season. The NCAA sent its initial Notice of Allegations nearly 11 months ago, which should have led to a Committee on Infractions hearing roughly six to nine months later. But the school self-reported new, seemingly minor violations last August that delayed the entire process. Mark Emmert said at the Final Four that a revised notice could come "in a month or so," after which the school will have 90 days to respond, so we're now looking at a committee hearing no sooner than the fall. And then it takes more months for them to render a decision.

As I wrote last June, it's impossible to predict what the penalties will be, but only the most in-denial Tar Heels fan would think they won't be severe. This is the biggest academic scandal in NCAA history. The enforcement staff explicitly ruled that all those years of steering athletes to sham classes constituted an extra benefit, which theoretically means they were all ineligible. And because the allegations specifically state that the scheme particularly benefitted athletes in "the sports of football, men's basketball and women's basketball," I fully expect all three programs will be punished. Just don't be surprised if the whole thing drags on into 2017.

Over the last decade, Art Briles took Baylor from laughingstock of the Big 12 and to perennial contender. Every year, I am surprised that he doesn't jump ship to a more prominent program. Same applies to Gary Patterson at TCU. Why haven't they moved on to Austin or USC or whatever big name program comes calling?

-- Al Caniglia, Washington, D.C.

They've had their opportunities, but maybe not as glamorous as you're assuming. Texas did not exactly roll out the red carpet for Briles after Mack Brown's ouster, nor USC when it fired Steve Sarkisian. I don't believe either even considered Patterson. And remember, for most of Patterson's long TCU tenure, he was not even coaching in a power conference.

But now that he is -- what exactly is he lacking at TCU? Or Briles at Baylor for that matter? Both are paid handsomely, Briles a reported $4.2 million, Patterson $3.9 million, and both enjoy lifetime job security. Both programs have brand-new stadiums and pristine facilities. Both have access to oodles of Texas talent. And both have shown you can win Big 12 titles and, provided the selection committee isn't hung up on that 13th game thing, play for national championships.

Finally, keep in mind: These are both very unorthodox coaches we're talking about. Their unique personalities might not play as well under the glare of a massive fan base and wall-to-wall media coverage. As it is, they're at private schools with modest but loyal followings and small press corps. It works for them. Barring a call from the NFL (particularly in Briles' case), I'd be very surprised if both don't retire in their current jobs.

Who will be this season's Justin Fuente? What young coach or coaches will have their pick of the Power 5 openings?

-- Allan from Chicago

I assume you'd consider it a cop-out to say Houston's Tom Herman, who already had his pick last year and, barring a complete collapse by the Cougars this fall, will be able to call his own shot again. I assume you want me to go out on a longer limb than that.

It's only a matter of time before Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck gets the call. The 35-year-old has led the Broncos to consecutive 8-5 seasons and last year produced the first bowl win (Bahamas) in school history. He's also a relentless marketer of both himself and his program who wears his program's own trademarked motto ("Row the Boat") on all of his sideline gear. With all the recent coaching turnover in the MAC, Western will have a good shot to contend for the MAC championship this year and in doing so, help get Fleck's name out to down-on-their-luck power programs.

Others to keep an eye on (if you haven't been already): Temple's Matt Rhule, Utah State's Matt Wells, Western Kentucky's Jeff Brohm and Appalachian State's Scott Satterfield.

Stewart: With grad transfer Davis Webb seemingly opening his recruitment again, Colorado may be forced to pray that incumbent Sefo Liufau's foot magically heals or redshirt freshman Steven Montez comes in to save the day. Since this is Mike MacIntyre's fourth season, many fans around the program feel that a bowl invite is necessary for him to save his job. What are reasonable expectations for the Buffs this season and beyond?

-- Tommy, Denver

When Texas Tech grad transfer Webb originally announced his intention to join the Buffs this fall, I did not hesitate to predict CU would finally make a bowl game this season. He's a proven power-conference quarterback who just had the misfortune of falling behind an even better quarterback, Pat Mahomes. If he bails for Cal or Auburn, the Buffs face a possible predicament where uncertainty at the most important position on the field dampens their overall progress.

As for MacIntyre, I agree it's reasonable to expect a bowl berth by Year 4, even in light of the massive rebuilding project he inherited. Especially this season when Colorado brings back 17 returning starters. But I'd be awfully careful about taking him for granted. Colorado finds itself in this predicament because it made a couple of extremely regrettable hires over the past decade in Dan Hawkins (couldn't recruit) and Jon Embree (couldn't run a program.)

CU has gotten much more competitive under MacIntyre even if its record is still on the wrong side of .500. Unless the bottom falls out again, starting over yet again seems less than ideal. The program desperately needs some stability.

Stewart, In your opinion, how impactful is winning a national championship in the modern era for programs that have either never won a title (like Baylor or Oregon) or haven't won a title in 50-plus years (Michigan State or TCU)? Basically, how does having a national championship change all facets of a program?

-- Jacob Thigpen, Augusta, Ga.

Nothing could possibly elevate a program's profile more dramatically. Case in point: LSU. At this point most college football fans -- and especially those under 30 -- view LSU as one of about 10-15 programs nationally that you expect to contend regularly for conference and national championships. However, prior to Nick Saban leading the Tigers to the 2003 BCS crown, no one had viewed the program that way for the previous 40 or 50 years. Yes, it was an SEC school with a big stadium and a live tiger, but in the years and decades after its 1958 national title, LSU went from being a regular top-10 team to a regular top-25 team to a barely relevant team. Its profile was closer to present-day Arkansas than present-day Alabama.

But that changed seemingly instantly in 2003. Ever since then, the Tigers have basically been college football royalty, especially after Les Miles added a second crown in '07. Mind you, LSU has taken a step back over the past few seasons, and any number of other programs -- Oregon, Stanford, Baylor, Clemson -- have won more games. But they haven't won national titles. Even Oregon, which has played for two of them in the past six years, feels like it's missing that little something that precludes people from mentioning the Ducks in the same air as a Florida State or Oklahoma. It really is that big a difference, and it will be interesting to see if anyone can break through that ceiling in the playoff format.

Hey Stewart: C'mon, no love for Whitesnake's "Is This Love" or Poison's "Every Rose Has It's Thorn?!" C'mon!

-- Mike, Brooklyn

Mike is referring to the controversial hair metal power ballads rankings I recently tweeted and which SI's Andy Staples expanded on in his column this week. Both are good suggestions. However, I'm not sure "Is This Love" is truly a power ballad -- there's got to be a part where it goes from folksy and slow to crunchy and unnecessarily heavy. And while "Every Rose" was more popular, I'm partial to "I Won't Forget You" with Poison.

We've still got a lot of offseason ahead of us. Plenty of time to debate this matter further.