Normally the Mailbag is a fun, breezy column. Unfortunately, the biggest story in college football right now is anything but.
Stewart: Now that the national media is paying attention to the Baylor sexual assaults scandal ... Even though it appears university president Ken Starr will take the initial fall, can Art Briles survive at Baylor? If so, what will it be like for him and the team on the road (or maybe even at home) during the season?
-- David, Houston
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It all depends on what degree of culpability is assigned to Briles in the Pepper Hamilton report that Baylor's board recently received and, the school announced Tuesday, will respond to by June 3.
We don't yet know what conclusions the investigators reached. But based on the many publicized accounts out there from alleged Baylor rape victims, I'd expect lots of accounts of mind-numbing negligence/incompetence on the part of university administrators charged with handling students' sexual assault complaints. And that's regardless of whether the accused students were football players. In which case Starr, the head administrator, has to go.
Let's be real: At Baylor, perhaps more so than at traditional football powers, the president is more easily expendable than the savior coach who rescued a football program from the ashes and built a new stadium. I'm guessing Baylor board members don't want to impede on the Bears' newfound gridiron glory unless absolutely necessary.
"Absolutely necessary" will come soon enough if the report includes credible proof that Briles knew about assault allegations against his players and did nothing about them. Especially if they involve alleged repeat offenders like Shawn Oakman. That's endangering students. I don't see how any university board members with a conscience could possibly condone that.
The gray area comes if the review is less conclusive about Briles' culpability. It's possible this report will come out (provided Baylor, a private school, does the right thing and releases it) and we'll find it to be largely about university bureaucracy and reporting procedures. It then becomes considerably more difficult to oust Briles, not just because he's so revered there, but because the school opens itself to a wrongful termination suit if it doesn't have an open-and-shut case against him. Coaches who've committed blatant NCAA violations have still won wrongful termination suits. It's not easy to fire a coach for cause.
As for the backlash if he does come back ... it will be ugly and awkward. Case in point: Take a scroll through the replies anytime Briles sends a tweet. They're nasty. Meanwhile, imagine what rival coaches will be telling the parents of potential Baylor recruits. Or the ensuing outrage the next time one of his players gets in trouble.
All of which is why figures at the center of a media firestorm like this one rarely survive. Eventually it becomes too debilitating. But don't put it past Briles to become the exception. Baylor has a whole lot invested in a program that could come crumbling down without him.
Bettors currently have Ohio State's over-under win total at 8.5. I put down a pile while the getting was good. Where would you cut off?
-- Bob Gustin (no city)
Vegas apparently does not have as much faith in the Buckeyes' ability to brush off losing 16 starters as the many media members (myself included) who still have them pegged as a Top-10 team. And maybe the oddsmakers are right. I don't care how much talent you've recruited; you don't lose that many NFL-caliber staples in one year -- household names like Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Taylor Decker and Darron Lee -- and just carry on like business as usual.
The last time Urban Meyer went through a transition this steep was his last season at Florida. After losing Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes and a host of other stars from a group that went 25-2 the previous two seasons, the Gators plummeted to 8-5 in 2010. Two big differences here, though: For one, Ohio State is not replacing a Tebow-type quarterback but in fact brings back a proven standout in J.T. Barrett. That alone should stave off a full-on implosion.
But more importantly, the Buckeyes do not play in the SEC circa 2010. All five of the Gators' losses that year came to teams that finished the season ranked. To take the under on 2016 Ohio State you have to pinpoint four teams on Ohio State's 2016 schedule it could lose to. You'd probably choose Oklahoma, Penn State and Michigan State (all of whom the Buckeyes play on the road) as well as Michigan. I just don't see them losing to all four, especially with the two Michigan schools coming at the end of the year.
But I could certainly see a rebuilding team losing three of those four. So to answer the question, my cutoff would be, 9. Glad you got in when you did.
Due to its strong 2015 season, Clemson has become everybody's darling -- top three in almost every poll, Heisman frontrunner, etc. Apparently the term "Clemsoning" doesn't exist anymore so forgive me if I ask, but even despite their star QB, weak schedule, and growing confidence, what do you think of the Tigers' chances of Clemsoning again in 2016? It seems that they're being set up for it once more, and just three loses might do it.
-- Chuck, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait
Man, Dabo Swinney would not be pleased to see that term return, and rightfully so. Clemson has long since shed its reputation for choking. Not only have the Tigers lost just eight games in the past four years, but all eight of those were to teams that finished their seasons with 10 or more wins. During that same time span, they've beaten the likes of Georgia, Notre Dame, Florida State, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma (twice). Washington or Tennessee more accurately fit the "darling" label in terms of preseason buzz. Clemson's earned it.
Now that's not to say the Tigers aren't vulnerable to a letdown in 2016. They could well go out and lose their opener at Auburn. If they do it will likely be due to a defense that lost six underclass starters to the NFL draft, just a year after replacing nine starters from the previous team. That's a lot of turnover in a short time. Clemson's interior defensive line will still be second to none, but its secondary is in full rebuilding mode. A good opposing quarterback could so significant damage, but even then, he would have to outduel Deshaun Watson. That's not a fair fight.
But let's go ahead and say Clemson falls back to earth in 2016. The Tigers lose at Auburn and at Florida State, and suffer a stunning Friday night upset at Boston College to finish the regular season 9-3. I would hope that doesn't bring out the "same old Clemson" columns, because plenty of other teams will inevitably fall short of preseason expectations, too.
Who is on your non QB/RB Heisman Trophy preseason Watch List?
-- Steve, Chicago
I'm happy to answer this as long as I don't have to brand it as a Watch List. I hate Watch Lists. They're a relic from a time before cable TV and the Internet when someone literally needed to tell voters who they should be "watching." Now, they're primarily a way for schools to puff out players' bios, while also making it harder for the inevitable standouts who aren't as well known going into the season to make it into the discussion.
So instead, why don't we call this my preseason non-QB/RB Power Rankings? Which means they could change as soon as the first games are played.
1. USC CB/WR Adoree' Jackson. The junior-to-be fits much the same mold as 1997 winner Charles Woodson. While primarily a superb defensive player, coach Clay Helton told Sports Illustrated recently that Jackson will get about "12 extra plays" a game as receiver and/or return man.
2. Iowa CB Desmond King. The reigning Thorpe Award winner is another playmaking game-changer who had eight interceptions last season while also serving as the Hawkeyes' primary kick and punt returner. He surprised many by putting off the NFL for another year.
3. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley. After catching 89 passes for 1,045 yards as a freshman, Ridley could take the next step and approach junior-year Amari Cooper-level production (124 catches, 1,727 yards, 16 TDs). Note, though, that even those numbers got Cooper a third-place finish.
4. Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk. Like Ridley, Kirk had an instant impact as a freshman, catching 80 passes for 1,009 yards but brings the added dimension of kick and punt returns, scoring two touchdowns that way last season.
5. Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett. Unquestionably the nation's top returning pass-rusher (12.5 sacks last season), potential No. 1 draft pick Garrett needs to have a major impact in the Aggies' biggest games -- and, unlike his first two seasons, A&M needs to win a few of those.
As a BYU fan I'm getting excited and a little nervous about the Cougars' impending "QB controversy" -- promising sophomore gunslinger Tanner Mangum vs. the uber-atheletic but injury-prone super-senior Taysom Hill. What can a coach/team do to avoid the QB controversy taking over the headlines, distracting the players and staff, and potentially dividing the team all season?
-- Nicholas Nelson, Paradise, CA
As we saw at Ohio State last season, the most distracting QB controversy often results from what would seem like a luxury -- choosing between two proven guys. A more conventional battle between two or more nobodies can get annoying the longer it drags on, but it doesn't bring with it all the subplots and drama as when it's two household names. And BYU's to me seems like it could get particularly soap opera-ish. Hill is so established and beloved, it's hard to imagine him not getting his job back. But he's also a 26-year-old, sixth-year senior who's been healthy for just six games in two years, whereas Mangum, coming off a roller-coaster freshman season, is clearly the future.
I had a coach who's dealt with numerous such competitions over the years tell me recently the most important thing is to be open and honest with the team about where things stand. Many do the opposite and go into radio silence. Most players are as curious as the fans as to whom their quarterback is going to be; why keep them in the dark and cause a potential rift? The other most important thing is out of a coach's control, which is, that whoever he picks actually goes out and plays well. If so, whatever controversy there might have been quickly fades.
Hi Stewart. Let's suppose that the Big 12 does add two teams. Aren't we overlooking the fact that it would probably have to put Texas and OU in opposite divisions to balance out the conference? How would you create the divisions in a hypothetical 12-team Big 12 conference?
-- James G., Gilroy, CA
Jeez, there's next year's Big 12 existential crisis. Should the conference put both in the same division, thus preserving the rivalry but in doing so, risk potential long-term imbalance? Or put them in opposite divisions, thus requiring permanent crossover opponents and risking a conference title game rematch?
The Big Ten went through this a few years ago, initially separating Ohio State and Michigan in its confusing and universally panned setup. Now they're back together in the more straightforward East and West divisions, and while the East is indisputably tougher than the West, the earth is still spinning on its axis.
The problem here is, if you group the teams along the same lines as the Big 12's old North and South Divisions then the potential imbalance could put the Big Ten's or SEC's to shame. Can you imagine if OU, Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU and Baylor are all in one division while Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and two current Group of 5s are in the other?
It's hard to forecast exact divisions without knowing who the two new teams would be, but I don't think the Big 12 would be able to go by straight geography. Which means it could copy the ACC model and put the two big brands in opposite divisions. The ACC's primary reason for splitting up Florida State and Miami was in hopes that, for TV purposes, they would in fact play twice a year. Instead, through 11 seasons, it's never happened.
Stewart, I'm interested in your opinion about Iowa State football. Matt Campbell seemed to be one of those up-and-coming coaches at Toledo and decided to set roots at Iowa State. After just 2.5 months he's on pace to sign ISU's highest recruiting class ever, and the pieces are there for a quick year to bowl eligibility. Can he be the guy to get consistency out of this Big12 school and maybe achieve a Kansas State level of success?
-- Justin, Dallas, TX
Campbell is the real deal, and Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard pulled an absolute coup in landing him quickly before most other competitors on the job market even had a chance. It's also a place that would seemingly fit the 36-year-old Midwest native's personality well. I'm not surprised he's off to a good recruiting start.
And I agree the Cyclones could get to six wins this year if the team fully buys in to their new coach. Campbell inherits a stud running back, sophomore Mike Warren, and receiver, Allen Lazard. And the coach was high on returning QB Jake Lanning coming out of spring. Of course the entire offense could bog down if Iowa State doesn't effectively rebuild an offensive line that lost four starters.
As for long-term success, it's not like Iowa State hasn't been there before. Who could forget the Sage Rosenfels/Seneca Wallace glory days of the early 2000s, when the Cyclones won at least seven games five times in six years? However, I'd contend that Iowa State suffered considerably when the Big 12 divisions went away. In four of those five bowl seasons the Cyclones avoided both Texas and Oklahoma (both of which were dominant at the time.) Baylor was still a doormat, and TCU was years away from joining the league.
So while the Big 12 as a whole is not as tough as it was a decade ago, it's arguably a lot harder for the three remaining former North teams (ISU, K-State and Kansas). That doesn't mean Iowa State can't win six games most years, but coming anywhere near Bill Snyder's level of success seems unrealistic.
I saw where you were incredulous at the thought that Tulane would be considered as a possible Big 12 expansion target. But that got me to wondering, why they haven't really achieved any real success outside of the late '90s Tommy Bowden/Rich Rod years. Besides finances, why haven't they been able to win even semi-consistently? Can you think of a better place to spend four years of college than New Orleans?
-- Philip Allison, New Orleans
Good question. A year after the Green Wave's memorable 12-0 season in 1998, they went 3-8, and have only had three winning seasons since. To be clear, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had a devastating affect on that program, which spent nearly that entire season far from New Orleans, then came back to a still-recovering campus. But even before that, Tulane struggled for fan support in its Saints-and-LSU-focused city and hemorrhaged so much money the school very nearly dropped football altogether in 2003.
End of day, you've got to have more to sell than "come party in our city." Otherwise UNLV would be a dynasty.
But things are finally starting to look up for Tulane. For one thing, it moved into 30,000-seat on-campus Yulman Stadium in 2014, a potential game-changer after all those depressing years playing in a near-empty Superdome. And it made one of the best coaching hires of this offseason with Georgia Southern's Willie Fritz, whose unique rushing attack -- part-Pistol, part-triple option -- wreaked havoc on opposing defenses the past two seasons.
Do not be surprised if Tulane plays for a conference title before too long. I'm going ahead and calling my shot now.