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April 13, 2007

Mailbag: Big money means big expectations

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He will be on the road throughout the spring bringing you scoop from campuses across the nation.
The Southeastern Conference has four football coaches who have won national championships and another that guided his team to an undefeated campaign - all within the last 11 seasons.

Still another has a team that's a strong contender for the national championship in 2007.

Big-time production means big-time paydays, and that's especially true in the SEC. The conference's list of coaches seems just as likely to appear in Forbes as it would on Rivals.com.

But great success comes with great expectations, and failing to meet them may eventually result in going from the Forbes list to the unemployment line.

Some might wonder if any of these highly successful coaches would ever be in danger of losing their jobs. In fact, at least one Rivals.com reader does.

Olin's Mailbag
The million-dollar question for million-dollar coaches

With all the premier coaches in the Southeastern Conference (South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Georgia's Mark Richt, Florida's Urban Meyer, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, LSU's Les Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban), how can they all keep their jobs without getting beat up by each other?

-- Raz in Opelika, Ala.
That's the million-dollar question. Fortunately, there is no shortage of SEC coaches that can afford to answer it. They just can't afford to lose more than two or three games a year.

Seven-figure salaries are investments, and the expected dividends are double-digit victory totals and championships. All of the above-mentioned coaches make well over $1 million, with Saban's deal worth $4 million. Even the most patient schools and I'm not sure any in the SEC qualify aren't doling out that much cash for eight victories a season.

If each of those teams wins an occasional SEC championship and is in the national championship hunt every four or five years, their coaches will stay in place. They can lose to each other, but not to lesser programs. A few mediocre seasons won't be tolerated.

Remember, some at Auburn were trying to oust Tuberville before the Tigers' 13-0 season in 2004. Georgia fired Jim Donnan after four consecutive seasons with at least eight wins and bowl victories each year. Alabama dumped Mike Shula one year after a 10-win season.

Turning the Cornhusker corner

How much of an improvement do you expect from Nebraska? With their schedule they could easily wind up with four or five losses. But with (Maurice) Purify, (Sam) Keller and an improved secondary, they could very well win the Big 12.

-- David in Minneapolis
There is not a tremendous amount of improvement needed. The Cornhuskers went 9-5 last year and won the Big 12 North, so clearly they're making significant progress.

From here, it seems Nebraska's success will depend on the rebuilt defensive line, the play of new quarterback Sam Keller and the health of cornerback Zack Bowman.

Keller proved himself at Arizona State and has excellent receivers returning, so I'd anticipate he will develop into one of the strong points of the team.

However, the defensive line was the strong point last year. Losing Adam Carriker, Jay Moore, Barry Cryer and Ola Dagunduro will hurt. Ndamukong Suh, Dagunduro's replacement, will be an anchor up front. However, some new starters will have to show they can mount the pass rush that Carriker and Moore provided.

If they cannot, Bowman's health becomes a huge issue. He has had significant injuries to both knees in less than a year, including one this spring that will keep him idle for about four months.

If Bowman comes back and plays to his ability, and there are no more significant injuries, Nebraska would be my pick to win the Big 12 North. They could make a strong challenge for the conference championship because Oklahoma's quarterback situation is unsettled and Texas' defense has a lot of questions.

If Bowman cannot play, the Cornhuskers' pass defense will be suspect again. A shaky pass defense would not be conducive to winning on Oct. 6 at Missouri, which will likely determine the North winner.

Looking for respect in Austin

Olin, no disrespect, but you're a bozo. I read your Davey O'Brien watch list and I understand the top five. They are a talented group and should be mentioned. But you didn't even list Colt McCoy in the "others to watch."

Considering Texas plays a soft schedule, returns almost every wide-out and the ability (McCoy) showed as a freshman, he should put up big numbers.

And speaking of returning wide-outs, you left Limas Sweed off your wide-out power rankings. Call me a homer, but Colt and Limas deserve a little respect and recognition.

-- A in Dallas
No argument here that McCoy is a special player. However, the five we mentioned on the "others to watch" list Tennessee's Erik Ainge, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Boston College's Matt Ryan and Kentucky's Andre' Woodson all passed for more yardage than McCoy did last year.

Only Ryan had significantly fewer touchdown passes, but he was playing injured all last season.

McCoy, who has bulked up this offseason, should be improved in 2007. But then, the others listed figure to be improved, too.

When taking into account former O'Brien Award winners Vince Young, Jason White, Brad Banks, Chris Weinke, Joe Hamilton, etc., it seems obvious that statistics are a big factor in determining who wins the award.

McCoy was very good last year in directing the Longhorns and managing games, but had just two 300-yard passing games. Five of his six most productive games in terms of passing yardage were against teams which ranked 72nd or worse in pass defense.

Also, the talk out of Austin is that Jamaal Charles has bulked up and the Longhorns are planning to emphasize their running game more in 2007.

None of that is meant as a slam on McCoy, but rather as an explanation why some other players including two in the Big 12 were rated ahead of McCoy on our O'Brien list.

As far as Sweed being off the top 10 receivers' power ranking that was a tough call.

However, note that Sweed caught just 11 passes in Texas' last five games last season, which might be an indication that defenses figured out how to cover him. Of course, that could also partially be explained by McCoy being limited against Kansas State and Texas A&M.

Of the 10 receivers that are listed on the power rankings, the only one that was not more productive than Sweed last season was Mario Manningham - who missed 4 games with an injury.

Can Cal finally climb past USC?

Cal is going to be tough to beat this year even for USC. What is your assessment of Cal?

-- Fran in Bremerton, Wash.
Nate Longshore is a proven quarterback. DeSean Jackson is one of the most exciting players in the nation. Justin Forsett is an explosive running back. The defense lost some key players, but still should be pretty good.

I think Cal will be every bit as good as it was last year, maybe even better. But duplicating last season's 10 victories might be difficult with road games at Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State - and Tennessee and USC coming to Berkeley.

Still, I'd anticipate the Bears will manage double-digit victories and will challenge USC for the Pac-10 championship. Getting the Trojans at home will help, but as of now I'd take USC to win the Pac-10 again.

Will it be a good year for Cyclones?

Is there any chance Iowa State might win the Big 12 North? They had a horrible season a year ago, but have a new attitude with coach Gene Chizik and his staff. Nebraska is the favorite, but after that isn't it pretty much open?

--Stewart in Waterloo, Ia.
The Cyclones have never won the Big 12 North, and I don't see it happening next season. Bret Meyer was expected to be one of the conference's top quarterbacks last season, but was merely mediocre and the defense was abysmal.

Chizik's background would suggest a defensive upgrade, and Meyer can play better than he did last year. Because of those factors, Iowa State could improve on last year's 4-8 disaster. However, I don't foresee the Cyclones beating Nebraska or Missouri in the North race.

A Heisman contender or pretender?

Why is John David Booty a Heisman contender if he barely threw for more than 3,000 yards and had nine interceptions?

-- Steven in Dayton
Well, only 10 quarterbacks threw for more than the 3,347 yards that Booty accumulated last season. He also threw 29 touchdown passes against nine interceptions, which isn't too bad.

Mostly, though, Booty is the starting quarterback for a team that will likely be No. 1 in most preseason rankings. If Southern California wins or even plays for a national championship with Booty at quarterback, then history shows that he will be a Heisman contender.

Six of the last seven championship games included a quarterback that either won the Heisman or was the runner-up.

The growth of Lions

What are your expectations for Penn State this fall? If (Anthony) Morelli plays like he did against Tennessee in the Outback Bowl and continues to improve the offense could be dangerous. Can Austin Scott have a Larry Johnson-type of senior year?

--Eric in Auburn, Va.
Morelli was solid in the Outback Bowl, passing for 197 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Maybe that was a signal that he's going to raise his performance level a notch or two. That may be difficult to do considering he won't have Levi Brown, a projected NFL first-round draft choice, protecting him next season.

If Morelli does continue to progress, I'd expect Penn State to finish as high as third in the Big Ten and challenge Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State for the conference championship.

That would also require Scott to have a productive year. The Lions saw his potential in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season when he rushed for 110 yards against Florida State. But even if he shows no effects of injuries that have hindered him in the past, don't count on him having a Larry Johnson-type senior year. If Scott doubled his career rushing output of 1,021 yards he still would not equal the 2,087 Johnson posted in 2002.

Can Nix find the fix?

What about Miami this year? Defensively, they should be very, very solid. What about Nix and the offense?

-- Bob in Atlanta
Agreed, Miami's defense should be special with DE Calais Campbell and S Kenny Phillips leading the way. However defense isn't the problem, is it?

Quarterbacks Kirby Freeman and Kyle Wright were not particularly impressive in the spring, but they were also working with Nix for the first time. With Nix calling plays, Georgia Tech averaged almost 25 points per game last season. That was with less-than-stellar quarterback play, so Nix will likely find a way to manufacture points.

The expected emergence of running backs Graig Cooper and Javarris James will help, too.

Look for Miami to post a couple more victories in 2006, but it's too soon to count on an ACC championship.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.

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