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September 21, 2007

Sometimes the system works

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. This week he heads south for the big Alabama-Georgia game.
Previous mailbags
Sept. 14: Tigers on top?
Sept. 6: Reason for hope
August 31: Bull market
August 24: Fight at the top

Does a quarterback make the system or does the system make the quarterback? And does a "system" quarterback have a shot at the Heisman Trophy?

How well can Alabama do with its new coach, and how high can Texas A&M climb with Alabama's old coach?

Does a big victory in the state of Alabama provide job security for Mississippi State's coach?

These questions and others are addressed in this week's mailbag.

Fight the system

Why is Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell never brought up in the Heisman talk this season? Some argue that Harrell is a "system" quarterback, but if (Hawaii's) Colt Brennan can be listed, why not Graham? I'm hoping you could shed some light on the issue.

Daniel in Houston

Both quarterbacks play in a wide-open system that's conducive to putting up startling statistics, but consistency and significant victories are what set them apart.

Brennan established himself as a Heisman contender last season when he passed for at least 300 yards in 12 of 13 games and threw at least four touchdown passes in 10 games. He closed the season with six consecutive 400-yard games, and that included a 559-yard, five-touchdown performance in the Warriors' Hawaii Bowl victory over Arizona State.

Critics may argue that his stats are inflated because he plays inferior defensive teams in the WAC, but he threw for at least 350 yards last season against Alabama, Purdue, Oregon State and Arizona State - all BCS-conference teams that went to bowls. On top of that, Hawaii was 3-1 in those games. Brennan also threw for 388 yards and five touchdowns in a loss to Boise State, which won the Fiesta Bowl.

This season, Brennan already has passed for 1,262 yards and 12 touchdowns. Harrell has thrown for more yards (1,317) and touchdowns (14) than Brennan, but last season Harrell threw for just 204 yards and no touchdowns in a loss to TCU, 236 yards and one touchdown in a loss to Colorado and 250 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Oklahoma.

The bottom line is those quarterbacks who are viewed as flourishing in a favorable system better have more to offer than gaudy statistics. Former Texas Tech quarterbacks Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons were in the Heisman discussion until they had poor games late in the season.

In 2002, Kingsbury was high on the list of Heisman contenders after throwing for 510 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-38 victory over Missouri. However, his profile dropped the next week when he was intercepted four times in a 37-13 loss to Colorado. Then a pedestrian 187-yard effort in a 60-15 loss to Oklahoma in November left him with no shot.

Similarly, in 2003, Symons picked up Heisman momentum after passing for 661 yards and six touchdowns against Ole Miss and 505 yards and eight touchdowns against Texas A&M in consecutive weeks. But then he threw three interceptions in a 62-31 loss to Missouri and five interceptions in a narrow win over Colorado. Later, he threw five interceptions in a 56-25 loss to Oklahoma.

If those who are viewed as "system" quarterbacks are consistently excellent and avoid costly turnovers, they have a shot at the Heisman. Hey, it worked for Houston's Andre Ware in 1989 and Florida's Danny Wuerffel in 1996.

Early returns

I would like to know how you think Alabama will do this year. I understand Nick Saban is a great teacher and coach, but I am a realist and have trouble believing in a national championship this year. Don't get me wrong, I would love that to happen. But people here are buying into it too much at this point. Do I think Saban will change our future for the better? Absolutely. Do I think he will need more time? Yes, as well. Anyway, my question is how do you honestly believe Alabama will end this year?

John in Birmingham

You can check our archives and see that throughout the spring that I predicted Alabama would win about eight games. Even though the Tide lost six starters on defense from the 2006 team, I felt Saban's mere presence and ability to manage games would produce at least two more victories than a year ago.

Now, it appears I've underestimated Alabama. The Tide likely will do better than that. Although the running game isn't producing at the level Saban wants, it's clear with Terry Grant the Tide is a better running team than a year ago. John Parker Wilson is an underappreciated quarterback. When healthy, Alabama's receivers are as good as almost any in the SEC.

The question mark about Alabama is the defense, which proved to be vulnerable in last week's 41-38 victory over Arkansas. But when it needed a stop with just over two minutes remaining, the Tide forced a punt, so credit is due there.

If Alabama continues to improve as the year progresses - which I believe it will - it's not outrageous to suggest the Tide could be undefeated when LSU heads to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 3. And wouldn't that be fun?

Wins buy losses

What does Mississippi State's win over Auburn do for Sylvester Croom's job security?

Matthew in Mobile, Ala.

Well, it does a heck of a lot more for Croom's security than it does for Tommy Tuberville's.

Seriously, it has to give him a significant boost. That proves that although the process has been slow, he's making progress.

Now, it's a matter of the Bulldogs winning the games they should (against I-AA Gardner Webb and UAB) and grinding out two more victories to become bowl-eligible.

The victory over Auburn should provide a huge boost of confidence for the Bulldogs. If they can win at Auburn, it's not too outlandish to suggest they could win at home against Tennessee, Alabama or Ole Miss.

A bowl appearance should remove any doubt that Croom returns next season. That is, if the victory over Auburn hasn't assured it already.

You make the call

What did you think of how the referees treated the last two minutes of the Arkansas-Alabama game? First off, they messed up the pass-interference call, which wasn't even close to interference. Then, they capped it off with the measurement of a supposed "close" first-down play when the ball was about 4 feet from the marker so Alabama could get more time to get a play in.

Spencer in Fayetteville, Ark.

I was on the sideline, and the play in which Kevin Woods was called for pass interference on Keith Brown happened right in front of me. I didn't think it was a good call.

I also thought the measurement after Brown gained 9 yards on the following play was unnecessary, although I believe it was closer than four feet.

That said, questionable calls happen every week. Blaming the officials is a copout. Had Arkansas not stayed in man-to-man coverage in the first half, the Razorbacks might not have gotten in a 21-0 hole.

In addition, Arkansas threw an interception that led to an Alabama touchdown and lost a fumble that resulted in a field goal. Then, the Razorbacks could have clinched the victory with just over two minutes remaining by converting a third-and-12; they also could have opted for a running play there because Alabama had no more timeouts, which would have left the Tide with about a minute and half to drive 70-plus yards for a winning touchdown.

I'll agree Arkansas was victimized by a couple of terrible calls in the last minute, but the Razorbacks can only blame themselves for being in the position that those calls would be so costly.

A&M underrated ... or overrated?

Why is it that Texas A&M is so underrated? We still are a great team. The only problems I can truly see with us are our pass defense and that we need to pass the ball more. Linebacker Mark Dodge is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated players in college football. I can't find exactly how many tackles he's had, but I remember that in the second or third quarter of the Fresno game he already had 15 tackles. And Jorvorskie Lane is the best short-yardage back in the nation. Anyway, with players like Dodge, Lane, (quarterback) Stephen McGee, (tailback) Mike Goodson and (tight end) Martellus Bennett, why aren't we among the top teams?

Jason in Victoria, Texas

Hmmm so you're saying other than pass defense and pass offense, A&M is pretty good.

The reason A&M is ranked 20th in the AP poll (and may be lucky to be that high) is that, frankly, the Aggies haven't been that impressive.

A&M defeated Fresno State at home in triple overtime, 47-45, only because Bulldogs receiver Marlon Moore foolishly fumbled into the end zone when trying to extend the football over the goal line in the first overtime. Had Moore simply held onto the football, Fresno State would have had first-and-goal at the 1 and likely would have won. Keep in mind, the next week Fresno State was trounced 52-21 by Oregon.

Going into Thursday night's game against Miami, the Aggies ranked 107th nationally in passing offense and 70th in pass defense and that's against Fresno State, Louisiana-Monroe and Division I-AA Montana State.

That made me wonder what was going to happen when the Aggies picked on someone their own size. Well, we saw that against Miami. A&M was pushed around by a team that was beaten 51-13 by Oklahoma just two weeks ago.

Maybe in the coming weeks the Aggies will put it all together, improve their passing game and make a run at the Big 12 championship.

But don't count on it.

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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