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January 23, 2009

Mailbag: Bowls were SEC proving ground

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The National Association of Narcissists also known as Southeastern Conference football fans never tire of trumpeting the greatness of their favored league.

They will tell you the three strongest football conferences in America are the AFC, the NFC and the SEC - and not necessarily in that order.

And for proof they will point to the last three BCS national championship games, which have been won by SEC teams that were thus serenaded by chants of "S-E-C, S-E-C." Florida didn't just beat Oklahoma in Miami, but the SEC beat the Big 12.

But Florida's national championship does not prove the SEC is the nation's premier conference. Strength at the top doesn't ensure strength throughout.

For example, when USC won the 2004 national championship there were no claims that the Pac-10 was the strongest football conference in the country.

And look at the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. Their place in the Super Bowl doesn't change the fact that no other team in their division the NFC West managed a winning record.

Alas, SEC fans have much more fodder to feed their narcissism than another national championship as we'll discuss in this week's mailbag.

Bowls were SEC proving ground

From: Veto in Gautier, Miss..: How do you think the SEC did this year in bowl games? Does the conference mark of 6-2 and a national title make up for what many consider a lackluster regular season particularly when the bowl losses were by a mediocre South Carolina team and to a veteran Utah team that was fairly good this year?

Obviously, the SEC reaffirmed its status as college football's strongest conference with its showing in the bowl season. How could that be argued?

For example, SEC teams Florida and Ole Miss posted double-digit victories over No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas Tech of the Big 12 South, which at one time had four teams ranked among the nation's top nine.

Indeed, four of the SEC bowl victories were over higher-ranked opponents and five of six were against ranked teams. Georgia Tech was ranked No. 14 going into the Chick-fil-A Bowl and lost by 35 points to LSU. Only No. 15 Georgia was ranked higher than the bowl opponent it defeated (No. 18 Michigan State). No. 24 Boston College won its division of the ACC, but lost to unranked Vanderbilt, which finished tied for third in the SEC East.

Even the two teams that lost South Carolina and Alabama were facing opponents that came into the game with better records.

That said, Alabama's loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl was one of the most startling upsets and shows that the SEC isn't overwhelmingly stronger than the other conferences.

However, a third consecutive national championship, a 2-0 record over the Big 12 South, four bowl victories with double-digit winning margins and five bowl victories over ranked opponents should settle any question of whether the SEC remains the premier conference in college football.

And keep in mind this was largely viewed as a "down" year in the SEC with Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas failing to qualify for bowl games and most teams having inexperienced quarterbacks.

Next season the SEC could be stronger.

Quarterback key for Michigan

From: Nick in Okinawa, Japan.: Can we look forward to Michigan having a better season than what it did in '08?

It couldn't get much worse, could it?

The fact that it will be the Wolverines' second year in coach Rich Rodriguez's system is definitely a plus. The offensive line returns everybody and projects to be better. All the receivers and running back Brandon Minor return.

Quarterback play has to improve, though. There is a lot of hope and optimism surrounding incoming freshman Tate Forcier, who will be an early enrollee. Going with first-year quarterbacks is always dicey (maybe Michigan won't), but suggesting he could be an immediate upgrade isn't that big a stretch.

The defense took heavy losses up front. However, newly hired Greg Robinson has an impressive track record as a defensive coordinator.

Don't expect the Wolverines to win the Big Ten championship in '09, but they should post more than three wins. A bowl appearance is a reasonable goal.

Give USC its due

From: Spencer in Thousand Oaks, Calif..: Why does everyone talk about USC all the time when Oregon is in the midst of getting Bryce Brown, Tajh Boyd and with (quarterback) Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount coming back next year. Oregon has a favorable home schedule. Can Oregon win the whole thing?

Why all the respect for USC?

Well, the Trojans have posted at least 11 victories in each of the last seven seasons, have a 6-1 record in BCS bowl games in that span, and their last six recruiting classes have been ranked among the nation's top 10 by Rivals.com. Other than that there really isn't that much reason to hype USC.

Be realistic. Ranking USC No. 1, or at least in the top five, is just a smart pick because year in and year out the Trojans have delivered under coach Pete Carroll. They're not unbeatable, but they're sure tough to beat.

There should be a measure of apprehension about USC in 2009 because the Trojans will lose nine starters from their awesome defense and quarterback Mark Sanchez opted for early entry into the NFL draft, a move that obviously didn't sit well with Carroll.

But USC has sustained significant losses before and come back strong. Following the 2005 season in which the Trojans were upset by Texas in the BCS national championship game they had 11 players selected in the next NFL draft, including five that were early entries.

Yet, the next season the Trojans posted 11 wins and won the Rose Bowl.

In last year's NFL draft USC had 10 players selected, including seven in the first two rounds. But the Trojans still went 12-1 with a Rose Bowl victory this season.

So, USC definitely will have holes to fill. However, history shows they will fill them.

Still, the losses on defense and at quarterback enhance the chances of another team to win the Pac-10 in '09, and Oregon could be that team.

But Brown and Boyd haven't committed to the Ducks, so don't count those eggs just yet. Also, Masoli needs to improve as a passer. He completed fewer than 57 percent of his attempts last season for the Ducks, who preferred to run.

And although Blount returns and Brown may indeed find his way to Eugene, running yardage may be more difficult in '09 with stellar center Max Unger among three lost starting offensive linemen.

Also, Oregon will lose six defensive starters, including defensive end Nick Reed, safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Jairus Byrd.

Oregon might well make a run at the Pac-10 championship in '09, but the Ducks will have a bunch of holes to fill just like USC.

Rutgers in Big East mix?

From: Keith in Bloomfield, N.J..: What are your thoughts on the success of Rutgers this upcoming season? The Knights lose veteran quarterback Mike Teel, receiver Kenny Britt and ultra-productive Ty Underwood. Despite this, better recruiting and depth has allowed RU to redshirt many freshmen, including quarterback D.C. Jefferson. They have three sophomores at running back who played well. Defensively, they lose some seniors as well, but a lot of younger players saw some action. Considering the Big East will have a new look due to graduation and the NFL draft, would you agree that Rutgers has as good a chance as anyone to win the Big East?

Halfway through last season I was wondering if Rutgers was on a descent back to the college football quagmire it was in before coach Greg Schiano took over there. But then the Knights posted seven consecutive victories and finished with a very respectable 8-5 season.

That reinforced that Schiano has this program under control and should provide some encouragement for '09. Losing a starting quarterback always hurts, but Teel was inconsistent. Whoever emerges as his replacement perhaps Domenic Natale or Jabu Lovelace will have shoes to fill, but they're not so big it cannot be done. Replacing the receivers may be a bigger issue.

But every team in the Big East seems to have big holes to fill. Pittsburgh loses running back LeSean McCoy. Connecticut loses running back Donald Brown. West Virginia loses quarterback Patrick White. Cincinnati loses greatly on defense.

Personally, I lean toward South Florida next season, though Cincinnati and Pittsburgh figure to contend. As of now, Rutgers would appear to rank fourth or fifth.

But let's see who emerges in the spring. As you mentioned, Schiano has upgraded recruiting, so there is talent on board. If a reliable quarterback and receivers emerge, it would come as no surprise if the Knights make a run at the Big East championship next season. Hey, they were just 10 points away from winning it last year.

New playoff plan

From: Terry in Watertown, N.Y..: Recently, I read your opinion regarding the joke we know as the BCS bowl system. I agree with you. It seems the bowl system is all about money. Perhaps the only way to force the system to provide a playoff is for those who want a playoff to develop a nationwide boycott by of the sponsors of the bowl games. Everyone should support the players and schools by watching, but by notifying the major sponsors of the games that no longer will you be buying their products, you will open their eyes to new ideas. As an example: Bud Light is a major advertiser. By switching to another brand and then notifying the local wholesaler or retailer of the reason will not make a difference. However, if 25 or 125 people all did the same thing at the local store, the manager would let the wholesaler know and the regional manager would take notice. If that happened around the country, Anheuser-Busch might ask for change.

An eight-team playoff that allows three minor bowls (and a major bowl) to host a quarterfinal game around Dec. 17 to 23, will allow to two major bowls to host the semifinals on New Year's Day and the championship to follow a week later. Hosts of minor bowls could rotate through the three quarterfinal slots on about an eight-year schedule. The year before hosting a quarterfinal game, the minor bowl would host their game on New Year's Day. Wouldn't every minor bowl sponsor and host community jump at the chance to earn big bowl money and publicity two out of eight years rather than always being a weeknight late game all the time?

I'm with you on the playoff. College football needs it. But perhaps the only thing that could make it happen is your boycott idea. However, that's not likely. It's difficult to get two people to do the same thing much less several thousand. And asking college football fans to give up beer or merely switch their brand well, that may be asking too much.

Rainey update

From: Tony in Indialantic, Fla..: How bad and what was Florida running back Chris Rainey's injury against Oklahoma in the BCS championship game?

The word I've gotten was that he had a high ankle sprain. There has been noise that he also has a foot injury that may require surgery, although that has not been confirmed.

Whatever the case, he's expected to be at full strength for spring practice.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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