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July 10, 2009

Mailbag: Is USC's Carroll getting off easy?

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When a coach signs that seven-figure contract, he knows (or should know) that the amount of scrutiny he faces is equal to the amount of money he makes. That's part of the deal. Taking criticism is as much a part of coaching as developing game plans and recruiting.

Demanding fans want dividends paid on State U's huge financial investment. But that's an old story. Fans demanded success even before salaries escalated into six figures.

Coaches who lose are fired. Coaches who win consistently usually retain their jobs, but they still are harshly criticized in the stands, in columns, on message boards and on talk shows if they don't win the right games.

The best way to silence the critics is to win big. But often that's not enough. As we see in this week's mailbag, there are those who can find reason to criticize even the most successful of coaches.

Under the microscope

From: Mark in Pasadena, Calif.: Every season, it seems as if USC loses a game in which the Trojans are heavily favored. Why doesn't coach Pete Carroll get the same criticism for losing those games as Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Ohio State coach Jim Tressel do for losing bowl games?

The obvious response is that bowls are higher in profile and more is at stake, so losses are magnified. With Oklahoma losing five of its past six bowl games three of those with the national championship on the line it's going to get more attention.

Similarly, Ohio State has lost its past three bowl games, including two for the national championship. Again, those are high-profile losses in high-profile games.

Those losses have led to criticism for Stoops and Tressel, but little to none from the people who really matter administration and big-money boosters. Those two are as secure as any coaches in the country.

And the national media isn't going to blast them because if you look at it objectively and without the emotion of a fan, they deserve credit for getting their teams to BCS bowls and national championship games. While Oklahoma lost to Florida in last season's BCS championship game, there were 118 other Football Bowl Subdivision teams that weren't playing in that game.

Of late, USC has been among the teams on the outside looking in at the title game. Some could argue that Carroll should catch some heat for the Trojans' failure to reach that game. But do you really want to criticize a coach whose team has won or shared seven consecutive conference championships, who has a 34-5 record over the past three seasons and who has a three-game winning streak in BCS bowls?

Upsets are going to happen and powerful teams aren't immune. The Trojans' loss last season at Oregon State, which finished 9-4, certainly wasn't an embarrassment. Neither was the 33-31 loss in Corvallis in '06.

In fact, I'd argue the 13-9 loss to UCLA that cost USC a shot at the national championship in '06 wasn't a major shock because upsets aren't rare in rivalry games, in which strange things often happen.

USC's loss at Oregon in '07 wasn't an indictment of Carroll, either. That Oregon team probably would have won the national championship if quarterback Dennis Dixon hadn't endured a season-ending knee injury two games later.

Now, the '07 loss to Stanford remains a head-scratcher. But, again, do you blast Carroll because USC has lost five regular-season games in the past three seasons? In fact, over the past three seasons, only one coach of a major-conference team has lost fewer regular-season games.

That coach? Jim Tressel.

Year of the bear?

From: Tim in Oakland, Calif.: With USC undeniably having to reload more than it has in recent memory and California having a great returning team, do you think Cal has a good shot to win the Pac-10 outright? Is the key to the season when USC visits Berkeley in early October?

As mentioned above, USC has been among the most dominant teams in the country in recent seasons. But there appears to be a small window of opportunity for its Pac-10 rivals this season.

The Trojans must replace eight starters from the nation's premier defense and quarterback Mark Sanchez. And while it's true USC's roster is loaded with prospects every program in the country wanted, there is no guarantee the new starters will perform to the level of the players they're replacing.

Cal appears to be the biggest challenger to USC's Pac-10 dominance. The Bears, who lost to the Trojans 17-3 last season, have six offensive and eight defensive starters returning from a team that was 9-4 last season.

Running back Jahvid Best, who averaged 8.1 yards per carry in '08, is a threat to score on every play. The defense needs new starters at linebacker to prove themselves, but the Bears should be solid up front and excellent in the secondary.

Ironically, the greatest uncertainty for California might be the greatest for USC, too. While USC is counting on quarterback Aaron Corp to replace Sanchez, California is hoping junior Kevin Riley bounces back from a disappointing showing in '08 and reaches his potential.

Without meaning to oversimplify the Pac-10 race, the team whose quarterback has the better season or the better game on Oct. 3 in Berkeley probably wins the conference title this fall, though Oregon and Oregon State won't concede anything.

Waiting game

From: Shane in Houston.: Is Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp actually going to wait for coach Mack Brown to retire? Or will he go for another job?

If Muschamp were going to leave Texas, he probably would have done so already. He was a hot commodity after last season, when a number of high-profile coaching jobs were open (Auburn, Tennessee, Washington). Yet, Muschamp opted to accept a raise to $900,000 and the status of "coach in waiting" and remain at Texas.

I wonder why Muschamp would pass up a chance to be a head coach unless he had some assurance that he wouldn't have to wait long to take over at Texas.

Austin is a wonderful place to live I know, I lived there for 11 years and Texas is arguably the best coaching job in college football. It has seemingly unlimited financial resources, tremendous support and a talent-rich recruiting base. That's attractive enough to wait a year or two and maybe three to be the coach. But waiting beyond that wouldn't make much sense.

Brown will be 58 when the season starts. Though I have no inside information and he hasn't made any statements on the subject, it wouldn't come as a huge surprise if Brown stepped down after this season.

The Longhorns are national championship contenders and have a senior quarterback in Colt McCoy. Wouldn't that seem like the recipe for a great final season? I wouldn't be surprised if Brown encouraged Muschamp to remain at Texas with the promise that he'd step down in a year, maybe two.

There is speculation that athletic director DeLoss Dodds is set to retire. Brown could move into that chair, which would enable Muschamp to take over as coach.

Of course, it's often not easy for coaches to walk away. Look at Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Penn State's Joe Paterno.

Brown's teams have posted at least nine wins every season since he arrived at Texas in 1998. Maybe he'll decide he doesn't want to quit for several years. No doubt, Texas will give him that option. In that scenario, it's likely Muschamp would move on when another high-profile coaching position comes available. Still, it seems more likely that he becomes Texas' coach in a year or two.

Getting better

From: Jimmie in Atlanta: There have been mixed reviews on how Notre Dame will perform this season. What is your assessment? Will everyone say the Irish had a weak schedule?

Considering the negative responses I recently received for merely pointing out that Notre Dame is among just a handful of teams that hasn't played a Football Championship Subdivision opponent since the schedule expanded to 12 games, I feel sure the masses will criticize the Irish for playing a weak schedule in '09.

The funny thing: Nobody knows yet how weak or strong that schedule will be. There are six opponents that had at least eight victories last season. Some of those teams don't project to be as good this season (Connecticut, Boston College), but some that struggled last season (Michigan, Stanford, Washington) may be considerably improved.

The bottom line is Notre Dame just has to manage the schedule it faces and turn a deaf ear to any criticism.

Notre Dame was 7-6 last season and lost three games by fewer than seven points. With an experienced team returning, including quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, the Irish figure to be improved.

Other than an Oct. 17 game against USC and maybe a Sept. 19 clash with Michigan State there isn't a game on the schedule that Notre Dame doesn't figure to be the favorite. A 10-victory season is a possibility, and that would put the Irish in a BCS bowl.

My guess is eight or nine victories. Notre Dame will be improved, but the offensive line has to prove that it has improved, and the defense needs a boost, too.

Gopher grind

From: Mike in Niceville, Fla.: You answered a question about toughest schedules last week, but you left Minnesota off the list. Its opponents had a '08 record of 90-61, and eight went to bowls. They play back-to-back road games against Penn State and Ohio State and have California (possibly the best team in the Pac-10 this season) and Air Force back-to-back in non-conference games. The Gophers finish up at Iowa. And they don't have Indiana or Michigan on the schedule.

No doubt, Minnesota faces a grind.

In an item in last week's mailbag, I responded to a question about what team faces the hardest schedule and wrote that South Carolina had the rockiest road.

I mentioned several other teams, too. That I did not put Minnesota in the list should not be interpreted to mean the Gophers don't have a tough road ahead. I just don't feel it's necessary to list all the teams that appear to have a difficult schedule.

Minnesota will have to play well to match last year's seven victories. Cal is a leading Pac-10 contender; Ohio State and Penn State always are tough, especially at home; Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern each won nine games last season; and Air Force won't be a picnic, even in Minneapolis.

But I'd still rank South Carolina's schedule as more demanding. The Gamecocks face four teams that will be in the preseason top 20 Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss and Florida. Plus, the SEC is a stronger conference than the Big Ten.

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