July 15, 2024

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Mandel’s Mailbag: Who’s the most overdue for a title? Does Dabo’s portal approach have a point?

13 min read

Great questions this week, everybody. Maybe I should start writing this thing less frequently to give you guys more time to save up the good stuff.

(Don’t worry, I won’t do that.)

Stewart- with Georgia finally getting the proverbial monkey off their back this past season, what program replaces them as the school who’s the most “overdue” to win a national championship based on expectations from their fan base, national media, etc.? Nebraska quickly comes to mind, but at 25 years I’m not sure they’ve waited long enough to make that claim.

Stuart F.

I know some people will say Texas A&M, but Texas A&M to me is not akin to Georgia. The Aggies’ one and only national title was so long ago the games weren’t yet televised, and it’s not like they’ve been knocking on the door for several years like Kirby Smart was. And whereas Georgia fans had been expecting national titles ever since the last one, I feel like that didn’t really become a thing for A&M fans until at least Johnny Manziel, if not Jimbo.

The answer is Notre Dame. It’s been 34 years. While many (perhaps including Brian Kelly himself) believe the Irish will never realistically win another one, their fans certainly still expect it. As an independent, it’s the only trophy the Irish have to play for. And this is not a Nebraska/Miami/Tennessee situation where the program has fallen completely off the map. Notre Dame reached the Playoff two of the past four seasons. The Irish have finished the season No. 12 or higher in six of the past seven seasons. That means they’re in the mix.

I could list any number of other national championship programs — USC, Florida and Texas come to mind — that have the resources and the recruiting footprint to do it again, but the longest drought for any of them is USC at 18 years. Notre Dame’s is nearly twice that long. Notre Dame’s is an actual monkey.

Do you think Dabo Swinney’s somewhat anti-transfer portal posture could actually end up helping him in recruiting? I kind of liked his stated reasoning — he and his assistants go into living rooms and promise kids/parents they will coach them up at Clemson, and it’s on the coaches to do that and not try and upgrade over a kid. I don’t always agree with Dabo’s public pronouncements, but kind of admire the notion that if you’re going to ask for loyalty it needs to go both ways.

Tyler A.

People are going to think I’m on an anti-Dabo crusade, because I already took him to task for those comments both on Twitter and The Audible. But this is an interesting question.

Dabo leaning in on loyalty certainly mirrors everything else about the way he’s built his program. Clemson generally has less roster attrition than other comparable programs, including a surprising amount of guys who could turn pro early but don’t (Clelin Ferrell, Travis Etienne, James Skalski, etc.). And of course, we know how loyal Dabo is to his coaches, as evidenced by the fact he promoted from within this year when replacing departing coordinators Tony Elliott and Brent Venables.

So yes, I suppose that message could help him win over some families. But it’s naïve to think those players won’t themselves enter the portal if their careers aren’t shaking out the way they’d hoped. So far this cycle, Clemson has seen 11 players enter the portal — same exact number as both Alabama and Georgia. The difference is, the Tigers haven’t taken in their own guys save for former Clemson-turned-Northwestern-turned-back-to-Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson, who is unlikely to see the field. Dabo is choosing to save those scholarships for high school players.

Which is fine, I suppose. But I do believe it will keep him from winning another national championship.

Alabama/Georgia/Ohio State are by no means building their roster through the portal, but they are using it to upgrade year-to-year with the equivalent of a few big-money free agents. Clemson has lost its last two Playoff games — to LSU in the 2019 championship game and to Ohio State in the 2020 semifinal — playing against transfer quarterbacks, Joe Burrow and Justin Fields. You’re telling me Clemson’s horrendous 2021 offense is going to get light years better this season entirely using guys Clemson recruited? Even if freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik becomes a savior, what of that below-average offensive line? Or the running backs and receivers?

It’s a wasted opportunity, especially because Clemson has the cachet to land high-end transfers. It doesn’t even have to be the next Jameson Williams or Kenneth Walker. An all-conference Group of 5 offensive lineman who’s better than what the Tigers have or a guy who could become their No. 3 receiver could be the difference between 11-1 and 9-3.

Either Dabo is going to come around to that reality sometime soon, or he’s going to ride his noble loyalty to the parents in those living rooms to a lot more Camping World Bowls.

When a traditional power like Nebraska, Texas, or Michigan makes a hire, the media’s standard operating procedure is to be generally optimistic (you were even pretty high on Sark going into Year 1 if I remember correctly), so why is Oklahoma not getting similar treatment? What makes their situation different?

Dilan, Oklahoma City

Just to set the record straight: I may not be as optimistic as some about Oklahoma’ 2022 prospects, but don’t take that to mean I’m pessimistic about Brent Venables in general. He’s arguably more qualified for that job than Sark was for Texas. As I’ve now written here many, many times, it’s the combination of coaching and roster turnover.

But I think the answer to your question is pretty simple: When Nebraska, Texas and Michigan have hired coaches recently, it’s because the previous guy stunk. There was nowhere to go but up. Venables is taking over a program where the guy he’s replacing (Lincoln Riley) won 85 percent of his games, and the guy before that (Bob Stoops) won 80 percent. The most wildly optimistic scenario for Venables is that he … mostly holds serve?

Think about when Jim Harbaugh took over at Michigan. His predecessor, Brady Hoke, had gone 8-5, 7-6 and 5-7 his last three seasons. In comes the Super Bowl head coach and revered alum to save the day, and lo and behold, he wins 10 games his first season. No wonder the coverage was so positive.

This situation is not that one. It’s not Scott Frost taking over for Mike Riley or Sark taking over for Tom Herman (or Herman taking over for Charlie Strong) either. I don’t even think you can use the Riley taking over for Stoops comparison either, because Riley inherited Stoops’ staff, infrastructure and a Heisman-caliber quarterback. Ditto when Ryan Day took over for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. It’s hard to come up with a comparison at all, simply because programs like Oklahoma don’t often have a coaching change that wasn’t of their own choice.

The closest recent one I can think of: Lane Kiffin coming back to USC to replace Pete Carroll when he bolted for the NFL. Here’s hoping Venables’ tenure goes much better than that one.

Stewart: I absolutely love the stories the Athletic has published on programs trying to regain their former glory. I’m curious, what are the qualifications for a program to be considered for these articles?

Daniel H, San Antonio

Among the programs featured in The Athletic’s “struggled to succeed” series this month, which do you think are likely to turn it around, and which seem doomed long-term?

Daniel H., Washington, DC

I’m glad people are enjoying what we’ve informally described as our “Wayward Programs” series. Shout to our editor Matt Brown for spearheading it. There were no formal qualifications, just schools that had at least one indisputable glory era that they’ve since struggled to replicate. We have several more still to come.

It’s easy to say Arkansas, because Sam Pittman has already begun turning things around. But I believe Texas Tech will as well. The Mike Leach bar of seven-to-nine wins a year should be attainable, especially after Oklahoma and Texas leave the conference, whether it’s under new coach Joey McGuire or someone else.

Meanwhile, I have to say, two weeks of interviewing people for my Colorado story left me feeling pretty pessimistic about the Buffs’ chances. There’s just not a lot going for that program, it’s not well-suited for the transfer/NIL era and Karl Dorrell was a fairly underwhelming hire. But I’ll be rooting for them nevertheless.

Which Texas player will have the biggest impact on offense — Bijan Robinson, Xavier Worthy or Quinn Ewers?

Zach C.

We have a pretty good idea at this point of what to expect from two of those three. If Robinson stays healthy, I fully expect the junior, who averaged 142.2 yards from scrimmage last season, to be one of the most productive and exciting players in the sport, with Heisman potential. Worthy (62 catches, 981 yards, 12 TDs) was the best freshman receiver in the country last season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t turn into an All-America type player as a sophomore.

Ewers is the great mystery.

On the one hand, he was the top-rated 2022 quarterback recruit by every major service prior to reclassifying and enrolling a year early at Ohio State, and it’s tempting to think he comes in and has a Tua Tagovailoa/Mac Jones-type season in Steve Sarkisian’s offense. On the other hand, because of COVID-19 hitting before his junior season of high school and then his reclassification eliminating his senior season, he was not evaluated as rigorously as a typical high school quarterback. Observers at the 2021 Elite 11 finals, where Clemson signee Clade Kubnik won MVP, came away thinking the hype surrounding Ewers was premature. Reports out of Texas’ spring camp suggest Ewers has not yet distanced himself from incumbent Hudson Card.

I’m not saying he won’t win the job. I’m not saying he won’t go on to win the Heisman one day. But if I’m ranking these three scenarios for Texas’ 2022 offense by most to least likely, they would be:

• Bijan Robinson becomes a first team All-American running back
• Xavier Worthy becomes a first team All-American receiver
• Quinn Ewers becomes a first team All-Big 12 quarterback

Does anybody outside of the players actually enjoy Spring ball/games? I’ve never regretted the decision I made a while back to stop attending practices or the Spring game because I’m inevitably bored to tears within minutes.

Alexus M., Santa Monica

The actual on-field product of a spring game is unquestionably boring, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attend. I look at them this way: The college football offseason is interminably long. You have to wait eight months between games (nine if your team misses a bowl). But for this one day in April, you can go to your favorite stadium, be around your fellow fans, see the team in full uniforms, hear the band, etc. It can be fun and refreshing.

Just don’t get too invested in the actual football.

With Apple likely winning the NFL Sunday Ticket package, does that likely make Amazon more aggressive trying to land a college football deal? The Pac-12 deal will be up soon and Saturdays would be ideal to add to the live streaming options.

Mike B.

We’re starting to see these streaming services’ sports strategies come into focus, and Amazon’s seems to be: Invest in big brands with the largest audiences. NFL. Premier League. The New York Yankees. If it decides to get into college football, I don’t think it would be for the Pac-12, which doesn’t draw particularly large audiences within its own sport on regular linear television.

Apple getting both the new MLB Friday night package and now Sunday Ticket seems more relevant because just a couple years ago, that same company actually tried to acquire the Pac-12’s rights come 2024. I was told at the time those talks didn’t get very far because Apple was only interested if it could get the conference’s best games (its Tier 1 rights), not some secondary deal akin to the current Pac-12 Networks lineup, and the conference wasn’t willing to go there. Which is understandable. As of last September, Apple TV+ had fewer than 20 million subscribers, which pales in comparison to ESPN on cable (76 million), much less Amazon (200 million).

(Note: If you don’t have Apple TV+ you are missing out on “Severance,” a show so gripping and suspenseful I sacrificed sleep the other night because I literally could not turn it off before seeing the finale.)

But that was before Apple’s new sports deals. Would the league be willing to reconsider shifting some of its better games to a streaming service if they offer considerably more money than a traditional network? That will likely be the fundamental question George Kliavkoff will have to answer very soon. Because while ESPN/FOX/NBC/CBS still offer the most exposure, it’s not realistic they will throw Big Ten/SEC money at the less-watched Pac-12. What’s more important to its members: Revenue or exposure?

In Alabama’s spring game, the defense, led by Will Anderson, destroyed the offensive line, giving Heisman winner Bryce Young no time to operate. How concerned are you about Bama’s OL? Or is the Bama defense just that good?

Ken, New York

I have far more concerns about Alabama’s opponents than I do Alabama.

We saw Kansas basketball win a national championship a couple of weeks ago. Is Kansas football ever going to be good? Is there hope on the horizon?

Frank R.

There is. In fact, as of this exact moment I’m the most optimistic I’ve been about Kansas football in a decade. Why? They hired a legitimately good coach.

Think about the previous coaches Kansas hired post-Mark Mangino. First, it was Turner Gill, who had one winning season in four years at Buffalo. Mind you, I thought he’d do well. Buffalo had been absolutely terrible prior to his arrival, and he led the Bulls to a surprise MAC championship. But in hindsight, it was a fairly limited resume.

From there: Charlie Weis (disaster from a mile away), David Beaty (cheap and underqualified) and Les Miles (by then a football dinosaur). Just complete administrative incompetence spanning three different athletic directors.

But lo and behold, despite the job not coming open until the spring, and despite Kansas first having to hire a new AD, Travis Goff, before he could then go hire a new football coach, Goff landed Lance Leipold, a guy I’d ranked among my top 25 coaches barely a month before. Leipold is more than proven, having won six national championships at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater and taken Buffalo to a 10-win season and three consecutive bowls. His first Kansas team finished 2-10, but the Jayhawks got better down the stretch, memorably beating Texas and taking TCU and West Virginia to the wire. And that was all before signing a single recruit.

Leipold has still got a massive rebuilding challenge on his hands, but history tells us a good coach can be successful just about anywhere. You heard it here first: Leipold will get Kansas to a bowl game within the next two seasons.

Yes, players got paid before (NIL), but it’s possible to talk a guy out of $50,000 to come to your college. It’s wayyyy more difficult to talk a guy out of $500,000. In the past, donors would help fund improvements for schools to get even; now that money is transitioning to players only and will hurt the university as a whole. It’s sad that things are changing so much for the worse and the sport we love may not even be recognizable even five or six years from now. Where do we go from here to salvage some semblance of the sport we have always loved?

Peyton L., Wichita

I’ve said this before in various forms, but in my experience, when people say “the sport they have always loved,” they’re referring largely to the way college football was when they first fell in love with it. Every major change that comes along, positive or negative, chips away at our romanticized version of it.

If, for example, you started following college football in the 1980s, you’ve experienced every major conference radically changing its membership (and in a couple cases, going extinct); scholarship reductions; going from the old bowl system to the BCS to the CFP; the number of bowls more than doubling; coaches salaries skyrocketing; the near-extinction of the wishbone, the I-formation and huddles; and the rise of the spread, Air Raid and hurry-up offenses.

I hate to break it to you, but this was already very much not “some semblance of the sport you have always loved” long before NIL became a thing. And yet you still watch and enjoy it. So why would we assume that THIS will be the change that brings down the whole enterprise?

Right now, between the one-time transfer exception and the rise of NIL collectives, we’re all experiencing whiplash. Those are two particularly profound changes to have occurred almost simultaneously. And change is always unsettling. I’ve moved houses twice since 2013, and both times it took me months to actually start liking my new place rather than obsessing over everything wrong with it. Kind of like how this new NIL stuff feels very … unfinished, at the moment.

But eventually, my new house felt normal. Eventually, so will this new version of college football. But it may feel very unsettling in the meantime.

(Photo: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)

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