February 17, 2011

Mailbag: Finding reasons for hope

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Twice in the past five seasons, the SEC has boasted six teams that finished ranked among the nation's top 25.

Another season, the SEC had five, and twice it had four.

On average, the SEC has accounted for 20 percent of the nation's final nationally ranked teams.

The Big 12 also has had a high number of ranked teams in that span, and in bowl games against the SEC, the Big 12 is 2-8.

The Big Ten has fared well in the past five seasons and is 6-8 in bowl games vs. the SEC. That includes two losses in the national championship game.

That's why there is really no argument that the SEC is the strongest conference in college football. Yet, it hasn't always been that way.

In the 1960s, a strong case could have been made for Big Ten supremacy. In the '70s, the old Big Eight might have been strongest with four national championships. Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado even finished first, second and third in the 1971 final AP poll.

Therefore, it's possible another conference may surpass the SEC as the football power. Which conference might that be? That's a topic for this week's mailbag.

Who's next?

With the SEC's recent dominance, it has become quite obvious that it is truly the best conference. So the debate would be which is the second-best conference now. Which of the other Big Six conferences is most likely to become the next SEC? How long do you think the SEC will remain as the unquestioned leader of college football?

Five consecutive national championships and a 29-17 bowl record in that span make it clear the SEC is the strongest league in college football. And with the talent pool in states such as Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, that designation doesn't figure to change in the near future.

Sure, a team from another conference will win a national championship sooner or later. Indeed, the past three championship games were close in the final minutes, so only a play or two has been the difference.

But the SEC still has more teams playing at a high level than any other conference. I don't see that changing any time soon.

If there is a conference with the potential to surpass the SEC, it would be the Pac-12.

No doubt, the general population of the Great Lakes states would vehemently disagree that it's the Big Ten. After all, Nebraska is joining and Michigan won't underachieve forever.

Still, the Pac-12, which adds Colorado and Utah this fall, appears on the verge of blowing past all other conferences except the SEC.

The Pac-10 largely had become stagnant under tired leadership. But new commissioner Larry Scott has injected much-needed energy and ambition, which was obvious last summer when he tried to lure half of the Big 12 into his conference.

I don't think the Pac-12 will be content any more to produce a couple of top-20 teams and be satisfied with sending its champion to the Rose Bowl, which previously seemed to be the case.

The Pac-12 has all kinds of advantages. California is the most populated state in the country and is overflowing with great athletes who can play college football at peak level. The state of Arizona is producing more and more high-level athletes. It may come as a surprise to some, but so is Utah. And though Nevada isn't technically a "Pac-12 state," it is west of the Rocky Mountains and excellent players are coming emerge from Las Vegas every year.

Sure, a lot of those players will migrate to the Big 12, the Big Ten and even the SEC, but most will opt not to travel 1,000 miles away from home and instead will stay in the Pac-12, especially as the league gets stronger and raises its national profile - which already is happening.

Oregon came tantalizingly close to beating Auburn in last season's national championship game. With the Nike money behind that program and coach Chip Kelly's offense, Oregon is growing into a bona-fide national power.

USC has had back-to-back "off years" by its standards, but anyone who thinks the Trojans won't build back into a national championship contender is mistaken. Even with NCAA sanctions, coach Lane Kiffin attracted one of the best recruiting classes in the country this year.

Washington once was a national power and is making significant progress under coach Steve Sarkisian. In the past two seasons, Stanford has shown what it's capable of with a good coach, though David Shaw has to prove he can be as effective as Jim Harbaugh was.

At times in the past 10 years, Cal has shown flashes of becoming a top-10 team despite having mundane facilities. Now, there is a plan to dramatically upgrade those facilities.

Look for similar upgrades in the coming years at Arizona State, an underachieving program that has had tremendous seasons in the past. Facility upgrades could bring needed consistency to Tempe.

Utah already is an established program. Arizona is getting better. Recent seasons show Oregon State cannot be overlooked. Sooner or later, UCLA has to wake from the coma it's in now.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few more Pac-12 vs. SEC matchups in the national championship game in the next several seasons.

Close to home

LSU won the national championship in 2003 and in 2007 - both of which happened in New Orleans. The 2011 championship game will be in New Orleans. With the quarterback situation and the loss of three great defenders, will the pattern continue?
Seoul, South Korea

The easy answer here would be no, especially with CB Patrick Peterson, LB Kelvin Sheppard and DT Drake Nevis gone from the defense. But it's a distinct possibility that trend will continue. (Cue the spooky music.)

LSU returns nine offensive and seven defensive starters from a team that went 11-2 and hammered Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

In fact, one could say entering next season, the Tigers' chances of winning the national championship would be better than they were in '03 or '07 simply because the starting quarterback returns. In '03, Matt Mauck was in his first season as a full-time starter while succeeding Marcus Randall. And in '07, Matt Flynn was a first-time starter, replacing Jamarcus Russell.

Yet, questions remain about returning starter Jordan Jefferson's passing ability. Last season, he completed just 56.5 percent of his passing attempts for only 1,411 yards. He threw more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (seven). That's enough of a reason to raise doubts about LSU.

But if coach Les Miles switches quarterbacks, that would be following the trend, too. (Cue spooky music again.) Plus, each of the past two champs has had a first-time starter at quarterback.

In addition, the past two national championship games have matched unbeaten teams. One loss can torpedo title aspirations, which is a scary thought considering LSU's schedule.

The Tigers open against Oregon at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. They also play a non-conference game at West Virginia. Their SEC schedule includes Florida, Auburn and Arkansas at home and Mississippi State and Alabama on the road. That's seven games against teams that won at least eight games last season.

Getting through that grind unscathed is unlikely.

Of course, LSU won the national title with a loss in '03 and with two losses in '07. That's one more trend the Tigers could continue. And one more reason to cue the spooky music.

Potential win

With all this talk about recruiting classes, what were the rankings of the recruiting classes for Auburn and Alabama three and four years ago?
Mobile, Ala

It was pointed out in last week's mailbag that since 2002, a team with a recruiting class ranked among the nation's top five by Rivals.com either won or played for a national championship within the next four years.

That bodes well for Alabama, which had the nation's top-ranked recruiting classes in '08 and '09.

Meanwhile, Auburn's classes were ranked 20th in '08 and 19th in '09. But their '10 class was ranked fourth, so the Tigers cannot be counted out.

No turning back

If the NFL shuts down, what are the chances the NCAA would reinstate those players who declared early for the draft (assuming they don't have an agent)?
Camilla, Ga

Though I haven't talked to an NCAA representative to get an official answer, I'd say no chance at all.

Keep in mind, the NFL draft is held in late April. A lockout, strike or whatever a work stoppage would be called wouldn't be finalized until after the draft.

Then again, anything is possible. The NCAA has been very... ahem ... flexible with its rules of late.

Not forgotten

I see you let a bit of the dark side show with the person who wrote the "Vision Problem" e-mail (Why get excited for National Signing Day?, Feb. 11). My father's half of the family is from Louisiana, so I have experience dealing with SEC fans. But when you were making your point about dominant programs, would it have killed you to reference Nebraska?

The teams included on the list - Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC, Virginia Tech and Boise State - are programs that were dominant in their conferences after the turn of the century.

As rich as Nebraska's history is, even the most die-hard Huskers would concede that Big Red did not dominate the Big 12. In fact, during their 15 seasons in Big 12 football, the Huskers won just two conference championships and did not even reach the championship game from 2000 to 2005; there was that thing with Texas, too.

But to your point, in the final days of the Big Eight, the Huskers were as dominating as any team could be. From 1991-95, Nebraska was 54-5-1, won five consecutive Big Eight titles and was national champion in '94 and '95 and shared the title in '97. That is the definition of dominance.

Now, somebody call a doctor. I'm feeling chest pains.

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