May 30, 2008

A new coach can change things, sometimes

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
May 23: The next step
May 16: The weak link?
May 9: Another crazy season?
May 2: Bad rap for Big East?

A new coach with new schemes, new demands and new expectations often can turn a struggling team around immediately.

It has happened a couple of times in the Big 12.

For example, in 1997, Texas under John Mackovic struggled through a 4-7 season that included a 66-3 loss to UCLA. The next season, Mack Brown took over and the Longhorns went 9-3, and haven't posted fewer than nine victories with Brown at the helm. Under John Blake, Oklahoma endured three consecutive losing seasons from 1996-98. Bob Stoops took over in 1999 and led the Sooners to a 7-5 finish. The next season, they won the national championship.

Maybe a turnaround will happen in the Big 12 again this season.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Huskers on rise?

Do you think Nebraska can right the ship with Bo Pelini at the helm? In my opinion, Nebraska has good athletes on defense that Pelini can coach to effectiveness. And I believe that (quarterback) Joe Ganz was no fluke last year and will lead a very good offense with a great running game. The receiving corps is young but talented, and the offensive line could be among the deepest and most talented in the country. I go with 10 wins, including a bowl victory. What are your thoughts?

Bryan in Nebraska
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The Huskers will be better than last season's 5-7. But I'm not as optimistic as you.

Offensively, the Huskers are fine. They were last season, too. Yeah, there was a stretch in which they scored 14 or fewer points in three consecutive games, but they also scored at least 31 points in seven games. And when Ganz started the last three games, he threw 15 touchdown passes and threw for more than 400 yards in each game.

Marlon Lucky is a good running back who could get into the Heisman Trophy discussion, and the line is indeed solid. But the Huskers lack a proven big-play receiver. Still, offense isn't the issue. Defense is.

Nebraska's defense was historically inept last season, and the level of improvement there will determine the Huskers' success.

Pelini has coached top-20 defensive units in each of his five seasons as a college defensive coordinator, and his defensive expertise and influence certainly will make a difference.

But we all know the saying that "Jimmys and Joes beat X's and O's" and we'll have to see whether the Huskers have the defensive personnel to make an enormous difference. A better scheme and more demanding coach can only take you so far.

Nebraska's defensive line returns intact, but that same line was woeful in 2007. Also, the Huskers ranked next-to-last in the nation in forcing turnovers last season, so that stat has to improve.

Furthermore, Nebraska's schedule is no picnic. You're predicting 10 victories, and that may be right. But with Virginia Tech, Missouri, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado on the schedule, seven regular-season victories would appear more realistic.

I'll give the Huskers the benefit of the doubt and say they'll pull at least one upset and call for an 8-4 finish in 2008, which I believe most Nebraska fans would welcome as a definite sign of progress.

Teacher, or pupil?

Now that Bret Bielema has been the coach for a couple of years and has a track record of his own in recruiting, do you think he is outrecruiting (former Wisconsin coach) Barry Alvarez?

Scott in Madison, Wis.
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Bielema's three recruiting classes have been solid, ranked between No. 34 and No. 42 in the nation by Rivals.com. By comparison, Alvarez's last three recruiting classes ranked between No. 30 and No. 40 nationally by Rivals.com. Make of that what you want.

The bottom line is that Bielema has posted 21 victories as coach, and that's why you recruit to get victories.

Bielema has signed 10 four- or five-star prospects, while Alvarez's last three classes included seven such ranked prospects, so one could make the argument that Bielema is having a little more success in attracting top-level talent.

But even if that is the case, Bielema has the advantage of having taken over an established Wisconsin program; the Badgers had posted at least eight victories in eight of the 10 seasons before he took over as coach.

In contrast, when Alvarez took over at Wisconsin in 1990, the Badgers had endured five consecutive losing seasons and hadn't managed more than seven victories in a season in 27 years. So, Alvarez deserves some measure of credit for any success Bielema has. And I bet Bielema would say that, too.

Too early to tell?

There is no doubt in my mind that Tim Tebow is one of the best athletes in college football, and has the size and speed to get into the NFL. Notice I said "get into," not "play." If and when he gets into the league, where do you have him playing? Will he end up like other quarterbacks who changed positions, then kind of faded away?

Josh from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, UK
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We're putting the cart before the horse because Tebow still has two seasons of eligibility remaining, and he doesn't strike me a guy who will be an early entry into the draft.

But when he does finish his college career, my bet is that Tebow will play quarterback in the NFL. And I think he can be successful.

He's big, he's mobile, he's smart, he has a strong arm, he's been on winning teams, he has great integrity and, from all I've heard, his teammates really like him. What else are you looking for?

I know Tebow has detractors, and maybe they see something missing in his game I've yet to pick up on.

Of course, there are a lot of great college quarterbacks who failed in the NFL, so nothing is assured. But I could make a long list of mediocre NFL quarterbacks. And that list indicates to me that Tebow can have a successful pro career some day.

Tigers turn?

I'm a student at Appalachian State, and I made the trip to the Big House to see us upset Michigan last September. Hopefully, I can make the trip down to the bayou to see us take on LSU on Aug. 30. What kind of game are you expecting after Ryan Perrilloux's dismissal? I know LSU is loaded with blue-chippers and talent and App State isn't sneaking up on anybody this season. But I still think we have a good shot at making it interesting.

Andrew in Wilson, N.C.
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That's a matchup of reigning national champions, so of course it will be interesting for a while, anyway.

Defensive speed was a question mark for Michigan last season, and Armanti Edwards and Co. showed those questions were justified. But speed won't be an issue for LSU's defense. And, as you mentioned, the Mountaineers won't be sneaking up on the Tigers. In fact, I would expect the Tigers to be pumped up about playing the Mountaineers and intent on not being a victim of an even greater season-opening upset.

With Edwards, though, Appalachian State will have the edge at quarterback, and how he fares against LSU's defense will be intriguing.

Same old Tech?

I would like your opinion on Texas Tech. I am a die-hard Red Raider and have been getting really excited about this season because we return so much talent from a nine-win team with much more talent coming, especially at defensive line. I feel like our defense is going to continue to improve with coordinator Ruffin McNeill at the helm. We really don't have any glaring weaknesses other than our past (we lose games we are supposed to win). What do you see for Texas Tech in '08?

Matt in Denver
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You have every reason to be excited about this season, Matt. This will be the most anticipated football season in Lubbock since Rodney Allison was the Red Raiders' quarterback. How's that for a blast from the past?

There are a lot of reasons to like Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are coming off a nine-win season. Graham Harrell led the nation in passing. Michael Crabtree is the nation's best receiver. The offensive line is back intact, although the issue with center Stephen Hamby, who has been indicted for assault, is a concern.

So is the defense. Yes, end Brandon SeSay, a juco transfer who originally signed with Georgia out of high school, is the type of defensive prospect that Tech has rarely gotten. And getting tackle Chris Perry, a transfer from Miami, definitely is a boost.

Yet until Tech actually shows it can be sound defensively, there should be apprehension, too. The defense supposedly played better after McNeill was named defensive coordinator following the loss to Oklahoma State last season, but the Raiders allowed at least 28 points in five of their last six games. Only lowly Baylor was held below that mark.

Still, the 2008 schedule couldn't be more favorable. The first seven games include two Division I-AA opponents, four teams coming off losing records and Texas A&M, which Tech has dominated in recent years.

That could set up Tech for a championship run in late October and November. But winning a championship likely would require the Red Raiders to win at Kansas and at Oklahoma and beat Texas and Oklahoma State in Lubbock.

Winning at home isn't a stretch, but Tech hasn't been a great road team. Last season, the Red Raiders were 1-3 in Big 12 games away from Lubbock. In the past four seasons, Tech has posted just two road victories over conference opponents that finished with a winning record.

I think Tech could finish as high as second in the Big 12 South, but I'd still take Oklahoma to win the division. I do believe it's possible for Texas Tech to post 10 victories, which it hasn't accomplished since 1976, when Allison was playing.

Baby steps

Are Jevan Snead, Dexter McCluster, Michael Oher and Greg Hardy and the additions of Devin Thomas and Enrique Davis enough to get the Ole Miss Rebels back to their winning ways? If there any reason to think that Houston Nutt can take us to the next level, or will it simply be a return to David Cutcliffe-style football, with a bunch of trips to the Independence Bowl?

Sam in Alabama
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Wait a minute. The Indy Bowl is the next level for Ole Miss, isn't it?

A fan of a team that hasn't managed more than four victories in any of the past four seasons shouldn't disparage any bowl.

By the way, I watched a Cutcliffe-coached Ole Miss team beat a solid Oklahoma State team in the 2003 Cotton Bowl, which is more prestigious than the Independence Bowl.

True, Eli Manning was quarterback of that 10-win team, but I've seen teams with excellent quarterbacks struggle, too. Gosh, Stanford went 5-6 in 1982 with John Elway at quarterback. Vanderbilt won five games with Jay Cutler at quarterback in 2005. But I digress.

Ole Miss has some exceptional front-line talent with Oher, the Jerry brothers and Hardy, but there also are some shaky areas. Still, Snead will be a significant upgrade at quarterback and Davis figures to provide a big-play element at running back. McCluster has the same kind of potential at receiver.

Add a proven coach in Nutt, and there is reason for optimism in Oxford. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Rebels bounce back from last year's three-win debacle and post six or seven victories.

That probably would put them in the Independence Bowl.

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




 

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