February 13, 2009

Mailbag: Don't expect a new face in Heisman race

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What do Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush have in common?

Obviously, they all played at USC and all won the Heisman Trophy after outstanding seasons. But they also set the table for the Heisman campaigns with brilliant seasons the preceding year.

In fact, Leinart passed for more yardage (3,556) in '03 than he did when he won the Heisman in '04.

Garrett, the '65 recipient, rushed for 948 yards in '64. Simpson led the nation in rushing in '67 before winning the Heisman in '68. White rushed for 1,859 yards and Allen gained 1,563 before their Heisman season. Palmer threw for 2,717 yards in '01 before receiving the Heisman in '02. Bush set up his '05 Heisman campaign by accumulating 2,330 all-purpose yards and scoring 15 touchdowns in '04.

Based on that trend, a talented USC back would have to be considered, at best, a dark horse in this year's race.

Need elaboration? Read on in this week's mailbag.

A stacked deck

From Milo in Berkeley, Calif.: Why isn't USC running back Joe McKnight considered one of the front-runners for the Heisman? His situation seems almost perfectly in tune with that of Reggie Bush several years ago − the explosive, hyper-talented back on an explosive offense. Sure, he'll have to share carries with two other backs as opposed to one, but are you honestly telling me Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable will total more carries than LenDale White did? McKnight will be the featured weapon on what will likely be the top offense in the country.

No disrespect intended toward McKnight, but he probably shouldn't be listed among the top 10 contenders for the 2009 Heisman.

There is no argument that he's dangerous and exciting. But even the most blindly loyal USC fan would have to acknowledge that he's been terribly inconsistent. Injuries have been an issue, and he does share time with Johnson and Gable. McKnight scored just three touchdowns and had 905 yards of total offense this past season.

Three of his teammates posted more yardage than he did.

In addition, consider the players who are returning from '08. The top three players in 2008 Heisman voting quarterbacks Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Colt McCoy of Texas and Tim Tebow of Florida are returning, and that trio represents the front-runners.

Frankly, McKnight cannot go into the '09 season considered the front-runner among Pac-10 running backs. Seriously, can McKnight be rated ahead of Cal's Jahvid Best, Oregon's LeGarrette Blount or Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers?

That wasn't the case for Bush entering his Heisman-winning year of '05. Though White was the Trojans' leading rusher in 2004, Bush had more than distinguished himself by rushing for 908 yards, catching passes for 509 yards and posting 376 yards on punt returns. He'd scored 15 touchdowns and averaged a team-leading 179.2 all-purpose yards in '04.

Going into '05, Bush was highly regarded and a serious Heisman contender. He backed that up with a tremendous season and became USC's seventh Heisman recipient.

Don't completely discount McKnight's chances to be the Trojans' eighth winner. He's fast. He's elusive. He can be spectacular. After all, he did average more than 7.0 yards per carry and more than 9.0 yards per reception last season. Maybe all the elements will come together in an injury-free season and he'll have a huge year.

But until he shows he can be consistently spectacular, the comparisons to Bush aren't realistic.

Not a sure thing

From Ernest in Columbia, S.C.: Given the players returning and those who could possibly contribute this season, what do you think of Clemson's chances of posting at least eight victories?

That's going to be tough. I could see the Tigers going 9-3. I could also see them finishing 5-7 in what should be an improved ACC.

Even though exciting running back C.J. Spiller opted to pass up the NFL draft and return for his senior season, the Tigers have to replace their quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver. Defensively, the Tigers should be stout, which will enhance their possibilities of reaching at least eight wins.

But I'm skeptical. That's probably because Clemson has underachieved so much in recent seasons.

Then again, maybe lower expectations will lead to a surprising season.

Lincoln longs for title

From Ernie in Arlington, Texas: While this is only the second year under coach Bo Pelini, do you see Nebraska winning the Big 12 North? I know the North has nowhere near the talent of the top South teams, but other than maybe Kansas and Colorado, who else has a shot?

The 'Huskers made impressive strides in their first season under Pelini. They improved from five victories in '07 to nine in '08, including a Gator Bowl win over Clemson. They also had close losses to Virginia Tech and Texas Tech, so optimism is understandably high in Lincoln.

Just this decade, we've seen the giant steps programs can make in a coach's second year. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Ohio State's Jim Tressel and Florida's Urban Meyer won national championships in their second seasons, and Alabama improved by five victories, to 12-2, in its second year under Nick Saban.

Rice posted a school-record 10 victories this past season its second under David Bailiff. UCF posted eight wins in its second season under George O'Leary after going winless in his first season. North Carolina doubled its victory total from four to eight in Butch Davis' second year. In '07, Minnesota managed one victory in Tim Brewster's first season; this past season, the Gophers won seven.

Nebraska made significant improvement on defense last season. That climb figures to continue as Pelini gets more players to fit his system. But the 'Huskers need to replace starting quarterback Joe Ganz and their top two receivers from last season. A new quarterback and unproven receivers is not a recipe for success in the offense-oriented Big 12.

Nebraska will be a factor in the Big 12 North. The Huskers may finish as high as second. But Kansas returns quarterback Todd Reesing and receiver Dezmon Briscoe, who is one of the most explosive players in the nation, so I have to go with the Jayhawks.

Tough Nutt?

From Matt in Hernando, Miss.: Where do you see Ole Miss in the SEC West next year? Do the Rebels have a chance to win the division and maybe even the SEC?

The Rebels will be a factor in the West. Honestly, the only reason to be apprehensive about the Rebels is their history.

Jevan Snead is the best quarterback in the division. Dexter McCluster might be the most explosive player in the SEC. Defensive end Greg Hardy's decision to skip the NFL draft was a bonus. Overall, the Rebels return nine offensive and eight defensive starters from a team that posted nine victories, including a bowl victory over Texas Tech and an upset of national champion Florida in Gainesville.

And coach Houston Nutt is in his second year in Oxford, which as mentioned above often leads to additional success. He's had a chance to bolster depth, too.

If those were the elements defining Alabama or LSU, there probably would be predictions of national championships. But Ole Miss still has something to prove.

Alabama is going to be rugged again. LSU figures to bounce back from this past season's substandard showing. Both have questions at quarterback. And both have to play at Ole Miss this season.

Most observers project Ole Miss as a top-10 caliber team next season. No argument here. But can the Rebels be counted on to finish ahead of both Alabama and LSU? History says no.

Next season may be different, but I'd probably pick Alabama to win the West again. And I think Florida repeats as SEC champion.

Money matters

From David in Elizabethtown, Ky.: BCS idea: A highly prestigious program with BCS gripes, such as USC or Texas, goes on a strike and refuses to play football games until the system is changed. One team is a good start, but others would be sure to follow. If school presidents, athletic directors, coaches, senators and President Barack Obama give full support, would this work? Is it possible?

No, that really doesn't seem like a possibility.

Look at it this way. Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium seats more than 90,000. Let's be conservative and say tickets are $50. That means for each home game, Texas brings in at least $4.5 million.

Throw in concession sales, TV deals and broadcast fees, and it's obvious Texas and any program of that ilk makes a mountain of money on each home game. That's why so many teams strive to schedule seven or eight home games.

Those schools and their conference brethren with whom they share revenue are cashing huge checks when they go to bowl games, especially BCS bowl games, so there is no real incentive to change the system.

Fans don't like it. The media, by and large, don't like it. Many coaches don't like it. President Obama doesn't like it.

But the college presidents like it and they're who matters.

On most campuses, football funds the entire athletic program, so there is no way a college president would allow a boycott.

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