February 20, 2009

Mailbag: 10 victories remains a worthy goal

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Ten wins don't come easily.

Even in this day of 12-game regular-season schedules, posting double-digit victory totals is difficult. This past season, 20 of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams won at least 10 games. That's 16.7 percent.

Five of those teams Oregon, Rice, Missouri, Georgia and Virginia Tech needed a bowl victory to get to 10.

So if 10 wins is a tough task in an age when some teams play as many as 14 games in a season, imagine the difficulty when schedules included just 10 or 11 games.

The Web site cfbdatawarehouse.com, which has scads of college football statistics, shows that Oklahoma leads the nation with 31 10-win seasons. Alabama is second with 30.

Notre Dame, perhaps the most storied program in college football history, has 15. But it should be noted that from 1925-69, the Irish did not participate in bowls, which compromised their chances of 10-win seasons. Consequently, 11 of Notre Dame's 10-win seasons have come since 1970.

In the late '80s and early '90s, the Irish came to expect 10-win seasons. From 1988-93, they posted at least 10 wins in five of six seasons.

Times change.

Notre Dame has managed only 10 wins in the past two seasons combined its lowest two-year total since combining for seven wins in 1962 and '63.

But, hey, the Irish posted seven victories in '08, so the program may be climbing. That's what Irish fans would love to think. Some just want to be loved, as we see in this week's mailbag.

Magic number

From Michael in Franklin, Tenn.: I just want to see you show some love for Notre Dame. Picking up five-star linebacker Manti Te'o and having some serious momentum heading into 2010 recruiting, do you see Charlie Weis and Notre Dame heading in the right direction?

Love for Notre Dame? Oh, Michael, you just do not know what you ask.

Rewind to Jan. 2, 1978. A 16-year-old kid shivers in a frigid Cotton Bowl, rooting for No. 1 Texas. He's sitting in a bleacher section bathed in green and gold. Three friends and that 16-year-old it was me left early in the fourth quarter that day, humbled by a 38-10 loss, unmercifully taunted and soaked in beer and soda thrown on us by Irish fans. That was the first day a kid from Dallas would be tormented by Joe Montana and I won't even bring up that pass to Dwight Clark.

Since, I have married into a Notre Dame family. My sister-in-law in Brownsville, Texas, always phones to gloat over every Irish victory though the volume of calls obviously has decreased substantially the past couple of years.

But we get older, we get wiser, we forgive (although obviously we don't forget). I'm no longer a Notre Dame hater, just an interested observer. And my observation though maybe not shared by the masses is that Notre Dame is making strides.

The defense was respectable this past season and seven starters return. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen made significant improvement. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd will be one of the best receiving duos in the nation. But the offensive line must get better and the running game must be upgraded.

That's possible. Ten starters return on offense, including four linemen and running back Armando Allen. Plus, four-star running back prospects Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are coming in and could provide a boost.

Overall, Notre Dame projects to be significantly better. With a favorable schedule, the Irish should add to this past season's seven-victory total.

I'd say nine wins are possible in 2009, and 10 isn't out the question.

That's a prediction based on reason, not on love. After all, that would mean 10 gloating phone calls from the sister-in-law.

Tough formula

From Nick in Webster, Mich.: College football has a unique, prestigious and exciting postseason. It's the only sport in the world where one loss could mean the end of your season. Why can't people accept the fact that every team is in the same system, therefore it is fair? Personally, the bowl season is the major reason I respect college football 10 times more than the NFL.

Sorry, Nick. I'm not accepting that the postseason formula is fair to everybody.

You say it's a fair system because one loss could mean the end of your season. I say it's not because a team can go undefeated, post multiple victories over "Big Six" opponents and still not have a chance to play for the national championship.

Hey, tell Utah in 2004 and 2008, Boise State in 2006 and Auburn in 2004 the system is fair. Tell that to Texas and USC in '08, too.

Maybe none of those teams would have won the national championship in an eight-team playoff. But each should have had at least the chance to be in contention.

A tough sell

From Chris in Huntsville, Ala.: Auburn had the talent to win the SEC West last season and was a preseason favorite. With most of the players returning and with new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, does Auburn have a chance at winning the SEC West or at least making a bowl this season?

The Tigers were picked by many to win the SEC West in '08. Instead, they finished 5-7 even though the SEC was weaker than usual.

The optimism surrounding the Tigers going into the 2008 season was based on the return of nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters and a new offensive coordinator who was supposed to bring the spread to the Plains. Well, Tony Franklin's offense never caught on. Auburn quarterbacks threw just seven touchdown passes all season and the Tigers ranked 110th in the nation in scoring offense.

So what's different for this season? Well, coach Tommy Tuberville, a proven winner, was fired and replaced by unproven Gene Chizik. Malzahn will be the third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, and the defense doesn't figure to be as potent with tackle Sen'Derrick Marks and cornerback Jerraud Powers leaving early for the NFL draft.

I wouldn't be surprised if Auburn reached a bowl in '09, but I wouldn't pick the Tigers to win the West. Frankly, I'd probably rank them no higher than fourth.

I've been around long enough to know that it's unwise to discount a perennially contending program such as Auburn even if there is a new coach and significant personnel losses. But I also know Auburn scored fewer than 20 points in seven games last season, and it will take more than Malzahn's presence to make that change dramatically.

Bruins have hope

From Azron in Asheville, N.C.: How long will it be before UCLA can actually compete with USC on anything close to equal terms? UCLA has had back-to-back top-20 recruiting classes, but USC is always stacked with talent. Can UCLA dethrone the Trojans within the next few years?

While no one can foresee the future, they can find encouragement from the past.

Look at Ohio State. The Buckeyes went 2-10-1 against Michigan in a 13-year period before Jim Tressel's arrival in Columbus. Since then, the Buckeyes are 7-1 against the Wolverines. Texas won three in a row against Oklahoma from 1997-99. But in 2000, coach Bob Stoops' second year there, the Sooners started a five-game winning streak. And don't forget that Alabama ended a six-game losing streak to Auburn this past season in coach Nick Saban's second year with the Tide. Tables can be turned quickly when a new coach takes over a program.

But the problem facing coach Rick Neuheisel and UCLA is that USC is showing no signs of slowing down. The Trojans just signed their fifth consecutive top-eight recruiting class.

Meanwhile, Neuheisel's two UCLA classes have been ranked 13th and 14th. That's better than each of UCLA's five classes before Neuheisel took over and significantly better than four of them.

Obviously, the talent level is being upgraded in Westwood. But getting the talent is just part of the issue. Now, those players have to be developed and mature. UCLA figures to be more competitive with USC when the players of Neuheisel's first two recruiting classes are juniors and seniors.

50 years and counting

From Errol in Larose, La.: Will LSU ever have another Heisman Trophy winner?

LSU's only Heisman recipient was Billy Cannon in 1959. Since then, three Tigers have finished in the top five of the balloting Jerry Stovall (second in 1962), Bert Jones (fourth in 1972) and Charles Alexander (fifth in 1978).

But LSU currently is playing at the highest level in the program's history. The Tigers' recruiting classes consistently are rated among the nation's best. Each year, they bring in great talent. So it's just a matter of time before a great player has a great year on a great LSU team and wins the Heisman. It will happen.

But who knows when?

Hey, it could be worse. Alabama and Tennessee are still waiting for their first Heisman winners.

A grand tradition

From Andy in Austin, Texas: Texas has a history of great running backs, but this past season's team was without a great or even good running back. Which Texas player(s) could potentially be a 1,000-yard back this fall?

Texas produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher for 11 consecutive seasons from 1995-2005. That group included Shon Mitchell, Ricky Williams, Hodges Mitchell, Cedric Benson and Vince Young.

This past season's leading rusher was quarterback Colt McCoy with 561 yards. In fact, the Longhorns' most productive running back was Vondrell McGee, who rushed for just 376 yards.

Texas has all kinds of possibilities at running back, including McGee and Foswhitt Whittaker, who both started at times in '08. Redshirt freshman Tre' Newton the son of former NFL offensive lineman Nate Newton could get into the mix, as well as incoming freshman Chris Whaley, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder who rushed for almost 2,000 yards as a high school senior at Madisonville (Texas) High.

The Longhorns want to upgrade their running game, and that will be a key focus in the spring. I'd guess Texas will continue its running back-by-committee approach and probably won't have a running back reach 1,000 yards. If one does, the bet here is it would be Whaley.

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