Senior College Football Columnist

Mailbag: Georgia still a favorite to win the SEC East?

Here is this week's mailbag. As always, send your questions to me via Twitter to @BFeldmanCBS:

From @bkjones1977: I assume UGA has lost Crowell. Where are they in the east now?

Isaiah Crowell's arrest early Friday morning was the latest jolt to the Georgia football program. You're talking about a guy who was, according to some recruiting services, the top tailback in the 2011 recruiting class. Many even called Crowell the most important recruit Mark Richt had landed in his decade in Athens. Still, given the littany of issues Crowell had had in his year with the program, it didn't seem like much of a surprise when Richt booted him from the program later in the day Friday. This might actually be a case of addition by subtraction. After all, it's also not like the Bulldogs didn't already have a bunch of other key guys with off-field issues either. Stuff like that has to concern you because it speaks to issues of the leadership in the lockerroom.

You look at Georgia's talent over the past few seasons and you feel like this program has been underwhelming and underachieving (UGA has only ranked higher than No. 10 once in the past seven seasons) and it's no stretch to think a lot of it stems from a lack of focus and discipline and maturity, which would dovetail with the Bulldogs long list of off-field arrests.

The Dawgs do have two highly regarded freshman backs in Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. I've heard a lot of good things about Marshall. But it's a roll of the dice to count on unproven guys to be a focal point of an offense, especially one with a suspect offensive line. Georgia, though, does have a very solid QB running the show in Aaron Murray. Better still, the Dawgs should have one of the country's top five defenses. They also have, by far, the SEC's easiest schedule. They do have a cupcake opener with Buffalo coming to Athens before heading to Mizzou in Week Two.

I still lean to them over South Carolina and Florida to win the SEC East, but this Crowell news eroded some of my confidence in them. Not just because of his ability on the field but you have to wonder about that team chemistry when prominent players keeps getting in trouble. Will seeing a guy with his kind of pedigree getting booted send a message to his teammates? It'll be interesting to see how they respond.

From @mgilson14: Your thoughts on the 4-team playoff system? Sounds alot like a plus-one system but named a playoff to make ppl happy.. for now.

I like it, although there is still so much about it we don't know yet. Of most interest is how they'll determine which four teams are best. Who is going to be on that Selection Committee? How big will it be? What criteria will they use?

That said, I like that it's moving to a four-team format. The BCS, for all of its flaws, was still better than what we had in college football before. It tried to give us a No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up, and many of those games we wouldn't have had in the old system.

I've heard a lot of people lament four teams is not big enough, including from several coaches I spoke to this week.

Is an eight-team format better than a four-team playoff? That came up a lot in these conversations. No doubt there are going to be years where there appear to be five or six equally deserving schools as was the case in 2009 and in 2008. Some years it may only be two or three.

The reason why so many people are skittish about a playoff was because they know that college football has, by far, the best regular season in sports. Every game can matter in a way they simply cannot in other sports. And the connectivity that inspires from coast to coast is a very cool dynamic about this sport. Last year's Oklahoma State-Iowa State Friday night game was a great example of that. That game mattered to a lot of folks outside of just Oklahoma and Iowa. The drama and anticipation kept building as the Cyclones upset bid mounted. People could see the potential of the Cowboys' dream season getting ruined that night. They also knew how that would impact other programs.

You don't get that in other sports when you can have a 9-7 team win a Super Bowl.

No one inside the sport wants to risk spoiling that aspect of college football, and if you get too big of a playoff, you will end up with a handful of teams that simply had too many stumbles in the regular season. This also prompts another related topic: how should pollsters or committee members define "best" in this deal? Is it more about most deserving or potentially most dominant? The history of this sport suggests it's been more the former than the latter.

Even eight teams seems too forgiving. If you look at last year's No. 6, 7 and 8 ranked teams in the BCS before the bowls, you'd have a hard time making a compelling case that they had the types of regular seasons to merit being a national title team. Arkansas lost a pair of games by 24 points each and beat three ranked teams—two of which didn't finish the year ranked. Boise State, which only beat one ranked team, lost at home to then-unranked TCU. K-State, lost consecutive games to the Oklahoma schools, including by 31 to OU. The Wildcats also only beat one ranked team all season, Baylor.

One other key point to keep in mind here: with conference realignment (college athletics version of Darwinism as colleague Dennis Dodd put it), things have consolidated. With Utah and TCU, among others joining the power conferences as well as West Virginia moving to the Big 12, more teams that were in that gray area now are in the scrum of the true power conferences. They will no longer be operating in what has become the margins of the sport. Of course, that doesn't mean that Boise State or BYU or NIU or someone else couldn't get squeezed out in the midst of a dream season. There is no easy answer here. You can't please everyone.

But, this is a slippery slope. People drift towards how exciting a tournament could and would be, but in the process, the significance of the regular season and what teams have done is likely to end up diminished.

From @ajg1865: Where do you project Illinois to finish in the Leaders Division?

I expect the Illini battlw with Penn State and Purdue behind Wisconsin, which is a strong favorite in the Leaders. (I'd have them behind Ohio State as well, but the Buckeyes aren't in the running for the championship because of the NCAA sanctions.)

Ron Zook left behind a lot of good athletes, particularly on defenses for Tim Beckman, but, same as with everyone else in the running for the Leaders title, so much is uncertain about the QB play.

Nathan Scheelhaase, a gifted dual-threat guy, has started a lot of games for the Illini, but he hasn't shown enough as a passer to instill confidence that this can be a top 20 team. His 13-8 TD-INT ratio was underwhelming and that was while having first-rounder A.J. Jenkins in the offense. This group completely fell apart in the second half of 2011, going the final six games of the regular season without scoring more than 17 points in a game. That's stunning. Three times they were held to a TD or less, including once by Minnesota. My hunch is the new offense should be a good thing for Scheelhaase, but we'll probably find out pretty much everything we need to know about them by their first three Big Ten games: Penn State and then at Wisconsin and at Michigan. I'd be surprised if they emerge from that any better than 1-2. I'll say the Illini finish 7-5 and tied for third in the division.

From @jacodallis: urban meyer wins national title at Ohio st next year??

The only thing we know for sure is that he can't win one this year (since Ohio State's NCAA sanctions.) In Meyer's last two coaching stops—at Utah and at Florida—his teams made significant jumps in the rankings. At Utah, they went 12-0 and finished in the top five (after ranking No. 21 the previous season). At UF, the Gators went 13-1 and won the national title after being ranked No. 16 in the Coaches Poll. Meyer knows exactly what he's doing when it comes to running a football program, and I expect him to make a big impact on the Buckeyes right away. From talking to sources inside that program, I know he's already made a big impact on his assistants.

As I wrote when Meyer took the job, Braxton Miller's talents really excite him. Miller is a great fit for what they're doing in Columbus. Most of the projected starters on this year's offensive line also figure to be back in 2013. That, and the added seasoning for Miller, bode well for the near future.

The downside: they have a handful of key guys, led by DL John Simon, who will be seniors this fall. On top of that highly touted defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, a junior, also may move on after this season. I'm not saying that I've heard that he is already considering such a jump but it's no stretch that he might bolt given his potential. Stuff like that, as well as how it relates to some productive DBs who are juniors, makes it very hard to project just how good the Buckeyes will be in 2013 at this point. Meyer's track record and his QB's talents suggest they should be a problem for everyone in the Big Ten. National title? I'm not going that far at this point, but if you said Top 10 or not? I'd say yes to that.



Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
 
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