Mailbag: Battle for LA; underrated coaches and a playoff sleeper
UCLA dominated USC last year. With both programs reeling in the top two QB recruits in the country, how will the battle for Los Angeles shape up? That, along with a look at the most underrated coaches in college football and more in the mailbag.
Here is this week's mailbag. As always, you can send questions to me via Twitter to @BFeldmanCBS:
From @ZClanton15: how do you see the battle in LA shaping up between USC and UCLA over the next few years?
It should be fun to see. The rivalry is strong and will continue to heat up. Jim Mora's done a terrific job toughening up the Bruins and they've really taken it to the Trojans head-to-head. UCLA, like the rest of the Pac-12, has benefitted from the scholarship restrictions USC has dealt with the past couple of years, but now those are over. Then again, the Trojans are still going to be sorting out some depth concerns because of the sanctions a little longer.
Steve Sarkisian inherits a team with really good front-line talent. I'd guess they have better two-deep talent than the Bruins at every spot except QB, the O-line and probably linebacker (thanks in large part to difference-maker Myles Jack). Still, UCLA is very good at what it does scheme-wise and that quarterback, Brett Hundley, is a legit Heisman contender. UCLA also is loaded with some good young linemen on both sides of the ball, and it seems like it's been a long time since anyone has been able to say that. The Bruins are my pick to win the Pac-12 South this season, edging out the Trojans.
Going forward, USC's future, from a talent standpoint, shapes up well. There are 11 seniors on the 2014 squad, and really only two of them--LB Hayes Pullard and DB Josh Shaw--are even close to standouts, although it wouldn't be a stretch for USC to also lose DL Leonard Williams and WR Nelson Agholor to early NFL exits.
Another compelling layer to this is the two programs now have commits from the top two QB recruits in the country: Ricky Town for USC and Josh Rosen, who committed to UCLA on Thursday. I've been told by one coach that Rosen is the most talented quarterback recruit to come along in a few years. I've seen him a few times in person and his skills are very impressive. The 6-4, 205-pound Rosen, who will graduate from prep powerhouse St. John Bosco early, figures to get a shot to compete with the talented Asiantii Woulard in 2015.
Landing Rosen was a big statement for Mora locally. The buzz around this kid is big in the SoCal area. Rosen talked about trying to help recruit blue-chip WRs Christian Kirk and Cordell Broadus to UCLA too.
I'll go back to something Mora told me last month about years of uphill recruiting battles in Westwood. "We're still fighting the years and years of great teams that Southern Cal had," Mora said. "A lot of these kids in the area grew up watching Reggie Bush and the other greats. What we're trying to do is turn the tide as quickly as we can but sometimes it's a little slower than you want but it all starts with winning the game."
One thing I think is certain that Mora has accomplished: The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over. And, as long as Mora's in Westwood, I don't see it starting back up again.
From @Clarkamundson: Who are the most underrated HC's in the country?
So much of this depends on what you think the public perception of coaches are. In my mind the two top guys are Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, meaning I think they are as close to sure-thing, big winners no matter where they go at this point in their careers as you're gonna get. But I think you could make a strong case for K-State's Bill Snyder being mentioned with them as truly elite coaches given all he's accomplished at a place which was dreadful before he took over (and then it started to get pretty stale after he left under Ron Prince and then Snyder cranked it up again.) I'd put him atop the underrated list because as outstanding as he is, Snyder doesn't get talked about all that much.
I suspect a lot of that has to do with his persona, which is very low-key and not exactly forward-facing to the media. He's the opposite side of the coin compared to Steve Spurrier in that regard.
There are two below-the-radar coaches I'd put on that list:
*Louisiana-Lafayette's Mark Hudspeth, who at 46, is 93-33 as a head coach and makes under a million a year. He's a huge bargain for ULL.
*Ball State's Pete Lembo: Took over a program that was 6-18 the previous two seasons before he'd arrived. BSU has gone 19-7 since, including a 10-3 mark in 2013. Also had impressive stints at Elon and Lehigh. Another big bargain guy.
I also feel like Bob Stoops is actually pretty underrated these days, and that's not just because his Sooners are coming of a dominant win over Alabama in a BCS bowl. Stoops revitalized the OU program, won a national title, has spawned a bunch of head coaches and has still won over 80 percent of his games. People can take shots at the "Big Game Bob" moniker, but keep in mind he's beaten arch-rival Texas 64 percent of the time; he was 7-1 in the Big 12 title game; 11-2 against in-state rival OSU and he's 50-23 all-time against ranked opponents. That's pretty strong. Not bad for a program that had gone about a decade without a double-digit win season before Stoops showed up.
To a similar degree as Snyder, I think what Frank Beamer's done at Va. Tech also warrants even more respect. He put that program on the college football map and gave it an identity and he's kept producing Top 25 finishes (17). He's also won 67 percent of his games in 28 years at Tech.
From @arrington_kyle: Which non-conference game are you looking forward to the most?
Michigan State just finished off a fantastic season, winning the Big Ten and then beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The Spartans return a rising star in QB Connor Cook and have earned the rep for one of the best defensive systems in college football under DC Pat Narduzzi. On Sept. 6, the Spartans travel west again. This time to Autzen Stadium to face what I expect to be the best offense in the country with the Marcus Mariota-led Oregon Ducks (10 starters back on O) primed for a national title run. Can't wait for this one.
From @dgyn14: If the stars align, is there a non power conference team you could see making one of the four playoff slots?
Given the way the system is structured now, I think it's a real long shot for any team not in a power conference to crack the top four. One team that kinda fits the profile of a sleeper to watch is Houston. The Cougars have 17 starters back--eight on offense and nine on defense--led by rising star QB John O'Korn.
The 6-4, 210-pounder had a terrific debut season as a true freshman last year, throwing for over 3100 yards to go with a 28-10 TD-INT ratio. He was a great find for UH and he's got some studs to throw to in Deontay Greenberry, Daniel Spencer, along with one-time USC wideout Markeith Ambles who really came on late in the season. Those are three legit future NFL talents. Plus, Demarcus Ayers, a WR-KR, is another dynamic weapon. But that's just the top of things. UH has almost everything back: 94 percent of the team's 1,807 rushing yards from 2013 returns; 87 percent of its 1,048 tackles , along with 99 percent of its TFLs and 100 percent of its 31 sacks last season.
On paper, it looks like UH should have some big concerns at corner, where it lost both starters, but William Jackson, a rangy, fast JC transfer played a lot last season as did Turon Walker and the Cougars added two transfers. Lee Hightower from Boise State figures to be one of the best CBs in the AAC while Tyler White was a starter at Utah in the Pac-12 although Jackson's so talented White might not beat him out for a starting spot. That's a good sign for the Cougars of the talent at the position.
The schedule has one tricky non-conference game: at BYU in Week Three. The Cougars get UCF at home, but do have to travel to Cincinnati late in the season. Even if UH makes it through unbeaten, it will need a ton of help, but for any none power-league team, it's gotta start out with a 0 in the loss column.
I also considered the Knights, but they do have to replace Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson and in addition to the road trip to UH, has to play Penn State in Ireland; Mizzou at Mizzou and BYU.
Here are the early lines for big Week 5 games from Vegas
Georgia jumped four spots to No. 8, while Florida State dropped 14 spots to No. 25
Louisville and TCU get big-time bumps after conference rivals fell on Saturday
The Bulldogs jumped up to No. 7 after an emphatic win over Mississippi State
The Penn State running back made a case that he's a legit Heisman Trophy contender
The Nittany Lions came up huge when they needed to against Iowa