Mandel’s Mailbag: 2024 storylines to watch, top-10 teams that could struggle, USC’s outlook

I had a vision in mind for this week’s mailbag, and you guys helped me deliver on it.

Welcome to a much-needed All-Football Edition.

Hey Stew: I’m tired of all the NIL questions. I miss just talking about the fun part of college football. With all the realignment again this year, what are YOU looking forward to the most on the field? This might be one of the greatest years we have seen with all the changes! —  Bob D., Middleburg Heights, OH

You’re speaking my language, Bob. And you’re absolutely right.

I have a feeling all of the recent doom and gloom and legalese is going to fly out the window once this particularly unique new season is upon us.

The storylines I’m most intrigued by, in no particular order:

• All of the new glamour matchups in the Big Ten and SEC. Your gambit worked, ESPN and Fox, because I will most certainly be tuned in for USC-Michigan (Sept. 21), Michigan-Washington (Oct. 5), Ohio State-Oregon (Oct. 12), Georgia-Texas (Oct. 19), Alabama-Oklahoma (Nov. 23) and, most of all, Texas at Texas A&M (Nov. 30).

That Thanksgiving Saturday is likely going to look like this: Michigan-Ohio State at noon on Fox, Auburn-Alabama at 3:30 on ABC and Longhorns-Aggies at 7:30 on ABC. Pinch me.

• The 12-team Playoff. Not just the event itself, but a season-long race unlike any in the history of the sport. How will it shape our view of early-season games? How many teams will still have a shot in late October? Mid-November? Will the stakes of winning a conference championship be elevated given the auto-berth/bye on the line? And so on and so forth.

• Ohio State’s national-title-or-bust team. It’s not quite the 2017 Golden State Warriors after adding Kevin Durant, but the expectations for Ryan Day’s all-star team are going to be through the roof, and it will be fascinating to see A) whether the Buckeyes can pull it off and B) how many yards TreVeyon Henderson/Quinshon Judkins go off for in a Chip Kelly offense.

• Post-Nick Saban Alabama. It’s the day we always knew would come, but it still seems hard to believe that it actually happened. It’s going to feel very real, though, when Kalen DeBoer takes the Tide to Madison in Week 3 for the type of high-profile nonconference game Saban never lost but feels very much uncertain now.

• Post-Jim Harbaugh Michigan. Remember the last few years when Michigan played absolutely nobody with a pulse until at least October? Not this year. Sherrone Moore’s Wolverines get Texas and USC within the first four weeks of the season.

• The new Big 12: We haven’t really seen a power conference like this, where there’s truly no alpha(s) but a whole bunch of good programs, any of which could win the league or finish seventh. It’s also going to take some getting used to that Arizona State and UCF are now in the same conference.

• The next wave of QBs. We got mini-peeks in bowl season of Tennessee’s Nico Iamaleava and Oklahoma’s Jackson Arnold, but it’s their teams now. Ditto fellow anticipated sophomores like K-State’s Avery Johnson and Michigan State’s Aidan Chiles, plus Nebraska true freshman Dylan Raiola.

• Deion Year 2. I can’t imagine the interest will be as feverish as it was to start last season, but Coach Prime has higher expectations this time around, and a whole lot of skeptics waiting to see if he falls on his face.

• Defiant Dabo. Not sure I can remember such a high-profile coach so defiantly zigging where everyone else is zagging. He’ll either look like a genius if Clemson gets back into the national title hunt or a dinosaur if they go 8-4 again (or worse).

• Georgia. After going 13-1 but missing the CFP, Kirby Smart’s team is going to be on a warpath this season. But Carson Beck and the Dawgs have to face (using my own rankings) No. 3 Texas, No. 4 Alabama and No. 6 Ole Miss. Also: One of their QBs is suing the head coach of their biggest rival.

THIS is college football.


Mandel’s CFB preseason Top 25: Alabama rises in updated rankings

Which of your preseason top-10 teams ends the season unranked? — Sonny W.

My default response to these questions most offseasons is: If we could see a team like that coming then we wouldn’t rank them in the preseason top 10 to begin with.

But Michigan this season is an interesting window into how both things may be true.

Since January, the national champions have lost head coach Jim Harbaugh and two-thirds of his staff; QB J.J. McCarthy, who went in the top 10 of the NFL Draft; Blake Corum, the heart of the offense the last three seasons; six of their top seven offensive linemen; four NFL defenders and four other defenders who started the national championship game. A team that loses that much experience seems highly unlikely to turn around and finish in the top 10. I’m not predicting that the Wolverines will finish unranked, but it’s not implausible.

Having said all that, I still ranked Michigan No. 9 this week, based on the guys they do have returning — star running back Donovan Edwards, tight end Colston Loveland, projected first-round defenders Mason Graham, Kenneth Grant and Will Johnson et al. And while I’m bullish on less-heralded teams like Kansas State, Miami, Tennessee and others, I don’t feel comfortable ranking any of them No. 9 in the country before the season.

Also, as of this moment, I cannot envision any of my other preseason top-10 teams finishing unranked. And yet, based on history, I’m sure one (or more) will.

I realize I did not exactly answer your question, but, as I said, if I knew for sure which preseason top-10 team would finish unranked then I would not rank it that high.

You talked up USC Trojans yet you do not have them ranked in your top 25. Why not? — Robert L.

I do not recall “talking up” USC anytime this calendar year. Perhaps you’re confusing me with a different college football writer and/or podcast host. But I’d be happy to explain why they’re not in my top 25.

It’s mainly because I’m losing confidence in Lincoln Riley.

The Trojans’ implosion last season was concerning. How do you go 8-5 with Caleb Williams as your quarterback? It turns out his 11-3 Year 1, when USC did not face either Washington or Oregon, was likely a mirage. Trojans fans got their wish and got Riley to fire beleaguered defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, but I don’t think the program’s issues were as simple as having the wrong DC.

Riley has not recruited at the level one would have expected when he was hired. Some of that went hand in hand with USC’s administration and boosters previously screwing up NIL. The consequences are most evident on the offensive and defensive lines, where it’s not certain the Trojans are actually better than they were when Riley got there.

And as great as QB Miller Moss looked in the Holiday Bowl, this will likely be a less star-studded offense than usual for Riley. I’m sure the Trojans will still score their share of points, but not the automatic 35-40 of years past.

Finally, while I do NOT take schedules into account in preseason rankings, I realize many of you equate them to predictions. If you’re looking down the road and thinking about USC’s possible record, note that the Trojans play LSU (in Las Vegas), at Michigan, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Penn State, at Washington and at Notre Dame.

Eight wins this season may feel like a triumph.

How is DJ U going to fit in to the offense at FSU? And how amped will he be to play Clemson at Doak Campbell? — Thomas R.

Given all of the grief DJ Uiagalelei caught in his two seasons as Clemson’s starter, it’s interesting Mike Norvell felt confident picking him to be Jordan Travis’ successor. Perhaps it’s because Uiagalelei beat FSU twice and had one of the better games of his career (15-of-23 for 203 yards, three TDs and no INTs) in the Tigers’ 2022 win in Tallahassee. Perhaps it’s because he improved from 6.8 yards per attempt to 8.4 playing in Jonathan Smith’s Oregon State offense last season.

But even Norvell would surely acknowledge that Uiagalelei has a ceiling. He was the nation’s 43rd-rated passer last season (145.1); Travis was 22nd (154.5). That’s not to say Uiagalelei can’t keep improving, but he’s not going to morph into an All-American in his fifth season. And while he’s had his moments as a runner, he scaled back at Oregon State, where he had 68 attempts for 219 yards last season. (Mind you, sacks count against that total.)

I would not be surprised to see Norvell utilize Uiagalelei’s mobility a bit more, especially given the run game could be FSU’s strength this season with Roydell Williams and Lawrance Toafili. The Noles lost a lot of star power at receiver, but that doesn’t mean they’ll abandon the vertical passing game. Norvell has mentioned how well Uiagalelei picked up Oregon State’s passing concepts.

A Clemson-FSU game with Uiagalelei starting for the Tigers’ opponent would truly be something. He was such a big recruiting get for Dabo Swinney and only added to the anticipation when he filled in admirably for Trevor Lawrence as a true freshman in their double-OT loss at Notre Dame. But for whatever reason, the rest of his time at Clemson did not go as expected.

He got the fresh start he was looking for in Corvallis. Now he’s got an opportunity that Travis was unfortunately robbed of last season: to lead FSU to its first CFP berth in a decade.

Stewart: How many questions do you typically get where you’re thinking, “This is a really dumb question.” — John R.

You’re not going to trick me into calling my readers “dumb.” Almost everyone’s questions are thoughtful.

My only pet peeve is when the question is one that a person could Google to find the answer. Don’t type it into my comments section — just paste it into a search bar.

Hi Stew: The Hall of Fame inductee list was announced this week. One omission I’ve always thought there should be an exemption for is Erk Russell, who despite winning three national championships and winning nearly percent of his games at Georgia Southern, can’t qualify since he didn’t coach 10 years. Who are some other notable omissions that you think should be in the Hall? — Drew

I get why an organization like the National Football Foundation feels the need to devise certain requirements to be nominated. It helps trim down an otherwise endless list of candidates by saying a guy has to have been a head coach for 10 years or that he has to have a .600 career winning percentage.

The problem is, those made-up thresholds disqualify some highly deserving candidates while rewarding some … not-as-qualified candidates.

This week’s announcement of the 2025 ballot included two eyebrow-raising coaches for me. One: Tommy Tuberville. The Senator had a .619 winning percentage over four stops, so he can be on the ballot. But Mike Leach, whose shoes Tuberville did not come close to filling as his successor at Texas Tech and who spawned an entirely new era of offenses, is not eligible because he went .596. Ridiculous.

Also on the ballot: Larry Coker, who led an all-time great team, 2001 Miami, to a national championship in his first season as a head coach, only to get fired five years later. He got to 10 years by resurfacing at start-up program UTSA, where he went 26-32. Therefore, he is eligible. However, Howard Schnellenberger, the original architect of the Miami dynasty that Coker eventually inherited, is not eligible because his career win percentage was barely above .500.

Coincidentally, Coker was hired at Miami the same year as Pete Carroll at USC. Carroll would go on win two national titles and play for a third, win four Rose Bowls and produce a remarkable seven straight top-five teams from 2002-08. He would finish his Trojans tenure with an .833 winning percentage.

Unlike Coker, though Carroll is not eligible for the Hall of Fame because he left for the Seahawks after nine seasons. Now, if he were to come back to college for one year, say at Akron, go 1-11 and immediately step down … not only would he then be eligible, he would likely get in on the first ballot.

Maybe consider lifting those arbitrary requirements.

Does Ole Miss finally have what it takes to get over the hump and win the SEC? — Jeff H.

This will almost certainly be the most talented roster Ole Miss has fielded in the modern era. The Rebels have rarely been able to match the top programs in the SEC when it comes to stockpiling D-linemen, but this year’s group might be the best in the conference, between returnees Jared Ivey and JJ Pegues and newcomers Walter Nolen (Texas A&M), Chris Hardie (Jacksonville State) and top-100 freshman Kam Franklin. Established SEC players like linebackers Chris Paul Jr. (Arkansas) and Princely Umanmielen (Florida) and cornerback Trey Amos (Alabama) could provide big boosts as well.

But do I feel confident Ole Miss can win the SEC? No, I do not. This sounds strange to say about a Lane Kiffin team, but my biggest concern is the quarterback.

Jaxson Dart is entering his third season as the Rebels’ starter. He put up impressive numbers last season (3,364 yards passing, 23 TDs, five INTs, plus 389 yards and eight TDs rushing) and led his team to 11 wins. But he’s really struggled in the biggest games. His three lowest passer ratings last season were in Ole Miss’ losses to Alabama and Georgia and in the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. He did rebound with a big performance against Penn State in the Peach Bowl (25-of-40 for 379 yards, three TD, no INTs), but it came against a Nittany Lions defense missing first-round defensive end Chop Robinson and a couple of other opt-outs.

To win the SEC, Ole Miss is going to need Dart to be consistent for 13 straight games and play at a high level in the biggest ones, be it Georgia, Oklahoma, LSU or others. Note: The program never once won the SEC West in its 32 years of existence. Wouldn’t it be something if it got to Atlanta in the first year without divisions?

I go to Miami Ohio. I love the MAC. Will we ever see G5 conferences have their chances at glory again with the growth of the transfer portal and NIL as the gap between P5 and G5 continuously widens?? —  Lindsay, Wood Dale, Ill.

Three years ago, when the 12-team Playoff was first announced, it felt like a gift from above for the G5 leagues. For truly the first time ever, we know this fall that at least one team from outside the power conferences will get to play for the national championship. No more Boise State or UCF or Liberty going undefeated and settling for an invite to whatever bowl game was forced to take them that year. Whichever G5 conference champion finishes the highest will get an automatic berth and a spot on the biggest stage, just like in the NCAA basketball tournament.

But if “glory” is defined by actually having a semi-realistic chance to win the national championship … yeah, that’s gone.

Had Urban Meyer’s 2004 Utah team or Gary Patterson’s 2010 TCU team or any of Chris Petersen and Kellen Moore’s 2009-11 Boise State teams been invited to a four-team Playoff, any of them could have won at least one game. And either 2010 TCU or Boise could have won the whole thing. They had enough top-end dudes to pull off a single-elimination win over a less-than-dominant P5 team like 2010 Auburn. Even the 2021 Cincinnati team that went 13-0 in the regular season and had nine guys drafted was good enough to beat an 11-win Notre Dame team on the road.

But the sport has changed dramatically since June 2021. First off, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and now SMU have all moved up. You’ve still got some solid G5 programs like Boise State, San Diego State, Memphis and Appalachian State, but you’ve lost some top-end programs and are now replacing them with a sudden spurt of FCS teams.

And then, as you said, NIL/portal. One of the cool things about those old Boise State teams is they were able to build off their breakthrough 2006 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma and go on a run of knocking off big-name teams year after year. But if the Broncos were to win the Mountain West and make the CFP this year, we know exactly what would happen next: P4 teams and their collectives would snap up all of Boise’s best players. They’d have to start over the next year.

If you’re a Miami RedHawks fan, or another G5 team’s fan, I’d think of it like this. You now have a chance to punch your ticket in any given year, and if you do and manage to win a first-round CFP game over a Big Ten or SEC foe, it will be the football equivalent of George Mason or Loyola reaching the Final Four.

I just would not count on making the actual final four.

What’s your favorite college football magazine to get once they hit the shelves? — Jeff H.

The Phil Steele mafia will kill me for saying this, but, definitely Athlon. I have it sitting on my desk, opened to some team’s depth chart, pretty much every day all summer, starting around … wait … right around now!

Thanks for the reminder. That means the season is almost here.

(Photo of TreVeyon Henderson: Adam Cairns / Columbus Dispatch / USA Today Network)

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