Mandel’s Mailbag: TCU put away doubt, it’s time to do the same for Stetson Bennett

It’s not every year the Cotton Bowl manages to upstage the Rose Bowl, but it doesn’t get much more riveting than Tulane rallying from a 15-point deficit in the last four minutes to seal the biggest improvement in the history of the sport while providing a whole new round of punchlines about Lincoln Riley’s defenses.

Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

As a USC fan, how concerned should we be about Lincoln Riley moving forward? He is the best offensive mind in the sport, but the defenses continue to be atrocious and the recruiting leaves a lot to be desired. — Brian B.

If your goal as a USC fan is to win 11 games a year, get to watch really exciting QBs and occasionally reach the College Football Playoff semifinals, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. If your goal is to play for and win national championships … yeah, there’s some cause for concern there.

Riley’s first USC team mimicked his best Oklahoma teams in many ways, from the Heisman QB to the week-after-week shootouts to an absolutely dreadful defense. The Trojans finished 124th out of 131 FBS teams in yards per play (allowed 6.53). In both the Pac-12 title game and Cotton Bowl they looked like they’d never practiced tackling the entire season. At the very least, Riley will need to consider parting with Alex Grinch, his defensive coordinator since 2019.

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But there’s a bigger question about whether it’s even possible for an Air Raid team to field a semi-complimentary defense. There have long been theories that the two simply can’t coexist. Coincidentally, the poster for that riddle for many years was Sonny Dykes. At Cal from 2013-16, he produced prolific offenses led by No. 1 pick Jared Goff but ranked in the 100s in defense all four years. Much the same deal at SMU, which was 96th in his last season.

However, TCU’s defense this year ranked 33rd in SP+ during the regular season and, while inconsistent, rose up to shut down Texas star Bijan Robinson and contain Michigan’s rushing offense save for one play. Time will tell whether that’s due more to DC Joe Gillespie’s scheme or having inherited four years of Gary Patterson defensive recruits.

As for recruiting: You should direct those concerns to AD Mike Bohn.

USC is one of the last remaining major athletic departments that is anti-NIL collectives in recruiting. For all the rumors about USC “buying” Jordan Addison, Trojans players are still very much having to get deals on their own. Which may explain why such a hot coach at such a big-brand program signed only the No. 15 class this year. “Come to Hollywood, we’ll make you a star” is not as compelling to most kids as “Come to State U, our donors will cut you a check tomorrow.”

With a win over Georgia next week, TCU would become one of the most surprising teams to win the national championship. With that in mind, where would they rank in terms of most unlikely national champions in modern college football history? The closest team I can think of is BYU in 1984. — Nicholas R., Sioux Falls, S.D.

It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with since Saturday night, and I’m still not sure I have the answer. It depends on what constitutes “surprising.” Is it because TCU is a non-blueblood program a decade removed from the Mountain West, or is it because TCU was 5-7 last year and 23-24 from 2018-21?

Or both?

While BYU in 1984 may seem like a natural comparison, keep in mind the Cougars were in the WAC, not a league like the Big 12, which in theory makes theirs far less probable, but BYU had also won at least 11 games in six of its previous seven seasons, so at least the going undefeated part would have been less surprising.

Per our research guru Matt Brown TCU would be the first national champion that had a losing record the previous season since 1965 Michigan State, which went 4-5 the year before. But even then, Duffy Daugherty’s emerging powerhouse finished No. 8 in 1961 and No. 9 in 1963. The Spartans just had one down year.

In terms of program profile, TCU ranks 66th all-time in FBS winning percentage (.543). If the Frogs beat Georgia on Monday, TCU would be the lowest-ranked program (currently) to win a national title since No. 78 Maryland in 1953.

On a hunch, though, I did some research on one particular program.

Prior to winning its first of five national championships, in 1983, Miami’s all-time win percentage was .550, comparable to TCU’s today. (Miami’s is now .626, 18th all-time.) While it had produced a few nine-win seasons under Howard Schnellenberger prior to that, it had not played in a major bowl game since the 1950 Orange Bowl, far longer back than TCU’s 2010 Rose Bowl win.

I was not quite old enough to be following college football in 1983, so I can’t speak to how surprising or not surprising that season felt. But TCU beating defending national champion and 13-point favorite Georgia to claim its own would be as stunning, if not more so, than the Canes beating 11-point favorite Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl.

For fun, let’s pretend both Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day leave for the NFL by the end of next week. Does this suddenly reignite this year’s previously quiet coaching carousel, or is the timing so late that these programs must promote from within? If it’s the former, what programs are at risk of a Lincoln Riley or Brain Kelly type of poaching? — Dylan P., Portland, Ore.

There’s a reason I hold off Grading the Hires until after the season — there’s always at least one surprise domino in January. But two? Of that magnitude? Holy smokes.

Michigan would seem the more likely of the two to promote from within, it’s just not clear which guy that would be. I could see one faction pushing for co-OC/O-line coach Sherrone Moore, a 36-year-old up-and-comer who’s produced back-to-back Joe Moore Award-winning units. Another would surely want running backs coach/revered alum Mike Hart, also 36, who I could see becoming Michigan’s Pat Fitzgerald (in loyalty, not recent winning percentage). There would be other options as well, but it certainly feels like more of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation.

Given Ohio State is A) Arguably the best job in America, B) Did the promote-from-within thing with Ryan Day and C) Isn’t 100 percent thrilled with Day’s current staff, AD Gene Smith would likely do the full-national search thing … and it would be fascinating. I wouldn’t worry about the timing. Jim Tressel was a January hire. People are going to want that job.

The take-no-prisoners move would be to wave $100 million at Luke Fickell to ditch Wisconsin and come back to Columbus. Would he do it? I don’t think so, but I didn’t imagine Riley or Kelly making the moves they did. Washington’s Kalen DeBoer has only been there one season, but his star is on the rise. He is 90-11 in eight seasons as a college head coach (the first five at NAIA Sioux Falls).

And then there’s the plan The Athletic’s Joe Rexrode proposed immediately after Day’s Buckeyes suffered their second consecutive blowout loss to Michigan: Go bring Mike Vrabel home. The former Ohio State All-American linebacker, 14-year NFL standout and Ohio State position coach from 2011-13 would be welcomed back with open arms.

And become the rare college head-coaching hire that creates an NFL domino.

I know the answer to this is never, but after beating the Heisman trophy winner (Bryce Young) in the natty last year, beating Hendon Hooker and C.J. Stroud already and having a shot at Max Duggan, will Stetson Bennett finally get some respect on his name? — Jonathan P.

I think we’re done with this game once and for all. If you don’t respect the guy by now, then you’re just not watching his games.

Georgia trailed Ohio State 38-27 with less than nine minutes remaining in a CFP semifinal. With just one play, a 76-yard touchdown pass to Arian Smith, he cut it to 38-35. By the time the Buckeyes kicked a field goal to get it to 41-35, there was just 2:43 left. It took him all of five plays to give Georgia the lead, going 5-for-5 with 67 yards on the drive.

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Hopefully that performance put to rest any remaining faux outrage about Bennett being a Heisman finalist. It’s been a work in progress for sure, but over the course of three seasons, he truly became an outstanding quarterback. Whether he’s more outstanding than Bryce Young, Hendon Hooker, et al., is up for debate, but the guy is a legit star QB now, not the former walk-on whose name sounds like a law firm.

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USC lost to Tulane 46-45 in the Cotton Bowl. (Tim Heitman / USA Today)

Is Lincoln Riley paid millions to also coach the defense? — Michael D.

For his sake, I hope not. Better to be able to show up for work the next day and say, “Not my department.”

Stew, do you think that this year’s NY6 bowls and CFP semifinals have put to rest some of the stale arguments against expanding the playoffs? Clearly, little guys can win games (looking at you, Tulane) and heavy favorites might still struggle (looking at you, Georgia). I’m more excited about the expanded Playoff now than I ever was before. Am I wrong? — Michael in Charlotte, N.C.

I’m more excited about the expanded Playoff than ever before as well, and nothing that happened in this year’s games has changed that either way, but, it seems to me this season turned out to be an endorsement of … the current system?

Point 1: The BCS went from two teams to four because it was leaving out deserving teams that could have won the national title. Case in point: TCU would not have made the BCS title game. It got its shot and took advantage.

Point 2: One of the driving factors for a 12-team field was the staleness of the same small group (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc.) hogging the invites. This year, though, no Alabama or Clemson, and the first Big 12 team not named Oklahoma.

Point 3: I joked on Twitter during the Fiesta Bowl that all it took to finally get an entertaining semifinal was to leave Alabama out. Well, guess who would’ve been the No. 7 seed in a 12-team Playoff this year? And guess who would have faced that wretched USC defense in the first round, then an apparently gettable Michigan team in the quarters to make it back into the semis yet again?

Point 4: In the current system, Tulane got to play a USC team with such a horrific defense that the Trojans were only two-point favorites and took advantage. In the 12-team format, they would have instead faced … TCU.

So, if you’re someone who already believed four teams was plenty, then 2022 may in fact make you less excited for expansion. Here, now, is why this year’s results don’t affect my position at all.

Counterpoint 1: This was one season out of nine that things played out exactly this way. We got two fantastic semis this year, but there had only been three one-score games over the first 16. And it took nine years to get a TCU-type upset.

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Counterpoint 2: When it’s considered big news that Bryce Young and Will Anderson played in the Sugar Bowl, or when Caleb Williams is getting showered with praise for not skipping the Cotton Bowl, that tells you how devalued those games have become. Incorporating them into a Playoff can’t come quickly enough.

Counterpoint 3: By my count, only seven games on Thanksgiving weekend had Playoff implications. In the 12-team format, there would have been no less than 17.

Counterpoint 4: Tulane making the Playoff and losing would still be an infinitely bigger deal, and raise that program’s profile considerably more, than winning a non-CFP Cotton Bowl played two days after the semifinals.

I actually have many more points than this, but, I think I made my larger point.

Where should Penn State be ranked heading into 2023 after its 11-win season and a ton of young talent coming back? — Jordan L.

That’s what I’m going to be working on between now and Tuesday morning: My way-too-early Top 25. I don’t have a specific number in mind, but I’m fairly certain Penn State will crack the top 10.

The Rose Bowl win over Utah was a nice way to cap what had already been an encouraging turnaround season for James Franklin’s program. Yes, the Nittany Lions lost handily to Michigan and let the Ohio State game get away from them. But they mostly took care of business in their other 11 games. A young nucleus began forming, and was on full display in Pasadena, with the likes of freshmen RBs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, freshman LB Abdul Carter, sophomore WRs Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith and sophomore DE Chop Robinson.

And then of course there’s freshman QB Drew Allar, the former five-star signee, to whom Sean Clifford officially passed the torch late in the fourth quarter.

Talent-wise, next year will be Franklin’s most promising squad arguably since Saquon Barkley left town. With so many underperformances during the Clifford era, I’m reticent to hop fully on the bandwagon, but the window is certainly there for Penn State to make its move in the Big Ten East next season.

Especially if that Harbaugh-Day scenario comes to life.

FCS Championship prediction? — Carter W., Beaverton, Ore.

South Dakota State 24, North Dakota State 21.

Did Joe Milton change the image (for better or worse) of him as QB1 going into next year for Tennessee with the win over Clemson? — Zach in Chicago

He did for me. I realize we’ve been fooled before, but Milton, who went 19-for-28 for 251 yards, three TDs and no picks, looked like more than a one-trick wonder who throws 70-yard cannons downfield. He looked like a QB who was comfortable in Josh Heupel’s offense and was able to lead his team to victory against a very talented defense.

That doesn’t guarantee him the job in 2023, but it should take some pressure off Heupel. For all the hoopla surrounding incoming freshman Nico Iamaleava, he doesn’t have to justify starting the Orange Bowl MVP next season while the young guy gets acclimated. Also: There’s a guy there now, current freshman Tayven Jackson, who could well be the best of the group, but no rush there, either. It’s Milton’s job to lose.

All in all, that bowl game could not have gone much better for the Vols. Not only did they truck the ACC champions, but they got some big games from other guys who will be moving to the front of the stage next season, most notably freshman WR Squirrel White (nine catches, 108 yards). Add Tennessee to the list of teams I’ll be trying to figure out how high to rank this week.

After having the Peach Bowl as the site for the CFP semifinal, making the Bulldogs the virtual home team, and in the wake of reversing the targeting call, I am saying goodbye to college football. No Justice. You can say, it’s part of the game (the reversed call) I say goodbye. Makes me sick in the stomach and makes Georgia’s victory puddle shallow. — Mark T.

You’re really going to leave now? We had just fixed the “same teams every year” problem, we were going to get to targeting within the next five years, I swear.

(Top photo: Dale Zanine / USA TODAY Sports)

https://theathletic.com/4056854/2023/01/04/mandels-mailbag-college-football-tcu-georgia/ Mandel’s Mailbag: TCU put away doubt, it’s time to do the same for Stetson Bennett

Russell Falcon

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