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March 12, 2010

Mailbag: Could Huskers be better without Suh?

The best isn't always good enough. Sometimes, teams are better without their best.

Peyton Manning was the Heisman runner-up as Tennessee's quarterback in 1997. He was so good, in fact, he was the first player taken in the NFL draft the following spring.

With Manning leading the way the Volunteers enjoyed a stellar 11-2 season in '97. But the next year, without Manning, the Vols won the national championship.

Notre Dame fans can relate. During his Heisman-winning campaign of 1987, Tim Brown led Notre Dame to a solid 8-4 showing. The next season, the Irish won the national title.

Miami won a national championship in 1987, the year after Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman.

A team obviously can get better despite losing its best player. But can an offensive or defensive unit actually improve without its most dominant member? That's a question of particular interest in the Midwest and one to be tackled in this week's mailbag.

Got a question? Click here to send it to Olin's Mailbag

Better off?

Coach Bo Pelini said Nebraska's defense could be better this season than last season. Is that possible without Ndamukong Suh?
Thom in Hastings, Neb.

Since many coaches are insufferable sand-baggers, I love that Pelini will go out on a limb and make bold statements like that. At the Big 12 championship game in December, he said Nebraska could be "five times better" next season. That's going waaaaay out on a limb, considering the Huskers posted 10 victories in '09.

A powerful defense was the main reason Nebraska had 10 wins. And the main reason Nebraska's defense was so powerful was Suh, who was among the Huskers' leaders in almost every defensive statistical category.

What statistics don't show is how Suh's dominance may have affected his teammates' performance. For example, Jarred Crick, the tackle opposite Suh, had a strong year, with 73 tackles and 9.5 sacks. Nobody is doubting that Crick is an excellent player with a bright future in the NFL, but did playing alongside Suh boost Crick's play? Maybe, maybe not. But it's a legitimate question.

It's reasonable to assume that opponents' preoccupation with Suh enabled other players to come free on a pass rush. And nothing helps the secondary more than a strong pass rush.

Last season, the Huskers led the Big 12 in pass defense. Not coincidentally, they produced 44 sacks. If the pass rush isn't as strong without Suh, more holes may open in the secondary, especially with Nebraska having to replace both starting safeties.

Still, seven starters return from a defense that allowed fewer points than any other team in the nation last season, so the Huskers figure to be stingy again.

But better than last season? I have to admit I have my doubts. Suh was the best defensive player in the nation last season. The idea of losing him and three other starters and improving just doesn't add up.

Pelini knows his team and his talent better than anyone. If he says Nebraska's defense can be even better, you have to think he knows something we don't.

High standards

Notre Dame has failed to return to national prominence since the Lou Holtz era, so is it safe to say that they may never again be able to grab hold of that success? I see the hiring of Brian Kelly as a good thing, but the academic standards the university puts upon the program make it easy for recruits to pick a different school. It seems to me that everyone wants to put the blame on previous coaches, but in actuality it needs to be placed elsewhere.
Jeremy in Rolla, Mo.

Dropped 10
Here's a comparison of years between top-10 finishes for Texas, LSU and Notre Dame since 1983.
Year Texas LSU ND
Surely, you're not insinuating the Notre Dame should be criticized for having high academic standards. That warrants praise, not criticism.

But it's true the Irish have struggled since Holtz's tenure in South Bend ended in 1996. Since then, Notre Dame's only top-10 finish was ninth in 2005 -- the year of the "Bush Push" in the 34-31 last second loss to USC.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline, and coaching undoubtedly is one of them. Bob Davie had no head-coaching experience when he was hired as Holtz's successor. Tyrone Willingham had modest success at Stanford, where the demands aren't nearly as intense as at Notre Dame. Charlie Weis had no collegiate head-coaching experience and was clearly a second choice after Urban Meyer opted for Florida.

Yet proclaiming that Notre Dame cannot return to national prominence is terribly short-sighted.

Texas was mired a similar rut and did not manage a top-10 finish from 1984 to 2000. Although the Longhorns would occasionally rise up for a solid season, they mostly foundered in that span under Fred Akers, David McWilliams and John Mackovic. Then, after the '97 season, Texas found the right guy -- Mack Brown. After an initial rebuilding period, Texas has posted six top-10 finishes in the past eight seasons, played in two national championship games and narrowly missed playing in two more.

And consider LSU, which finished fifth in '87 but did not end another season in the top 10 until 2001. LSU largely struggled under Mike Archer, Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo. But once Nick Saban was hired in 2000, fortunes changed. LSU has won two national championships since, one under Saban and one under Les Miles, and is a bona-fide powerhouse now.

Perhaps Kelly will prove to be the right guy for Notre Dame. He has won everywhere he has been. And even if high academic standards can be perversely viewed as a liability, Notre Dame still has a lot in its favor -- a national following, its own TV deal, plenty of resources and great history.

Of course, some would argue that Notre Dame can't match what Texas and LSU have done because it doesn't have the same recruiting base. But even though the Notre Dame mystique has faded over the years, the Irish still have the ability to recruit nationally. It's just a matter of time and the right coach -- maybe it's Kelly -- before Notre Dame regains national prominence.

Right from wrong

You see numerous arrests and criminal behavior at certain schools. Should NCAA coaches be held accountable for the off-field incidents of their players? For example, Florida has had more than 20 arrests under Urban Meyer, yet Florida wins. Is it all right to win on the field but be criminals off the field?
Vincent in Salt Lake City

First of all, it's never all right for players to be criminals off the field, though we've all seen instances where players with great talent were allowed to play despite frequent transgressions. Former Nebraska star running back Lawrence Phillips comes to mind.

You don't suggest a manner in which should coaches be held responsible. Should they be fined if players are continuously arrested? Should they be fired?

Maybe they should in some instances. But you have to look at all the circumstances. For example, what if the majority of players arrested were charged with misdemeanors, like a minor in possession of alcohol? This just in: College kids drink beer.

The NCAA always is stressing that athletes should be treated just like any other student. So, if other students are engaging in under-age drinking, should athletes really be expected to be any different? And if that's the case, what are coaches being held responsible for?

Now, if the crimes are of a more serious nature, you'd have to look all the surrounding circumstances. Players who get into serious trouble are commonly kicked off their teams by coaches. As a matter of fact, Meyer has a history that shows he's not lax on discipline. He's booted several players from his program because of their behavior. Defensive tackles Gary Brown and Torrey Davis were former five-star prospects who were kicked off the team -- Brown for hitting a woman and Davis for behavioral issues.

I have no problem with giving second chances and letting guys start over. But a coach probably should be held accountable if he knowingly brings in a player with a criminal background and that player then gets into trouble again.

In 2006, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy recruited linebacker Chris Collins, even though Collins was facing sexual assault charges stemming from an after-prom incident in 2004. Collins started for the Cowboys in 2007 until he pleaded guilty in November of that year. Gundy said he wanted to give Collins a second chance. But if Collins had gotten into further trouble in Stillwater, then perhaps Gundy should have been fired; Collins was not involved in legal matters while at Oklahoma State.

Last year, Tennessee signed lineman Daniel Hood, who was involved in a rape of a family member when he was 13. Although Lane Kiffin, the coach who signed Hood, is gone, should someone in the Tennessee administration be held responsible if Hood gets into trouble while a Vols player?

In some cases, coaches should be held responsible for their players' behavior. But in the vast majority of them, the players should be held responsible for themselves. Yeah, they're young. But by the time they get to college, they're old enough to know right from wrong.

Tiger time

What do you expect to see from LSU in 2010? The Tigers have been loaded with talent for the past two seasons, but never seem to be able to get over the hump in the big games. Is LSU in position to challenge for a national title, or can LSU fans expect another mediocre season?
Mike in Baton Rouge

LSU posted nine victories last season, and fans are complaining about a "mediocre" year. Obviously, there are great demands in Baton Rouge.

LSU shouldn't be written off as a championship contender, no matter what its preseason ranking might be. Although only five offensive and four defensive starters return, each of LSU's past five recruiting classes have been ranked at least No. 11 nationally. Clearly, there are talented players.

The Tigers are loaded at the skill positions and quarterback Jordan Jefferson will be a third-year starter as a junior. That alone is reason to anticipate better offense because quarterbacks often make significant improvement from their sophomore to their junior years.

Still, there is much rebuilding that has to be done in the offensive and defensive lines. Even though highly recruited players are there to fill those positions, that doesn't automatically mean they will play at a high level.

That's reason to be skeptical about the Tigers this fall. Should those players who were once highly ranked prospects turn potential into production, everything could come together for the Tigers and they could emerge as strong contenders to win the SEC.

So, though it wouldn't be a shock if the Tigers surged in 2010, there remains enough doubt to anticipate another "mediocre" season -- that is, by LSU's lofty standards.

Five-star update

I recall that several highly rated recruits did not sign their letters of intent on National Signing Day, i.e. Seantrel Henderson with USC and Latwan Anderson with West Virginia. What is the status of these recruits?
Steve in Cincinnati

Henderson, a hulking offensive tackle ranked the No. 2 prospect in the country by Rivals.com, remains committed to USC, but still hasn't signed. He's waiting to find out what NCAA sanctions may be imposed on the Trojans.

Anderson, a marvelous athlete ranked the nation's No. 15 prospect, had been committed to West Virginia, but he instead chose to sign with Miami on Wednesday.

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