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June 10, 2011

Mailbag: Who has the roughest stretch?

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. Click here to send Olin a question for a future mailbag.
Down in Texas, a four-game stretch in the 2008 college football season is remembered almost as much as the Alamo.

Unfortunately for the Longhorns, the results were somewhat similar.

That season, Texas was 5-0 heading into its early-October grudge match with Oklahoma, which was No. 1 in the country. After the Longhorns pulled off a 45-35 upset, they next faced No. 11 Missouri, then No. 6 Oklahoma State and then No. 7 Texas Tech.

They made it unscathed through all but one second of that stretch. Tech's Michael Crabtree caught a game-winning touchdown pass with one second remaining and Texas' national championship hopes died in Lubbock.

That season, Texas' game against Texas Tech game was played on Nov. 1, so technically that wasn't part of a demanding month for the Longhorns. Still, it was a grueling four-game stretch in which one sub-par performance or bad quarter or coverage error was the difference between a possible national championship and a consolation prize.

This season, Florida faces a grueling October. No other team in the nation may face a tougher grind. But at least new Gators coach Will Muschamp has some experience in navigating through a treacherous schedule: He was Texas' defensive coordinator in 2008.

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October gauntlet

Would you call Florida's October slate (vs. Alabama, at LSU, at Auburn and vs. Georgia in Jacksonville) the toughest month for any team in college football?
Richard in New Orleans

That appears to be a serious grind, but you're never sure how tough a schedule will be until a month or so into the season.

For example, Texas would have looked like a treacherous opponent on any team's schedule heading into last season, but the Longhorns finished 5-7 with losses to UCLA, Baylor and Iowa State. On the other hand, Auburn was largely was viewed as "good but not great" at this time a year ago. The Tigers went undefeated and won the national championship.

Opponents who were powerful in '10 may not be nearly as strong this season. For instance, Auburn isn't going to be as good without Cameron Newton and Nick Fairley.

That said, Florida's October stretch may be the most difficult month faced by any team in the country, even with an open date before the Georgia game. Those four opponents were a combined 41-12 in 2009. Again, Auburn won't be as good, but Alabama and LSU are bona-fide national championship contenders and Georgia figures to be better.

There's also Penn State's schedule in November. The Nittany Lions only play three games in that month, but they're against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin, which were a combined 33-7 a year ago.

Meanwhile, Arizona is just asking for a 1-3 start. The Wildcats open their September schedule against FCS opponent Northern Arizona, but follow that up with games against Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon. Those teams were 35-4 last season, return their star quarterbacks (Brandon Weeden, Andrew Luck and Darron Thomas) and each is expected to be a championship contender again this season.

Ohio State will have a challenging October, too, with a stretch of games against Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin, which were a combined 39-14 last season.

Finally, Auburn's October schedule ends with so-so Ole Miss, but its first four games of the month are at South Carolina, at Arkansas, vs. Florida and at LSU.

More changes?

Do you think the Big 12 will expand back to 12 teams soon? I think reaching into the Mountain West and nabbing Nevada and Boise State for the old North Division would make the conference awfully tough.
Ryan in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Though Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe has indicated the league is content with 10 members, the feeling here is that the league eventually will add two more teams.

The Big 12 is somewhat limited geographically, although that's not really an issue in college athletics today, as we've seen with the Big East adding TCU and the Big Ten stretching from Nebraska to Pennsylvania.

There are not a lot of attractive options out there unless the Big 12 thinks it can raid another Big Six conference. But which one? The Pac-12, the Big Ten and the SEC are set. It doesn't seem likely that any team in the ACC would leave for the Big 12. The Big East always is in danger of being raided, but would the Big 12 add TCU? It already has four teams in Texas.

Louisville might be an attractive target. It would bring a solid football program and a storied basketball program. And for Louisville, the Big 12 would be a step up from the Big East.

The problem with Louisville, though, would center on the 12th member.

Boise State and Nevada have solid football programs, but if the Big 12 opted to add two new teams, BYU would seem the right choice over either of those schools.

BYU has a strong athletic program and has national appeal. BYU's leaders have opted to leave the Mountain West for independent status, but an invitation from the Big 12 would be hard to pass up.

Besides, BYU is launching its own TV network. That would be cool with the Big 12. Texas is launching its own network and Oklahoma has plans to do the same. Texas A&M won't be far behind.

If BYU joined the Big 12, Louisville might not be a viable option. That would put the conference in three time zones, which would cause issues with scheduling and class time. No other major conference is in more than two time zones.

If the Big 12 does decide to actually have 12 teams again, the guess here is it would extend invitations to BYU and Boise State.

No way out

Do you think if Ohio State's entire coaching staff resigned, the NCAA would go lighter on the Buckeyes?
Michael in Miami

I don't think so. Jim Tressel's resignation was huge. There is no greater mea culpa for Ohio State.

It was Tressel who opted not to report players' misdeeds to the Ohio State compliance department, then lie about it. While the assistants might or might not have known what was going on, their boss absolutely did know.

It was Tressel's responsibility to make the right choices, and he did not. I don't think getting rid of the assistants would have an impact on potential NCAA sanctions.

Besides, there is a good chance those assistants will be replaced at the end of the upcoming season if a new coach is brought in.

Big Blue love

Michigan returns something like 18 starters from a team with a winning record, an offense that could score 50 points a game, an older defense coached by Greg Mattison and an easier schedule. That being said, why is Michigan not considered by anyone to be a contender in the Big Ten race?
John in Midland, Mich.

I'm aware a new coach always spawns feelings of optimism, but slow down.

Fifty points a game? Michigan reached 50 points twice last season (against Bowling Green and in three overtimes against Illinois). Quarterback Denard Robinson is the most explosive player in college football, but averaging 50 points certainly can't be taken for granted.

Besides, is Robinson going to be as effective in new coach Brady Hoke's pro-style system as he was in Rich Rodriguez's spread?

Even if 50 points were assured, there is no assurance that Michigan's defense could consistently hold opponents to fewer than 51.

It's great to return a bunch of starters - as long as those starters were effective. But Michigan returns seven fulltime starters from a defense that was absolutely horrendous in 2010.

Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf is a good athlete who improved as the year went on last season, but against Michigan, he looked like Andrew Luck, completing 78.3 percent of his passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-14 Gator Bowl victory over the Wolverines.

See, 50 points wouldn't have won that one for Michigan. Geez, UMass even put up 37.

Michigan gave up 458 points last season. The only bowl team to give up more was East Carolina, which came out of Conference USA where no team but UCF played good defense.

It's not a stretch to anticipate Michigan's defense will be better, but it is a stretch to expect so much improvement that the Wolverines will contend for the Big Ten title.

Yes, the offense has the potential to be electrifying. Yes, Hoke's influence will make the Wolverines tougher. Yes, last season's experience, no matter how bad it was, will benefit Michigan's defense. And yes, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State have sustained significant personnel losses from a year ago.

Stranger things have happened (Appalachian State beating Michigan in '07, for example), but I still don't see Michigan as a serious Big Ten contender.

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