Mandel's Mailbag: Brian Kelly vs. Lincoln Riley, plus, should we be rooting for Dabo Swinney? (2024)

This time next week I’ll be covering Big 12 media days, and I’m not sure which is harder to fathom: That a conference with Great Plains/Southwest roots is holding its event at a stadium in Las Vegas, that everyone from Arizona State to BYU to UCF will be there … or that we’ve already reached 2024 Talking Season in college football.

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Speaking of Vegas …

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

Hey Stew, in Week 1, LSU and USC meet in a game that is interesting in multiple ways. One is that both coaches have underwhelmed in their own ways (Lincoln Riley more so) but were handed monster contracts that would be tough to move on from. If one of these coaches ended up fired at the end of the year (considering buyouts, fan expectations, etc.), which one would you think it would be? — Erik W.

I’m very much looking forward to LSU-USC, both because of the novelty of a big early-season game in Vegas but also, as Erik said, you can already predict that whichever team loses, its fan base will immediately go into full-on angst mode about their coach. Especially if it’s a blowout. Brian Kelly suffered one of those in last season’s highly-anticipated Week 1 opener vs. Florida State, while another defensive meltdown by USC might send Trojans fans back into a Clay Helton-era spiral.

Realistically, though, neither of these guys are getting fired.

Kelly has won 10 games each of his first two seasons and currently has a commitment from the No. 1 recruit in the 2025 class, QB Bryce Underwood. Riley is a season removed from going 11-3 and reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game. And then there are the buyouts. Kelly’s will be around $60 million after this season. Riley’s is not public, but given his reported $10 million salary in 2022 was around the same as Kelly’s, his buyout is likely just as much if not more. Of the two, LSU’s boosters might be crazy enough to write that check, but I can’t imagine it comes to that. Unless the Tigers go 3-9, at which point all bets are off.

What I could see happening, though, is if Year 3 goes as poorly as last year for Riley and the criticism becomes deafening, he makes his own exit plan, presumably to the NFL in some capacity. He’s still going to be coveted as an offensive mind even if he is incapable of fielding a respectable defense. Whereas I can’t see Kelly leaving for another job at this point. He’s not going to land one better than the one he has, and, he’s 62. Maybe he would retire and join Nick Saban on the GameDay set in 2025, but, again, the guy is 12-4 in the SEC so far and just coached a Heisman Trophy winner. His situation is far from dire, though it might seem that way if the Tigers lose the opener 35-14.

Mandel's Mailbag: Brian Kelly vs. Lincoln Riley, plus, should we be rooting for Dabo Swinney? (1)

Dabo Swinney has a 170-43 record at Clemson but his roster-building strategies have been under a microscope as of late. (Ken Ruinard / USA Today)

Can you help me understand the casual fans’ dislike for Dabo’s approach, especially from those who aren’t fans of Clemson? If a fan doesn’t like changes for transfers and mercenary players, shouldn’t they pull for Dabo’s approach to win? Can you be anti-transfer and take delight in Clemson’s slight backslide at the same time? —Steve in Atlanta

A casual fan would be able to answer that better than me, but you may be mixing two strains of “dislike.” I could sense Dabo becoming a villain long before the portal stuff, and it’s pretty simple why: We are legally required to celebrate someone’s rise, then, once they get there, start rooting against them.

Remember when Dabo was just the lovable “aw shucks” former walk-on with the corny sayings who took on the Nick Saban Death Star and won? People mostly loved that guy. But then he kept winning for longer than many were comfortable, and suddenly he started to grate on people. The over-the-top resistance to athletes making money. Accusing Florida State of using COVID as an excuse to cancel their 2020 game. Playing the “nobody believed in us” card a few too many times.

So you can understand the outbreak of schadenfreude when his program began reverting to the pack these past few seasons.

If I had to guess, you are seeing much more blowback about his continued defiance of the transfer portal from folks like myself, who analyze the sport for a living and see a stubborn coach is continuing to put his program at a huge disadvantage relative to its competitors. If fans have seized on that criticism as well, it may be simply to delight in what they see as a sign of more schadenfreude to come.

And frankly, it’s not hard when the guy says things like, “Every player is technically a transfer. We just signed a whole class of guys transferring from high school.”

Steve does have a point, though. If you’re someone who thinks NIL collectives and unlimited transfers are ruining the sport, you should root for Dabo to prove us all wrong. Suppose his roster is that much better than it was last year, perhaps because he has a few Travis Etienne/Justyn Ross-caliber freshmen that are going to lead the Tigers back to national title contention. Not only would he get the last laugh at all of us, but it may encourage other coaches not to panic after a bad year and blow up the roster.

But to be clear: No one is suggesting he do that. He doesn’t have to because of the level he recruits. Ohio State took just seven transfers this offseason, but they happen to include the likely starting QB (Will Howard), a potential All-America safety (Caleb Downs) and running back (Quinshon Judkins) and starting center (Seth McLaughlin). All of whom are good enough to play at Clemson.

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What are your thoughts on Tennessee this year? Do you think the Vols have a shot at reaching 10 regular season wins like in 2022? — Jacob, Huntsville, Ala.

The Vols could be pretty darn good if QB Nico Iamaleava lives up to his five-star billing. But to reach 10 regular-season wins they’ll need to claim two of four against NC State in Charlotte, at Oklahoma, vs. Alabama and at Georgia, then sweep everyone else. That last part seems doable on paper given none of the other five foes (at Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State and at Vanderbilt) finished .500 in the SEC last season, but we know at least one, if not more, will rise and surprise people.

But hey, Tennessee beat Alabama at home in 2022 when the Crimson Tide had Bryce Young and Nick Saban, Oklahoma has not exactly been elite the past few years, and NC State is not Georgia. So it’s possible Tennessee could shoot right past 10-2 and get to 11-1.

I know a lot of folks aren’t fully sold on Josh Heupel, but he made me a believer with that 11-2 Orange Bowl season given the dumpster fire Jeremy Pruitt left behind. What made that team special was the lethal connection between Hendon Hooker and his receivers, mainly Jalin Hyatt, now with the New York Giants. It’s not surprising the Vols took a step back on offense last season with Joe Milton instead of Hooker and no Hyatt or Bru McCoy, who missed most of last season to injury. McCoy is back this fall.

Tennessee won 11 games in 2022 with a not-great defense that hung on for dear life in that memorable 52-49 Alabama win and eventually gave out in the 63-28 debacle at South Carolina. The Vols quietly fielded a top-20 defense last season (4.97 YPP) — and the unit will bring back stud James Pearce Jr. — but they got decimated by defections in the secondary.

Missouri stole Tennessee’s thunder last season as the SEC East darling not named Georgia and has only built on the hype entering this one. But I don’t see them as all that different. Either could make the Playoff, and either could go 8-4.

Stew, why is a safety worth only two points? It hardly ever happens, it requires the same type of mastery that offenses use on offense, and nothing gets a crowd more excited than realizing their team is in line to get one. If we made safeties worth five points, who would object? — Christian F.

I’d be all for it, mostly because I want to experience Iowa winning a football game 5-3.

GO DEEPERRanking CFB teams better off (Texas), worse off (USC), or same (Nebraska) in new era

With the new CFP format, the top four teams earn a bye week. Do you see this as really advantageous compared to seeds 5-12? If so, do you ever imagine seeing a day when Notre Dame joins a conference in order to achieve that advantage? — Rob W. Columbia, S.C.

Having to win one less game to win the national championship is a pretty big advantage. But as we get closer to seeing this in action, I do wonder if it has the potential to backfire.

College football has been the odd sport in which the teams battle for 14/15 straight weeks, then go into a cocoon for a month before resurfacing for the biggest games of the season. The long layoff can lead to rust and sloppiness — see last year’s Alabama-Michigan semifinal — but at least both teams were working under the same rules.

Now, in this season’s quarterfinals, you will have one team that’s been off for three-plus weeks and another whose season never really stopped. Their first-round game will be no different than playing after an idle week during the regular season, and then they’ll turn around and play again 10-11 days later. The higher seed will be better-rested, but it may also be more disjointed.

GO DEEPERFeldman's CFP 12-team projection: Why I like Miami, PSU and Texas

My guess is it will produce some upsets when the team that’s been off longer comes out and lays an egg.

But that’s not to say the lack of a bye won’t catch up to some or most of the 5-12 seeds. The round I’d be worried about for them is the semifinals, which fall just a week or eight days after the quarters. Now that team is playing its third high-intensity game in less than three weeks and fourth (if it played in a conference championship game) in 32/33 days, whereas the higher seed will have played once in the previous month. That’s a huge wear-and-tear discrepancy.

As for Notre Dame, remember, while it doesn’t get a bye, it also never plays in a conference championship game, so it may go into that first-round game with an extra week’s rest over its opponent AND avoids a month-long layoff. Thus making this the 8,765th time in Mailbag history someone asks me, “Is this the thing that forces Notre Dame to join a conference?” To which I say, “Nope.”

Mandel's Mailbag: Brian Kelly vs. Lincoln Riley, plus, should we be rooting for Dabo Swinney? (4)

NC State finished 9-4 in 2023 and lost to Kansas State in the Pop-Tarts Bowl. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

Do you see a path for NC State to win the ACC this year? It feels like it has been trending in that direction the past few years and has the playmakers on both sides of the ball to contend with anyone in the conference. — Luke, Richmond Va.

I absolutely think the Wolfpack can win the ACC, and I have absolutely no confidence they will achieve it, given the past 45 years of evidence. But, let’s at least entertain the possibility.

It all starts with Grayson McCall. Simply put, the former Coastal Carolina QB was one of the best quarterbacks in the country from 2020-22, regardless of conference. He ranked in the top five in pass efficiency in all three seasons, including No. 1 in 2021, one spot above Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. His 207.65 rating that season set an NCAA record, which has since been broken by LSU’s Jayden Daniels last season. If NC State is getting anywhere close to that version of McCall, watch out, ACC.

The concern, though, is he did that in former coach Jamey Chadwell’s unique spread-option offense. He was not the same guy for much of his seven games under Tim Beck last season, then suffered a season-ending head injury. Of note: Beck came from NC State, where he was OC two seasons ago.

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Beyond that, head coach Dave Doeren has accumulated quite a few playmakers in receiver KC Concepcion, last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year, Duke running back Jordan Waters, Ohio State receiver Noah Rogers and ACC receiver Wesley Grimes, to go with an experienced O-line. I’m not as confident in the defense, which lost all-everything linebacker Payton Wilson among others, though Tony Gibson is an underrated coordinator.

And finally, NC State has a pretty favorable conference schedule. It plays at Clemson but avoids Florida State, Louisville and Miami while getting both Cal and Stanford. Needless to say, the trophy is there for taking … if you believe Doeren is capable of delivering one.

Doeren, now entering his 12th season, is quite the enigma. He’s highly respected within his fan base and around the ACC. But the numbers are … eh? He’s never done better than nine wins and never finished higher than 20th in the polls. Last season was considered one of his best to date — 9-4, 6-2 in conference — and it still included 21-point losses to Notre Dame and Duke.

All of which is to say, I’ll believe it when I see it. But if nothing else NC State should be a fun team to watch.

Stew, I’m trying to envision what the new 12-team CFP will mean for the last couple of weeks of the season since there will now be three layers of Playoff storylines:

1) Teams trying to win a conference title and secure a bye.
2) Teams trying to make the field and secure a home game.
3) Teams trying to make the field, period.

Can you illustrate how this might’ve played out last season? Specifically, were there games during Rivalry Week that would’ve taken on greater significance? — Brian S., Buford, Ga.

By my unofficial count, there were seven games on Rivalry Weekend last season with Playoff implications: No. 1 Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Washington vs. Washington State, No. 5 Florida State vs. Florida, No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 16 Oregon State, No. 7 Texas vs. Texas Tech and No. 8 Alabama vs. Auburn. Those top eight teams were the only ones left with a realistic shot of finishing in the top four.

Using that week’s same lineup with a 12-team system, the number of games with CFP ramifications jumps from seven to 17, with varying degrees of stakes. (Note: The Pac-12 still existed, so it was five leagues playing for four byes.)

• No. 1 Georgia vs. Georgia Tech: The Dawgs would be in regardless, but it could affect their seeding if they lose.

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• No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Ohio State: Both are in, but only the winner can earn a conference championship and first-round bye.

• No. 4 Washington vs. Washington State: The Huskies had already clinched a spot in the Pac-12 title game, but a loss puts them in jeopardy of losing the first-round bye.

• No. 5 Florida State vs. Florida: Same stakes as the Apple Cup.

From here down, every team needs one more win to be assured a CFP berth. But also …

• No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 16 Oregon State: The 10-1 Ducks need to win to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game and potentially earn a bye. The Beavers have slight at-large hopes.

• No. 7 Texas vs. Texas Tech: Same stakes for Texas as Oregon’s.

• No. 8 Alabama vs. Auburn: The Tide already had a spot in Atlanta, but at this point can still finish anywhere from bye to first-round host to first-round visitor to out entirely.

• No. 9 Missouri vs. Arkansas: The 9-2 Tigers likely need to win to get in, and also have a shot to host in the first round.

• No. 10 Louisville vs. Kentucky: The Cards likely need to win the ACC title game to get in, but this one affects their seed if they do.

• No. 11 Penn State vs. Michigan State: Penn State needs a win to get in.

• No. 12 Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State, No. 13 Oklahoma vs. TCU, No. 14 LSU vs. Texas A&M and No. 15 Arizona vs. Arizona State: These all feature bubble teams that need a win and some help above them.

• No. 23 Tulane vs. UTSA, No. 25 No. 25 Liberty vs. UTEP and SMU vs. Navy: Tulane, Liberty and SMU are all still in contention for the Group of 5’s automatic CFP berth.

Final tally: The first seven games take on slightly less importance, the other 10 take on more importance, and we all spend way more time than we should dissecting the resumes of 10-2 Missouri, 10-2 Penn State, 10-2 Ole Miss and 10-2 Oklahoma.

Talk about it amongst yourselves over the grill this weekend. Hope you have a fantastic 4th of July.

(Top photo: Stephen Lew / USA Today)

Mandel's Mailbag: Brian Kelly vs. Lincoln Riley, plus, should we be rooting for Dabo Swinney? (2024)

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