Mandel’s Mailbag: The rarity of the Arch Manning plan and 2024’s top QB conference

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This week’s Mailbag hits on a wide range of college football topics but begins with a timely NFL Draft question, because where else on the internet are you possibly going to find someone’s opinion about the draft?

Name a player eligible for this week’s NFL Draft for whom you don’t agree with the hype.

Jorge A.

I need to start with the requisite disclaimer that I am not a trained NFL talent evaluator. Six years ago this week, I was incredulous that an NFL team had convinced itself that modestly productive college quarterback Josh Allen was a top-10 player. Whoops. And I would have bet my mortgage at the time that Marcus Mariota would become an All-Pro. Whoops, again.

But … I don’t get the J.J. McCarthy hype at all.

On the one hand, he checks some of my most important boxes: experienced, productive, has played on the biggest stage. The draft-darling QBs I’ve been most puzzled about in the past — Allen, Mitch Trubisky, Trey Lance, Zach Wilson, Will Levis — lacked one or more of those criteria, whereas McCarthy was a 23-1 national champion QB with a top-10 passer rating.

But no one who watched Michigan’s juggernaut teams the past two years would have come away thinking McCarthy was the key to the whole thing. The defense and running game were. McCarthy made some big throws when needed, and just as importantly, he made plays with his legs, most notably his 16-yard run on the late game-tying touchdown drive against Alabama in the Rose Bowl.

You can talk yourself into pretty much anything by endlessly watching tape, and it feels like NFL folks are zeroing in on those occasional big plays in which McCarthy shows off his athleticism to justify a potential top-five pick. In general, it feels like he’s still got a lot to prove before I’d anoint him a potential franchise QB. I’m particularly baffled by how any GM choosing between McCarthy and Michael Penix Jr. would take the former. (Though my one draft-night prediction is that Penix will go higher than he’s being projected.)

But you know who else got picked really high largely because of his arm strength and athleticism? Josh Allen. If five years from now, McCarthy is an All-Pro while Penix is playing in the UFL, please forget I ever wrote this.

What game in Week 1 are you most looking forward to?

Johnmark S.

There’s no blockbuster in Week 1, but Georgia–Clemson comes closest. It’s an interesting full-circle moment. If you recall, Kirby Smart’s first national title season in 2021 showcased what would become a historically dominant defense in a 10-3 win against Clemson in Charlotte. It sems like ancient history now, but the third-ranked Tigers, then on a run of six consecutive Playoff berths, were the favorite and the higher-ranked team that night. (Georgia was No. 5.) The Bulldogs would go on to finish No. 1, while Clemson ended the year 14th.

Three years later, Georgia is the reigning juggernaut. I’d imagine it will arrive as a double-digit favorite, leading to one of three scenarios: 1) Georgia wins comfortably, reaffirming its status as the preseason No. 1 or 2 team alongside Ohio State. 2) Georgia gets a scare, and we all knee-jerk react that the Dawgs aren’t as good as they thought. Or 3) The Tigers pull the upset, and Dabo gets to crow at all the naysayers like me who don’t believe Clemson can be a national title contender again if it’s a non-factor in the portal.

So that’s my answer for the game I’m most looking forward to, but I’m also very much looking forward to Notre Dame at Texas A&M in Mike Elko’s Aggies debut, LSU-USC in Vegas, Miami at Florida, Penn State at West Virginia, and of course, the biggest of them all: Lindenwood at Kansas.

Looking forward to Oklahoma and Texas in the SEC. How do you think both teams with do in their first year?

Kevin M., Dallas

Pretty simple with Texas: There’s no reason the Longhorns can’t compete for an SEC championship in Year 1. They have the quarterback, the receivers, a deep backfield and what should be one of the best offensive lines in the country. It’s possible the defense takes a step back after losing a couple of D-linemen who are about to become high draft picks, but UTSA transfer edge rusher Trey Moore was one of the standouts of spring camp, and Steve Sarkisian raved about the team’s pass rush after last weekend’s spring game.

The Horns also drew a favorable schedule, even with their Week 2 game at Michigan and the Oct. 12-19 back-to-back of Oklahoma and Georgia. None of their other SEC opponents finished better than 7-6 last season. All in all, it would be a disappointing season for Texas if it does not at least reach the 12-team Playoff.

The Sooners are more of a mystery team to me. If second-year quarterback Jackson Arnold is as advertised, OU has the pieces for an explosive offense. Gavin Sawchuk emerged as a primary ball carrier as a freshman, and Purdue transfer receiver Deion Burks looked like a breakout star this spring. The only problem is OU will be breaking in an entirely new offensive line, which even under renowned O-line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is less than ideal heading into the SEC.

Defensively, the Sooners were much better in 2023 than they were the year before but not yet close to the Brent Venables Clemson standard. We’ll see whether he’s amassed enough big bodies to win the trench wars.

Most notably, Oklahoma’s conference schedule looks much tougher than Texas’, what with Alabama, Texas, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Missouri. Success for the Sooners in Year 1 may just be a Top 25 finish.

The two-minute warning? Seriously? We need more timeouts? Educate us, please.

Jim, Grandview Heights, Ohio

I feel like every offseason the rules committee approves at least one measure that feels like change for the sake of change. But here’s the two-fold rationale that was given.

First off, you may recall the big change last season to keep the clock moving after first downs, except for the last two minutes of a half. A two-minute warning theoretically allows for a smoother transition for everyone involved: the officials, the chain gang, the clock keeper, the game ops people, etc.

The second reason involves everyone’s favorite topic: Commercials! Last fall, Seth Emerson and I documented that the number of commercial breaks had not changed with the new clock rules. However, the faster pace sometimes makes it challenging for producers to squeeze in the allotted breaks per quarter, which is why you sometimes see the dreaded “commercial break-kickoff-another commercial break” sequence. Knowing a break is coming at the two-minute mark should in theory end that practice.

I still think it’s going to be a weird adjustment. Not having a two-minute warning used to distinguish the college game from the NFL, but now that will go by the wayside along with other abandoned practices like not having overtime, not having a playoff and not paying the players.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

Are you going to change the name of your column to NIL Mailbag? Seems like that’s all you talk about anymore. Get over it.

Trey C.

NIL money has become the core element of how programs construct, add to and retain their rosters, but sure, let’s just all get over it and move on.

I look forward to our NFL writers’ next mailbags where they never mention free agency or the salary cap.

Arch Manning appears to be QB2 for another season at Texas. When was the last time a prospect as highly rated as Arch waited two years to start? And with NIL & the transfer portal, will we ever see a situation like this play out again?

Tim, New York, N.Y.

I went back to 2010 in the 247Sports archives, and it is indeed rare that a five-star quarterback, or even a high-four star, did not start by his second season, even if it meant transferring (Justin Fields in 2019, Quinn Ewers in 2022). We do have one current five-star, Alabama’s Ty Simpson, who barring a portal entry before next Tuesday will likely remain a backup in his third season on campus. Before that, Stanford’s Davis Mills was a five-star in the class of 2017 who did not make his first start until 2019.

But of course, neither entered with nearly the hype and acclaim as Manning.

Obviously, his is a unique family situation. He has a lot of former NFL quarterbacks to lean on for advice, and he hardly needs a seven-figure check from someone’s collective. He plays for a coach, Steve Sarkisian, with a proven track record of grooming star QBs. So where would he go that’s a better situation than he has now? I’m sure fellow QB whisperer Lincoln Riley would welcome him in Los Angeles, but Texas’ program is on far more stable ground right now than USC’s.

As I wrote last week, I’m certain Sark will find spots to give Manning some meaningful playing time early in the season. And based on his superb spring game performance, Manning appears more than ready to fill in if Ewers misses time, which he has in each of his first two seasons as starter.

Never say “never,” but yes, I would imagine a QB recruit of his magnitude waiting until his third season to get a shot will be extremely rare in the future.

Stewart, what are the odds WVU pulls an upset of Penn State in the season opener for both schools? The Mountaineers have flown well under the radar this offseason but are returning nearly everyone on an offense that has shown it can easily reach the 30-point threshold. Plus, the atmosphere in Morgantown will be electric.

Brian W.

It’s definitely possible. West Virginia outperformed expectations last year with a 9-4 season, including a 5-1 mark at home. The Mountaineers took off on offense over the second half of the season, and they bring back veteran quarterback Garrett Greene, stud running backs Jahiem White and CJ Donaldson and a bunch of receivers. I strongly considered WVU for my early Top 25.

But also, I’m really struggling to find a reason to be excited about Penn State football right now.

That may sound strange to say about a team that has gone 21-5 over the past two seasons, but as we know, the Nittany Lions reached that mark largely by holding serve against the rest of the Big Ten while falling flat against top dogs Michigan and Ohio State. Quarterback Drew Allar was not the savior Penn State fans were anticipating last season, and while he should make strides as a second-year starter, he could use more weapons around him. James Franklin scored a win in the portal landing Ohio State WR Julian Fleming, only for last year’s top pass catcher KeAndre Lambert-Smith to go into the portal last week.

Defense has at least been a constant under Franklin, and while recent DC Manny Diaz is now the head coach at Duke, ex-Indiana head coach Tom Allen is an overqualified replacement. Franklin also has a new OC, Andy Kotelnicki, who had been with Kansas’ Lance Leipold since their Wisconsin-Whitewater days a decade ago. He’s great. But he still needs great players, and I’m not sure Penn State has enough of them.

I’ll be interested to see which network shows this one when. With no great Big Ten home games to choose from, I could see Fox using one of its high Big 12 picks to make this a Big Noon Kickoff game. But I kind of hope it’s at night, when Milan Puskar Stadium would be absolutely rocking. In that case, the upset potential increases exponentially.

We all know football is won in the trenches but which conference has the best QBs this year? I’m leaning Big 12. You?

Justin, Ottawa, Kan.

Well, the conference that had the best lineup in recent memory last season, the Pac-12, is no more, so it’s going to be a different answer.

The Big 12 has a strong lineup, thanks in large part to the Four Corners imports. Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders, Utah’s Cam Rising and Arizona’s Noah Fifita join Kansas’ Jalon Daniels to form a star-studded foursome at the top. Kansas State’s Avery Johnson flashed in limited duty as a freshman, West Virginia’s Garrett Greene has much of the same dual-threat ability and Iowa State’s Rocco Becht was an under-the-radar freshman (3,120 yards, 23 TDs, eight INTs).

But my nod goes to the SEC. Georgia’s Carson Beck, Alabama’s Jalen Milroe and Texas’ Quinn Ewers all sit at or near the top of every Heisman watch list. Beck flew under the radar a bit in his first season as starter, but the guy completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 3,941 yards, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. Ole Miss’ Jaxson Dart and Missouri’s Brady Cook led their teams to top-10 seasons last year and figure to be even better. Either or both of Tennessee’s Nico Iamaleava and Oklahoma’s Jackson Arnold, both five-stars from the 2023 class, could break out as sophomores. And we even have a possible freshman standout in Florida’s DJ Lagway, the 2024 five-star who shined in the Gators’ spring game. But he remains behind incumbent Graham Mertz — for now.

It’s interesting Justin began with “football is won in the trenches.” For years, the SEC was known for exactly that, but also for its lack of high-end QBs. That’s not the case anymore. Three of the past five Heisman winners have been SEC QBs (LSU’s Joe Burrow in 2019, Alabama’s Bryce Young in 2021 and LSU’s Jayden Daniels in 2023), with five other top-five vote-getters — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (2018) and Mac Jones (2020), Florida’s Kyle Trask (2020), Georgia’s Stetson Bennett (2022), Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker (2022) — over the past six seasons.

I predict both conferences will finish with at least one or two in the top five this season.

Is the next legal frontier in college football unlimited years of eligibility? How does a limit on years of eligibility pass antitrust muster when restrictions on number of transfers does not? With NIL money being tossed around, could a marginal NFL prospect decide to remain in college into his thirties and collect millions each year while attending a few physical education classes each semester?

Chris B., Scottsdale

I’ve gotten this particular question a lot this offseason, so I figured I should finally give you my answer. Which is: I have absolutely no idea.

We are entering new frontiers on so many fronts, I think we should just concede that no one has any idea how this is all going to play out. Theoretically, in a world where the athletes are employees, someone could make the case they can’t be required to attend class or maintain a certain GPA. Or that they even need to be enrolled at the university at all.

But I don’t think anyone is rooting for any of those scenarios. If anything, even most advocates for change desire to see some form of the traditional academic model. Sportico recently published the “Super League” pitch deck we reported on earlier this month. It proposes that an athlete be enrolled as a full-time student, proposes a five-year eligibility cap and allows only two transfers over those five years. It also ties an athlete’s share of the school’s NIL payments to their year in school (freshmen making the least, seniors making the most).

Note: Those points all fall under the header “collectively bargained roster management.” All answers to questions like Chris’ start and end there. The only practical way schools will be able to legally restore some controls to the current dysfunctional system is if they’re collectively bargained with the athletes themselves.

Now, who will lead those negotiations on behalf of the players? I have absolutely no idea.

How in the world does an idiot like Geoff Collins get a DC job at UNC? Does Mack Brown have one foot out of the door and wants to be fired? If you go to the UNC football website and read Collins’ bio, you would think he invented football at Georgia Tech, and the only thing that kept him from success there was Covid-19.

Paul Lee

Look, Collins had a lot of success as a DC at various schools (FIU, Mississippi State, Florida) before he ever became the head coach of Georgia Tech. Calling him an idiot seems a tad harsh.

That being said, I did click on that bio, and I’ve got to say, “Collins was faced with installing a pro-style spread offensive attack after 11 years of option football at Tech, all while battling the Covid-19 pandemic” is one of the funniest lines I’ve ever read in one of those things. Was he moonlighting as an ER doctor at nights while scheming up defenses during the day?

Take a bow, UNC sports information staff, and sports information staffs everywhere faced with putting a positive spin on a castoff coach’s resume after their own head coach hires the guy. Though you apparently didn’t get this one past Paul.

(Photo: Sara Diggins / American-Statesman / USA Today)

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