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Mailbag Volume 1

Every Tuesday, associate editor Terry Johnson will answer your questions from around the world of college football. If you have a topic that you’d like to see discussed, send him an email or tweet it to him on Twitter @SectionTPJ.

Q. What do you think of CSU as a dark horse in the (Mountain West) Mountain Division? Lost Kapri Bibbs, but still have Garrett Grayson & Rashard Higgins. – Go Rams, from Colorado Springs.

A. Yes, the Rams have a shot to win the Mountain Division this season. As you pointed out, Bibbs is gone. But, four of Grayson’s top five targets – including Higgins – return, which means that CSU will have little difficulty moving the ball through the air. That ought to open up the running game for Bryce Peters, Jason Oden, and true freshman Deron Thompson.

Another reason that I’m optimistic about its chances of winning the division crown is that Colorado State will be much better defensively in 2014. The Rams return their entire back seven from a unit that improved every single week, allowing just 369 yards per game over the final month of the season.

The biggest – and perhaps most important – factor working in the Rams’ favor is the schedule. Yes, they’ll have to go on the road and beat Boise on Sept. 6, which is no easy task. However, if they survive the Smurf Turf, the Rams would be in the driver’s seat in the Mountain Division, needing only a home win over Utah State to make it to the Mountain West Championship Game.

Q. Who are your dark horse Heisman Trophy candidates?Hook’em from Austin

A. Picking a Heisman Trophy winner is as accurate as my golf swing. Occasionally, it’s right on the money, but most of the time it’s way off the mark.

This year is no exception. While it would seem that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are the prohibitive favorites, it’s just as likely that another surprise candidate – like Johnny Football in 2012 or Winston last year – will come out of nowhere and win the award.

To fully answer your question, I’ll provide you with a list of three dark horse candidates that no one is talking about.

1. Brandon Connette, QB, Fresno State – While he hasn’t officially won the job as the Bulldogs’ signal caller yet, I expect him to be the starter when the season opens. After spending three years under David Cutcliffe and Kurt Roper at Duke, he will be an excellent fit in Fresno’s wide-open attack. Provided that the Bulldogs capture the Mountain West title, he should merit serious consideration from the voters.

2. Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall – The only reason that Cato isn’t receiving more consideration for the Heisman is because he doesn’t play in one the five power conferences. Over the past three seasons, Cato has been one of the nation’s most effective passers, throwing for over 10,000 yards with a very respectable 93/31 TD/INT ratio. If – and it’s a big if – he can lead the Thundering Herd to an undefeated season, and continues to pile up video game-like numbers, it’ll be tough to justify him not finishing in the top 5.

3. Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida – Yes, this is a reach, but Driskel does have a shot at making it to New York with the right breaks. After all, he’s scheduled to play against 5 teams (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, LSU, and Florida State) that will start the season in the top 15. This will give him plenty of opportunities to impress the voters. If he posts some big numbers in these contests – and guides the Gators to 3 or 4 wins – he should move up on people’s ballots. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s scheme.

Q. In the Coaches’ Poll, Alabama is 2nd and Auburn is 5th. Why is that: is it because the Crimson Tide is a better team or is it ranked higher based on strength of schedule? Should strength of schedule factor into the rankings?Big Spence

A. Excellent questions.

I have a hard time taking the Coaches’ Poll seriously because many of voters don’t give it the attention that they should. How else could we explain Arkansas receiving a vote for the top 25?

With that disclaimer in mind, it’s clear that Alabama is ranked higher because the Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year. The Tide has been virtually unbeatable at home under Nick Saban, compiling a 43-6 record during his tenure.

It certainly isn’t due to strength of schedule. Although both squads face very difficult conference schedules, Auburn has a much tougher slate, drawing division favorites South Carolina and Georgia from the East, while Alabama plays Tennessee and Florida.

To answer your second question, I believe that strength of schedule is a very important factor when selecting the field for the College Football Playoff. The new system is doomed to failure if it doesn’t reward teams who beat top quality competition during the regular season.

However, I don’t think it’s the most important factor. Since the only way to know if team A is truly better than team B is to have the two teams settle the issue on the gridiron, head-to-head matchups must always carry the most weight. Otherwise, the College Football Playoff is invalidating its own mission statement, which is to produce a meaningful regular season where every game counts.

In the absence of head-to-head meetings, strength of schedule should trump everything else. That way, college football’s top teams will meet more often during the regular season. Everyone wins in that situation.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.