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March 20, 2009

Mailbag: Can Stewart cut it at West Virginia?

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Rarely has a college football coach failed at one school and later succeeded at another. When it does happen, it's usually because the coach stepped down in the level of competition.

For example, Marv Levy managed just eight wins in four seasons at California in the early 1960s, but twice was named Southern Conference coach of the year in five seasons at William & Mary. He then went on to have a brilliant career in the NFL, primarily as coach of the Buffalo Bills.

Another example is Jerry Moore, who managed just 16 victories in five seasons at Texas Tech in the early 1980s. But he has won three national titles at Appalachian State.

Bill Stewart hopes to duplicate those feats in reverse order.

He failed at Virginia Military Institute, where his teams posted just eight victories in three seasons from 1994-96. Given a second chance, he's trying to prove himself at West Virginia as Rich Rodriguez's replacement. He is 2-0 in bowl games, having beaten Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and North Carolina's Butch Davis, but apparently he needs to do more.

As we see in this week's mailbag, some West Virginia fans question his ability.

Can Stewart keep it going?

From: Josh in Charleston, S.C..: Bill Stewart took over at West Virginia based on a feel-good story. I have no doubt that he is a good assistant, but I don't believe he has what it takes to be a head coach, much less follow in the footsteps of Rich Rodriguez. Pat White pretty much carried West Virginia last season. Do you think Stewart will be able to find a way to win this year and continue to recruit? Or will he run the program into the ground?

Win or run the program into the ground that doesn't leave much in-between. But Rodriguez raised the standards at West Virginia, so merely "good" seasons don't figure to be embraced in Morgantown any longer.

The Mountaineers did have a good season in 2008. The wins weren't always overwhelming, but there were nine of them. A 9-4 record is a good season by any measure. Only 20 Football Bowl Subdivision teams managed more victories. Of course, after three consecutive seasons of at least 10 victories, a nine-win season is disappointing.

Adding to the disappointment was that two losses were in overtime and another was by four points. That's how close the Mountaineers were to another huge season.

An adage says close games are won on the sidelines, meaning that's when coaching can make a difference. No doubt, the clock management and play calling was poor in the final two minutes of regulation in the overtime loss to Colorado. That's on Stewart.

But in the overtime loss to Cincinnati, the Mountaineers scored 13 points in just more than a minute of the fourth quarter to tie. Sure, credit White for leading that rally, but give Stewart credit for coaching a team that wouldn't give up.

As you mentioned, perhaps the biggest challenge facing Stewart is the unenviable situation of following Rodriguez, who posted 60 wins and won or shared four Big East Conference championships in seven years in Morgantown. That's a tough act for anyone to follow.

Be fair, though. Rodriguez did have four seasons at West Virginia in which he did not hit double-digits in wins. Of course, it could be argued that he didn't have White at quarterback in those years, either.

Still, Stewart deserves a chance. He's 2-0 in bowl games and 10-4 as the Mountaineers' coach. Rivals.com ranked his two recruiting classes 42nd in 2008 and 27th in 2009, which is comparable to Rodriguez's final two classes, which were ranked 52nd in '06 and 23rd in '07.

I have my doubts that Stewart will equal Rodriguez's success over the long term. But that's not necessarily a knock on Stewart. Frankly, I believe Rodriguez is one of the premier coaches in college football. Anybody coaching West Virginia will have difficulty equaling what Rodriguez did. But that doesn't mean Stewart will run the program into the ground, either.

Drama class

From: Eric in Westfield, Ind..: Do you agree that because the Ohio State Buckeyes have so many people loving or hating them at the same time, they could be considered the "drama queens" of college football?

I must disagree with that one.

Ohio State probably is the most provocative team because of the Buckeyes' recent failures in big games (bowl losses to Texas, LSU and Florida and a regular-season loss to USC). Some want to paint the Buckeyes as overrated sloths because of those losses.

Frankly, I don't get it. All those teams finished in the top four of the final AP poll in the season they defeated the Buckeyes. Losing to great teams doesn't equate to incompetence. It surely doesn't make them the country's "drama queen." Not even close.

You want drama? Head down to the plains of east Alabama, to Auburn.

How's this for drama:

The Tigers' past two coaches Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville have been successful, yet were forced to resign.

Auburn officials tried to go under the table to fire Tuberville and hire Bobby Petrino in 2003.

Auburn went undefeated in 2004 and got left out of the BCS championship game.

Tuberville fired two offensive coordinators in less than a year.

A New York Times story a few years ago accused Auburn of giving football players high grades without requiring them to attend class.

Rather than go for a win in the 1988 Sugar Bowl, former coach Pat Dye opted to a kick a field goal to notch a 16-16 tie against unbeaten Syracuse and kill any claims the Orange had on the national championship.

Auburn has been on major NCAA probation seven times.

Auburn alum Charles Barkley charged racism when the school hired Gene Chizik to replace Tuberville instead of Buffalo's Turner Gill.

So there you have it. Drama, thy name is Auburn.

Heart transplant needed

From: Justin in Clemson, S.C..: What is the missing link in bringing another national championship to Clemson? With the talent on the roster the past couple of years, it's alarming the Tigers haven't broken through to the upper echelon of college football.

The '06 Clemson team struck me as the most talented team in the ACC; then the Tigers went 8-5 and lost three games by a field goal or less.

They looked really good in '07, but lost twice by a field goal.

That's a lot of close losses.

For some reason, it seems Clemson typically doesn't make big plays in crunch time. For example, remember Aaron Kelly's drop of a potential winning touchdown pass against Boston College in '07? Kelly made 232 catches in his career, but that one drop kept the Tigers out of the ACC Championship Game.

Maybe the coaching change with Dabo Swinney replacing Tommy Bowden will make a difference. Maybe it won't.

Clemson blew a 21-10 lead to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. And after they fell behind 26-21, the Tigers had a first-and-goal at the Huskers' 10 in the final two minutes. But the next four plays netted three incomplete passes and a 16-yard loss on a sack.

The missing link at Clemson is heart.

High hopes at Ole Miss

From: Justin in Mantachie, Miss..: There are a lot of high expectations for Ole Miss this fall. The Rebels are returning most of their squad. Lots of people in north Mississippi are expecting nothing short of a BCS game and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the first time. Considering who Ole Miss has returning and the schedule, do you see this being a possibility, even if it's nothing more than an outside chance.

There are many reasons to like Ole Miss. Jevan Snead is one of the best quarterback in the country. Dexter McCluster is a big-play waiting to happen. So is Shay Hodge. Greg Hardy is among the nation's premier pass rushers. Nine offensive starters and eight defensive starters are back from a nine-win team. Houston Nutt is a proven coach.

Now, the other side of the coin. Depth could be an issue. Despite McCluster's big-play ability, he's also prone to turnovers. Plus, the losses of linemen Michael Oher and Peria Jerry are huge. Ole Miss has more trouble replacing stars than Alabama or LSU.

Ole Miss has more than an outside chance to win the SEC West. The Rebels have a good chance. But each player must raise his level of performance because there will be no chances to surprise any opponents this season.

Alabama and LSU travel to Oxford in '09, so that helps. Still, Alabama probably will be viewed as the team to beat in the SEC West and Ole Miss likely will be picked third. But it will be a close third, and no one should be surprised if Ole Miss is in the SEC Championship Game.

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