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Why Is USC Getting a Free Pass Into the College Football Playoff? #DearAndy

Inside this week's mailbag: Is it such a good idea to automatically assume USC is going to be an elite team? Plus, your questions on the coaching stocks of Larry Fedora and Les Miles, and a dark horse Heisman candidate in the SEC.

The preseason awards watch lists are all out, and this week the release of the year’s first Coaches Poll marks the first of countless Top 25 rankings rolled out throughout the rest of August. (Speaking of which, look out for SI’s soon.) That means hype season is in full swing, both for individuals and the teams they represent, and the topics in this week’s #DearAndy reflect as much. On to the questions...

From Brian: Am I wrong to be down on USC's playoff hopes in 2017? I can't remember the last time a hyped Trojan squad actually met expectations...

I can. It was 2004, the year Arcade Fire released Funeral and 13 years before the Wall Street Journal discovered that millennials recently learned that TV shows are JUST FLOATING IN THE AIR FOR FREE. In ’04, USC went undefeated and won the BCS title. That seems like a pretty thorough meeting of expectations. (I can’t say the same for the ’05 team, which was supposed to win the national title but got Vince Young’d.)

Still, I don’t think you’re wrong to question the pass we seem to be giving USC into the playoff before a game has been played. I think your reason is wrong. The hype has nothing to do with it. The last overhyped USC team was the 2012 squad, but nothing Lane Kiffin or Matt Barkley did back then has anything to do with what Sam Darnold or Biggie Marshall will do over the next four months.

The prevailing wisdom is that USC has a relatively easy schedule and should cruise to the Pac-12 title game, where it will have to beat Washington or Stanford to earn a playoff spot. There’s nothing easy about a schedule that includes 12 consecutive games. If USC gets an open date, it’ll be the week before the Pac-12 title game. That means the Trojans are going to have to grind through injuries and fatigue, and that’s always a challenge.

The two stickiest parts of the schedule are at the front and in the middle. USC gets Stanford at home Sept. 9, but the Cardinal have been a miserable matchup for the Trojans, winning seven of the past nine meetings and winning the past three by an average of 15.3 points. Whether the Trojans win or lose, they’ll likely get beat up on both lines of scrimmage. The following week, they’ll face a talented-but-flawed Texas team that will consider playing USC a much bigger deal than USC will consider playing Texas. Then on Oct. 14, USC will face Utah, another safe bet to deliver a pounding at the line of scrimmage, win or lose. A week after absorbing those blows, they’ll go to South Bend to play Notre Dame in a game that could be a season-maker for the Fighting Irish.

If USC gets through this schedule, it will have earned its spot in the playoff.

From Danny: Is Nick Fitzgerald a legit Heisman contender? If not, why not? [Answer linked here, and in the video at the top of this story.]

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From Will: Actual chances of Les Miles to Ole Miss? Roll Tide here, but love having that guy in conference.

I’d put it at zero.

There is a significant disconnect between fans and the people who hire coaches when it comes to Miles, and this isn’t just related to the Ole Miss job. Some fans look at the fact that Miles won a national title in 2007 and won the SEC in 2011 and figure that if he can do that, he’ll definitely make a traditionally less successful program better.

Athletic directors are much more likely to look at the more recent part of Miles’s body of work. With some of the nation’s best talent—the NFL draft bears this out—Miles went 12–10 in SEC play in his final three full seasons, and his offense seemed to regress with each passing year. After Miles fought off a coup at the end of the 2015 season, he was told by LSU athletic director Joe Alleva to modernize the offense. Miles chose not to. An AD is going to have two major issues with this series of events. First, it’s blatant defiance. Second, how did Miles not realize the game had passed him by on that side of the ball?

So while the fan is going to look at overall record and titles won, the AD is going to look at the more recent results and ask one question: If he couldn’t win big with LSU talent, what’s he going to do with the talent here? That is the question Miles will have to find a satisfactory answer for if he ever wants to be a head coach again.

In the meantime, he says he isn’t going to be appearing on your television anytime soon. Since live radio hosting is probably out—clock management is critical in that endeavor—the best medium for Miles likely is a podcast. On Wednesday’s edition of The First Team on SiriusXM’s College Sports Nation, Barrett Sallee and I asked listeners to suggest names for this podcast. They came up with some doozies.

From David: If Larry Fedora turns Brandon Harris into an effective QB, does he jump into the “hot hire” discussion for the Next Big Gig? [Answer linked here, and in the video below.]

From John: Does Will Grier have a superstar ceiling with WVU?

When West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital visited SI’s offices in April, both were very high on Grier. They know there may be an adjustment for him after almost two years away from game action because of an NCAA suspension and sitting out a season after transferring from Florida, but they believe he can master the offense quickly and put up points. The limited body of work we saw from Grier at Florida suggests he can be very productive in that offense. Despite not being very big—insert your own NCAA-suspension-for-testing-positive joke her—he was fearless and seemed to have a knack for choosing the correct receiver. His heroics at the end of Florida’s 2015 win against Tennessee are what everyone remembers, but if West Virginia fans want to get really, they should go back and watch Grier in the Gators’ 38-10 whipping of Ole Miss the following week. Facing a loaded defense on a team that ultimately won the Sugar Bowl, Grier completed 24 of 29 passes for 271 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. That Florida team didn’t push the tempo because it had a dominant defense, so Grier will likely get many more opportunities to air it out in Morgantown.

From Colin: What (likely) preseason Top 15 team is most likely to finish the season unranked? [Answer linked here, and in the video below.]