Wilner Hotline Weekly Mailbag

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Is Utah the most underrated preseason top-10 team ever? — @Jeff_Ute

A question that could only be posed by the most red-blooded of red-blooded Utah fans but worth addressing because of the context available.

First, we should point out the Utes’ placement in the early top-25 rankings following a season in which they won the Pac-12 and lost to Ohio State in a Rose Bowl epic:

No. 4: ESPN
No. 5: The Hotline
No. 6: USA Today
No. 7: ProFootballFocus
No. 8: 247Sports
No. 9: CBS Sports

Does that constitute “the most underrated ever”?

The Hotline expects a stellar season from Utah given the number of returnees on both sides of scrimmage and the coaching staff’s proven ability to maximize talent.

But are the Utes good enough to reach the College Football Playoff?

That would require a 13-0 or 12-1 season, because no two-loss team has ever qualified and the Pac-12 won’t be the conference that changes the paradigm.

In our view, the Utes aren’t good enough to navigate the schedule, which includes a trip to Florida, with fewer than two losses. They are the clear favorites in the Pac-12 but not quite a CFP team.

Now, the context …

Here’s a look at the highest-rated Pac-12 team in the AP preseason poll in each season since expansion, followed by its end-of-season ranking:

2011: No. 3 Oregon/No. 4
2012: No. 1 USC/not ranked
2013: No. 3 Oregon/No. 9
2014: No. 3 Oregon/No. 2
2015: No. 7 Oregon/No. 19
2016: No. 8 Stanford/No. 12
2017: No. 4 USC/No. 12
2018: No. 6 Washington/No. 13
2019: No. 11 Oregon/No. 5
2020: No. 9 Oregon/not ranked (short season)
2021: No. 11 Oregon/No. 22

Two observations:

— Only twice has the favorite been ranked higher at the end of the season than the beginning: Oregon in ’14 and ’19, when the Ducks had Marcus Mariota and Justin Herbert, respectively.

— Not since USC in ’17 has the Pac-12 placed a team in the top-five of the AP preseason poll — one of many data points indicating a deterioration in performance by the collective.

Our strong sense is that AP voters generally don’t view the best team in the Pac-12 as being worthy of the playoff — with good reason — and that results in a preseason ranking outside the top four.

But compared to the placement of the top-ranked Pac-12 team in recent AP preseason polls, the Utes should fare quite well come August.

Random question: Any idea when the kickoff times and channels for the first few weeks of Pac-12 football will drop? Hoping to plan around games. — @KingstonTheCoug

Not all that random, actually. We’re close enough to the start of the season for fans to set their travel plans.

My expectation is for the Pac-12 to release the early-season kickoff times (and TV broadcasts) in the final week of May, which fits in the traditional window. That could be before the Memorial Day weekend, or immediately after.

When it comes, the information will cover non-conference and conference games for the weekends of Sept. 3, 10 and 17, plus the Friday kickoffs throughout the season.

Of note: The schedule released in December featured four conference games on Fridays — three of which were the day after Thanksgiving: Arizona-ASU, UCLA-Cal and Oregon-Oregon State.

The fourth Friday game was USC-Colorado, on Nov. 11. We suspect more have been added to the lineup and will be announced later this month with the early-season kickoffs.

Do we know if commissioner George Kliavkoff is helping schools brainstorm to improve the game-day experience and to make it easier for fans to travel? — MrTPSM

We can’t address the extent to which Kliavkoff is directly involved in regular conversations with campus officials about the game-day experience, but I do know this:

— The topic was discussed during his tour of the schools last summer.

— The conference office works regularly with campuses on marketing and fan engagement matters, providing not only suggestions but data analytics. (This is an ongoing challenge and topic.)

— Kliavkoff is keenly aware of the demands placed on fans by the Pac-12 media contracts.

Those demands currently take two primary forms: 1) The heavy load of night games, which are particularly difficult for teams that draw fans from other cities, and 2) The number of six-day selection windows for the network (two each for ESPN and Fox). It’s tough to plan when you don’t know the kickoff time a week out.

The challenge for Kliavkoff during the upcoming media rights negotiations is to thread the needle between contracts that generate maximum revenue and those that provide maximum exposure and fan-friendly logistics.

What can Kliavkoff and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey hope to get from the U.S. Congress? Is there specific legislation they want created or changed? — @TerryTerry79

Ideally, Congress would provide a legal framework for the NCAA to enforce name, image and likeness guidelines — something that would apply everywhere and hold up in court.

The NCAA wiped its hands of NIL enforcement last summer for fear of antitrust litigation. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Alston case (on compensation tied to education) and Brett Kavanaugh’s scathing concurring opinion — however unrealistic it might be — scared the snot out of Mark Emmert and Co.

With each state writing its own NIL legislation, a federal framework for the marketplace is the only chance the NCAA has to corral this thing without winding up in court.

NIL as intended was a necessary and immensely beneficial step for college athletics.

NIL as a proxy for pay-for-play, especially for high school recruits, is effectively free agency and needs some legal framework.

Is this year’s transfer saga with Washington State men’s basketball an anomaly, or a sign of things to come? —  @SirCharles_OG

To an extent, that depends on coach Kyle Smith’s approach to building his roster. Certain players are more likely to transfer than others.

For example, geography plays a part in the calculation. Players from other parts of the country seemingly would be more likely to transfer back home after one or two seasons.

Upside also plays a role. Players with a high level of raw talent are more likely to enter the NBA Draft or ponder transfer options to traditional powers.

And make no mistake: WSU is recruiting at a higher level than ever. Big men Efe Abogidi and Mouhamed Gueye have declared for the draft and entered the portal.

Meanwhile, the Cougars just landed Adrame Dionge, a four-star prospect from Arizona. Will he spend one year in Pullman, then leave? Entirely possible.

It’s something of a conundrum for Smith and other coaches, especially those at remote campuses with limited basketball tradition and small recruiting pools.

Roster stability matters, but you don’t get far in the sport by focusing on third-rate talents likely to stay four years.

Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd earned his Coach of the Year awards but appears to be struggling on the recruiting trail, particularly with would-be transfers. Are NIL deals at fault? Have Arizona boosters not stepped up to the plate? — Yoni Cohen

When you sketch the ideal situation for NIL as it was intended (i.e., endorsement opportunities based on accomplishments for a specific team), the canvass looks a lot like Arizona: A highly-successful team that dominates a local market free of professional sports.

There should be no shortage of NIL deals for the Wildcats and, in fact, an Arizona donor collective was established in February.

Lloyd hasn’t added players through the portal, yet. But there’s still time — much more time for rosters to settle in basketball than football because of the competitive calendar.

Let’s check back on Arizona’s roster in early June, after the NBA Draft withdrawal deadline and after the portal settles.

Our guess is Lloyd will have back filled successfully.

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