"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
29 Aug 2005
by Russell Levine
Sure, USC is gunning for its third consecutive national championship and quarterback Matt Leinart is the favorite for a second Heisman Trophy. But can Texas finally beat Oklahoma? Can Charlie Weis build a winner at Notre Dame? Will the Big East survive the loss of its strongest programs? And what's with this new poll in the BCS system? The 2005-06 college football season could be one of the strangest and most interesting in memory.
Of the 23 Division I-A teams that changed coaches this offseason, the spotlight will shine brightest on Urban Meyer at Florida and Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. Meyer, coming off a 13-0 season at Utah, takes over one of the best programs of the past two decades from the fired Ron Zook. Meyer won at recruiting-challenged Utah, and that won't be a problem at Florida. Zook left the cupboard well-stocked, so the expectation is that Meyer will win right away.
Weis brings his three Super Bowl rings to Notre Dame. A Notre Dame grad, Weis will have to do quite a sales job to return the program to the recruiting elite, and those rings should help. But the short-term prospects are more muted thanks to a ridiculously difficult schedule and a talent-challenged roster.
Other new coaches expected to win right away include Les Miles at LSU, who arrives from Oklahoma State and inherits a national championship-caliber roster from Nick Saban, now coaching the Miami Dolphins. If Miles stumbles at all, his stay in Baton Rouge won't be a comfortable one.
The SEC's other new coach is South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, who returns to the conference after a failed stint in the NFL. His first South Carolina team will probably struggle, but that won't stop every press outlet in the country from sending a representative to the Florida- South Carolina game on November 12.
Not all the coaches on the hot seat are new; Joe Paterno has thus far resisted calls for his resignation after some truly dismal seasons, but his Nittany Lions need to turn things around before the program falls completely off the college football map. A few more mediocre seasons (by Florida State standards) could have the Seminoles' Bobby Bowden facing similar questions.
For a time, it appeared this off-season could be the most tumultuous in the history of the BCS after the Associated Press demanded its poll no longer be used as part of the BCS formula. But BCS officials decided the status quo was preferable to a complete makeover of its selection process, and merely set about searching for a poll to replace the AP. Enter the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, which consists of 114 voting members spread evenly across all 11 Division I-A conferences and regions of the country. It simply subs for the AP; the BCS formula -- the Harris and USA Today coaches' polls will each count for one-third, with an average of six computer ratings accounting for the other third -- remains unchanged. The Harris won't release its first rankings until September 25 -- four weeks into the season -which helps to eliminate preseason poll bias, but it does nothing to solve the problem of having more than two worthy teams for the title game.
The biggest change on the field in college football this fall is the wide acceptance of the use of instant replay. After a successful trial in the Big Ten last season, it has been adopted by nine of the 11 Division I-A conferences. The system will vary from conference to conference, with availability dependent on television schedules in some of the smaller conferences. It will be used to review calls involving the boundaries, possession, and certain detectable infractions, such as too many men on the field or timing errors. If a head coach challenges a play that stands, the team loses a timeout and can no longer challenge a play for that half.
Three of last year's four Heisman Trophy finalists -- Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush of USC and Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson -- have returned to campus, making them automatic candidates to capture the award this season. Others expected to contend include a pair of quarterbacks from major programs, Texas's Vince Young and Florida's Chris Leak; and two Juniors, running back Gerald Riggs, Jr. of Tennesse and receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. of Ohio State. But some of the nation's most exciting players are hiding out in smaller conferences and less-celebrated schools. Here are five dark horses you're not hearing about who could end up on stage in December after breakout seasons:
Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville Omar Jacobs, QB, Bowling Green Laurence Maroney, RB, Minnesota Reggie McNeal, QB, Texas A&M DeAngelo Williams, RB, Memphis
Are our conference games of the year not enough to satisfy your college football appetite? Here are another dozen you'll want to catch this fall:
ATLANTIC: Boston College, Clemson, Florida St., Maryland, North Carolina St., Wake Forest
COASTAL: Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Player of the Year: Devin Hester, CB/KR/PR, Miami
Watch Out for: Boston College
Falling Fast: North Carolina St.
Game of the Year: Miami at Virginia Tech, November 5
Unable to split its teams along geographic lines because of the heavy concentration of powers in the south, the ACC debuts as a two-tiered 12-team super conference this season with an "Atlantic" division and a "Coastal" division. Welcome to the most confusing conference in college football.
Boston College's arrival this year completes the league's two-year expansion. Much about the conference is new, including the inaugural title game on December 3, and participants could easily turn out to be two of the three Big East refugees (B.C. in the Atlantic, and Miami and Virginia Tech in the Coastal). The traditional power from the pre-expansion days, Florida State, suffered a tumultuous off-season and enters 2005 with question marks at quarterback, both lines, and the defensive secondary. Untested signal-caller Xavier Lee will get a baptism-by-fire against Miami on Labor Day, but at least the game is at home. If the 'Noles falter, Boston College, with all-world defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka could capture the division.
The entire Atlantic division is loaded with sleeper potential, with Clemson, Maryland, and North Carolina State all looking to rebound from disappointing seasons.
In the Coastal, Miami also has an unproven QB in Kyle Wright, but the experienced defense should be among the best in the nation, and CB/WR/KR Devin Hester is one of the nation's most exciting players. The Hurricanes' shocking home loss to Virginia Tech cost them the conference crown last season, and the Hokies are again a threat. Marcus Vick (Michael's younger brother) will start at quarterback after serving a year-long suspension. He showed flashes of brilliance two years ago, but has a long way to go to fill his brother's shoes.
Miami at Virginia Tech on November 5 could well decide the ACC title game berth. After those two schools, there's a significant dropoff to Georgia Tech, Virginia, and North Carolina in the Coastal.
NORTH: Colorado, Iowa St., Kansas, Kansas St., Nebraska, Missouri
SOUTH: Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech
Player of the Year: Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma
Watch Out for: Texas A&M
Falling Fast: Oklahoma St.
Game of the Year: Oklahoma vs. Texas, October 8, Dallas
Based on the preseason polls, a changing of the guard has occurred in the Big 12 conference during the off-season. When they last met on the field, Oklahoma was putting the finishing touches on a fifth straight win over archrival Texas, a streak that until last year had kept the Longhorns from reaching a BCS bowl. But Texas quarterback Vince Young pulled a Michael Vick imitation in a Rose Bowl win over Michigan while Oklahoma was humbled by USC in the Orange Bowl.
OU was hit hard by the NFL draft and graduation, so most experts are pointing to Texas (no. 2 in both preseason polls) as the Big 12's team to beat. It's a sign of respect for Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and sophomore tailback Adrian Peterson that the Sooners are ranked as high as they are (no. 7 AP; no. 5 USA Today). Conference supremacy will be decided at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on October 8. This is not, however, a one-game season for the Longhorns, who face a titanic early-season test at Ohio State on September 10. Wins in both should write Texas a ticket to the National Championship game.
If the big favorites stumble, Texas A &M and dynamic quarterback Reggie McNeal appear ready to mount a challenge out of College Station.
In the weak-sister North Division, Nebraska is hoping for a major turnaround after a 5-6 season under Bill Callahan, whose West Coast offense should operate more smoothly with former junior college quarterback Zac Taylor under center. Colorado, the defending North champ, managed to hang on to coach Gary Barnett after riding out a serious recruiting scandal, and quarterback Joel Klatt's arm could be enough to keep the Buffaloes in the Big 12 title hunt in the North.
Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, West Virginia
Player of the Year: Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville
Watch Out for: West Virginia
Falling Fast: Cincinnati
Game of the Year: Pittsburgh at Louisville, November 3
If the ACC is the most confusing conference in college football, the Big East is the most diminished. Having lost Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College to the ACC over two years, the Big East is a league in transition. Temple was booted for ineptitude, leaving just Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, and West Virginia as the league's founding members -- not exactly a murderer's row. This season, they are joined by Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, and South Florida -- schools that, with the exception of Louisville, do more to help the conference's standing in basketball than in football.
Louisville, which is stepping up from Conference USA, has to be considered the favorite to capture the Big East's BCS berth. The Cardinals were 11-1 last season behind quarterback Stefan LeFors, who's now suiting up for the Carolina Panthers. He is replaced by the much-heralded Brian Brohm, who proved his mettle by nearly engineering a second-half upset of Miami as a freshman last season. The Cardinals should be able to fend off Pitt, Syracuse, and West Virginia to capture the league, and could conceivably go undefeated. If that happens, cue the BCS controversy, because schedule strength is likely to keep the Cardinals below even one-loss teams from better leagues.
Pitt, under former Dolphins and Bears coach Dave Wannstedt, is the defending conference champ and still has quarterback Tyler Palko, but the young defense is shaky at best. West Virginia suffered some key losses to graduation, but should be able to run the ball and still has a stout defense. Syracuse's new coach -- former NFL and Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson -- should improve the Orange's weak defense, but there's too much uncertainty on their offense to challenge for the crown. Meanwhile, Rutgers is still Rutgers (stuck in its endless rebuilding cycle), and Cincinnati, Connecticut, and South Florida will all struggle to post winning records.
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan St., Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio St., Penn St., Purdue, Wisconsin
Player of the Year: Drew Tate, QB, Iowa
Watch Out for: Penn St.
Falling Fast: Wisconsin
Game of the Year: Ohio St. at Michigan, November 19
With three teams (Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa) entering the season in the preseason top 11 in both polls, the Big Ten, that bastion of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football, has been reborn. It is heavy with breathtaking talent at the skill positions, including sublime all-purpose men Steve Breaston at Michigan and Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr., and innovative coaches, including the man many consider to be the nation's best, Kirk Ferentz of Iowa. Then there's Purdue, which operates an offensive attack described as "basketball on grass" by coach Joe Tiller and could bump the favorites and claim the conference's BCS berth.
Michigan showed plenty of offensive flash last year, and despite the departure of receiver Braylon Edwards, the Wolverines could be even better on that side of the ball. Quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart were true freshmen last season and should only improve. Breaston and Jason Avant should soften the loss of Edwards, but it's Michigan's defense, shredded in season-ending losses to Ohio State and Texas, that could keep the Wolverines from a third-straight trip to Pasadena. If it does, it will likely be because of an inability to contain mobile quarterbacks such as Ohio State's Troy Smith, Iowa's Drew Tate, and Michigan State's Drew Stanton.
Ohio State, led by Smith and Ginn on offense and the nation's best linebacking corps on defense, has a difficult schedule, including a September 10 date with Texas and a road date at Michigan in November. Iowa gets Michigan at home but must travel to Ohio State. If those three beat each other up, Purdue, with 20 returning starters and no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule, could sneak in to win the conference. Otherwise, look out for Penn State, which could finally emerge from its recent run of mediocrity if the offense improves under quarterback Michael Robinson.
Arizona, Arizona St., California, Oregon, Oregon St., Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington St.
Player of the Year: Matt Leinart, QB, USC
Watch Out for: Arizona
Falling Fast: Oregon St.
Game of the Year: USC at Cal, November 12
USC enters the season as one of the biggest favorites in college football history. Consider that the Trojans likely would have received a majority of first-place votes in the preseason polls even if Heisman-winning quarterback Matt Leinart had not opted to return for his senior year. USC has lost one game since October 2002, and coach Pete Carroll has just reeled in yet another top recruiting class.
So can the Trojans be beaten? Of course they can. In fact, with road trips to Cal, Arizona State, Oregon, and Notre Dame, it wouldn't be a shock. Add in the departures of offensive coordinator extraordinaire Norm Chow and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, and USC might not be as dominant as it appears on paper. It is difficult, though, to picture anyone or anything slowing down the Trojan offense, with Leinart, do-everything back Reggie Bush, sledgehammer LenDale White, and a pair of NFL-caliber receivers in Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.
If anyone can challenge USC in the Pac 10, it might be Arizona State, which also features an explosive offense behind quarterback Sam Keller and another outstanding receiver duo in Derek Hagan and Zach Miller. California, despite the loss of standout quarterback Aaron Rodgers and 2,000-yard back J.J. Arrington, could also contend. Joseph Ayoob, like Rodgers a junior college transfer, will start under center, but the real excitement is over Arrington's replacement, sophomore Marshawn Lynch, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry in limited duty last season.
Oregon looks to be rebuilding, but could still pull off the surprise win -- even against USC -- playing in front of one of the nation's most hostile crowds at Autzen Stadium. Other sleepers are Arizona, which should be much improved in its second year under defensive specialist Mike Stoops, and UCLA, where coach Karl Dorrell, under pressure to produce, reeled in highly touted quarterback Ben Olson.
EAST: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
WEST: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi St.
Player of the Year: Gerald Riggs Jr., RB, Tennessee
Watch Out for: Alabama
Falling Fast: South Carolina
Game of the Year: Tennessee at Florida, September 17
All the usual suspects -- Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee -- are expected to contend, but this is a league in flux thanks to an exodus of stars to the NFL and an influx of new coaches.
No team lost more talent than defending conference champion Auburn. But the departures of Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams doesn't remove the Tigers from the SEC race in 2005. Auburn's offense should still be explosive with Brandon Cox throwing to Courtney Taylor and Ben Obomanu. The schedule sets up nicely with five straight home games before season-defining road trips to LSU and Georgia.
Georgia also lost talent to the NFL, but the offense is still potent behind experienced quarterback D.J. Shockley and tailbacks Thomas Brown and Danny Ware. Like most SEC contenders, Georgia's fate will be determined by its round-robin games against the other conference powers.
Florida is loaded with talent recruited by ex-coach Ron Zook, and new coach Urban Meyer is eager to use it in his innovative spread-option attack. If quarterback Chris Leak can master the complex system, the Gators could be national-title contenders. LSU is in a similar situation, with a team still stocked with Nick Saban recruits who will now play under former Oklahoma State coach Les Miles. It may take a year or two before the league's other new coach, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, can make an impact in the conference standings; his Gamecocks are rebuilding.
Underappreciated Phillip Fulmer of Tennessee may finally get some respect if his Volunteers meet expectations, which are sky-high thanks to an explosive offense led by the quarterback tandem of Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen, as well as a defense that returns eight starters. It would be a shock if the title game participants came from outside the big five. If anyone could sneak in, it's Alabama in the West, so long as Brodie Croyle returns from injury as expected.
Conference-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, WAC, Independents
Player of the Year: Omar Jacobs, QB, Bowling Green (MAC) and DeAngelo Williams, RB, Memphis (C-USA)
Watch Out for: Miami (Ohio)
Falling Fast: Temple
Game of the Year: Boise St. at Fresno St., November 10
Will there be a Utah in 2005? Last season, the Utes became the first team from the non-power conferences to capture a BCS berth, going 12-0 and beating Big East champ Pittsburgh by four touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl. The Utes will again be strong, but a repeat performance is unlikely with QB Alex Smith now in the NFL and coach Urban Meyer in Gainesville. Other teams from non- BCS leagues that could challenge for BCS berths are WAC powers Fresno State and Boise State. Boise has won 25 straight games on the "Smurf Turf," its distinctive blue home field, but will face its toughest tests on the road this season at Georgia and at Fresno.
Another possibility is MAC stalwart Bowling Green, which is led by Heisman-caliber quarterback Omar Jacobs. The Falcons test themselves early with road games at Wisconsin and Boise. Of the independents, Notre Dame will be better under first-year coach Charlie Weis, the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. But the Irish schedule, which includes dates against three of the preseason top four (USC, Tennessee, and Michigan), plus games against Purdue and Pittsburgh as well as two West Coast trips to Stanford and Washington, will be too much to overcome. Weis knows he needs to do two things to return Notre Dame to championship contention: recruit, and lighten up the schedule.
This article was originally published in Thursday's edition of the New York Sun.
35 comments, Last at 31 Aug 2005, 7:18pm by Tarrant