Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
28 Aug 2006
by Russell Levine
One year after Texas and USC went wire-to-wire atop the polls before meeting in an epic national title game at the Rose Bowl, things promise to be a bit less scripted in college football this season. While both schools are still formidable, they were also hard hit by graduation and early departures to the NFL, making as many as a half-dozen other schools popular preseason choices to play for the title in Glendale, Arizona, on January 8. The seemingly wide-open chase is just one of many changes to the college football landscape this fall.
Go figure. After perhaps its least-controversial season ever, the Bowl Championship Series ushers in the biggest change since its 1998 debut this season with the addition of a fifth game. No longer will the national championship be contested in one of the traditional BCS bowls. Instead, each of the four games -- the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange, and Rose, in that order -- will host a second game once every four years. The new contest, officially dubbed "The BCS National Title Game," will take place one week after the New Year's Day games.
The new game simply expands the number of spots in the BCS to 10 from eight. The same combination of human and computer polls will be used to pick the participants in the title game. The BCS also has a new TV partner, Fox Sports, for the Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar Bowls. ABC will continue to broadcast the Rose Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl also moves to the brand new Arizona Cardinals stadium this season.
It will be at least four years -- long enough for one complete rotation of what's being called the "double hosting" model -- before any systematic changes are made. One might reasonably speculate that the BCS's next iteration would be a "plus-one" format, where two of the winners from the first four BCS games play in a title game the following week.
Instant replay, in a variety of formats, became a regular part of college football over the last two seasons. For 2006, the NCAA has standardized a replay system using an official in the press box to review plays. Also new: Coaches will have one challenge per game, provided they have a time-out remaining. A successful challenge will not result in a charged time-out.
As college coaching salaries have increased dramatically in recent years, so too has the pressure to win. A number of prominent coaches head into the upcoming season feeling the weight of expectations. Popular perception puts Michigan's Lloyd Carr and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer on the hottest seats entering 2006 after each saw high expectations turn to disappointment in 2005. In reality, both Carr and Fulmer are coaches with deep ties to their schools and national championships on their rÃ©sumÃ©s. Unless the bottom falls out, both are likely safe.
Another coach with a national title ring, Miami's Larry Coker, can't feel quite as comfortable. Coker shook up his staff after last season's embarrassing Peach Bowl rout at the hands of LSU and will be expected to keep Miami in the thick of ACC and national championship contention. Texas A&M, going 16â€“18 over the last three seasons, no doubt expected better return on the money it invested in luring Dennis Franchione from Alabama. Other coaches who'll be sweating a bit more than usual this fall include Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey, Rich Brooks of Kentucky, and John L. Smith at Michigan State.
The front-runners for sports' most celebrated individual award are well known: quarterbacks Brady Quinn of Notre Dame, Troy Smith of Ohio State, Brian Brohm of Louisville, and running back Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma. Just behind those bright lights sit running backs Marshawn Lynch of California, Steve Slaton of West Virginia, and Kenny Irons of Auburn, plus receivers Ted Ginn Jr., of Ohio State and Dwayne Jarrett of USC. Want some true dark horses? Try these five:
Have a wedding on September 16? Cancel it. Even if it's your own. Instead, make sure you have fresh batteries in the remote, fire up the TiVo, and roll in the extra TV for one of the best one-day slates in recent memory. The lineup includes eight games between teams that are ranked in the preseason polls: Oklahoma at Oregon, LSU at Auburn, Miami at Louisville, Michigan at Notre Dame, Texas Tech at TCU, Clemson at Florida State, Florida at Tennessee, and Nebraska at USC.
In honor of the permanent move to a 12-game regular season, here are another dozen games to mark on your calendar. Of special note is the no. 1 vs. no. 2 clash in Austin on the season's second Saturday:
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: Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech
The Favorite: Florida State
The Sleeper: Clemson
Overrated: North Carolina St.
Game of the Year: Florida St. at Miami, September 4
The ACC might have been the most disappointing conference in the nation last season. Billed as a super-league to rival the SEC after adding Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, things fizzled as four-loss Florida State won the Atlantic Division, then stunned the Hokies in the inaugural ACC title game before falling to Penn State in the Orange Bowl.
All the league's traditional powers have question marks. Florida State and Miami still have stout defenses -- although the Hurricanes' was missing in their 40-3 Peach Bowl loss to LSU -- but the offenses remain works in progress. Expect a low-scoring affair when they meet on Labor Day. Virginia Tech is happy to be rid of its Marcus Vick headache, but they still must find a capable replacement at quarterback.
Many are pointing to Clemson, which won its last four games last season, as a sleeper pick in the Atlantic, but quarterback Will Proctor must prove he can replace Charlie Whitehurst under center. Georgia Tech, an inconsistent team in recent seasons, gets a chance to prove it can contend in the Coastal in a season-opening home date against Notre Dame.
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
The Favorite: Texas
The Sleeper: Nebraska
Game of the Year: Texas vs. Oklahoma, October 7
Call it the downside of a championship. Vince Young's stunning individual effort in the Rose Bowl win over USC not only carried Texas to a national title, it carried the junior to an early entry into the NFL draft. Texas still boasts a championship-caliber roster, but Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead will be the under the ultimate microscope as they attempt to replace Young at quarterback.
The October 7 date against Oklahoma in Dallas once again looms as the conference's game of the year. Oklahoma seemed to be back on the path to national-title contention before starting quarterback Rhett Bomar was dismissed from the team for accepting payment for a no-show job over the summer. That puts even more pressure on running back Adrian Peterson, who looks to regain his Heisman-contending form after an injury-plagued sophomore season.
Texas Tech and its pass-happy attack under innovative coach Mike Leach remains a thorn in the side of the South Division, while Texas A&M must produce or fans will turn on coach Dennis Franchione.
In the North, Nebraska appears headed in the right direction after capping last season with a win over Michigan in the Alamo Bowl. This will be the third year of coach Bill Callahan's West Coast offense, and much is expected of quarterback Zac Taylor. Dominating defense is nothing new at Nebraska, where the Blackshirts still make it tough on opponents. Iowa State looks like the likely challenger to the Cornhuskers for North supremacy, but must overcome a recent history of choking away shots at the Big XII championship game. In Boulder, Colorado turns the page on the tumultuous Gary Barnett era with new coach Dan Hawkins, who faces a rebuilding project. A bowl berth would be an impressive result in his first season.
Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, West Virginia
Player of the Year: Pat White, QB, West Virginia
The Favorite: West Virginia
The Sleeper: Louisville
Overrated: South Florida
Game of the Year: West Virginia at Louisville, November 2
What a difference a year makes for the Big East. At this time in 2005, the talk surrounding the conference was whether it still deserved an automatic BCS berth. West Virginia took care of that problem, riding freshman backfield tandem of quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton to an 11â€“1 record and a Sugar Bowl win.
The talk this time around is whether West Virginia is a legitimate national-title contender. The Mountaineers' schedule certainly won't preclude a run at an undefeated regular season. The only roadblock would appear to be a road date at Louisville on November 2. West Virginia's biggest problem may be the conference's perceived lack of depth; the Mountaineers will be expected to rout most opponents. Anything less could cause a drop in the polls. Put another way: If West Virginia is one of three unbeatens at season's end, put your money on the Mountaineers being the odd men out of the BCS title game.
If West Virginia stumbles, Louisville, with its own standout backfield of quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush, could also emerge as a BCS contender. There appears to be a big dropoff to the next tier of Big East teams, a group that includes Pittsburgh and Rutgers. The Panthers are hoping to rebound from a disappointing first season under Dave Wannstedt, while Rutgers looks to build on last year's surprising bowl season.
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Player of the Year: Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State
The Favorite: Ohio State
The Sleeper: Iowa
Overrated: Penn State
Game of the Year: Michigan at Ohio State, November 18
After capping 2005 with an offensive thrashing of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State enters the fall atop both preseason polls. The Buckeyes certainly have the horses on offense, where Troy Smith did a more-than-passable imitation of Vince Young last season and gamebreaker Ted Ginn Jr. is always a threat. The questions are on defense, where Ohio State returns just two starters. Still, the new guys are blue-chippers, so don't expect much drop-off on that side of the ball.
Michigan is coming off its worst season in 21 years and coach Lloyd Carr is feeling the heat. He dismissed both coordinators following a 7â€“5 campaign. Expect the Wolverine defense to play more aggressively and to scrap the soft zones that led to late collapses in four of their five losses. Chad Henne has a chance to become the school's all-time leading passer in just his third season, but it's the health of undersized back Mike Hart that will be the key determiner of Michigan's offensive success.
If there's anyone that can sneak in a steal the Big Ten from these two, it's an underappreciated Iowa -- being overlooked after a shaky 7â€“5 season in 2005. Kirk Ferentz is one of the nation's best coaches, and he still has quarterback Drew Tate under center.
Michigan State may need a bowl berth to save coach John L. Smith's job, while Wisconsin (Bret Bielema) and Northwestern (Pat Fitzgerald) break in new coaches this season.
Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State
Player of the Year: Marshawn Lynch, RB, California
The Favorite: USC
The Sleeper: Oregon
Game of the Year: Arizona State at USC, October 14
Yes, USC lost a ton of talent, including a Heisman Trophy backfield, to the NFL. Guess what? The Trojans are still loaded, but they won't cruise through the Pac-10, a league that deserves much credit for moving to a full round-robin conference schedule this season.
John David Booty gets the first chance to replace Matt Leinart under center at USC, and if he's not up to the task, Mark Sanchez is an equally talented understudy. Either one will throw plenty to Dwayne Jarrett, one of the nation's best receivers. The defense could be better than a year ago, especially in the secondary, where the relatively green unit was a target of opponents in 2005.
Cal has super-back Marshawn Lynch, but the quarterback position is a question mark. A more likely challenger to USC is Oregon, which quietly won 10 games last year and returns the quarterback platoon of Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf and tailback Jonathan Stewart, plus a rugged defense. Rudy Carpenter won the Arizona State quarterback job in fall camp and will lead an explosive offense. UCLA enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2005, but must replace a talented offensive backfield. Keep an eye on new QB Ben Olson, a one-time top recruit.
EAST: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
WEST: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi St.
Player of the Year: Kenny Irons, RB, Auburn
The Favorite: Auburn
The Sleeper: LSU
Game of the Year: LSU at Auburn, September 16
The SEC can again lay claim to the title of nation's toughest conference, with as many as five legitimate league title contenders -- Auburn, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia -- plus long shots Alabama, Arkansas, and South Carolina. Ten bowl teams is not out of the question. LSU has enough talent to contend for a spot in the BCS title game, but faces road trips to Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee. The schedule sets up much better for Auburn, which gets LSU, Florida, and Georgia at home. The Tigers have a deep and veteran roster (23 seniors) and Heisman-caliber tailback in Kenny Irons. If they go undefeated this season, they won't get left out of the national title game as they did in 2004.
Florida is expected to improve in its second year under Urban Meyer. Quarterback Chris Leak struggled at times with Meyer's complex spread-option, and he'll face a stiff challenge for playing time from freshman Tim Tebow. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier looks to follow up on a surprisingly successful debut season in Columbia.
The coach under the most pressure is easily Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, who must avoid another disaster on the scale of last year's 5â€“6 meltdown. He brought back David Cutcliffe to coordinate the offense, which should translate into a better year from quarterback Erik Ainge.
Alabama and Georgia remain in the mix for spots in the SEC title game, while Arkansas appears to be much improved after a couple of solid recruiting classes.
Conference-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, WAC, Independents
Player of the Year: Brady Quinn, QB, Notre Dame
Potential BCS Party Crashers: TCU, Utah, Tulsa, UTEP, Boise State, Northern Illinois
Mid-Major Games of the Year: TCU at Utah, October 5 (MWC) Boise St. at Nevada October 5 (WAC)
In 2006, it seems silly to include Notre Dame with the rest of college football's "others" -- the so-called "mid-major" conferences and Division I-A independents. But that's the price the Irish pay for refusing to join a conference.
While Notre Dame's status as legitimate national title-contender is well documented -- the Irish are No. 2 in the preseason AP poll and tied for third in the coaches' poll -- it still must prove itself on the field. When we last saw the Fighting Irish, they were giving up 617 yards of offense to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The offense is one of the nation's best, with Heisman front-runner Brady Quinn throwing to Jeff Samardzija, and the defense should be improved with nine returning starters. The schedule also sets up nicely for a national-title run, culminating with a date at USC on November 25.
No one will ever confuse Notre Dame with college football's "have-nots." But there is plenty of good news for the mid-majors entering 2006. The fifth BCS bowl has improved access for teams from these conferences. Since 1998, only one team from outside the six automatic-qualifier conferences -- Utah in 2004 -- has gained a berth in a BCS game. Starting this fall, a non-BCS league school that wins its conference and is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS standings (or in the top 16 and higher than one of the BCS league automatic qualifiers) gains an automatic berth. Got all that? Don't worry. The skinny is that while it's still a long shot, an undefeated season by the likes of TCU, Boise St., or Northern Illinois would likely be rewarded with a BCS berth without much suspense.
This season, I'll again be voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment. And yes, I'm aware of some inconsistencies in my own opinions (hello, Cal). Guilty. The ballot and the preview were done at different times. Take the rankings with a grain of salt.
Note: This article first appeared in Thursday's edition of the New York Sun.
21 comments, Last at 01 Sep 2006, 12:58am by BIGDOG