The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
27 Aug 2007
by Russell Levine
College football may never again get such a warm welcome.
Given 2007's summer of discontent for sports -- Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, Tim Donaghy, et al. -- college football has never looked more pure. The sport has its warts, including the ongoing rumor of amateurism while public institutions pay multimillion-dollar coaching salaries. Yet the college version of America's national passion has rarely looked better. It has avoided the massive scandals that plague our professional games and kept its grip on a passionate fan base that routinely fills 90,000-seat stadiums in rural campus communities.
Last season may have ended with a whimper, as Florida dismantled Ohio State in the championship game, but January also delivered one of the most memorable games in the history of the sport as David (Boise State) used a trio of trick plays to upset Goliath (Oklahoma) in the Fiesta Bowl. The result instantly validated the decision by the Bowl Championship Series to add a fifth game, opening up access to teams from the "mid-major" conferences such as Boise State.
This year's national-title favorites -- USC, LSU, Texas, Michigan, etc. -- are all familiar names. But scholarship limits and television exposure have made this a time of unprecedented parity in college football. Just last season, tiny Wake Forest captured the ACC title while heavyweights Florida State and Miami struggled badly. A similar result could strike one of the major conferences this year. Rutgers turned the New York area into a college football town for a brief period last fall, and if the Scarlet Knights again exceed expectations, they will steal headlines away from the Yankees, Mets, Jets and Giants come October.
Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, the runner-up in 2006, is a heavy favorite to capture the Heisman. But he'll be running behind three new linemen and for a team that probably won't equal last season's success. If he falters, quarterbacks John David Booty (USC), Colt Brennan (Hawaii), Brian Brohm (Louisville) or Chad Henne (Michigan) are all good bets to be present at the Heisman Ceremony. West Virginia's backfield duo of running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White will also receive strong consideration, as could Rutgers tailback Ray Rice. Among the dark horses are Kentucky quarterback Andre' Woodson, Cal receiver DeSean Jackson and Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart.
The NCAA has called a do-over on last year's controversial timing rules. The upshot is no more running the clock following a change of possession. The downside? The return of the four-hour game.
Another rule change sees kickoffs moved back five yards, to the 30-yard line. Touchbacks, a staple of the college game, will be drastically reduced, and a premium will be placed on return and coverage units.
Conference Games of the Year are detailed below. Not enough football for you? Make sure not to miss these standout games:
ATLANTIC: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Maryland, North Carolina State, Wake Forest
COASTAL: Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech
The Favorite: Virginia Tech
The Sleeper: Georgia Tech
Player of the Year: Calais Campbell, DE, Miami
Game of the Year: Florida State at Virginia Tech, Nov. 10
Coach on the Hot Seat: Tommy Bowden, Clemson
Key Question: Can Florida State and Miami rejoin college football's elite?
The ACC believed it would rival the SEC after adding Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. It's probably safe to assume last year's inaugural ACC championship game between Georgia Tech and Wake Forest was not exactly what conference officials had in mind.
Yet the ACC will have ample opportunities to prove last year was an aberration in a series of non-conference tests. In addition to traditional matchups such as Boston College-Notre Dame and Georgia Tech-Georgia, Florida State plays Colorado and Alabama; Maryland takes on West Virginia and Rutgers; while North Carolina State hosts
the Mountaineers Louisville. Miami faces Oklahoma and Texas A&M; Virginia Tech visits LSU. A decent showing in those games will quickly improve the ACC's reputation.
Conference favorite Virginia Tech, with a stout defense and tailback Brandon Ore, gets both Miami and Florida State at home. But the Hokies' national-title hopes will quickly derail if they get blown out in Baton Rouge on Sept. 8. A close loss will keep the Hokies in the mix of one-loss teams hoping to sneak into the title game, as Florida did last season.
Georgia Tech, which will ride tailback Tashard Choice and an aggressive defense, could again surprise. The Yellow Jackets face an early test at Notre Dame and must also travel to Miami, but both Virginia Tech and Georgia visit Atlanta this season. Most believe Wake Forest was a one-year wonder, but 14 players return from last year's conference champs.
Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, West Virginia
The Favorite: West Virginia
The Sleeper: South Florida
Player of the Year: Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville
Game of the Year: West Virginia at Rutgers, Oct. 27
Coach on the Hot Seat: Greg Robinson, Syracuse
Key Question: Can Rutgers build in the success of 2006 to get to a BCS bowl?
The Big East has not only survived the loss of three marquee teams to the ACC, it has thrived. West Virginia first served notice by stunning Georgia in the Sugar Bowl following the 2005 season, and Rutgers and Louisville joined the national-title conversation along with the Mountaineers in 2006. The league title was decided in a series of late-season, nationally televised games that were long on drama. To cap it off, the Big East was a nation's best 5-0 in bowl games.
Things are still looking up. Both West Virginia and Rutgers were able to sign their program-building coaches, Rich Rodriguez and Greg Schiano, to contract extensions. While Louisville's Bobby Petrino opted for the NFL, the Cardinals moved quickly to hire highly regarded Steve Kragthorpe from Tulsa. His best recruiting job was to convince quarterback Brian Brohm, a likely top NFL pick, to return for his senior season.
The conference crown should once again play out among Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia. The Scarlet Knights' favorable schedule gives them an excellent chance to be 8-0 when the Mountaineers visit on Oct. 27. Tailback Rice gets most of the headlines, but Rutgers needs quarterback Mike Teel and a stout defense to contend for the BCS. Teel, a junior, came on at the end of last season, and only he can prevent teams from loading up against the run.
West Virginia's pair of Heisman candidates, White and Slaton, have been joined by prize recruit Noel Devine, giving the Mountaineers another big-play option at running back.
The big three need to watch out for South Florida, which has beaten both Louisville and West Virginia in recent seasons, and which gave Rutgers all it could handle last year.
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin
The Favorite: Michigan
The Sleeper: Iowa
Player of the Year: Mike Hart, RB, Michigan
Game of the Year: Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 10
Coach on the Hot Seat: Joe Tiller, Purdue
Key Question: Will the real Michigan and Ohio State please stand up?
The 2006 regular season was a dream one for the Big Ten, as both Michigan and Ohio State started 11-0 before the Buckeyes won their "game of the century" matchup to get to the BCS championship. Bowl season was another story, as both schools were badly outclassed -- Ohio State by Florida, Michigan by USC in the Rose Bowl. That both appeared at a distinct athletic disadvantage to their opponents did not help the conference dispel its "three yards and a cloud of dust" reputation. Still, there were positive signs, as both Penn State and Wisconsin won bowls against supposedly faster SEC teams.
The Big Ten will again be in the thick of the national title discussion this season. Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin were all top-10 preseason picks, but it is the Wolverines with the most advantageous schedule: Notre Dame, Oregon, Penn State and Ohio State all visit Ann Arbor. Under Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes have won five of six in the series against Michigan, but must replace much of the offense, including a Heisman-winning quarterback. Michigan returns four-year starters at quarterback (Chad Henne) and tailback (Mike Hart), and one of the nation's best tackles in senior Jake Long. If the Wolverines ever are to get over their recent Ohio State malaise, this would appear to be the year.
Yet it won't matter if Michigan can't survive a trip to Wisconsin the week before. The Badgers were one of the nation's most surprising teams last season, losing only to Michigan in coach Brett Bielema's first year. They will be primed for revenge in what is sure to be a very hostile Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 10.
Iowa, a huge disappointment at 6-7 last year, could slip back into conference contention thanks mostly to a schedule that doesn't include Michigan or Ohio State.
NORTH: Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, Missouri
SOUTH: Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech
The Favorite: Texas
The Sleeper: Oklahoma State
Player of the Year: Colt McCoy, QB, Texas
Game of the Year: Texas vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 6
Coach on the Hot Seat: Dennis Franchione, Texas A&M
Key Question: Can Oklahoma find a quarterback?
Recent discussions of Big 12 conference- and national-title contenders have begun and ended with the South Division. Though the North, led by Nebraska and Missouri, may be closing the gap, the conference's power still resides on the Texas-Oklahoma border.
When the Sooners and Longhorns face off in Dallas on Oct. 6, the winner will likely emerge as the conference's only national-title contender, just as has been the case since Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Texas's Mack Brown resurrected their programs. Texas has won two straight in the series and record-setting sophomore quarterback Colt McCoy (29 TD passes in 2006) may give the Longhorns the edge this year. Oklahoma's only question mark is at quarterback, where Sam Bradford won the starting job in fall camp. If he proves a capable enough passer, Stoops will have everything he needs to make a run at his second BCS championship.
Oklahoma State, infused by third-year coach Mike Gundy and millions in donations from billionaire alum T. Boone Pickens, could make waves in the South, but must face Texas A&M, Nebraska and Oklahoma on the road. A&M coach Dennis Franchione momentarily quieted his critics by finally beating Texas last season, but the pressure is on the Aggies to produce more than just the occasional upset.
In the North, the buzz is back around the Nebraska program in coach Bill Callahan's fourth year. Arizona State transfer Sam Keller may finally be the quarterback Callahan needs for his West Coast offense. The Cornhuskers get an early chance to prove they belong in the national discussion when they host USC on Sept. 15.
Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State
The Favorite: USC
The Sleeper: Oregon State
Player of the Year: DeSean Jackson, WR, Cal
Game of the Year: USC at Cal, Nov. 10
Coach on the Hot Seat: Mike Stoops, Arizona
Key Question: Can Pete Carroll keep his most-talented team focused?
USC once again has an embarrassment of riches -- the depth chart at tailback includes nine former blue-chip recruits -- but that was also true last season when the Trojans lost to both Oregon State and UCLA. The latter cost USC a shot at the national title, yet the Trojans rallied to crush Michigan in the Rose Bowl and earn the top ranking in nearly every preseason poll.
Pete Carroll has never been afraid to test his club in non-conference games, and USC will visit both Nebraska and Notre Dame this season. Carroll had to be chuckling inwardly when LSU coach Les Miles questioned the strength of the Trojans' schedule, knowing that his teams have gone 5-0 against the SEC since 2002 -- by a combined score of 222-67.
This could be the year Cal finally breaks through to get to a BCS bowl under coach Jeff Tedford. The Bears have one of nation's most explosive players in receiver/returner DeSean Jackson, and get an opening test against Tennessee at home and also host USC.
Oregon State, coming off that stunning upset of the Trojans, returns 16 starters and standout tailback Yvenson Bernard. The Beavers must travel to both USC and Oregon, yet could pull the upset in either game.
EAST: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
WEST: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State
The Favorite: LSU
The Sleeper: South Carolina
Player of the Year: Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas
Game of the Year: Florida at LSU, Oct. 6
Coach on the Hot Seat: Houston Nutt, Arkansas
Key Question: Will Nick Saban meet sky-high expectations at Alabama?
Florida coach Urban Meyer lobbied for a spot in the BCS championship based on the strength of the SEC. The Gators' rout of Ohio State, combined with LSU's embarrassment of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, rendered any argument moot. Entering 2007, the SEC could be even stronger, despite the loss of four first-round draft picks at LSU and 14 starters at Florida.
LSU begins the season second in both major polls, and is the conference favorite by virtue of hosting Florida in Baton Rouge. LSU may have had the nation's most talented team last year, but was done in by a murderous schedule that included visits to four top-10 teams. With 14 starters back and a more favorable slate, the Tigers could very well return to New Orleans for a shot at the national title on Jan. 7.
Should LSU stumble, there are plenty of worthy contenders, beginning with Florida. The Gators will go as far as Tim Tebow takes them at quarterback. As a freshman, Tebow was unstoppable as a short-yardage runner, but this season he will be counted upon to run the entire offense.
Alabama should also be improved after lured Nick Saban back to the SEC with a contract that makes him the highest-paid coach in college football. He'll need to upgrade recruiting to compete in the brutal West division, but he faced a similar challenge at LSU and delivered a BCS championship in 2003.
Tennessee enjoyed a bounce-back year in 2006, but the pressure is on coach Phillip Fulmer and senior quarterback Erik Ainge to get back to the BCS. Arkansas also had a breakout 2006, but a tumultuous offseason saw a prized recruit and the offensive coordinator depart on unpleasant terms. The upheaval has left coach Houston Nutt clinging to his job, but he still has Heisman front-runner McFadden and understudy Felix Jones in the backfield. The Razorbacks probably can't win the SEC, but they're good enough to keep one of the other contenders from doing so. Auburn, which beat both LSU and Florida last season, can't be overlooked, nor can Georgia, where quarterback Matthew Stafford came on at the end of last year.
Steve Spurrier has had mixed results in his first two seasons at South Carolina, but he has upgraded recruiting enough that his team, too, could pull off a season-ruining upset against one of the SEC heavyweights. The same could be said for Kentucky, where quarterback Andre' Woodson is the conference's best.
Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, WAC, Independents
Best Chance for BCS: Hawaii
Could Slip In: BYU (Mountain West)
Player of the Year: Colt Brennan, QB, Hawaii
Game of the Year: Boise State at Hawaii, Nov. 23
Key Question: Can Hawaii overcome a week schedule to get to the BCS?
Notre Dame typically dominates discussion of college football's independents and non-BCS conferences, but the Irish may rebuilding this season. After losing quarterback Brady Quinn, receiver Jeff Samardzija and tailback Darius Walker, the Irish are inexperienced on offense and the presumed heir to Quinn, freshman Jimmy Clausen, is rumored to be nursing an elbow injury. Defensively, the Irish have been badly exposed against top-flight competition the past two seasons, and this year's schedule provides no breaks. The Irish could be underdogs in the majority of their first eight games. Predictions of a 2-6 start are premature, but a third straight BCS berth appears unlikely.
Among the conferences without automatic BCS berths, Hawaii has the best chance to reach one of the marquee bowls. The Warriors' problem is a laughable schedule, which leaves Hawaii few opportunities to impress pollsters. Luckily, June Jones' team ends the regular season with games against Boise State and Washington, potentially providing enough of a boost in the polls to get a 12-0 Hawaii into the BCS. Even if Hawaii stumbles, record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan is likely to remain in the thick of the Heisman chase after throwing an astounding 58 touchdown passes last season.
Boise State, last year's bowl darlings, has probably lost too much to graduation (11 starters) to return to the BCS, but the Broncos will still make things interesting the WAC. The Mountain West has a pair of BCS contenders in TCU and BYU, and their meeting on Nov. 8 should decide the league title. TCU is the better overall team, but the Horned Frogs visit Texas Sept. 8 and will need to pull the upset to get to a BCS game, as remaining undefeated is a virtual prerequisite for any mid-major conference team to qualify for an automatic berth.
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, as this is actually the first of two preseason ballots. I have a chance to resubmit before the season kicks off this week, and I will make changes based on comments if necessary. As with all preseason polls, you should take these rankings with a grain of salt.
Note: This article first appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
37 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2007, 6:22pm by DD