Aug. 20, 2004
By Eric Sorenson
Special to CollegeSports.com
Hello college football fans.
Take a deep breath - now, aren't you getting a slight hint of college football in the cool, crisp air? Okay, so it's still in the 90s where you live, but don't worry, the football season is approaching, and the smell of pigskin will soon be on our palates.
I'm going to spend a few minutes each week of the coming season dissecting the 10 most pressing questions related to college football each week on CollegeSports.com. But since there are so many questions going into the season, we've decided to devote 20 questions to this space here today. The first "10 Questions" session for the regular season will start after the Labor Day weekend, but for now, let's get to the matters at hand.
Question 1: How can USC be a pre-season Number 1 after all it lost last year?
A: One word; recruiting. One thing that Pete Carroll has done, besides fill the Trojan players with confidence, is bust his knuckles out on the recruiting trail. Best case-in-point? Just look at the running backs. With no experience returning in 2003, starter Hershel Dennis and true freshmen LenDale White and Reggie Bush combined for 1,936 yards rushing. And it's like that across the board for the Men of Troy now. Quality talent steps in, which means USC will be in the title hunt once again because of its running game. And if Mike Williams is re-instated by the NCAA? Oh mercy.
Question 2: What is going to be the biggest effect from the changes to the BCS for this season?
A: You mean the always-reactive, never pro-active BCS? The biggest effect is that it will still be terrible. Now they've DE-emphasized the Strength of Schedule AND the Quality Wins components? Great-googily-mooly! We're going back to rewarding teams for an easy schedule. That's not smart. If I'm Big Shoulder U., I'm scheduling No Facility State, Academic Emphasis Tech and Perennial Loser U. as my three non-conference games. No ifs, ands or buts, I'm gonna win a national title doing so too.
Question 3: Who has the most to prove this coming season?
A: Bill Callahan, Bill Callahan, Bill Callahan.
When Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson made the bold move to bring in an outsider to steer one of the traditional powers, the pressure was automatically on. And that pressure doubled when Callahan promised a total re-wiring of the way things are done on offense. And that's what he's done, witnessed by the 49 passes in the spring game. West Coast offense in the Great Plains? Should be interesting.
Question 4: Will Notre Dame ever make it back to the top?
A: Not anytime soon. Seriously, the Irish have GOT to quit playing a schedule that resembles something the Red Army should take on. They started off last season with nine straight bowl teams, and this year's slate looks the same. Brady Quinn will a great QB (No Beano, he won't win three Heismans). He'll cut down on his INTs this year and should have a great career, which will help the Irish gain back some respectability. National champions? Well, that's a tall order to fill for the foreseeable future. Tyrone Willingham has to bump the recruiting up a couple more notches.
Question 5: What are the chances for Kansas State's Darren Sproles to win the Heisman?
A: Catching Darren Sproles is a lot like trying to catch a greased pig in mud. He reminds me a lot of Joe Washington from Oklahoma's wishbone days. He's got a good shot at the Heisman, I'll tell you that much. When he was "on" last year, I don't think there was anyone better. A senior-laden line will block for him too. But Dylan Meier is a brand new QB and must catch on quickly in the passing department to take some pressure off Sproles.
Question 6: How will the ACC be affected with the inclusion of Virginia Tech and Miami this year?
A: First off, memo to Florida State and Miami; all that cruising-through-their-conference-schedule stuff is over. It will never be as easy as it has been. The rest of the ACC will upgrade their football programs so they can shoot for the big dogs. When Boston College joins up in 2006 and a title game is included, that's when the real fun starts. Plus, rivalries like Virginia-Virginia Tech and Miami-Florida State will be off the Richter scale in intensity. Sweet.
Question 7: Is the Big 10 becoming the Big 2 once again?
A: Not really, to be honest. Most pubs have Michigan and Ohio State up pretty high. But I think it will be a real even race this year with no dominant force. Three teams to watch are Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Kirk Ferentz and company demolished Florida in the Outback Bowl, even with a weak, injury-ravaged offense. But the Hawkeye defense should carry them while the newcomers come around. And Glen Mason has a good thing going in Gopher country (here's to that new stadium being approved and built). Running Backs Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney are the best 1-2 punch in the country. But so much depends on whether or not they can find a steady quarterback. And don't forget the Badgers. Like Minnesota, Barry Alvarez needs to find a QB, but if Anthony Davis stays injury-free, he's got a great line to run behind. Also, Wisconsin avoids Michigan on the schedule this year. Look for UW to get off to a quick start.
Question 8: Is it time for Joe Paterno to hang it up?
A: No way. You might as well fire the Pope. JoePa stays as long as he wants. And with his signing a four-year contract extension in the off-season, it appears as if that is what is happening.
Question 9: How will Mike Stoops fare as a head coach after all those years as a valued assistant?
A: To begin with, the "other" Stoops can't do much worse. But he'll do fine. John Mackovic never had the players respect because he always put himself too far above them. Stoops will relate to the players at Arizona like nobody has before. But as for this year, the `Cats will still be down the pecking order, despite 16 starters coming back. The schedule is too daunting, but give this project two or three years.
Question 10: Will the Mid-American Conference ever see a season like last year again?
A: Whew! I'm not sure. That was a great conference performance in '03. The scoresheet from September 20th alone should be bronzed and placed in the Smithsonian. That was the day that Marshall won at Kansas State, Northern Illinois won at Alabama, Toledo beat Pitt, Miami won at Colorado State and Bowling Green nearly pulled off the upset at Ohio State. Good night nurse! The MAC still has a few marquee quarterbacks behind center in Marshall's Stan Hill, Toledo's Bruce Gradkowski, and the best of the bunch, Akron's Charlie Frye (the nation's top returning total offense leader). So they'll lead their teams to the usual array of upsets here and there, but the respect nationally will shamefully be minimal. Let's just hope Northern Illinois doesn't go 10-2 and sit at home during bowl season again. Hey bowl organizers, quit inviting those 6-6 lollypops to your games!
Question 11: Should Miami have allowed Willie Williams, who has been arrested 11 times, to enroll and play for them?
A: Nope, sorry. It's 2004 people. We've been through the Lawrence Phillips and Ell Roberson-type fiascos time and again. Every youngster looking to play football, or just to be a good citizen, should know by now not to screw up more than once. Tell Willie to sit out his three years and just let him go pro at that time.
Question 12: Who is the best college football announcer on TV?
A: Keith Jackson gets the best football announcer Emeritus status. But otherwise, it's got to be Ron Franklin of ESPN. He is a beauty. Too bad he's stuck doing mostly SEC games. Every league should get to enjoy his services a couple times each year. He and Mike Gottfried are both informed and informative.
Question 13: With David Greene and David Pollack back, is this the year of the Bulldog in college football?
A: It sure points to it, yes. Bulldog head man Mark Richt is in year four and, not to take anything away from last year's accomplishments, but I think he'll make better decisions this time around. I'm not slighting Pollack here either - he's a lockdown end on defense - but LB Odell Thurman and sfety Thomas Davis will be bigger playmakers simply because of all the double-teaming and attention offenses will have on Pollack. QB Greene is the key. And I think he plays extremely smart and has great skills. If he keeps his cool when the Dawgs are under fire (here comes the LSU defense!), they could very well play for all the marbles in January.
Question 14: Why is it that Mack Brown is still at Texas?
A: Here's why: he knows how to yep-yep and hoodwink the alums. He immediately made huge points with the rabid `Horn fans by getting on the good side of old coach Darrel Royal and embracing the past. Still, both he and Frank Solich had 10-3 seasons last year. Solich got the boot. Brown got praised for keeping his team together. Hmmm. I don't know how Mack does it but somehow the blame is always siphoned over to the assistants. But in truth, Brown has the best six-year start by any Longhorn coach (59 wins), so looking at the big picture, he's done well, right? Let's say this - another loss to Oklahoma (whether by two or 52 points) and I can't imagine there wouldn't be major rumblings -- no matter how much he coddles the alumni.
Question 15: Of the Big Three (LSU, USC and Oklahoma), which team has the best chance to return to the national championship game?
A: Any shade-tree prognosticator worth his salt will tell you to go with the team that has the experience at quarterback. And it's pretty tried and true. Last year's run by USC is one of the few cases where a green quarterback came in and led the team to the national title. As stated above, even though you can almost fit their returning starters into a Toyota Sequoia, they have oodles of talent and Matt Leinart is on the path to greatness. But the biggest reason I give SoCal the best chance to go back to the title game? Unlike the other two, they have no conference championship game to trip them up. OU has nearly everyone back, especially on offense, but must overcome the mindset of the last two games. LSU will still be merciless on defense. But despite the emergence of wonderful RB Justin Vincent, they're going to miss the smarts that Matt Mauck brought to the huddle and the pocket.
Question 16: Who has the potential for the biggest "turnaround" season in 2004?
Most Likely -
Alabama (4-9 in 2003)
The Tide underachieved so much last season, this is an easy pick. Brodie Croyle is a quality quarterback who can make an opposing coach turn grey in one afternoon. His protection is going to be a huge factor. The schedule is pretty fluffy too. A 7-0 start isn't out of the question.
Other possibilities -
Notre Dame (5-7)
Again, the schedule is harsh, but QB Brady Quinn has nine of the top ten O-Linemen back.
Texas A&M (4-8)
Reggie McNeal is a potentially great QB. The rest of the team is still young.
Mike Stoops has some potential on offense, but will work with few stars on defense.
If QB Ryan Hart can cut down on the INTs, a weakened Big East is just the tonic.
And way, way down the food chain -
I know this is a real stretch, but the schedule lays out well, RB Joe Harris was a JC All American and the Mountain West is as predictable as a rattlesnake this year.
Mike Price was a diamond-in-the-rough find for the Miners. He's going to do great down there, I promise you. RB Howard Jackson quietly ran for 1,146 yards last year.
Question 17: Will the Big 12 get its wish and go to a permanent 12-game season?
A: Don't be surprised if that's approved hands-down.
See, the problem is the hypocrisy behind it all. The school presidents don't mind bringing in a little extra money by adding an additional game to their regular season schedules. So what if the season begins in mid-summer and ends right in the middle of exams in December, right? But ask them to add an extra game, maybe two, for three or four teams to play for a national championship in a playoff, and what do you get? "Oh heavens no! No, that would make the season way too long."
Yeah, that makes sense.
Question 18: Who will be the teams that keep the BCS big shots shaking in their shoes this year?
A: First off, I saw that Lee Corso picked the Memphis Tigers as his surprise team. My condolences on their bad season in advance. Ha! Actually, Lee may be dead on. Here are a few possible BCS-busters.
The Tigers beat the likes of Ole Miss, Houston and Louisville; all bowl teams in '03. Not a soul is missing on offense either. And Joe Lee Dunn, the renowned defensive whiz, is in his first year as D-coordinator. If they can beat Ole Miss once again, gang-way!
QB Bruce Gradkowski had a 29-7 TD/INT ratio. If they find a few D-Linemen and can get by Minnesota in game one, they could face Marshall in the MAC title game as unbeatens.
You've seen the Utes on a number of Top 25 lists. Believe it. Alex Smith threw just three interceptions in 266 passes last year. Oregon transfer Paris Warren broke a school record with 76 catches. Plus the defense was stout down the stretch and brings back seven starters.
Question 19: Is there a more dysfunctional league than the SEC, with that Phil Fulmer vs. Alabama thing?
No sir and no ma'am. It's a soap opera with a pigskin décor. There's no league more dysfunctional. There's no league more intense. There's no league more fervent. There's no league more exciting. There's no league more investigated by the NCAA. There's no league more talented. There's no league more loved. And there's no league more hated.
I know this is horribly cliché, but - there's no league quite like it either. Hail! Hail! The SEC.
Question 20: What's the best way to decide the national champion?
A: To quote Flounder on Animal House, "Oh boy, this is great!"
First off, the bowls can stay. Yes, I said it. From Jacksonville to Honolulu, they can stay. However, the top 16 teams in the country will pair off for a playoff using 15 of the existing bowls (all the remaining bowl games can still hold their contests and keep their Chamber of Commerce pitches, no problem). So the first round would be held in bowls like the Gator Bowl, the Sun Bowl, the Holiday Bowl, etc. The quarterfinals, semifinals and championship will be in bigger bowls like the Sugar Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl and the Rose Bowl, etc. And every year, the championship game rotates to another one of the big bowls. There you go. Everybody's happy. The big bowls get even more money from a ridiculous TV deal and the little bowls keep their games that no one watches anyway.
Now, say for instance, if the Rose Bowl decides it doesn't want to separate the game from its precious New Year's Day parade or doesn't want to disrupt its traditional affiliation with the Big 10 and Pac 10 champions, fine. Go and hold your game on New Year's Day and those teams won't be eligible for the national title. Too bad. Those who adapt will flourish.
Ahhhh! It feels good to say it, even though it will never happen.
The season gets teed up in just a few weeks. Can't wait. Everybody have fun this year. See you in a few weeks.