The 2010 college football season is about to get started. In 48 hours, there will be games kicking off across the country. Over the last few months I have been contributing to a new website called Bowl Gamer. It is a website that has a lot of great things coming to it over the next few months. It is a site that I feel very passionate about and want to see do well.
In the last few months, I have started my contributions by looking at what is ahead for each of the major conferences at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, formerly known as Division I-A. Here is a look at each of those 11 conferences and the three independent teams:
Five things to watch for in the ACC
1. Bobby is out and Jimbo is in – For the first time since 1975, the Florida State Seminoles will enter a college football season without Bobby Bowden as their head coach. The decision was reached after the conclusion of the regular season that Jimbo Fisher, the ‘head coach in waiting’ for the last several seasons, would take over the program from Bowden, who went out on a high note with an upset victory over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. Fisher will need to deal with several obvious distractions, including the loss of scholarships for the next four years as part of a probation agreement reached between the Seminoles and the NCAA. Christian Ponder returns at quarterback for the Noles, as does their leading rusher Jermaine Thomas and three of their top four receivers. On defense, their two top tacklers Nigel Bradham and Kendall Smith return, but they must replace their top sack artist and the defense, now lead by new coordinator Mark Stoops, must also generate more turnovers.
2. An upward trend for ‘The U’? – This is the season where we find out if the Miami Hurricanes have turned the corner and are on their way back to being one of the big dogs on the block. A 9-4 record isn’t exactly dominating, but considering the Virginia Tech loss was the only one by double digits and the Hurricanes were that close to a monster season. Randy Shannon has brought stability back to the program, and quarterback Jacory Harris (24 touchdown passes and 3352 passing yards) has brought leadership back. Shannon would like to see Harris reduce the number of turnovers (17 interceptions) though. Defensively, the Canes return Allen Bailey and Marcus Robinson, their top two pass rushers from last season, but Shannon hopes for more ball-hawking in the secondary as Miami grabbed just nine interceptions all season. The Canes might want to think about breaking out the famous fatigues on the road this season, as they facing a gauntlet of roadies at Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Clemson all in a row in September and later a visit to Georgia Tech.
3. ‘Mark’ing his territory again – The feel-good story of the season will no doubt take place at Boston College where linebacker Mark Herzlich will return after battling a form of bone cancer that at the very least cost him his 2009 season. Earlier this month, Herzlich was declared fully healthy and took part in spring practice drills. He was named as part of the watch list for the 2010 Lott Trophy, given annually to the defensive player in the nation that has the biggest impact on their team. In 2008, Herzlich was a three-time winner of the ACC defensive player of the week, as he led the team with 110 tackles, 13 of those for loss. If he returns to form on the field this fall, he’ll be more than just a feel-good story; he’ll be the reason why Frank Spaziani’s crew will go bowling once again and be in contention in the ACC Atlantic.
4. Can Georgia Tech hit a ‘triple’ with the triple option? – The Yellow Jackets have turned back the clock on college football, showing in Paul Johnson’s first two seasons, and have maintained that you can still run the triple option with success in a major conference. The question now is can that success be sustained. Two division titles and a conference championship in two seasons would seem to leave little room for doubt. Trigger man Josh Nesbitt returns for his junior season after throwing for 1701 yards and 10 touchdown tosses and rushing for 1205 yards on the ground and adding a team-high 18 scoring TD’s. But gone are lead runner Jonathan Dwyer and lead receiver Demaryius Thomas, and on the defensive side of the ball the Yellow Jackets lose three of their top five tacklers including top sack man and first round draft choice Derek Morgan.
5. Is there pressure on Tom O’Brien to have success at NC State this season? – We know entering the season that there will be at least one head coaching change at the end of the season, as Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen will step down. But there is growing concern that O’Brien maybe feeling some heat on his head coaching seat in Raleigh. He came from Boston College highly regarded with a solid record. But O’Brien has had losing records in each of his first three seasons with the Wolfpack, and the 2009 campaign saw them go from starting at 3-1 and feeling like the corner had been turned to a disaster where they lost four straight and six out of seven. More disturbing is that the defense allowed 30 or more points during each of those games, including giving up 49 points to Duke in a 21-point home defeat that brought the boo birds out. The off-season has also been a struggle for the Wolfpack as four players were cited for drug possession including all-ACC tight end George Bryan. Having Big East champion Cincinnati added to this year’s schedule doesn’t help much either.
Five things to watch for in the Big East
1. Dealing with the league change rumors: In 2004, Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC, and were joined by Boston College a year later. Many said it would spell the end of the conference in football by losing three prominent programs. Instead, they smartly added Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida from Conference USA, and the lack of two heavyweights at the top of the league allowed schools like Rutgers and Connecticut to build their programs up. It’s clear that Notre Dame, a member in every sport but football, is the key to the latest potential shake-up. If they join the Big Ten in all sports, then the Big Ten might be satisfied with that and leave the Big East alone. If not, then Syracuse would be next in line to possibly be ‘recruited’.
2. Can Cincinnati reload quickly: The Bearcats will enter the 2010 season with a new head coach in Butch Jones, a new full time starting quarterback in Zach Collaros, and must find someone to take over the big-play wide receiver spot formerly occupied by Mardy Gilyard. The defense does return three of their top four tacklers from a year ago. The opener at Fresno State feels like a trap game; if they get through that one in good shape, they could be poised to make another BCS bowl run.
3. Is Dion Lewis the next Tony Dorsett: there is no denying the production (1799 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns) that Lewis delivered in stepping into LeSean McCoy’s shoes as the main back in the backfield for Pittsburgh. But with quarterback Bill Stull having moved on, teams will be more willing to stack more defenders in the box to slow Lewis down until either Pat Bostick or Tino Sunseri steps up as the main guy under center. If the passing game continue to use the potential All-American skills of Jon Baldwin in stretching the field, Lewis could be an early favorite for Heisman consideration.
4. Is this finally the year Rutgers gets it done: they do return running backs Joe Martinek and Kordell Young, quarterback Tom Savage and wide out Mohamed Sanu. Greg Schiano has taken Rutgers to unprecedented heights in his tenure; consider that traditional powers USC, Ohio State, LSU, Miami, and Virginia Tech did not have a single player selected in the first round of last month’s NFL Draft but that Rutgers had two players (Anthony Davis and Devin McCourty) selected. So is this finally the year that a season-ending conference title leads to Pandemonium in Piscataway?
5. Which first year coach figures to have the most first season success: we may have answered that already in Butch Jones with Cincinnati. But keep an eye on the other two new coaches in the league: Skip Holtz left behind a successful program that he rebuilt at East Carolina to take over at South Florida - the Bulls were always a talented bunch but unable to win big games, so we’ll see if Holtz is able to gleam any big-game exploits from his father; Charlie Strong also comes from a program rich with success and tradition, but now Strong will be tasked with more than just the defensive unit, which was his last post at Florida - the Cardinals struggled the last three seasons following Bobby Petrino’s departure, and it will be up to Strong find answers on offense.
Five things to watch for in the Big Ten
1. Heisman requiring Pryor experience? - After struggling through a mid-season crisis of confidence, Ohio State quarterback Terrell Pryor led the Buckeyes to the outright conference title last season. It marked the fifth straight year that Ohio State has won at least a share of the conference title, and any hopes to match a team and conference record of six straight will again hinge largely on Pryor’s talents. His junior season is shaping up to be much talked about among Heisman Trophy followers. Having Brandon Saine and top receivers DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, along with four returning starters on the O-Line, should increase both the Buckeyes chances and Pryor’s candidacy as well.
2. Sorry coach but a seat warmer wasn’t installed during the off-season: Perhaps no one in college football will feel more pressure to have a winning record this coming season than Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. In fairness, when trying to completely overhaul an offensive philosophy, you need a couple of years to implement the right kind of recruits to make said offense work. So all eyes will be on quarterback Tate Forcier to build upon last season’s numbers (2,050 passing yards and 13 TD’s) and be more consistent for the Wolverines to continue their upward ascension in the conference. But Forcier needs help from two key skill players: Denard Robinson, at 5.1 vayrds per carry and five TD’s last season, is likely to see the majority of the rushing attempts with the departures of Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor; and wide out Junior Hemingway needs to emerge as the receiver for whom Forcier tolls.
3. Now playing the role of Ray Kinsella = Kirk Ferentz: After three subpar seasons in which his team combined for a 19-18 record, the last two season have seen Ferentz’s Hawkeyes return to form from the middle of last decade. Many have said that because his name is no longer mentioned for every hot college and NFL job, Ferentz has been able to re-focus and re-dedicate his full attention to the Iowa program. If that’s the case, the lean years may pay long-term dividends for Iowa fans. Ricky Stanzi returns at quarterback, but will need to weather the early season games in which 60% of his offensive line get their feet collectively wet as first-time starters.
4. How the heck does JoePa keep doing it: Seems like the ‘Has the game passed Joe Paterno by’ questions are now significantly in the rear view mirror. After having just one winning season between 2000 and 2004, the Nittany Lions have had five straight seasons with nine or more victories, including back-to-back 11-2 records. Duplicating that for a third straight season may prove difficult with the loss of six defensive starters and quarterback Daryll Clark. This means more focus of the offense will be on tailback Evan Royster (1169 yds, 6TD) to not only steady the offense but reduce the defense’s exposure to the field early in the season. Road game at Alabama second week of season will be litmus test.
5. Don’t forget about the Badgers: The team that may have the best chance to rise up and steal the flag is Wisconsin. They won ten games last season, and return 16 starters from a season ago. This includes ten starters returning on offense for coach Bret Bielema. John Clay maybe the most undervalued running back in the country; all five starters on the offensive line are back, quarterback Scott Tolzien completed over 64% of his passes a year ago; and Al Toon’s son Nick Toon is primed to have a breakout season. Their season comes down to two consecutive weeks: October 16 at home versus Ohio State and October 23 at Iowa; if they win these two games, they’ll be in position to win the conference.
Five things to watch for in the Big 12
1. Double G replaces a Colt - Imagine having to replace a four-year starter as quarterback of one of the most influential programs in all of college football. A daunting task for most sophomores to be sure, but for Garrett Gilbert that was part of the challenge that came with coming to Texas. And if his performance in the BCS National Championship Game last January in relief of an injured Colt McCoy is any indication, at the very least we know he can stare down the gun barrel of pressure. But as important as Gilbert’s ability to replace McCoy is to the Longhorns chances, equally as necessary is the performance of James Kirkendall and Malcolm Williams, both of whom will be asked to help replace the loss of Jordan Shipley.
2. Uncle Turner, you aren’t in Buffalo anymore - Someone should also make sure that Turner Gill, one of the brightest coaching prospects to come along in a long time, knows he’s not in Lincoln either. The Jayhawks maybe a basketball school, but their football fans and boosters have had issues dealing with success when it does come there way. The school fired Mark Mangino after a 5-7 season, his first losing season in five years. The four intervening years saw KU win 33 games, appear in three bowl games (winning all three) and go to the 2008 Orange Bowl. The last time Kansas had four consecutive non-losing seasons was 1959-1964 when their backfield included John Hadl and Gale Sayers. By the way, November 13 is Gill’s first visit with the Jayhawks to Lincoln.
3. Scoreboard malfunction in Lubbock - It would seem as if the days of the Red Raiders offense lighting up scoreboards across the country like a pinball machine would seem to be over as Tommy Tuberville takes over as head coach following the controversial dismissal of Mike Leach. Tuberville’s MO is all about ball control and defense; one reason he was removed at Auburn was because of the offensive struggles by the Tigers in his last few seasons. It will seem to the uninitiated as if the Red Raiders struggles will be because of Tuberville. But it may be unfair to judge them until at least 2012, when Tuberville has established what kind of team the program will be moving forward.
4. Next in line under center for the Sooners - Unlike Garrett Gilbert down in Austin, the new quarterback in Norman who is replacing an award-winning starter at quarterback has some in-season experience to build on. Landry Jones is also a sophomore like Gilbert, but due to the two separate injuries suffered by Sam Bradford last season, Jones was thrust into the lineup. And all that Jones did was break Bradford’s school record for passing yards by a freshman. His 3,121 yards and 26 TD tosses, combined with 17 returning starters from a season ago, have many thinking the Sooners may indeed be back on top in the Big 12 this season.
5. Trying to replace a boy named Suh - It’s not just the uncertainty of a future in a new league that stares the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the face. The Cornhuskers are the presumptive favorites in the Big 12 North this season coming off a 10 win season and with 19 starters returning. But one gaping hole will be created by the graduation of All-American Ndamukong Suh. He recorded 24 tackles for loss last season alone, and his presence signaled the return of the famed ‘Black Shirts’ defense. Head coach Bo Pelini must replace Suh in order for Nebraska to compete in the Big 12 title game.
Five things to watch for in the Conference USA
1. Making a “Case” for the Heisman - Voters for this year’s Heisman Trophy will, as always, use a wide-variety of barometers to determine the identity of the player that the voters will cast their ballots upon. One measure will be to look simply at sheer numbers, and this would be the area in which Houston’s Case Keenum figures to be a major part of the discussion this season. Keenum topped the 5,000 yard passing mark for the second straight season, and his 5671 yards in 2009 was third best in NCAA history for a single season. He has thrown for over 300 passing yards in 25 of his last 28 contests, and thrown at least two TD tosses or more in 24 of his last 27 games. With two of his top receivers, James Cleveland and Patrick Edwards, back for another campaign, look for Keenum to force comparisons to Andre Ware’s Heisman campaign of 1989.
2. Dealing with the “Super Conference” distraction - Every time that one of the six major conferences begins talk about expanding their ranks, leagues like Conference USA hold their breath. When the ACC raided three schools over two years from the Big East in the early 2000’s, the Big East in turn grabbed three football playing members from Conference USA in 2005. This forced Conference USA to scramble and add in four schools from the WAC and two from the MAC. When conversations this past spring began anew about the forming of Super Conferences, there were some grumblings that once again Conference USA would be forced to shuffle the deck. Instead, with only a few teams around the country moving, Conference USA kept their membership intact. For how long remains the big question moving forward.
3. East Carolina getting “Ruffin” tumble - There are three new head coaches in the Conference USA ranks this season, and all at interesting locations. The most intriguing of these occur at East Carolina, where former Pirates defensive great Ruffin McNeill tries to prove that you can go home again as the new coach. McNeill replaces Skip Holtz, who left to take the vacant job at South Florida. McNeill does come to campus with an impressive resume of coaching stops, most recently the defensive coordinator and one-game interim head coach at Texas Tech, where he had been on-staff the last decade. But it won’t be easy for McNeill to keep thing rolling as Holtz had; only five offensive and two defensive starters from last season return to try and life the Pirates to a three-peat as league champions.
4. The “Porter House” in Memphis, and Does “Doc” have a Marshall plan - The two other new head coaches take over at Memphis and Marshall. Larry Porter, another former player hoping to return to campus and have coaching glory where playing glory previously occurred, takes over the Tigers and is asked to resurrect a program which has seen better days (one winning season in last four). Porter was on both the Oklahoma State and LSU staffs for Les Miles, and twice has been recognized as the best recruiting assistant coach in the nation. As for Marshall, their new boss is John “Doc” Holliday. He also has a reputation for recruiting acumen, and is hoping his 31 years of experience can stem the tide for the Thundering Herd. Before Bob Pruett’s final season in 2004, the Thundering Herd roared with a mighty record of eight seasons of 88-17. But counting Pruett’s final season, they’ve been the ‘Stumbling’ Herd with a mark of 29-43.
5. The Pony Express finally rides again - People said June Jones was crazy to leave a cushy situation like the one he had built up at Hawaii to be the latest to try and revive the SMU program from a quarter-century post-Death Penalty slumber. And after going 1-11 in 2008, it seemed as though those critics were right. But in going 8-5 last year with the Mustangs, Jones posted not only the first winning season since 1986, but the eight wins were the most since 1984. Despite having 13 freshman or sophomore starters, the Mustangs were impressive and led by quarterback Kyle Padron - he threw for 10 TD’s and 1922 yards in 201 attempts, and will take the full control of the offense this coming season. Not since the days of Eric Dickerson and Craig James paired together as the Pony Express backfield has there been this much excitement for a season at SMU.
Five things to watch for in the MAC
1. The Chippewa Legend Lives On - When people of a certain age think of the word chippewa, they often think of the line from the Gordon Lightfoot song about the ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’. But these days, the Central Michigan football team has come to allow for a new generation to think of the song in terms of gridiron excellence in the MAC. Once again, the program will be tested with Dan Enos taking over for Butch Jones, the third such coaching change over the last decade. CMU also looks to replace the conference player of the year in quarterback Dan LeFevour, who threw for 3438 yards and 28 touchdowns a season ago. Either Brandon Fricke or Ryan Radcliff need to assume command quickly though; after opening with Hampton, the Chippewas face Temple in an important early-season cross-divisional matchup.
2. Temple Giving Fans reasons to give a hoot - To say that head coach Al Golden has revived the program at Temple is dramatically understating things. After decades of dispair and frustration, fans have seen Golden put his definitive stamp on the Owls program. They have progressed upwards each season from 1-11 in 2006 to 4-8 in 2007, then to 5-7 in 2008, all leading to last year’s remarkable 9-4 mark. The winning record was the first since 1990 and only the second since 1984. The outlook continues to be bright for the owls with 16 starters returning this season, including sensational running back Bernard Pierce coming off a 1361 yard-16 touchdown effort last season. The defense does lose leading tackler Alex Joseph but does return Muhammad Wilkerson and his 6 1/2 sacks. The 9-4 record came about despite losing the first two games of the season to Villanova and Penn State. After hopefully gaining their revenge against the Wildcats, Temple will then play their likely three toughest opponents of the season in a row when they host CMU and Connecticut and then play at Penn State. If they somehow go 4-0 in that stretch, they might become the next ‘BCS Buster’ darlings from the mid-majors.
3. Bullish on “The Mighty Quinn” - Jeff Quinn takes over the Buffalo program following the departure of Turner Gill to Kansas. Quinn is no stranger to the MAC, having served as offensive coordinator for Central Michigan’s revival under Brian Kelly from 2004 through 2006. Quinn has been a coach for 26 years in the college game, but except for two one-game stints replacing Kelly in bowl games for CMU in 2006 and Cincinnati last year, has never been the head man of a program. He does benefit from nine returning defensive starters and four offensive line starters. If Buffalo can settle on a quarterback, and right now it appears as if the competition between Jerry Davis and Alex Dennison will come down to the wire, Quinn can put the Bulls back on the winning side of the ledger.
4. Bowling for Bobcats - While Temple figures to be the trendy pick in the East Division, two other teams should not be overlooked. In advance of our article later this week previewing 10 Must See Games in the MAC, circle this date on your calendar: October 9th, when Ohio visits Bowling Green. These two teams are both well coached by Frank Solich for the Bobcats and Dave Clawson for the Falcons. Ohio has struggled in recent outings against the Falcons, though they have won two of the last three. The Bobcats won the division last year on the strength of their head-to-head wins against Bowling Green and Temple. Whichever team can overcome the loss of key players to graduation and perform well in this game will likely set up a showdown versus Temple for the division title this year.
5. Who is the next big deal to come out of the MAC? - The conference has produced some terrific NFL players over the years, including: Ben Roethlisberger, Jack Lambert, Byron Leftwich, Phil Villapiano, Chad Pennington, and Randy Moss. It has also been referred to as ‘The Cradle of College Coaches’, having been the proving grounds for coaching greats such as: Bo Schembechler, Don James, Jim Grobe, Gary Pinkel, Turner Gill, and Urban Meyer. So who’s next from the MAC? Well among coaches, you have to figure that if Temple wins their division and then the league title that Golden’s name will be mentioned for big time program openings. As for players, Pierce at Temple is the league’s returning rushing leader, and Spencer Keith at Kent State showed flashed of brilliance for the Kent State Golden Flashes as a freshman quarterback. Two other players to watch for will be in the same backfield for a team that figures to make some noise this season: Northern Illinois has a promising quarterback in Chandler Harnish and tailback Chad Spann gained 1038 yards and scored 19 rushing touchdowns last year for the Huskies.
Five things to watch for in the Mountain West
1. Soon to be ‘Ute’-less - Despite becoming one of the dominant programs within their region, the University of Utah decided to look long-term at their prospects and have chosen to leave the Mountain West after this collegiate year for the Pac-10. But before they say goodbye, they might be poised to make a run at one last league title in the Mountain West. Kyle Whittingham has eight returning offensive starters from a team that won ten games a year ago. Eddie Wide knows how to run in the narrow lanes between the tackles, gaining 1069 rushing yards with 12 scores a season ago. Jordan Wynn took over at quarterback for Terrance Cain and was named Offensive MVP of the Poinsettia Bowl. If he continues to play that well this season, Utah just might make it one for the road.
2. Color the conference Blue with envy - In this year’s Mountain West Media Guide, the league already has a page devoted to incoming member Boise State, looking ahead already to next season when the Broncos officially join the league. And while it’s a significant move for the school with the blue-colored playing surface, it’s also interesting to note how well they’ve already played against their soon-to-be league rivals. The Broncos are 11-1 all-time against MWC opponents, including that 17-10 triumph over TCU in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. So while no one in the MWC is fearful of the Boise State program oining the league, and they know that it will further add competitive balance to their league, there is a sense that the days of dominance by BYU and TCU maybe history.
3. Cougars roar in Provo - Speaking of Brigham Young University and the name Bronco, the Cougars coach is Bronco Mendenhall and he has restored BYU to the glory days of the 1980’s when the program was posting double-digit win seasons every year. He’s 49-15 in six seasons, but this might be his most challenging season to date in Provo. The Cougars lose 12 starters, seven of which were on defense. He does see the return of hard-hitting safety Andrew Rich, who led the club with 85 tackles and who’s two jarring tackles forced a pair of critical fumbles in the season-opening upset of Oklahoma. But the Cougars have two very important players to replace on offense: Harvey Unga, the school’s all-time leading rusher, left for the NFL. Meanwhile, Riley Nelson must fill the void left by quarterback Max Hall (3560 yards and 33 TD) in order for the Cougars to not miss a step.
4. Sounding the Horn for the Frogs - Mendenhall isn’t the only coach with an impressive MWC pedigree; so too is Texas Christian University’s Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs are coming off an undefeated regular season, which included impressive road wins at Clemson, Air Force, and a 38-7 thrashing of the Cougars in provo. TCU is posied to make another run at the top of the league this season with the return of 16 starters, including nine on the offensive side. QB Andy Dalton begins the season with the most victories among signal callers currently playing in the entire country with 29, which ties him with Sammy Baugh for the school record. He’s thrown just 24 interceptions in 1001 career attempts, third lowest among active FBS quarterbacks. If wide receiver Jeremy Kerley can continue to provide the same spark to the offense (leading the team with 44 catches) that he has in special teams (ranks in top 22 in the nation in punt and kick return average), TCU will be making plans for another New Year’s Day bowl game.
5. Are they Rebels with a cause? - The only new coach to the league this season is Bobby Hauck at UNLV. Hauck comes from Montana, where he established the Grizzlies as a top-flight FCS championship contender. In seven seasons at Montana, he went 80-17, qualifying for the playoffs every season, and taking Montana to three championship game appearances. The Rebels do have 16 returning starters from a season ago, including quarterback Omar Clayton and two of his top three receivers from a season ago in Phillip Payne and Michael Johnson. Hauck must have his team weather a brutal two-game open to the schedule with a visit from Wisconsin and then a trip to Utah right out of the gate. They also play roadies at West Virginia and Hawaii. Most telling though will be the three-game stretch between October and November 13 when they play TCU at home, travel to BYU, and then host Wyoming. The formula for the Rebels returning to a bowl this season is by sweeping the other six games on their schedule and winning just one of the previously mentioned seven head-knockers.
Five things to watch for in the Pac-10
1. Retreat of the Trojans - For the past nine seasons, and in particular for seven of those nine seasons, the University of Southern California was not only one of the preeminent programs in college football, but the gold standard in the Pac Ten. Between 2002 and 2008 (before the NCAA stripped them of 14 wins due to violations that are being appealed) the Trojans posted a record of 82-9, including six BCS bowl wins in seven appearances during that span. Now that Pete Carroll has migrated back to the NFL, Lane Kiffin must try to survive and thrive while the program tries to entangle itself from violation issues. Matt Barkley is back under center and has Ronald Johnson to throw to, as well as Allen Bradford to run the ball. What remains to be seen is if transfers by players such as D.J. Shoemate are the exception or become the rule.
2. What does Stanford do for an encore? - After years of struggling on the field following the departure of Tyrone Willingham to Notre Dame, the Cardinal are back as a force to be dealt with. Jim Harbaugh has rebuilt the program on the fly and last year’s eight wins were the most by Stanford since 2001. Now the word expectation creeps into the discussion for Stanford. The bad news is that Toby Gerhart and his 1871 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns are gone. The good news is that 15 starters return from a season ago. This includes quarterback Andrew Luck and seven other starters on offense. Stepfan Taylor and Jeremy Stewart will be counted on to pick up the slack for Gerhart’s departure. On defense, Thomas Keiser will look to build upon a breakout sophomore season in which he led the Cardinal in tackles for loss (15) and quarterback sacks (9).
3. Can the Heisman Trophy wind up in the “Locker” room? - If people are calling Jim Harbaugh the Pac Ten’s answer to a miracle worker, then what label can we slap on the successful start to Steve Sarkisian’s career as the Huskies head man? This is a program which went winless in 2008, and jumped up last year to post five wins, four of which were in the conference. They knocked off USC and blew out California, and lost by less than nine points to LSU, Notre Dame, Arizona State, and UCLA. The big returning for Washington is quarterback Jake Locker. He led the team and the conference in total offense and tossed for 21 TD passes and ran for another seven. He’ll be aided by nine fellow returning starters on offense, including tailback Chris Polk (1113 yards rushing last season), and top receivers Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, and James Johnson.
4. Do the Bruins now replace the Trojans as the ‘Big Dog’ in Los Angeles? - This will be the 15th college football season since Terry Donahue left UCLA to become a broadcaster and later an NFL general manager in San Francisco. In the years since his departure from Westwood, the Bruins have gone through a period of inconsistency. They’ve won 10 games three times, though not since 2005, and have a combined mark in that span of 95-73. But if you take out the back-to-back 10-2 records from 1997 and 1998, they are 75-69 in the other 13 seasons. So year three of the Rick Neuheisel era is filled with growing expectations. Kevin Prince took his lumps as the Bruins signal caller last season, and returns with his top two receivers from a season ago, Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario, in tact. If either Jonathan Franklin or Derrick Coleman can step up and be a lead back that can prevent the offense from second-and-long situations, the Bruins should see an increase in scoring. This will help offset the loss of six starters on defense. The strength of the defense is in the secondary, led by junior free safety Rahim Moore and his ten interceptions from a season ago. A strong showing by the Bruins this season, which must include a win over their cross-town rivals, could signal a change in the pecking order in the conference.
5. Pac-10 Title could be decided in the ‘Civil War’ - The annual clash between Oregon and Oregon State included added intrigue last season as the Pac Ten title was also on the line. The Ducks 37-33 home win in Eugene over the Beavers allowed them to play in the Rose Bowl. This year’s contest will be played in Corvallis and figures to again be the deciding contest for the league title. Oregon returns 18 starters from last season. The one area of concern for second year coach Chip Kelly is replacing quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was dismissed from the program during the spring. The Beavers return 15 starters from a year ago, including leading rusher Jacquizz Rodgers (1440 yards and 21 TD’s) and receiver James Rodgers (91 receptions, 1034 yards and 9 TD catches), but must see a step-up performance from quarterback Ryan Katz in place of departing starter Sean Canfield.
Five things to watch for in the SEC
1. Life after Tim Tebow - His name is John Brantley. He’s a 21 year old junior from Ocala. And he’s trying to be the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators in what is regarded as the year 1 A.T. (After Tebow). But Tebow isn’t the only Gator offensive star to have moved on from last season. Aaron Hernandez and Riley Cooper, the top two receivers from last season, and All-American offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey have all graduated, making the job a little more daunting for Brantley. At least he has some on-field experience coming off the bench last season for Tebow, and in addition to returning ground gainer Jeff Demps has Pouncey’s brother Mike Pouncey moving from guard to center. The defense will also be tested with six new starters from a season ago, but they do have potential first rounder Justin Trattou, at defensive end, returning.
2. No Deacon Blues for Ingram - The last time Alabama was the defending national champions, Bill Clinton was in his first year in office and Mark Ingram was just four years old. That season, the Crimson Tide went 9-3-1 but later had to forfeit victories due to an NCAA violation. Ingram will try to do what Archie Griffin accomplished 35 years ago by winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies. It helps to have a suave quarterback at the helm, and Greg McElroy (17 TD tosses to just 4 INT in 325 attempts) is just such a cool customer. Julio Jones provides the game-breaking speed on the outside. And if playing the Tide is anything like last season, then opponents better get them in the first 45 minutes: Alabama outscored opponents 121-32 in the final quarter.
3. Does the Old Ball Coach have to win now? - The Gators are trying to replace legendary players. Tennessee and Georgia are back in the middle of the pack. Is this finally the year that all of the talk of great recruiting classes and installing a tradition of winning and an attitude to match finally pays off for Steve Spurrier? It should, as he inherits perhaps his most talented team since he took over in Columbia. This will be his sixth season at the helm, and his team in five years has a respectable 35-28 record. Of course, his first five years at Florida he was 49-12-1. The Gamecocks have a wide receiver in Alshon Jeffery who is destined to be playing on Sundays, while on defense he has speed in cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and size in Cliff Matthews and Ladi Ajiboye up front. If Stephen Garcia can survive the obvious head games that every Spurrier quarterback has to endure, and with Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee all as home games, this could be the year for “the other USC”. If not, let the whispers begin.
4. Don’t go to Oxford, it’s a trap! - Ole Miss may in fact be trying to decide upon a new mascot to update with the times, and the choice of General Akbar from the Star Wars movies may indeed be a curious one. On the field, the program seems to have solidified in what may be the toughest six team group in all of college football. The weight of expectations will land squarely on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley. The Rebels also lose their leading rusher and top two receivers from a year ago, which will make for tougher sledding than trying to make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. The good news is that they get five games in which they will be favored to win. This is important because they come just before entering a brutal three-game stretch in mid-season they’re calling the “Triple A Gauntlet”. They’ll need more than ‘The Force’ to have a chance at winning two of three at Alabama and Arkansas then home for Auburn. But if they do, then the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta could be a great day for the Rebel alliance.
5. A bulldog of a volunteer in Knoxville - A record of 17-20 in three seasons as a head coach isn’t exactly the stuff of legends. But when your pops was one of the all-time coaching legends in the league, and you were a main recruiter and assistant coach for Nick Saban’s championship teams at LSU, a record like that can be ignored when handicapping Derek Dooley’s chances in Knoxville. Besides, if you can take Louisiana Tech to an 8-5 record in your second season and a bowl win, that’s like five consecutive winning seasons a lot of other places. And already, Dooley is starting to put his stamp on the program in terms of a zero tolerance for off-field shenanigans. He dismissed Darren Myles on July 9th for an off-field incident, and indefinitely suspended two others. On the field, he’ll have tight end Luke Stocker, a 6’6” target for new quarterback Matt Simms, and the defense will be led by Janzen Jackson, a hard-hitting safety who will try to pick up the slack for NFL-bound Eric Berry. It may take a while, but the faithful will be able to sing ‘Rocky Top’ once again with pride in their program.
Five things to watch for in the Sun Belt
1. The other ‘Men of Troy’ are dominant too - With Bobby Bowden’s retirement at Florida State, the top three coaches in terms of service as head coach at the same school are Joe Paterno at Penn State, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, and Larry Blakeney starting his 20th season with Troy. And he has built the Trojans into a powerful program, first at the old Division I-AA level, and now in the Sun Belt where his teams have appeared in bowl games in four of the last six seasons. He’s has a ton of weapons back on offense, led by wide reciever Jerrel Jernigan who projects as an NFL prospect. The big question is at quarterback, where Jamie Hampton or Corey Robinson will hope to replace the efficient Levi Brown (two interceptions in 298 attempts last year).
2. The greatness of the Blue Raiders - Speaking of coaches making their mark in the Sun Belt, Rick Stockstill has done just that in four short years at Middle Tennessee. Last season’s club set a school record with ten victories, and is poised for another run at post-season play thanks to quarterback Dwight Dasher. If you are looking for the personification of dual-threat quarterback, look no further than Dasher. He led the team in rushing with 1391 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. He also passed for 2789 yards and 23 touchdowns, completing 55% of his passes. And on defense, Jamari Lattirnore (9 1/2 tackles for loss, 5 1/2 sacks) has all the tools to play on Sundays. But keep an eye on a pending investigation into Dasher, who is alleged to have ‘borrowed’ $1500 and not paid it back; if he is lost to the team for any amount of team, it could be devastating to them.
3. These Owls look to fly high - The job of building a program is often spoken about when a coach takes over a team that is struggling, and puts together several winning seasons with other people’s recruits while bringing in his own brand of players. But how about actually building a program from the ground up? This season marks the 10th for Florida Atlantic playing college football, and the man responsible for literally building the program from nothing is living legend Howard Schnellenberger. The man responsible for turning Miami’s program in the early 80’s into “The U” has built a solid program at Florida Atlantic. And after stumbling to a 5-7 mark last season, Schnellenberger has reason to be confident about the 2010 Owls. He has nine starters returning on defense, and on offense he has the league’s leading rusher in Alfred Morris (1392 yards). If Jeff Van Camp can assume the controls at quarterback, the Owls will be right back in the mix.
4. No ‘Laf’-ing Matter - The Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana Lafayette are not a team that opponents can take lightly anymore. Under head coach Rickey Bustle, the Cajuns have won six games in four of the previous five seasons, meaning they are no longer the pushovers they once were. The next step now is to get them into a bowl game, something that hasn’t happened since their 1-AA days in 1970. Bustle hopes to accomplish this by putting eight returning starters out on offense this season, led by quarterback Chris Masson. With 2406 passing yards and a 59.5% completion percentage, he was able to take control of the offense. He will need to improve upon throwing just 10 TD tosses a season ago. The defense returns five starters, including Grant Fleming. The senior linebacker was second on the team in tackles and is 100% after starting last season slowly due to ACL surgery.
5. Can Dodge & Dunbar lead North texas revival? - North Texas has produced an eclectic group of notable alumni such as musicians Roy Orbison and Don Henley, Miss America and NFL Today host Phyllis George, and Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene. Now head coach Todd Dodge is hoping to revive the Mean Green football program. Among the ten returning offensive starters is his son, quarterback Riley Dodge who as a freshman completed 67.7% of his passes for an astounding 122.3 efficiency rating. The younger Dodge doesn’t have to force the ball downfield either; he can simply hand it off to junior tailback Lance Dunbar, who scored 17 rushing touchdowns a season ago to go with 1378 rushing yards. On defense, there are eight returning starters, led by linebacker Craig Robertson who was second in the Sun Belt with 107 tackles. When looking for a team to bounce upward, you look at returning starters and close losses the previous year: North Texas lost six games by seven points or less. If they win four of those six this year, they are a bowl eligible team, which is certainly something they are capable of.
Five things to watch for in the WAC
1. Bye-Bye Boise - While the other members of the league are still disappointed in losing the Broncos, it may at the same time be hopeful that Boise State makes one final BCS run during this tenure as the leader of the WAC pack. The Broncos return 10 starters on both offense and on defense too. Quarterback Kellen Moore is 26-1 as a starter through two seasons. No WAC team has ever won a road conference game on the Blue carpet in Boise. The Broncos have gone undefeated in winning the conference title six times since 2002. They face Virginia Tech in the opener on a neutral field and host Oregon State on September 25. If they win both of those games, figure they will once again run the table.
2. Does Pat lead Fresno back to top of the Hill? - Some of the whispering that served as an undercurrent in Fresno a few years ago that it was time to fire Pat Hill as head coach seem to have disappeared, and the Bulldogs could become the team that takes Boise’s spot when they leave next year. In 13 seasons, Hill has taken the Bulldogs to bowl games ten times, easily the most in school history. Off an 8-5 mark last season, Fresno State returns 16 starters form a season ago. But the biggest challenge for Hill is replacing Ryan Mathews, who took his FBS-leading 1808 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns with him to the NFL. The continued improvement of quarterback Ryan Colburn could help offset that loss, and the defense is led by the talented Chris Carter. Unlike his namesake, all this Carter does is register tackles for loss - 13 of them a season ago.
3. Kaepernick Dances with Wolves - Perhaps the most valuable player to his team in the conference is Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He is one of just six players in NCAA history to have scored 200 or more career points without gaining any on kicks. He’s one of 13 players ever to rush for 2000 career yards and throw for 4000 career yards. He and running back Vai Taua combined to help the Wolfpack lead the nation in rushing last season, as they were the first team to post three 1000-yard rushers in the same season (Luke Lippincott has graduated). Coach Chris Ault has made some changes to his defensive staff, but with Kaepernick running the offense, a sixth consecutive bowl appearance is likely.
4. Utah State makes their case - The last time that Utah State had a winning season was 1997. John L. Smith was the head coach and the Aggies were members of the Big West Conference, long out of the football business. But there is renewed optimism in Logan. Gary Anderson won four games in his first season as head coach, and the 349 points they scored is the third highest total in school history. They racked up 5272 yards of total offense with just four interceptions, and they went 3-5 in league play. 17 starters are back from a season ago, including four-year starting quarterback Diondre Borel and leading rusher Robert Turbin (1296 yards and 13 scores). On defense, Bobby Wagner led the WAC in tackles a year ago with 115 as a sophomore. Utah isn’t on the Aggies schedule, but Oklahoma and BYU are. Still, the schedule shapes up to provide the Aggies with a chance to play in a bowl game for the first time in 13 seasons.
5. From WAC-iness to parity? - One of the things that Boise’s departure figures to do is leave a gap at the top of the league. But rather than seeing one team fill said gap, it might lead to much more balanced play among the surviving league members. Since the most recent restructuring of the league before 2005, there have been five WAC seasons completed. While Boise has finished first or second in all five, six of the other eight have finished in the top four in the league at least once. The number of teams in league play that have won three or more conference games in a season has increased from five in 2005 to seven in each of the last two seasons. This past spring saw three players drafted in the first round by NFL teams and two of them did not attend Boise State. So while the Broncos departure might be viewed as a devastating blow the league, others may see it as a chance to see the league reinvent itself yet again with competitive balance that few other conferences enjoy at this level.
Five things to watch for among the FBS independents
1. You don’t live in Cincinnati, you now live in South Bend: Easily one of the five most notable coaching positions in all of college football is that of head coach at the University of Notre Dame. This is no quick fix and no second choice: the Irish have secured in their new leader a man that has won as a head coach everywhere that he has been. Some Irish fans and alumni were turned off by Charlie Weis and his ego. Brian Kelly is all about the results on the field. He achieved them at the Division II level at Grand Valley State, winning consecutive national titles in 2002 and 2003. He went to Central Michigan and in three short seasons took them to a MAC championship in 2006. Then he went to Cincinnati and led the Bearcats to three straight 10+ win seasons, tripling the number of double-digit win seasons in school history (Sid Gillman in 1951 won 10). His 2009 Bearcats not only won a second straight Big East title, but also finished in the top ten in graduation rate. But all that now pales in comparison to his greatest coaching challenge: to restore the sustained excellence of the Irish program.
2. Joe Montana isn’t walking through that door: The famous Rick Pitino quote from his time as coach of the Boston Celtics advising Boston media and fans that “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door” might be easy for Kelly to use as a paraphrasing excuse this first season at the Golden Dome. Jimmy Clausen, the starting quarterback for Notre Dame the last three seasons, is now battling for the starting job with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The top wide receiver, Golden Tate, and three top offensive linemen, are all gone. So for coach Kelly to reshape this team in his image may take a little bit of time. Leading rusher Armando Allen will be counted on to produce right away from the tailback spot, and returning receivers Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph will need to help ease the transition period for new starting quarterback Dayne Crist.
3. Staying in the ‘Notre Dame Conference’… for now: One of the biggest questions of the off-season in all of college football was not how the Irish would do with a new coach and new key starters. Instead, it was whether or not they would be the lead domino to cause a chain reaction around the country leading to the formation of ‘super conferences’. The Big Ten apparently wooed Notre Dame to join their league, which in turn likely would have led to Missouri joining Nebraska’s Big 12 defection, and spurned on possibly as many as three additional Big East teams to join a new 16-team super league. Notre Dame’s hierarchy decided against joining a conference in football for now; they currently are a member of the Big East in every sport except football. But some critics of the program say that part of the problem is that Notre Dame needs to get with the times and at the very least join one of those two leagues. Joining the Big East (who would likely accept them even without shared television revenue) would end talk of super-conference formation next off-season and beyond, but for now they remain steadfast in their determination to remain independent.
4. No anchors holding down the ‘middies’: Quick, name the team with the most wins by a non-BCS school against BCS schools since 2003 with 16 triumphs. Utah? Nope. BYU? No sir. Boise State? Not even close. The correct answer is: Navy. Paul Johnson turned things around and over the last two seasons Ken Niumatalolo has continued the winning tradition now re-established at Annapolis. The Midshipmen do lose six starters on defense from a season ago, but they do return defensive back Wyatt Middleton, who was 4th in tackles and led the team with four interceptions a year ago. What should help the new defensive starters is that the offense returns eight starters. Among them is quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who threw for over 1000 yards and 6 TD tosses out of the option, and more importantly ran for a team-best 1203 yards and 27 touchdowns.
5. Knights are Back in Black: In just his first season as the head coach, Rich Ellerson won five games at Army, the most the Black Knights have totaled in one season since Bob Sutton’s crew went 10-2 in 1996. And Ellerson seems poised to lift Army to their first winning season in 14 years with 16 starters returning to the squad. On offense, Ellerson will count on sophomore Trent Steelman, the first ‘plebe’ ever to start every game of his freshman campaign at the USMA. Split back Patrick Mealy figures to also see an uptick in his production with four starters on the offensive line returning. One specific area that Ellerson would like to see Army improve upon is holding onto the ball. They committed 34 fumbles last season, though losing just 14. Josh McNary figures to lead the defense, as he established a school record last season with 12 ½ quarterback sacks a season ago.
To read each of my pieces about ten games to watch for in each conference, and to read new pieces coming up this season, be sure to click here to read about them on Bowl Gamer.
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