1. Nebraska's going-away party?
As you may have heard (4.2 million times), next year Nebraska is going to the Big Ten, er Eleven... um, 12... the conference now known as the Big Ten. Nebraska is preseason top 10, and the Cornhusker State is buzzing. Critical will be finding a serviceable quarterback (duh) to go with some underrated skill players, a solid offensive line and the revived Blackshirt defense. The Huskers must replace Ndamukong Suh, but Jared Crick and Pierre Allen may be up to the task when added together. Last year, Nebraska could have scored a paltry 11 points every game and won eight games. The gave up three points or fewer FIVE TIMES, and only gave up more than 20 points ONCE. Ridiculous. Suh was great, but a staunch defensive core remains. They won 10 last year, but now Big Red fans are dreaming of going out with a conference title, perhaps a cataclysmic showdown with old rival Oklahoma is the Big 12 title game.
2. Can Stoops get the Sooner Schooner going again?
After more or less abusing the rest of the conference for the nine years from 2000-2008 (68-11 vs. conference opponents during those 10 years, 7 division titles (take that Texas!), 6 conference titles), the Sooners stumbled in 2009, going 5-3 in league play and losing five games overall. Sam Bradford's shoulder injury, courtesy of some very rough Mormons at BYU, certainly hurt the team. But you get the feeling Texas has nosed ahead of Oklahoma in their relentless battle to rule the South and, by extension these days, rule the conference. Texas has beaten Oklahoma four of the last five meetings. This follows Stoops' "Who's your daddy?" run of five straight against the Longhorns. With Texas' McCoy and Oklahoma's Bradford both gone, who takes charge now? Oklahoma can match and maybe beat anyone for talent, so is this the year they reassert themselves? The sign in the OU locker room says, "No excuses, win the Big 12." Those Okies probably won't be taking that sign down anytime soon. (Unless they change the league's name when Nebraska and Colorado leave.)
3. Somehow, Texas Tech becomes even more of a wild card
After the brilliant, pirate-loving, pass-happy Mike Leach was forced out after player abuse problems, the accomplished Tommy Tuberville took over. Tuberville had that undefeated season at Auburn, but he had a 5-7 season and (gasp) lost to Alabama, so the crazies at Auburn fired him. Now, will Tech keep passing like they're playing a video game? Probably not, but don't expect them to just turn their back on who they are. Tuberville may bring some balance, but I'd bet he'll play with the hand he's got and the type of players Leach has been recruiting. It's very difficult for me to project how good Tech will be. I have to think they'll score points. Detron Lewis, Alexander Torres, Baron Batch and their quarter back of the week (probably Taylor Potts, mostly) will take care of that. But it just seems like such a big transition. And what about the defense? You'd think Tuberville will make it better, but by how much? The temptation is to say they'll roll through their nonconference schedule, they go 4-4ish in league play. Maybe cowardly to just pick that type of a season and not go out on a limb either way, but that type of season is kind of Tech's thing.
Bonus: My Big 12 picks:
North: Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, Kansas St., Kansas, Iowa St.
South: Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma St.
Big 12 championship game: Nebraska over Oklahoma (gotta be different, why not?)
In 1966, Joe Paterno took over as the head coach at Penn State. Since then, there have been 860 Division IA head coaching changes, and Paterno has gone 394-129-3 leading the Nittany Lions. He has the most wins by a Division I-A coach. Counting his years as an assistant in Happy Valley, last year was his 60th year coaching at Penn State (started in 1950). He's 83, but who cares? He may coach five more years. He knows his limits but is still the captain of the ship. Penn State's sixth game is its Homecoming game, which would be epic to get 400 there, but that would require a Sept. 11 upset at Alabama. Game seven is at Minnesota, and game eight is at home vs. Michigan. So if the Nittany Lions lose at Alabama and at Iowa, that game with Meesh-uh-gun could be a great matchup for JoePa to get the historic win. (Game nine is at home, too, against Northwestern, if it comes to that.) But, he'll tell you, it's all about the kids. Still.
Can anyone stand up to Alabama and Forida?
The SEC's top-to-bottom strength is often its calling card, but Florida and Alabama have rolled largely unopposed to showdowns in the last two SEC title games. The rest of the SEC has crumbled before them the last two years, with the Big Two going a combined 31-1 in SEC play during this time. The one loss being Houston Nutt's Ole Miss squad winning in the Swamp, which led to Tim Tebow's now-famous, tearful speech: "You will never see..." Can anyone stand up to these two? The Tigers of LSU and Auburn justifiably get some publicity as potential challengers, but I'm looking at Georgia and Arkansas. The Dawgs-Hogs showdown is at Georgia on Sept. 18, and the winner of this delightful early-season showdown may emerge as an early conference contender.
Florida State, After Bowden
The Seminoles had an ugly parting of ways with the the legendary Bowden, and now we'll see how they do under Jimbo Fisher. The program has slipped lately, but will a change of coach reverse that? Florida State is No. 20 in the preseason AP poll and picked by many to win the ACC Atlantic Division. The logo and flaming spear are still there, along with the gum-chomping, entirely delightful caricature that is FSU's defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews. Still, things will feel different in Tallahassee this fall. Will that be a good thing?
Will USC care?
The Trojans can't play in a bowl game due to pretty much a gross disregard for decency, the NCAA rulebook and basically the idea of amateur athletics. Still, they are loaded with talent, and the Pac-10 would be a fine prize that they can still attain. They likely have to contend with the explosive Oregon Ducks, plus a handful of other teams who are what the Pac-10 calls contenders. USC Coach Lane Kiffin makes plenty of headlines, though few are the type his mother would cut out to save for a scrapbook. Sports Illustrated bluntly asked, "Can Lane Kiffin coach?" in its season preview. Fair question, given his mediocrity with the Raiders and at Tennessee. For both the young coach and this storied-yet-sullied program, this is still a big year, even with a bowl game out of the question.
Can Wannstache, er, Wannsedt get it done?
Two straight years, Pitt and coach Dave Wannstedt have had a late-season matchup with eventual conference champ Cincinnati and lost by a touchdown or less. Last year, in the snow at home, Pitt led Cincy 31-10 before losing 45-44. Is this the year the coach, his iconic mustache and the Panthers get it done, win the Big East, and get into a BCS bowl? Running back Dion Lewis will carry much of the weight of the high preseason expectations (Pitt is favored to win the conference). Last year, as a TRUE FRESHMAN, Lewis 1,799 yards and 17 TDs. In that infamous Cincy game, Pitt handed the ball to Lewis play after play to start the game, something like 15 of the first 16 snaps. He must carry this team if they are to get over the hump.
Auditioning for this year's BCS buster
Will it be Texas Christian? Or Utah or BYU in a last hurrah? This is a league in transition, with Utah and BYU leaving and Boise State and friends coming in from the WAC. Regardless, this is a strong conference that consistently puts teams in BCS bowls. And wins them, too, last year's TCU loss to Boise notwithstanding. The continued rise of this conference, even with the changing landscape, will be fascinating to watch.
Will Boise State play for a national title?
I would love to see it. They are starting the season ranked in the top five, and they return pretty much all their key pieces from last year's unbeaten Fiesta Bowl champions. The opener against Virginia Tech at the Redskin's stadium in Maryland (not quite a truly neutral site) is probably the biggest hurdle (Monday night on ABC, get excited), followed by avoiding the temptation to get bored and win ugly, or worse, get upset, in WAC games. If get by Virginia Tech and stay locked in the rest of the way, the roar to get them in the national title game will be unstoppable... Hopefully. This debate may rage on all season, and then some.
Houston QB Case Keenum's Heisman charge
He is a long shot, but he'll likely put up unfathomable numbers. If the Cougars go unbeaten, and if he puts up big numbers in Houston's games against BCS teams (at UCLA, Mississippi St. and the finale at Texas Tech), he should at least garner an invite to New York as a finalist.
Temple and The Shirt and Tie on the rise
Temple coach Al Golden, who sports a fine shirt and tie combo on the sidelines, has lifted Bill Cosby's beloved Temple Owls from wretched to a nine-win bowl team. I know it's kind of a joke how easy it is to get to a bowl game these days, but for Temple, a team that hadn't had a winning season since 1990, it was a big step. It was also Temple's third bowl in its 111-year history. Now the talent level is up at Temple, and most are picking the Owls to win the MAC, assuming they can get by Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats and Northern Illinois.
Can my cousin, Nathan Herrold, help Arkansas State win the Sun Belt?
...Because this is my blog... In all seriousness, Arkansas State has been talked about as a Sun Belt contender for the last few years, but haven't been able to get it done. Why not this year? If they can beat Middle Tennessee and Troy, the Red Wolves will be looking at a trip to the New Orleans Bowl, the destination for the Sun Belt's winner. And they have a Herrold on their team, so that's gotta help.
And there you have it. Let's get this thing going. Welcome back, college football!