August 25, 2011

Storylines to watch this season

We're just a week away from the first games of the season, and every one is weighing in with questions, predictions and speculation about how things will play out.

Will a sixth consecutive national championship invoke chants of "S-E-C, S-E-C" throughout the Southeast? If so, will those chants extend all the way to College Station, Texas?

LSU could go three-for-three in BCS title games played in New Orleans, but Alabama's defense may pave the way for another Crimson Tide title. Yet, if either wins the BCS championship game, they probably will have sweated out a critical field-goal attempt at some point during the season. West Virginia will score a lot of points. Andrew Luck will get a lot of Heisman consideration. Miami will lose a lot of scholarships.

Perhaps Oklahoma's offense will be strong enough to allay any fears about a potentially vulnerable defense. Maybe Boise State will be the first team from a non-Big Six conference to reach the championship game. Teams with a second-year coach (Notre Dame? Florida State?) may continue a trend of winning national titles.

Here's a look at 25 storylines to follow during the 2011 season.

1. In the wake of a Yahoo! Sports report in which former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro alleged he provided millions of dollars of illegal benefits to Hurricanes players over an eight-year period, there will be calls that Miami should receive the "Death Penalty" from the NCAA. It won't happen. While there will be constant speculation about Miami's penalties until the NCAA concludes its investigation, the guillotine won't come down like it did on SMU in 1986. Still, Miami figures to get a harsher penalty than USC received for the Reggie Bush scandal. Just be prepared for never-ending talk about the scandal all season.

2. Texas A&M Aggies will be chanting "S-E-C, S-E-C" at every opportunity. The Aggies have lost their past six games against SEC competition, but can't wait to enlist. Well, as the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Speculation continues to swirl that A&M will be joining the SEC. The Oct. 1 game atmosphere against SEC West contender Arkansas should be interesting. Once enemies in the old Southwest Conference, Aggies and Hogs fans will be making eyes at each other. It'll be like a divorced couple getting back together.

3. Texas A&M could exit the Big 12 in a blaze of glory by winning its first conference championship since 1998. But that almost certainly would require the Aggies to win in Norman, Okla., where they haven't won since Bob Stoops took over as Oklahoma coach in 1999. In fact, save for a 36-30 loss in 2005, the Aggies have been embarrassed there of late. The Sooners beat the Aggies 52-6 in '99, 31-10 in '01, 77-0 in '03, 42-14 in '07 and 65-10 in '09.

4. Look for Florida State vs. Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game. Well, maybe not. Still, don't be surprised if one of them is there and wins it. It's well-documented that football teams often make dramatic improvement in their coach's second season. Oklahoma, Ohio State, Florida and Auburn won BCS national championships in the second year of a new regime. There are 21 FBS coaches in their second seasons, but the bet here is Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly have the best chance of leading their teams to New Orleans.

5. Don't be surprised if LSU reaches the BCS national championship game, which will be played in New Orleans. That is, if possible suspensions from a recent bar fight don't derail the Tigers early. LSU has won the BCS championship game each of the past two times it was held in New Orleans. The Tigers defeated Oklahoma in 2003 and Ohio State in 2007.

6. Oklahoma is the preseason No. 1 in both major polls. No doubt, the Sooners' offense with QB Landry Jones and WRs Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills promises to be among the nation's best. But a key to winning a national championship is the ability to stop opponents from running. Every national champion in the BCS era has ranked among the nation's top 40 in run defense and none allowed more than 132.7 rushing yards per game (Miami in 2001). Eight of the past nine national champions ranked no lower than 15th in the nation in run defense, and eight of the 13 BCS national champions ranked in the top 10. Last season, Oklahoma was 58th in run defense, allowing an average of 148.9 rushing yards per game. History would suggest the Sooners must make dramatic improvement in that area to win their first national title since 2000. They ranked 23rd and allowed 108.2 rushing yards per game that season.

7. No disrespect to Jones, but a returning starter at quarterback may be an overrated aspect for a national championship team. In fact, five of the past nine (and three of the past four) national titlists won it with a first-year starting quarterback. Preseason top-25 teams with new starting quarterbacks are Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida State, Missouri, Ohio State, TCU, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin.

8. An SEC team will finish in the top two of the BCS standings (and thus get into the championship game), but will have to sweat out a late field-goal attempt at some point. Last season, Auburn's 27-24 overtime win over Clemson was clinched by a missed field goal. In '09, Alabama's Terrence Cody blocked a last-play field goal to seal a 12-10 win over Tennessee. And in '06, Florida's Jarvis Moss blocked a last-play field goal to preserve a 17-16 victory over South Carolina.

9. Alabama's defense won't give up many touchdowns. The Tide's defense could resemble the 2009 national championship unit, which gave up just 164 points in 14 games. The Crimson Tide return eight full-time starters from a unit that last season was third in the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 13.5 points per game. Nine opponents were held to one or zero touchdowns. Furthermore, Alabama faces only two FBS opponents (Auburn and Arkansas) that had a top-40 offense last season. Neither returns their starting quarterback, and Arkansas already has lost star TB Knile Davis to a season-ending injury.

10. Notre Dame won't give up many touchdowns, either. The Irish ranked 23rd in the nation in scoring defense last season, and their defense allowed just one touchdown over the last 15 quarters of the regular season - and that was after USC recovered a fumble at Notre Dame's 2. The Irish allowed two meaningless fourth-quarter touchdowns in their Sun Bowl rout of Miami. Eight full-time starters return to Notre Dame's defense, and five Irish opponents were ranked 67th or worse in scoring offense last season.

11. Expect West Virginia to be among the nation's highest-scoring teams. Last season, the Mountaineers averaged a bit more than 25 points per game and ranked just 78th in the nation in scoring offense. But new coach Dana Holgorsen has had remarkable success as an offensive coordinator. In each of the past four seasons, his offenses at Oklahoma State, Houston and Texas Tech averaged more than 40 points per game and ranked among the country's top 10 in scoring. He also has an emerging star in QB Geno Smith.

12. Nebraska will win the Big Ten. It's quite common for teams debuting in a conference to win the league championship. Examples: TCU won the Mountain West in '05, Virginia Tech won the ACC in '04, Texas won the Big 12 in '96 and Florida State won the ACC in '92. Heck, even Houston won the old Southwest Conference, in '76. Colorado and Utah are new members in the Pac-12 this season, and Utah will be a strong contender in the South Division, especially with USC ineligible for the championship game and Arizona State already wracked by injuries. But Nebraska is the most likely of the first-year schools to win a conference title.

13. Staying on the topic of conference championships, Ohio State's streak of winning or sharing six consecutive Big Ten crowns likely will end. The Buckeyes may end up starting a true freshman quarterback (Braxton Miller) and definitely will be without four of their top players (WR DeVier Posey, TB Dan Herron, OT Michael Adams and DE Solomon Thomas) for the first five games of the season. That quartet will miss the conference opener against Michigan State and return the following week for an Oct. 8 road game at Nebraska. Troy has won or shared five consecutive Sun Belt titles. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is seeking its fourth ACC championship in five seasons, while Oklahoma is trying to make it five Big 12 championships in six seasons.

14. Stanford QB Andrew Luck will join Michigan's Tom Harmon, Army's Glenn Davis and USC's O.J. Simpson, among others, as Heisman runners-up who won the trophy the following season. With any ... well, luck, Luck will avoid joining North Carolina's Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice and Arkansas' Darren McFadden as runners-up in consecutive seasons.

15. Anticipate a big season from Oregon State QB Ryan Katz. He's in his second season as the Beavers' starter, and second-year quarterbacks have flourished under coach Mike Riley. Derek Anderson passed for more than 4,000 yards as a second-year starter in '03. Matt Moore increased his touchdown passes by seven (to 18) and reduced his interceptions by 12 (to seven) in '06. Sean Canfield was named first-team All-Pac-10 after passing for 3,271 yards with 21 TDs and only seven interceptions as a second-year starter in '08. Katz wasn't bad last season, but if the trend holds, he could be exceptional this season.

16. Boise State won't get the blues. The Broncos have not lost a regular-season game at home since falling to Washington State on Sept. 8, 2001. That's 63 consecutive home-field victories for the Broncos. A Sept. 24 game against Tulsa could be dicey and Nevada will be a challenge the next week. The real threat, though, is when TCU visits Nov. 12 in the only time the teams will meet as Mountain West Conference foes.

17. USC's secondary should be better in its second season playing Monte Kiffin's "Tampa 2" scheme. Frankly, it couldn't be much worse. Last season, the Trojans were 109th in the nation in pass defense and surrendered 30 touchdown passes. FS T.J. McDonald has taken on a leadership role and vowed the Trojans would make significant improvement. They'd better. Among the quarterbacks USC faces are Arizona's Nick Foles, Notre Dame's Dayne Crist, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Oregon's Darron Thomas.

18. Missouri sophomore QB James Franklin will post impressive stats. The nature of coach Gary Pinkel's offense suggests Franklin will accumulate gaudy numbers. Tigers quarterbacks have passed for more than 3,000 yards in each of the past five seasons, and Missouri has had at least eight victories in each of those seasons. Those are lofty goals for a guy who threw just 14 passes last season. The most recent Mizzou quarterback who failed to throw for 3,000 yards was Brad Smith in 2005, but he rushed for 1,301 yards and had more than 3,600 yards of total offense. Franklin is a running threat, too.

19. Penn State coach Joe Paterno will retire. It eventually has to happen, right? Paterno, who turns 85 on Dec. 21, was injured in a recent practice when a player collided with him. Paterno is a living legend and the winningest FBS coach of all time. But it's time to step down. (Of course, I wrote the same thing last season and he's still at it, so ...)

20. North Carolina's Everett Withers and Ohio State's Luke Fickell are aiming to have the "interim" removed from their coaching titles. Withers was named the Tar Heels' interim coach when Butch Davis was fired just a week before August camp opened. Fickell was installed as Ohio State's interim coach after Jim Tressel's forced resignation May 30. Withers and Fickell could get long-term contracts if their teams have strong showings. If not, both programs could enter the sweepstakes for ...

21. Urban Meyer rumors will be a weekly topic of conversation. The ESPN gig is nice, but Meyer is too good to stay out of coaching for too long. What program wouldn't want a coach with a 104-23 record and two national championships? A big-name program in a state that annually produces a lot of talent (so he wouldn't have to recruit nationally), such as Ohio State, would seem perfect. But what if Paterno does indeed retire? Or what if Mack Brown decides to hang 'em up at Texas?

22. Houston QB Case Keenum could set NCAA records for career touchdown passes, yards and completions if he has a normal season. Of course, his "normal" is much different than most. In both 2008 and '09, he passed for more than 5,000 yards. Thus far, Keenum has completed 1,118 passes for 13,586 yards and 107 touchdowns. The NCAA records are 17,072 passing yards (Hawaii's Timmy Chang), 1,403 completions (Texas Tech's Graham Harrell) and 134 touchdown passes (Harrell). Keenum needs 3,487 passing yards, 286 completions and 28 touchdown passes to set those records.

23. Look for a lot of passing yardage from Conference USA quarterbacks and a lot of rushing yardage from Pac-12 running backs. Five Conference USA quarterbacks ranked among the NCAA's top 30 in passing yards last season - and that does not include Keenum. Furthermore, half the teams in C-USA were ranked 99th or worse in pass defense last season. Bombs away. Meanwhile, five Pac-12 running backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards a year ago, including Oregon's LaMichael James, who led the nation in rushing.

24. A bunch of coaches are on the hot seat and need to win - Washington State's Paul Wulff, Arizona State's Dennis Erickson and New Mexico's Mike Locksley among them. But no coaches are facing more heat than Georgia's Mark Richt and UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. SEC schools don't give coaches many passes for losing seasons (ask Tommy Tuberville or Phillip Fulmer). Georgia is coming off a 6-7 finish in 2010 and was 8-5 in '09. Richt's predecessor, Jim Donnan, was fired after consecutive 8-4 finishes in 1999 and 2000. Meanwhile, UCLA is 15-22 in three seasons under Neuheisel, which includes two 4-8 finishes. His predecessor, Karl Dorrell, posted 23 wins in his final three seasons and never posted fewer than six wins in five seasons. The big problem for UCLA has been poor quarterback play, which wasn't supposed to be an issue. But that's another reason the heat is on, considering ...

25. Mike Leach still doesn't have a team to coach. Some program in need of a new coach is bound to contact Leach. Yes, he's outspoken. Yes, he's eccentric. Yes, he's involved in litigation against his former employer, Texas Tech. But he also made Texas Tech nationally relevant and fielded entertaining teams. He was 84-43 in 10 seasons in Lubbock, and each of his last nine teams ranked no lower than 15th in the nation in scoring offense. A struggling program with a stagnant offense should be interested in Leach, who by the way, also is a surfing enthusiast.

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