September 1, 2011

With kickoff near, offseason issues fade a bit

Ugly. Sad. Disappointing.

There's no other way to describe the headlines that have dominated college football over the past year.

Tennessee, USC, North Carolina, Ohio State, Miami, Michigan Oregon, Auburn, LSU and Georgia Tech are just some of the schools that have been put on probation, run afoul of NCAA rules or are in the midst of an investigation. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany even went so far this summer to say that he was "embarrassed" by the missteps in his league.

It's a sad time for the sport.

"In this conference, the leadership we have, nationally, we're doing everything we can to take positive steps forward as we move on," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's disappointing, maybe, that's the way some feel. At the end of the day, I think it's not as commonplace to talk about all the positives; it's too easy to talk about all the negatives."

Starting tonight, though, it should get easier to talk about the positives: The season finally is here. It's time to forget the NCAA troubles and back-room wheeling-and-dealing of conference realignment and focus on the things that make the sport the best in the world.

Let's hear it for:

Dotting the "I."

The Vol Navy.

War Damn Eagle!

Roll Tide!

USC song girls.

Cowbells and hedges.

Chief Osceola and the flaming spear.

JoePa's glasses.

Ralphie.

Paul Bunyan's Axe and Floyd of Rosedale.

Candelabras in the Grove.

Howard's Rock.

Wooooooo Pig Sooie!

The Backyard Brawl.

Touchdown Jesus.

"It's great to have the season here," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "This is what it's all about. I am excited."

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And there's a lot to look forward to and be excited about.

Is Oklahoma really the No. 1 team in the nation?

Can Texas rebound from its first losing record since a 4-7 mark in 1997? It will be up to quarterback Garrett Gilbert and the offense.

Is Will Muschamp, who never has been a head coach, ready to lead a Florida program that's coming off its first five-loss season since 2003?

Is Notre Dame truly Notre Dame again, seemingly primed to reach a BCS game in Brian Kelly's second season under the Golden Dome? Remember, several coaches in recent years have won national titles in their second season on the job - Bob Stoops (2000), Jim Tressel (2002), Urban Meyer (2006) and Gene Chizik (2010).

Can Brady Hoke make Michigan relevant again behind a dynamic offense led by one-man-gang Denard Robinson? The Wolverines are coming off the worst three-year run in program history.

Is Florida State really poised for a return to the elite and a run at the BCS title game?

Can Nebraska storm into the Big Ten and win the league title in its first season in the conference with Taylor Martinez running a new offense?

Is there a team from the Pac-12 South capable of challenging LaMichael James-led Oregon and Andrew Luck-led Stanford in the North for the league title?

Is this the season Boise State breaks through to the BCS title game?

Can Rutgers' Eric LeGrand continue his remarkable recovery from paralysis.

But the shadow of the off-field headlines still dominates and swallows ups lots of the positive energy.

"If I had a dream world, I would say hammer the guys that don't do things right," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "To me, in my profession, the only thing I get very frustrated about is when I know things go on that aren't right, mainly in recruiting.

"That's the biggest thing that comes across my desk. People are willingly and knowingly abusing rules and breaking things. To me, when you are consciously aware of abusing a rule, there's no excuse for that."

If schools weren't getting slapped with probation or being investigated by the NCAA, it seemed they were changing homes.

Nebraska has left the Big 12 and joined the Big Ten, pushing the 11-team league to 12. Of course, it's still the "Big Ten," but there will be two six-team divisions and a league title game in Indianapolis.

The Pac-10 is now the Pac-12, as Colorado has left the Big 12 and Utah has bolted from the Mountain West. The renamed league has split into two six-team divisions and will play a conference championship game on the home field of the team with the best record.

BYU has left the Mountain West and gone solo, playing as an independent.

Boise State has moved from the WAC to the Mountain West, which will see TCU bolt for the Big East after this season.

And conference realignment chatter continues, with Texas A&M announcing its intention to explore opportunities outside the Big 12. If the Aggies depart for the SEC, as many suspect, it could turn out to be the first domino that sets off another round of conference shuffling.

"I don't have time to follow all of that," Mullen said. "Our leaders will do what's right.

"For now, I just want to focus on the field."

Who can blame him? Let the games begin.

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Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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