Ah, it's almost here- football season. I can't wait, and I won't. So here, albeit a little prematurely, are my picks, pans, surprises, and not-so-surprises for 2009 in college football. Enjoy, and get ready for kickoff.
BCS Conference Championship Predictions
Big East- Rutgers: Greg Schiano's team might have been the best in the Big East at the end of last season, and thanks in large part to a favorable conference schedule, they'll be the best in the Big East all of this season. In a gift from the scheduling gods, the Knights host Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and South Florida- every one of their main challengers for Big East supremacy. The September 5th season-opener against Cincinnati looms the largest: if Rutgers can get by the Bearcats, they should have the inside track to the first BCS appearance in school history, and their first championship of any kind since 1974, when they won the Middle Three Conference (whatever the hell that is.)
ACC Atlantic- North Carolina State: After a 2-6 start in 2008, the Wolfpack won four in a row to close the regular season, including a 41-10 thrashing of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Quarterback Russell Wilson was one of the most electrifying freshmen in America last year, and Tom O'Brien will continue to be one of the most quietly effective coaches in all of college football. The schedule is a possible hindrance: the Woldpack play tough conference road games at Boston College, at Florida State and at Virginia Tech. But the wizardry of Wilson and the brains of O'Brien will take the ‘Pack to Jacksonville.
(Really, this selection should read "anyone but Boston College." B.C. bores me. That's penetrating analysis, I know, but seriously- when was the last time any non-partial college football fan said, "Sweet, Boston College is playing tonight!" Back when Doug Flutie played? The Eagles haven't had a losing season since 1998- pretty impressive, especially considering their recruiting area is as barren as the rocky New England topsoil- but they haven't exactly been the model of scintillating football in that span. They've been solid, consistent, and with the lukewarm exception of Matt Ryan, utterly devoid of color and flair.)
ACC Coastal- Virginia Tech: Without the distraction of a burned-up red-shirt, Tyrod Taylor should improve on his dismal 2008 passing numbers (two touchdowns, seven interceptions) and other than a trip to Georgia Tech in October, the Hokies have a fairly favorable conference schedule, with Boston College, North Carolina and N.C. State all coming to Blacksburg. Frank Beamer's team has appeared in three of the four ACC Championship Games and, barring an overthrow at the hands of Paul Johnson's Artists Formerly Known as the Engineers, will make it four out of five in 2009.
SEC East- Florida: The Gators will roll in the SEC East and it won't even be close. That's pretty much it. The real drama centers on whether or not Tim Tebow can win another Heisman Trophy, and whether or not Urban Meyer can guide his team to its first undefeated season in school history.
SEC West- Alabama: The SEC West is a bit more complicated. With Jordan Jefferson at quarterback, the weaponry of Brandon LaFell and Charles Scott, and an improved defense, LSU will be back in serious contention... but the Tigers have Florida on the schedule as well as trips to Tuscaloosa, Oxford and Athens, and that slate is a little too hefty for them to soar over the field.. Ole Miss returns Jevan Sneed, the best quarterback in the conference not named Tim Tebow, but Houston Nutt's teams always seem to under-perform when big things are expected of them, and I just can't quite get behind the Rebels as a favorite. Arkansas gets Ryan Mallett under center, but I'm not so sure about their defense. Auburn and Mississippi State are off the grid.
That leaves Alabama. The Tide loses Glen Coffee, Antoine Caldwell and Andre Smith and breaks in a new quarterback in Greg McElroy, but they return playmaker Julio Jones and the heart of an outstanding defense, host LSU, and don't play Florida. That adds up to the Tide rolling in the West, and a rematch with Florida in the title match- the eighth meeting between the two schools since the game was inaugurated in 1992. It isn't completely out of the question for both teams to be undefeated at kickoff in Atlanta on December 5.
Big 12 North- Kansas: When in doubt, go with the coach and the quarterback. Those two reasons are why the Jayhawks are the pick in the Big 12 North. Mark Mangino might not look like much (actually, he looks like a lot) but the man can match wits with any coach in the country. Quarterback Todd Reesing comes back for his senior season along with targets Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe and will add more big numbers to his 7,578 career yards and 68 touchdown passes. This team can and will score on anyone. Whether it can stop anyone is a concern, but nobody in the Big 12 plays a whole lot of defense anyway. The conference schedule is demanding, with trips to Texas Tech and Texas, but the Jayhawks won't see Oklahoma, at least not during the regular season. With Missouri shorn of the services of Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin, and with Nebraska not quite ready for prime time yet, Kansas will conquer the North and make its first-ever appearance in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Big 12 South- Texas: As always, it's a toss-up between the Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners for South supremacy. Both teams return star quarterbacks, Colt McCoy for Texas and Sam Bradford for Oklahoma. Both teams return plenty of talent on defense, Texas in the secondary, Oklahoma in the front seven, and for the Longhorns, Sergio Kindle should step neatly into Brian Orakpo's big shoes as pass-rusher extraordinaire. Texas's edge is in the schedule. Oklahoma goes on the road at Nebraska, at Kansas, and most importantly, at Texas Tech, who beat the Sooners in Lubbock two years ago. Texas's toughest road tilt is at Oklahoma State, where the Longhorns have won five straight. If Texas beats Oklahoma in the October 17 Red River Shootout, the ‘Horns won't be captive to the vagaries of the Big 12's tie-breaking system. They'll win this sucker outright.
Pac-10- USC: Sure, they have an inexperienced quarterback and a rebuilt linebacker corps- but so what? The Trojans have either shared or won the conference title outright seven years in a row, and they're the pick to do it again until proven otherwise. Big Ten- Ohio State: After losing the conference title to Penn State in 2008, the Buckeyes will take it back thanks in large part to Terrelle Pryor. The prodigiously talented sophomore will have his break-out year in '09, harnessing improved passing skills with his already outrageous athleticism and precocious leadership skills. Ohio State goes to Happy Valley this season, but I think they're going to win that game, and the winner of that game will be the winner of the Big Ten. Jim Tressel has never taken the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl, but that's about to change.
5 Whack Predict-O's for 2009
There won't be a BCS Buster: Last season two non-BCS schools (Utah and Boise State) finished the regular season undefeated, while another (Ball State) was perfect until a loss in the MAC Championship Game. This year there won't be any. Utah has to go to Oregon, TCU and Brigham Young; there's going to be at least one loss in that group. Brigham Young isn't getting out of its season opener at Oklahoma with a victory, and TCU has to play Virginia, Clemson and Brigham Young on the road. Boise also plays Oregon, at Fresno State in a Friday night game, and has a tricky road game at Tulsa in mid-October. If you're not in a power conference, you need to go undefeated to crack the BCS, and that isn't happening this year. Which opens the door to...
Notre Dame will be back in the BCS: With a raft of returning talent and a very forgiving schedule, the Fighting Irish will climb back into a major bowl. They should be 5-0 going into their October 17 showdown against USC, a game they might actually have a chance to win (I could very well be wrong about this.) I don't see more than two losses on Notre Dame's schedule, and a two-loss season will be plenty good enough for Charlie's boys to get back to the BCS for the first time since 2006.
Tim Tebow will win his second Heisman: Move over Archie Griffin. College football's Paul Bunyan will become only the second player in college football history to win a pair of Heismans. Tebow has three distinct advantages going into this season:
Baylor will go bowling: The Bears haven't played in the postseason since 1994, back before the Big 12 even existed. They've got the chops to end that drought this year. Robert Griffin is an absolute roadrunner at quarterback, and the defense, led by Joe Pawelek and defensive tackle Phil Taylor, isn't shabby at all. They'll have a chance to run the table through a non-conference schedule that consists of FCS Northwestern State, perennial weak sister Kent State, and rebuilding Wake Forest and Connecticut. Win those four, beat Iowa State on the road, and pull an upset in any of the home games against Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and Baylor will play in late December. Here's saying they'll do it.
Washington will win a football game: It won't be in the season opener against LSU, but college football's only winless team in 2008 will get off the schneid in week two against feeble Idaho (the Vandals might have been the worst team in the country last year, their two wins aside. When San Diego State beats you by four touchdowns, you really, really suck.) With Arizona and Washington State coming to Seattle, Jake Locker healthy, and Ty Willingham safely on the golf course, heck, the Huskies might win a couple more before the season is done.
Steve Spurrier will hang ‘em up after the season: Long-suffering South Carolina fans probably thought their redemption was at hand when the Ole' Ball Coach took over the program in 2005. Instead, it's been more of the same for the Gamecocks, and Spurrier himself must be suffering a little as he watches the SEC- the conference whose revival he helped spearhead in the early ‘90s- zip right by him. The Other USC hasn't won more than eight games in a season during Spurrier's tenure, is 1-3 against Clemson, and has developed a nasty habit of collapsing late in the year. Worse, the offensive mastermind hasn't found a quarterback worth developing since he came to Columbia. In the history of their program, South Carolina has but one conference championship- the 1969 ACC title- and unless a massive sinkhole opens up right underneath Gainesville, Florida, they won't be adding on to that total in 2009. Even with three years remaining on his contract, Spurrier, at 64, will decide that he's a little too old to be slamming his head into a brick wall.
6 Coaches on the Hot Seat
Bret Bielema, Wisconsin: The law of diminishing returns is kicking in at Wisconsin, much to the chagrin of Badger fans- as well as their team's head coach. After going 12-1 in his first season at the helm, Bielama's fortunes have shriveled: the Badgers went 9-4 in 2007 then 7-6 in 2008, a malodorous season that concluded with a 42-13 Champs Sports beat-down at the hands of Florida State. Bielama is Barry Alvarez's guy, but even that might not be enough to save his job if Wisconsin performs as poorly in 2009 as it did in '08.
Gene Chizek, Auburn: It's kind of unfair to put a coach on the hot seat when he hasn't even donned a headset at his new job, but that's what you get when you went 5-19 in your last gig and plenty of observers felt you were anything but the most qualified candidate for your new one. No one is expecting great things from Auburn in 2009, but if Chizek gets off to the kind of start that, say, Rich Rodriguez got off to at Michigan, they're going to be baying for blood on the Plains. SEC football fans aren't the world's most patient lot as it is, and with Nick Saban building a juggernaut up the road in Tuscaloosa, Auburn backers are going to be particularly jumpy when it comes to their new coach. Chizek doesn't have to win right away, but he'd better win soon.
Dennis Erickson, Arizona State: Erickson's job isn't in immediate danger; not three years into his contract and not after ASU fired Dirk Koetter with three years left on his contract in order to lure Erickson from Idaho. But Arizona State has long been regarded as the "sleeping giant" of the Pac-10, and the dismal 5-7 record the Sun Devils put up in 2008 isn't going to cut it in Tempe. Another couple of seasons like the last one, and contract or no contract, ASU will be looking for some younger blood to lead that program.
Dan Hawkins, Colorado: The Hawk was the obvious choice when he was hired away from Boise State prior to the 2006 season, but three straight losing records have put an end to his honeymoon, and the fact that Boise has rolled merrily along without him isn't helping. The Buffs had better sweep their first three games against Colorado State, Toledo and Wyoming, because their next three are at West Virginia, at Texas, and at home to Kansas. A 3-3 record after six games won't make anyone happy in Boulder, and a 2-4 record will start the countdown toward unemployment. Anything short of a 7-5 final mark and Dan will be free to "go play intramurals" or whatever it is coaches do after they've been handed their walking papers.
Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville: The Cardinals have endured their worst two-year stretch in over a decade under Kragthorpe's watch, going from 12-1 and an Orange Bowl victory in Bobby Petrino's final season of 2006, to 6-6 and 5-7 in Kragthorpe's first two seasons since coming over from Tulsa. Last year the Cardinals got off to a 5-2 start then nosedived to five consecutive losses to close the season, including a 63-14 wipeout at Rutgers in the finale. Louisville is no longer exclusively a basketball school, and Kragthorpe won't be able to hide in Rick Pitino's shadow. Another season of regression and he could be- check that, will be- gone.
Randy Shannon, Miami: The ex-Hurricane linebacker did well in guiding his team to the Emerald Bowl last season, but Miami fans are accustomed to loftier destinations, and a rigorous schedule will make it tough to get there this season. Miami's first four opponents in 2009 are Florida State, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech. That's a tough opening slate for any team, let alone one as inexperienced as the Hurricanes. Barring a complete meltdown Shannon's job is safe for this year, but a 1-3 start- which is certainly possible- would get them grumbling in Coral Gables.
(Miami's switch from the Big East to the ACC hasn't exactly been a boon to the fortunes of that program. After winning nine conference titles in thirteen seasons as a member of the Big East, the Hurricanes have won exactly zilch in the five years since they moved to the Atlantic Coast. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech and Boston College have jumped happily into the deep end of the pool. Obviously Miami's problems go deeper than mere conference affiliation; still, the Hurricanes belong in the Big East. The ACC is a southern-oriented conference, and Miami's heritage, like that of its namesake city, is eastern-oriented.)
BCS Bowl Predictions
Rose Bowl- USC vs. Ohio State: We haven't had a re-match in Pasadena since January 1, 1988, when Michigan State and USC met for the second time in the 1987 season; but we're going to see one this year. Neither the Buckeyes nor the Trojans will go undefeated, and although nobody likes re-matches in college football, the Rose Bowl will jump at the opportunity to land the Scarlet and Gray for the first time since 1997.
Sugar Bowl- Alabama vs. Rutgers: New Orleans will see variations on the color red and on historical legacies, as the Crimson Tide match their thirty-one bowl victories against the Scarlet Knights' three- all in the last three seasons.
Fiesta Bowl- Oklahoma vs. Penn State: For the third time in history, and the first time since 1986, the Sooners and Nittany Lions will meet in the postseason. Unfortunately, neither Wishbone maestro Jamelle Holieway nor Brian Bosworth's "National Communists Against Athletes" t-shirt are likely to make an appearance.
Orange Bowl- Virginia Tech vs. Notre Dame: After several unappealing match-ups, the Orange Bowl lands a marquee name in the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame's bowl losing streak is over, but it's still been a long, long time since the Domers have beaten an elite opponent in postseason play. Virginia Tech broke a losing streak of its own with its 20-7 victory over Cincinnati in last year's Orange Bowl. Prior to that game, the ACC had lost eight consecutive BCS games dating back to Florida State's conquest of then-Big East member Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl.
BCS Championship- Florida vs. Texas: The game that should have taken place last year will take place this year, as the Gators and Longhorns meet to decide, mythically of course, college football's National Championship. Somewhat surprisingly for football-crazed southern states, the two schools haven't met on the football field since 1940.
So there you have it. Buckeye Dan Wismar and I should be resuming our Buckeye Friday podcasts in the middle of August. So stay tuned, and let's get ready for some football.