By Dave Hershorin Managing Editor

August 30, 2005


It comes every year at this time, that feeling of anticipation that fall football provides so we can kick the end of summer right through Labor Day weekend’s opening salvo. And boy, what a first week it will be. The non-con matchups that pepper the first few weeks look to be just what we hungry fans want, with cross-conference delights and competitive grit to bang in September ’05.

But what of the real deal, the many factoids and questions that shape the current college football landscape? We will try to pose the major issues presently at hand so that the hindsight(s) of January ’06 can eventually answer them. If you’ve been asleep all summer and are just tuning in to the gridiron now, the following will allow you to catch-up with what has developed since last season’s bowl games. A few of these items have been carried over from the 2004 campaign, so here is all the latest poop for all of you pending pigskin pundits…


The first issue is an old one – Penn State and the state of football in Happy Valley. The big news here is the amazing recruiting class Joe Paterno has amassed. With speed and size galore in their prospective freshmen (especially at DB and WR), this is just what the vet said these Nittany Lions need. But is it too little too late? To rely on a bunch of green froshes is a real gamble – one Paterno has not regularly practiced - so hopefully perennial slash-guy Mike Robinson can use his seniority to guide the newbies back into the Top 25 by campaign’s end. Robinson as the choice over sophomore Anthony Morelli makes sense, but expect to see the team’s future (Morelli) take the field for many reps. Regardless, this (possible) rotation is a huge step up from the Mills-Robinson campaigns that featured whichever QB wasn’t playing bad instead of whichever was truly hot.

Even if the glass switches from half-empty to half-full, Jo Pa has a long way to go to get back to top form. With no exit strategy in sight for his retirement, it is still unfair for this venerable coach to tag recruits along, unless he is genuinely looking to stay all four of their years. Joe will likely hit the wall ENRON-style, so what he does with this new squad will go a long way toward shaping his eventual departure down I-99.

Rumors have been confirmed that the coach of the three-time and current-Super Bowl champion New England Patriots spent time in Gainesville this offseason with new head guy Urban Meyer, researching his spread option offense. Bill Belichick’s conclusion was that Meyer’s schemes are no fluke, which is why versions of the option spread are popping up from Mizzu to Oregon. The option spread evolved under Meyer at Bowling Green, where it is still proliferated and where Omar Jacobs is likely to win the Heisman with it. *** The key to the option spread? *** Well, by using multiple receivers in multiple capacities from play to play, defensive assignments have to be revealed as the players line up, making the QB’s ability to read these matchups the main (play-calling) pivot. For example, when a fast receiver lines up in the slot against a LB, the play quickly becomes a call for the WR. When a big receiver gets a smallish DB in the same situation, the QB then can call the option and blocking schemes are appropriately secured. Constant fakes for reverses, end arounds, and play-action force the defense to align/expose itself before the ball is hiked. Basically, a defense can do whatever it wants – there is always a contingency/solution for Meyer’s offense to still gain yardage, depending upon how it is lined up. Just watch – the option spread offense will take over college football just like the 3-4 took over defenses in the 80’s.

Ok, now onto the OSU situations. We start with Ohio State, which is dealing with a surge in both talent and off-field dilemmas. From QB Troy Smith’s money pinch to kicker Jonathan Skeete’s drug charge to DL Tim Schafer’s fisticuffs, replacing their AD due to the Maurice Clarett situation (and subsequent NCAA investigation that found only one minor infraction in the football program) has detracted from an all-time great LB corps and rising star Ted Ginn, Jr. The Buckeyes get rolling early (September 10th) in Columbus with their amazing non-con matchup versus Texas, and with trips to Ann Arbor and Happy Valley, this OSU earns any BCS nod they may achieve. Oklahoma State, coming off Miles’ 33-7 lame-duck loss in the Alamo Bowl to the Buckeyes, starts anew with Donovan Woods reassigned and Mike Gundy taking over for the departed-Miles. New Cowboy coordinators on both sides mean more passing (only threw it 22% in ‘04) and a 4-3 approach that will help the rebuilt line run stuff and the entire D compete in their tough conference half. There look to be only four sure wins on the Cowboy’s slate, so, too, their work is cut out for them. Speaking of work being cut out already, the news looks worst for Oregon State. The Beavers take on last season’s Liberty Bowl opponents – they get Boise State at home (September 10th) and then travel to Louisville the very next week. Anyone not living under a rock knows that both of these upstarts (if Louisville can still be considered such) are back in full force and land in most top 20 lists. If No.40 Oregon State can finish over .500 with trips to Cal and Oregon and a marginal (at best) OL, Mike Riley should consider that a successful season. Go O___ State!!!

One place secretly wishing for a coaching change, Florida State has a new set of green QBs (Weatherford and Lee) that will surely bounce fan interest back into the happenings at Doak Campbell. But with Bobby Bowden and son Jeff still making the offensive policy, their predictable play calling will only cause more clamor for new minds behind-the-scenes. Bobby still lures quality recruits, but for how long if his schemes make even Joe Paterno look fresh? Bowden has won on talent alone as of late, which is why the Seminoles streak of 14 seasons of finishing in the top 5 ended – on offense, lining up every time in the ‘I’ can only take you so far these days. Just watch LB Ernie Sims to see substance overcome form.

Speaking of changes, none defines the 2005 season more than the changes that realigned 15 teams and their conference affiliations. And it all seems to be a chain reaction started when the ACC drew Virginia Tech, Miami, and plebe Boston College (this is to be their first year here) over from the Big East. In turn, the Big East has adopted former C-USAers Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida – not quite a fair trade, but the Big East will look real strong when they ride the tails of the Redbird’s inevitable vault into the BCS top 5. The Conference-USA pilfered a combined five teams from both the MAC (UCF and Marshall) and the WAC (Tulsa, Rice, UTEP, and SMU) so that it can now sport 12 competitors and a nifty new conference championship game. The MAC therefore falls from a bumper 14 teams to a manageable 12, while the WAC, in turn, raided the Sun Belt and got Idaho, New Mexico State, and Utah State to keep its membership at nine. The Sun Belt lost those three to be pared down from 11 to eight, making the entire reshuffling result(s) consist of little in terms of power shifts. Former C-USA member TCU makes a logical jump to the Mountain West, making the MWC into one of the two most competitive non-BCS aligned conferences (with the MAC). Two teams become independents – (ex-C-USA) Army and (ex-Big East) Temple – with the Owls possibly formulating an exit strategy for their entire program by 2006. Now, if you followed all of that, you are WAY too involved in college football…just the way we like our readers to be.

More changes have occurred in off-field happenings, specifically rule changes. Spearing penalties, which were a judgment call by officials as to whether it was “intentional”, will now be an automatic 15-yard penalty, as will any choreographed endzone celebrations (which includes: diving over the goal-line when no opponents are near; putting one’s hand up to his ear as if to say he cannot hear the audience; entering the endzone in an unnatural stride [“Mr. Natural”-like?]; spinning the ball “like a top”; and going beyond the end line so as to interact with fans). But, c’mon…how can a scoring player that genuinely interacts with fans ever be a penalty, for isn’t that exactly what the core of the game is all about – scoring a TD so that players and fans can celebrate together, simultaneously? With the NCAA legislating rules that go against this essential grain, it has ruled out much of the spontaneity of the sport at this level, the very life-blood that makes college football more attractive than the NFL to so many. Unsportsmanlike conduct will also be called when a player stand over an opponent in a taunting manner, something that actually will help the game’s social tone. But, seriously, spinning the ball like a top? Please…

Competitive improvements, too, will be seen across the I-A board with the adoption of instant replay for most leagues. The Big Ten tried out a limited version of such last year, and it worked well. The only trouble is how the NCAA is letting each conference formulate its own replay rules differently than the others. For example, C-USA will be the only ones making the replay an on-field decision, while only out in the MWC will head coaches be issued one red flag throw per half (ala the NFL) that will signal their want for a replay. Similar to the pro’s, teams that throw a flag and lose the challenge will be taxed a time out; if that team has no TOs left, then they cannot throw their red flag. But we seriously question the NCAA allowing so many variations, for (least of all) cross-conference matchups will suffer from no single standard, and moreover, coaches and officials will be more easily confused as to which rules apply and when. Why not just make one standard - if all rules should equally apply to all I-A schools, then why not just maintain that tone and institute an equal approach for all instant replay? A ‘fair application to all’ is the theme for why endzone celebrations are now outlawed (regardless of conference), so why not keep that same spirit of equality within how the game is governed via the same rule book for all, and within how these rules are then applied?

With so many changes in the college football landscape form year to year, one can again bank on Southern Cal to again define the national standard. With eleven five-star recruits brought in over the past two years, Pete Carroll & Co. will suffer little-to-no drop off in talent and/or expectations. And when the past year’s Heisman winner returns to lead a two-time defending national champion squad, it will be only from within if there are any dilemmas for L.A.’s hottest ticket (Snoop Dog and Will Farrell actually work out with them). But the departure of former-offensive coordinator Norm Chow to the NFL (Tennessee) signals one hole in the Trojan’s armor. Many also point to a vaunting schedule when prognosticating USC’s destiny, but we see these quality challengers making them stronger, not ending Leinart’s 25-1 run. Carroll could put Reggie Bush in the parking lot and Bush would still find some way to help USC win, so it seems inevitable that USC plays for an unprecedented third straight national title in cross-town Pasadena. The questions aren’t with them, but with who they might play.

Often times, when a great player/team is on the rise but still can’t quite get to that top level, it is usually one evenly-matched player/team that is in their way. In such a case, you can see how beating that one player/team would likely put them over the top – not only in their immediate league standings, but too, in terms of national rankings and/or championships. From other sports, we see how the Boston Red Sox couldn’t break through until they beat the Yankees; how Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t win it all until he beat Bill Russell; and how Joe Louis couldn’t be heavyweight champ until he was able to beat Max Schmeling. Well, in college football, Texas isn’t going to win a title (either in the Big XII and/or nationally) until they can beat Oklahoma. So far for the Longhorns, this has been a daunting task in any year that starts with a ‘2’. One has to go back six years to witness Austin partying like it was 1999, because that’s when they last beat their conference-half nemesis (they went 7-2-1 versus the Sooners in the 90’s). Texas has been on the verge of some amazing finishes, only to then play second fiddle to Oklahoma in terms of bowl placement(s) and/or year-end polls. All Texas has to do is beat Oklahoma and they most likely find themselves in place to win it all. True, conference championships have also been a trip up for undefeated or one-loss teams that are only one win away from a place in the national title game. But we see the Longhorns as a likely national champ once the proverbial ‘Red River is crossed’, especially in a year that they go to Ohio State early. If Mac Brown (70-19 in seven seasons) can continue to progress as he has since arriving in the Lone Star capital, his next accomplishment(s) should be a Big XII title and the national crown. With a new Sooner QB and a weakened line, the time seems right for the pendulum to swing back to the south.

What will Adrian Peterson do with defenses able to totally focus on him? If he passes the 1500-yard mark again with the deck this stacked against him, he is the real shizz.

Another shift in the BCS criteria for who ranks where will again alter the standard for how the national title is played out. If ever proof was needed to show how inept the whole process is, annual changes to the qualifying rules genuinely reflect how – with hindsight - the organizing committee obviously admits to its own mistakes within its need to constantly inspect (and then alter) its own process. In other words, if it wasn’t broke, they wouldn’t need to constantly fix it. By definition then, their system must be broke. Well, it is broke, and only an eight-team playoff can end the scrutiny. How many more times can one (or more) of the three (or more) teams deserving of a title shot be unfairly cordoned-off and/or removed from consideration? (Fans of) Oklahoma, Auburn, and Utah surely have an earful of opinions on that topic. We’re confused as to why the ‘good ole boys’ who run the post season can’t see the huge payout that could come from such a tournament, especially since successful/proven playoff prototypes exist on all other divisional levels of college football. Maybe, if graduation rates in the I-A pantheon were up to the par of those at I-AA, II, or III, we could then put to rest any arguments surrounding academics as a deterrent to a playoff. This year’s BCS change removes the AP poll and replaces it with something called the Harris Interactive poll. Basically, the Harris Interactive’s method for ranking teams utilizes a mix of former coaches, players, administrators, as well as a select group from the press to replace the AP and its all-press membership. Regardless of the details, it is unfair to constantly change the BCS criteria. Teams from prior years can then legitimately argue that if the new rules were in place during a year when they were near the top, that such rules would have made them a player in the BCS title game. A good cross-sport comparison is found in observing the clamor when MLB changed the season from 154 to 162 games. The most notable noise came when Roger Maris got close to Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, causing many to point to the difference in games as to why Maris was able to accomplish his eventual feat and why they included an asterisk next to his name. But, in another way, the results of this don’t compare – the skirting (and subsequent inclusion) of an individual record isn’t nearly as impacting as ignoring the year-end ranking/placement of an entire team. Undefeated teams like Utah and Auburn won’t get an asterisk…heck, these two undefeated 2004 teams didn’t even get to play each other in some sort of consolation bowl. Just how illogical do the post-season matchups have to become before an inevitable playoff shatters the archaic bowl system? Would someone please draw up a cost-benefit analysis and show the idiots at hand who run the NCAA asylum how a playoff would only bring in even more money…please…?

It’s a good thing we waited until now to issue our annual warnings of how the weather can impact the college football landscape. Recent experience says that major non-conference games that are postponed due to hurricanes until the end of the season are often directly responsible for pivots in the final polls (see 1998 and 2004). Last year, the September non-con matchup between Southern Mississippi-California game was postponed, and when they finally played in early December, both teams’ landscapes had changed enough so that their late-season result could have arguably been different if their game had been played at each campaign’s beginning. Cal eventually won 26-16 in a non-commanding way in Hattiesburg, and therefore backed into a non-BCS bowl (Holiday) due to their lackluster performance. The Golden Bears then lost 45-31 to Texas Tech to confirm their MIA-status. Texas, which was looking like the odd-man out of the BCS, took advantage and went to Pasadena, scoring a huge Rose Bowl win versus Michigan. It seriously looks like many games are to possibly be postponed due to the latest ravages of Katrina, so watch as weather again plays a huge role in formulating the postseason outlooks.

We will list any subsequent game changes as we learn about them. Keep an eye on our TV LISTINGS to see the updated schedules.