By Dave Hershorin Managing Editor


August 31, 2006

Yes, here we go again…another season is at hand. As this hot summer finally cools down, we can get to that precious thing we all patiently wait eight months for – football, football, football!!!

Every year, I try to bring up topics in this column that will affect the college football landscape. Sometimes I get it right (Texas breaking through; weather influencing results; spread offenses becoming vogue), and then there are the misses – often huge (Joe Pa writhing into obscurity; which mid-majors will bust the BCS; Navy fading back into obscurity). But, hey, if we could predict the on-field happenings too well, what reason would there be to watch/follow the games?

Let’s take a look at this season’s overall profile from where we are today, and then we will come back after everything has happened to see what we got right and wrong.

The 2006 campaign starts off with more than a handful of teams seeming like they have a shot at the vaunted BCS championship game. Notre Dame, Texas and Ohio State rank atop most polls to begin September, but that means little with the Longhorns and Buckeyes set to square off in Austin September 9th. One will lose their high placement, and each has a daunting conference schedule sure to put another loss on them somewhere down the line. The winner will have the inside track (and likely the No.1 ranking) as they enter conference play. Though the Irish get Michigan and Penn State early, they will cruise after that, but then they go to USC to end things on Thanksgiving weekend. There is little likelihood that these initial top three will go unscathed through the regular season, but if any of them do, they have earned their invitation to the Fiesta Bowl’s BCS finale. The same goes for those in the country’s best conference, the SEC…if any of the top contenders down in Dixie can run through that league’s slate successfully, they will be a lock to go to Arizona. More likely, Florida, Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Alabama will cancel each other out in their round-robin results. Only Georgia has a favorable schedule to emerge with a chance at a trip out west. Likely to sneak in is the Big East winner, and that will come down to the early November tussle between perennial powers West Virginia and Louisville. No one else is in the Mountaineer’s way, but the Redbird’s other huge home game – versus Miami – could provide that extra loss that keeps them out of the catbird seat. Few believe that any from the ACC will be one of the nation’s top two, but that league can boast the most parity from top to bottom. In the end, Ohio State doesn’t have the defense to hold atop the rankings, and Texas is missing a game-breaker like Vince Young to get them over any marginal times. And since it was just too much offense that got the Trojans past ND – offense which Pete Carroll is now lacking – I believe the Irish get their revenge and earn their place in the national title game. At this early, naïve point, I see WVU and Notre Dame squaring off for the big prize, though, this result admittedly is a stretch to predict with all the possibilities. It ain’t like last year’s inevitable UT-USC showdown, but that is what makes it all so fun to follow.

One team flying under most radar is Michigan. The Wolverines have modestly stacked their offensive talent positions with experience and savvy, and only their DL is unproven. With everyone expecting Ohio State and Penn State to dominate, Michigan’s defense – returning eight starters - is arguably the league’s best. Their only road block is the nation’s third toughest schedule, boasting trips to the Horseshoe, Happy Valley and South Bend. If the Maize-and-Blue can emerge from this trio of games with one loss, they will be crunching Tostitos.

Can Miami deal with the huge turnover in their coaching ranks favorably, or will it be a year of adjustments that again keep the Canes from the country’s elite? After an embarrassing 14-10 home loss to Georgia Tech and a 40-3 drubbing by LSU in the Peach Bowl to end ‘05, the offensive coaching staff was revamped. New coordinator Rich Olsen returns to Coral Gables, where he helped UM reach great heights in the early 90’s. But the biggest shoes to fill might be those of Art Kehoe, a 27-year Hurricane stalwart (he also played there) whose departure sees fresh-faced alum/native Mario Cristobal taking over as OL coach. It will all come down to how well Cristobal can keep Miami’s tradition of superior bigmen leading the charge – and with four new faces starting, there is a wide range of possible outcomes. The speed found in south Florida only works if there are holes to run through and if there is time for Kyle Wright to find the wideouts. Ranking near 73rd again in total offense will not do, and it will be head man Larry Coker’s butt on the line if such a dismal showing is repeated. There is just too much speed and all-around talent to think the Cane offense will again sputter.

As I have warned for three consecutive seasons, beware of those pesky named storms that wreak havoc with life, limb, and the oblong pigskin. Past year’s problem weather has yielded postponed games, but nothing can compare to how disastrous the results of Katrina affected the entire scholastic outlook for two schools. Kudos to Tulane and Southern Mississippi for keeping their scholastics and football programs “afloat” during all of last year’s turmoil. The Green Wave, from uptown New Orleans, were hardest hit, and eventually played 11 games in 11 different stadiums in 11 straight weeks. Amazingly enough, after their first two games, Tulane had the No.1 ranked defense in the nation, though they eventually went a gutsy 2-9 under the strained circumstances. Tulane will be back in the Superdome for five home games starting September 9th versus Houston. Sticking with their magic number, the Green Wave return 11 starters. The NCAA has granted Tulane special exemption so they can remain an I-A school for their athletic status, giving them five years to get their collective programs back up to speed with respect to the necessary criteria. Never underestimate how bad it can get, for life is much more valuable than any football game. I think we all know now just how fortunate our time on this earth can be if our biggest problems surround whether our chosen team wins or loses…as long as Saturdays boast a full slate of games, we remain a privileged people.

The extra BCS game included this year for the first time is supposed to produce a clearer result for who is the No.1 team at season’s end. It also allows for the smaller schools that do not have (automatic) BCS alignment to have a leg up into these elite, big payoff games. Still, though, with all of the tie-ins that lock the bigger schools into the other biggest post-season bowls, there is little hope for mid-majors to gain true competitive parity if they continue to be locked out of these big paydays. Many smaller schools over the past decade have shown that, given the money and opportunity, they can compete with most, and they deserve the chance to prove such. Until the big boys allow these upstarts the consistent chance to prove their worth – both in bowls and early season non-conference games – the effort of those who are BCS-aligned to keep the smaller schools in their place can only be considered what it truly is: collusion. It’s unfair, underhanded, and undeniably un-American. This extra BCS game is a good start for what ails top level college football.

Just when it looked like Oklahoma might be climbing back into the top echelons, sophomore starters Brent Bomar (QB) and J. D. Quinn (G) were dismissed from the team. We saw the Sooners at No.8 with these guys, and the AP poll, which came out recently – well after the dismissals – has them at No.10. Bomar, who set the school’s freshman record for passing and is now at Sam Houston (I-AA), is replaced by converted-WR Paul Thompson, while Quinn has Brandon Walker and a top JUCO-transfer in Sherrone Moore combining to fill his slot. Thompson has a great set of wheels and just has to prove his arm worthy so that foes won’t keep stacking eight and nine into the box to stop junior all-American TB Adrian Peterson. “AD” has been quoted as saying he is aiming at 2,500 rushing yards, which isn’t beyond his capabilities. But, like when he was a true freshman – the year he broke the school’s and Division I-A’s freshman rushing record with 1,925 yards – he needs a respected QB to distract defenses so he can reach any potential. Quinn was quickly becoming an integral centerpiece of the Sooner’s rising offensive future within their young, upcoming OL. OU has the defensive front seven to still keep any game within reach late, but it could be these two missing parts that marginalize them just enough to keep the Sooners from that top tier of teams. Now it is looking pretty likely that Texas, even without an experienced QB themselves, takes the South division and therefore wins the Big XII. Will Tulsa be the highest ranked team in Oklahoma by season’s end?

Two other teams from Texas seem ready to make some noise again on the national level. TCU is touted by many (including us) as a stacked mid-major capable of busting through for a BCS bid. Under the new rules for BCS inclusion, TCU would have garnered one of the ten bids if there had been an extra game last year. But since that means nothing in 2006, the Horned Frogs have their work cut out - a game at Utah and an earlier home tilt with a high-octane Texas Tech squad are their main obstacles. Like last year, suffering only one loss should get them ranked high enough to earn an illustrious birth. Speaking of Tech, this proverbial bridesmaid will again be an offensive powerhouse capable of scoring enough points to overcome defensive shortcomings. They tripped up against Oklahoma State; otherwise, the ‘Air Raid’ offense could have made them one of those eight vaunted teams. The Red Raiders and Horned Frogs game on September 16th will be one of the best offensive showcases this season, and it will surely give the inside track as to which team will be the second best in the Lone Star state.

The biggest limb I will go out on is making the call that someone besides USC wins the Pac Ten. It will be either Oregon or California. The Ducks return their entire starting OL to help ease transitions at QB and RB, while the Golden Bears are just stacked at the talent positions and have the defense to stop the depleted Trojans. Of course, master recruiter Pete Carroll has brought in the potential players to reload both sides of the ball with fortification, but returning only four starters on offense and five on defense just seem to be too much to replace all at once. Plus, everyone will be gunning for them after their four year reign (48-4), so this just seems like the logical time to assume their rule over the conference comes to a close.


Pittsburgh is going nowhere fast under this current coaching regime. As a fan of theirs, I sure hope I am wrong, but the writing on the wall will be very clear about this problem within their hierarchy if we see another season of marginal play coming out of Heinz Field…Penn State may have amazing LBs to build their defense around, but Joe Pa has his hands full with inexperienced lines on both sides of the ball and even greener QBs…Clemson may seem too young at their talent positions, but an OL full of seniors goes well with their seasoned defense to make me think they could be a surprise for the Coastal division and then their league’s title…Colorado is poised to start climbing back into the national spotlight. Dan Hawkins has the defense to stop most anyone, but the offense won’t likely be ready for another year…South Carolina cannot be ignored as a potential underdog (though they are a substantial longshot) to take their conference half. As people have regretted before, never underestimate the old ball coach and what he can bring to the table on any given gameday…Speaking of underestimating, I won’t make the same mistake with Navy this year. After I poo-poo’d them in last year’s HERE WE GO AGAIN, they wound up eight points away from finishing 10-2. Though they seem to have anywhere from three to six potential losses looming, they will run rampant over foes and will be in every game (save vs. Notre Dame) until the final gun sounds…and finally, Syracuse has revamped both of their lines, and that is the start of them returning to prominence. The new bigmen will make or break the Orangemen’s season…