Its now only 63 days until the first Saturday in the College Football season kicks off, but its never to early to start looking forward to what should be, as always, another terrific college football season. Last year saw Auburn come from the depths of nowhere to win the BCS National Championship game, led by the dominance of transfer QB Cam Newton. Now, that title may be vacated in 5 years, but why start the process of previewing next season by raining on someone’s parade? So we’ll ignore that for now. Anyways, over the course of the next 2 months, we’ll go through a series of topics, hoping to get you better prepared for September 3rd, the first Saturday of the College Football season. Continuing with the 7th part of the preview, we look at the major storylines of the 2011 season that will be the most interesting to follow and highly publicized. The following schedule is your guide as to what is to come and what has already been done that you can check out by clicking the link, with dates being a rough estimate given my tendency for procrastination. But here’s what you have to look forward to:
Part 1: Ten Teams on the Rise- April 20thPart 2: Ten Teams due for a Fall- May 3rd
Part 3: New Coaching Faces- May 16th
Part 4: 10 Names to Learn (Replacements)- May 28th
Part 5: 5 Best Non-BCS teams (not named Boise St. or TCU)- June 8th
Part 6: Coaches Needing a Big Season- June 20th
Part 7: Storylines to Follow- July 2nd
Part 8: 5 Days to Circle on Your Calendar- July 14th
Part 9: Ranking the Conferences- July 26th
Part 10: 10 Heisman Candidates- August 8th
Part 11: Ten Games to Define NCG Race- August 20th
Part 12: Season Predictions- September 1st/September 2nd
Over the course of the College Football year storylines emerge that become the dominant news throughout the season. Last year the Cam Newton “scandal” at Auburn and the whole notion of “pay for play” was a weekly saga that lasted all the way up through the BCS National Championship Game. There were practically “Cecil Newton sightings” to see if he would stay away from the field, something he didn’t do after missing events such as the Heisman Trophy celebration. As we enter 2011, I’ve compiled a few storylines that will have most of my attention from Week 1 through the crowning of a champion. How many will you follow and tell me what I missed that will have your eyes (beyond your own team).
Excessive Celebration/Taunting Penalty
Beginning this season refs will be asked to penalize players for two separate penalties. The first being excessive celebration which will fall in line with the current rule of a penalty assessed on the kickoff. However, if a ref deems that a player is “taunting” his opponent prior to entering the endzone, the points will be taken off the board, the penalty will be assessed from the spot of the “taunt” and the offensive team will continue their drive like that TD never happened. Wait, what? So what we’re asking refs to do now is judge the maliciousness of a player’s celebrations? I’m sure there will be some easy calls to make where a player does a somersault into the endzone. One thing I can’t understand is how a ref is supposed to interpret a “muscle flex”, a leaping chest bump, a salute such as the one that was called “excessive celebration” on Kansas State against Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl last year. It has been said time and time again that there will be a game at some point decided by an overreacting referee and in a sport where there is no playoffs that could be the difference in a conference title or perhaps even a national title for some team. Hell, sometimes I celebrate pickup basketball wins like they’re the Olympics. Now you’re asking college players on the biggest stages in collegiate athletics to check their emotions at the goal line? It doesn’t make much sense to resort to this. If college football had issues every year with teams taunting opponents in a berating manner, then change. But until the 1980′s Miami Hurricanes are toting fake pistols in runways again then I think the NCAA is overstepping rationale boundaries here. Good luck defending this the first time it is overused. I just hope my team isn’t involved.
USC in Last Year of Postseason Ban
When the NCAA concluded its investigation of Reggie Bush’s time at USC and placed the school on a two year postseason ban, with that went the last two wins from 2004 (which included their National Championship), all their 2005 wins, and 30 scholarships over 3 years. Last year USC still managed to finish 5-4 in a down PAC-10 and a tie for 3rd. In the offseason they were able to pull in a Top 5-10 (depending where you checked) recruiting class. All things considered, USC is not nearly in as bad of shape right now as many thought they would be. Another year of reduced scholarships will keep them from building the depth they’ve been accustomed to in the past, but UCLA didn’t do much in USC’s supposed “down years” to shift the power of SoCal football. With the new setup in the PAC-12 of two divisions I can’t help but think USC is setup for another period of sustained success in the southern division where there just doesn’t appear to be a program who can challenge them year in and year out. I anticipate quite a few Oregon-USC title games in the coming years if Chip Kelly’s program avoids any sanctions. As USC finishes up its last year on postseason ban, it will be interesting to see if they will continue to progress out of the cloud of dust the Reggie Bush scandal was supposed to leave them in.
SEC goes for Six Straight BCS Titles
Love em or hate em, one thing you can not go an entire college football season without dealing with is the SEC’s run of dominance in the BCS era. With more than half of the BCS titles to date including 5 straight, the conference has had a stranglehold on the most revered trophy in D-1 football. Last season, many would have picked an Alabama repeat, if not Arkansas, LSU, or Florida would have gotten that love preseason and yet it was an under the radar Auburn team led by Cam Newton who took the title down. This year the SEC may not have the favorite in the country like they have had in years past, but they do have quite a few teams who should be in the conversation again. Alabama, LSU and South Carolina have all had whispers of National Championship talk and as we learned last year, you don’t have to start out the year in the conversation to be in the running. One interesting twist to follow which I find most intriguing every year is “Can someone run the table in this league?” In recent years, when a team had to run the table to make the NCG, someone in the SEC has done it. LSU in 2007 for example was able to lose 2 games and still made it to the title game. How will that play out this season? The SEC West is a gauntlet in itself and if two BCS conference teams can run the table in other leagues, would any SEC team be able to match that or would 1-loss keep them out? The names of teams being thrown around to contend outside the SEC for a title are wide and endless it seems each year. Yet, year after year the SEC is the last team standing on the stage holding the crystal ball. Is 2011-2012 the year we see this run of dominance come to an end?
With the rise of Alabama under Nick Saban it is only natural to hear the mention of the name Bear Bryant recently, assisted by the BCS title won by the Crimson Tide in 2009. However, 2011 expects to be the return to the top for a few other traditional powers over the years who have slipped in recent seasons. Though they’ve played in multiple national championship games this decade, Oklahoma is among the top candidates to win the championship this year led mostly by an explosive offense featuring the connection of Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles. Florida State in their 2nd year under Jimbo Fisher is having their own flashbacks of the early 2000′s with many people feeling they can be in the NCG talks if they get by Oklahoma early at home. With Nebraska, Alabama, Texas A&M and Notre Dame widely believed to be top 15-20 teams in the country this year as well, 2011 could be the year its “out with the new, in with the old.” To a lesser extent, programs like Miami, Michigan and Penn State are expected to continue the growth back to elite status but I will enjoy following these storied programs to see how they fare after less-than-stellar years recently. Frankly for as enjoyable as the Non-AQ stories can be at times, seeing the historically strong heavyweights of CFB clash it out in late season games is something I look forward to every year and I anticipate some very intriguing late season conference games between power programs in 2011 that will shape the BCS and National Title picture.
The “Last Chance” Crew
It wouldn’t be a college football season without some trouble-making player getting into legal trouble or committing a violation. Last year we had AJ Green suspended 4 games. This year the 5 (now 4) Buckeyes, Stephen Garcia, and Michael Floyd. The 4 Buckeyes besides Terrelle Pryor remaining on roster that will be out for 5 games are O-linemen Mike Adams, RB Boom Herron, WR DeVier Posey and DL Soloman Thomas. Pryor’s departure may be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to Ohio St.’s chances to compete for the Leaders division title (seriously, its been about 2-3 months and these division names are still horrible), but more interestingly, the suspended Buckeyes return for a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska which makes for an intriguing storyline leading up to that week. In Columbia, Stephen Garcia has gotten chance after chance to get it right and Spurrier has had endless reasons to throw him off the team. You have to wonder if Alshon Jeffrey or Marcus Lattimore weren’t on this team and South Carolina wasn’t a trendy pick to win the SEC East, would Spurrier still be allowing Garcia back? You have to think their potential to be a Top 10 team is a good starting reason for why he’s been allowed back. Finally Michael Floyd at Notre Dame was a WR who stunned many when he decided to return to Notre Dame for his senior season. So when he was hit with a DUI that had him suspended indefinitely from the team, some questioned whether his time at Notre Dame was over given it was his 2nd arrest in 14 months. Nonetheless Floyd was given a year probation by the courts and is back at team activities. If he keeps his nose clean he’ll most likely be starting Week 1 when Notre Dame opens up against South Florida. His presence and ability to stay on the field could be the difference in whether this team potentially plays in a BCS Bowl at the end of the year.
* A side story that I’ll also be interested in is the fallout in the Declan Sullivan case ruling from Notre Dame. Notre Dame will pay a fine of 42K for the incident but I’m curious to see how much scrutiny the football team and specifically Brian Kelly come under down the road or if the school just pays the lawsuit and the football program scrapes by. I don’t anticipate any serious repercussions for the football team or coach Kelly but there still seems to be far too many unanswered questions for my liking.
There was some talk last year that the next move in CFB would be the formation of “mega-conferences” and the PAC-10 was rumored at one point to gain as many as 6 teams. However, there was only some slight movement around the collegiate ranks. Utah and BYU left the Mountain West with Utah heading to the PAC-12 and BYU becoming Independent. Boise St. went to the Mountain West from the WAC and the Big 12 lost two teams of their own. Colorado rounds out the PAC-12 and most notably Nebraska departed to the Big Ten which changed the entire setup of the Big Ten which now splits itself into two football divisions, leaving the Big 12 with 10 teams this year. The PAC-10 also will have a two division setup now leaving both the PAC-12 and Big Ten with conference championship games that prior they did not have while the Big 12 will no longer have their conference championship game, adopting the round robin format. First and foremost I think Nebraska is the most interesting move. The way the Big Ten has set the divisions up, they end up opposite Wisconsin and Ohio State and some would even call them the favorite to win the Big Ten this year. I think their tie-in to the Rose Bowl now makes for an interesting storyline and think they fit the Big Ten style of play pretty well. Boise St. going to the MWC is another one I am strongly intrigued by mainly for the automatic game with TCU now. How great would it have been to have these teams battling it out every year for the last few seasons? Unfortunately TCU’s upcoming move to the Big East makes this a one year matchup but nonetheless, it should make for a great game in the MWC and when you add in some of the other teams in that league, the MWC will be among one of the better conferences in the land this year when you take the top half of it. We’ll see how the first dominoes falling will ultimately impact the college football landscape in a few years, but I like the moves thus far and am finding myself hoping for similar moves down the line.
Fallout at Ohio St. surrounding Pryor/Tressel
If there’s a story that will garner the attention Cam Newton received at Auburn last year, this will be that story. Naturally all eyes are turned to the NCAA now to see what becomes of the Buckeyes and how their sanctions will stack up most specifically to USC. The NCAA hammered USC pretty good for what they deemed an unreasonable internal investigation. USC was cited for apparently not looking hard enough into Reggie Bush’s background and the gifts he was receiving from an agent. Well USC presented its case and felt they were mistreated and punished too severely. Now the NCAA has no concerns about what happened here. There was overwhelming evidence when Jim Tressel resigned that a number of his players were receiving cash and tatoos in exchange for memorabilia and that # appears to be even higher than initially expected. On top of that is an apparent coverup by Coach Tressel to “protect his young men” and a dishonesty when it came to all that he knew. The suspensions handed down to the 4 players and the departures of Pryor and Tressel leave a black cloud over a proud program with an illustrious history. The next questions that will be asked are “How long of a postseason ban?” “How long will they be placed on probation?” “Will scholarships be diminished?” And then perhaps most importantly “What will be vacated that was accomplished in the Jim Tressel era?” How far will the NCAA go back with this thing and how many players will ultimately be blamed? As George Dohrmann covered in his SI article, this scandal appears to be much wider than what we first believed it to be and I expect most of the 2011 season to include talks of what the NCAA can prove and how harshly they handle this case. Certainly the most notable storyline of this upcoming season.