What’s that you say? It’s barely stopped raining confetti following Auburn’s BcS title game win over Oregon and we’re already talking about a 2011 season that won’t start for another eight months?
You damn right we are. And you know why? ’Cause that’s how we roll. Or something.
Anyway, here’s a brief look at how at how things may play out in 2011. And, based on our look ahead to the 2010 season, you don’t have much to worry about if there’s anything negative about your school below.
FIVE COMPELLING STORYLINES
1. The Conference Shuffle
You may have forgotten, but several schools will be ditching long-time conference homes for some new league digs in the coming months. Nebraska to the Big Ten from the Big 12. Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12 from the Big 12 and Mountain West, respectively. Boise State from the WAC to the Mountain West. Perhaps the most intriguing angles will come from the two BcS conferences with new additions; specifically, how will the split into two six-team divisions and the addition of a conference title games affect the leagues as it pertains to the BcS? It’s hard to say at this point in time how this mini-expansion apocalypse will impact the various conferences, but it’s certainly a new frontier these leagues will be plowing. And something that bears watching as conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 continue to sniff around adding even more schools in the coming years.
2. Can the Big Ten Recover From New Year’s Day Bowl Embarrassment?
Last year at this time, we were asking if the Big Ten had displayed earnest growth based on their performance during the 2009-2010 bowl season or if it was merely just a one-year blip. The 0-5 massacre on the first day of 2011 suggests the latter is the case. We all know — or at least should know — that bowl performance is not indicative of conference strength one way or the other. However, it’s a number that’s used to fuel national perceptions, and right now the Big Ten is back nationally to where they were two years ago: a sloth-like, middle-of-the-road conference that has a long ways to go before they climb even with the likes of the SEC.
3. Can Texas Two-Step Back to Their Rightful Place?
Any way you parse it, the 2010 season was an unmitigated disaster for the Longhorns. Not only was UT 5-7 overall, but they finished an unsightly 2-5 at home — including losses to UCLA, Iowa State and Baylor. Again, at home. Following that disaster, Mack Brown overhauled most of his coaching staff either of his own volition or out of necessity, including bringing in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. There’s simply too much talent on that roster for yet another disastrous year in what could very well be Brown’s swan song. Oops, did we type that out loud?
4. Last Call for JoePa-hol… Maybe?
Despite rumors that were running rampant that Joe Paterno would be forced to step down due to health concerns, the legendary head coach will be back for his 147th season as Penn State’s head coach in 2011. But, will it be his last? Paterno is entering the final year of a three-year contract, and administration stated after a meeting with Paterno this past weekend that his future won’t be discussed until after the ’11 season. He’s gotta go at some point; will this be the year?
5. The NFL Labor Issue
Based on the rhetoric coming from both sides of the NFL’s labor issue, there seems to be a very good chance that the players will face a lockout at the hands of the owners. There’s also a very real possibility that the lockout could drag into the regular season, costing the NFL games… and leaving college football as the only “major” game in town. We’ve heard from a couple of members of athletic departments that filling that football vacuum and sliding some games to Sunday “is something that has been talked about and will continue to be talked about if (the labor projections) continue” to look gloomy. The NFL will always be king; college football, though, could very well be a big beneficiary of that league’s stupidity.
WAY-TOO-EARLY HEISMAN ROLL CALL
1. Andrew Luck, Stanford — The quarterback surprised some by returning to the Cardinal for another season. It would be no surprise at all if he winds up in New York City in December holding the same stiff-armed trophy he finished runner-up for late last year. With the coaching change at Stanford, this could be a dicey player to stick at the top of the Heisman list, especially if athletic director Bob Bowlsby decides to eschew the in-house approach for a replacement.
2. Darron Thomas, Oregon — The Ducks quarterback should’ve received more Heisman attention than he did in 2010. That will be rectified in 2011 as the junior-to-be is too talented as a runner/passer to ignore much longer, the spotty play in the national title game notwithstanding.
3. Cam Newton, Auburn — After the way the quarterback dominated SEC defenses in 2010 on his way to winning the Heisman, why would he not start at the top of the 2011 list? Simple: only one player has won back-to-back Heismans, and that happened way back in the seventies. Of course, any inclusion of Newton is predicated on Newton returning — BIG if — instead of leaping to the NFL after just one full season as a starter at this level, which we will know no later than Saturday.
4. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina — We believe it’s a federal law to throw a curve ball into the middle of these lists, so why not toss the talented soon-to-be sophomore running back into the early mix? Lattimore rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as a true freshman. Logic would dictate that Lattimore will receive even more of the workload after proving himself to head coach Steve Spurrier to be a reliable cog in the offense. Logic would further dictate that, with a year of seasoning and three-fifths of a solid offensive line returning, Lattimore will be able to improve his 4.8 yards per carry from this past season.
5. Kellen Moore, Boise State — Based on Moore’s first three years with the Broncos, he would appear to be a mortal lock for at least another trip to New York City, provided he can remain healthy and the wheels don’t fall of the BSU freight train. The senior-to-be has averaged 3,600 yards, 33 touchdowns and just six interceptions in his three years as a starter, all the while completing just over 68 percent of his passes.
6. LaMichael James, Oregon — The nation’s leading rusher in 2010, James, like Luck, decided to eschew a shot at NFL riches for another season of college ball. For whatever reason, despite his productivity, James does not receive the hype and/or love from the media that he seemingly deserves. Is he being viewed as a “system back”? We’ve gotten that impression from some and, although we believe it to be unfair, it’s not likely to abate at any point in the near future.
Bonus Pick: Matt Barkley, USC — Call this one a serious hunch, but we feel that the USC quarterback is on the precipice of fulfilling all of his immense high school hype and throwing some serious numbers out onto the Heisman table. Plus, it will make NBC Sports.com‘s college football editor very happy, and could potentially help curb his incessant whining over the state of the Trojans.
RICH RODRIGUEZ MEMORIAL COACHING HOT SEAT
1. Paul Wulff, Washington State
The man is 5-32 in three years with the Cougars and barely made it to a fourth. If he doesn’t show marked improvement in the won-loss ledger, you can bet he won’t get a fifth year and will instead be thrown out on his Wazzu.
2. Mark Richt, Georgia
During his 10 years in Athens, Richt has only finished a season with a winning percentage below .667 twice. Oddly enough, both of those seasons have come in the past two seasons. The native Dawgs are getting restless and, with a new boss sitting in the athletic director’s office with a winning mandate for the football program, Richt had better win this season. Or else.
3. Rick Neuheisel, UCLA
Slick Rick returned to his alma mater with great fanfare… and has proceeded to defecate all over the bed. All Neuheisel has done is wrap a pair of 4-8 seasons around a 7-6 second year during his three seasons with the Bruins. Perhaps most disturbing is an utterly inept offense that spits and sputters despite the presence of a former quarterback in Neuheisel and an offensive genius in Norm Chow. What it will take for Neuheisel to remain at UCLA beyond 2011 remains to be seen, but it sure as hell will have to be more than what Slick Rick has done thus far.
4. Ron Zook, Illinois
No coaching hot seat would be complete without the perpetually on-fire backside of The Zookster. Zook bought himself a little bit of time with a seven-win season that included a bowl win, but he’s still just 28-45 in six years in Champaign. Even more unacceptable is the fact that he’s 16-32 in the Big Ten and has finished above .500 in conference play just once — the Illini’s Rose Bowl season waaay back in 2007. It appears Zook will get one more season to show the program is taking significant strides. Then again, dude has the same number of lives as a couple of felines, so we’ll see.
5. Dennis Erickson, Arizona State
The fourth-year coach was thiiis close to getting the axe following the 2010 season, but received a reprieve. Based on what we’ve been told, it will be his one and only commutation, especially since the Sun Devils are the early pick by some to win the Pac-12 South. In other words, Erickson might want to consider winning post-haste.
C’mon, this might be the biggest no-brainer of the bunch. Is there really any explanation needed as to why the Tide, which finished No. 10 following the blowout of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, is very likely to find their way back into the Top 5 for the vast majority of the upcoming season? Then again, the quarterback position…
Oh yeah; I went there. Consider this my one flyer in this category. And, no, I don’t see the Orange as a Top 10 team at any point during the ’11 season, but, given the strength — or lack thereof — in the Big East, Doug Marrone has the opportunity to do something special as early as this coming year. Hell, UConn made a BcS bowl; why can’t the ‘Cuse?
Almost as big a no-brainer as ‘Bama. Again, too much talent on that 85-man roster, and Mack Brown is too good of a coach, to allow yet another debacle to take place.
4. Mississippi State
OK, I lied; there’ll be two flyers in this category. A 9-4 season that included close losses to Auburn and Arkansas, and a big blowout win in the Gator Bowl has the Bulldogs set up for a leap from perennial also-ran to legitimate contender in Dan Mullen’s third year in Starkville.
5. Florida/Florida State
A new head coach at UF seems to have reinvigorated the entire Gator football program, something we fully expect to carry over into a rebound ’11 season. A first-year head coach at FSU has no doubt brought new life to Seminole Nation, as evidenced by a recruiting class that could easily finish in the top three in the country. It’s a better sport when programs like these two are relevant. Expect that to be the case in 2011.
1. Virginia Tech
Yes, Frank Beamer & Company seem to reload year after year, but losing one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in Tyrod Taylor (no relation) as well as two of your top running backs to early entry is not exactly the optimal recipe for sustaining success.
Blame this hunch solely on attrition. When you lose your best player on the offensive side of the ball, especially when it’s at the quarterback position, and one of your best on the defensive side of the ball, there’s a very good chance for at least a brief step back for the Mizzou program.
3. Ohio State
Shocked at this one? You shouldn’t be. Four offensive starters suspended for, barring a successful appeal that results in a reduction, the first five games of the season does not portend well regardless of the schedule. Down one-third of your starting offense, suddenly games against Miami (Fla.) and Colorado don’t look like such gimmes, and the game against Big Ten co-champ Michigan State gets that much tougher.
Randy Edsall was Huskies football. As much as we didn’t like the hire for Maryland, we think his departure will have a very negative impact on UConn, which go only eight votes in the final AP Top 25 poll, at least for the short-term. Then again, they do still reside in the Big East…
5. Michigan State
Personally, I thought the Spartans’ magical 11-2 run was a mirage. They will prove me correct in 2011 as they have to go on the road to face Notre Dame — a team I nearly put in the Five Risers — Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa, as well as take on Wisconsin at home.
EARLY-BIRD TOP FIVE*
1. Oklahoma: I didn’t buy into the preseason Sooner hype last offseason; I’m ready to this year. Wholeheartedly and unequivocally.
2. Oregon: Darron Thomas, LaMichael James & Company returning? Something tells me that No. 2 might end up being too low.
3. TCU: Sure, the Horned Frogs lose some key performers — chief among them quarterback Andy Dalton — but the combination of a likely Top Five placement in the preseason polls, a “favorable” schedule and a helluva football program built by Gary Patterson has the private school poised to remain on the fringes of title contention for years to come. Especially when their schedule really gets easy with the move to the Big East.
4. Stanford: Jim Harbaugh left a helluva foundation for whoever it is that takes over, especially if the Cardinal stays in-house — which they should — for a replacement. Oh, and Andrew Luck somewhat unexpectedly returning for another year? That’s enough to at least start them off inside the Top Five.
5. Boise State: The move to the Mountain West should help the Broncos’ “street cred”, even just a little and even with the loss of Utah from the conference. Chris Petersen reaffirmed his commitment to BSU, and Kellen Moore returns for one more season on the blue turf. What’s not to like about their chances of competing yet again for a BcS slot… and maybe a spot in the national title game in New Orleans a year from now.
(*With this Top Five, and unlike the early Heisman Roll Call, I’m going with the assumption that Newton will leave early; if he doesn’t, Auburn would be my No. 2)