What’s that you say? It’s barely stopped raining confetti following Alabama’s BCS title game win over Notre Dame and we’re already talking about a 2013 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.
Each of the past three years, before the last piece of title-game confetti had fluttered to the ground and while the corpse of the previous season was still somewhat warm, I dusted off the
trusty crystal ball and flung a few predictions up against the next season’s wall with the hope that something, anything, would stick. Hilarity ensued when I picked Alabama as the No. 1 team in 2010 (they finished No. 10); Oklahoma in 2011 (they finished No. 16) and USC in 2012 (they finished No. ROTFLMAO!!!). There were guffaws as far as the eye could see as I asked questions like “Have the Conference Musical Chairs Stopped?” and “Is This the Year the SEC’s Streak Stops?” — hell no to both — or listed 10 (10!!!) preseason Heisman contenders for the 2012 season and not a single one of ‘em was even a finalist.
Yet here I am a year later, ready to once again expose my utter lack of prognosticating abilities for all the world to see. So, without further ado, here’s what I, CFT’s resident Nostradumbass, think may — or may not — happen leading up to and during the 2013 season.
FIVE COMPELLING STORYLINES
1. DO I HEAR EIGHT IN A ROW?
For the past couple of years in this space, I’ve asked if the SEC can win five BCS titles in a row… six in a row… seven in a row… and each year the answer’s been a resounding “hell yes y’all!” And why not? Not only has the preeminent football conference in America won seven consecutive crystal footballs, they’ve won nine of the 15 played in the BCS era. Unfortunately for the rest of the country, a downward trend doesn’t appear to be in the offing. Sure, a team or two might take a dip in 2013 — I’m looking at you, LSU — but Alabama will be, well, Alabama, and Texas A&M appears to be on the verge of leaping on to the national stage. Florida, should they get a handle on the quarterback situation and the embarrassing bowl performance against Louisville notwithstanding, should continue their upward trajectory in Year Three under Will Muschamp. Georgia, with quarterback Aaron Murray returning for one more season, and South Carolina, despite the early loss of Marcus Lattimore, should be formidable if not on the fringe of the national title discussion. In other words, expect one or more SEC teams to be deep in the mix at the end in the final year of the BCS. Speaking of which…
2. DING, DONG THE BCS IS DEAD
Well, almost. 2013 will mark the final year of the bastard system utilized to crown a national champion since 1998, set to be replaced after the 2014 season with a slightly less bastardized version in the form of a four-team playoff. While the new system is far from perfect, and a more equitable eight-team playoff will come sooner rather than later, the four-team parlay is already light years ahead of what the BCS had ever hoped to be and it’s yet to be officially implemented. Granted, the BCS was a “better” system for crowing a champion than strictly polls, but that’s sort of like saying you own the nicest Yugo — it’s not exactly something you want to say or admit out loud. Where will the new system take us? Who cares, as long as it’s far, far away from the mess that is — and soon to be was — the BCS.
3. JANE, STOP THIS CRAZY CONFERENCE THING!
Expansion musical chairs has been an overriding theme in each of the past two look-aheads, and there’s no reason to think the shuffling will stop anytime soon. At this time last year, who foresaw that Maryland and Rutgers would announce they were leaving the ACC and Big East, respectively, for the Big Ten, or that Louisville would ditch the Big East for the ACC, or that Boise State would turn its back on a 2013 move to the Big East to remain in the Mountain West? The ACC, Big Ten and SEC all are at 14 current and future members, while the Big 12 is, for the moment, standing pat at 10. The whispers are already out there that the ACC will race to become the first “real” 16-team superconference… unless the Big Ten beats them to it by, in part, raiding the ACC… unless the SEC beats the Big Ten to the punch by, in part, raiding the ACC. In other words, we have very likely not seen the last of expansion talk and teams bolting this conference for that one and leagues like the Big East folding up their football shop and the like. Hooray!?!
4. NO DUCKING THE NCAA
While Oregon is rightly basking in the glow of Chip Kelly‘s return to Eugene, there’s an NCAA elephant squatting smack dab in the middle of the room. At some point this year, likely in the spring, Oregon officials will appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions to answer allegations of recruiting improprieties related to street agent Willie Lyles. Essentially, UO has been accused of paying $25,000 for bogus and outdated scouting reports of high school players in exchange for, as Lyles himself stated, steering recruits — including Lache Seastrunk — to the Ducks. How big of a hammer will the NCAA whip out and will it tear down, at least for the short-term, all or most of what Kelly’s built at the school? Some are saying that Kelly’s return is a sign that the sanctions may not be as heavy-handed as some expect. Until a decision is actually handed down, expect pins and needles to rule the day as the university, athletic department and football program braces itself for deeply punitive sanctions.
5. BIELAMA’S UNLIKELY MARRIAGE
Don’t know about you, but I was beyond floored — and I wasn’t the only one — upon hearing that Bret Bielema was leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas. Sure, he wanted to get out from under Barry Alvarez‘s immense shadow… and, unlike at UW, he and his assistants are getting p-a-i-d paid… and he spent some time in the state as a youth, but he has absolutely no ties to that area of the country or the conference; he played his college ball at Iowa, and his collegiate coaching stops have included his alma mater, Kansas State and UW. Essentially, he’s a Big Ten guy with a sprinkling of the Big 12. How will he fare in the rough and tumble SEC on the field and, perhaps more importantly, on the hyper-competitive southern recruiting trail? I have no clue, but it should be fascinating to sit back and watch unfold.
EARLY-BIRD TOP FIVE
Back-to-back BCS championships, three crystal footballs in four years. Will return somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 starters and 37 or so from the two-deep depth chart. Nick Saban, well on his way to staking his claim to the greatest coach at the FBS level of all-time, will return. A 2013 recruiting class that’s currently ranked No. 2 in the country — oddly enough, behind the team they eviscerated for their latest title. I seriously considered putting one of the three teams immediately below ‘Bama at the No. 1 spot; after seeing it laid out so starkly as it is in the previous sentences, there was simply no way I could justify anyone but the Tide in the top spot.
2. Ohio State
In Urban Meyer‘s first season, with nothing to play for but pride and a “I won the Big Ten Leaders division and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” consolation prize, the Buckeyes went a perfect 12-0. At the end of the 2012 season, Meyer felt his team could compete with any in the country; thanks to NCAA sanctions and a shortsighted administration, proving it in the postseason wasn’t an option. That will change this year as the one-year bowl ban is over, and all signs point to Meyer and his Buckeyes bullrushing back to the national stage. Not only does tOSU return several key components on both sides of the ball (they do lose seven defensive starters, though), the schedule has “run me” written all over — the nonconference slate is more than manageable, with a road trip to Cal and a home date with San Diego State only remotely resembling potential stumbling blocks, while the first seven games of the Big Ten schedule sees Wisconsin and Penn State visiting Ohio Stadium. The toughest game, at least on paper, doesn’t come until last: a late-November road trip to the Big House for a date with hated rival Michigan. It’s conceivable, based on how they finished 2012 as well as how 2013 sets up, that the Buckeyes could head into Ann Arbor riding a winning streak approaching two-dozen games. And my apologies, Buckeye Nation, for totally jinxing that possibility.
3. Texas A&M
By the time the curtain had fallen on the 2012 season, and if there had been a playoff system in place, the Aggies had become the proverbial team that no one wanted to face. And for good reason. In its first season in the big, bad SEC, A&M won 11 games and lost just two — by three points to Florida in what turned out to be both the season and conference opener for the Aggies, and by five to LSU. The smashing debut included signature wins over top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa and a blowout of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, as well as a healthy dose of optimism for what 2013 will bring. With the reigning Heisman winner in tow, the Aggies will be expected to match or exceed the breakout year. Will they be able to handle the pressure of being the hunted instead of the hunter? With Kevin Sumlin in charge, we’d lean toward the affirmative.
The 2013 season hasn’t even started and the Ducks have already earned what will prove to be their biggest win of the year. After yet another round of flirtations with the NFL, Chip Kelly decided that his heart’s in Eugene and returned to UO for at least another season — until the New England Patriots job opens up, of course. The Ducks would’ve been fine with offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich taking over; they’ll be even better because the man who built the Ducks into a national powerhouse — 46-7 in his four years, four BCS bowl games and three Pac-12 titles — is sticking around to build on his burgeoning legacy. Oh, and the fact that Marcus Mariota, the triggerman of UO’s offensive juggernaut who deserves more national acclaim than he gets, is returning as well doesn’t exactly hurt, either.
When Jim Harbaugh bolted for the NFL, many thought the Cardinal would sink back to the depths from which it came; 11 wins in 2011 showed the program is bigger than any one coach. When Andrew Luck bolted for the NFL, many thought, once again, the Cardinal would sink back to the depths from which it came; 12 wins in 2012 showed the program is bigger than any one player. Anyone want to doubt them a third straight year? The Cardinal returns 16 starters from its Pac-12-winning 2012 squad, a total that includes quarterback Kevin Hogan, the redshirt freshman who quietly became one of the most promising players at his position in his first stint as a starter. Head coach David Shaw not only maintained what Harbaugh built down on The Farm but enhanced it, adding to the foundation and ensuring success will continue regardless of personnel losses. Bet against “14 for ’13″ at your own peril.
Teams outside the final Top 10 that could be in it in 2013
In my preseason Top 25, I lamented that, at No. 24, I was rating Louisville too low and “will likely regret it at season’s end.” After 11 wins, a No. 13 ranking and the demolition of then-No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, I was right. This year, though, that won’t be the case as the Cardinals, on the strength of the return of the sublime Teddy Bridgewater and the continuing presence of head coach Charlie Strong, are poised to sniff the Top 10 in the preseason rankings.
With nine wins in 2012 in Jim Mora‘s first season at the school, UCLA posted its best mark since a 10-win season in 2005. While the season finished with three straight losses — including back-to-back defeats to Stanford — the Bruins did claim quality wins over the likes of Nebraska, Arizona and USC. With the Trojans plummeting toward mediocrity, the Bruins should be the class of the Pac-12 South yet again and the odds-on favorite for a a third consecutive appearance in the conference championship game — if not more.
OK, this is cheating a little bit as the Tigers were just barely outside of the Top Ten at No. 11, but I need all the softballs I can take a whack at. And, thanks to the (likely) return of Tajh Boyd, the Tigers afford me that opportunity. Clemson’s two losses in 2012 came at the hands of 12-win Florida State and 11-win South Carolina, and they actually led each of those games at halftime before crumbling in the second half. Call it a hunch, but the Tigers learned enough from those pair of disappointments to flip that script around in 2013 versus high-quality competition.
Teams inside the final Top 25 that could struggle
1. Kansas State
While I don’t believe there will be a drastic drop-off for the Wildcats, there should be at least a dip. Heisman finalist Collin Klein is gone to expired eligibility, leaving a significant hole in both experience and leadership at the quarterback position. All told, the Wildcats will lose 12 starters, including nine on the defensive side of the ball. That formula has rebuilding year written all over it.
Losing nearly two handfuls of talented juniors won’t help LSU’s cause in 2013, even as the Tigers possess a wealth of talented albeit inexperienced replacements. Nor will a schedule that includes a neutral site nonconference game with what should be a much-improved TCU squad as well as SEC road trips to Alabama and Georgia, although that’s mitigated somewhat by drawing Florida and Texas A&M at home. LSU could take a half-step back in 2013, which means merely fighting for a top-ten spot instead of hovering around the top five and in the discussion for a BCS berth — championship game or otherwise .
3. Notre Dame
Yes, Notre Dame could very well begin the 2013 season inside the top five of the polls, and the talent they return would warrant such a lofty ranking. However, the Irish won five of their games in 2012 by seven points or less, including one in overtime and another in triple overtime. Provided the talent level stays roughly the same, can the Domers expect to catch the same breaks and bounces — or officiating calls — in close games this season that they did last? I say, even with a favorable schedule, not nearly to 2012′s degree, but your mileage may vary
RON ZOOK MEMORIAL COACHING HOT SEAT
1. Lane Kiffin, USC
By any measure imaginable, the 2012 was an unmitigated disaster for USC. The Trojans began the season ranked No. 1 in the country… and proceeded to become the first team in history with such a lofty ranking in the preseason to finish outside the Top 25 and culminated a six-loss season with an embarrassing performance in their bowl game. The calls for Kiffin to be ousted grew louder as the season went further in the tank; a repeat performance in 2013 will earn Kiffin a well-deserved trip to the coaching unemployment line.
2. Mack Brown, Texas
Yes, Brown is signed through the 2020 season. Yes, high-powered UT officials have been steadfast in their public support of their long-time head coach. No, 15 losses in the past three years — one more than the Longhorns had in the past nine seasons combined — is not acceptable for a program accustomed to the national stage, especially when two of those defeats have come to rival Oklahoma by scores of 63-21 and 55-17 the past two seasons. While quarterback continues to be an embarrassment for a program in the QB-rich state, the position is positively Vince Young-esque compared to a defense that was statistically the worst in the history of the storied program. We know, it’s highly doubtful that Brown’s actually on the hot seat. And that’s part of the problem — he deserves to be.
3. Gary Pinkel, Missouri
In its first season in the SEC, Mizzou failed to meet even modest expectations by winning just five games and finishing with a 2-6 conference record, with the lone wins coming at the expense of conference featherweights Kentucky and Tennessee (sorry Vols). That miserable showing was compounded by fellow Big 12 refugee Texas A&M stunning the college football world by coming out of the gate with an 11-win season — including handing Alabama its lone loss of the regular season — in its first year in the SEC. While 2012 was Mizzou’s worst under Pinkel since 2004, being a member of the SEC, replete with its additional revenue and exposure, brings with it exponentially more pressure on the head coach to succeed. Pinkel realized immediate improvement is a must as he “parted ways” with long-time offensive coordinator David Yost. Another season like this last one, and the Mizzou administration could find themselves “parting ways” with their long-time head coach.
4. Randy Edsall, Maryland
This one comes with a disclaimer as the Terps were wracked by injuries in 2012, including the loss of four starting quarterbacks to season-ending injuries. With that out of the way, the stark reality is this: the Terps have won a total of six games in Edsall’s two seasons, including just three wins in 16 games in ACC play. Even the staunchest of supporters are beginning to question whether Edsall is the right man for his “dream job.” With a move to the Big Ten in the offing after this season, anything short of a significant turnaround would likely signal to the administration that its time for a fresh start on the sidelines to coincide with the Terps’ departure for a new conference.
5. Mike London, Virginia
After getting Virginia to eight wins in his second season with the Hoos, London was one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel, garnering mention as a potential replacement for Joe Paterno at Penn State. Following a four-win season? London has gone from the coaching penthouse to the coaching hot seat. In a signal that London realizes how hot despite being just three years into his tenure, he axed nearly half his coaching staff — four to be exact — shortly after the end of the 2012 season. London is one of the most outstanding coaches in the game, but this is a bottom-line business, with the bottom line being London needs to turns things around post-haste.
WAY-TOO-EARLY HEISMAN ROLL CALL
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State — The first year in Urban Meyer‘s offense was above-average for Miller. With a full year plus another offseason in the same system, Miller is poised to improve upon his fifth-place finish in the 2012 Heisman voting and could very well enter the 2013 season as the stiff-armed frontrunner. The fact that the Buckeyes will likely be highly-ranked and Miller will again be a significant portion of the offense — he accounted for 28 of the 56 offensive touchdowns scored and led the team in rushing — means the Heisman hype will come early and often for the talented junior.
2. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson — Boyd will enter the 2013 season — provided he doesn’t jump to the NFL by the Jan. 15 deadline, of course — as one of the most prolific yet underrated players in the country. With offensive coordinator Chad Morris remaining after some head-coaching flirtations over the last month, Boyd will put up the kind of numbers that’d be hard for Heisman voters to overlook.
3. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M — The first-year phenom shattered the freshman ceiling by taking home the Heisman in 2012. Can he shatter the “no one’s won it twice since Archie Griffin” ceiling? Based on his performance in the Aggies’ bowl romp, that would be a resounding yes. With a year’s worth of film to view in the offseason, though, defenses could make harder a game that looked video-game easy for Manziel in 2012.
4. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina — Sure, no purely defensive player has ever claimed a Heisman. However, the past few years, with the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Tyrann Mathieu and Manti Te’o making it to the Big Apple as finalists, it appears the narrow-minded voters could be expanding their horizon when it comes to candidates. And when it comes to defensive candidates for 2013, it doesn’t get any more explosive or dynamic or borderline homicidal than Clowney.
5. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville — Bridgewater would’ve made this list even without the virtuoso performance in the bowl win over Florida. With it, he moved up several notches in my eyes as he showed he could play at a high level against what was considered a top-notch defense. In fact, slotting the soon-to-be junior fifth could prove to be low. Very, very low.
6. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon — Thanks to the return of Chip Kelly, the Ducks will run the same offense in 2013 as they did in Mariota’s first year as the starter in 2012. And in that first season, Mariota was spectacular, accounting for 37 touchdowns — 32 passing, five rushing — in leading the Ducks to a 12-win season. Whether Kelly would’ve been around to oversee the scoring factory or not, Mariota is hurtling toward nothing but improvement in his second season.
7. Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona — The nation’s leading rusher returns for another season and deserves a spot on this initial list. The only problem is, will the Wildcats win enough to get the attention Carey deserves? While the Wildcats’ won eight games in Rich Rodriguez‘s first season, Carey’s quest for a 2,000-yard season — he finished with 1,929 — flew under the radar until he erupted for 366 yards in mid-November. By then it was too late to make a difference in the ’12 Heisman race. It could, though, serve as a reminder to voters entering ’13 that he’s a player worthy of keeping an eye on.
8. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA — Bruins head coach Jim Mora has already proclaimed his starting quarterback a future Heisman contender, so we’ll go ahead and roll with it. Statistically, Hundley is worthy of his coach’s praise as the sophomore completed nearly 66 percent of his passes for 3,740 yards and 29 touchdowns. The 11 interceptions are a concern, although that could simply be a combination of Hundley’s youth and inexperience in the first year of a new offensive scheme. Still, Hundley’s a name to keep track of as the season progresses.
9. Marqise Lee, WR, USC — Thanks to USC breaking in a new starting quarterback, I nearly put Georgia’s Aaron Murray here. Based on Lee’s stunning athleticism and production, though, I had to put him on the list somewhere. Lee led the country in receptions and finished second in receiving yards, narrowly missing out on a trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist.
10. Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor — Forget the head coach; the running back has already proclaimed himself to be a 2013 Heisman contender. Over the last quarter of the season, the Oregon transfer showed there’s a reason behind that self-confidence. After rushing for 465 yards in the first nine games of the season, Seastrunk exploded for 637 over the final four. If he continues that trend in 2013, he could become a part of the Heisman discussion.