September 03, 2010
I've made a lot of predictions over the last month, about every team in every conference in the country, many of which I frankly can't even remember. Many, even after diligent research and charts and maybe some rudimentary math, still amount to educated guesses cobbled together with a random strain of fatigued logic. But if for whatever reason you feel it necessary to hold my feet to fire about anything I've said about the 2010 season when the calendar hits December, there are only a handful I'm willing to risk looking like an idiot for on the eve of the first Saturday kickoff, before the actual muscle and sweat grinds the offseason logic into irrelevant dust:
• Tide will fall. In general, the odds advise against projecting pretty much any specific team to run the table to a perfect season, no matter how dominant it happens to look on paper. That goes double in a season that appears ripe for chaos, where there is no dominant team on paper. And it goes triple for an outfit that's already flouted the odds over the course of a frequently harrowing, 24-game regular-season win streak. For lack of an obvious successor, Alabama opens the season where it ended the last one, as the consensus No. 1 in every major poll. But down nine starters, six draft picks and three All-Americans from the nation's best defense – not just the core but almost the entire group responsible for a 12-0 regular season in 2008 and the perfect, 14-0 run to the BCS championship last year – and now facing some uncertainty surrounding two of its best players, if ever an undisputed frontrunner has been vulnerable to an unexpected lump or two, 'Bama is it.
• Democracy is coming to the Rose Bowl. Whatever its other concessions to evolving realities over the year, clearly the Granddaddy has never been for the little guy: Even since the Rose Bowl relinquished its 50-year-old death grip on the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions to join the BCS in 1998, only five teams have won their way into Pasadena without a major conference championship, and only one of those (No. 13 Illinois in 2007) came into the game ranked lower than No. 8 in the AP poll. The Fiesta or Sugar bowls might be willing to descend to some mid-major upstart, but never the Rose. It's just not done, you see.
Like all barriers, though, the gate guarding one of the most exclusive venues in sports from the barbarians has been chipped away just enough – most recently by ESPN, which mandated as part of the BCS' new broadcast contract that the Rose Bowl replace a Big Ten or Pac-10 champion bound for the BCS Championship Game with a qualified outfit from a non-"Big Six" conference – to let an undefeated TCU or Boise State inside. Off last year's BCS showdown in the Fiesta Bowl, both the Horned Frogs and Broncos are aiming first for a return date in Glendale for the championship game 10 days later, but neither is going to complain if their ticket is stamped "Pasadena" instead.
• Notre Dame will win at least nine games. Brian Kelly doesn't need to wake up any echoes, per se: In the wake of back-to-back November collapses under Charlie Weis, Kelly's first year will be better spent incepting the long-slumbering echoes with whatever it was that delivered Cincinnati to the first 10, 11 and 12-win seasons in school history during Kelly's three-year tenure. Unlike at Cincy, Kelly inherits top-shelf talent for his prolific up-tempo passing game in quarterback Dayne Crist, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph all former five-star prospects recruited by Weis.
He also inherits nine return starters from a perennially underachieving defense and a schedule that likely favors the Irish in at least ten of the first eleven games, give or take Stanford, Pittsburgh and Utah. Yes, you've heard that somewhere before. But you've also seen first-year coaches make immediate progress in South Bend with far less on hand in their first year, and with far less of a consistent track record as a head coach than Kelly brings now. The new staff has plenty at its disposal to make an immediate run at a BCS game, and (more importantly) a clean slate after all the Weis-era baggage.
• Florida's offense will improve under John Brantley, but Florida will not. The overall numbers tell a pretty clear story: The Gators led the SEC in total offense for the third year in a row under quarterback Tim Tebow, and finished second in scoring; Tebow himself finished with the highest pass efficiency rating in the nation. In reality, though, both Tebow and the offense in general fell far short of their 2007-08 production in SEC games, and were regularly forced to lean on a dominant defense to carry them back to the SEC title game. When Alabama gave the Gator D more than it could handle in Atlanta, Tebow and Co. had no response.
Brantley steps into the biggest shoes in the nation with a wildly praised right arm and a more conventional pocket style that figures to reopen the offense with the deep-passing threat that gradually disappeared under Tebow. Minus five draft picks from the defense, though, the Gators could easily pick up some of the slack on offense and still find themselves relegated to the fringes of the national picture by a stumble or two in shootouts.
• Washington's bowl drought will end. The Huskies' seven-year absence from the postseason is their longest by far since the Pac-10 began allowing also-rans to go to bowls other than the Rose Bowl in the seventies: Before the 1-10 season under coach Keith Gilbertson that kicked off the current slide in 2004, they hadn't endured a losing season in Seattle in 27 years. Last year's leap from 0-12 in 2008 to 5-7 with upsets of USC, Arizona and Cal was a huge leap back toward that kind of stability in Steve Sarkisian's first year as a head coach. And if quarterback Jake Locker would be a serious Heisman contender on a team with more weapons and better prospects for a darkhorse Pac-10 title run, with nine other offensive starters and all but two players who touched the ball last year en tow again this fall, he's still willing to settle for his first bowl game on his way out.
• The Heisman gets defensive. He didn't win, but Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was only serious candidate in my lifetime who brazenly flouted every unwritten rule about who is "allowed" to win the Heisman last December: He didn't play quarterback, running back or receiver; he didn't play for a championship contender; he didn't have any cameos on offense or score a touchdown of any variety. He didn't rewrite any record books. He didn't play anywhere near a major media market. His name is really hard to spell and pronounce. No one like him had ever really been in the discussion for the trophy down to the final weekend.
In large part, Suh's candidacy was only possible because of a more plugged-in, information-saturated environment that offers more games than ever before on television and far, far more engagement with other media types and fans from across the country via the web. The gospel on great players like Suh can travel further, faster than ever. Of course, it's possible there are no other players quite like Suh, but Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn is too good and too high-profile already to fly under the radar if he reprises his head-turning performances against Penn State, Ohio State and Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
• Big Ten heads will roll. At least three of them from the ranks of the conference's head coaches, two of which will belong to Illinois' Ron Zook and Minnesota's Tim Brewster: After five years and three years, respectively, both the Illini and Gophers seem to be in the same ruts that got predecessors Ron Turner and Glen Mason fired. You might assume that the third head belongs to Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, and you may be right, given that the Wolverines seem to have almost no hope of returning to the nine and ten-win thresholds they took for granted before the back-to-back catastrophes of Rodriguez;s first two seasons.
But with a couple quarterbacks who have actually taken live college snaps for a change and dramatically lowered expectations, some tiny glimmer of hope remains that any signs of progress after the losing and the probation and the nonstop negativity of the last two years – even if it's just a .500 campaign and a gallant effort against Ohio State going into a bottom-rung bowl game – may be enough to keep RichRod in the fold for one more go in 2011. If Rodriguez does survive, there's still room on the gallows for Indiana's Bill Lynch.
And on the other side of the coin...
• Ohio State will play for the BCS championship. The Buckeyes are the most experienced of the major title contenders by a wide margin, and the only one that comes into the season without a glaring negative lying in wait to kneecap their championship hopes at some random point in the season. As glaring positives go, an MVP effort in January's Rose Bowl could go down as the turning point for quarterback Terrelle Pryor, now 23 starts into a career that should begin to catch up to the hype in year three.
That triumph was the Buckeyes' third straight over a top-10 opponent, following regular-season wins over Penn State and Iowa to lock up the Big Ten title, after six straight, high-profile flops against top-10 teams beginning with the 2006 BCS Championship Game. This is a very different cast from the one that endured serial traumas against the Gators, Tigers and Trojans, and given how quickly it came together when the sky seemed to be falling last November, it seems to be made of the stuff to finally finish the job. Deal with it, America.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.