Can anyone stop Florida?
Will Tim Tebow take back the Heisman from Sam Bradford?
And just how entertaining will Lane Kiffin be once the games actually start?
These are just three of the biggest questions floating around the college football world as we prepare for the 2009 season. Here, I'll attempt to answer those questions, and seven more, as spring practice gets under way.
1. Can anyone beat Florida?
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The Gators will enter the season as the prohibitive favorite to win their second straight national title—and third in four years. They return every starter from a nasty defensive unit and will be led offensively by Tim Tebow, one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Georgia has lost both Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno to the NFL and Tennessee is in rebuilding mode under Lane Kiffin, so the Gators should breeze through their SEC East schedule. It's unclear whether anyone from the SEC West can challenge Florida, either. It seems crazy to say it, but the reality is, the Gators may not even be tested until the national championship game—and a possible rematch against Oklahoma.
2. Will this be the greatest Heisman race ever?
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It's safe to say college football hasn't seen anything like this in decades. Each of the top three vote-getters in the 2008 Heisman race—Florida’s Tim Tebow, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Texas’ Colt McCoy—return for 2009. Even better, two of those guys already have a Heisman on their mantel. So, suffice to say, this Heisman race figures to be the most hyped and most closely followed ever. Does Tebow capitalize on his 2008 national title and take the trophy back from Bradford? Does Bradford put up even more ridiculous numbers than he did in 2008 to keep the trophy for a second straight year? Or does McCoy rise up and take both the national championship and Heisman away from his fellow quarterbacks? We shall see.
3. Is there any hope for the Big Ten?
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The Big Ten badly needed a great bowl season in 2008. They didn’t get it. Penn State got thumped by USC in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State lost to Texas in the Fiesta. Wisconsin was steamrolled by Florida State. And when the dust had finally settled, the once-mighty Big Ten was left with a 1-6 2008 bowl record. Criticism of the conference reached new (and, arguably, illogical) levels last season, and things will be even worse this year—unless a few Big Ten teams can step up and win some big non-conference games early in the season. Of course, winning a few bowl games would help, too.
4. Which huge underdog will upset USC this year?
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It’s become one of the great joys of college football season in recent years—the totally out-of-the-blue USC collapse against some completely overmatched opponent. Three years ago, it was Oregon State. Two years ago, it was Stanford. And last year, it was once more the Beavers, who ruined the Trojans’ chances of playing for the national title with a stunning upset in Corvallis. Three years running, the Trojans have blown their national title hopes by losing games they should have not only won, but dominated. And so the rap on Pete Carroll is now clear: He can win the big ones. He just can’t win the little ones. Which little one will he lose in 2009? Well, keep an eye on UCLA.
5. Will Notre Dame make a run at the BCS?
Time is running out on Charlie Weis. Now entering his fifth year in South Bend, Weis knows he’s got to deliver what he promised upon his arrival: A national title contender. A title may be a stretch, but given the returning talent on offense and the fact that no team has to do less to get into the BCS than the Irish, a BCS bowl berth certainly seems to be a reasonable goal. It won’t be easy though. Weis still lacks starpower on defense and, maybe more disturbingly for Irish fans, hasn't exactly proven himself to be a master tactician. The Irish don't look particularly well coached, and it's cost them some games (see: North Carolina last season).
6. Will Michigan go bowling?
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Year One of the Rich Rodriguez Era was—well, how to put this?—a complete disaster. The Wolverines finished 3-9, got blown out by both Ohio State and Penn State and even lost to Toledo … at home. The biggest problem was quarterback, where Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan struggled to run Rodriguez’s spread offensive attack. The problem? They just weren’t talented enough to make it work. This year, things may improve—but I’m not sure how much. True freshman Tate Forcier figures to take over under center, but while the kid has plenty of talent (he can run it, he can throw it), he is, after all, only a freshman—and a small one at that. Unless the Wolverines can protect him, Forcier (and the Michigan faithful) may be in for another long year.
7. Will JoePa pull away from Bobby Bowden?
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We still aren’t sure how the NCAA will rule on the Florida State cheating scandal. If the NCAA holds firm against Florida State’s appeal and insists the school vacate wins from 2006 and 2007, we can safely assume that Paterno will retire with the all-time Division I wins record. But if the NCAA backs down? Well, then things get interesting. Paterno enters the season with one more win than Bowden, and though Penn State appears to be a better team than Florida State, the Nits do have a lot of question marks (like, for instance: Who’s going to play receiver?). Florida State came on strong late in 2008 and just might win 10 games in 2009. In other words, if Florida State wins its appeal, the Bowden-Paterno race is going to be close. Very close.
8. Just how entertaining is Lane Kiffin going to be?
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I am guessing the answer to that question will be: “Very.” A quick recap of the eventful first four months of the Kiffin Era can be found here
. And just think, folks, the guy hasn’t even coached a game yet. I don’t know how much this guy is going to win (though, in all seriousness, I expect him to have Tennessee back in the Top 20 by 2010) but I do know he’s going to keep us college football writers busy. He’s the best thing to happen to us since Steve Spurrier, the Florida years.
9. Who’s on the hot seat?
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Last summer, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden signed a huge contract extension. His team was the preseason favorite to win the ACC and a trendy pick to win the national title, too. Then the season started, Clemson tanked, and within weeks Bowden was out of a job. Yes, it happened that fast. And the guy was only one of the most successful coaches in Clemson history. So if Bowden can be forced out so swiftly, anyone can. Some of the top candidates in 2009? Ron Zook at Illinois (the reality is, he’s had one good season). Bill Lynch at Indiana (was 2007 a fluke?). Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville (hasn’t shown much of anything). Dan Hawkins at Colorado (stunningly average).
10. Will the ACC finally deliver a superpower?
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The ACC was not a bad league last year. In fact, it was actually quite good. About the only thing it lacked (and has lacked for some time now) was a truly elite team—the kind of squad that could legitimately compete with the USCs, Oklahomas and Floridas of the world. Miami and Florida State are improving but, despite their proud histories, are far from elite today. Virginia Tech and Boston College have had nice runs of success but simply don't have the resources to remain consistently great. Virginia and Maryland are good one year, average the next. Clemson … well, don’t even go there. If you’re looking for a darkhorse candidate to fill that “superpower” role, look no further than Atlanta. Yes, believe it. Georgia Tech, ACC superpower.