Can Rich Rodriguez save his job?
Can Brian Kelly revitalize Notre Dame?
And can Urban Meyer survive without Tim Tebow?
With spring practice now under way, those are three of the biggest questions facing the college football world in 2010. Here, I’ll try to answer those questions—and seven more—as we look forward to those always entertaining spring games in April.
We’ll start with the mess up at Michigan, where coach Rich Rodriguez needs to win—and win big—if he hopes to enjoy a fourth season in Ann Arbor.
Can Rich Rodriguez save his job?
Rodriguez's tenure has been, so far, a complete and utter failure. In two seasons in Ann Arbor, Rodriguez’s record is an unseemly 8-16. He’s 0-2 against Ohio State, 0-2 against Penn State and 0-2 against Michigan State. He’s had players transfer and endured the indignity of an NCAA investigation. So, yes, the natives are getting restless, and Rodriguez probably needs to win at least eight games this year to save his job. But that’s no sure thing. Though quarterback Tate Forcier figures to make a great leap forward for that Michigan offense, Michigan remains stunningly untalented on defense and, apparently, physically incapable of competing in the Big Ten. This isn’t the Big East, RichRod. Adjust or pay the consequences
Can Brian Kelly revitalize Notre Dame?
Yes, he can, and you’ll start seeing evidence of that almost immediately. Take a look at his record and it's clear that Kelly is one of the best coaches in college football today. He won at Grand Valley State. He won at Cincinnati. And now that he’s at Notre Dame—the first stop on his coaching tour at which he’ll have truly unlimited resources—he’s bound to win huge. I mean, huge. The Irish probably don’t have enough talent to make a run at the BCS this year, but they won’t be blown out by anybody, they’ll spring an upset or two, and by this time next year we’ll be talking about Notre Dame as a national title contender. Kelly has great schemes, great work ethic and a proven recruiting record. The Irish will be back. And soon.
Can Urban Meyer survive without Tim Tebow?
Sure, he’ll survive. But don’t expect the Gators to be what they were now that The Chosen One has moved on the NFL (snore). I have no doubt that John Brantley, Tebow's apparent successor, is a fine player. I also have no doubt that he’s no Tim Tebow. And given how heavily those Florida teams of the past three seasons relied on Tebow to make all of the clutch plays down the stretch (see: 2008 SEC Championship Game), I have to expect that the Florida offense—which wasn’t exactly a juggernaut last season, by the way—will take a significant step backward. Sure, Florida is still the best team in the SEC East. But without Tebow, they simply don’t have the muscle to compete with Alabama.
Will anybody challenge Alabama in the SEC?
It sure doesn’t look like it. Florida, as we already mentioned, faces the (monumental) challenge of replacing the best player in school history. Georgia needs to completely rebuild its increasingly porous defense. LSU has clearly lost a step since its 2007 national championship season (see item about coaches on the hot seat below). Ole Miss was overrated last season and won’t be any better next season. Arkansas will be improved, sure, and Auburn seems headed in the right direction under Gene Chizik. But it’s quite clear that Nick Saban’s squad—a team that returns its starting quarterback, superstar receiver and Heisman-winning tailback (must be nice)—is the best in the SEC. And I don’t think it’s really that close.
Can Boise State make a run at the national championship?
Yes. Definitely yes. The Broncos earned respect by knocking off Oklahoma back in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. But they earned outright BCS legitimacy, I think, with last year's Fiesta win over a very, very good TCU team. There were some out there (Yours Truly included, folks) who believed TCU was the best team in the country last season, but Boise made the Froggies look downright average. Boise is fast, talented (see: Heisman contender Kellen Moore) and extremely well coached, and they should be favored in every game they play next season (yes, including that October showdown against Virginia Tech). If the Broncos run the table, they should—and will—get a chance to play for the national title.
Just how entertaining is Lane Kiffin going to be?
Around this time last year I asked the exact same question. It's just that I was talking about Kiffin’s tenure at Tennessee. My response at the time? “I am guessing the answer to that question will be: ‘Very.’” Well, chalk one up for me, folks. Because in one short (or, if you're a Tennessee fan, long) season with the Vols, Kiffin ran his mouth, called out rival coaches, got in trouble with the NCAA, won a few games, and nearly caused a riot when he finally skipped town. Kiffin may be a better fit in Los Angeles than he was in Knoxville, but at the end of the day, he’s still same guy—impulsive, overconfident, unafraid, misguided. So prepare for some fireworks, Trojans fans.
Who’s on the hot seat?
Clearly, Ron Zook tops the list. The Illinois coach is now coming up on his sixth year with the Illini, and he doesn’t have much to show for his tenure outside of that (admittedly impressive) Rose Bowl run in 2007. Making life more difficult for the embattled Zooker is the fact that he enters 2010 without his two biggest stars—quarterback Juice Williams and wideout Aurrellius Benn. Neither Williams nor Benn came close to fulfilling their potential with the Illini, but at least they had talent. The same can’t be said for most of the current Illini roster. Other coaches that need to win this year? Indiana’s Bill Lynch, LSU’s Les Miles, Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen and Colorado’s Dan Hawkins. Georgia’s Mark Richt might want to win a few, too.
Can Paul Johnson keep Georgia Tech atop the ACC?
Yes. And, in fact, he will. As longtime readers know, I’ve been on the Johnson bandwagon from the moment he arrived in Atlanta. You can look it up. As soon as Johnson took over at Tech, I proclaimed he would win big; he’s done exactly that. Last season he led the Yellow Jackets to an 11-3 record, ACC championship and Orange Bowl bid. Next year should be just as good, as quarterback Josh Nesbitt—never spectacular, but better than you think—returns to lead Tech's triple-option attack. Johnson is never going to wow you with his recruiting classes and the Jackets will never look all that good on paper. But as long as he's around, this team is going to win a lot of football games—and make life miserable for ACC defensive coordinators.
Is this Joe Paterno’s last season?
No. Though his longtime “rival,” Bobby Bowden, is through at Florida State, thereby ensuring Paterno victory in the (overhyeped and mostly irrelevant) race to become college football’s winningest Division I coach, there are no signs—I mean, none—that Paterno is at all interested in stepping aside at Penn State. His Nittany Lions are coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and Paterno just reeled in the Big Ten’s best recruiting class, too. The Nits face somewhat of a rebuild in 2010—they need to replace such standouts as quarterback Daryll Clark, linebackers Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman and defensive tackle Jared Odrick—but they’ll still finish near the top of the Big Ten. And the Nits could make a run for the national title in 2011.
Can Chip Kelly salvage the still-unfolding train wreck up there at Oregon?
I’m not so sure. Oregon opened 2009 with that embarrassment of a performance against Boise State—then methodically went about the work of turning the season into an enormous success. The Ducks ended up Pac-10 champs and were the trendy pick to knock off Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Since then? Well, the Ducks got steamrolled by the Buckeyes, saw their star tailback (LaMichael James) and star quarterback (Jeremiah Masoli) get into legal trouble, learned that Masoli would miss the entire 2010 season due to suspension and, most recently, saw longtime coach and athletic director Mike Bellotti jump ship to go work for ESPN. Three months ago, Oregon was the easy pick to win the Pac-10. Now I wouldn’t be surprised if this team finished under .500.