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College Football Questions & Answers: LSU, Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State

Can LSU Bounce Back? Is the Clock Ticking on Brian Kelly at Notre Dame?

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Yes, it's been only a matter of days since Alabama knocked off LSU (in convincing fashion) to claim to the 2011 BCS National Championship. I mean, I'm guessing the party is still raging in some quarters of Tuscaloosa. Such is life down South.

But let's face it: We can't talk about the 2011 season forever (sorry, 'Bama), and so, even here in the depths of winter, with the next snaps of college football so far in the distance that it's darn near impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel, there is but one thing to do: Bravely look ahead to the 2012 season, even though that season seems light-years away.

So that's precisely what we'll do here, in our first off-season edition of College Football Questions & Answers for 2012. Here, we'll take a look at the long off-season ahead for LSU, the lingering questions facing Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, the monumental challenge that confronts Bill O'Brien at Penn State and a whole bunch more.

1. Can LSU recover?

LSU Alabama 2011
(Getty Images)
Well, we shall see. Take a look at any of the myriad way-too-early Preseason Top 25s out there (mine will be published shortly, I assure you) and you'll see Les Miles' LSU Tigers ranked right up near the top. And justifiably so, of course. The Tigers cruised their way through the 2011 season and looked well on their way to winning yet another national title before running into the buzzsaw that was that hyped-up Alabama Crimson Tide team down in New Orleans. For the vast majority of the season, the Tigers looked to be the most complete, most confident, most talented team in the nation, and with many of the key cogs from that 2011 bunch coming back--yes, the Honey Badger shall return, as will all-everything punter Brad Wing and host of other stars--one could make a pretty darn good case that, on paper, LSU will once against be the most complete, most talented team in the nation. But the most confident? Well, that remains to be seen. I'd hate to over-think things, of course, but part of me believes that the loss to Alabama will linger, and that this LSU squad is going to have an awfully hard time forgetting just how close they were to the biggest prize of all, and how awful they were on the game's biggest stage. Make no mistake: LSU got flat-out embarrassed by 'Bama in that title game, and all at once, it seems as though Nick Saban has reasserted himself as The Unquestioned Best in the coaching business (sorry, Les). Yes, LSU will be very good next year. But up the road, Saban remains. And you have to wonder if maybe the guy is now in the Tigers' heads. Even just a little bit.

2. Is the clock officially ticking on Brian Kelly at Notre Dame?

Brian Kelly
(Getty Images)
Yes. Definitely yes. I am not ashamed to admit that, when Brian Kelly took over in South Bend, I expected big, big things. I expected 10-win seasons. I expected BCS bowl appearances. I expected national championships. In other words, I expected a lot. But here we are two years into the Kelly era, and you know what we've got? We've got this: A 16-10 record over two seasons, two mid-level bowl appearances, a couple controversies, and a sense that, well, things aren't quite going according to plan. Let's just go ahead and say it. Kelly has been a disappointment thus far, and it's not like the 2011 Irish (8-5) showed vast improvement over the 2010 Irish (um, 8-5). The arrival of the much-hyped Gunner Kiel could help Kelly solve his quarterback issues, and the defense has certainly shown a willingness to play more physically than they have in years past, but it's hard to see this bunch doing much better than 9-3 in 2012, especially considering a schedule that includes road games at Oklahoma (loss) and USC (loss). Will 9-3 be enough to convince the fussy Irish fans that Kelly is the right guy for Notre Dame? Maybe. Would 8-4 cause some unrest? Probably. And would 7-5 put Kelly squarely on the hot seat? Definitely. Like I said: The clock is ticking.

3. What can we reasonably expect from Bill O'Brien at Penn State?

Penn State-Nebraska 2011
(Getty Images)
At best, a sense that things in Happy Valley are returning to "normal." Look, while many pundits out there would like you to think that every single person associated with Penn State football--players, fans, townspeople, staff, etc.--should be made to suffer because of the alleged horrific acts of Jerry Sandusky, the reality is, nobody outside of Sandusky and a small group of high-level administrators had any idea that this tragedy was unfolding. Everybody else? Well, they've basically been caught up in a firestorm that they played no role in creating. Say what you will about Joe Paterno or the Penn State administration, but no thinking person could honestly say that those players--kids who never played for Sandusky, by the way--or those fans should be punished more than they already have been. They are innocent bystanders to a tragedy, and no, they should not be admonished for wanting to once again feel good about playing for, or rooting for, their favorite college football program. Penn State football has a long and storied history, and while Sandusky has unquestionably tarnished that history, he did not destroy it. The program has been battered and bruised, but it should be allowed to recover. It should be allowed to move forward. It should be allowed to seek success. And it should be allowed to do so without having to deal with the condemnation of the rest of the country. In a sense, Bill O'Brien's biggest and most important task will be making this transition--this transition from the old guard to the new, from the Paterno era to the post-Paterno era--go as smoothly as possible. The wins will come, or they won't. But in the short term, that's not really what's important. What's important is this: Giving Penn State football supporters something to believe in again, and giving them the freedom to once again lose themselves, even if for only a few hours, in the simple beauty of a great college football Saturday in Happy Valley.

4. How long it take for Urban Meyer to turn Ohio State into a national powerhouse?

Urban Meyer
(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
My guess? About a year. Look, all due respect to Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. He's done a remarkable job during his tenure in Madison, and the back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances are, quite frankly, somewhat astounding for a program of Wisconsin's stature (no, that is not intended as a slight, Badger fans, but with all due respect, historically speaking, such accomplishments are not typically expected from your program). So certainly, Bielema must know what he's doing. But you know who else knows what he's doing? Urban Meyer, the guy who just happens to be The Second-Best Coach In College Football Today (yeah, Saban has the decided edge), the guy who just so happens to have had enjoyed ridiculously huge success at each school he's stopped at (Bowling Green, Utah, Florida), and the guy who just so happens to have just taken over at Ohio State, the only program in the Big Ten that is backed by SEC-level resources and SEC-level fanaticism. Barring some kind of unforeseen circumstances, it seems almost impossible that Meyer won't win huge at Ohio State; unfortunately for Wisconsin, Meyer's Buckeyes just happen to play in the same division. Which means, of course, that the Badgers' time in the sun is quickly running out. Meyer may struggle a bit in his first year in Columbus--quarterback Braxton Miller is a fantastic talent, yes, but there are too many holes on that roster and not enough time to fill them between now and August--but by 2013, he figures to have Ohio State playing at an elite level. Look for the Buckeyes to be Big Ten champs by 2013, and pushing for a national title by 2014. As for everyone else in the Leaders Division, Wisconsin included? Well, there are always those second-tier bowls in Florida.
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