September 1, 2010

After eventful offseason, a new year is here

Huge gains, costly losses, reversals of field, big hits, controversial calls, painful mistakes and major penalties are elements of a great season in college football. The 2010 offseason had all of that.

If the 2010 campaign, which thankfully opens Thursday with 18 games involving FBS teams, is half as eventful and unpredictable as the eight-month period since Alabama defeated Texas for the BCS national championship, the long, hard wait will have been well worth it.

National Signing Day and spring football offered some respite, but the chasm between seasons leaves college football fanatics with a void in their lives. This year, at least, the withdrawal symptoms have been placated by perhaps the craziest offseason in the sport's history. Among the offseason events:

The Big Ten added Nebraska, the Pac-10 added Utah and Colorado and the Mountain West added Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada. In addition, BYU announced it would leave the Mountain West for football independence.

USC lost 30 scholarships over three seasons and was declared ineligible to compete in a bowl game in the next two seasons under NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal.

"Agent-gate" surfaced in July. Several top prospects, including North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin, Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus and South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, had their eligibility questioned for allegedly attended an agent-sponsored party in Miami. Saunders has been suspended indefinitely, but there has been no word -- at least no public word -- on the others.

"Every year you normally have a half-dozen issues that come up internally -- from an academic standpoint, an eligibility standpoint, offseason problems, external issues -- that you have to deal with," said Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, whose 15th-ranked Panthers play at Utah in Thursday's biggest game. "But for three months [because of conference expansion talk], everything you saw in the paper was, 'Will the Big East survive? Will it grow? What's going to happen?' That's not a normal conversation piece. The agent thing is always there, too, but has just become a lot more visible.

"No question, we've been in the bunker, as we call it. The practice field and the meeting room are our safe havens. For most coaches, when the external fire is going on with all the outside issues, those are the only places everybody is working together, everybody is positive and the players are excited."

The excitement spans the country, and there are dozens of reasons for it. Among them:

Can Alabama be the first team to win back-to-back BCS national championships? Will Crimson Tide running back Mark Ingram join Ohio State's Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman recipient?

Three consecutive sophomores have won the Heisman. That trend could continue with Oregon's LaMichael James, Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams, USC's Matt Barkley, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis in their second seasons.

Two quarterback icons are gone. John Brantley succeeds Tim Tebow at Florida and Garrett Gilbert takes over for Colt McCoy -- the winningest starting quarterback in Division I history -- at Texas.

This could be the season a team from a non-automatic qualifying BCS conference plays for the national championship. Boise State opened the season ranked fifth in the coaches' poll and would be able to make a case for a title-game spot if it beats Virginia Tech and Oregon State on the way to another undefeated season.

The Brian Kelly era begins at Notre Dame. He's one of 23 coaches taking over at new programs. Among the others are Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech, Derek Dooley at Tennessee, Lane Kiffin at USC and Jimbo Fisher, who takes over at Florida State after legendary coach Bobby Bowden was forced into retirement after last season.

Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor has been compared to Vince Young. Young had a great season and led Texas to a national championship as a junior; at the end of his sophomore season, Young had a big game in a Rose Bowl victory. Pryor is entering his junior season and had a big game in a Rose Bowl victory to close out his sophomore season.

Michigan aims to avoid a third consecutive losing season, a span of futility never experienced in the Wolverines' rich football history. Another losing season likely would cost coach Rich Rodriguez his job. The season opener against Connecticut and a second-week trip to Notre Dame will be crucial.

Illinois' Ron Zook, Colorado's Dan Hawkins, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen and Washington State's Paul Wulff are among a number of other coaches whose jobs could be in jeopardy if their teams don't have successful records.

Texas tries to post at least 10 victories for the 10th consecutive season.

In its final year of Big 12 membership, Nebraska aims to return to the nation's elite and end a five-game losing streak to nemesis Texas along the way. Indeed, the Huskers, who won three national championships in four seasons from 1994-98, are aiming to win their first Big 12 championship in 11 seasons.

Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arkansas, North Carolina and Oregon State are preseason top-25 teams looking to win their first conference championship in at least a decade.

By comparison, Pittsburgh has had a relatively short break since tying for the Big East championship in 2004. That was the season before Wannstedt took over his alma mater with hopes of restoring the program to the national prominence it enjoyed in the 1980s.

"Are we graduating players like we'd hoped? Yes," Wannstedt said. "Are we putting people in the stands and have people excited in the city and wearing Pitt stuff? Yes. Are we putting players into the NFL and giving them a chance to play at the next level? Yes.

"We feel good about those things. We've won some games, but what we haven't done in a while, what our goal is, is to win a championship."

Of course, championships are the goal of every team. And there are intriguing races that could make the 2010 season one of the most exciting ever.

At the very least, let's hope it's as eventful as the offseason.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at

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