College football landscape will look plenty different
Begin with what is new or different or screwball about this football season.
No Bobby Petrino Harley in Fayetteville, no Joe Paterno statue in State College, Pa., no Kansas-Missouri game after 120 years. Ohio State and Penn State have gone to 87 bowl games between them, but both will spend this postseason in the NCAA cooler.
The Football Bowl Subdivision has swollen to 124 teams, 12 of them from Texas.
After another rash of realignment, the Big Ten still has 12 teams and the Big 12 still has 10, including West Virginia, which is 900 miles from its nearest league neighbor.
Temple, expelled from the Big East eight years ago for chronic football lousiness, has been welcomed back, since the Owls are better and the league needs warm bodies.
In the South, all eyes look toward Nov. 24 and that most traditional of SEC games, Missouri vs. Texas A&M.
The nation's longest winning streak, at nine, belongs not to a blue blood but Northern Illinois.
Hawaii is led by Norm Chow, a 66-year-old lifetime assistant who had never been a college head coach. Toledo's new coach, Matt Campbell, is 32. Bob Davie, who has been in the TV booth since Notre Dame fired him 11 years ago, is at New Mexico, which scored 18 touchdowns last year. Speaking of ex-Notre Damers, Charlie Weis is at Kansas. Pittsburgh's new man is Paul Chryst, the Panthers' fourth head coach in the last 20 months. One of the four is Todd Graham, who is at Arizona State, his fourth school in seven years. College football has gone back to the Bowdens, with Terry coaching at Akron, where the Zips went 2-22 the last two years.
There are the scheduling quirks.
Iowa doesn't play is first true road game until Oct. 13. Purdue doesn't leave its state until Oct. 20. Ohio has no Saturday games after Oct. 27. Central Michigan talked Michigan State into coming for a visit. Louisiana Tech plays a road game in all four continental U.S. time zones. Florida has two true road games after Sept. 15.
Massachusetts, in its first season in the FBS, decided to woo its state by playing all home games in Foxborough nearly 100 miles from campus.
Washington's fate might be sealed in its first six games, since they include a trip to LSU and a back-to-back-to-back slog through Stanford, Oregon and Southern California.
On the other hand, Georgia not only can feast on a non-league schedule that includes Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and Georgia Southern but can thank the gods for somehow missing LSU, Alabama and Arkansas on its SEC slate.
And there are the questions that only four loud months can answer. These 10, for instance:
1. Another year, another SEC national championship?
We should really step back and take a minute to appreciate the wonder of the same league producing six consecutive national champions, in an era of deep parity and disposable karma. Even if SEC zealots are insufferable about it.
With five lodge members in the preseason top 10, it looks as if the beat might go on. Alabama lost Trent Richardson and much of its magnificent defense, and LSU must move past the sudden loss of Tyrann Mathieu, but both programs are way too powerful to go away. Their Nov. 3 meeting is a natural crossroads of the season.
Still, even the Ice Age finally ended. USC and Oklahoma are most likely to break the streak, but the main threat might simply be the law of averages.
2. From the dust of Penn State will come â¦ what?
Nobody ever faced a new coaching job with quite the same dynamics as Bill O'Brien. The last year that Joe Paterno was not on the sideline for the Nittany Lions was 1949, but filling shoes is the least of O'Brien's worries. Penn State has some bite at linebacker at least that hasn't changed and tools on offense. If enormous adversity can unite a team, the Nittany Lions will look as if they were put together with Super Glue.
But hard times are ahead, and nobody really has a clue about how long they might last. The nation will watch Penn State this season with the same fascination onlookers watch the implosion of a historical landmark building.
3. Was it smarter to stay than to go?
USC's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones, both bitten with the unfinished-business bug, turned down the chance to be highly drafted as NFL quarterbacks.
Nothing wrong with that. You get to be a college kid once. But each blindside crunch by a blitzing linebacker will be a reminder of what they've risked for a shot at the national championship. We'll find out by January if it was the right call.
4. How quickly can Urban Meyer dot the "i" in Ohio State?
There were 28 FBS coaching changes this season, and none more significant than in Columbus, where Meyer presumably rested and refocused from his sabbatical has been called on to speed along the Buckeyes' revival.
He seems perfect for the position, but the Ohio State job can test a man in ways even life in Florida's Swamp did not. Let's see how he enjoys his first Michigan week, since that is the Buckeyes' bowl game this year.
5. And the rest of the new guys?
This is a bumper crop of recirculated familiar names who carry scars but are seeking better days in new ZIP codes. Weis, Davie, Bowden. Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, Mike Leach at Washington State.
But one of the most important retreads might be an assistant. Mike Stoops, after up-and-down years as coach at Arizona, is back as defensive coordinator for brother Bob at Oklahoma, where he once thrived. The Sooners gave up 130 points in their three losses last season, and that has to stop if they're to be legitimate SEC-busters.
6. How do the new arranged marriages work out?
Consider the possibilities of the brave new world. Missouri shocks Georgia in the second week. Oklahoma has trouble with the charms of a visit to Morgantown, W.Va. TCU turns out to be just as hard to defeat in the Big 12 as the Horned Frogs were in the leagues of paler lights.
The conference realignments do not all make sense, and some of them reek of panic. Among the most unfortunate byproducts is the gutting of old rivalries, such as Texas vs. Texas A&M. But there is something to be said for new faces and new challenges.
7. Can Notre Dame overcome the most frightening prospect of all national irrelevance?
Thirty-two schools have won a BCS-level bowl since the Irish last won one after the 1991 season. The echoes aren't sleeping, they've been in a coma.
Notre Dame again has promise, and Brian Kelly needs only to find the right quarterback to make the Irish potent. But they face the hardest schedule in recent memory with Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Miami, Oklahoma, BYU and USC on the docket.
Notre Dame always wants to keep its ghosts happy. But wait till Rockne sees the new helmets.
8. Who finds light at the end of their tunnels?
The Army folks would like to be able to show their faces around the Pentagon again. The Cadets are 1-19 the last 10 years against Navy and Air Force.
Derek Dooley needs something good to happen fast at Tennessee.
Frank Spaziani must make the Boston College faithful forget about the first losing season in 13 years.
Randy Edsall had an awful 2-10 debut at Maryland, where even the helmets were (rightfully) panned. This year has started no better. He lost one quarterback to Wisconsin and another to a knee injury and has nobody left who has thrown a pass in college.
9. What inexplicable numbers will enrich the Saturday landscape?
Last season, Southern Mississippi returned eight interceptions for touchdowns, meaning its defenders took more passes into the end zone than New Mexico's receivers.
Ten of Utah State's games were decided by a combined 35 points.
Illinois won six in a row, then lost six in a row.
LSU averaged 41 points a game against every opponent not named Alabama but managed three field goals in two games against the Tide.
Toledo lost 63-60 one week, then won 66-63 the next week.
10. Come December, will we see a raging BCS controversy?
Oh, let's hope so. The BCS is a lame duck, and there would be no better way to send it out the next couple of years than with farewell chaos. Get back to college football as we've known it where the uproar is about what comes out of a computer ranking, not a courtroom or accident report.