I’m as excited as I’ve been in at least four years for the start of college football. This has much to do with Tim Tebow being in the NFL and Lane Kiffin again being two time zones away from where my family sleeps. (If there is a football god, Kiffin will someday coach Tebow with the Washington Redskins.) The temperatures around here make for a cruel welcome to football season, but the college game remains the lingua franca of Southern sports fans. (Or for any man, woman, or child who considers “the American South” home.)
Here are seven stories I’ll be following over the next four months.
• Conference USA is no BCS league; we’ll be hearing and reading this until the University of Memphis is finally able to make a big switch. But considering C-USA remains the Tigers’ battle ground for 2010, you couldn’t ask for a more challenging home schedule. The four highest-ranked C-USA teams, according to Rivals.com, will all be visiting the Liberty Bowl. An upset over Houston, UCF, Southern Miss, or Tulsa could well make the season for first-year Memphis coach Larry Porter. And if you can see only one game this fall, get tickets for the October 30th contest with Houston. Cougar quarterback Case Keenum is on every Heisman Trophy watch list, and aims for a third consecutive 5,000-yard passing season. Yeah . . . 5,000 yards.
• This will be the third straight season — and fifth in the last seven — that a Heisman Trophy winner returns for a chance to join Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the only two-time recipients of the hallowed stiff-armed hardware. (There were actually two Heisman winners playing last season: Tebow at Florida and Sam Bradford at Oklahoma.) But I’m not convinced Alabama’s Mark Ingram will repeat. The Tide has another tailback — Trent Richardson — who will demand carries this season. The Heisman doesn’t go to sidekicks. If I were to pick a winner here in August, I’d go with Pitt tailback Dion Lewis. Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards as a freshman last season, and his Panthers have a schedule with only two Top 25 opponents.
• Here’s a bowl scenario worth watching. Let’s say 8th-ranked Nebraska — on its way to the Big 10 in 2011 — upsets Texas (ranked 5th in the preseason) in the Big 12 championship game on December 4th at Cowboys Stadium. And let’s say the top Big 10 teams — Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin — disappoint. (Unlikely, as the Big 10 is top-heavy. One of these teams will lose no more than a single game.) Would the Rose Bowl, which traditionally invites a Pac 10 and Big 10 team, consider the Huskers for New Year’s Day 2011? This presumes, of course, Nebraska wouldn’t be in the mix for the BCS title game.
• If you’re looking for this season’s Game of the Century, mark your calendar for October 2nd when Alabama hosts Florida. The only two SEC teams in the Top 10 — the teams that squared off for the SEC championship last December — will play in the regular season in what will likely be mere prelude to the SEC championship two months later. (Another game worth watching will be next Monday night, when Boise State and Virginia Tech play in Landover, Maryland. The Hokies could be all that stands in the way of a second-straight undefeated season for the Broncos.)
• In debating which conference is the country’s second best, it’s hard to ignore the ACC. The league that steals our attention every March starts football season with five teams in the Top 25: Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Florida State.
• Here’s an upset waiting to happen: LSU over Alabama on November 6th. Tiger coach Les Miles will be fighting for his job, having gone 9-4 in 2009. Tide coach Nick Saban will be back in Death Valley, where he sculpted the 2003 national champs but now will face the scorn of an entire football culture. If Alabama can get by Florida in October, this will be its final hurdle before the SEC championship game.
• Memphis coach Larry Porter will likely name his starting quarterback for the Mississippi State game today. Between freshman Ryan Williams and sophomore Cannon Smith, may the better signal-caller win. But purely in metaphorical terms, I like the idea of a guy named Cannon playing quarterback, the son of a man who made his fortune with a company built on delivering through the air. The headlines will write themselves.