The games themselves are only a month away. Talk of fall camp is about to replace endless bickering about Auburn’s plight with the NCAA and whether signed memorabilia at a clothing store is a NCAA felony or just a distraction on par with talk of a break in the D.B. Cooper case 40 years after the fact.
And then there is the talk of which team will win which games and which awards. The games will, eventually, take care of the talk themselves. But thanks to the makeup of the teams in the top 25, the 2011 season is filled with potential surprises, shockers – or, one of the most predictable, boring finishes ever.
1. There may only be six legitimate national title contenders this year … so watch out for Boise State. As much as it flies in the face of logic to consider, this could be the year in which a “BCS Buster” takes home the hardware. The issue isn’t with the strength of the Busters; it’s with the relative weakness of the rest of the field. The top 25 is top-heavy, with NARCAS seeing only six legitimate championship teams (Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Oklahoma, Florida State and Texas A&M), although the Big Ten champion may elbow its way into the discussion by default. If those six teams all lose early in the season, Boise State or TCU could rise to the top and stay there. The difference between this season and prior years is there doesn’t appear to be many stealth candidates emerging from the major conferences.
2. This could be the last season without a playoff. Seriously. Rumors around the league say that some university presidents are expecting Congress and the president to push for the abolition of the BCS sooner rather than later.
3. But if it’s not, get ready for BCS site reshuffling. One of the realities of a post-Katrina New Orleans is that the Sugar Bowl, while played in the heart of SEC country, is no longer sitting in the middle of a financial Mecca. The Fiesta Bowl also has its own issues. Ponder the fact that the four most important sites for college football are Miami, Fla.; Phoenix, Ariz.; New Orleans, La.; and Pasadena, Calif. What about bigger stadiums or more snazzy venues like Chicago, New York and Dallas? A Jerry Jones-backed Cotton Bowl is knocking loudly.
4. Expect talk of SEC expansion to heat up. Texas A&M and Oklahoma are said to be uncomfortable with the deal Texas got for its own network. The prevailing thought is that Texas believes it is Notre Dame and does not believe it needs the rest of the Big 12 to thrive. The Longhorns may be about to get their wish. Expect to hear this story develop over the course of the season.
5. Auburn will have to fight to get bowl eligible. This doesn’t surprise most people who have followed the pundits this offseason, but nevertheless, it is odd for the defending national champion to go from the penthouse to the outhouse so quickly. The real question is what effect it would have on Auburn’s recruiting. The Tigers have started fast out of the box and are threatening to finish with a top-3 class. If Auburn manages to pull that trick off, this will be the last season for some time in which Auburn isn’t a contender for the SEC West title. Wonder why most of Auburn’s foes are jonesing for NCAA investigative information? This is it.
6. The emergence of South Florida and Central Florida could be huge. Neither the Bulls nor the Golden Knights are national contenders yet, but they’re becoming destination points for home-state talent. This is the talent that used to go to Auburn and Georgia Tech, by the way, and it’s causing a reshuffling of the pecking order for schools. Someone’s going to get left out. In recent years, it’s been the Yellow Jackets, but Florida and Miami both have issues at the moment thanks to two factors: coaching changes, and the reemergence of Florida State under Jimbo Fisher. Eventually, this is going to create a backwards domino effect up through the ranks, and it’s going to get harder for teams not based in Florida to cherry-pick top Florida talent.
7. Mike Slive’s proposed reforms will gain traction. And most of them should. As much as his prohibition on roster management was a bad idea, as it has placed the SEC at a disadvantage relative to its peers, his positions on overhauling the NCAA enforcement process as well as his academic reforms and reinstitution of the partial-qualifier rule merit consideration. But one thing Slive didn’t touch on during his Media Days speech was conspicuous by its absence: reining in a recruiting process that is getting nastier by the week. Observers say it has never been worse than it is now, and more money changes hands than it ever has. The only solution might be the involvement of federal law enforcement officials under the guise of nailing tax evaders for unreported income.
8. The Heisman Trophy winner won’t come from the SEC. Andrew Luck and Landry Jones figure to fight for it, since 75 percent of the road to the Heisman is paved during the preseason, and Luck and Jones are the darlings at the moment. Quarterbacks typically have the edge, but occasionally (such as with Mark Ingram’s win) a running back can steal one if the quarterbacks struggle. Luck is adjusting to a new coach, while Jones needs to get more consistent. The SEC’s contenders are all running backs – Trent Richardson of Alabama, Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina and Knile Davis of Arkansas, and Davis is a very long shot. Assuming Lattimore and Richardson get the bulk of their respective teams’ carries, they will probably divide the Southern vote.
9. This might be the year of great change in Tuscaloosa. No, not that kind of great change (i.e., Saban’s retirement). But one has to wonder how much longer Jim McElwain and Kirby Smart will be around in Tuscaloosa. Both are in the prime of their careers in regards to other job opportunities, and it won’t just be Georgia or schools out west that come calling. Alabama has enjoyed a period of relative tranquility under Saban in terms of major staff changes, but this could be the last ride for this particular staff.
10. Is it time to leave the Georgia Dome behind? While the Georgia Dome does provide protection from the weather, and the Atlanta area gives attendees plenty of non-football things to do, the Falcons are considering leaving the Dome behind and the SEC might want to consider it. Rotating the SEC Championship Game between Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Dallas is an idea that’s been simmering for a couple of years now (unfortunately, Birmingham is no longer an option). It might be a bit early to consider a change in 2011, but expect to hear more of this idea in 2012.