By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowmanon Twitter)
Are you as ready for college football to start as we are at Athlon? Our daily countdown will take us right up to kickoff on September 1. Some days our number might represent an All-American player, a great stat or just something fun about the game we all love.
Days Until College Football: 1
With apologies to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery, Baylor’s Kendall Wright and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, No. 1 on our countdown is our request to all the fans: enjoy the football. In an offseason full of scandal and realignment rumors, it’s time for toe to meet leather and for the conversation to turn to gridiron happenings. It’s easy to be distracted with bad news during the summer months, but now it’s time to enjoy the game we all love.
Can the SEC win its sixth straight national title? How will Nebraska fare in the Big Ten? Can Andrew Luck lead Stanford to a Pac-12 crown with Jim Harbaugh gone to the NFL? Will Boise State win its third straight opener over a major BCS power? These are some of the storylines that we can’t wait to see play out during the upcoming months.
College football is back!
Days Until College Football: 2
LSU ranked No. 2 in scoring defense in the SEC last season, but the Tigers suffered some major losses in the offseason. The best player on each level of the defense – tackle Drake Nevis, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and cornerback Patrick Peterson – moved on to the NFL, and coordinator John Chavis will have a challenge in getting his group to repeat as best in the league against the run. Additionally, the schedule will present some very difficult obstacles – the fast-paced Oregon spread, West Virginia’s new passing attack under Dana Holgorsen, the power run game of Alabama and the high-octane aerial assault of Arkansas.
The defense will need to carry LSU early with offensive starters Jordan Jefferson (QB) and Russell Shepard (WR) being suspended for the huge opener – if not longer - against Oregon. With those two missing and Stevan Ridley’s departure to the NFL, Les Miles’ bunch will only return five of their 29 rushing touchdowns from a year ago. The offensive line and running backs are solid, but the passing game may be inconsistent in September. With points at a premium, the defense will need to hold the vaunted Ducks in check.
LSU has plenty of talent on defense, but most of the experience is in the back seven. The defensive line must perform above expectation if the Tigers are going to beat Oregon and compete for the SEC West crown.
Days Until College Football: 3
Oklahoma State ranked No. 3 in the nation in both scoring and total offense a year ago. Most of that high-octane attack is back, but intrepid offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen has moved on to West Virginia as the Mountaineers new head coach. The pieces – senior quarterback Brandon Weeden, record-setting receiver Justin Blackmon, and an offensive line with all five starters returning – seem to be there for the Cowboys to repeat their gaudy output of over 520 yards and 44 points per game. But the question remains – will the OSU offense be the same without Holgorsen calling the plays?
New offensive coordinator Todd Monken returns to Stillwater, where he previously spent three years as an assistant under Les Miles. After four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Monken will try to keep the momentum going that led the Cowboys to a school-record 11 wins last year. The schedule is formidable, with road trips to Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri, and the Bedlam Game with Oklahoma could decide the Big 12 champion.
The OSU defense has talent but will need more consistent play from the front seven to compete for the league title. If Mike Gundy and Monken can keep the offense at the same productive level, the Cowboys can win double-digit games once again.
Days Until College Football: 4
Only four teams – Boise State, Ohio State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia – in FBS football have won at least nine games in each of the last six seasons. That low number of schools shows how difficult it is to maintain a consistent winner in the current college football landscape, even though the expectations from fans and administrations tend to be higher than ever. With escalating coaching salaries and constant television coverage, many fans want an immediate double-digit wins per year program with no drop off from season to season. That’s a pretty unrealistic way to judge your coach and team.
The fact that no SEC school was among the four is hardly surprising. It’s a conference where most of it members are spending huge dollars on coaches and facilities. The reality becomes that not everyone can win every Saturday, even if you’re paying top money for a coaching staff, stadium, practice complex and weight room. The SEC has won the last five national titles, but the last repeat winner of the league championship game was Tennessee in 1998.
It’s probably a futile thought, but fans need to remember that their team is not going to win ten games every season. Every school would love to have a Chris Petersen or Frank Beamer coaching its program, but there are only so many top bosses who want to stay in one place. The next time you’re calling for a firing after an eight- or nine-win season, let it go.
Days Until College Football: 5
Arizona finished last season with the No. 5 scoring offense in the Pac-10, including the top passing attack in the league. But can the Wildcats do it again with a brutal early Pac-12 schedule this year? The skill positions look solid with the leading passer (Nick Foles), leading receiver (Juron Criner) and leading rusher (Keola Antolin) are returning as seniors. Foles has plenty of experienced targets, and the receiving unit will also be bolstered by talented Texas transfer Dan Buckner. However, the biggest question on the team has to be an offensive line with no returning starters. New line coach Robert Anae will need to get his group up to speed early to give Foles time to pass and to improve an inconsistent running game.
There is additional urgency for the offense to gel quickly because of the aforementioned schedule. After the Northern Arizona opener, the Wildcats travel to Big-12 power Oklahoma State, host Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks, and then travel to USC and Oregon State. That’s a rough way to try and develop a brand new offensive line, and it’s a huge test to a defense that will pass rushers Brooks Reed, D'Aundre Reed and Ricky Elmore.
Last season, Arizona started 7-1 before losing its last five games. For a team that may lack confidence after that finish, the early slate could define the 2011 season. But if the O-line develops and the defense plays as well as last year, Mike Stoops’ bunch can make the postseason for a fourth straight season.
Days Until College Football: 6
Can the SEC make it six national titles in a row in 2011? The current run of five straight championships is outstanding, but the fact that those titles were won by four different schools is truly remarkable. Alabama looks like the obvious candidate if America’s toughest conference is going to keep the steak alive. The Tide may have the nation’s best defense, with the top group of linebackers and defensive backs in the country. The offensive line may be the best in the nation as well, and running back Trent Richardson should have a special season. Nick Saban’s team will have inexperience quarterback, but the roster is loaded everywhere else.
LSU seemed like the next best candidate throughout the summer, but recent off-the-field issues in Baton Rouge may be too much to overcome for the Tigers. Arkansas will have a high-octane offense even with new quarterback Tyler Wilson, but the season-ending injury to top runner Knile Davis leaves a major void. The Hogs’ defense should be as good as Bobby Petrino has had since taking over in Fayetteville. Georgia has a promising quarterback in Aaron Murray, a highly rated recruiting class and a favorable schedule (no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas), but Mark Richt’s club has 14-12 over the last two seasons. South Carolina has future NFL players in running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, but the Gamecocks must be more consistent on defense – especially in the secondary.
If not an SEC club, then who? Oklahoma seems to be the most likely choice The Sooners offense should be a juggernaut this season, but the defense has some questions. Florida State, who hosts Oklahoma on September 17, could run the table with a victory over the Sooners. Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting has been stellar in Tallahassee, and the ‘Noles are ready to return to national prominence. Oregon is still a possibility if there are no suspensions from off-the-field trouble, while Boise State, Nebraska and West Virginia are good dark horse choices.
Days Until College Football: 7
We can only imagine the celebration in Houston coach Kevin Sumlin’s office when he received the news that No. 7, senior quarterback Case Keenum, had been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Even though ace offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen had left for Oklahoma State, there were still very high expectations for the Cougars a year ago. However, that optimism changed quickly when UH lost Keenum (torn ACL in his right knee) and his backup Cotton Turner to injury in the third game of the season. The Cougars lost to UCLA that day, and they would go on to lose seven total games and miss the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Keenum has the chance to break a couple of NCAA career passing records this season. He has 107 touchdown passes and 13,586 passing yards, and those two records stand at 134 TD passes (Graham Harrell, Texas Tech) and 17,072 yards (Timmy Chang, Hawaii). I’m not sure that Keenum can repeat his 2008 and ‘09 seasons where he threw for over 5,000 yards and 44 scores in both campaigns, but both of those all-time records are within reach. He’ll have seniors at the skill positions, but the offensive line is a concern with only two returning starters.
Whether he breaks NCAA records or not, it’s good for college football that Case Keenum received another year of eligibility. If he’s back to being a total offense machine and the defense improves, Houston should be right back in the Conference USA race and a lock for the postseason.
Days Until College Football: 8
It’s been an amazing three seasons for Kellen Moore at Boise State, and he needs only eight victories this year to break the NCAA record for career wins by a starting quarterback. The undersized lefty is 38-2 as the Broncos’ starter and should easily break the mark (45) that Texas’ Colt McCoy set in 2009. While the record has been broken three times (Peyton Manning ’97, David Greene ’04 and McCoy ’09) over the last 15 years, Moore may put it out of reach for future signal callers. The Broncos are 61-5 over the last five years under Chris Petersen, so Moore could put the final tally at 48-50 with another double-digit win season. Good luck to anyone trying to break that potential record.
Some critics will say Moore had an easier road than the other quarterbacks while playing in the WAC, but his accomplishments should not be discounted. He’s one of the most efficient quarterbacks in NCAA history, has 99 career touchdown passes against 19 interceptions and rarely gets to finish games because of Boise’s penchant for blowing out opponents. Moore will have a new offensive coordinator this season in Brent Pease, plus two new starters at receiver in Geraldo Boldewijn and Tyler Shoemaker, but I expect the senior southpaw to be as effective as ever. Moore graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in communications, and he can now focus on the wins record and a graduate degree.
If the Broncos can beat Georgia in the opener (like they did Virginia Tech and Oregon the past two seasons), an undefeated season is very possible. The new Mountain West slate will be tougher than the WAC, but do not be surprised if Moore leads Boise State right back into the mix for a BCS Championship Game berth.
Days Until College Football: 9
In a town known for drama, it’s definitely been a dramatic couple of seasons for the USC football program. The Trojans lost nine games in seven seasons from 2002-08, but now have lost nine times over the last two campaigns. The Reggie Bush scandal and Pete Carroll departure have put the storied program at an interesting crossroads, with controversial coach Lane Kiffin looking to keep the Trojans at an elite level. USC is ineligible for both the first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game and a bowl game, and will be restricted to 15 scholarships (instead of 25) each of the next three years, starting next season.