Friday Tailgate: What To Watch As We Head Into College Football Season

Dave WalkerCorrespondent IMay 28, 2010

It's Memorial Day weekend. The unofficial start of summer.

Kids will soon be on summer break, families will travel on great family vacations, and before you know it, college football season will be here.

I'm sure fans are foaming at the mouth in anticipation for Labor Day weekend, myself included.

As always, there are a number of story lines that have—and will—develop, even before the season starts. There will be discussions regarding top teams, top players, and in this year's case: conference realignment.

While I cannot discuss everything that is going on in the world of college football in one short article, I will attempt to cover several of them, a little bit each, in a regular article I like to call "The Friday Tailgate."

Every Friday, I will attempt to chat about some of the major plot lines heading into the season, and go in depth on five top notch things to watch out for heading into Labor Day.

Let's get the inaugural edition fired up on the grill.


Can Alabama repeat?

The season ended with the Crimson Tide hoisting the Sears Trophy, and it's going to start with them again.

The Tide rolled over Texas in the BCS National Title game back in January, and return with a strong nucleus.

Many experts have pegged them to be a preseason No. 1. In my opinion, they are still the champs until someone knocks Alabama off.

Offensively, the Tide returns Heisman winner Mark Ingram, who ran for over 1600 yards and 17 TD's a season ago.

Also returning is quarterback Greg McElroy, who hasn't lost a game as a starter since Moses parted the Red Sea.

Julio Jones and Marquis Maze return as threats on the outside for a passing game that was just solid enough to keep teams from stacking the box on every play.

I can see a bit of a struggle up front.

Linemen Drew Davis and Mike Johnson are both gone. They still return three starters from last year's team. But anytime you lose a guy up front, it takes time to get the chemistry going.

Overall, I still think the offense will be just fine. I look for the running game to remain solid, although I think Ingram will be more human in 2010.

Defensively, the Tide lost a lot.

Gone are Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain, pretty much the entire front line including Mt. Cody, and three corners, including return specialist Javier Arenas.

The question Coach Saban will have to answer heading into is the season is, "Who will step up?"

During the spring game, Marcell Dareus showed that 'Bama may be younger, and less experienced. But they know how to reload. Dareus earned the co-headhunter award for his aggressive play during the game.

Corner Dre Kirkpatrick also showed promise.

I believe the early schedule, which starts with a lesser San Jose State team, and potentially run happy Penn State, will help the Tide get acquainted with their new defensive backfield.

When it all comes down to it, the Tide have another great shot at rolling through the SEC.

Nick Saban said after the spring game that it was a question of complacency, and if his team was hungry.

When you look at the schedule, a pass happy Arkansas, in Alabama's fourth game, could be the first major test.

It may come down to whether that defensive backfield steps up, or if Arkansas can play a little defense.

At the risk of sounding winded with this portion of the column, I will just say the Tide have a shot at being a BCS title contender.

But it is unlikely.

The SEC is one of the best year in and year out, and everyone is gonna be gunning for Alabama.

In-state rival Auburn is a threat, as well as an Arkansas team that can be a contender if the defense can step up.

I give the repeat chances a one in 20 shot. But you never know when it comes to the college football landscape.


What is the Lane Kiffin Effect?

To say that last year was a disappointment for the Trojans would be a gross understatement.

Most teams that finish the season 9-4, with a winning record in the conference and a bowl trip, are happy with the results. But not USC.

Now the Papa Pete era is over, and former coordinator Lane Kiffin has taken the reigns.

The question is, what will he bring to the table? Carroll was known as a laid back guy. I can't see that in a Lane Kiffin coached team.

By the team this season starts, his team will be cool, confident, and cocky. Just like Kiffin. But what kind of effect does this have on the team? I think they will be a better team all around.

The bottom line is that young college kids need discipline. USC is one of the best when it comes to recruiting.

Just think of how an athletic, disciplined team will do out in Southern California?

I am not going to get too in depth with their roster. They are talented all over the field, and Matt Barkley will perform up to his super-hyped status in 2010.

Defensively I love, I mean absolutely love , Armond Armstead at end.

He has the size and speed off the line to be a difference maker for the Trojans. Plus, with the depth at position, (Malik Jackson, Nick Perry, and Wes Horton) look for him to not be worn down too much and be a problem for opposing lines.

Armstead will earn All Pac-10 honors and he'll be a conference defensive player of the year finalist.

That's my bold prediction for this article.

When 2010 is in the books, the first year of the Kiffin Trojans will go down as a step back towards USC dominating the Pac 10.

While I think there may be a couple teams that give them some trouble, I still see USC finishing in the top three this season.

So what is the Kiffin effect then?

It's a better, more focused team than the one Carroll had last year. And it will translate to more wins—more wins by double digits at that.


What Will Life After Tebow Be Like In Gainesville?

Tim Tebow will go down as one of the greatest players in college history, if not the greatest.

The Heisman winner led the Gators to the title in 2008 and was a piece to the Gators 2006 title run. But now he is a Denver Bronco. Someone else is going to have to step up.

That someone is John Brantley.

The red shirt junior has played sparingly during his career at Florida, throwing for just over 600 yards and 10 TD's.

He is more of a pocket passer, and you won't see him running the ball too much. But with the weapons he has in guys like Rainey, Demps, and Thompson, Brantley shouldn't have to.

How do you answer what life in Gainesville will be like for Gators fans? The answer will be more of the same.

The major differences will be with some of the spread offenses. Brantley will be looking to allow some of his big play-makers to do exactly that, while Timmy would often try and make things happen with his feet.

The Gators spread will take the shape of some of the more traditional spread offenses in college football now. Brantley will throw the ball between 25-30 times a game, and the tailbacks will see a lot more action.

Bottom line: Gator fans will see just as much offense as they have during Tebow's past few years.

When you talk to Gator fans, they don't seem to be nervous about the upcoming season. And they really shouldn't be.

The team has a strong group of players coming back from last year's team. And Brantley is more than capable of doing a good job. Just don't expect him to put up Tebow numbers, simply because he is not Tim Tebow.

Florida wins the SEC East and goes to another BCS game in 2010. Bold prediction number two.


Do We Care About Conference Realignment?

It seems that every time I log onto or another sports website, there is always something new on the whole conference realignment debate.

Today, it was Bob Stoops saying he felt Oklahoma would be "fine no matter what.”

I think that it's safe to say that for a team that consistently plays in BCS games and produces millions in revenue. But what bothers me about all of this is how these power conferences just seem to never be big enough.

I can still remember back to 1996 when the WAC had just about every team west of the Mississippi River.

Okay, it was just a measly 16 teams. But how long did that experiment work? The answer is three years. Why did it fold and get split up? In my opinion, it was just too big and no one cared.

Imagine the Big 10, for example, adding Missouri, Rutgers, and Syracuse to the roster.

First of all, it would kill the Big East.

Teams like Ohio, Ball State, and Marshall would probably get invited to join the conference to fill those spots.

Second, nothing says rivalry like Rutgers playing Michigan or Ohio State each year.

Major realignment is a big deal and should be talked about. But it has to make some sense, and not put other conferences in a big hole.

I know it is all about the money. But at some point, you have to look at it as hurting the game rather than helping it. The bigger the power conferences get, the lesser the others become, along with their credibility.

So to answer my question on realignment, yes it is a big deal. It has to be looked at very closely, and not just based on the economics.

The NCAA should have a huge say in who goes where and who replaces who.

They can't let the ACC's, Big 10's, and Big 12's of the world run things. Otherwise you may get this in a BCS bowl:

Big East Champs Buffalo vs ACC champ Miami in the Orange Bowl.

Now you tell me how that one would go.


Who Will Be the BCS Buster?

When it comes to the BCS busters, you can put your money on Utah, Boise, and TCU just about every year.

This year should be no different. Boise appears to be stacked, Utah will be a very solid team, and TCU may be a little down from last year, but still very good. But who else out there has a chance to rock the college football world?

The first team outside the three mentioned above is Houston.

Conference USA appears to be theirs for the taking, with many of the better squads graduating top players, and some of the struggling squads hiring new coaches.

Offensively, the Cougars are loaded.

Quarterback Case Keenum returns after a breakout year in 2009, in which he threw for over 5500 yards and over 40 scores.

Then there are his weapons.

Keenum has three receivers back, all of which went for 1000 yards, plus two very steady backs to hand off to or throw to in the flat.

Offensively, this group will be electric. Look for Keenum to end up in NYC as a Heisman finalist.

The big question may be the defense, which gave up an average of just under 30 ppg last year. The Cougars considered their “D” a work in progress. Seven true freshmen saw significant action.

The key to a Cougars run will be whether this unit can improve enough so the offense doesn't have to score every time they touch the ball.

The schedule is not overly difficult, although they do have road games at UCLA and Texas Tech, both of which I think are winnable games.

The thing that it may all come down to is that final game in Lubbock. A win over a Texas Tech team will only look good if the Red Raiders are a solid squad, which is looking like a big question mark in the post Mike Leach era.

Outside of the Cougars, I don't really see anybody other than the Mountain West teams and Boise making any noise.

The MAC is down, especially with the graduation of Central Michigan signal caller Dan LeFevour. Nobody is good enough in the Sun Belt to even join the conversation.

Out in the WAC it is Boise all the way, although I can see them slipping up in their opener against Virginia Tech. But, then again, this far away from the season, who knows what can happen?

I just hope someone outside the BCS conferences can make some noise. In my opinion that is what really makes the season interesting.


What We Learned Today

In honor of ESPN Sportsnation I would like to end each column with the “What We Learned Today,” ending.

So here it goes.

Alabama will be great again, but maybe not Sears Trophy great.

Lane Kiffin will get the job done at SC and they will be a more disciplined team.

John Brantley is not the next Tebow, but will still be largely effective.

Conference realignment is trying to swallow up the game, and before you know it Ball State and Buffalo will be in the Big East.

The Houston Cougars could be this year's Cinderella if Case Keenum's arm doesn't turn into a pumpkin at UCLA in September.

Again, that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. Please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on these topics and point out any disagreements you may have.

Next week on the Friday Tailgate I will attempt to tackle BCS conference surprises, Lee Corso and headgear, and the “we need a sponsor” Orange Bowl.


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