Seismic activity on the landscape
If you are a college football fan and you feel the ground rumbling beneath your feet, do not be alarmed. But do be aware.
We may or may not be experiencing a seismic shift in the game.
This could be a temporary tremor and not The Big One, but it's certainly enough to measure on the gridiron Richter Scale. The restless plate tectonics of the sport are at work, and the terra has rarely been less firma than it is right now at the top.
Consider the current state of affairs at the five winningest programs in history:
• Michigan is breaking in a new coach and hasn't finished a season in the Top 25 since 2007.
• Texas has radically revamped its staff after its first losing record since 1997.
• Nebraska, which hasn't finished a season in the top 10 since 2001, has wandered out of its historic home and into the Big Ten.
• Notre Dame is still seeking a return to relevance in its second year under Brian Kelly -- the fifth Fighting Irish coach in the past decade.
• Ohio State just pushed out big winner/big deceiver Jim Tressel and appears headed for severe NCAA sanctions.
Now consider these facts at other accomplished programs:
• With its appeal of NCAA sanctions stiff-armed, USC (the 10th-winningest program in history) will endure a second straight season without a bowl game while dealing with major scholarship cuts.
• After a brutal 2010 season, Florida is breaking in a rookie head coach in Will Muschamp. And while most people in the sport believe Muschamp is a rising star, he's replacing two-time national champion Urban Meyer. Perhaps just as important is the ongoing quest to replace the core of the Gators' 2006-09 glory run. (I wrote before Tim Tebow's last college game, against Cincinnati in the 2010 Sugar Bowl, that it might be the last night of the Florida dynasty and haven't seen anything yet to change my mind.)
• There is also a new coach at Miami, as the Hurricanes continue to grasp for the guy who can return them to national contender status.
That's a lot of upheaval at normally rock-steady addresses.
"Those are huge changes at major programs," said Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, who is ushering his conference through huge changes of its own. "Even if you don't have a situation [with NCAA rules violations], you could have something like what happened at Texas. Bumps in the road."
The Ohio State crater in the road adds significantly to the tumult, but it's not like we haven't been feeling tremors recently. All you have to do is look at the way the 2010 season ended to know times are changing. These were the top four teams in the final AP poll last season:
Not exactly a collection of blue bloods.
The Tigers were the fifth straight Southeastern Conference team to win a national title, but it was their first since 1957. Auburn had been a cut below the Floridas, Alabamas and LSUs of the neighborhood until Cam Newton arrived from junior college. The fact that a program can receive that kind of boost from a single player, on campus for a single year, illustrates the new upward mobility of the sport.
The Horned Frogs came out of Thompson's Mountain West and won the Rose Bowl, completing an undefeated season. It was merely their highest ranking since 1938.
Oregon, which lost to Auburn in the BCS Championship Game, had never before played for a national title. Fellow Pac-10 member Stanford attained its highest ranking since 1940 after finishing 12-1.
That list doesn't even include a 12-1 Boise State team that was in the national title debate for almost the entire season. Or the team that beat the Broncos, Nevada, which finished with its highest-ever AP ranking at No. 11. Or BCS newcomer Connecticut, a traditional football lightweight that went to the Fiesta Bowl.
"I think we might be seeing the next wave of football programs making their mark as Top 25 contenders," said Big East senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli. "The opportunity is probably greater now than it's been for a lot of programs to take a big step forward."
Carparelli then did the unthinkable -- he credited the BCS. He believes programs currently on the move to bigger conferences -- Utah to the Pac-12, TCU to the Big East in 2012, Boise and Hawaii to the Mountain West -- were aided significantly by crashing the BCS in recent years.
There are plenty of candidates to shake things up in 2011.
Boise should be in the preseason top 10 in its first year of Mountain West membership after fleeing the Western Athletic Conference. With a single season of shared conference affiliation, the Broncos' showdown with TCU in Boise on Nov. 12 could have significant national implications.
In the Big 12, both Oklahoma State and Texas A&M will be considered prime challengers to Oklahoma. We'll see how they handle those expectations -- and how Texas handles being an afterthought.
Arkansas and South Carolina, combined winners of zero SEC titles since joining the league in 1991, might be the best bets to take down Alabama and LSU.
Stanford lost its charismatic coach, Jim Harbaugh, to the NFL. But it retained the best player in America, quarterback Andrew Luck. We'll see whether what's retained counterbalances what was lost.
Keeping talented coaches is generally vital to sustained success -- and lately, even the top programs have had to deal with a lot of turnover. Half of the 14 BCS national championship winners were led by coaches who are now out of college football: Meyer won twice (now retired); Tressel (resigned, reportedly under pressure); Pete Carroll (left USC for the NFL ahead of NCAA sanctions); Larry Coker (fired at Miami); Bobby Bowden (forced into retirement at Florida State); and Phil Fulmer (fired at Tennessee).
"Consistency and continuity mean a heck of a lot," said Thompson, whose league benefited from Gary Patterson's staying at TCU and Kyle Whittingham's doing the same at Utah after replacing Urban Meyer. This year, the MWC is rewarded by inheriting Chris Petersen of Boise, who has turned down plenty of higher-profile jobs in recent years.
So these are interesting times in college football. The next time someone says it's always the same teams dominating the national landscape, check to see whether the ground is moving beneath your feet.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.