Big-name coaches could ride off into the sunset in 2009
I learned long ago that most readers don't forget many of your predictions.
My 2008 college football preseason poll debuted Jan. 8, the day after LSU beat Ohio State 38-24 in the BCS Championship Game in the Louisiana Superdome.
Georgia was my preseason No. 1 for 2008.
Obviously, I was wrong.
The Bulldogs were undone by injuries, poor defense and a lack of discipline.
But Oklahoma was my choice at No. 2. And Florida was No. 3.
Of course, the Sooners and Gators will play for the national championship Jan. 8 in the BCS Championship Game in Miami.
After gazing into the crystal ball once again, here's a way-too-early look at what might transpire during the 2009 college football season:
After beating Oklahoma in the Jan. 8 BCS Championship Game in Miami, the Gators will start the 2009 season ranked No. 1 in the country. Florida will go wire-to-wire at the top of the polls and will win its third national title in four seasons. Juniors Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin will return to school for their senior seasons, and speedy freshmen tailbacks Jeffrey Demps and Chris Rainey will be back. Every starter might come back on defense -- if junior linebacker Brandon Spikes doesn't enter the NFL draft. The Gators will play eight games in the state of Florida in 2009, but will have must-win road games at LSU and South Carolina.
2. It will be Mack's last dance in Texas
Quarterback Colt McCoy and a big offensive line will lead the Longhorns to a Big 12 championship after they beat Oklahoma (the teams will be tied, fittingly, at the end of regulation). Texas will take advantage of its soft nonconference schedule (Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, Central Florida and UTEP) to finish No. 2 in the country. After losing to the Gators in the BCS title game, coach Mack Brown will retire and turn the reins over to defensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp.
3. Notre Dame will be a Top 25 team
The Fighting Irish showed how explosive they can be in their 49-21 victory over Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Thanks to its watered-down schedule in 2009 -- it has only four road games (Michigan, Purdue, Pittsburgh and Stanford) and one neutral-site game (Washington State in the Alamodome) -- Notre Dame will finish 8-4, which will be good enough to save coach Charlie Weis' job.
4. The Big 12 will still be the best conference
Texas Tech and Missouri will be rebuilding in 2009, but the Big 12 will still have three national-championship contenders: Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The SEC will be the country's second-best conference, but traditional powers Auburn and Tennessee will have big rebuilding jobs under new coaches. Georgia will take a step back, too, after quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno enter the NFL draft.
5. Bobby Bowden will catch Joe Paterno
Paterno has a one-game lead over Bowden in career victories heading into the 2009 season. Florida State will continue to get better in 2009, with all five starters expected to return to one of the country's youngest offensive lines. Even after passing Paterno in career victories, Bowden will stay on the sideline in 2010, which will keep coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher waiting and waiting.
The Hokies will open the 2009 season by upsetting Alabama in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The Hokies were one of the country's youngest teams in 2008, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailback Darren Evans will lead an improved offense. After beating Alabama, Nebraska and East Carolina, the Hokies will be legitimate national-championship contenders.
7. Oklahoma won't match its 2008 success
Quarterback Sam Bradford will return to school for his junior season, but the reigning Heisman Trophy winner won't be as effective in 2009. The Sooners lose four starters from the country's best offensive line, as well as receiver Juaquin Iglesias. Junior tight end Jermaine Gresham also is expected to enter the NFL draft.
8. Alabama will win the SEC West
The Crimson Tide will lose their opener against Virginia Tech, but will recover quickly to win the SEC West. Alabama will probably have to replace its two best offensive linemen, center Antoine Caldwell and left tackle Andre Smith, along with quarterback John Parker Wilson. But as many as nine starters could come back on defense -- if nose tackle Terrence Cody returns for his senior season.
9. Terrelle Pryor will be a Heisman Trophy candidate
Pryor will be much better as a sophomore, especially if tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells returns for the 2009 season. Even if Wells enters the NFL draft, Pryor, currently a true freshman, is capable of carrying the Buckeyes to another Big Ten championship. Pryor will lead the Buckeyes to a victory over USC on Sept. 12, thrusting the sophomore quarterback near the top of the list of Heisman Trophy contenders.
10. USC won't finish in the top 10
The Trojans face the prospect of losing 10 defensive starters from 2008 if junior safety Taylor Mays and others enter the NFL draft. As many as 10 starters might be back on offense, but USC's defense is what made the Trojans so special this season. The Trojans' schedule flips in 2009, so they'll play road games at Ohio State, California, Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State.
11. Tim Tebow will win a second Heisman Trophy
As a senior, the quarterback will become the second player to win the Heisman Trophy two times, joining former Ohio State tailback Archie Griffin. Tebow's main competition will come from Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, Pittsburgh tailback LeSean McCoy, Bradford, Colt McCoy and Pryor.
12. Iowa fans will be nervous
The Cleveland Browns will inquire about hiring coach Kirk Ferentz, who might finally be ready to bolt to the NFL. After a couple of not-so-good seasons with the Hawkeyes, Ferentz showed us again why he's one of the best in the business.
The Red Raiders won't be national-championship contenders after losing quarterback Graham Harrell and receiver Michael Crabtree, but they'll still be a tough out in the Big 12 South. In his first year as the starter, Potts, currently a sophomore, won't miss a beat in Mike Leach's spread offense, and will throw for more than 4,000 yards. Leach will spend most of his summer trying to figure out who shot J.R.
14. Arkansas will be the most improved team in the country
Whether you love him or hate him, Arkansas' Bobby Petrino is one of the country's best coaches. The Razorbacks probably exceeded expectations in his first season, and it won't be long before he has the Hogs in contention for an SEC West title. With Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett leading the offense, and as many as 11 starters possibly coming back on defense, Arkansas will be one of the country's most improved teams. A difficult schedule -- road games at Ole Miss, Alabama, Florida and LSU -- provides plenty of upset opportunities.
15. Steve Sarkisian will win a game at Washington
The Huskies won't go winless again in 2009 under the former USC offensive coordinator. Sarkisian will lose his Sept. 5 debut against LSU, but the Huskies will beat Idaho the next week. Things won't get much easier from there, with a home game against USC and road games at Stanford and Notre Dame the following three weeks.
16. O'Leary will be on the hottest seat
Nearly a dozen coaches will enter the 2009 season on the hot seat, and at least half of them will be fired after their teams again fail to meet expectations. Among the coaches who probably need marked improvement next season: Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe, Virginia's Al Groh, Indiana's Bill Lynch, Central Florida's George O'Leary, Texas A&M's Mike Sherman, Colorado's Dan Hawkins, North Texas' Todd Dodge, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, Marshall's Mark Snyder and UTEP's Mike Price.
17. Auburn will name Gus Malzahn its coach-in-waiting
After the Tigers lose their first three games against Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State and West Virginia, Auburn will name offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn its coach-in-waiting to succeed recently hired Gene Chizik. USC quarterback Mitch Mustain, who played for Malzahn in high school and briefly at Arkansas, will transfer to Auburn.
18. Michigan will open the 2009 season with a loss (to Western Michigan)
The Wolverines won't be much better in their second season under coach Rich Rodriguez, who still won't have the right personnel to run his spread offense. For the third straight season, Michigan will start its schedule with a stunning loss in the not-so-Big House, falling to Western Michigan.
After believing South Carolina was ready and capable of challenging Florida and Georgia in the SEC East before each of the past two seasons, Steve Spurrier's patience has to have nearly run out. The Gamecocks will again have high expectations heading into 2009. And once again, South Carolina will fall short of its lofty aspirations. Spurrier will become so frustrated he'll bench scholarship quarterbacks Stephen Garcia and Tommy Beecher and start walk-on Zac Brindise in the SEC opener.
20. LSU will bounce back
After a disappointing encore to its 2007 national championship, LSU will once again be a title contender. Former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis will make the Tigers more fundamentally sound, and quarterback Jordan Jefferson will stabilize the offense. LSU's 38-3 demolition of Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl showed us Les Miles can coach.
21. Boise State won't go undefeated
The Broncos won't have to worry about taking a 12-0 record into a bowl game in 2009. Boise State will lose to Oregon on its home field in the Sept. 5 opener. The Broncos will still finish the regular season with an 11-1 record.
22. The Big 12 South will finish in a three-way tie
Once again, the Big 12 South will be a jumbled mess at season's end. Texas will beat Oklahoma. Oklahoma will beat Oklahoma State. The Cowboys will beat the Longhorns. Texas will get the nod over the Sooners because the Longhorns will be the highest-rated team in the BCS standings. Under the league's new tiebreaker rules, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State receive a consolation prize: They get to play Missouri's defense again.
23. Pittsburgh will win the Big East
West Virginia will take a big step back without quarterback Pat White. Rutgers and Cincinnati will challenge Pittsburgh for the Big East title, but McCoy will run for 1,500 yards and lead the Panthers to the Orange Bowl.
24. Chip Kelly will be Oregon's head coach
For the first time in 15 years, Oregon will open the season without Mike Bellotti on the sideline. Bellotti will retire as coach sometime in February, and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly will take over the program.
25. Northwestern will make a run for the roses
The Wildcats will have to replace quarterback C.J. Bacher, tailback Tyrell Sutton and the bulk of their receiver corps, but their 9-4 finish in 2008 wasn't a fluke. Mike Kafka is waiting to take over at quarterback, and much of the defense will be back. Ohio State and Michigan aren't on the 2009 schedule, and Northwestern plays Penn State and Wisconsin at home. Pat Fitzgerald can flat-out coach, and will have his team in position to play for a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
ESPN.COM'S LOOK AT THE YEAR AHEAD
What to expect across the sports spectrum in 2009? ESPN.com offers things you might see coming, some you won't and some that will just flat-out surprise. Predictions to consider: