Just For Argument's Sake ...

Originally Published: August 30, 2006
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

From nagging questions to soapbox moments to Heisman hype, here's a look at the hottest topics in college football.

1. Who are the surprise teams out there?
It sounds odd to name Florida State as a surprise contender for the national championship, a role the Seminoles took for granted when they finished in the top five for 14 consecutive years (1987-2000). But in a season without any obvious favorite -- and Ohio State, though it is a consensus No. 1, has its flaws -- Florida State has a good chance.

Bobby Bowden
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Things could be looking up for Bobby Bowden and the 'Noles.

The defense remains talented, even though it lost three starters in the first round of April's NFL draft (four if you count corner Antonio Cromartie, who missed the 2005 season because of injury). The offense simply needs to stay healthy, especially up front. Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said this week there's no reason his team can't be one of the lucky ones.

"I think personnelwise we are about as good as anybody else," Bowden said. "I have always looked at it like this: That out of 120 teams, you have between 20 and 50 and one of them will win a national championship … What I am saying is a couple of those teams are going to get lucky. A couple of them will stay healthy. A couple of them will get a couple of bounces and they will get there. That is what it is going to take."

As for teams that leap into respectability, I'll take Mississippi State in Year 3 of Sly Croom's tenure as head coach, and I'll take Washington in Year 2 of Ty Willingham's return to the Pac-10.

2. What's the worst part of watching football in the opening week?
For a number of years, it's been special-teams play. Blame the 20-hours-per-week practice rule, or hidebound coaches who refuse to devote enough preseason time to special teams, but there are always a lot of kicking-game mistakes the first week that change the course of a game. Bad snaps, bad kick coverage, bad blocks -- it's just flat-out bad.

But this week there might be a new problem. This week, for the first time, coaches must deal with the rule changes involving the clock. The clock will start when the ball is kicked, not when it is touched by the receiving team. On a change in possession, the clock will start when the referee signals ready, not when the ball is snapped.

It's the latter rule that promises to wreak havoc this week. The NCAA football rules committee changed it to shave some time off the length of a game. The unfortunate thing is that, until the coaches get the hang of it, the new rule will shave a number of plays off the game, which is the last thing any of us want.

It seems like a safe bet that some coordinator out there will not get his team out on the field quickly enough, resulting in a delay-of-game penalty, a burned timeout or a vanilla play call because the wrong players go out on the field. It's the first game for coaches, too.

3. What conference race will be the most exciting this season?
Penn State That's an easy one. The Pac-10 and the Big East are the only two leagues of the six don't-call-them-BCS-anymore conferences in which every team plays every other team. That the Pac-10 chose to do so with 10 teams is a boon for the fans. The league did it when the NCAA approved the 12th game after last season. While most I-A schools ran out and scheduled a home game against Buy A Victory State to make the cash, the Pac-10 presidents went along with the schedule expansion only if their schools used the 12th game to play a complete round robin.

In some ways, it's not fair. Five schools will have four home games and five away games in conference play. That puts an onus on them to schedule nonconference home games. Stanford is playing only five home games, although that is in part due to shifting its home game against San Jose State to Spartan Stadium, just in case the reconstruction of Stanford Stadium will not be complete by Sept. 9.

More typical is Arizona State, which solved its issue by buying a home game against I-AA Northern Arizona. But that's a small price to play for a complete round-robin conference schedule. The Pac-10 takes a lot of heat because its champion escapes the chore of playing in a conference championship game. But if you want to name a true conference champion, you have every team play every other one.

The Pac-10 is the model.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com