What's hot (and not) for 2006

Mark Schlabach's no Paris Hilton. But he can identify what's "hot" (and not) for the 2006 college football season.

Updated: August 7, 2006, 3:36 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Preseason magazines splashed its players across their covers. Its safety made his boxing debut at Madison Square Garden. One receiver spent his summer moonlighting as a pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization. It features a Heisman candidate at quarterback. That's hot. That's Notre Dame. But the Irish aren't the only hot item in college football. And not every aspect of Notre Dame's team is hot. Here's an early forecast for the 2006 season:

What's Hot and Not for the 2006 College Football Season
Notre Dame. Charlie Weis' coaching. Brady Quinn's throwing. Wideout/pitcher Jeff Samardzija's receiving. Darius Walker's running. Safety/punt returner/boxer Tom Zbikowski's playmaking. Green. Gold. Touchdown Jesus. The Fighting Irish are back in the national consciousness, where they belong. Winning a bowl game and beating USC would go a long way toward proving the Irish are back among college football's elite. USC. Lost national title to Texas in the Rose Bowl and then lost Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, LenDale White and a host of others to the NFL. QB John David Booty has a bad back; backup Mark Sanchez faced sexual assault charges. Receiver Dwayne Jarrett hasn't been cleared by the NCAA, which might be spending more time looking into Bush's living arrangements while he was at USC. Safety Brandon Ting quit because he flunked a steroids test.
Old guys. Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden are chasing each other to the end. After three OTs in last season's Orange Bowl and 80 seasons combined, they aptly will enter the College Football Hall of Fame together. Old news. Winning national championships didn't do Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, Miami's Larry Coker or Michigan's Lloyd Carr much good. They all enter the season on the hot seat.
BCS. There's an extra BCS bowl game -- the top two teams play on Jan. 8 in the BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz., after the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls already have been played. Ah, two weeks in the desert in January. December bowl games. As if Boise, Charlotte, Detroit and Shreveport weren't enough, bowl-eligible teams can look forward to ... Birmingham. Did we really need the Birmingham Bowl? We got enough of that city during SEC Media Days.
Freshman QBs. Redshirt freshman Colt McCoy or freshman Jevan Snead will end up leading Texas, the defending national champion. USC, the 2004 national champ, could eventually turn to redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez, if he beats out John David Booty. There are three highly regarded rookie passers in the SEC and two of them -- Arkansas' Mitch Mustain and Georgia's Matthew Stafford -- could be starting sooner rather than later. Florida's Tim Tebow won't beat out senior Chris Leak for the starting job, but the freshman might be a better fit for the Gators' offense. Knuckleheads. Oklahoma quarterback Rhett Bomar gets booted for working at a dealership that sells Kias, of all cars. There seems to be a nationwide epidemic of stupidity among the NCAA ranks. Arkansas running back Darren McFadden injures his big toe while kicking a guy who tried to steal his car (someone else did fleece it during the fisticuffs). Virginia's Ahmad Brooks and Virginia Tech's Marcus Vick are gone and players from Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee, California, Florida State, Miami and Air Force have been suspended or dismissed for other tomfoolery.
Short guys. Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe (5-foot-7) and Boise State kick returner Quinton Jones (5-9) could end up on All-America teams. Challenges. Coaches get only one challenge per game, lose a timeout if the play isn't overturned and seem afraid to use their challenge.
Florida State. Bobby Bowden. Drew Weatherford. Lorenzo Booker. … OK, but what about Jenn Sterger and the FSU Cowgirls? Illinois. Ron Zook keeps assembling the talent, but it has been a struggle on Saturdays. Boy, that sounds familiar.
Big East. The conference has more cream at the top than a triple latte. Louisville and West Virginia are loaded. The Cardinals have Brian Brohm and Michael Bush. The Mountaineers have Pat White and Steve Slaton. The league title and corresponding BCS spot might be decided when the teams play at Louisville's Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 2 (ESPN, 7:30 ET). ACC. College football's new power conference has yet to make real noise in the BCS, as its teams have never received a BCS at-large berth. It could be another three-team race this season between Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech, unless Clemson finally lives up to its lofty expectations. Maryland, NC State and Virginia are sliding, and Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina seem stuck in neutral.
Spread offense. West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez used his no-huddle, shotgun formation to win the Big East and beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last season. In his first year as coach at Florida, Urban Meyer used his version of the spread to beat rivals Georgia, Tennessee and Florida State in the same season. Utah's spread offense sans Meyer wasn't bad, either, as the Utes won seven games in 2005 and blasted Georgia Tech 38-10 in the Emerald Bowl. Texas Tech led the country in passing with spread guru Mike Leach calling plays. The creamiest spread? Navy coach Paul Johnson's triple-option spread offense, which the Midshipmen run with more precision than any other team in the country. Head coaches calling ball plays. Arkansas' Houston Nutt won't call plays this season, giving those duties to Gus Malzahn, who arrives from Springdale (Ark.) High School. Neither will Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey, who handed the reins to Patrick Nix. Only two coaches in the SEC -- Georgia's Mark Richt and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier -- are still doing it. Even Pete Carroll, the ultra-successful Southern Cal coach who is considered a defensive wizard, says he's handing over the play calling on that side of the ball to defensive coordinator Nick Holt. We'll have to see that one to believe it.
Big, big bounce-back years. Penn State did it last season, going from 4-7 to 11-1. Traditional powers Michigan, Miami, Florida State, Nebraska and Tennessee could all be poised to do it this year. No Keith Jackson. Whoa, Nelly! The 77-year-old play-by-play man announced in April that he's retiring for good. And Saturdays just won't be the same.
Moonshine. In-state rivals Marshall and West Virginia play in Morgantown on Sept. 2 and six more times through 2011. The winner of two of the first three games gets to host the 2009 game. Finally, something that's decided on the field. Cocktail parties. The annual Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville on Oct. 28 will no longer be dubbed "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," because of concerns from both schools' administrations about binge drinking. Yeah, right. Cheers.
SEC RBs. Kenny Irons at Auburn. Darren McFadden at Arkansas. Kenneth Darby at Alabama. Thomas Brown, Kregg Lumpkin and Danny Ware at Georgia. South Carolina already had freshman sensation Mike Davis, and now the Gamecocks get back Cory Boyd, who was suspended for all of 2005. The league's most versatile back could be Kentucky's Rafael Little. Big 12 QBs. No Vince Young, Cody Hodges, Reggie McNeal, Brad Smith or Rhett Bomar. First-time starters at Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Missouri and a one-game starter at Oklahoma. Who would have thought the best hurlers in this conference would belong to Nebraska and Iowa State?
Baylor. That's right -- the Bears! Baylor hasn't had a winning season since 1995. It's the only school in the Big 12 that hasn't played in the postseason since the league was formed in 1996. In fact, Baylor's last bowl game was in 1994, but coach Guy Morriss has his team headed in the right direction. Duke. The ACC's worst team actually got worse when quarterback Zack Asack was suspended for the season for plagiarism. We're guessing he didn't cheat off a lacrosse player.
Steve Kragthorpe. The Tulsa coach has won 21 games in three years at a school that won just two games during the two seasons before he arrived. The Golden Hurricane might be poised to do even more with 17 starters back from a team that won Conference USA last season. Kragthorpe recently signed a six-year extension at Tulsa through 2011, but don't think the bigger programs aren't watching. Hey Aggie fans: He's a graduate of West Texas A&M. John L. Smith. The Michigan State coach used to tell folks at Utah State (in Logan) and Louisville that his middle initial stood for the cities in which he was coaching. He said the same thing when he arrived in East Lansing, Mich. But after a .500 record in three seasons, the Spartans are beginning to wonder whether the "L" really stands for losing.
Third Saturday in September. Florida at Tennessee. LSU at Auburn. Clemson at Florida State. Michigan at Notre Dame. Miami at Louisville. Oklahoma at Oregon. Nebraska at USC. Wish I were sitting on the couch that Saturday. Nonconference schedules. Some Division I-A teams really took advantage of the addition of a 12th game to their schedules. Alabama plays Louisiana-Monroe, Duke and Florida International. Auburn has Arkansas State, Tulane and Buffalo. South Carolina faces Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and the mighty Terriers of Wofford. Virginia Tech plays I-AA Northeastern, Cincinnati and Kent State. Maryland goes on the ledge with I-AA William & Mary, Middle Tennessee and Florida International.
Rotating QBs. Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter at Arizona State. Mark Sanchez and John David Booty at USC. Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead at Texas. Two of four quarterbacks -- Blake Barnes, Joe Cox, Matthew Stafford and Joe Tereshinski III -- at Georgia? Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander at Stanford. JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn at LSU. Nate Longshore, Steve Levy and Joe Ayoob at California. Brian Johnson, Brett Ratliff and Tommy Grady (the Oklahoma transfer) at Utah. You and me at Alabama. There will be plenty of quick hooks being thrown across the country. NFL retreads. Former St. Louis Rams coach Rich Brooks has won nine games in three seasons at Kentucky. Former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Greg Robinson won one game in his debut season at Syracuse. Pittsburgh's Dave Wannstedt, the former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins coach, was 5-6 at Pittsburgh last season. And Al Groh, the ex-New York Jets coach, is catching heat at Virginia, his alma mater. Thank goodness for Army's Bobby Ross.
Coaching stability. All 12 coaches are back in the SEC. Same in the Pac-10. The ACC hasn't fired a coach in two years (wait until next year -- see right). Even Louisville's Bobby Petrino is staying put. ACC coaches. NC State's Chuck Amato, Virginia's Al Groh, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen and UNC's John Bunting all better show improvement. And Clemson's Tommy Bowden and Miami's Larry Coker better win big. Welcome to the big leagues, ACC.
Big receivers. You better not have a point guard at cornerback if you're playing Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, USC or South Carolina. Four of the nation's top wide receivers -- Calvin Johnson, Jeff Samardzija, Dwayne Jarrett and Sidney Rice -- are as tall as power forwards. Johnson goes up and gets the ball as well as anyone, except for maybe Rice, who is more talented than any wideout coach Steve Spurrier had at Florida. Jarrett is big and strong and makes acrobatic catches. He'll have to start paying his own rent -- sorry, too easy -- with Leinart, Bush and White playing in the NFL. He'll become the No. 1 target on the Trojans offense. Samardzija is athletic enough to pitch in the Chicago Cubs' farm system during the offseason. Well, it is the Cubs, so maybe that's not that big a deal. ND secondary. The Fighting Irish got torched by USC, Michigan State and Ohio State and ranked 103rd in the country in pass defense, allowing 264.6 yards per game. All four starters are back in the secondary, including safety Tom Zbikowski. Cornerbacks Michael Richardson and Ambrose Wooden better rest up -- they face Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson, Penn State's Derrick Williams and Michigan's Steve Breaston during the first three games.
Going home again. Tulane heads back to its New Orleans campus after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. The Green Wave play their first three games on the road -- at Houston, Mississippi State and LSU -- so the Louisiana Superdome will be a welcome sight when they host SMU on Sept. 30. Northwestern tragedy. College football lost one of its brightest coaches and best guys when Randy Walker died suddenly of a heart attack in July. The Wildcats' Aug. 31 opener at Miami (Ohio), his alma mater, will be a tearjerker.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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