Players, coaches, games to watch
After a month of previews, features, arguments and rankings, we're hours away from the kickoff of the 2009 season. Indulge us, please, for one more top 25. Here's my list of the top things to watch as the season gets under way. This is not a ranking, mind you, but merely a list. The items stretch from the games Thursday night to the games in December and January. Here are the players, coaches and games to watch to get a sense of how this season will unfold. And trust us: It really is, at long last, about to start.
1. The most pressing question about Oklahoma and Alabama is not whether Sam Bradford can repeat as Heisman Trophy winner or whether the Crimson Tide can win the SEC West again. First, tell me if their offensive lines jell. Do Bradford and new Bama starter Greg McElroy have time to set their feet? Answer that question, and you'll have the answer to whether the Sooners and the Crimson Tide contend for the national championship this season.
2. The same sort of question will be asked at Notre Dame. An offensive line that arrived with a lot of blue chips hasn't performed at that level. It has been up to new O-line coach Frank Verducci to get this unit and its 100 or so starts to play up to its talent and experience. The rest -- from junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen to his fleet of talented wide receivers and the mystery at tailback: Armando Allen? Robert Hughes? -- will flow from there. I want to see sack totals and rushing totals against Michigan and Michigan State.
3. Texas proved last season that it doesn't need to establish a running game outside of quarterback Colt McCoy, the improbable team leader in 2008. But the traditionalist in me believes that McCoy, even if he has bulked up to 214 pounds, doesn't need to average 10 carries a game this year. His running might be even more effective if there's someone else in the backfield whom the defense must respect. Among Bradford, McCoy and Tim Tebow, McCoy might be the most valuable to his offense. What happens to the Texas offense if he takes the blow that puts him on the sideline?
4. The most important stat to watch with an Ole Miss or an Oklahoma State as it tries to maintain its top-10 ranking has nothing to do with offense or defense. The stat is starts lost to injury. The difference between an Ole Miss and an Alabama is not the talent among the first 22. It's the next line on the depth chart, and the line after that. The Rebels -- and the Cowboys and No. 15 Georgia Tech -- have to stay healthy. It just means everything.
5. All eyes are on USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. No one questions whether Barkley has talent. But he also must show knowledge and poise and leadership, and all by the second Saturday. That's the day that the Trojans play before 100,000 hostile fans at the Horseshoe. Normally, young quarterbacks are not asked to win the game. They're asked not to lose it. With an inexperienced defense, however, USC might need to score. Can the running game carry the offense? Can Barkley deliver the ball to Damian Williams? Has coach Pete Carroll outsmarted himself by looking past sophomore Aaron Corp?
6. The ACC expansion has been good to Virginia Tech, which has won the past two league championships. But the Hokies haven't been a national contender in four years. Over the course of the season, Virginia Tech's fate will rest with quarterback Tyrod Taylor and his ability to make something happen. There is no Darren Evans at tailback to carry the load, figuratively or otherwise. The game Saturday against Alabama will be a good measuring stick for the Hokies, both in terms of their football and their ability to compete at the highest level. Over the past four years, Virginia Tech is 1-4 against top-10 teams.
7. If there is a matchup I look forward to watching every week, it is to see the center -- and guard and maybe even tackle -- who must deal with the 354 pounds of mobility that is Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody. For the record, Virginia Tech center Beau Warren is listed at 277 pounds and has been getting teased by his teammates about Cody for several months. On Saturday, he'll get their help.
8. Keep an eye on Michigan State. The preseason Big Ten talk has centered on Penn State and Ohio State, last season's co-champions. But Mark Dantonio has quietly built a tough, physical team -- that's you, middle linebacker Greg Jones -- all while Michigan has struggled. The game at Notre Dame on Sept. 19 has been circled as a test for the Irish. It works both ways. If the Spartans win that one and play the Big Ten opener at 3-0, watch out. One more thing: Ohio State isn't on the schedule and both Penn State and Iowa go to East Lansing.
9. Minnesota isn't the best team in the Big Ten, but it's the most interesting. The Golden Gophers went 1-11 in 2007, Tim Brewster's first season, and rebounded to finish 7-6 last year. Is Brewster a miracle worker? Could be. Could also be that Minnesota returned to its typical state. Glen Mason got fired for sticking around .500 too long. One big difference: Brewster has an on-campus stadium opening this season. The first two home games, against Air Force and No. 12 California, will provide evidence as to what difference, if any, that makes for the Gophers.
10. No. 17 TCU lines up behind No. 14 Boise State in the race to be the BCS Buster of 2009. The Horned Frogs don't have a ranked Big 12 neighbor on their schedule for the first time in five years. Instead, there are September road trips to Virginia and Clemson. Neither team is ranked, but if TCU can pull off that ACC double, the Horned Frogs will reap benefits in the polls. Non-AQ schools get penalized in public perception for the reputation of their schedules, if not the schedules themselves. It's hard to say if beating Virginia and Clemson will mean much of anything. But it will look good.
11. The winner of the game Monday between defending champion Cincinnati and Rutgers will get the psychic benefit of seeing its name atop the Big East standings for a month. The league schedule doesn't resume until October and extends to the first Saturday in December, when three conference games are scheduled. What the Big East needs is for the winner Monday to keep winning. The two teams with the most tradition, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, haven't been strong enough to carry the league. The Big East needs a bell cow.
12. North Carolina improved from 4-8 to 8-5 last season, a sign of a maturing team. But the Tar Heels went 0-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, which is a sign of a team that hasn't matured yet. Road games at UConn and at Georgia Tech in September should give us an idea of how much growing up Butch Davis' team has done.
13. For Nebraska to return to the nation's elite, the Huskers must start by winning their first Big 12 North championship in three seasons. The Huskers will do that by playing defense -- not a lot, mind you. It is still the Big 12. We might not know how good the defense is until Oct. 17, when Nebraska plays Texas Tech in the sixth game of the season.
14. North Texas redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Dodge takes over the Mean Green. All he has to do is turn around a team that has won three games in two years, to save his dad's job. That would be Todd Dodge, the North Texas head coach. This could be the feel-good story of the season. It also could be Shakespearean tragedy. Either way, there's a Lifetime movie in there somewhere.
15. South Carolina begins the season Thursday night at North Carolina State on a three-game losing streak. In fact, the Gamecocks have lost at least three straight in each of the past three seasons. In his previous 16 seasons as a head coach at Duke and Florida, Steve Spurrier lost three straight games only twice. What I want to know is this: How well must the Gamecocks do to keep Spurrier around? Will he get so frustrated bumping his head against the Gator ceiling (which he helped construct) that he quits? I hope not. College football is richer for his presence.
16. While we're in the same neighborhood, Dabo Swinney begins his first full season at Clemson. Can the homegrown coach break the Tigers' stranglehold on mediocrity? Or vice-versa? I want to see how Swinney deploys senior tailback C.J. Spiller, who has dazzled fans with his potential and frustrated them with his output (no 1,000-yard seasons). If Swinney gives Spiller the ball, and Spiller keeps gaining 8-plus yards a touch, Clemson's 18-year championship drought might be over.
17. It's a big year for Bill Stewart at West Virginia. He has quarterback Jarrett Brown, the fifth-year senior, to serve as a bridge from Big East career passing leader Patrick White to his brother Coley, a redshirt freshman. Few coaches who struggled in their first head-coaching job (8-25 at VMI from 1994 to '96) get a second chance. Fewer still succeed. The only one who leaps to mind is Gene Stallings. West Virginia regressed last season in going 9-4 but has as much claim to the top as any team in the muddled Big East. The early yardstick games are at home against nonconference opponents (East Carolina, Colorado). That's when we take the measure of Stewart in Year 2.
18. The list of young quarterbacks who will be fun to watch this fall starts with Baylor sophomore Robert Griffin III. He hasn't led the Bears to the brink of relevance single-handedly. It only feels that way. Also on that list: Boise State sophomore Kellen Moore, North Carolina State sophomore Russell Wilson, Arkansas sophomore (and Michigan transfer) Ryan Mallett and Washington junior Jake Locker. Yes, a junior, but Locker missed so much of last season with a broken thumb that he still seems new.
19. I can't recall a season when the Pac-10 had so few marquee quarterbacks. USC, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona and Arizona State have starters with little or no experience. If Locker is not the best quarterback in the league, then it's Oregon junior Jeremiah Masoli, and both of them are being judged on potential. Not to worry: Freshmen Barkley of USC, Kevin Prince of UCLA and Andrew Luck of Stanford are coming to the rescue.
20. As the offense spreads -- the name of my favorite soap opera -- there is more room for little, darting tailbacks. Noel Devine of West Virginia, Kendall Hunter of Oklahoma State, Brandon James of Florida, MiQuale Lewis of Ball State and Curtis McNeal of USC all are listed at 5-foot-8 or shorter. All are exciting to watch. You can be sure that with their success, more backs like them will get a look from recruiters.
21. If Stanford breaks through for its first bowl season since 2001, it will be because Luck and running back Toby Gerhart stay healthy. They are the perfect two-fisted weapon to keep modern defenses honest. It would help if the Cardinal had more experience on the offensive line, but depth is always an issue with teams that have tough academic standards.
22. Turner Gill became the flavor du jour among non-AQ coaches last year. He got serious looks at Syracuse and at Auburn for the turnaround he has engineered at Buffalo. But if I had to pick the non-AQ coach most likely to hit the contract jackpot in December, I would rank Kevin Sumlin of Houston and Derek Dooley of Louisiana Tech ahead of Gill. The edge in name recognition goes to Gill, the former Nebraska quarterback. But Sumlin and Dooley, parked in the sun belt, have a better chance of sustaining their success than does Gill.
23. After six new bowls in the past three years (BCS Championship Game, New Mexico, International, Papajohns.com, St. Petersburg, EagleBank), it is my duty to inform you there are no new postseason games this year. You'll have to make do with the same 34.
24. Syracuse has a streak of seven seasons without a winning record, which ties the school record set from 1944 to '50. The last two years of that streak were the first two coached by Ben Schwartzwalder. He didn't have a losing record again until 1972. At its bleakest, the Orange could set a record of sorts this season by going winless in two conferences. Syracuse's first three games are against Big Ten opponents.
25. Who is your team of the decade? The decision might come down to this season. LSU and Florida have two crystal footballs. USC has one, plus an AP national title, and played for a third. Each team has dipped for two or three seasons. Right now, the Trojans break that tie with seven straight finishes in the top five. Neither of the SEC teams has shown that consistency.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.