Commentary

Teams, players arrive at fork in the road

Originally Published: August 9, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

College football is a transitional sport by nature. Every year, one-quarter of a team's roster turns over. If the team doesn't progress, the coaching staff turns over. That's because insufficient success makes the fans' stomachs turn over.

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
Brian Losness/US PresswireChris Petersen and the Broncos are in position for a title run in 2010.

That's in a normal year -- and 2010 has been anything but normal. The 2010 season begins with an unusually high number of teams, coaches and players moving into position to go in any number of directions. Some programs, after years of toil and travel, are poised to reach the promised land. Others are trying not to turn down the road to oblivion.

From realignment to retirement to NCAA enforcement, from the expectations of fans to the expectation of self, the 2010 season is a crossroads.

For instance, after years of clamoring for FBS street cred, Boise State begins the season with a BCS National Championship Game travel visa. In four seasons under coach Chris Petersen, the Broncos have gone 49-4 and won two Fiesta Bowls. Boise State opens 2010 as a top-five team against a top-10 opponent (Virginia Tech). The rest is up to the Broncos.

This is not the "Crossroads" moaned by blues great Robert Johnson, who went down to the crossroad and fell down on his knees. Well, that might describe Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, who has won 16 games in four seasons in Boulder. Or Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, the Terps alumnus who went 31-8 in his first three seasons and 35-38 in the past six, including last year's 2-10 clunker.

"I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, babe"

This is not "Crossroads," the 2002 film about a teen road trip from Georgia to Los Angeles. That "Crossroads" stars Britney Spears, the onetime publicity-seeking pop star who is trying to cut a lower profile these days.

Although if you substitute Tennessee for Georgia and Lane Kiffin for Spears …

Few schools in the nation are at a more crucial crossroads than USC, the team in the shiny new cardinal and gold choirboy robes. A new president has hired a new athletic director, and both of them plan to live by the letter of the NCAA Manual law. As a gesture of what -- good will? apology? overzealousness? -- the lobby in Heritage Hall, a shrine to the Trojans' considerable legacy of football success, displays one fewer Heisman Trophy than it had the past four years.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesLane Kiffin and USC are squarely in the crossroads entering the 2010 season.

The penalty of 30 scholarships for the next three seasons dictates that there might not be a USC team with this much talent for several years. The bowl ban for the next two seasons makes it easier for the Trojans to lose focus. Through all that turmoil, USC will take the field with a new coaching staff led by Kiffin, who seems to have a lightning rod where his spine should be.

Given that USC can't go to the Rose Bowl, maybe Arizona can. The Wildcats have a genuine chance at playing in their first Rose Bowl in 33 seasons in the Pac-10. Quarterback Nick Foles has emerged from The Fog of Transfer (not an Errol Morris film) after originally signing with Michigan State to reach the edge of stardom.

Although Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany organized the most recent game of realignment poker, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott made the table come alive in the spring. By the time everyone had played his hand, realignment poker had exposed nerves, resentment, ambition and greed -- the grittiest X's and O's in the human playbook.

More than a few big emotions are at play in Ann Arbor, where Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez has suffered through two losing seasons and the embarrassment of an NCAA investigation. Although the case found the Wolverines guilty largely of employing an inept support staff, the mortification and bad headlines it brought Rodriguez have helped make this his crossroads season. By the way, Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, who hired Rodriguez and invested his own capital in him, retired this year.

Michigan's archrival, Ohio State, is in the midst of its greatest run in 35 years. But 2010 is a critical year for Buckeyes junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Saddled with expectations of greatness from the time he stretched his recruiting into the spring of 2008, Pryor spent his first two seasons underwhelming everyone. But with his performance in the Rose Bowl, where he passed and ran for 338 yards in a 26-17 defeat of Oregon, Pryor has proved he is capable of playing at the level predicted for him.

All he has to do now is do it every week.

Even without Nebraska's impending move to join Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten, this would be a crossroads season for the Huskers. They are a national championship contender for the first time in nearly a decade. But Nebraska's appearance as a Big 12 lame duck will turn the Big Red into this season's drama queen.

[+] EnlargeJerrod Johnson
Brett Davis/US PresswireJerrod Johnson and the Aggies are looking to make a move up the Big 12 standings.

If the Huskers can weather the eight bull's-eyes attached to their jerseys by their Big 12 opponents, they might gain revenge for that heartbreaking last- (extra-?) second loss to Texas last season. The trick will be peaking this season without peeking toward next.

In the Big 12 South, Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson approaches his senior season as the smart guy's choice to emerge onto the national scene and bring the Aggies with him. By the same token, if coach Mike Sherman doesn't find a way to keep opponents from scoring -- nine teams hung at least 30 points on the Aggies last season -- Texas A&M's success of the '90s will recede one year further into the distance -- and might take Sherman with it.

Not far from College Station, Houston quarterback Case Keenum begins his senior season at the crossroads of history. Keenum, with 12,950 passing yards, is 4,123 yards short of breaking the NCAA career passing record of 17,072 yards set by then-Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang.

The Cougars' biggest challenge in Conference USA might come from SMU, led by Chang's mentor, coach June Jones. The Mustangs, coming off their first bowl trip in 25 years, are on the verge of national relevance for the first time in the post-death-penalty era.

[+] EnlargeJohn Brantley
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesJohn Brantley is poised to take over at QB for the Gators.

Having traveled through his own personal crossroads the past nine months, Florida coach Urban Meyer says he is refreshed and rejuvenated. This case of Urban Renewal attached a sheen of anxiety to the issue of whether the Gators will continue their national success in the post-Tebow era. Quarterback John Brantley, after three years of sitting, comes to a crossroads of his own with a very young team around him.

Florida isn't alone. The SEC East is full of teams that could go in any direction. Tennessee, with Derek Dooley as the Vols' third coach in three seasons, might head south faster than college kids at spring break. Georgia hasn't won the East in five years. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are starting over.

The team best poised to take advantage of the flux is the veteran bunch at South Carolina. After five seasons of winning no more than eight games and no fewer than six, Steve Spurrier no longer resembles the evil genius of his days at Florida. If this Gamecocks team doesn't challenge for the division title, Spurrier's legacy as a ball coach will suffer a scratch no buffer can remove.

In the SEC West, LSU coach Les Miles is three years removed from a national championship, and if the Tigers don't finish better than the 8-5 and 9-4 of the past two seasons, Miles might be removed from LSU. The opener against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff is a crossroads special.

The Tar Heels, in their fourth season under coach Butch Davis, have the defense to make a national statement. If that statement is the NCAA suspension of defensive lineman Marvin Austin, who is being investigated in the latest agent scandal, that probably will be the last national statement the Tar Heels make this season.

[+] EnlargeJacory Harris
Fernando Medina/US PresswireJacory Harris and the Canes have the look of an ACC contender.

Old antagonists Miami and Florida State find themselves at significant, if different, crossroads in 2010. The Hurricanes, after the false promise of last season's start, have the most talent and maturity they've had in four seasons under local product Randy Shannon. Quarterback Jacory Harris has tantalized Miami fans by making the spectacular plays. If he finds a way to make the routine ones, the Canes will be an ACC title contender.

Florida State inflicted a few scratches and dents on its reputation by refusing to don kid gloves when it forced Bobby Bowden out of his job after 34 history-making seasons in Tallahassee. The quickest way to make everyone forget the treatment of Bowden is for new coach Jimbo Fisher to return the Seminoles to greatness. Fisher, a shrewd offensive mind, has the quarterback to do so in senior Christian Ponder. If the Seminoles' defense can slow anyone down, watch out.

The entire Big East finds itself at a crossroads. With the Big Ten measuring for drapes at Rutgers -- or is it Syracuse or Pittsburgh? -- the league needs a competitive race among contenders who prove themselves worthy of national consideration. That kind of season, like the one the Big East had in 2006 when Rutgers, West Virginia and Louisville battled to the last night of the regular season, would project strength and viability.

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsall
Elsa/Getty Images Randy Edsall has UConn moving forward.

No team better exemplifies what the Big East could be than UConn. Under coach Randy Edsall, who in 11 seasons has built the Huskies from I-AA into a solid program, the Huskies return 16 starters and have the three strongest teams in the league -- Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and West Virginia -- coming to Rentschler Field.

As we wait on the side at these crossroads, awaiting the dispatch of teams to the various roads before them, college football also welcomes back one of its own from a harrowing journey. When Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich steps onto the field for the Eagles' opener against Weber State on Sept. 4, he will have completed his return from cancer.

While Boston College fans urge the Eagles toward a third division title in four seasons, the program's most important victory already will be in the books.

Put Herzlich on your ballot as comeback player of the year. It will take time to fill in the names of the other award winners, though. If the 2010 season is anything like the eight months that preceded it, the traffic at these crossroads will not stop. College football promises us every season that it will deliver as many wins as it does losses. The fun is in discovering their destinations.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com