Let's Get the Party Started

The longest season in college football history, which includes 12 regular-season games for most teams, starts Aug. 22 (Colorado State at Virginia) and concludes with the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3. That amounts to 164 days from kickoff through the crowning of the national champion in the Arizona desert. Hey,let's get cranking. Click here to read Jeff's thoughts on the overrated, the underrated, the Heisman Trophy race, coaches on the hotseat, breakout players, the 'Noles and much, much more.

The longest season in college football history, which includes 12 regular-season games for most teams, starts Aug. 22 (Colorado State at Virginia) and concludes with the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3.

That amounts to 164 days from kickoff through the crowning of the national champion in the Arizona desert.

In between, we'll find out if the Seminoles can rebound from their first four-loss season in 16 years, if Ron Zook can please unhappy Gator fans, if college football will miss Steve Spurrier, if Miami will extend the nation's longest winning streak for another season, if Duke will a game, any game, if Joe Paterno will suffer through two consecutive losing seasons, if Ralph Friedgen and Maryland can avoid a sophomore slump, if Texas can win a championship, if a team like Marshall can become the first to emerge from one of the non-major conferences to earn a BCS berth, and if Georgia's confidence, Lou Holtz's pessimism, Notre Dame's optimism and Oklahoma's cockiness is warranted.

From Labor Day weekend through Nov. 30, there are 14 Saturdays, allowing the NCAA to grant an extra regular-season game per school. Three teams – Nebraska, Iowa State and Texas Tech – have the chance to play 15 games if they reach the Big 12 title game. No Division I-A team has played that many in one season.

This is also the Year of the Quarterback. If the season progresses as projected, the top-five Heisman finishers could all be quarterbacks. There are 10-15 legitimate stars behind center this season while the running back names are mostly unknown. Let's take a look at the upcoming season:

THE OVERRATED: USC. The Trojans finished 6-6 and face a murderous schedule and yet are ranked in virtually every pre-season Top 25....Michigan State...300-yard passing games. Once a rarity, they're as common now as SEC schools in NCAA trouble...Mack Brown. Until the Texas coach wins a big game, or a conference championship, he won't be regarded as one of the nation's elite coaches...In turn, Chris Simms deserves a mention in this category. I never understood how Major Applewhite lost his job in the first place. The pressure has eaten Simms up when the Longhorns needed leadership...Notre Dame's mystique. The Irish, 5-6 last season, have lost five in a row to Michigan State (Sept. 21), had only four touchdown passes last season (last in Division I-A), and generally haven't been a factor in the national race in nine years...Barry Alvarez, Jackie Sherrill and Mack Brown..The Big Ten's collective homefield advantages...Pre-season polls.

UNDERRATED: Lou Holtz, Frank Beamer, Jeff Bower and Fisher DeBerry...Casey Clausen. The Tennessee quarterback doesn't get the publicity that Peyton Manning did, but he wins....A good kicking game. Consider that Auburn K Damon Duval is probably as valuable to his team as any other player in the nation...The SEC's collective homefield advantages...The pageantry and importance of the Army-Navy game...Air Force's program (141 wins in past 18 seasons)...The Mid-American Conference.

NEW COACHES WHO WILL SUCCEED... 1. Ron Zook, Florida – Because of his recruiting abilities, the Gators' talent pool will soon match that of Miami and FSU; 2. Chan Gailey, Georgia Tech – He can coach, but can he recruit? Yes. 3. Paul Johnson, Navy – Not that the Midshipmen will win big, but they will get better. They have to.

...AND THOSE WHO WON'T: 1. Gerry DiNardo, Indiana – This was a very questionable hire. Cam Cameron deserved another year, but DiNardo's hiring was a bad one. If he wins at Indiana, a snowball may have a chance in hell. 2. Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame – George O'Leary is a better coach, but Willingham had the better resume. His Stanford teams were flashy but lacked consistency. 3. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt – If you can win four games here, you can win eight anywhere else. 4. Mark Mangino, Kansas – The former Sooners' offensive coordinator faces one of the biggest challenges in college football.

THE HOTSEAT: 1. Carl Franks, Duke – If the losing streak continues (now at 23) and breaks the Division I-A record of 28, he surely is gone. 2. Kevin Steele, Baylor – His teams are 0-24 in the Big 12. 3. R.C. Slocum, Texas A&M – A great defensive coach, he just can't put together that one big season to buy some security. 4. Bob Toledo, UCLA – He can get the Bruins out of the gate quickly, but can't finish. 5. Dana Dimel, Houston – Once considered one of the brightest young coaches, his Cougars have lost 15 in a row. Honorable mention: Frank Solich, Nebraska – Believe it or not, Tom Osborne's replacement is not popular despite his 42-9 record in four seasons. If the Cornhuskers lose three or more, his slide will continue.

BREAKOUT PLAYERS: Washington RB Rich Alexis will become a star...Ohio State freshman TB Maurice Clarett will get enough carries to make a huge impact...N.C. State freshman receiver Richard Washington could become an impact player immediately given the Wolfpack's early soft schedule...

GAME OF THE YEAR: There are several but the annual Red River Showdown should determine one of the two teams playing in the Fiesta Bowl. If Texas can beat Oklahoma Oct. 12 in Dallas – the Longhorns then would have to beat rival Texas A&M and win the Big 12 title game.

DON'T MISS NON-CONFERENCE MATCHUPS: Washington at Michigan, Aug. 31; Miami at Florida, Alabama at Oklahoma, Sept. 7; Washington State at Ohio State, Texas at North Carolina, Sept. 14; Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 5; Miami at Tennessee, Nov. 9; Florida at Florida State, Nov. 30.

SCORE 60 AND GIVE US THE CHECK!: North Texas at Texas, Aug. 31; Western Carolina at Auburn, Sept. 7; Jacksonville State at Mississippi State, Rhode Island at Syracuse, Sept. 14; Northwestern State at Georgia, Sept. 21; Uconn at Miami, McNeese State at Nebraska, Oct. 5.

NIGHTMARE SCHEDULES: USC has Auburn, Colorado, Kansas State and Notre Dame as its four non-conference opponents...Louisiana Tech plays at Clemson, at Penn State and at Texas A&M in three consecutive Saturdays in September.

CREAMPUFF STARTS: Always a school to take the easy route, Kansas State hosts Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe and Eastern Illinois to start the season...Minnesota opens with SW Texas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Toledo and Buffalo... Iowa's three non-conference opponents are Akron, Miami of Ohio and Utah State...But the award for the easiest non-conference schedule goes to N.C. State, which scheduled four wins in New Mexico, East Tennessee State, Navy and Umass.

EXPECT: Bobby Bowden to catch Joe Paterno in the all-time wins list. Bowden (323) trails the Penn State coach by four, and the Nittany Lions should be better than they were in 2001. But if FSU wins 11 or 12 games, Bowden should at least tie Paterno...Duke to start 0-4, giving the Blue Devils a 27-game losing streak. The next game, at Navy, would be huge for the Blue Devils. If they lose, they would tie the NCAA Division I-A record with 28 straight losses...Oklahoma State to improve on 4-7 and earn a bowl berth...Ole Miss to play in plenty of shootouts...Mississippi State to have a second straight losing season...Oklahoma to beat Texas again...Northwestern to have a second consecutive losing season even if it starts 4-0...Georgia to lose to either Tennessee or Florida or both even though the Bulldogs should be favored in both games...Boston College to finish second to Miami in the Big East if the Eagles can beat Virginia Tech.

POTENTIAL DARKHORSES TO FINISH UNBEATEN: Boise State of the WAC, if the Broncos could upset Arkansas Sept. 7, could surprise everyone with a perfect record. The offense is that explosive...Washington State. Sure, everyone has jumped on the Cougars bandwagon after a 10-2 season, but how many experts truly believe they could run the table and end up in the Fiesta Bowl? If they win in Columbus Sept. 14 against Ohio State, it could happen...

WHAT HAPPENED TO?...: Oregon State – Wasn't that 11-1 season two years ago supposed to be the start of a Pac-10 dynasty for Dennis Erickson and the Beavers? Apparently not. Oregon State stumbled to 5-6 and is picked to finish in the middle of the Pac-10 this season...Curley Hallman – Remember the old LSU coach? He's now the secondary coach at Mississippi State...The good old-fashioned screen pass -- No, I don't mean these silly slip screens to the wide receiver. I mean the true screen pass to a running back that used to be a staple...George O'Leary – The ex-Georgia Tech coach who was humiliated over his resume errors upon his appointment to Notre Dame has landed as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line coach...John Cooper – The fired Ohio State coach is a consultant with the Cincinnati Bengals...Carson Palmer – The highly recruited quarterback of four years ago is still starting at USC, where he has thrown 39 touchdown passes – and 39 interceptions – while the Trojans have won 16 and lost 16...All-white uniforms – it seems every team has gone to colored pants to accompany white jerseys when on the road...

HEISMAN PICK: It's the Year of the Quarterback. Florida's Rex Grossman will certainly put up some big numbers despite Steve Spurrier's departure. Marshall's Byron Leftwich should become the first player selected in the NFL draft next April. Louisville's Dave Ragone is big and accurate but plays for a team rarely on television. Many experts love Texas' Chris Simms to become a superstar. Florida State's Chris Rix is a year away from having the huge name recognition. But I have to go with Miami's Ken Dorsey. Even if the Hurricanes don't win it all again, Dorsey has all the ingredients to win the big award. Plus, his statistics may be better since the Hurricanes' running game figures to drop off.

CONFERENCE STRENGTH: 1. Big 12 – No doubt about it. Five teams – Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Nebraska – have a chance to win the national championship. Four – Texas A&M, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas Tech – are good bets to go to a bowl. 2. Pac-10 – I give the Left Coast Conference just a slight edge over the SEC because of Washington State's emergence. Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA also are shooting for a Rose Bowl berth. 3. SEC – The SEC East is brutal. The SEC West is simply good. Auburn, LSU or Alabama needs to emerge as a Top-10 threat to balance the conference. 4. Big Ten – It may be a return to the good old days if Michigan and Ohio State roll through the first 11 games. But the bottom half of the conference hasn't improved. Penn State is a question. 5. ACC – Has passed the Big East from top to bottom because of coaching. UNC, N.C. State and Maryland have added good depth. Now Clemson must get its act together. 6. Big East – Miami is great; Virginia Tech is very good. Syracuse is inconsistent. The bottom (Rutgers and Temple) is and has been non-competitive.

STADIUM CHANGES: Michigan State changed to grass, leaving Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota as the only Big Ten teams still playing on artificial surface; Oklahoma, boosted by Bob Stoops arrival and 23-2 record over the past two years, is expanding Owen Field with 8,000 seats and new skyboxes.

BIG-FOUR BOWL PROJECTIONS: Sugar: Tennessee-Texas; Orange: Miami-Michigan; Rose: Ohio State-Washington; Fiesta (national championship): Florida State-Oklahoma.


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