|Alabama is a preseason favorite to deliver the SEC its sixth straight national title. (US Presswire)|
Eddie Pleasant enjoys wearing his heart on his sleeve. Space, though, is becoming limited. Parts of both arms are tatted up with an emotional tableau of what and who is important to the Oregon safety.
A grandmother who died when he was a month old. Todd Doxey, the former teammate who drowned during a team outing three years ago. Even an inked reminder of how much he loves the sport.
The tattoos represent only a partial list of those Pleasant felt he had let down the night of Jan. 10. It seemed to be a perfect form tackle as Auburn freshman tailback Michael Dyer came speeding toward him that night. Pleasant loves to hit. That love had been taken away a bit as he transitioned from running back to linebacker to safety in four seasons with the Ducks.
But Pleasant seemingly had Dyer lined up as the seconds ticked away in the national championship game, with the score knotted at 19-19.
"It [the tackle] wasn't," he remembered gloomily, "good enough."
In fact, it wasn't a tackle at all. After the hit, Dyer tumbled toward the ground, but never actually made it there. Most of the naked eyes in Phoenix University Stadium never saw that the tailback kept himself from hitting the turf. By the strength of a strong left hand, the kid who had broken Bo Jackson's school freshman rushing record propped himself up.
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With those tackle-defying skills, Dyer essentially rolled over the defender, staying upright long enough to sprint for 37 yards. You know by now that the run set up the game-winning field goal in Auburn's 22-19 win.
It was ruled that Dyer was never down, but Pleasant certainly was. At the game's conclusion, he dropped to the turf, inconsolable. Teammates literally had to lift him to his feet as Tigers danced around him and the dejected Ducks.
Pleasant merely took his sadness to the bench where, amid confetti, his butt hit the pine and his chin slumped to his chest.
"That's one of the biggest games that you'll play in your life," he said this offseason. "You dream of playing in a game like that. He slipped away. I felt like if that was a play I could erase, we would have won the game."
Pleasant put way too much of the loss on himself. The Tigers might have driven down anyway and kicked the winner. But the senior from La Palma, Calif., had seen something like this before, watching Texas' Vince Young dupe USC and scramble into the end zone with 19 seconds left to win the 2005 national championship. It stuck with him. This time, it was on him.
The Ducks have done all they can in the offseason to rebuild Pleasant's confidence and rebut his argument that one play -- his play -- lost the game.
"For me to go in and miss a tackle like that, hurt," Pleasant said. "I'm anxious to get back there. It's how you finish the season. It's not how you start."
If that's the case, there is hope for this ravaged sport. Let Dyer's rollover recovery and Pleasant's rehab from missed-tackle hell be metaphors for college football's renewal. If they can get up again, so can college football.
In less than a month, the season kicks off, thankfully ending one of the most controversial and contentious offseasons in the game's history. Maybe the actual games can save us. Maybe not. But at least we'll finally be watching the ball instead of watching the wire for the latest scandal.
If only the rest of college football were as accountable as Pleasant ...
Before the SEC enjoys the joy of six (consecutive national championships), it must endure the snickers over that "5" on the cover conference media guide. Sure, there have been that many consecutive titles for the Strength Everywhere Conference. But we also enter the season with a five-pack of SEC schools (LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, South Carolina) on probation, under investigation or awaiting an NCAA verdict for major violations.
Student-athlete welfare has taken on a new meaning. Forget paying players, try keeping them alive. Twenty college football players have died since 2000, almost all of them during non-contact training periods.
Elsewhere, the adults have distinguished themselves once again, bickering over whether to profit off the labor of teenagers by allowing the widespread televising of high school games.
This week offers a state-of-the-game sampler platter. Fifty presidents and various commissioners will meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Indianapolis for an NCAA retreat to discuss reforms. On Friday, Ohio State will travel to the same city to present its case to the NCAA infractions committee.
|2011 Preview Schedule|
|Aug. 16||Big 12|
|Aug. 17||Big East|
|Aug. 22||Mountain West|
|Aug. 24||Sun Belt|
One of the few certainties of 2011 is that USC will not be eligible for a bowl game. Again.
"Intercollegiate athletics has lost the benefit of the doubt," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said last month. All we can hope for is a chance for that renewal -- even if both schools in January's title game are among those being investigated by the NCAA.
Let's look ahead, then, and celebrate what will make this game great, or at least interesting, in 2011.
• Joe Paterno. Entering his 46th season at Penn State, he looks younger and is more energetic than in Year 45. All of us should be able to walk six miles at age 84.
• Rutgers walk-on long snapper Stephen Belichick, son of Bill. Think he's got a shot at any playing time?
• Rich Ellerson. The man who developed the Desert Swarm defense at Arizona is now developing soldiers while winning games at Army. Coming off their first bowl in 14 years, the Black Knights are hoping to beat Navy for the first time since 2001.
• Les Miles. If Alabama or Oklahoma or Oregon don't win it all, let's hope Lesticles does. Behind the quirky, grass-eating exterior, is a decent, hard-working, fun-loving coach and person. This is a guy who once called Erin Andrews out of the blue to offer support after her privacy was violated in her hotel room. Just don't try to outguess him on fourth down.
• Fate. The scheduling kind that brought LSU to Cowboys Stadium for a rousing Cotton Bowl victory against Texas A&M to end the 2010 season. The kind that, nine months later, brings No. 4 LSU back to Arlington to open this season against No. 3 Oregon.
• Dyer. With the loss of Cam Newton at Auburn, let's hope this Tigers feel-good story doesn't come with as much baggage. The soft-spoken tailback lost his father at 4, broke out as a freshman and could be a Heisman contender as a sophomore.
"I definitely feel like one," he said.
• Fearing the Beard. Will Stanford maintain its physical rep after the loss of the swashbuckling Jim Harbaugh? He changed the program, the culture and the Pac-10 standings. In terms of temperament, new coach David Shaw is more Walt Harris. For now, Andrew Luck is favored to win the Heisman and the Cardinal expected to challenge Oregon for the first Pac-12 title.
• Legends and Leaders. Quick, name the teams in each Big Ten division.
• If you get that far, ask yourself why JoePa isn't in the Legends Division and why Indiana is in the Leaders Division.
• Nebraska. No more Texas to deal with, but some of the issues remain the same for the Big Red in the Big Ten. The Huskers still haven't won a conference title since 1999 but have a Big Ten-quality defense. That could be good enough to win the Large Dozen in their first year in the league.
• Dana Holgorsen. Who cares how he got promoted this offseason, West Virginia's new head coach walks, talks and coaches like a certain out-of-work, best-selling book promoter. If we can't have Mike Leach this season, Holgorsen, who worked on The Pirate's staff, is the next best thing.
• Offense. Expect more of it. For the first time, there wasn't at least one top-10 defense playing in the BCS title game. Of the 14 offensive statistical categories tracked by the NCAA, all-time records have been set of 10 of those since 2007. It helps that the individual leaders in rushing, passing and receiving all return this season.
• Notre Dame. The Irish are back. Yeah, yeah, we've heard it before too many times. But in his second season, Brian Kelly has a friendly schedule, 16 returning starters and a Sun Bowl victory against Miami to build on. They're talking BCS bowl in South Bend. All Kelly, a career quarterback maker, needs to do this month is find a starting quarterback.
• Jimbo Fisher. You have to root for him. In the middle of resurrecting the Seminoles, Florida State's coach spent part of the offseason dealing with his son's blood disorder.
• Oklahoma at Florida State, Sept. 17. From this view, it looks like the game of the year. FSU is trying to get back to national championship contention. OU is trying to prove that last year's 33-point rout in Norman wasn't a fluke. The trash talk is already flowing.
"Bart Scott said it best," linebacker Travis Lewis said.
• LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5. If OU-FSU doesn't do it for you, this one should decide the SEC West, the SEC, and perhaps one-half of the BCS title game.
• The Superdome. If everything goes right for the Tigers, they could be playing only 70 miles from campus for a third national championship in that venue since 2003. Just when Bourbon Street had recovered from the last Tigers blitz in 2007.
• BCS. In its 14th season, its haters are legion. But the system is largely responsible for TCU getting to the Big East, Utah getting to the Pac-12 and Boise State becoming a national championship contender.
• Pac-12. Larry Scott has successfully distracted us from the fact that his flagship program cannot win the championship in the first year of this expanded league. The addition of Utah and Colorado, as well as buzz created by a couple of monster TV deals, has made the league a financial player in college football. Now it's up to the schools as to how they allocate those funds. Hint: Urban Meyer is available.
• This year's dark horse: South Carolina? Virginia Tech? Arkansas? Auburn came from No. 23 in the coaches' poll to win it all last year. If No. 23 does it this year, there will be no dark horse. In fact, chalk another one up for the SEC. Florida will have won its third title in six seasons.
• Tragic heroes. Please, no more, ever.