CBSSports.com Senior Writer

25 Things to Watch: In era of scandal, here's what gives us hope

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It might not get him any Heisman votes, but Kirk Cousins wins a lot of admirers with his speech. (US Presswire)  
It might not get him any Heisman votes, but Kirk Cousins wins a lot of admirers with his speech. (US Presswire)  

Nowhere in this space will you read the words "bag man" "bar fight" "Tressel" or "Shapiro."

A moratorium has been called on any reference to prostitutes, strip clubs or (ugh!) summits.

This year, our annual 25 Things To Watch has a mission beyond previewing the season. The usual snarky, obtuse and contemptuous nuggets have been replaced. We are grabbing some disinfectant and scrubbing the game clean.

It's about time. This year it just feels right to be more G-rated. What follows are the feel-good, cuddly stories of college football. Yes, they still exist in what seems like a world of scum.

Hopefully, what follows restores a bit of faith in the game. If not, well, there's always South Beach.

1. Kirk Cousins, the minister of college football In the middle of college athletics' worst run of scandals in a quarter century, Michigan State's quarterback stood up at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon in late July and preached.

In a stirring seven-minute speech, Cousins spoke of the privilege of playing college football, his love of the Big Ten and how a kid from Iowa will always be part of Spartan Nation.

It was a reminder that most players are more Cousins than Pryor. They still value that scholarship as if it were gold. They don't know the meaning of entitlement, but not because they don't own a dictionary.

"Privilege," Cousins said, "should never lead to entitlement."

God bless you, Kirk. Let's hope there are a lot more like you out there.

2. Alabama tornadoes

Just when you thought the Alabama-Auburn rivalry couldn't get any more intense, tornadoes swept through the state in the spring causing death and destruction. When the skies cleared, what was left was perspective.

Barners reached out to Bammers. A donation was made by an Alabama group to help the poisoned Toomer's oaks. Auburn and Alabama came closer together.

In the midst of NCAA investigations, Cam Newton accusations and nine-foot tall statues of coaches, we found out the Iron Bowl rivalry was limited by human compassion.

3. Chris Ault

Following the greatest season in Nevada history, coach Chris Ault refused a $25,000 salary raise. In addition, the hall of fame coach is taking a 4.6 percent pay cut in the state-funded portion of his contract in a show of solidarity with other university employees who face the same situation.

That translates to a $100,000 hit over the life of his contract -- basically pocket change for the likes of Nick Saban. Ault will make $435,000 in 2011. It's not the amount, though -- it's the message it sent.

"Our profession has taken some distasteful hits over the last few months due to poor leadership or, in some cases, closed eyes," Ault said. "Regardless, Football is America's game for the reasons that make up competitive greatness. There are no short cuts."

4. A prayer for Steve Kragthorpe

After being let go at Louisville following the 2009 season, Steve Kragthorpe was looking to restart his career.

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He took a job at Texas A&M but had to step down before the 2010 season. Turns out his wife, Cynthia, already battling MS had developed heart problems. Doctors couldn't treat the MS until Cynthia underwent heart surgery.

The situation was rectified and Kragthorpe was able to take the offensive coordinator's job at LSU this season. He was fired up, ready to go before learning that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. On Aug. 4, LSU announced that Kragthrope had moved over to quarterbacks coach.

Eight days before the opener, LSU's starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson was suspended indefinitely after being charged with second-degree felony assault. Kragthorpe has had a week to get backup Jarrett Lee ready for Oregon.

No one deserves this kind of misfortune. Knowing Steve Kragthorpe, he will persevere.

5. Reborn Horned Frog

Dick Lowe admittedly paid TCU running back Kenneth Davis and six of his teammates back in the mid-1980s. When the NCAA found out, it stuck it to TCU, banning it from a bowl game and stripping it from 35 scholarships.

Twenty-five years later, TCU is a top 10 program and is working on a multi-million dollar stadium renovation thanks, in part, to that same Dick Lowe.

Last year, Lowe was one of six donors to contribute $15 million for Amon G. Carter's facelift. Lowe saw the light because of coach Gary Patterson, who will begin his 11th season Saturday.

"I take a blood oath Gary is doing it the right way," Lowe told the New York Times.

6. D.L. Wilhite

Minnesota's sophomore defensive end knows he's probably not going pro. He also knows the value of a scholarship.

It is your duty to root for this kid. Wilhite is pursuing a double major and hopes to one day become a professor. During the offseason, he was accepted as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, an initiative that honors the former Challenger space shuttle astronaut. Wilhite has an interest in Middle Eastern studies and hopes to study in Cairo in 2013.

D.L.'s dad doesn't allow dreadlocks, tats, earrings or baggy pants. Wilhite took his first plane flight when he came to Minnesota for a recruiting visit. The family didn't take vacations because they couldn't afford them.

"I can go out and blow my knee out the first day of camp and be done for the rest of my career," Wilhite told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "But you can never take away the stuff I've learned."

7. Reasons to watch Kansas

The Jayhawks might have hit a rough spot, but there are a couple of big reasons to pay attention to Kansas this season.

Senior receivers Daymond Patterson and A.J. Steward become YouTube sensations with their "challenges" in other sports. The pair beat KU women's soccer players in a penalty-kick shootout and lost a game of H-O-R-S-E (renamed K-A-N-S-A-S) to Jayhawk basketball players Thomas Robinson and Travis Releford.

Next up, turning Kansas football -- 3-16 in its past 19 games -- into a winner.

8. Ladarius Green

One of the byproducts of the BCS is that it has successfully buried successful players like Louisiana-Lafayette's tight end. It has been a decade since a player from a non-BCS school won a major award, according to research by the school.

Green, a senior, starts the season having led all players at that position in receiving yards and touchdowns last season. Green was a semifinalist for the Mackey Award (best tight end) in 2010.

"Green," said coach Rick Stockstill, "is the total package."

9. Badger Love I

When Greg Russo speaks of carrying powerful weapons in a desert setting, his Wisconsin teammates can relate.

"Oh yeah," Russo remembers the veterans of Call of Duty saying, "we know what that is."

They don't, really. Russo is a 25-year-old defensive lineman, a veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq while in the Wisconsin National Guard. Russo got the idea to try to hook on with the Badgers during his second tour. He spent a total of 21 months in Iraq before walking on.

"It's do or die," he told a Madison, Wis., newspaper, "every day, every practice, every down."

Russo ought to know.

10. Badger Love II

The first thought that comes to mind about Russell Wilson: How did Tom O'Brien not keep him on the roster at North Carolina State?

Wilson became the hottest free-agent quarterback (NFL included) when North Carolina State's coach issued an ultimatum: Either commit to football in 2011 or Wilson wouldn't be welcomed back for his final year of football eligibility.

Wilson elected to play baseball in the Colorado Rockies minor-league system. O'Brien then cut ties with Wilson and elected to go with Mike Glennon. Wilson was ultimately lured to Madison because of a quarterback opening -- coach Bret Bielema called it "competing for the job" -- and hopes of a championship.

Bielema couldn't believe the athlete and person he was getting. His addition of Wilson makes Wisconsin the Big Ten favorite, at least in this little corner of the world.

11. The comeback continues

Two years after returning from having a baseball-sized, malignant tumor removed from his right lung, Darius Nall savors every moment.

This year, Darius Nall can finally throw his weight around against less scary opponents. (US Presswire)  
This year, Darius Nall can finally throw his weight around against less scary opponents. (US Presswire)  
Central Florida's senior defensive end rebounded from his 2008 affliction to tie for the team lead in sacks (8½) last season while helping lead the Knights to the Conference USA title. In the summer of '08, Nall experienced pain and shortness of breath in his chest. After being convinced to see a doctor, the worst suspicions were confirmed. Nall had radical surgery.

Six weeks of radiation treatment followed. He missed the 2008 season but didn't return full strength until last season.

"Every time we see him run out on the field, there are tears of joy for us," said Nall's father, Alexander Willis.

12. Winning by losing

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill has lost 130 pounds and counting off his previous 388-pound frame.

It started with gastric-bypass surgery on Jan. 13 and was followed by a hip replacement in April. It's an age-old issue for all overweight coaches: It's hard enough to preach discipline when you're sporting nearly 400 pounds.

"My brother said 'You've lost a fourth-grader,' McNeil said during Conference USA media days. "I said 'Well, I'm trying to get to where I lost a sixth-grader.' "

13. The Not Eric Dickerson

Zach Line came to SMU as a linebacker. It seems he's going to leave the program as one of its best-ever runners.

That includes the entitled, deluded Dickerson, who holds the school's single-season rushing record (1,617 yards). Dickerson continues to alibi for his school during the Pony Excess days. Line keeps his head down and keeps running.

The all-Conference USA back rushed for 1,494 yards in 2010, No. 11 in the country -- that after having exactly no offers out of high school in Michigan.

After becoming the short-yardage back in 2009, Line averaged 6.1 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last season. Let's hope he can break Dickerson's record. The top of that list could use some class.

14. Hawkeye for Hawkeyes

Eyes misted all over the country recently when a photograph circulated of the casket of deceased Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson. At the base of the casket laid Tumilson's dog "Hawkeye," seemingly longing for his master.

Former Iowa player Jon Lazar has contacted the school with the hope that Hawkeye can lead the Hawkeyes onto the field for a game this season. Tumilson, an Iowa native, was among those killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a helicopter earlier this month in Afghanistan.

The school plans some sort of tribute in November.

"It just tears you apart to see that ... ," Lazar said of the photo that went viral. "I think everybody would be crying in the stands."

15. Addition and subtraction at Baylor

 True freshman defensive tackle Suleiman Masumbuko, a Rwandan refugee, fled the country with his family during the 1994 civil war. Last fall, he saw his parents for the first time in eight years during a visit to Uganda.

 Kolby Gray was an aspiring defensive back who had followed new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett from Pittsburgh. Gray quit the team last week after deciding his heart was in country music. He signed a contract and moved to Nashville.

16. Seth Doege

Remember the days when Texas Tech quarterbacks used to follow each other like Victoria's Secret models on the catwalk?

They could all play because they were all tutored by Mike Leach and his legion of offensive assistants. Seth Doege might be that next guy for coach Tommy Tuberville. For now, he's grateful.

Doege will start his first game in six years after being named the Tech guy recently. The junior last started a game as a high school sophomore, missing his final two prep seasons because of knee surgeries. In two years with the Red Raiders, he has thrown 61 passes.

17. The Next One

Depending on which recruiting service you follow, Springfield (Mo.) Hillcrest receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is the most talented high school player in the country.

While the college season plays out this fall, Green-Beckham will make the decision that could transform him and some college program in the future. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound receiver is considered one of those unstoppable talents ready for the next level right now. He comes from a broken home and has been adopted by his high school coach John Beckham.

Beckham and his wife Tracy have been the foster parents for 20 children over the years. Their weekly grocery bill is in excess of $600. Tracy has had cancer. Dorial's little brother Darnell is fighting leukemia.

The kid is grounded and talented. Look for him in a BCS league near you next year.

18. Having his teammate's (number on his) back

Rice fifth-year senior Scott Solomon will wear No. 35 this year. It would have been worn by teammate Travis Bradshaw, whose career was ended when he was diagnosed with a chronic neck ailment.

Bradshaw, carrying a 3.44 GPA in Chemical Engineering, will be OK. So will Solomon, who broke his foot the last week of camp and missed the entire 2010 season. Solomon changed from No. 13 -- go figure -- when he was determined to salute Bradshaw in his final season.

19. Clutch, thy name is Brent

Former walk-on Brent Leonard has transformed himself into one of the top clutch receivers in the country.

The Louisiana-Monroe junior was fourth nationally last year catching four fourth-down passes that resulted in first downs. Overall, 21 of Leonard's 33 catches went for first downs.

The Warhawks deserve something positive. They haven't had a winning season since 1993.

20. The quest for Erxleben

Carson Wiggs is the guy you'll see piddling around during warmups attempting field goals of 50, 60, even 70 yards. Why? It's the same reason Mick Jagger dates supermodels -- because he can.

Ryan Lindley (14) and Ronnie Hillman are excellent reasons why you should stay up late on Saturday nights to watch the Aztecs. (US Presswire)  
Ryan Lindley (14) and Ronnie Hillman are excellent reasons why you should stay up late on Saturday nights to watch the Aztecs. (US Presswire)  
Purdue's kicker owns the four longest field goals in school history (59, 55, 53 and 52 yards). In the spring game, he hit a 67-yarder that would have tied the FBS record. (It is shared by Texas' Russell Erxleben, Arkansas' Steve Little and Wichita State's Joe Williams.)

Wiggs started kicking in middle school when the team needed a kicker. He had played soccer since age 4. With little to look forward to this season at Purdue, it's going to be landmark if Wiggs breaks a 33-year-old record. The senior from Texas has hit 37 of his 51 career attempts and has made 80 percent inside 50.

21. Team Embree

Jon Embree will want to beat the snot out of his son on Nov. 19. Figuratively. Other than that, Colorado's new coach has a tough decision to make that day.

Before that game, UCLA will honor its seniors in the last home game of the season. Taylor Embree, son of Jon, is a senior receiver for the Bruins. Does dad honor his son on the field or hunker down with his team in the locker room?

22. The two best players you never heard of

Ronnie Hillman ran for 1,532 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a freshman. Teammate Ryan Lindley is on pace to break the school's career passing record.

Where's the love? Same answer to the question: Where is San Diego State in the national scene?

Hidden.

In a West Coast scene littered with Lucks and LaMichaels and Kellens, it's hard to spot these two. Hillman became a freshman All-American after being recruited by Brady Hoke. Lindley follows in a long line of Aztecs quarterback greats.

23. Teenage Dream

Break out the Old Spice. Louisiana Tech's starting quarterback is only 17. Nick Isham is more than a month short of his 18th birthday.

He was good enough to beat out junior Colby Cameron and is believed to be the first true freshman in history to start a season for the Bulldogs.

Why not go with cheesy young adult cologne? Isham was the 2010 Old Spice national high school player of the year, joining former winners Garrett Gilbert, Jacquizz Rodgers, Andy Dalton and Tim Tebow.

24. The five most virtuous coaches in college football (because it still matters)

Troy Calhoun, Air Force: Name always pops up for college and NFL jobs. Amazing that he has stayed committed to Falcons this long.
Rich Ellerson, Army: The father of the double-eagle flex defense at Arizona is turning Army around, quickly.
Bronco Mendenhall, BYU: Wins despite (or because of) a strict honor code and annual 40 percent roster turnover.
Joe Paterno, Penn State: Program is one of only two national champions never to have a major football violation.
Turner Gill, Kansas: Nebraska's former superstar quarterback might not be building a winner but he's building character.

25. Best sign there is still hope

Eric LeGrand blames no one. He smiles. He is optimistic. The former Rutgers player is slowly recovering after being paralyzed during a kickoff last season.

Think about how strong a person it takes to watch a life-altering event on replay.

"It doesn't bother me to watch it," he said. "It's the last play I'll ever play."

But it isn't over for the big guy. Coach Greg Schiano announced on Tuesday that the senior has joined the Scarlet Knights' radio network doing pregame, halftime and postgame segments.

"I think it's really cool," Schiano said.

College football agrees.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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