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Senior College Football Columnist

25 things to watch: From debating No. 1 to Penn State to the next RG3

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Is it possible that the talented EJ Manuel could be the next RG3? (US Presswire)  
Is it possible that the talented EJ Manuel could be the next RG3? (US Presswire)  

From the sweet home in Alabama to the most distasteful parts of the sport, college football tends to produce its own preseason show. Good and bad.

Storylines? We got 'em as a rocky offseason can't end fast enough. Let's hope that football saves us, as it usually does starting with the annual 25 Things To Watch.

1. The Joy of Six

If you don't have a rooting interest, you're probably tired of hearing about it but the SEC is really, really good.

 A seventh consecutive national championship would tie the Pac-8's record (all by UCLA basketball) for major-college revenue sports.

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 Thirty-four of the 124 FBS head coaches once were full-time SEC assistants. That's more than a quarter -- 27 percent -- of major-college coaches having been taught in the Strength Everywhere Conference.

 Of those 34, 18 were hired directly from the SEC including Bob Stoops, Bo Pelini, and Charlie Strong. Don't forget that Urban Meyer and Lane Kiffin came from SEC head coaching jobs to their current gigs. (Thanks to Dave Matter, Columbia Tribune)

2. The Message

No matter where you come down on the Penn State sanctions, it was a historic day last month when Mark Emmert dropped that weapon of mass destruction on the Nits.

Yes, he circumvented the enforcement and infractions process (with the help of the executive committee and board of directors), but if that weapon has the desired effect, the tactic may never be used again. College athletics would be scared straight.

No more worshipping at the altar of football. No more tail wagging the dog. No more coach/administrator giving a second thought to hiding information that might lead to "bad publicity."

"The sports themselves have become too big to fail," Emmert said, "indeed too big to challenge."

Not anymore. Unless The Message wasn't heard.

3. Banned substances

Postseason ineligibility also defined the offseason.

There are four schools (and counting?) ineligible for bowls this season. It was bound to happen, but twice this season both teams on the field will be playing for nothing but pride:

 Sept. 8: Central Florida visits Ohio State

 Oct. 27: Penn State plays at Ohio State

4. All-Castoff Team

Which leads us to the second-most popular offseason activity: Getting yourself kicked off the squad, punting your scholarship, upchucking your future.

Boys will be boys but some have been extremely stupid, to the point that bloggers Matt Hinton, Bryan Fischer and Tom Fornelli combined on CBSSports.com's All-Castoff Team.

Their discovery: There are enough bad boys to populate an entire starting 22. Until Friday, Rhett Bomar set the standard for stupidity. In 2006, he was going to be Oklahoma's starting quarterback until Bomar fell off the radar.

Then along came Tyrann Mathieu ...

5. The Honey Badger Effect

There will be one. You don't take an All-American Heisman finalist out of the defensive backfield and get better.

This being LSU, though, there is plenty of depth and the offense will be better. Will redshirt freshman Jalen Collins be picked on at corner? Absolutely, but first opposing quarterbacks have to be able to get the pass off.

6. Who Is No. 1?

The feeling here (me) and at CBSSports.com (our preseason top 25 released Monday) is that LSU doesn't have Miles to go.

The Tigers have something to prove, having been No. 1 for 11 weeks last season before a thud in the BCS championship game. They are better at quarterback with Zach Mettenberger. They have perhaps the best tailback depth in the country. Alabama comes to Baton Rouge.

What's not to like?

7. Who was No. 1?

Oh yeah, the Tide.

Still in the top five, still powerful, the Fightin' Sabans attempt to become the first team to win three titles in four years since Nebraska in 1994, 1995 and 1997. The Huskers wouldn't have gotten there without beating Michigan State by a combined 105-24 in 1995 and 1996 -- the same Michigan State that gave up 50 twice to the Huskers, and was coached by Nick Saban.

It would not be a trend. Saban's teams have given up 50 points five times, none since 1999. The only coach to win three BCS titles goes for No. 4 after losing seven starters on defense. Don't bet against him.

8. We Aren't ...

It seems almost disrespectful to write about Penn State football. It's the culture that valued football over common human decency.

But in the interest of satisfying the State College craving, let me state emphatically: Penn State football will survive and, yes, thrive. USC is the best recent example.

Twenty-six months ago, the USC program was -- in the words of Lane Kiffin -- given its own death penalty. Less than three weeks from kickoff, Kiffin has massaged the roster, coached 'em up and gotten USC back into the top five. Oh yeah, and Matt Barkley stayed.

Just so we all understand that risk outweighs reward when it comes to cheating. Right?

9. Coach of the year

Kiffin, see above.

10. Which reminds us, if you're going to cheat, at least win

Miami and North Carolina, not lately.

Carolina's last ACC title was 1980. Miami's last outright conference championship was in 2002. The immediate future is not bright for two coaches who came to their current jobs expecting clearer skies. There isn't the smothering pressure at Carolina for Larry Fedora. It's going to be a bit tougher for Al Golden at Miami, where they chase championships.

You might have noticed that neither is expected to win the ACC this season.

11. But if you're going to win, be Oregon

You might have forgotten, but the Will Lyles case is expected to be the next major decision handed down by the NCAA infractions committee. It should come during the season, which could be sort of a distraction for a top-five program bent on playing in its second national championship game in three years.

Third-party influence continues to be No. 1 on the NCAA's hit list. On the surface, it seems as if Chip Kelly and the Ducks are knee-deep into it. Only the future of Oregon and Kelly are at stake.

12. Realign this!

Conference realignment isn't over, it's just taking a breather.

At this point a year ago, Texas A&M and Missouri were still in the Big 12. Syracuse and Pittsburgh were still slumming in the Big East. TCU was ... somewhere. The rush for TV contracts/networks/BCS bids continues to alter lineups, wreck traditions and, in the case of the WAC, destroy a conference.

In 2012, the SEC gets bigger, the Big 12 stays the same size (with new members) and the home state of the past three national championships (Alabama) gets another member of the club (South Alabama in the Sun Belt).

Stand by, the really hairy stuff comes in 2013 and beyond.

13. The Playoff

It won't hit for another two years, but the biggest story of the first half of this year was the commissioners and presidents hammering out the four-team playoff.

The initial reaction was positive. The secondary reaction: This is only a starting point, that we're quickly going to an eight- or 16-team playoff. Not so fast. There is a law of diminishing returns. Sure, there are estimates that a four-team playoff will be worth $600 million per year. But at some point an expanded playoff is going to produce some mediocre games that are going to turn off viewers and sponsors.

A first-round 2009 game in a 16-team bracket would have matched No. 3 Cincinnati and No. 14 BYU. You want rematch? Last year, No. 1 LSU and No. 16 Georgia would have played immediately after meeting in the SEC championship game. The same for No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Oklahoma after playing on the last day of the season.

For now, let's be happy with what we've got.

14. The Expendables

There were 28 offseason coaching changes but these four stand out trying to reshape their careers ...

Urban Meyer. Ohio State's new coach figured out he had to care less in order to improve his health. We wouldn't recommend Ohio State as a place to wind down but a new, improved Urb supposedly understands he has to dial it down. This year's bowl ban, as painful as it is, almost makes it easier for him to ease into a top-five job.

Mike Leach. Thirty-one months after being fired at Texas Tech, Leach and Washington State found each other. Pullman's remote location will allow him to dabble in his offensive laboratory without the prying eyes of the media.

Charlie Weis. This one is still a head scratcher because Weis' career has been associated with winners -- New England, Notre Dame, Kansas City and Florida. Only Texas and Michigan have won more than N.D. The Chiefs won a division title in Weis' only season at offensive coordinator. Florida has the second-most wins in the SEC since 2006 (63).

But Kansas? It may have come down to AD Sheahon Zenger simply picking up the phone and asking last December. Weis was ready to become a head coach again and prove that the end at Notre Dame will not be his head-coaching legacy. All he has to do is get KU to matter in the Big 12. Huge task.

Bob Davie. Bob Who? Yeah, it's been a while -- 11 years -- since Davie put on a headset that wasn't connected to a production truck. For a New Mexico program that had sunk to bottom-five status, this was also a curious hire. Davie is capable, but a lot of guys are capable. AD Paul Krebs needed to hit one out of nearby Isotopes Park. Former Minnesota and Kansas coach Glen Mason thought he had this job until the last minute. Like we said, curious hire.

15. BCS bowls

BCS title game (South Florida): USC* vs. LSU* -- A "rematch" of the 2003 split national champs.

Orange Bowl: Clemson* vs. Louisville* -- Big East's second-to-last automatic BCS bid showcases Charlie Strong's fine rebuilding job with Cardinals.

Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma* vs. Michigan -- Fiesta gets first pick after the championship game and goes old-school with the Wolverines, a Big Ten at-large. The only meeting between the schools was the 1976 Orange Bowl. Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. West Virginia -- Geno Smith vs. that defense? Appointment viewing.

Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Wisconsin* -- The Granddaddy Of Them All gets a rematch 12 months old.

* -- Automatic qualifier (You might notice that for the second straight year, no non-BCS)

16. Networking

Along with those dumb pork pie hats and fish tacos, college networks are all the rage.

But The Mtn. died. The Longhorn Network didn't/hasn't worked. The SEC's Project X has yet to launch. Entering the ring is the Pac-12, which on Wednesday debuts its own network. Rather networks. There are six regionals and one mothership (operating out of San Francisco).

The only booming success in the network start-up biz has been the Big Ten Network which turns five this month. Capitalizing on the untapped potential of the once-sleepy Pac-10 to this point is one thing. Getting folks all over the country to watch Washington State-Arizona is another. Stay tuned. Or don't.

17. Ranking the Heisman candidates

1. Matt Barkley, USC: It's his to lose with perhaps the best set of receivers in the country.

2. Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Two-thousand yard season a possibility if off-field issues dry up.

3. Geno Smith, West Virginia: Perfect offense for Big 12 defenses. It scores. Often. 4. Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Has the weapons to make up for 2011 second-half slump.

5. De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon: Multiple threat will get plenty of touches because Kelly doesn't often call off the Ducks.

18. BOB

Bill O'Brien knew it would be bad at Penn State. He couldn't have known it would be this bad.

Unlike others at the school, O'Brien has handled a deteriorating situation with class. We'll never forget him changing his mind and bringing players to the Big Ten media days. At the time, it was the thing they, we and Penn State needed -- a positive message from State College.

O'Brien is a regular guy who just wants to call ball plays. By now, he knows he'll have to be much more at Penn State.

19. Just when you thought the sport was in a toilet

Time for some balance. Our faith in everything good and right about college football was renewed after watching this video of Vanderbilt walk-on Marc Panu.

20. All-Name Team

First-team defense DL -- Barkevious Mingo, LSU; DL -- Malliciah Goodman, Clemson; DL -- Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, Boise State; DL -- Radermon Scypion, Houston; LB -- Steele Divitto, Boston College; LB -- Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern; LB -- Brishen Mathews, Mississippi; DB -- BooBoo Gates, Bowling Green; DB -- Fidel Montgomery, South Florida; DB -- Momo Thomas, Colorado State; DB -- Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut

First-team offense QB -- Driphus Jackson, Rice; RB -- Lache Seastruck, Baylor; RB -- Dri Archer, Kent State; WR -- Saron Hood, Buffalo; WR -- Spiffy Evans, Boston College; OL -- Faraji Wright, Boise State; OL -- Thor Jozwiak, South Florida; OL -- Fouimalo Fonoti, Michigan State; OL -- Uneik Crumbley, Alabama-Birmingham; OL -- Fabbians Ebbele, Arizona; TE -- Zane Fakes, Ball State

Second team defense DL -- Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest; DL -- Nick Sink, Duke; DL -- Beau Yap, Hawaii; DL -- Rykeem Yates, Nevada; LB -- Tig Willard, Clemson; LB -- Fabby Desir, North Carolina; LB -- Blaze Caponegro, Temple; DB -- Normondo Harris, Purdue; DB -- Bubba Poueu-Luna, Hawaii; DB -- Orne Bey, Miami (Ohio); DB -- Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse

Second-team offense QB -- Rio Johnson, East Carolina; RB -- Marion Grice, Arizona State; RB -- Dezden Petty, Washington; WR -- Cordero Dixon, Buffalo; WR -- Herve Coby, Bowling Green; OL -- Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech; OL -- Mana Greig, Oregon; OL -- Ucambre Williams, South Alabama; OL -- Japheth Gordon, San Diego State; OL -- Kenarious Gates, Georgia; TE -- Rhyne Ladrach, Akron

21. In and Out

In: Moral authority Out: Infractions committee

In: Two years of speculating about the playoff Out: Every year bitching about the BCS

In: TV everywhere Out: WAC (nowhere)

In: Big East out West Out: Northeast corridor

In: Mike Leach Out: Boredom

In: John L.'s baldness Out: Hairpin Turns

22. Let's try this again

Last year in this space, Joe Paterno and Turner Gill made the list of the five most virtuous coaches.

Neither is around for completely different reasons. Paterno won more than anyone. Gill couldn't win enough. Here's another shot at a moving target.

23. Five most virtuous coaches

Jim Grobe, Wake Forest
Tom O'Brien, North Carolina State
Mike Riley, Oregon State
Mike London, Virginia
Mario Cristobal, Florida International

24. Rising, falling

Five team on the rise in 2012: Louisville
Ohio State
Central Florida
Ohio
USC

Five teams trending downward: Oklahoma State
TCU
Penn State
Boise State
Cincinnati

25. The Next ...

... RG3 (dual-threat dark horse Heisman candidate) is Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel ... Trent Richardson (workhorse SEC tailback) is Alabama tailback Eddie Lacy ... Andrew Luck (No. 1 draft choice) is USC's Matt Barkley ... Jerel Worthy (high-motor All-American) is Utah defensive lineman Star Lotulelei ... Justin Blackmon (long, quick game-changer) is Clemson's Sammy Watkins


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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