There’s more drama in store for 2011

With the 2010 college football season now officially behind us (yes, bowl season has come to an end. I promise.), it’s time to shift gears and look toward 2011. We’re entering a brave new world of college football in 2011, filled with new faces, new conference rivals and quirky new division names (cough, “Legends” and “Leaders?") What will be the big story lines heading into the 2011 season?

Let’s dig into the top ten.

1. A Lucky summer: If you thought the media hype surrounding ol’ Tim Tebow during the summer of 2009 was a bit much, you have no idea what’s about to hit us in the summer of 2011. If you recall, Tebow — heading into his senior season in ‘09 — had a three-page feature in GQ magazine, was on the cover of just about every college football preview and the defending champion Florida Gators were picked by most, if not all, pundits to with the 2009 BCS national championship.

Andrew Luck’s decision to return to Stanford for his redshirt junior campaign should result in an even bigger media maelstrom. A high school valedictorian, turning down an all but a guaranteed spot as the top pick in the draft to finish his degree in architecture? It’s everything this country’s ever wanted in a poster boy. Luck, Luck, Luck — it’s all you’ll read or hear about this summer. Consider yourselves warned.

2. The year of the wideout: ESPN is currently running a series of programs titled  “The Year of the Quarterback,” and that’s all well and good. But QBs were so 2010. 2011? In college football, it’ll be the Year of the Wideout. Whereas several of the top underclassmen quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett and Blaine Gabbert are leaving school early to enter the NFL draft, several of the best wide receivers have announced they’re coming back to school.

Justin Blackmon and his 111 receptions will be back at Oklahoma State, Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles and his 131 grabs will be in Norman for a senior year, and Michael Floyd, the 6-foot-3 Notre Dame target all but assumed to be a first-round NFL pick, will, instead, be suiting up for the Irish for one more season.

3. The return of the Irish: I’ve got a friend named Ditro who’s the die-hard Notre Dame fan of our group. Every crew of friends in the Northeast has a Ditro. An eternal optimist when it comes to Notre Dame, he found a bright side to the Tulsa loss this year (“The defense wasn’t terrible”), the Connecticut loss last year (“Jimmy showed his moxie in that fourth quarter”) and all the Navy losses in between.

Well, for the 15th straight January, Ditro’s taking about a national championship next year. Amazingly, this time I have to take him seriously. With Michel Floyd returning, the Irish now have nine starters coming back on offense, with a good little springtime battle for quarterback between Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist.

Brian Kelly’s first year ended on a high note with a winning streak and a blowout of Miami in the Sun Bowl. Everyone’s glass-half-full about Irish this year. With a suddenly rejuvenated defense down the stretch to go with a dangerous offense made of playmakers? Hey, I guess I might be, too.

4. The only show in town: Hey, an NFL work stoppage in 2011 is a downright heinous thing to even consider. Truth be told, I break out in hives anytime I even think of the words “lockout” and “NFL” next to each other. But if — and again, I know, this is a horrible “if” — there’s no pro football next season, you’d better believe college football will take the main stage of the sports landscape.

The millions of Americans out there who follow the NFL but “don’t do college football” will turn to the sport of kings for their weekend fix of pigskin. What else is there? The UFL? More eyes, more exposure, more media attention — college football could end up being bigger than ever in 2011.

5. The Big Ten’s new kids on the block: Over the past 15 years, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Nebraska-Texas and Nebraska-Kansas State were consistently big games worth circling on the college football calendar. In the past five to 10, Mizzou-Nebraska entered the conversation, too.

Now?

With Nebraska joining the Big Ten, I suppose we need to substitute those games with Nebraska-Ohio State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Nebraska-Michigan, and Nebraska-Iowa — that last one being a Thanksgiving weekend special. A bit odd sounding, sure, but if we can get used to South Florida and Cincinnati competing for the Big East title, I’m sure we’ll grow accustomed to this change in no time at all.

And don’t worry, folks. The Blackshirts acclimated themselves to the Big Ten immediately. They’re out-of-conference opponents this year make up a slate only a Big Ten fan could love: Tennessee-Chattanooga, Wyoming, Fresno State and a Washington team without Jake Locker. Naturally, all of them except for a trip to Laramie will be played at Memorial Stadium. If that out-of-conference schedule doesn’t say Big Ten, I’m not certain what does.

6. A few quarterback controversies in SEC country: Alabama, LSU, and Florida will all be Top 25 teams heading into next season. Who’ll start at quarterback for those squads? We might not know until the NCAA’s opening weekend.

In Tuscaloosa, two-year starter Greg McElroy’s no longer in the picture, leaving an interesting battle between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims for the starting gig. In Baton Rouge, it’s Jordan Jefferson — who suddenly had his best game of the season in the Cotton Bowl—against highly touted juco transfer, Zach Mettenberger.

Meanwhile, in Gainesville, nobody knows what to think. Charlie Weis is coming to town with his big bag of tricks. But who’s going to be the Brady Quinn or Jimmy Clausen of his offense? There’s talk on the Gators blogs of John Brantley transferring, while Jordan Reed and Trey Burton could be the starters even if Brantley sticks around. Are any of the three even the answer? We shall see.

All three teams could end up going to dual-quarterback systems come September. These things are usually sorted out by the spring games. Other times, they take all season to figure out. And sometimes, they’re just never figured out at all.

7. Your new-look Auburn Tigers: You can make the argument that no national championship team has relied on two players as much as Auburn relied on juniors Cam Newton and Nick Fairley in 2010. Since Fairley has joined Newton in entering the NFL draft, Auburn will immediately enter a rebuilding mode.

Alas, it’s more than just replacing a quarterback and a defensive tackle. It’s replacing the heart and soul of both units, as well as four starters on the offensive line (including an All-America tackle and an All-SEC center) and several other graduating seniors. If Barrett Trotter is the next-in-line at quarterback, as expected, Gus Malzahn’s offense might have an entirely new aesthetic and feel next season.

If anyone can adjust, it’s the man who went from a high school coach to the most highly sought-after offensive mind in the nation in the matter of five years. But it’ll be a steep hill. Auburn plays road games at South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU next year.

8. A man named Brady: For many fans of the Michigan Wolverines, the RichRod Era will be remembered as a bizarre period, marked by mediocrity, awful defense and some terrible losses to previously inferior conference opponents. Things can only get better from here, right?

Actually, FOXSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock isn’t the only one who thinks Michigan made the right decision on this one. I’m right on board with that sentiment. Brady Hoke is a winner, has rebuilt programs and, more important for some in Ann Arbor, he’s a “Michigan Man.”

Hoke’s introductory news conference was soaked in charisma and, it seemed, soaked in Bo Schembechler’s persona. Hoke’s gait, his cadence his words — they were all Bo. Watching that press conference, you couldn’t help but feel like things were already headed in the right direction. When asked about Ohio State, Hoke — who reportedly never discussed salary before accepting the six-year deal — emphatically pounded his fist to the podium, calling the OSU game, “The. Most. Important. Game. On. That. Schedule.”

That’s awesome. Love or hate Michigan, it’s good for college football when they’re relevant. With Hoke, they will be. This guy won’t let them be anything otherwise.

9. The little guys: After beating Virginia Tech on Labor Day weekend and going unbeaten for much of the year, Boise State was a pair of chip-shot field goals on Thanksgiving Friday in Reno away from a Rose Bowl berth. TCU went undefeated and beat mighty Wisconsin in Pasadena in front of a national New Year’s Day audience.

“Sisters of the Poor?” Not quite. But can they both do it again, for yet another year?

It won’t be easy. Boise State loses its top two wide receivers, moves to the more competitive Mountain West Conference and faces Georgia in the Georgia Dome in its opener. Meanwhile, TCU, the top defensive team in the nation for the past three years, loses just about every one of its top players from the 2010 Rose Bowl squad. Quarterback Andy Dalton will be in the NFL next season, playmaker receiver Jeremy Kerley graduates in June and three starters in the defensive backfield are done, too. The Horned Frogs don’t make their move to the Big East until 2012.

Will they be able to come into the “Sisters of the Poor” of the six BCS conferences fresh off a promising season? We’ll see.

10. Scandals, scandals and more scandals: For as great as the action might have been on the field, the 2010 college football season will long be remembered as one dominated by off-the-field headlines. Reggie Bush and his Heisman, Cam Newton’s father, Cecil, and the 2010 Heisman winner’s curious recruitment, the North Carolina defense and its partying down in South Beach, A.J Green and his jersey sales, the Ohio State FIve and their jersey sales, USC’s probation . . . (I’m out of breath) and the list goes on.

Will the actual football take center stage again? I sure hope so. Alas, I fear the tides aren’t going to change overnight. The worst could be yet to come.