After eight months of patiently waiting, pigskin fans can rejoice when the college football season officially kicks off Thursday with 15 games on the slate.
As is the case every season, this year will be full of excitement, bad blood, shocking upsets and dominant performances, leaving fans with no reason not to be energized for what’s to come while the bowl picture — and more specifically, the national championship picture — gets clearer each week.
Every fan will have their own storylines that they’re anxious to see play out, but here are 10 that should get any football junkie’s motor going, regardless of allegiances, as the season pushes forward:
Will the SEC make it seven straight BCS titles, or is it finally someone else’s turn?
LSU, Alabama, Florida and Auburn have combined to win each of the last six national championships, and with five teams ranked in the current AP preseason Top 10, the SEC is making itself difficult to ignore once again this year. There are other teams from around the country who will compete in the race for college football supremacy — a list that includes USC, Oregon, Oklahoma and Florida State, among others — and those top SEC programs undoubtedly have a target on their backs. But as it stands right now, it’s tough to take the field over the SEC when picking a champion.
Which mid-major(s) will make a BCS push?
It’s inevitable that every season one or more mid-majors will have a brush with perfection and put themselves firmly in the BCS discussion, but this year there may be a few new newcomers at the table. With TCU now on the Big 12 and Boise State adjusting to life after Kellen Moore before they transition to the Big East, the door is open for others to make their case, and teams like BYU, Houston or Ohio may have fans arguing for and against their inclusion as the season draws to a close.
How will the new additions to the Big 12 and SEC fare in their first seasons in their new leagues?
If a team joins a new conference but doesn’t finish above .500 in league play, does it make a sound? That’s what Missouri and Texas A&M may find themselves asking as they traverse the daunting SEC schedule for the first time this season. Both teams will be lucky if they even sniff contention for a league title this year, and the best they can hope for is a chance to play the role of spoiled for one of the conference’s national title contenders.
As for West Virginia and TCU in the Big 12, the Mountaineers will go from being the perennial favorite in the Big East to being just one of many strong schools in their new setting, and TCU may not even be the third-best Big 12 team in its own state. Both teams could very well compete for a conference championship, but don’t be shocked if those goals prove to be a bit lofty.
How will Penn State handle the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal?
The Sandusky scandal pulled back the curtain on an ugly situation in State College and spoiled the reputation of a once-pristine football program — and in some ways (fair or not) the reputation of the school as a whole. The focus heading into this football season is less about football and more about righting the wrongs committed by past leadership, and that’s how it should be. But there is still football to be played, and on the field there are some interesting questions to be answered by the team in head coach Bill O’Brien’s first year.
Silas Redd (USC), Justin Brown (Oklahoma) and Rob Bolden (LSU) are among the Nittany Lions who transferred out in the wake of the scandal, and Penn State won’t be eligible for a bowl game for four years, but there’s a sense of commitment to the program and to doing right by most involved at the school. In Happy Valley this year, there’s a team, a school and a community hoping to get back to normal and start moving back in a positive direction, and what’s good for one of them will be good for all of them.
Will new coaches across the country be able to turn around their teams’ bad luck?
Across the country, there are a host of coaches making debuts at new schools — some replacing unsuccessful predecessors and others replacing former coaches who were too successful to stay — and one of the common threads among the NCAA’s newest headset honchos is the big-name nature of many of the new hires.
Rich Rodriguez is in for Mike Stoops at Arizona, and Arizona State replaced Dennis Erickson with Todd Graham. Kevin Sumlin has supplanted Mike Sherman at Texas A&M, Jim Mora is replacing Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, Mike Leach is in for Paul Wulff at Washington State and Urban Meyer (Ohio State) and Bob Davie (New Mexico) have each left the broadcast booth to get back on the sidelines. It’s too early to tell whether or not these coaches will come to regret returning to the game or leaving for a new opportunity, but it will certainly be interesting to see it all play out.
Who will win the (even more) watered down Big East?
The Big East lost its best team this year when West Virginia bolted for the Big 12 sooner than most expected or would have preferred, and the conference scrambled to replace the Mountaineers with Temple this offseason simply so they’d have enough schools to play. The Big East has long been considered the ugly stepchild of the BCS conferences, and their hopes at holding on to their automatic bid rest on the success of Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF, SMU and Memphis coming in and proving their worth next season. In the meantime, however, there’s a 2012 campaign to be played, and with no clear favorite, the conference — and their controversial ticket to the BCS — couldn’t be more up for grabs.
Which school will be the next to join the NCAA’s doghouse?
The thing about college football is that there’s never a shortage of scandal, and seemingly every year the wrongdoing of some unlucky program is exposed and that program pays the price. Already this year Penn State, Ohio State, North Carolina and UCF (pending appeal) will find themselves on the outside looking in come bowl season as a result of their past indiscretions, and the NCAA is still investigating Miami and Oregon for their own recruiting snafus. Then there are numerous other programs, like USC, that are being impacted by other ongoing sanctions (though their bowl ban has expired). Inevitably, another cheating program will be found out, and while you’d prefer the sport just be clean, it’s also comforting to see some of the bad guys get caught.
Can the other teams in the Pac-12 rebound from a bad 2011?
Sure, seven of the 12 teams in the Pac 12 went bowling last year, but if we’re being honest, any program not named Oregon, Stanford or USC was irrelevant in what was an all-around disappointing season. A 6-6 UCLA group played in (and lost) the conference championship by virtue of winning the pit of mediocrity that is the Pac 12 South with a 5-4 record (along with a little help from USC’s postseason ban), and in the North, the Ducks and Cardinal dominated. But everyone else struggled to stay afloat. And that’s to say nothing specifically of Colorado and Utah, who each flopped in their first season in the conference. Southern California enters 2012 as the top-ranked team in football and will look to re-establish itself as one of the country’s dominant teams, but it’ll be just as interesting to see if the rest of the conference has its own resurgence, as well.
How good will Notre Dame be in Brian Kelly’s third season? (And will it even matter?)
The Irish should be good this year — maybe even better than last season, when they finished 8-5 — but good may not be good enough against the country’s most challenging schedule. Meetings with USC, Stanford, Oklahoma, Michigan and Michigan State could leave Notre Dame wishing it played in a conference (heck, they might even settle for an SEC schedule), and the difference between 9-3 and 3-9 may be negligible in South Bend. But if they get hot or lucky and knock off a couple of the title contenders, the Irish could find themselves primed for a BCS bowl invite.
Which freshmen will emerge as football’s biggest new stars?
It’s always tough to watch good college players move on to the NFL, but the nice thing about NCAA football is that there’s never a shortage of new stars coming through what is essentially a revolving door of talent. This year, Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri), Keith Marshall (Georgia), Johnathan Gray (Texas) and Stefon Diggs (Maryland) are just a few of the players you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for heading into the fall, and there will surely be more talented freshmen who will become household names as the season plays out.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.