5 thoughts on the college football season

Oh college football, how I love thee.

Whether it’s a Saturday morning spent in Oxford, Miss., having the words “Hotty Toddy” violently screamed in my face by the most beautiful women on Earth, or a Sunday night spent alone on the couch, watching a random WAC clash with the soothing sounds of Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore dancing in the background, things just seem to be OK when college football’s in the air.

And after what feels like an eternity, the greatest sport in all of the land is back this weekend.

Things I’m looking forward to this season? Lou Holtz’s first Thursday night halftime pep talk, the grand opening of Eastern Washington’s heinous red field, Pitt’s Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard looking like Hugh Green and Ricky Jackson reincarnated 30 years later, and the Iowa Hawkeyes’ two-headed backfield of Jewel Hampton and Adam Robinson.

Things I’ll miss this season? The subject of my two-season-long, no-secret-at-all man crush, Ndamukong Suh, vicious hate mail from readers over any scent of Tim Tebow praise, Mike Leach’s press conferences, McCoy-to-Shipley highlights, and Bobby Bowden.

But you need to move on. And with that, here are five thoughts heading into the season:

1. Duck and Cover? Not Quite

If there were Twitter feeds and Facebook posts the day after the Roman Empire fell, the media coverage probably would have been a bit more favorable than the press Oregon’s program got this offseason.

Yes, there was a wave of problems. And sure, there are several key performers from last season’s Rose Bowl squad no longer on the team — both for disciplinary reasons and due to the NFL Draft. But the nationwide hysteria and the media’s overall dismissal of the 2010 Oregon Ducks appears to be a tad premature and a whole lot overdone.

Doom and gloom? Quack that.

The Ducks return a full cupboard of talent on both sides of the ball, including Heisman candidate LaMichael James at running back and All-Pac-10 performer Kenny Rowe at defensive end. When quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was dismissed from the team several months ago for disciplinary reasons, it wasn’t as if the Ducks’ offense was left with a collection of stiffs with their hands in their pockets, looking at each other saying “You want me to play quarterback? Gee, I don’t know.”

There was a good-spirited battle for the gig all spring and summer, and after months of back and forth, sophomore gunslinger Darron Thomas beat out fifth-year senior Nate Costa for the job. Thomas, like Masoli before him, is a mobile quarterback capable of beating Pac-10 opponents with both his feet and his arm. Thomas, who played in 2008 but was redshirted last year, secured the gig by throwing three touchdown passes in the team’s final scrimmage.

If for whatever reason Thomas struggles or is injured, the strong-armed Costa will be right there chomping at the bit and prepared to go. Costa, though people seem to forget this, originally was tabbed as the starter in ’08 over Masoli. The good news for whoever ends up being the QB is that he’ll be playing behind an offensive line that returns five starters. He’ll also be surrounded by a depth chart filled with top-flight receivers, including 2009’s breakout star, Jeff Maehl.

If ever there were a coach prepared to lead a team through adversity, it’s Chip Kelly. How quickly people forget that this is the same man who got a group of kids to overcome their star running back punching an opponent in the face on national television in an opening week loss, having said star running back suspended for the bulk of the season, and then having said punch played on loop on ESPN’s 11 channels for an entire month. The Ducks responded to that catastrophe by ripping off wins in 10 of 11 games and capturing a conference title. Kelly’s got all the confidence in the world in his players. In turn, they’d follow him anywhere — Pasadena included.

I may be on an island with this one, but I think Oregon’s going to be as good as they were last year, if not better.

2. An Aggies Legend, 22 Years in the Making

Texas A&M starting quarterback Jerrod Johnson was there for the resurrection of one Aggies athletic program, seeing limited action as a freshman on the Acie Law IV-led hoops squad that went to the school’s first Sweet 16 in 27 years.

Four years later Johnson is the senior leader and the centerpiece of an Aggies football squad looking to capture the school’s first Big 12 title since 1998.

The 6-foot-5 Johnson is an Aggie through and through. It’s in his blood. His late father, Larry, was an Aggies cornerback in the 70s. His brother Marquis also was an Aggie a few years back. And it’s all but a definite that someday, Johnson’s kids and all of their kids will be Aggies, too. There’s nothing he’d love more than to bring the school a conference championship.

"My biggest goal this year is just to leave a winning legacy," Johnson said at the first of three Big 12 media days this summer. "As far as (growing up) in Texas and my dad playing at A&M, you see the old players come back and the reception they get — it just leaves a lasting impression. The best way to get that is to win games."

In 2009, his second year as the starting quarterback, Johnson completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 3,579 yards with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions, setting eight school season records in the process. Against Texas on Thanksgiving night in front of a national TV audience, he completed 26 of 33 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 97 yards. Alas, the Longhorns beat the Aggies 49-39.

The’09 season was truly an enigmatic one for Aggies fans. Though Johnson’s statistics were stellar and there were some big wins worth noting, including a shocker at Lubbock, the Aggies still managed to finish below .500 (6-7) and lose to Kansas State and Oklahoma by a combined score of 127-24. For all the preseason hoopla Johnson has received — he’s the media’s preseason Conference Player of the Year pick — the fact remains: Texas A&M is just 10-15 with him as the starting quarterback.

Perhaps even more peculiar is the fact that the Aggies went 0-7 on national TV last season, while they were 6-0 when their games weren’t seen by the entire country.

"Last year with a young team, we lacked focus in some games and we laid a couple of eggs. Those teams came out and capitalized on it," Johnson said last month. If he’s looking to become an all-time great, there’s simply no room for "eggs" in 2010.

Earlier this week, Johnson told local reporters, "You try to put yourself in as many situations as you can, and you just try to prepare for the moment. You try to get as many triggers for yourself so that you know that when they do this coverage or when that moment comes, when you’re tired and it’s on national television, that you can just react. So it’s all about preparation."

Johnson’s been preparing for this moment for years. Since his dad had him wearing Aggies colors as a kid in Humble, Texas. Since he was a two-sport high school superstar being recruited by A&M coaches from multiple sports. Since he was a freshman watching Law lead an under-the-radar hoops program to the top of the heap.

At 22 years old and with a college degree already in hand, Johnson is prepared to become an all-time Aggies legend.

His time is now.

3. The SEC Star in the Making You’ve Likely Never Heard of

In recent years, fans of the SEC have been treated to the athletic abilities and show-stopping skills of big-name performers like Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Dexter McCluster. The young SEC playmaker I’m most excited about this season? Mississippi State’s do-everything sophomore wideout Chad Bumphis.

Who?!

As a true freshman in ‘09, Bumphis led the Bulldogs in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Of course, that stat is a bit deceiving — he caught only 32 balls for 375 yards and 4 touchdowns.

“For a leading receiver on a team, that’s not great,” Bumphis told reporters this week. “I think that wasn’t much to be happy about considering I led the team with that many receptions. I’ve worked a whole lot harder.”

And a whole lot more is expected of Bumphis in Year 2 of Dan Mullen’s spread offense. Mullen, Urban Meyer’s old offensive coordinator at Florida, said this month that Bumphis has "great playmaking ability and a lot of athletic potential." He tempered that praise by noting, "For him to become the caliber player that we need him to be, he needs to become a great fundamental wide receiver. He needs to know how to beat man coverage, how to become a great blocker on every single play."

He’ll get there. He’s only a sophomore. As far as sheer athletic ability goes, there could be no more exciting young talent in the SEC. Though he’s not even listed as the No. 1 or 2 wideout on Mississippi State’s depth chart — senior Leon Berry is the top target — Bumphis is the guy to watch in Starkville. Don’t be shocked if he’s all over the highlights.

As far as SEC wideouts go, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Terrance Tolliver will get the bulk of the media attention and praise. No questions there. All three deserve the limelight.

But don’t sleep on Bumphis. He’s a star in the making.

4. Schrager’s Preseason First-Team All-Americans

Offense

QB: Kellen Moore, Boise State

RB: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State

RB: LaMichael James, Oregon

WR: Michael Floyd, Notre Dame

WR: A.J. Green, Georgia

TE: Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame

OT: Anthony Castonzo, Boston College

OT: Marcus Cannon, TCU

C: Mike Pouncey, Florida

OG: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State

OG: Rodney Hudson, OG, Florida State

Defense

DE: Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh

DE: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa

DT: Sam Acho, Texas

DT: Stephen Paea, Oregon State

LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State

LB: Don’t’a Hightower, Alabama

LB: Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina

CB: Prince Amukamara, Nebraska

CB: Curtis Brown, Texas

S: Rahim Moore, UCLA

S: Mark Barron, Alabama

Special Teams

K: Alex Henery, Nebraska

P: Matt Bosher, Miami (Fla.)

KR: Tyron Carrier, Houston

PR: Greg Reid, Florida State

 

5. And This Year’s Heisman Dark Horses

Well, the bookies have spoken. Fortunately, their words don’t mean squat.

Prior to Tuesday’s injury news, Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman winner, was the heavy preseason favorite in Las Vegas. Never mind the fact that only one man has won consecutive Heismans, or that sophomore Trent Richardson already was expected to carry more of ‘Bama’s rushing load, or that Ingram was a relative unknown and an absolute dark horse candidate a year ago at this time.

All summer, Vegas had Ingram listed as a +380 lock to win the award again. But let’s back it up to August 2009. What exactly were Ingram’s Heisman odds 12 months ago?

There were 25 names that were listed on one popular gambling site last August — including such duds as Riley Skinner, Arrelious Benn, and Juice Williams — and Ingram was not one of them. On Chris Huston’s popular and well-respected Heismanpundit.com site, Ingram was the 20th running back — yes, 20th — listed on a June 2009 “Rating the Running Backs” post. Both MiQuale Lewis (Ball State) and Rodney Stewart (Colorado) were ranked ahead of the eventual Heisman winner.

The lesson? Don’t read too much into the preseason hype. Heisman winners aren’t determined in July. They’re not made in dark casino sports books or off-shore online gambling sites. They’re made in October and November on the football field.

Who are three relative Heisman long shots worth keeping an eye on? Here’s three dark horses I like, from afar:

1. Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State

Current Vegas Odds: +1750:

The ACC is wide open, there’s a history of Heisman-winning quarterbacks out of Tallahassee, and Ponder’s been building for a breakout season for years. If Jimbo Fisher’s offense explodes, FSU wins the ACC, and Ponder puts up the video game numbers a lot of people expect, he could very well find himself in New York City five months from now.

2. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma

Current Vegas Odds: +4000

Same deal as Ponder, really. Jones, who put up respectable numbers in relief of Sam Bradford last season, comes from a nationally respected program, there have been two Heisman-winning Sooners quarterbacks in the past 10 years, and he’ll be on national television just about every weekend.

3. B.J. Daniels, QB, South Florida

Current Vegas Odds: Off The Board

For the first time in program history, there’s a head coach other than Jim Leavitt in charge in Tampa. Skip Holtz brings with him a track record of success, a proven explosive offensive attack, and loads of charisma. Can he bring the first South Florida player in school history to NYC for a Heisman ceremony? Why not?

Though it’ll likely take a monstrous statistical year, wins at Cincinnati, West Virginia, and at The Swamp vs. Florida, and a whole lot of mid-season media hype and momentum out of the East Coast voting block, Daniels is worth considering. That is, of course, until South Florida gets whooped 45-10 in Gainesville on Sept. 11.

Enjoy the games this weekend, folks.

College football is finally here. You deserve this.