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30 Questions That'll Shape the Season

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30 Questions That'll Shape the Season

Part One ... Questions 1 to 15

By Richard Cirminiello

I’ve got my own reflecting pool. I call it the Atlantic Ocean. I do my best Jack Handy-like pondering with feet firmly planted in sand and eyes fixed on the horizon. Will we ever break our dependence on foreign oil? A decade from now, will I be able to afford my kids’ educations? Will Texas or USC be better prepared for life after a legendary quarterback? Okay, so once the calendar says July, my thoughts become a little less profound and revolve a whole lot more on the upcoming football season. Happens each summer. Questions 16 to 30

30. What should we expect from UCLA’s Ben Olson now that he’s finally in line to start his first college game?

Hard as it is to believe, it’s already been four years since Olson left Thousand Oaks (Calif.) and attracted offers from top-shelf programs from coast to coast. He was a 6-5, can’t-miss lefty prepared to become the next big thing in BYU quarterbacks. And then the detours started. Two years north of the border on a Mormon Mission. The transfer to UCLA. The emergence of Drew Olson. Four years later, Olson has thrown just four passes, but the detours have are gone and the time has finally come for him to approach all that prep potential. All of the rust hasn’t been shaken, but Olson’s arm is still NFL-caliber and he’s got three years of eligibility to make up for lost time.

29. Has the window of opportunity to become one of the ACC’s perennial elites closed on Virginia and Al Groh?

Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that Virginia was going to pull up a chair alongside Florida State at the ACC’s adult table? The presence of Groh and a succession of really good recruiting classes had expectations soaring, but the Cavs have never really broken through and challenged for league supremacy or played in a major bowl game. Since Groh arrived in 2001, Virginia’s just 17-22 against teams with winning records and 2-10 versus the Big 3 of Virginia Tech, Miami and Florida State. Worse yet, 2006 shapes up as a rebuilding year for a program that’s suddenly lacking star power and has a fan base that’s getting a little antsy with mediocrity.

28. Is BYU finally ready to turn back the clock and return to its storied past?

Not quite, but Bronco Mendenhall appears to have the program pointed in the right direction. In year one as the head coach, Mendenhall guided the Cougars back to the post-season and oversaw an offense that threw the ball as if it was channeling the good old days. BYU has been out of touch with those days for quite some time, but after suffering through the Gary Crowton debacle, there’s finally a glimmer of hope in Provo. The popular Mendenhall recruited well last year, and as long as quarterback John Beck can get his hands on the ball, the Cougars will be in every game, even if a leaky defense fails to make strides. To keep the momentum going, they’ve got to build on last year’s six wins and earn consecutive bowl invites for the first time since 1999.

27. Six months from now, which rookie head coach will look like the best hire?

Right now, Colorado’s inking of Dan Hawkins is the shrewdest of the ten off-season hires, and there’s reason to believe that’ll still be the case at the end of the season. It may not be immediately reflected in the win-loss record, but rest assured that he’ll be having a positive influence on a program that needed some new blood. Offensive wiz kid Chris Petersen is more than ready to carry the torch at Boise State. A couple of former star college quarterbacks, Chuck Long and Turner Gill, will prove to be savvy selections in their debuts at San Diego State and Buffalo, respectively. Long logged lots of big-game experience at Oklahoma, and should be able to attract quality players to the Mesa. Gill is a refreshing addition to a school that’s long lacked a vital sign.

26. Which young squad on the rise will make bigger strides, Arkansas or Arizona?

It’s a toss up, but they’re both going to be much better than they’ve been the last few years. The Hogs are emitting a palpable buzz that could result in a return to the postseason after back-to-back losing seasons. The offense is becoming more pass-oriented, but will still lean heavily on Freshman All-American Darren McFadden and a formidable offensive line. Head coach Mike Stoops has won just six games in two years, however, it’s clear he has Arizona moving in a northern direction. He continues improving the talent base in Tucson and now has a franchise quarterback in Willie Tuitama to build the offense around. If some of the kids develop quicker than expected, the ‘Cats have a chance to equal the win total of the last two years, and vie for a program-boosting bowl trip for the first time in eight years.

25. Is the once vast gap between the Big 12 North and the Big 12 South about to narrow?

Maybe, but not quite enough to make things entirely equitable for some time. The South has ruled the North like Mussolini the last two years, winning 29 of 38 games, however, there's optimism that a slight shift is about to occur. No doubt, the South is mighty up top with national title contenders Texas and Oklahoma and Top 25 regular Texas Tech, yet the North figures to be more competitive in 2006 and beyond. Nebraska has its best team in years, and Iowa State is fringe Top 25. Missouri has the talent to surprise this fall and Colorado got better the moment they signed Dan Hawkins. Growing pains will precede better days at Kansas and Kansas State. Baby steps, but a narrower divide nonetheless.

24. Who’s Wisconsin’s next 1,000-yard workhorse?

In the fine print of the NCAA rule book, isn’t there some mention that Wisconsin has to produce a 1,000-yard back every fall? Losing one-and-done Brian Calhoun to the NFL is crippling to the offense, but few schools are better than the Badgers at producing reliable runners that can move the chains and control the clock. Booker Stanley was supposed to take the baton, but was dismissed earlier in the year, leaving a gaggle of anonymous and untested candidates. Redshirt freshman P.J. Hill is of Dayne-ish descent and is the front-runner. Fellow redshirt freshmen Jerry Butler and Dion Foster, junior Jamil Walker and senior Dywon Rowan provide plenty of alternatives, while offering unique skill sets to new assistant coach John Settle.

23. Does anyone have a better chance than TCU to carry the non-BCS torch into one of the five BCS bowl games?

Short answer. No. Fresh off an 11-win season that included defeats of Oklahoma and Iowa State, Gary Patterson has the Frogs poised to be the nation’s best coalition team for a second straight year. They’ve got the deepest backfield in the Mountain West, are ferocious on defense and have a schedule that’s tailor-made for another double-digit win year. That said, TCU will have competition for this distinction. If Utah, upsets UCLA in the opener, look out. The Utes get TCU in Salt Lake City. While pollsters nap on Boise State, the Broncos could surprise if quarterback Jared Zabransky relocates his consistency. Never doubt Pat Hill and Fresno State, even though they play Oregon, Washington, Colorado State and LSU on the out of conference schedule. UTEP’s Mike Price has the kind of team in 2006 that could land him a promotion back to the majors.

22. Will Dan Hawkins’ wide-open offense succeed in the Big 12?

The season ahead probably won’t be a great litmus test for this question. Hawkins still doesn’t have a starting quarterback, and the current Buffs were largely recruited for an offense that aimed to set up the pass with a power running game. Whenever there’s change at the top, there are going to be growing pains, and the out of conference schedule is predictably rugged. Hawkins will find a few players that fit his system in 2006, and begin infusing some of his hand-picked recruits in 2007. Under/over on the number of times a smart alek opposing fan reminds the coach he’s no longer in the WAC after the Colorado offense sputters: 112. Under/over on the number of times an announcer or write compares Hawkins’ first-year offensive woes with Urban Meyer’s up-and-down debut in Gainesville: 47.

21. Is Clemson ready to break through and become just the fourth school to ever represent the ACC in a BCS bowl game?

The upcoming season is a pivotal one for Clemson and Tommy Bowden. Schools, such as Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech and NC State, have been virtually interchangeable the past few years, but the Tigers have the talent and the momentum to break from that mediocre pack in 2006. Although a new quarterback will be broken in, this might be Bowden’s deepest group, meaning eight wins and a December bowl game could smack of underachieving. Will Proctor takes over for Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback, but he’s graybeard, who gets all five starting linemen back to go along with standout running back James Davis and receiver Chansi Stuckey. The Gaines Adams-led D is strong enough up front to mask an average secondary. Clemson is this close to the ACC penthouse once every four or five years. And this is definitely one of them.

20. Can Virginia Tech sneak up on Florida State and Miami, like they did in 2004, and unexpectedly win the ACC?

Why not? The last time we collectively dismissed Tech in 2004, they responded with a 7-1 league record and an unexpected ACC crown. Pulling the upset, however, might be a whole lot tougher this year. The 2006 edition doesn’t have veteran quarterback Bryan Randall to rely on, and it won’t be easy to duplicate what the defense did two years ago. The big hurdles are in the backfield, where a play-making quarterback and running back must emerge in August. Sean Glennon, Cory Holt and Ike Whitaker are the candidates behind center. And none look like he’s ready to become Michael and Marcus’ younger brother. Still, Frank Beamer has this program expecting championships each year, and the schedule suggests that a Nov. 4 trip to the Orange Bowl should decide the Coastal Division champ.

19. Is Louisville about to catch the rest of the nation napping?

While most of the country is tossing bouquets at West Virginia, Louisville is flying under the radar. Sort of. They’re not exactly Cinderella, but they’re also not getting nearly the same respect that the ‘eers are enjoying. It does make sense considering how both finished 2005, however, the Cards do have the weapons to run the table and sneak into the national title chase while no one is looking. With Brian Brohm hurling and Michael Bush chugging, the offense will be good for 40 points a game, and the defense is loaded with very good athletes, particularly in the back seven. Clashes with Miami and West Virginia will define the Cards’ season. Both must visit the ‘Ville.

18. Who plays quarterback for Georgia?

For the first time since 2001, there’s uncertainty behind center Between the Hedges. David Greene and D.J. Shockley are in the NFL, leaving behind one wily veteran that’s pining to start and three of the most heralded quarterback recruits to sign with Georgia. In about six weeks, we should all know whether Mark Richt and staff plan to play it safe with veteran Joe Tereshinski or swing for the fences by giving the ball to sophomore Blake Barnes, redshirt freshman Joe Cox or uber-recruit Matthew Stafford, who’s oozing with potential and was sharp in his first spring. Experience and the depth chart dictate Joe. T’s the man for now, but those young bucks breathing down his neck have more physical ability and than the front-runner, and won’t go away quietly.

17. Who’ll be in the offensive huddle when LSU hosts La.-Lafayette Sept. 2?

The first man to get medical clearance wins a starting job. LSU is well-stocked in the backfield, but unfortunately for the Tigers, the starting quarterback is returning from injury, as are the top two options at running back. JaMarcus Russell is the incumbent behind center, but he missed spring to rest an ailing wrist and shoulder, and backups Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux could start for a bunch of programs. The competition will be even more interesting at tailback, where potential stars Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent are coming back from ACL tears suffered in 2005. Redshirt freshman R.J. Jackson, who looked promising, is also rehabbing an injured knee. If depth becomes an issue, and he clear academic hurdles, top recruit Keiland Williams will contribute right out of the gate.

16. Which true freshman will make the biggest splash in 2006?

Today’s true freshman is more prepared and more eager to contribute than ever before. And he’s bigger, faster and stronger than his predecessors. Keep your redshirt. He’d rather play right now. Plenty will get their wish in 2006. Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (Georgia), Jevan Snead (Texas), Mitch Mustain (Arkansas), Isiah Williams (Illinois) and Josh Freeman (Kansas State) are all capable of winning the starting job in Year 1. Running back: C.J. Spiller (Clemson) didn’t turn down 50 other offers to sit on the sidelines. Chris Wells (Ohio State) showed in the spring that he’s going to be a monster. Either Stafon Johnson or Emmanuel Moody (USC) might fill the gaping void left by the departures of Reggie Bush and LenDale White. Defense: Safety Myron Rolle (Florida State) is a budding superstar that does everything well. Gerald McCoy (Oklahoma) is the next great interior lineman in Norman. Sergio Kindle (Texas) is physically ready to contribute immediately at strongside linebacker.

15. If USC leaves the door open, which team is most likely to storm the Pac-10 gates?

If they can get consistent play from the quarterback, Cal heads a deep pack that’s lining up behind the Trojans. In back Marshawn Lynch and receiver DeSean Jackson, they’ve got two of the best playmakers in the conference and the Brandon Mebane-led defense is athletic and underrated. Top to bottom, the Pac-10 is as balanced as it’s been in years, leaving the Trojans a little less margin for error. Oregon and UCLA return plenty of talent from last year’s 10-win squads. Arizona State is a traveling air show that can score with anyone. Both Washington State and Oregon State will be improved after falling below .500 in 2005. And Arizona has enough emerging players to be one of this season’s big surprises. The Oct. 7 visit from Washington looks like the only snoozer for four-time defending league champ USC.

14. Iowa’s been to four straight January bowl games, but can they get to Pasadena for the first time since 1990?

Iowa never seems to get much media buzz in a league that’s dominated by Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. This pre-season isn’t much different. The Hawkeyes may be the Big Ten’s next best thing to the Buckeyes, but you wouldn’t know it by monitoring national headlines. After three straight 10-win seasons, Iowa slumped to 7-5 in 2005, lowering expectations for many this fall. The nucleus, however, is solid for a program that could dramatically raise its Q rating with a Rose Bowl invite. Drew Tate and Albert Young are back, giving the Hawks one of the nation’s better backfields, and both lines will be stout. The deck gets reshuffled at linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback, but few staffs are better at player development than the one in Iowa City.

13. How will Michigan respond to its first five-loss season in more than two decades?

This is more of a psychological question than anything else. Michigan is as deep and talented as always, but are they angry after being one of 2005’s bigger disappointments? Are they motivated to turn last year into an afterthought? If the off-season is any indication, the Wolverines, collectively, have something to prove. With new coordinators on both sides of the ball to impress, the players dedicated themselves to conditioning and trimming excess weight. Will feeling the burn in February mean better results in October? Time will tell. There shouldn’t be any excuses, however, from a team that has star power on offense and defense, and gets a huge boost from the healthy return of running back Mike Hart, the sparkplug of the offense.

12. How much of an impact will David Cutcliffe have in his return to Tennessee?

It better be profound or else there’ll be hell to pay at Tennessee. One 5-6 season is a nightmare. Back-to-back flops will not be tolerated. Cutcliffe returns to the Volunteers to manage the second half of quarterback Erik Ainge’s career and help restore the order in Knoxville. After a terrific true freshman year, Ainge regressed swiftly in 2005, and should benefit from the presence of one of the game’s better teachers. If he doesn’t, get ready for the debut of redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton, who just two years ago was one of America’s most coveted high school quarterbacks. Wholesale changes are expected on both sides of the ball, so 2006 is a time to lay the groundwork for loftier pursuits in 2007.

11. How close is the 2006 Auburn team to the 2004 squad that finished unbeaten?

Auburn sort of snuck up on folks two years ago, climbing from No. 17 in the pre-season AP poll to No. 2 following the Sugar Bowl. They won’t have that luxury this fall. The Tigers are among the elite in the country, and everyone knows it. Whether they can run the table for the second time in three years depends on the defense’s ability to fill holes on the front seven. The offense will be just fine in the capable hands of second-year starting quarterback Brandon Cox and All-SEC running back Kenny Irons. Since the perfect season, nine Tigers have been drafted, yet they’re right back in the mix for league and national supremacy, a testament to how hot the program is right now.

10. Is this the year Nebraska begins its return to glory?

Well, it’s sure to be a different sort of glory than the four-decade run of dominance under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, but you get the feeling the Huskers have slowly begun to turn the corner under Bill Callahan. This is one of the more compelling storylines worth watching in 2006. Ever since getting thumped by Kansas last Nov. 5, the program has picked up a head steam of steam, winning three straight, beating Michigan in the Alamo Bowl and compiling another strong recruiting class. With the wind at their back, Nebraska is the favorite to represent the North in the Big 12 Championship game and has a chance to move into the league’s No. 3 hole behind Texas and Oklahoma. In Year 2 in the West Coast offense, Zac Taylor is poised for a breakout season and the front seven could be dominant. Big Red may be ready for a big return to the national spotlight.

9. Is Penn State back for good or are they going to pull repeats of 2000 and 2003?

The last two seasons the Lions won nine games, they promptly slumped under .500 the following year. The program has yet to gain any traction or manufacture back-to-back winning seasons in the 21st century, making this fall so pivotal and compelling. Penn State authored a revival in 2005, winning the Big Ten and losing just once, but like three years ago, a number of key cogs are gone. Is it back to mediocrity now that Michael Robinson, Tamba Hali and the entire secondary are in the NFL? Probably not. A lot depends on the development of quarterback Anthony Morelli and another league title is unlikely, however, 2006 should be much different than 2003 when the Lions won just three times. Thanks to a couple of terrific recruiting classes, the talent level has dramatically improved, as has the overall team speed.

8. Can West Virginia meet soaring expectations and contend for more than just a Big East crown?

Ever since shocking Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, West Virginia has been a media darling and so much of a sleeper for the national title that they’re no longer a sleeper. To be sure, all of the attention has been earned. This is a rising program that’s coming off an 11-win season that was largely fueled by kids that had no business being so good, so fast. Wunderkinds Pat White and Steve Slaton are back on offense, and if a retooled secondary gels, this is a team free of warts. However, in sports, it’s always far easier to sneak up on the competition than to fend it off. With expectations at an all-time high, the Mountaineers will have to prove that they can endure an entire season with an unmistakable target on their chests.

7. Will the Florida offense be any better in Urban Meyer’s second year?

The personnel is essentially the same, so the results in Year 2 of the Urban Meyer era may not be dramatically different than Year 1, when the Gators sputtered against good SEC defenses. Chris Leak is still at the controls, and while he’s a very good college passer, he’ll never be smooth running the option, a prerequisite in this offense. Complicating things are a misfiring running game and an offensive line that must replace four starters. Meyer will make a few concessions to the playbook to fit Leak’s skill set and the receiving corps, boosted by the return to health of Andre Caldwell and arrival of Percy Harvin, could be special, but the offense is apt to misfire again against the likes of LSU, Georgia and Florida State.

6. Which ACC honcho is more likely to fix their offensive woes, Florida State or Miami?

Whoever does wins the league because both defenses will be outstanding once again. Despite an abundance of talent at the skill positions, both schools have inexplicably had issues of late on offense. Florida State hasn’t run the ball the way they’d like to, and Miami hasn’t aired it out up to its usual standards. Not to be overlooked are the offensive lines, neither of which was a fortress last fall. The ‘Noles have two terrific burners in the backfield, Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith, but they’ll struggle to reach top gear if the line doesn’t get its job done. The ‘Canes shook up their coaching staff in the hopes of adding a spark to an offense that’s lacked explosiveness. Kyle Wright is up to Quarterback U. standards, but he needs better protection and some reliable hands that can also stretch a defense.

5. Ohio State lost nine starters on defense, so who will the next wave of stars be?

Hey, you’re in Columbus, where four and five-star recruits flock to the city like it’s a pilgrimage. Yeah, the Ohio State D lost a ton of talent from 2005, including six players taken in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft, but that just means there’ll be a whole new group of headliners this fall. Linebackers Marcus Freeman, Larry Grant, James Laurinaitis, John Kerr and Ross Homan. Defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins, Jamario O'Neal, Nick Patterson, Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman. Defensive ends Lawrence Wilson and Vernon Gholston. Names you probably don’t recognize today, but ones you’re going to know by October or November. And ones that’ll be called in the next couple of NFL Drafts.

4. Who is Joey Halzle, and why might he impact the national title chase?

Originally, this slot was reserved for questions about Rhett Bomar’s development at Oklahoma, but the sophomore was booted from the team for alleged violations of NCAA rules, suddenly making Halzle (pronounced HALLS-LEE) worth googling. Bomar’s dismissal is devastating for a program that was gearing up for a rebound from last year’s four-loss season and already lacked depth at quarterback. Halzle, a transfer from Golden West (Calif.) Community College, is first in line to win the job, but he had a rough spring game and is still adjusting to the speed of this level. Unless he starts channeling former JUCO transfer and current Sooner coach Josh Heupel real quickly, defensing Adrian Peterson becomes a whole lot more manageable for the second year-in-a-row. Another intriguing option might be Paul Thompson, who came to Norman as a heralded quarterback, but moved to receiver a year ago when it became clear that Bomar was the future behind center. Thompson’s a veteran with 30 games of experience and the mobility to perform some of the wrinkles Kevin Wilson had hoped to infuse into the 2006 offense.

3. Has the Notre Dame defense made big enough strides from last year to justify a Top 5 preseason ranking?

With their big three guns returning on offense, the Irish may be able to out score all of this year’s opponents, but that’s not the typical path to a championship. Partake in enough shootouts, and you’re bound to take the occasional bullet. Notre Dame won’t win many games with a stifling D, but improving on last year’s 9-3 mark means the defense has to stiffen, particularly in pass coverage. Stopping the run is doable, but it was painfully clear in 2005 that there’s a deficiency of speed and corners that can cover. Charlie Weis and staff have had more than half a year to try and address this pressing issue. More pressure up front and true freshman Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil must develop real fast, or else the Irish will have to win a lot of 37-34 games.

2. Just how mortal will USC really be in 2006?

Losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl ushered in USC’s most trying off-season of the Pete Carroll era. Couple some off-field turbulence with the departures of Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, and you can understand why some feel the Trojans will come back to the pack in 2006. Just how far they drift will leave a huge imprint on the national and Pac-10 scene. However, those on the fringe predicting the bottom is about to fall out on this dynastic run of 52 wins in 57 games might be a little miffed in December. There are still twice as many blue-chip answers for every question mark, and Carroll’s reveling in this year’s challenge. While the offense searches for its groove, expect the young and speedy defense to be suffocating. And like 2003, if you want to knock off USC, you better do it early because they might be humming once the season’s half over.

1. Can Texas repeat with a freshman under center?

You don’t get better by losing Vince Young, but if you believe the ‘Horns are about to suffer some kind of a collapse, you’re way too VY-centric. Texas remains loaded just about everywhere and finally has an off-season swagger, but Young’s heir apparent is going to be, well, young. Not-yet-drinking-age young. Thanks to an extra year in the system, redshirt freshman Colt McCoy is the favorite, but true freshman Jevan Snead has the rifle to mount a challenge next month. What does all this mean? 1. The champs will be a whole lot easier to defense than the last two years. 2. Backs Selvin Young, Jamaal Charles and Henry Melton better focus on conditioning and 3. Texas is still a Top 5 team with as good a shot as anyone of ending 2006 in Arizona on Jan. 8.

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I believe the turning point for the '04 team was the LSU game.

As it might well be this year!

..although if we can come out big against WSU after all the "poor in game one" naysayers, that might get our confidence rolling for the whole year (the danger then, of course, would be over-confidence)

If we get through the 3-week South Carolina-Arkansas-Florida trifecta in the middle of the season still undefeated, then I might start getting a little over-confident myself.

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I believe the turning point for the '04 team was the LSU game.

I don't know if it was the LSU game or the Tennessee game. I believe that we had to have a little bit of luck to beat LSU (won it on a re-kick PAT after an obscure penalty call). But we completely dominated Tennessee for four quarters. It was at that game that I remember fans looking around at each other and saying, "Holy crap.....we're good." Not many were thinking that at the LSU game.

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I believe the turning point for the '04 team was the LSU game.

I don't know if it was the LSU game or the Tennessee game. I believe that we had to have a little bit of luck to beat LSU (won it on a re-kick PAT after an obscure penalty call). But we completely dominated Tennessee for four quarters. It was at that game that I remember fans looking around at each other and saying, "Holy crap.....we're good." Not many were thinking that at the LSU game.

I think the LSU game that year was when our players became convinced that they could beat anybody, that they would always come through in the clutch. I believe crushing the Vols on their home turf is when the rest of the nation (including me) came to that conclusion.

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I think the LSU game that year was when our players became convinced that they could beat anybody, that they would always come through in the clutch. I believe crushing the Vols on their home turf is when the rest of the nation (including me) came to that conclusion.

I will agree with you on that.

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