— Even though Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow appear to have designs on making BCS title games their personal playground, let’s not jump to the conclusion that Florida will capture its third title in the past four years. We’re not even convinced that the Gators will be in Pasadena on Jan. 7, 2010.
Yes, we know that there will be as many as 10 starters back on defense, even if linebacker Brandon Spikes opts to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. And, of course, Tebow can jump-pass over tall buildings and will his team to do just about anything.
But Florida is a member of the Southeastern Conference, and that means they’ll always have their work cut out for them. Remember, at this time last year, everyone was talking about how Georgia would be the top Dawgs. We all know how that turned out.
Although the Gators won’t be given the opportunity to avenge last season’s loss to Ole Miss, their SEC slate is more than challenging. An Oct. 10 date against LSU in Death Valley will be the league’s game of the season. The Tigers may have been down in 2008, but with freshman Jordan Jefferson under center during LSU’s 38-3 whipping of Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A, next season got off to a big bang. You can be sure Les Miles will have the Bayou Bengals focused and in a nasty moody all season.
Florida’s non-conference schedule includes Charleston Southern, Troy, Florida International and Florida State. The Gator JV could beat those first three teams, but don’t sleep on the Seminoles. Bobby Bowden played close to 40 first-year players this past season, with a handful of them in starting roles. By the time Nov. 28 rolls around, you’re pretty much looking at those guys having upper-class experience and they’ll be eager to make a name for themselves in The Swamp.
With Tebow at the helm and going undefeated not a requirement for SEC teams, the Gators certainly have a shot at repeating, but that sort of thing is really quite rare. In the last half century, there’s been only one undisputed consensus back-to-back college football “national champion” — the 1994 and 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Texas, the team that Florida should have played in the BCS title game instead of Oklahoma, is our team to beat in 2009. After sharpening up versus Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, Central Florida, UTEP and Colorado to begin the campaign, the Longhorns will take a long break before going to Dallas and making it two in a row versus the Sooners. After that, the stiffest test for Texas will be its Oct. 25 date at Oklahoma State. With Colt McCoy and most of his offensive line back in the saddle, the Longhorns will be tough to keep pace with all season long.
Others in the equation: Alabama and probably Oklahoma won’t have that sort of luxury at quarterback with the Crimson Tide’s John Parker Wilson graduating and Sooners signalcaller Sam Bradford likely to jump to the NFL. The cupboards won’t be bare in Tuscaloosa or Norman, and both coaching staffs are more than capable of putting together another strong run, but getting to the pinnacle is at least a season away for both programs.
With its seven consecutive BCS bowl appearances, USC is seemingly always in the conversation, but this coming season could be quite different. With practically the entire Trojans defense needing to be replaced and facing a tough road slate that includes Ohio State, Oregon, California, Arizona State and Notre Dame, Pete Carroll won’t be doing his usual campaigning in December.
The “Utah” of 2009: There won’t be any. With the rise in overall quality in the Mountain West Conference, an undefeated team is very unlikely to emerge and earn a BCS berth. Boise State out of the Western Athletic Conference is the best bet to poke its head back into the BCS, but the Broncos open the season versus Oregon. The Ducks will have to travel to Boise and play on the SmufTurf, but they are always a dangerous team and will be solidified under the leadership of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli by then. Also problematic for the Broncos are WAC road games at Hawaii and Fresno State, not to mention their non-conference visit to trip to Tulsa on Oct. 3.
New coach most likely to succeed: We’re not here to say that DeWayne Walker will get New Mexico State to a bowl game for the first time since 1960 or anything crazy like that, but he’ll certainly get the Aggies on the right track. After capping off a seven-game slide with a 47-2 loss in the season finale at Utah State, New Mexico State has nowhere to go but up and they’ve got the right man to lead the charge. Trading in Hal Mumme’s offensive mindedness for Walker’s defensive toughness will serve the Aggies well as they take their first steps up the WAC ladder.
New coach most likely to fail: Lane Kiffin, the new boss in Knoxville, doesn’t have a chance. If he thought working for Al Davis was difficult, wait until he gets a taste of working within the SEC. Even though Carroll is one of his mentors, Kiffin is no Pete Carroll . . . and the same can be said of Steve Sarkisian, who leaves the Trojans juggernaut behind and will attempt to resurrect woeful Washington.
Heisman hopefuls: Tebow should be going for the three-peat, but chasing a second Heisman will have to do. Of course, that’s assuming that Bradford goes pro and isn’t seeking his own encore. McCoy might have the upper hand in 2009, as voters have shown a desire to protect Archie Griffin’s legacy as the only back-to-back recipient.
USC’s Mark Sanchez, who will be surrounded by a host of returners on offense if he decides to stay in school, is another top candidate. Fellow quarterbacks Zac Robinson of Oklahoma State, Daryll Clark of Penn State and Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame are also on the early watch list, along with running backs Jahvid Best of California, Kendall Hunter of Oklahoma State and LeSean McCoy of Pittsburgh.
Sophomore streak: With Tebow becoming the first sophomore to win the Heisman in 2007 and Bradford making it two in a row in December, might the trend continue next season? Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who has added catching the football to his running and throwing exploits, certainly has a profile high enough to begin the season in contention. If he is able to lead the Buckeyes to a victory over USC at the Horseshoe on Sept. 12, Pryor will join Tebow and McCoy as early frontrunners.
Speaking of beating the Trojans ... how about Jacquizz Rodgers? The pint-sized Oregon State running back tore through USC for 190 yards as a freshman to lead the Beavers to a 27-21 victory in Corvallis last September. Best will receive most of the preseason hype as the running back to watch in the West, but Rodgers is just as fearsome.