— Five storylines to consider as the college football season rolls on:
1. Learning experience
Time to find out about these teams.
That’s the first thought when you consider two of Saturday’s most interesting games: No. 10 Florida at Tennessee, then No. 6 Texas at Texas Tech.
We’d like to know more about the progress made by first-year Volunteers coach Derek Dooley, who must clean up the mess left behind by Lane Kiffin. We’d like to know how close Tennessee football is to becoming, well, Tennessee football again.
We’d like to know how first-year Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville is going about the business of changing the culture with the Red Raiders, who are healing after the stormy tenure of Mike Leach. Tuberville, who celebrates his 56th birthday Saturday, will get up to speed quickly with a new Big 12 rivalry after dominating a familiar one (his Auburn teams defeated Alabama six straight times at the close of his tenure).
Yes, we’d like to find out about these teams.
But even more, we’d like to learn whether Florida and Texas still have the muscle to make a go of it for the BCS title, now that a couple of familiar names (Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy) are no longer there.
There was a time when a trip to Neyland Stadium would represent an ultimate proving ground for the Gators. Not any longer. Since coach Urban Meyer took over, the Gators are 5-0 against Tennessee — a combination of Florida’s ascension to the elite and Tennessee’s steady regression.
Generally, the perception is Florida can keep cranking along at the highest level, although there are down-the-line concerns, chiefly the Oct. 2 date at Alabama and a nagging suspicious that Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks might (finally) be a real factor in the SEC East.
The Gators are 2-0, but has there ever been a more unfulfilling start? Has a Top 10-ranked team ever won its first two games, but dropped six spots in the poll?
Following Tebow is difficult, but the Gators (and quarterback John Brantley) will do so with a razor-thin margin of error.
So far, it hasn’t looked pretty.
The disastrous center-snap problems of Mike Pouncey overshadowed Florida’s season-opening 34-12 victory over Miami (Ohio). Saturday’s 38-14 home victory against South Florida sounds resounding, but it was uneven at best, tied at halftime and a runaway mostly because the Bulls committed five turnovers.
More than anything, the Gators lack an offensive identity, something that never was an issue during Tebow’s tenure. Brantley has been a cautious presence, feeling his way, but he knows his primary role is distributing the ball to Florida’s playmakers.
Considering Tennessee’s ongoing transition, the Gators really need this to be a convincing victory. It looks good on paper, but the season hasn’t yet followed that form, so we’ll see.
Texas, meanwhile, has rolled to non-descript victories over Rice (34-17) and Wyoming (34-7). Garrett Gilbert, McCoy’s replacement, has been kept largely under wraps. It’s still not known whether he can beat a quality opponent with his arm. It is known that Texas must get its running game together and help Gilbert adjust to his new role.
If the Longhorns prevail — and Gilbert plays well — it would serve as a key Big 12 victory and a major confidence booster. The last time Texas visited Lubbock, one of the most memorable finishes in recent history unfolded improbably.
Texas Tech won 39-33 when Graham Harrell found Michael Crabtree on a 28-yard touchdown pass with one second remaining. The Longhorns, ranked No. 1 nationally, were still buoyed by a victory over Oklahoma, and were staring squarely at a national-title shot. In West Texas, that went up in smoke.
Now Texas, with a much different cast, can erase some of that bad taste.
How Texas responds to that challenge — and how crisp Florida looks during its trip to Tennessee — will be the impetus behind how we all feel about the Gators and Longhorns this season.
2. Oh, Boise!
Where’s the love for college football’s Little Guy?
When Boise State defeated Virginia Tech 33-30 in a riveting back-and-forth prime-time Labor Day game, it was widely perceived as massive victory for BCS-bashers everywhere.
The Broncos, it was thought, had passed the necessary test, defeating a top 10-level team on a neutral field (really, it was a road game with all those Hokies fans in Landover, Md.). Boise State, appropriately respected by the preseason pollsters, had all the ammunition to reach the BCS championship game if it completed the formality of an unbeaten season.
Um, not exactly.
Boise State, still regaling in its triumph during an open week, watched its landmark victory immediately devalued when Virginia Tech was bounced at home by James Madison of the FCS.
The Broncos lost traction in the polls (it remained No. 3, but its eight first-place votes in the AP top 25 were reduced to one). If Alabama and Ohio State win out — or if a half-dozen other BCS conference schools do the same — we’re back to the same scenario. It won’t matter whom the Broncos beat. They will be on the outside.
Boise State’s best hope was for Virginia Tech to be the best it could be. That would be a viable, convincing argument to sway voters.
Time for Plan B.
The Broncos still have a Sept. 25 home game remaining against respectable Pac-10 opponent Oregon State, but there’s not much traction there, either. Oregon State, after all, was beaten by another BCS-buster, TCU, 30-21 to open the season.
It will be left to old-fashioned methods.
Boise State needs to thrash its WAC opponents, beginning with Saturday’s game against New Mexico. The warm-and-fuzzy story lost its shelf life. Nothing gets the attention of pollsters like scoreboard domination.
Even that probably won’t be enough. Three months from now, we might be looking back with the knowledge that James Madison — James Madison! — had the biggest influence on this season’s national-championship race.
3. ACC-ya later
Here’s the highlight game for ACC football on Saturday: Georgia Tech at North Carolina.
Somebody will win.
And that’s about the most optimistic thing you can say about the ACC’s season.
Last weekend, in addition to Virginia Tech’s embarrassing home defeat to James Madison, two of the league’s other teams had high-profile pratfalls when Florida State was undressed at Oklahoma (47-17) and Miami melted down at Ohio State (36-24).
Week 3 doesn’t look so promising, either. (Although credit must go to North Carolina State for beating Cincinnati on Thursday to improve to 3-0)
Virginia Tech confronts the very real possibility of an 0-3 start as it plays host to high-scoring East Carolina, a team that no one wants to face right now. Florida State has a difficult home game against Brigham Young. In a perverse matchup, Duke plays host to top-ranked Alabama.
And many other ACC teams have difficult road tests, including Clemson (at Auburn), Maryland (at West Virginia) and Wake Forest (at Stanford).
Remember when the ACC raided the Big East, adding Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech? The talk then was about the ACC becoming a 12-team super-conference, an all-powerful conglomeration that could stand toe-to-toe with the SEC.
It hasn’t happened.
Not even close, actually.
Since Florida State defeated Michael Vick-led Virginia Tech to capture the 2000 Sugar Bowl (and the national championship), ACC teams are 1-9 in BCS bowl games.
After this season’s dismal start — which had five league teams in the preseason top 25 (but only Miami maintaining that status) — the ACC looks to be relegated to more national irrelevance.
4. The early, early Heisman favorite
Is there any doubt?
Two games in, Michigan sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson has energized the season, restored optimism to the No. 20 Wolverines and even provided (gasp!) momentary job security to coach Rich Rodriguez.
Things can change in a hurry, of course. Nearly every college football season is an organic process, ebbing, flowing, capable of turning gospel truths into misnomers.
But in victories over Connecticut and Notre Dame, Robinson has become the game’s most compelling force. He already has 455 rushing yards, while completing 69.4 percent of his passes for 430 yards.
He has not thrown an interception.
Robinson has not lost a fumble.
From the outside, there is concern over his durability (55 rushing attempts in two games). Three years ago, Florida coach Urban Meyer ran out a game utilizing then-sophomore Tim Tebow, who rolled up 27 carries. At the time, Meyer was fine with it. In retrospect, as fatigue and injuries set in, Meyer later said he should’ve better managed Tebow’s workload.
We’ll see how Rodriguez’s plan evolves.
For the moment, let’s begin a countdown for Robinson, who is on pace to shatter the all-time Football Bowl Subdivision single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
Here’s the top 10:
Big 12 fans, as usual, might be focusing on the Oct. 2 game between Oklahoma and Texas, but let’s not overlook No. 8 Nebraska’s looming presence in the North Division.
The past few seasons, the Cornhuskers (2-0) have admittedly been easy to overlook.
Shocking, but true: Nebraska hasn’t gone into October with an unbeaten record since 2005. The Cornhuskers were swept by its marquee BCS non-conference opponents — USC and Virginia Tech — in the past four seasons.
Which brings us to Saturday — and Nebraska’s trip to Washington (1-1).
The Huskies aren’t exactly national-championship material, but they do have the ever-dangerous dual-threat quarterback Jake Locker, who is seeking a Heisman Trophy platform. Playing well in a victory against Nebraska? Locker would shoot to near top of the list.
Even though bigger things are ahead for Nebraska — namely, contending for one last Big 12 title before jumping to the Big Ten — the Cornhuskers must prove they can handle a big non-conference road game.
If Nebraska is successful, watch out. The Cornhuskers should take a 5-0 mark into the Oct. 16 home game/grudge match against Texas, the all-powerful entity that was one of the main reasons why Nebraska wanted out of the Big 12 in the first place.