— The programs are storied and distinguished. For the past decade, they have been among the premier brand names of college football.
The Florida Gators, Ohio State Buckeyes, Texas Longhorns and USC Trojans.
They are mighty and powerful.
They have much in common, including this new twist:
No one expects the Gators, Buckeyes, Longhorns or Trojans to be a factor in this season’s national championship race. Few pundits feel they will even challenge for conference titles.
Sure, there are the occasional one-season blips on the radar, when a marquee name momentarily falls out of sight, but it generally doesn’t last long.
This is different.
None of our Forgotten Four made the Top 15 in The Associated Press preseason rankings.
Maybe that doesn’t sound particularly unusual.
So this is a collective fall from grace, the likes of which we haven’t seen in recent times. Let’s take a sobering, blow-by-blow look at each school.
What happened: Remember that cataclysmic finish to the 2009 season? Tim Tebow graduated. Coach Urban Meyer resigned just before the Sugar Bowl (then changed his mind, one day later). Not surprisingly, the 2010 Gators seemed to play in a fog. John Brantley was not a good fit for the offense, which soon employed a bizarre quarterback rotation. The Gators began 5-0, then dropped three straight SEC games to fall off the map. They lost to South Carolina and state rival Florida State by a combined 67-21 score. Three weeks before an inconsequential bowl victory, raising Florida to 8-5, Meyer resigned again (this time for good).
The challenges: The SEC schedule is always a challenge (particularly this season with West foes Alabama and Auburn on the docket rotation). The Gators must dig in and fight a renewed recruiting battle against Florida State, which is on the rise after snapping its seven-game losing streak vs. Florida. The offense needs a revival. New coach Will Muschamp, once the coach-in-waiting at Texas, hired Charlie Weis to handle that chore.
How to get back: Florida may have found its quarterback of the future in freshman Jeff Driskel. The Gators’ running game has been a rumor in recent seasons. Part of that was Tebow’s unusual playmaking influence — and Tebow worked well — but Florida must re-establish itself as a team that can move the chains in the SEC. The Gators still have a fertile recruiting territory and a state filled with players who dream of playing for Florida. The SEC’s balance of power has shifted to the West. It won’t take much for Florida to reassert itself in the East. A fresh approach might do wonders.
What they are saying: “I couldn’t care less. I hope it motivates the players. I’m assuming it does. That’s not something we’re going to spend a whole lot of time in our team meeting talking about.’’ — Muschamp, on preseason rankings.
What happened: The Buckeyes saw their opportunity at a national championship run unravel during last season’s 31-18 loss at Wisconsin. Still, Ohio State finished 12-1 (its eighth double-digit victory season in Jim Tressel’s 10-year tenure). But the real story had just begun. The Sugar Bowl victory against Arkansas was played under a cloud of scandal. Five players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, traded memorabilia and other items for cash, prizes and tattoos. Five-game suspensions for 2011 were imposed. Then it was determined what Tressel really knew (and when he knew it). The coach resigned. Pryor has since departed for the NFL. Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was elevated to head coach.
The challenges: Ohio State often made the Big Ten into its personal playground — the Buckeyes have won or shared the last six conference titles — but things are different in the new-look league, where Nebraska will assert its muscle. Wisconsin and Michigan State have shown signs of long-term stability. Plus, Michigan won’t be down forever. So the Buckeyes, while escaping from scandal’s trauma, must realize that their landscape has become much more difficult to navigate.
How to get back: When Tressel took over in 2001, the Buckeyes were best known as underachievers, a potentially great program that couldn’t beat Michigan. The mentality changed completely in Tressel’s 10 seasons. The Buckeyes might not be Big Ten-dominant in the next decade, but there’s no reason why they can’t consistently contend for BCS bowl berths. In the short term, Fickell must pick up the pieces. In the long term, besides the ultimate NCAA result, everyone has the same question: Who’s going to be the head coach? Ohio State must pick the right guy, who can unify the program and tap into its inherent advantages.
What they are saying: “Every year going into a season, especially at Ohio State, you’re out there to prove what you can do. They know they’re going to be remembered on their legacy.’’ — Fickell.
What happened: One minute, the Longhorns were darlings of the 2009 season, wrapping up the Big 12 title with an unbeaten record and advancing to the BCS championship game. Then, in a blink, they were the flops of 2010, parlaying a Top 5 preseason ranking into a five-win season (5-7), the worst showing of Coach Mack Brown’s 13-year tenure. The offense was dismal (quarterback Gale Gilbert had 10 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions). The defense, which surrendered 30 points or more on four occasions, wasn’t much better. There was a predictable coaching-staff overhaul, including an unexpected departure from defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, the coach-in-waiting, who took the top job at Florida.
The challenges: Well, top-ranked Oklahoma, as usual, is the biggest challenge. For a while, it looked like Texas had reversed momentum in the series against its long-time nemesis. A long run of certainty at several positions, chiefly at quarterback, seemed to end last season. Severe retooling (nobody at Texas will use the other R-word, rebuilding) might be in order. Plus, the ESPN-created Longhorn Network has alienated most members of the Big 12, which might be facing an uncertain future.
How to get back: The era of Vince Young and Colt McCoy has long ended. The Longhorns need a solid quarterback, whether that is Gilbert or someone else. All of the playmakers must be upgraded, too, but it’s a moot point without first addressing the quarterback issue. Long-term, Texas is Texas. The Longhorns won’t be down for long. But this could certainly be more of a transition year instead of a breakout effort. There are five new assistant coaches, including co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin of Boise State, and an inevitable learning curve. Texas hasn’t exactly endeared itself to the Big 12 membership, which might want to take its shots now. The 5-7 was more of an aberration than a trend. The future outlook was bolstered by a good recruiting year.
What they are saying: “There is a certain motivation when you tell kids they’re not any good and they’re not going to do anything and they’re not in the Top 10. These are things they came to Texas for and they’ve had these things, now they are lost this year. So there’s a certain motivation for that.’’ — Brown.
What happened: USC’s dominant reign not only failed to resurface in the Pac-10 (how quaint, remember that?), but the Trojans looked downright ordinary against teams it used to routinely throttle. USC, in its first season under coach Lane Kiffin after Pete Carroll bolted for the NFL, managed an 8-5 record during a year in which it was ineligible for the league title and a bowl game. Last spring, the NCAA upheld its sanctions (Reggie Bush, improper benefits), so USC remains ineligible for the new Pac-12 championship game and a bowl appearance following this season. The Trojans also will lose 30 scholarships over the next three seasons.
The challenges: Oregon and Stanford are big dogs in the new Pac-12, where USC has been placed in the South Division, along with new entrants Utah and Colorado. The Trojans will be challenged psychologically with no championships at stake, a difficult spot for the program that once made seven consecutive BCS bowl appearances. And there’s still a long-term question about Kiffin’s viability. He didn’t win many games at Tennessee and alienated thousands of fans with his abrupt departure. He has been dealt a bad hand at USC and must weather that before making serious inroads.
How to get back: USC can get back by just staying the course. Matt Barkley remains one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, but this could be his last go-round before an NFL departure. Kiffin, for all the flack he takes otherwise, remains a master recruiter. Couple that with USC, a program that sells itself, and there should always be big-time players headed to the Trojans. Working in the fertile recruiting ground of Southern California, Trojan staffers just need a tank of gas to fill the roster with blue-chippers. Once USC is back to full strength, it should rule in the Pac-12 South. Overall conference dominance, though, is no longer a given, mostly because of Oregon’s rise to prominence.
What they are saying: “There’s a lot of buildup before the season about not being able to play in a bowl game, a lot of talk about that. But once you get going, you’re in practices and you’re walking down at the Coliseum and getting ready to play, I really don’t think they think much about that.’’ — Kiffin.
So there you have it.
It’s a new college-football season, one filled with different storylines.
None are more different (or relatively shocking) than the absence of Florida, Ohio State, Texas and USC from the high poll positions.
Once, they could’ve been the top four.
Now they are simply The Forgotten Four.
And for this season at least, they may not be able to change that.