Got storylines? 25 things to watch in college football

Anthony Gimino

August 01, 2012 at 3:37 pm.

All eyes are on LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger in Baton Rouge in 2012. (Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE)

College football camps are opening all across the country, and the glorious opening kickoff is only about four weeks away.

What happens in the meantime — injuries, suspensions, another head coach doing something stupid — could help shape conference races and the national championship chase.

Not that this season needs any more intrigue. There is already plenty that has us on the edge of our seat.

Here are 25 things to watch:

1. An SEC repeat

We’re not just talking about the SEC winning its seventh consecutive national championship but — perhaps more than anyone wants to admit — LSU and Alabama could be the best two teams in the nation again.

A repeat in the BCS Championship Game?

If so, aren’t you really, really glad a four-team playoff is coming soon?

2. Urban’s return

Urban Meyer’s R&R, which included a stint in television, lasted only one season before he felt good enough to take over one of the best jobs in the country — Ohio State.

Meyer, born and raised in Ohio, has won big everywhere he’s been, and although the Buckeyes are ineligible for the postseason in 2012, Meyer’s offensive expertise, when applied to sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, will point toward a huge 2013.

3. Penn State transfers

This will be a rapidly developing story, with safety Tim Buckley having announced a move to North Carolina State, quarterback Rob Bolden already out the door and star running back Silas Redd off to USC. Linebacker Khairi Fortt is the latest former Nittany Lion to bolt. He just joined the Cal Bears.

4. Pac-12 coaches

The league, flush with an infusion of cash from the new Pac-12 Network — debuting this month across the country — made splashy hires with Rich Rodriguez (Arizona), Mike Leach (Washington State), Jim Mora (UCLA) and Todd Graham (Arizona State).

As Jon Gold wrote for Lindy’s this summer, “This, folks, is once again the rootin’, tootin’, run’-‘n’-shootin’, fast-talkin’, seat-rockin’ Wild West.”

Just think: The league added the inventor of the modern read-option offense (Rodriguez), the top practitioner of the passing spread (Leach), another guy who believes in a “high-octane” no-huddle offense (Graham) and a former NFL coach with the smarts, personality and recruiting acumen to deliver UCLA to its potential.

Well done, all around.

5. John L. Smith

He left his alma mater, Weber State, after only a few months on the job to return to Arkansas to clean up Bobby Petrino’s mess. Smith, a former Hogs assistant, will use his year as interim head coach to try to finish what Petrino had intended — make a strong run in the SEC West. Question: How good is quarterback Tyler Wilson after losing so much firepower at wideout?

6. New teams in new places (Big 12 edition)

TCU moving up to play in a BCS conference is a fascinating development, as it begins to answer the question of how important a factor it is to play a quality schedule week in and week out. The Frogs took a hit when they had to boot three players in a campus drug bust in the spring — and the summer departure of running back Ed Wesley was another unhappy development. But quarterback Casey Pachall and an always-good defense gives TCU a chance to make a successful jump.

Meanwhile, West Virginia comes in guns a-blazin’ with Dana Holgorsen’s flashy offense (already proven to work when he was the coordinator at Oklahoma State). Quarterback Geno Smith and wideouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are ready for their bigger-boy conference.

7. Zach Mettenberger

All LSU needs is a quarterback, right? It’s hard to forget the struggles of Jordan Jefferson in the loss to Alabama in the national title game, with Jarrett Lee never getting off the sidelines, but Mettenberger has a stronger arm and more pocket presence than either. Mettenberger could be THE central figure in the national championship picture.

8. Notre Dame’s schedule

We love the season-opener against Navy in Dublin — these teams also met in Ireland in 1996 — and the Irish’s schedule only gets tougher from there.

With coach Brian Kelly looking to repeat the historic third-year success of predecessors Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz, he’ll have to navigate road games at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC, home games vs. Michigan, Stanford, Purdue and BYU and a neutral site game vs. Miami. A repeat of an eight-win season would be a solid accomplishment.

9. Texas eying elite status

The Longhorns have a chance to roar back into the national discussion after the 2010 disaster and a bit of bounce-back in 2011. Texas has the horses on defense, which is why it is appropriate to be bullish about its chances. It will all come down to mistake-free play at quarterback from David Ash and Case McCoy.

10. Rehabbed running backs

Three running backs with the potential for All-America honors are coming off serious injuries — South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore (knee), Arkansas’ Knile Davis (ankle) and Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham (knee). Here’s hoping each gets in a full season.

11. Winning now

Your hot-seat coaches: Derek Dooley (Tennessee), Frank Spaziani (Boston College), Randy Edsall (Maryland), Tommy Tuberville (Texas Tech), Jeff Tedford (Cal).

12. Sleepers

Purdue moves to the top of this list. The Boilermakers, in their fourth year under coach Danny Hope, return 16 starters, have ample options at quarterback and a stud in the middle of the defensive line in Kawann Short.

With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, all Purdue has to do is find a way to beat Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana in the Big Ten Legends Division to reach the conference title game. And the game vs. Wisconsin is at home on Oct. 13.

13. The Black Mamba

With LaMichael James moving on to the NFL, more playing time opens for Oregon’s electrifying sophomore, De’Anthony Thomas. He averaged a stunning 10.8 yards per carry last season, caught 46 passes and returned two kicks for scores. More, please. Said Chip Kelly at Pac-12 Media Day: “There are things he does in practice where you go, ‘Wow!'”

14. Alabama reloading on defense

Coach Nick Saban has a stars-replace-stars system at Alabama, and the Tide, losing seven starters on from the nation’s best defense, should only take a tiny step back. Nose tackle Jesse Williams made news right before camp when he maxed out at 600 pounds on the bench press. “Strong” is the word for Bama’s defense.

15. New teams in new places (SEC edition)

Missouri and Texas A&M bring an offensive flair to the conference — and they add inventory and markets for a conference TV network — but it will take a couple of years for each newbie to get up to defensive speed in the SEC. No doubt, though, conference home games in Columbia and College Station will be crazier right away. Sept. 8 is the day to watch — Florida at Texas A&M, Georgia at Mizzou.

16. A Florida State run

The Seminoles have everything we like in a team that can make a significant improvement: They have a great defensive line that can stop the run (which gives you a chance to win any game), they have a senior quarterback (EJ Manuel) who hasn’t yet put it all together but has the skills to be elite, and they lost a bunch of close games last season. Close losses often turn into close victories a year later.

FSU, which went 9-4 in 2011 with the defeats coming by a combined 21 points, is primed to make the ACC proud in coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season.

17. Matt Barkley

The Heisman front-runner could have been a Top 5 pick in the NFL Draft but came back as a senior to lead the Trojans out of the darkness of their two-year postseason ban. Imagine his place in college football history if USC makes the national championship game. Said USC coach Lane Kiffin: “He may be able to go down as the most historic Trojan ever if we do big things this year.”

18. New rules

How will coaches handle the new rule that mandates kickoffs from the 35 instead of the 30-yard line?

Options A: Kick into the end zone for a touchback and have the other team now start at the 25, instead of the 20. Option B: Pooch it toward the goal line and hope your coverage team makes a stop before the 25.

The rule is designed to cut down on the injuries on kickoffs — which feature some of the most violent collisions in the game — and will make long runbacks a more rare occurrence.

19. Coaching rebirths

We’ve mentioned Mike Leach at Washington State and Rich Rodriguez at Arizona — two moves that we think have a good chance of working out just fine for all parties involved.

But there are also a couple of other coaches who left their last jobs under less than ideal circumstances and now get a second chance. We’re talking about former Notre Dame head coaches Charlie Weis and Bob Davie.

Weis says, “I’ve learned how to show humility” — and he also needs to throw “patience” in there as another virtue as he tries to rebuild Kansas. As far as Davie’s chances at woeful New Mexico … well, we really liked him as an announcer.

20. The battle of Michigan

Michigan State has won 22 games in the past two seasons, has the makings of the Big Ten’s best defense and has won four in a row against Michigan. Not bad for “Little Brother.” But the Wolverines are roaring back under Brady Hoke and have designs on their first Big Ten title since 2004. The date: Oct. 20 in the Big House.

21. Who replaces Andrew Luck?

Stanford survived the loss of fiery coach Jim Harbaugh after the 2010 season. Now, it faces life without QB Andrew Luck, the first pick in the NFL Draft. The prediction here is that the Cardinal will still be Top 25 worthy because of its fabulous front seven on defense, while Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes fight it out at quarterback.

22. USC-Oregon

Alabama-LSU might be the most anticipated conference game of the year, but USC-Oregon is close behind, with the bonus being that they likely will have to play twice. The regular-season meeting is in the L.A. Coliseum on Nov. 3.

The rematch could be Nov. 30 in the Pac-12 championship game. There won’t be another battle of offensive skill more epic than this matchup.

23. Getting coordinated

Some coordinator moves can be just as important as the head coaching changes. Here are three we find captivating:

— Doug Nussmeier (offensive coordinator, Alabama). He has no need to make a major overhaul, able to let that superb offensive line do most of the heavy lifting. But there figures to be some new wrinkles in a season in which the offense and quarterback AJ McCarron can take more of a starring role in a quest for back-to-back national titles.

— Mike Stoops (defensive coordinator, Oklahoma). He returns to brother Bob’s coaching staff after 7 1/2 years as the head coach at Arizona. Some think the OU defense hasn’t been the same since Mike left.

— Justin Wilcox (defensive coordinator, Washington). The up-and-coming coaching star left Tennessee to remake a Huskies defense that couldn’t stop anyone from the Lingerie Football League last season.

24. Landry Jones

OU’s senior quarterback fizzled late last season when receiver Ryan Broyles went down with an injury, throwing 171 consecutive passes without a touchdown. If he’s back in Heisman form, the Sooners are contenders for the national title. As one rival Big 12 coach told Lindy’s: “I think we get to see what kind of quarterback Landry Jones really is this year. Two years ago, you see he plays great when he’s got a bunch of good receivers. Then last year, you see Landry start to struggle when Broyles gets hurt.”

25. The Penn State mess

None of the NCAA penalties, including the imposing four-year bowl ban, was inappropriate in the wake of institutional-wide failings that led to former assistant Jerry Sandusky going unchecked. The football question is this: Do the remaining Nittany Lions rally around each other and new coach Bill O’Brien? Or will they fall apart at the first sign of trouble?