By Nick Nelson
Mascots, marching bands, cheerleaders and fight songs are all in the air. Grills are being dusted off to prepare for tailgates, and Saturday afternoon is being taken up in everyone’s schedule. This can only mean one thing: college football season has returned.
Here is a quick run-down of my picks for the conferences, the national championship matchup, and the Heisman Trophy winner.
ATLANTIC COAST: Virginia Tech. This is VT’s conference until anyone decides to challenge them for it. North Carolina football is becoming something beyond a punchline, and teams like Maryland and Boston College are always dangerous as spoilers, but no one is going to dethrone the Hokies this season.
BIG 10: Penn State. First rule of college football: Never bet against a team coached by Joe Paterno. He is entering his 59th season of head coaching, all with the Nitnany Lions, for a reason. The real stories of this conference, though, will be whether or not Northwestern can make it to a second straight Bowl game for the first time in 12 years, or how Michigan will rebound from the first 3-9 season in school history.
BIG 12: Oklahoma. A trouncing at the hands of hated rival Texas will be enough motivation for the Sooners to become king of the conference this year. It’ll be a dogfight, as along with Texas there are teams like Kansas and Oklahoma State who should be competitive as well. Look for Baylor and Nebraska to be the surprises of the conference.
BIG EAST: Cincinnati. Many people are picking West Virginia, but I can’t with the knowledge they lost their star quarterback and fullback from last year. On the other hand, the Bearcats just keep getting better each year, with QB Tony Pike being my dark horse pick for Heisman. Pittsburgh would have been a solid option, if their tailback hadn’t bolted for the NFL in the off-season. Expect South Florida to play spoiler yet again this season as well.
CONFERENCE USA: East Carolina. This is such a weak conference that you can be only semi-competitive and still end up on top. However, ECU seems to be the team that can hang around better than anyone else in the conference. Despite tough scheduling (VA Tech, WVU, UNC), the Pirates should have no problem once they enter conference play. It’ll be a cakewalk against teams like Tulane, Southern Miss and UTEP.
MID-AMERICAN: Ball State. Who said Cinderella stories can’t have sequels? The little Indiana school-that-could shocked everybody last year by going from unranked mid-majors to a perfect regular season record of 12-0. Central Michigan can also be a major force in the conference if they can improve their pass defense.
MOUNTAIN WEST: Texas Christian. These guys could easily end up playing in the National Championship when it’s all said and done. They’ve got a cupcake schedule, with the only real obstacles coming in the form of a road game against Clemson and a rematch against Utah, where the Horned Frogs will look to avenge their only loss in 2008. If the teams ahead of them struggle, they could vie for a spot in the Big Game.
PACIFIC 10: Southern Cal. Come on, who else am I going to pick here? Pete Carroll’s Trojans will protect their conference winning streak en route to winning their eighth in a row. Arizona State will attempt to challenge the Trojans, but in reality everyone else will just be battling for second place.
SOUTHEASTERN: Florida. Heisman quarterback? Check. Two national titles in 3 years? Yup. Number-one preseason ranking? Got it. They’re right on the cusp of becoming the next college dynasty, and Tim Tebow is exactly the QB to get them there. Despite a hellish conference schedule (road games against LSU, South Carolina and Mississippi State), expect to see them on top when the dust settles.
SUN BELT: Troy. They finished the season ranked 28th in the country on offense and they’ve got weapons on both sides of the ball. QB Levi Brown threw for 2,000 yards and RB DuJuan Harris is always a 1,000-yard threat. No one else can compete here.
WESTERN ATHLETIC: Boise State. Gone are the days of a competitive Hawaii-Boise State rivalry. The Broncos should rumble to their seventh conference title in eight years, with Oregon being the only potential roadblock. Now if only they could change that turf…
NATIONAL TITLE GAME: Florida beats Penn State
HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER: Florida QB Tim Tebow