College football in 2009 is still in the middle of its golden era. It is more popular than it has ever been, the competition among its ranks is intense, and the money involved continues to rise despite the economy.
As a result, you may know someone who is interested in the game but who has not followed it closely during the off season. They will probably need to get up to speed to get ready for the season, but it's tough to find everything the casual fan needs to know in one place.
That's why this exists. It's a primer to the season that covers the most important things about each conference and highlights some of the most notable people.
THE BCS CONFERENCES
The Atlantic Coast Conference raided the Big East to get some extra teams and become one of the best conferences, but the decline of traditional powers Florida State and Miami have left it well below its potential. Right now Virginia Tech rules the roost, but below them, no other BCS conference has as much parity. Years after the expansion, no one can remember who is in which division (since they're not geographically based), so don't bother trying to remember it yourself.
The Virginia Tech Hokies are expected to win the conference and be a player in the national title race. They get by largely on good defense and special teams, with "adequate" being the best adjective for the offense. Head Coach Frank Beamer may be boring, but he gets the job done.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are a trendy pick in the conference, thanks to its throwback offense. The official title for it is the "flexbone," but most folks just call it the triple option. Head Coach Paul Johnson is a believer in the scheme, having used it at every other place he's coached.
The Florida State Seminoles were college football royalty from the late ‘80s until about 2001, but it's been a rough decade since. Still, they're the favorite in their division even if they're not the favorite in the league. Head Coach Bobby Bowden is a legend, but his effectiveness has waned as he nears retirement.
The Oklahoma Sooners are one of two programs that rule the conference, and it has won the Big 12 title six of the last nine years. Despite its high level of success, its national reputation is not great as it has lost its last five BCS bowls. Head Coach Bob Stoops has been the architect of OU's renaissance, and he's not afraid to run up the score.
The Texas Longhorns are the other ruling program, even though they've won the conference just once in this decade. They're always good, and after losing the South division to Oklahoma on a controversial tiebreaker last season, Texas is the favorite this year. Head Coach Mack Brown is one of the nice guys in college football, and his teams rarely disappoint.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys are a trendy team in the conference this year thanks to them fielding perhaps the most dangerous of the high octane Big 12 offenses. The question, as it always seems to be with them, is whether the defense can keep up and make this team a real contender. Head Coach Mike Gundy is more known for a famous rant than his coaching, but that could change this year.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers were once one of the most consistent winners, having a 30-year run of success culminate in three national titles in the mid ‘90s. The program fell on hard times, but it appears to be on its way back and is the favorite in the weaker North division. Head Coach Bo Pelini has successfully melded old Nebraska tradition with modern football.
The Big East has largely done a good job of holding its own after the ACC's raid earlier this decade, but a combination of losing great coaches and great players has taken its toll. The Big East is now the least powerful of the BCS conferences, and none of its teams made either of the major preseason polls. At least right now, it looks like anarchy as five of its eight teams have been picked to win the conference by various experts.
The West Virginia Mountaineers were the flagship program of the Big East through its hard times, but it lost its coach last year and its best player this year. The team probably has enough talent to continue its run of success for now though. Head Coach Bill Stewart is like a folksy old grandfather in a movie, something that causes many to wonder how successful he'll be in the cutthroat business of college football coaching.
The Pittsburgh Panthers are a model of mild success over the past few years. They've been good, but not that good. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt has continued his tradition of underachieving expectations, something that started in his NFL career before he made the move to college.
The Cincinnati Bearcats have won 10 games two years in a row for the first time in their history, and they were the surprise champions of the league in 2008. They lost a lot of personnel off of that championship team, but some think they'll be in the thick of the conference race again since last year's effort was largely MacGuyver'd anyway. Head Coach Brian Kelly is a rising star in the coaching ranks.
The Big Ten is known for being the home of tough, physical, and old school football, although that's not as accurate as it once was. Its national reputation has fallen on hard times lately thanks to high profile losses in BCS games and a terrible year for one of its flagship programs, Michigan, last year.
The Ohio State Buckeyes have ruled the Big Ten this decade, but their bad losses in the 2006 and 2007 national title games are a leading cause for the league's plunging reputation. OSU's game against Pac-10 juggernaut USC is the Big Ten's best, and perhaps only, chance to reverse its image before bowl season. Head Coach Jim Tressel is known for playing a conservative brand of football, but he loosens up the offense when the right players are in place.
The Penn State Nittany Lions won the Big Ten in 2008, a bit of a surprise since Ohio State was the heavy favorite. At the moment they sport perhaps the conference's most exciting offense, and they have a great defense to go with it. Head Coach Joe Paterno is in his 80s and has coached here since 1950, but he shows no signs of slowing down.
The Michigan Wolverines are not expected to challenge for a conference title after having gone 3-9 in 2008, but you can't talk about the Big Ten without mentioning Michigan. They are in a state of transition from a traditional offense to a run-heavy spread offense (see below for more), and the first year was really rough. Head Coach Rich Rodriguez has succeeded with his offense everywhere he's been, so improvement is very likely.
The Pac-10 is searching for an identity right now. It was once the domain of wide open offenses, but it ceded that mantle to the Big 12 when its defenses caught up some. USC has won the conference every year since 2002, and it's the favorite this year as well. The league is trying to fight off a "Pac-1" reputation while developing challengers to USC's hegemony, but consistency among the other conference powers has proven elusive.
The USC Trojans have been the one of the premier programs in not just the Pac-10 but the entire nation throughout this decade. They send lots of players to the NFL and win all the big games, though mid-level conference opponents have given them some trouble as of late. Head Coach Pete Carroll likes to give off a carefree vibe, but he's tireless and intense in running his program.
The Cal Golden Bears (you might know them as UC-Berkeley) have been one of the primary challengers to USC over the past few years, and they're expected to be again. Head Coach Jeff Tedford is known as a quarterbacking guru, although not many of his guys have done particularly well in the pros.
The Oregon Ducks have one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. They lost quite a bit from last year's team, but they are expected to be in the thick of the Pac-10 race anyway. Head Coach Chip Kelly is in his first year, taking over for retired school legend Mike Bellotti, and it's his schemes that took Oregon up from having a good offense to having a great one.
Not much about the Oregon State Beavers is flashy, but they have the distinction of being the only team to beat USC twice in the last three years. Both wins came at home though, and OSU travels to Los Angeles this year. Head Coach Mike Riley has made this team into a more consistent winner than most would have thought possible.
The Southeastern Conference is the king of college football right now, as it is almost universally considered to be the best of all leagues and a member school has won each of the last three national titles. Some cracks began to appear in its armor last season though as its reputation for being a tough defensive conference began to shift towards being a bad offensive conference. Though 2008 was a bit of a down year, it looks poised to be back to previous heights in 2009.
The Florida Gators are the heaviest favorites ever in the AP Poll, and it's not hard to see why. They won the national title last year and return everyone from the defense and nearly everyone from the offense. Head Coach Urban Meyer has built a juggernaut in Gainesville, and just about no one believes that someone other than UF will win the conference's East division.
The Alabama Crimson Tide has the richest history of any program in the conference, and it had flashbacks to its glory days with a 12-2 campaign last year. They won with tough defense and a physical running game, but since the losses were in their final two games, the Tide feel like they have something to prove. Head Coach Nick Saban is one of the most intense people in the sport, and though he's popular among his fans, he's known for being surly with just about everyone else.Ole Miss Rebels (a.k.a. University of Mississippi) were big stuff back in the 1950s and ‘60s, but they haven't done a whole lot since. The program had a breakthrough nine-win season in 2008 though, leading the Rebels and their large set of returning starters to be a trendy pick in the conference's West division. Head Coach Houston Nutt is known for acting a little crazy, but he's a good coach. LSU Tigers are looking to recapture the success they had from 2005-07, when they won at least 11 games a year, after a disappointing 2008. The defense was quite young last year, and the players weren't helped a whole lot by a disastrous co-defensive coordinator experiment that has been corrected for 2009. Head Coach Les Miles is known for being bold and a bit rough around the edges, but he wins games.
The Georgia Bulldogs were last year's preseason favorites according to a lot of folks, but they didn't quite fulfill expectations with their 10-3 record. This is one of the most misunderstood programs in the country since, despite going through perhaps its most prosperous era ever right now, a lot folks focus more on what it hasn't done-win a national title or beat rival Florida on a regular basis. Head Coach Mark Richt is one of the good guys of the sport and can be counted on to turn in a great record just about every year.
The Mountain West Conference has become the premier conference among those that don't get automatic berths in BCS games every year. That fact has a lot to do with Utah, who went undefeated in 2008, beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and finished second in the AP Poll. After mounting a futile but loud campaign to overthrow the BCS this off season, the pressure is on for it to continue its success or else be labeled a one-year wonder.
The TCU Horned Frogs are the preseason favorite in the MWC, and they have been one of the most consistent winners of the decade. They win with defense mostly, and that's because they're always very good on that side of the ball. Head Coach Gary Patterson is has been named as a candidate for higher profile jobs, but he chooses to stay put and continue his success here.
The Utah Utes are the only team from outside a BCS conference to attend (and win) two BCS games, with last year's triumph the more notable of the two. They lost a lot from that team however, and it will be tough for them to make it to a third BCS game this year. Head Coach Kyle Wittingham has also spurned advances to make him coach elsewhere, preferring to remain at Utah.
The BYU Cougars are perhaps the best known team of the conference thanks to it winning a national title in 1984. Unlike those high-flying days of prolific offenses, the Cougars of today win with a good offense but a tough defense. Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall, aside from being a great coach, has one of the best football names in the country.
None of the other non-BCS conferences are at the level of notoriety of the MWC, so it's not vital for the casual fan to know about them all. A couple of independent teams remain, but only one is worth mentioning here.
The Boise State Broncos are best known for having a blue home field and winning the 2006 Fiesta Bowl with some wild trick plays. Beyond those postcard highlights though lies one of the best non-BCS programs and the winningest team of the decade. They are held back, however, by the weakness of its conference, the WAC. Head Coach Chris Petersen is a bright young guy who, like the MWC coaches mentioned, has rejected offers from bigger schools to stay put.
It would have been blasphemy once to ever mention the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after Boise State, but this program hasn't truly been elite for a decade and a half. They're still the most visible and talked about team, and they should be pretty good this year. Head Coach Charlie Weis had better turn in a good record, because his status is in jeopardy after winning just ten games total over the last two seasons.
THE HEISMAN TROPHY
The Heisman Trophy is essentially the MVP award of college football, although an increasingly vocal crowd considers its value to be well overrated. Nonetheless, it's the most prestigious award in the sport, so it's worth looking at the top candidates.
Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
Tebow is the face of college football, having won this award in 2007 and the national title in 2008. As long as Florida lives up to its lofty expectations, he will be a leading candidate for the award.
Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma
Bradford won the Heisman last season after leading the highest scoring offense in the game's history. He's a top candidate, but losing four of the five offensive linemen who protected him in 2008 hurts his chances.
Colt McCoy, QB, Texas
McCoy was last year's runner up, and along with Tebow and Bradford, he's one of the three leading candidates by a wide margin. If he has another superlative season like he did last year, he could be tough to beat since there is a sentiment out there that the other two have had their turn with the award.
Jahvid Best, RB, Cal
Best is, for the most part, considered to be the leading candidate after the Big Three. An electrifying runner, he could have a chance to win the Heisman if he racks up lots of yards and his Golden Bears unseat USC in the Pac-10.
Other Notable Players
College football has 120 teams in its top division, so there are lots of great players spread throughout the country. It would take far too long to write a blurb about them all, so for you the casual fan, just keep these names in the back of your head. If you hear that a highlight of them is coming up, pay attention.
Eric Berry, S, Tennessee
Daryll Clark, QB, Penn State
Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia
Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Georgia Tech
Sergio Kindle, LB, Texas
Taylor Mays, S, USC
DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma
Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State
Zac Robinson (QB), Kendall Hunter (RB), Dez Bryant (WR), Oklahoma State
Jevan Snead, QB, Ole Miss
Brandon Spikes, LB, Florida
THE SPREAD OFFENSE
You'll probably hear a lot about "the spread offense" since it is a popular thing nowadays. A lot of what you'll hear is either wrong or only half correct, so here's what you really need to know.
The phrase "the spread offense" or "the spread" is highly misleading because there is no one single spread offense. All that term really means is that the offense likes to line up with players taking up most of the horizontal space on the field. In other words, they're spread out from sideline to sideline instead of being bunched up together.
Some spread offenses are very run-heavy, like Michigan's, others are pass-heavy, like Texas Tech's, and others are a balance between the two like Florida's or Texas's. There is a lot of diversity among the various flavors, so just about anything that anyone says definitively about "the spread offense" can be proven wrong by pointing to one program or another.
A spread offense lines up with guys spread out all across the field. That's really it.