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From the Sidelines: A peek at the 2008 season

When Troy and Middle Tennessee State tee it up for their 7:30 p.m. kick Thursday, the 2009 college football season will finally be under way. Unfortunately for Troy and MTSU, their Sun Belt clash, is the gridiron equivalent of Welsh pop star Duffy, who will open for Coldplay on their 2008 Viva La Vida tour. Thousands of fans ripe with anticipation get halfway through the set list and say, “That’s nice. Now bring on Coldplay.”

In much the same way, by halftime of Troy’s eventual season-opening win, many football fans will be clamoring for the headliner that is major college football. But college football fans can rest easier as the big boys follow only two days later to jump start what promises to be among the most tumultuous, intriguing seasons in quite some time.

That statement may come as a surprise to many as, for the first time in recent memory, there is a consensus No. 1 team in the country. Moreover, practically every major publication has announced its belief Georgia will be the top dog at season’s end.

With so many national experts drinking the Bulldog Kool-Aid, it must mean only one thing; Georgia will not win the national title. If the BCS has taught us anything, it’s that you just can’t predict the mess that is major college football. Besides, as entertaining and respectable as ESPN is in its role as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” it makes poor prognostication an art form.

So, who then will emerge as the best team in college football at season’s end? Well, arriving at that answer requires trudging through the season that will be. Let us start with the obligatory crowning of the non-BCS conference champions.

Despite the ringing endorsement of reigning Sun Belt champ Florida Atlantic, Larry Blakeney will best Howard Schnellenberger this season and return Troy to its rightful place atop an otherwise woeful conference.

Offensive coordinator Jim McIlwain’s departure for Alabama was a significant loss, but Fresno State will still have enough in its tank to overcome America’s darlings of two seasons ago, the Boise State Broncos, in its quest to win the Western Athletic Conference.

The general feeling seems to be that BYU, as high as No. 17 in some preseason polls, will reign supreme in the Mountain West. The Cougars are also one of two teams some feel could capture an at-large in a BCS bowl game. While up-and-coming coach Bronco Mendenhall will lead his team to a conference title, an Oct. 16 stumble at rival TCU will prevent his squad from crashing the BCS party.

Bowling Green will trump the Dan LeFevour-led Central Michigan Chippewas in the Mid-Atlantic title game while Tulsa will dispatch East Carolina in the Conference USA championship. The Golden Hurricane is that other team many believe will threaten to sneak into the BCS bowl picture. A word of advice to Tulsa, don’t. Find some meaningless late season game to throw and spare yourself the agony of playing patsy to some overlooked SEC squad looking to make a statement about the flawed system that is the BCS.

And to round out our non-BCS playmates, Army will still be Army. Navy will lack punch without Paul Johnson and Notre Dame will be bowl eligible after squeaking out six wins against a largely unimpressive schedule.

So what about the big boys? Well, the trip around the six major conferences starts with the one least likely to make an impact on the national title picture, the ACC. Fortunately for the Atlantic Coast officials, somebody is guaranteed a bid. The vogue pick is Clemson. However, Tommy Bowden has thus far proven incapable of winning any big game in which his dad isn’t gracing the opposite sideline. Therefore, despite their obvious talent advantage over the rest of the league, the Tigers will fall somewhere along the way; likely at Boston College on Nov. 5. Clemson has yet to beat the Eagles since they joined the league in 2005. And even though they lack the leadership of Matt Ryan, Jeff Jagodzinski is the real deal and much more of a gamer than Bowden, who continually fails to parlay top recruiting classes into championships.

Clemson’s late-season stumble could open the door for another Atlantic Division team, namely Wake Forest. Either way, the ACC championship will land in Blacksburg, as Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies will take their lunch-pale style back to the BCS.

In a conference nearly as uninspiring, South Florida will emerge from the “Battle of Who Could Care Less.” Pittsburgh will be much improved and West Virginia will threaten again. But the Panthers are still a year away and the losses of Rich Rodriguez, Steve Slaton and fullback extraordinaire Owen Schmitt will leave West Virginia much less potent than previous years. That creates an opportunity for Jim Levitt’s Bulls, who lost very little from a surprising 2007 team. USF also has the luxury of asking top-caliber athletes to attend a beach-located school with low academic admission standards. That sounds like the recipe for annual championship contention.

The Pac-10 will go to USC, despite a valiant effort by Dennis Erickson’s Arizona State Sun Devils. The Big Eleven, known as the Big Ten to most, will fall to Ohio State by default. The loss of Rashard Mendenhall is significant enough to slow the Illinois attack while Wisconsin will spend yet another year on the cusp of national relevance. As a consolation prize, the Badgers will be rewarded by the Rose Bowl’s archaic insistence upon matching up a Big Eleven opponent with a Pac-10 team, regardless of who gets overlooked in the process.

Wisconsin will snag an at-large bid to the Rose Bowl while Ohio State will waltz back into the BCS title game for a third straight season, thanks in part to a Sept. 13 win in Pasadena. As a by-product of that loss, USC will take its frustrations out on Madison’s finest in “The Granddaddy of Them All.” By that point in the season, it won’t matter that the Trojans return only four offensive starters from the 2007 season.

Among the more entertaining conferences in the land, the Big 12 will suffer much the same issues SEC enthusiasts have encountered for years. Improved conference depth will take its toll on the league’s top teams, ultimately knocking them from national title contention. Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas Tech will all spend time near the top of the polls for a majority of the season. Missouri will do what it hasn’t done since 1978 when it beats Nebraska in Lincoln. The Tigers will carry their 6-0 record and the No. 3 overall ranking they will hold following USC’s home loss to the Buckeyes, into Austin for a cross-conference showdown with Texas. While Mack Brown’s Longhorns will be part of one of the year’s most entertaining games, Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin will keep the Tigers undefeated until their Big 12 title game rematch with Oklahoma.

If Texas doesn’t nip the Sooners in The Red River Shootout, look for Mark Mangino and Todd Reesing to provide the stumbling block one week later. However, the Red Raiders’ Nov. 1 tipping of Bevo in Lubbock, and subsequent loss in Norman two weeks later, will open the door for the Sooners to return to the Big 12 title game.

Unfortunately for Missouri, it’s a new season with the same results, as Oklahoma will trump the Tigers for the second straight year.

And finally, the SEC will prove as tough as ever. Georgia will run roughshod over everyone in its path for the first two months of the season. That means road wins over South Carolina, Arizona State and LSU, as well as home victories against Alabama and Tennessee. Their 8-0 record will have BCS officials feeling confident Georgia heads into the event formerly known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” But last season’s antics will come back to haunt Mark Richt’s crew when Urban Meyer’s Gators end the perfect season on Nov. 1. Fortunately for the Dawgs, a throttling of Auburn on The Plains two weeks later will remove any doubt of the team’s dominance.

Auburn will be asked to play Georgia’s whipping boy for the second time this season when it meets the Bulldogs in Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

Tony Franklin’s system, which is reportedly available to high school programs for less than $3,500 a pop, will be good enough to get the Tigers to the top of the Western Division.

The knock on the system since the Franklin hire has been that Auburn doesn’t have the receivers to execute the spread. While the wideout corps may be lacking, the spread will do more to help the Tigers’ ground game. A well-run spread requires a dual-threat quarterback. That fact has been proven through the success of West Virginia’s Pat White, Oregon’s Dennis Dixon, Florida’s Tim Tebow and Troy’s Omar Haugabook.

Franklin’s offense will create the space for second-year quarterback Kodi Burns to torch defenses with his speed. Expect a modest version of White’s production from Burns this season. He’ll throw for somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,600 yards while rushing for nearly 1,000 on the year if he is given ample playing time. Franklin’s system will also spread the field enough to allow Brad Lester, Ben Tate and Tristan Davis to force opposing secondaries to make tackles. The change in philosophy also moves Mario Fannin to wide receiver, a position where he will thrive.

Those upgrades combined with a defense that always carries its weight, will lead Auburn to an upset of LSU and an eventual loss to Georgia in the title game.

So all of that puts us back where we started. Ohio State punches its ticket by virtue of winning the only game on its schedule that looks remotely daunting. Then, because the Big 11 has no conference championship game, it sits back and waits for Oklahoma to eliminate Missouri from contention and Georgia to prove its worth one more time against Auburn.

Ultimately, the BCS will get it right and put the Bulldogs into the national title game. That means that an SEC team will break Buckeye hearts for the third consecutive season.

So, maybe the Bulldogs do win it all. Maybe all of the national “experts” got it right. Or maybe the BCS gets messier than ever and sends College Football Nation along another absurd thrill ride of a season that leaves it clamoring for a true playoff system yet again.

Either way, look for Ohios State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells to take the Heisman Trophy, edging out Georgia signal-caller Matthew Stafford and Missouri quarterback Daniel for the honor.

Regardless of how it ends, the consensus seems to be that we’re all ready for it to begin. So sit back and enjoy Troy and MTSU’s best Duffy impression as you wait for the real show to take the stage and leave you with absolutely zero doubt that you have indeed been entertained.