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College Football

Predicting the 10 trends that will define college football this decade

To understand how much a sport can change over the course of a decade, consider the college football landscape on the brink of the 2000 season.

Oklahoma, coming off its first winning season in six years, had reason for optimism entering coach Bob Stoops' second season, but few had any inkling the Sooners were about to embark on a national championship run, much less earn seven BCS bowl appearances over the next nine years.

USC, Ohio State and LSU had all failed to finish above .500 the previous season, and had either just hired a new coach (Nick Saban at LSU) or would do so in the coming months (Pete Carroll at USC, Jim Tressel at OSU). Those coaches would go on to combine for five national titles over the course of the decade.

Northwestern, coming off a 3-8 season, visited with Clemson offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and installed a version of his shotgun-spread offense. The Wildcats improved from No. 103 to No. 3 nationally in total offense in 2000, and the spread soon became a fixture of playbooks around the country.

Boise State, known primarily at the time for the blue turf in its stadium, began its final season in the Big West Conference before joining the WAC. The Broncos would win seven WAC titles in eight years along with two Fiesta Bowls and finish as high as No. 4 nationally.

Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College competed in the Big East. The Hokies have since won three ACC titles. Cincinnati and Louisville were in Conference USA. The two have combined to win three of the last four Big East crowns.

Meanwhile, only a handful of football fans had experienced the pleasure of watching a game in HD or rewinding a play on their DVR. Four networks that currently air major-conference college football -- the Big Ten Network, ESPNU, CBS College Sports and Versus -- did not exist.

College football enters a new decade this season, and the sport will undoubtedly experience more landmark changes in the years to come. We gazed into our crystal balls to predict 10 trends that will come to define the sport's next era.

At the 2008 BCS meetings, SEC commissioner Mike Slive presented a thoroughly researched proposal for a "plus-one" model, only to discover that most of his colleagues had ruled it out before they'd even arrived. As a result, the BCS extended its existing system (four bowls and a stand-alone national title game) through the 2013 season.

Since then, however, several developments have paved the way for a potential BCS sea change in the coming years.

• The BCS dumped television partner FOX in favor of ESPN, which holds far more sway with the sport's leaders due to its season-long contracts.

• The Big Ten and Pac-10 -- the two conferences most resistant to change due to their partnership with the Rose Bowl -- reinvented themselves this year, and new Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott has shown he's not opposed to radical makeovers.

• The Mountain West, following two impressive seasons, is making a strong push to become the seventh automatic qualifying conference in 2012, aided by a push from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

"The likely addition of [championship] games in the Pac-10 and Big Ten might be an opportunity to reassess how the BCS is structured, but any changes will be evolutionary, not revolutionary," said Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker.

In other words, while we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for a full-scale playoff, more modest enhancements might be on the horizon.

When the next contract comes up (starting with the 2014 season), look for ESPN execs to strongly encourage BCS officials to add an extra round. Ratings for two of the non-championship bowls would increase substantially by putting the Nos. 1 and 2 teams back in the mix. By then, the political pressure on BCS presidents will have led to the Mountain West (which is substituting Boise State for Utah next season) gaining automatic qualifier status, which will merit adding a fifth bowl to the rotation.

The biggest key will be finding a way to appease the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl. But consider this: By adding an extra game (likely a ninth conference game in the Big Ten's case), Big Ten and Pac-10 teams will face more challenging paths to the BCS. The leagues might choose to surrender their stranglehold on Pasadena if doing so meant adding two more BCS berths, thus increasing their chances of garnering a second invite and providing their champions more leeway in reaching the national title game.

Once upon a time -- like, say, two years ago -- the best a team from outside the BCS' six auto-qualifying conferences could do was go undefeated and hope it finished high enough to receive an at-large berth to one of the non-championship BCS games. From 1998-2005, only one team (Utah in '04) pulled it off. But since adding a fifth game and lowering the qualification threshold (from top 6 to top 12), five non-AQ teams have received berths over the past four seasons. And thanks to victories like Boise State's 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma and Utah's 2009 Sugar Bowl rout of Alabama, voters are now treating such teams with unprecedented respect.

Last season marked a new milestone, when, for the first time, a non-AQ team (TCU) finished fourth in the final regular season BCS standings, invoking the previously unthinkable possibility that a team from the Mountain West might actually play in the BCS championship game. "It could have been last year," said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. "If Nebraska had beaten Texas [in the last-second Big 12 title game], maybe TCU jumps [No. 3] Cincinnati. Who knows?"

The residual effect from last season, when Boise State and TCU met in the Fiesta Bowl and finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the final polls, has carried over to this preseason. Unlike previous "BCS busters" that lost their head coach or graduated their starting quarterbacks, the Broncos and Horned Frogs both return the bulk of their teams. When the preseason coaches' poll was unveiled last week, Boise opened fifth and TCU seventh, meaning they'll have less ground to make up than in previous seasons should either go undefeated. Boise opens with a showcase game against No. 6 Virginia Tech, while TCU meets No. 22 Oregon State.

But even if it doesn't happen this season, programs like Boise State, TCU and BYU have established enough respect that their break figures to come soon enough. "The progress has been steady," said Thompson. "Those teams that are now [starting] fourth and sixth, maybe they jump up to second and fourth. It really depends on where you begin in August."

In 2000, the average fan had never heard of Notre Dame receivers coach Urban Meyer. He or she probably hadn't heard of Oregon receivers coach Chris Petersen or Green Bay Packers linebackers coach Bo Pelini, either.

Now, the head coaches at Florida, Boise State and Nebraska are universally recognized as some of the brightest minds in the game. So which coaches currently toiling as assistants will enjoy a similar ascension during the next 10 years? Here are a few guesses.

Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, Tennessee: Wilcox, 33, spent the past four seasons as Boise State's defensive coordinator. During that span, the Broncos went 49-4. Now, Wilcox takes over a Tennessee unit that must rebuild after two head-coaching changes in two years. If Wilcox can make a decent SEC defense out of the parts he inherited, he'll simply reinforce the notion that his star is on the rise.

Bryan Harsin, offensive coordinator, Boise State: Petersen knows bright young minds when he sees them. Upon taking the Broncos head coaching job in 2006, Petersen promoted Harsin from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. At the time, Harsin was 29. The one-time drag-racer might be best known for an arsenal of trick plays, but his base offense works just fine. In 2009, the Broncos ranked first in the nation in scoring (42.2 points a game).

Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama: Smart, 34, turned down alma mater Georgia and received big bucks ($750,000 a year) to stay in Tuscaloosa. Eventually, the coach of the defense that led the Crimson Tide to the BCS title will get offered bigger bucks to run his own program. Like college teammate Will Muschamp (the coach-in-waiting at Texas), Smart can afford to be picky about where he coaches next.

Manny Diaz, co-defensive coordinator, Mississippi State: Diaz, a former ESPN production assistant whose father was mayor of Miami, loves to bring pressure from unexpected places. During his time at Middle Tennessee State, this resulted in big plays. Last year, the Blue Raiders finished second in the nation in tackles for loss, sixth in sacks, eighth in turnovers gained and 12th in interceptions. Diaz, 36, seems plenty capable of handling the p.r. duties required of a head coach, and he could always ask his dad for tips on how to be the CEO of a large, complex organization.

In the past 10 years, some intelligent folks finally figured out that people love college football and will watch it pretty much anytime it appears on television. Most of those people work at ESPN, so the Worldwide Leader scooped up a huge chunk of the television rights for college football. But not all. And with ESPN at critical mass until it finally launches the Ocho, expect other networks to snap up the remaining rights as the decade chugs along.

After their disastrous coverage of the BCS -- more band shots, anyone? -- the folks at Fox have finally realized an all-season commitment to college football could bring in a pile of money. They tried and failed to secure the ACC in a bidding war with ESPN, but all is not lost. The soon-to-be Pac-12, with its huge TV markets and handful of name-brand programs, will become a free agent next year. The Big East is up for grabs in 2012, and the Big 12 -- assuming it still exists -- has one media deal expiring next year and another expiring in 2016. In fact, it was the likelihood of a large bid from Fox -- plus an agreement with ESPN to pay the same amount for a smaller league -- that helped Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe keep the conference together.

"Conversations with Fox indicate their bullishness about competing in the future for our rights, and they have already made overtures about their willingness to pay exponentially higher rights fees than those in our current agreements," Beebe wrote in a white paper distributed to Big 12 presidents this spring. "A primary driver of higher rights fees are competitors for the rights and all information is that there are more serious bidders about to enter the marketplace."

Besides Fox, Comcast-owned NBC is on the prowl for more college football to supplement its Notre Dame package. Turner, which shares a parent company with SI, could also be in the mix. Turner teamed with CBS for the new NCAA basketball tournament rights deal, and it has an ESPN-like infrastructure -- with TBS, TNT and TruTV -- that could allow multiple games to be shown at once. That means leagues itching for more money and more exposure will get their wishes. It also means fans might have to buy a TV that features picture-in-picture-in-picture-in-picture.

Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas and USC recently resuscitated themselves following a decade or more of mediocrity. Several traditional powers that struggled in the 2000s should do the same this decade. Why not UCLA and Tennessee?

The Bruins have several factors working in their favor entering their third season under Rick Neuheisel. Most notably, their cross-town rival just got hit with heavy NCAA sanctions (10 docked scholarships each of the next three seasons) that, at the very least, will benefit UCLA in head-to-head recruiting. But the Bruins weren't exactly struggling in that arena: Even coming off a 7-6 season, they landed Rivals.com's No. 8 class last spring.

"I think we're right on the cusp of being there," said Neuheisel. "The last three years, we've gotten great recruiting classes. We've done our R&D. Now we need to execute the business plan."

If UCLA, which enters preseason camp with just one projected senior starter, struggles this fall, it could spark grumblings about Neuheisel. But by then the foundation should be in place for either him or a successor to instigate a breakthrough right around the time USC feels the brunt of its sanctions. Remember, the Trojans started the 2000s with 5-7 and 6-6 seasons.

Tennessee faces a longer climb back to preeminence due to the state of disarray caused by coaching changes each of the past two seasons and the fact that several of Lane Kiffin's top 2009 signees (running back Bryce Brown, defensive back Darren Myles and receiver Nu'keese Richardson) have already washed out. But new coach Derek Dooley -- son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley -- signed another top 10 class last winter and should get some leeway from normally impatient fans.

Tennessee's big break, however, will come a few years down the road when Florida coach Urban Meyer prematurely retires (again) and Alabama's Nick Saban returns to the NFL (again).

It made a lot more sense that an SEC replay official missed an obvious interception by LSU's Patrick Peterson against Alabama last season once when we learned the official had access to the same television definition we did when we watched original-run episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard. Shortly after that game, The Birmingham News learned from SEC director of officials Rogers Redding that none of the replay booths were equipped with high-definition monitors. In other words, most fans had a better view of the giant, in-bounds divot Peterson's foot removed than the replay official did.

As it turned out, none of the conferences had HD replay setups. After the inevitable backlash, all six BCS conferences upgraded to HD for the 2010 season -- just in time for the consumer electronics industrial complex to unveil the gadget that might render HD obsolete.

So enjoy the next two or three years of HD replay, because by 2014, we'll probably be complaining that the conferences haven't yet upgraded to 3-D replay.

Texas' decision to remain in the Big 12 turned what could have been a revolutionary restructuring of the college landscape into a more modest real-estate shuffle, with only four schools (Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Boise State) changing addresses.

However, as Pac-10 commissioner Scott said last month, "The level of excitement and interest that happened around the superconference idea -- the positive feedback I still get from TV networks and others -- suggests to me that at some point in the future the superconference will emerge and we'll be having the discussion again. But I can't predict when that will be."

One logical date: 2016. That's when ABC/ESPN's current deals with the Big Ten and Big 12 expire. By then, the Big Ten Network and soon-to-be-forthcoming Pac-10 Network will be well established, and Texas, Oklahoma, et al., may be compelled to reevaluate their options. The Pac-10 and Big 12 could merge, the Big Ten could get even bigger, or perhaps a brand new league will emerge.

In any case, Notre Dame may be down to its last days of independence. With at least three major conferences (Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10) embracing nine-game conference schedules, the Irish may find it harder to land non-conference dates with BCS-conference opponents. Plus, the amount of television money generated in the Big Ten's next deal may be too staggering to pass up. Notre Dame alumni remain resolute in their desire to maintain the Irish's independent heritage, but at some point school administrators will make the prudent business decision and join one of the budding superconferences.

College offenses constantly go in and out of vogue, which means the spread-offense craze is bound to plateau (if it hasn't already). Last season, the spread still thrived for teams like Pac-10 champion Oregon, Big East champion Cincinnati and 13-1 Florida. However, Alabama won the national championship with a more traditional, pro-style offense, Stanford defied the trend of recent upstarts by utilizing an old-school, smash-mouth offense and Nebraska's disruptive defense showed it's possible to shut down a wide-open attack like Texas'.

So will the recent influx of NFL-influenced coaches like Washington's Steve Sarkisian and USC's Kiffin kill the spread? Not exactly. Spread gurus like Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen keep importing it at new locations, and Arizona State's Dennis Erickson -- a veteran of both levels -- is one of several coaches implementing a version of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach's Air Raid attack this season.

Instead, the future is likely a hybrid of both systems.

"The great thing would be the combination of both -- spread it out and throw it, then be able to do it with two tight ends and run the ball with some power," said Erickson. "It's just the evolution of football. I really believe if you can have a combination of all that stuff and confuse [defenses] with different personnel groups, that's what it's all about."

Oklahoma provided a glimpse into the future with its prolific 2008 attack that averaged 51.1 points per game and produced both a 4,720-yard passer (Sam Bradford) and two 1,000-yard rushers (Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray). While those Sooners were grouped in with the Big 12's many other spread attacks, they actually utilized a diverse playbook in which Bradford lined up both in the shotgun and under center, in five-wide and two-tight end sets -- all while operating in hurry-up mode the entire game.

In a sign of the times, many of the modern techniques that were once viewed as "gimmicky" will be showing up throughout the high-minded SEC this season, at schools like Arkansas (where Bobby Petrino will complement pro-style quarterback Ryan Mallett with the "Pistol" running game), Auburn (where coordinator Gus Malzahn uses the hurry-up exclusively) and South Carolina (where old-school play-action proponent Steve Spurrier is incorporating the new age zone-read fake).

The future won't belong solely to the pro/spread hybrid. As the spread flourished this past decade, defenses adjusted. More teams adopted a 3-4, allowing more flexibility to spy a quarterback who might double as a fullback.

That shift in defensive philosophy means it's time for a new-old offensive fad. And since bell-bottoms and platform shoes have already enjoyed minor renaissances, it seems only fair that coaches bring back that staple of the '70s football experience: the option. We're not talking about the occasional pitch play. We're talking about the holy trinity of the dive back, quarterback keeper or pitch.

Paul Johnson, who probably has leisure suits and tearaway jerseys in his closet, has proven at Navy and Georgia Tech that the option still works. How well? In Johnson's second season at Tech, he won the ACC title.

Most people think the option is a boring, grind-it-out scheme. Not true, said Tom Osborne, an option aficionado who coached Nebraska to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. "Most of the zone plays you see now, if you block things perfectly, you may make seven, eight, nine yards," Osborne said. "If somebody misses a tackle, you might go a long way. In option football, if you execute correctly, you've got enough people to block everybody and theoretically score a touchdown on most every option play."

The option could be the answer for teams that recruit great defenses but struggle to assemble great offenses -- we're looking at you, Nebraska and North Carolina. Had Nebraska run the option last year, the Cornhuskers probably would have won the Big 12 title.

The three rarest specimens on the recruiting trail are, in order, elite defensive tackles, strong-armed quarterbacks and large, athletic offensive linemen. Nebraska already recruits elite defensive tackles, so that's not an issue. Running the option eliminates the need for the other two. Teams wanted former Cornhuskers quarterback Tommie Frazier as a safety, and he won two national titles running the option. Meanwhile, there is an ample supply of athletic, 6-foot-3, 280-pound linemen -- ideal for the trapping and cutting required by the option -- being ignored by most big-time programs. So what's the holdup? Johnson already has proven the option can work in a BCS conference. It's time to bring it back on a grand scale.

Once the NCAA tires of chasing agents, the next big scandal could come from the world of grassroots football. Elite seven-on-seven tournaments have exploded in popularity in the past three years, and -- at least for skill-position players -- travel football is starting to look an awful lot like travel basketball.

Tournaments take place on college campuses. In many states, high school coaches are forbidden by state associations from participating, leaving others -- who may not all have altruistic motives -- to supervise large groups of sought-after recruits. Really, what could go wrong?

On the other hand, the tournaments do offer exposure for under-the-radar players in a more football-like setting than the camps and combines that only measure 40-yard dash times and vertical jumps. There are positives and negatives, but the NCAA will have to keep a watchful eye on the tournaments. Football recruiting has its share of issues, but it isn't as bad as basketball recruiting. Yet.

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