Ten storylines we're buzzing about as college football returns at long last:
• New faces, new places (QB edition): It was nearly impossible to find a 2009 season preview that didn't lead with the holy QB trinity of Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy. While it remains to be seen which players will emerge as the new faces of the sport, we know exactly who's stepping up to the controls for Florida and Texas. The Gators offense will have a different look under junior John Brantley, who isn't a threat to run like Tebow. But he's a first-round talent with a cannon arm, and he'll have no trouble getting the ball to explosive playmakers like Andre Debose and Chris Rainey. Meanwhile, we got a memorable peek at then-freshman Garrett Gilbert when Texas faced -- and lost to -- Alabama in the BCS title game. Gilbert committed five turnovers in the loss, but hey, there's only one way to go from there. Like Florida, Texas will tweak its offense to better accommodate its quarterback, who will line up under center and hand off to his tailback far more often than McCoy ever did. Brantley and Gilbert may not erase memories of Tebow and McCoy, but they certainly have the arms, and the intangibles, to create legacies of their own.
They are not, however, the only new quarterbacks of note. Ladies and gentleman, meet Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas, who has the unenviable task of replacing Jeremiah Masoli's production for the Ducks. The dual-threat, redshirt sophomore beat out senior Nate Costa for the job, but he remains one of the only question marks on an Oregon team favored to end the season in Pasadena. Oh, and then there's Masoli, who received a midnight pardon from the NCAA on Friday and will indeed be eligible to play for Ole Miss this season. You've got to feel for Rebels "starter" Nathan Stanley, who will almost inevitably surrender his snaps to Masoli before long. Masoli is a lot of things, but there's no denying the impact he can have on a game, and a team.
• New faces, new places (coach edition): The Lane Kiffin era at USC began with a ton of offense (both from the Trojans, and their opponent), but the media darling is just one of 23 coaches debuting with a new team. Derek Dooley, Kiffin's replacement at Tennessee, finally unveils the Vols squad he's kept sheltered from prying eyes all preseason; Charlie Strong and Joker Phillips go head-to-head as Louisville hosts in-state rival Kentucky; Tommy Tuberville returns to the sidelines for the first time since his unceremonious dismissal from Auburn and looks to build an SEC-caliber defense to compliment the Air-Raid attack he vows he'll keep; Mike London drew the short straw in the awkward pool and opens against Richmond, the team he left to accept the gig at UVa; Butch Jones will aim to prove Cincinnati is still a threat by nullifying a tricky Fresno State team; and then there's the man Jones replaced, Brian Kelly, who begins his Notre Dame tenure against a Purdue team that should feature a potent offense with Miami transfer Robert Marve at QB. And let's not forget about Jimbo Fisher, who's finally calling the shots after waiting patiently for Florida State to pull a fast one on Bobby Bowden. It remains to be seen how their seasons will begin -- but it's all but certain not a one will attempt as many two-point conversions as Kiffin.
• Tough tests for BCS busters: Utah upset No. 15 Pitt on Thursday night, announcing in the process that it is a real threat to bust the BCS in the last season in which it can bust the BCS. That means more competition for TCU and Boise State, which had been hogging the buster-love this offseason. With the Frogs and Broncos both facing ranked BCS opponents, their hopes will either be solidified or dashed right off the bat. Playing near home (at Cowboys Stadium) and carrying a No. 6 ranking, TCU is favored over Pac-10 contender Oregon State. And while Tank Carder and Wayne Daniels are rising stars on the Frogs defense, the Beavers' dynamic Rodgers brothers are sure to cause headaches. This one could come down to the veteran leadership of TCU quarterback Andy Dalton versus the inexperience of new Oregon State QB Ryan Katz. The game of Week 1, though, is unquestionably the top 10 matchup between Boise State and Virginia Tech (also at a neutral site -- Washington's FedEx Field -- though substantially closer to Blacksburg than the blue turf of Boise). Hard to say if there's more pressure on Boise State, which must win to keep its national-championship ambitions intact, or Virginia Tech, which is tasked with preserving the very power structure of the sport. Not at all a bad way to cap Week 1.
• LSU takes on half of UNC: A lot of people drooled when the Chick-fil-A Kickoff people announced this pairing. Much has changed since then, and mostly for the worse -- but that's only added intrigue. At last count, the Tar Heels will be without 13 players for this one, including some of the defenders (DE Robert Quinn, DT Marvin Austin) who were supposed to make UNC a factor in the ACC this season. It's hard to win without your best players, especially against a team of LSU's caliber. Which is why all the pressure is actually on the Tigers. Les Miles may have won a BCS championship in 2007, but he's on the clock to win another one, or else. Miles better hope quarterback Jordan Jefferson takes advantage of facing a defense devoid of players who will hear their names called in the first round of April's NFL draft, because if LSU stumbles against a UNC squad at half-strength, that "or else" will become a lot more likely.
• Alabama begins its title defense short-handed: Neither running back Mark Ingram (knee) nor linebacker Rolando McClain (NFL), the two most important players on Alabama's championship-winning team, will be on the field when the Tide open against San Jose State. That doesn't matter, because sophomores Trent Richardson and Dont'a Hightower might be even better. Richardson would start for 95 percent of the teams in the country and should excel as the featured back. Hightower, meanwhile, has recovered fully from the shredded knee that cost him last season. He always had the physical skills to match McClain's production; now he has the maturity and understanding to handle being the quarterback of Alabama's defense, too. Of course, there will be another notable absence: BCS title-game MVP Marcell Dareus has been declared ineligible for two games after accepting improper benefits, and his backups (former tight end Undra Billingsley and redshirt freshman Darrington Sentimore) aren't proven like Richardson and Hightower. But if the trend holds, the loaded Tide won't have too much trouble plugging the hole -- be it against the Spartans in the opener, or the Nittany Lions in Week 2.
• Two QBs aim to make good on the hype:Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett aren't new faces, but the Washington and Arkansas quarterbacks have just as much to prove. Huh? you're thinking. Didn't Mallett set or tie 16 team records last season while passing for 3,624 yards and 30 scores? And didn't Locker wow Pete Carroll so much that the former USC coach proclaimed: "I think this guy is the best quarterback we've played against"? Yes and yes. But considering they grace every Heisman Watch and first-round mock draft making the rounds, it's worth mentioning the other side of the coin: Mallett was unstoppable at times last season, but he struggled on the road and against the SEC's tougher defenses. Locker has yet to lead Washington to a winning season. Neither completed 60 percent of his passes in '09. The talent's undeniable; it's time for the on-field production to consistently match the hype. Mallett won't be challenged until Week 3 against Georgia, but Locker can start justifying his place on the Heisman lists with a strong showing in Provo against BYU.
• Big opener at the Big House: There was a time, not long ago, when it would have been unthinkable for a team that had been playing I-A football for less than a decade to enter a game against Michigan, at the Big House, with a legitimate chance to win. But that's the case as the Huskies head to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines. Connecticut running back Jordan Todman is poised to emerge as difference-maker this season, which is bad news for a non-existent Michigan defense adjusting to a new scheme. UConn's defense is just fine, thanks largely to the linebacker duo of Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus. It remains to be seen which quarterback the pair will hunt, because Rich Rodriguez has yet to name a starter. Vegas is giving Michigan the slight edge, but that has more to do with the 107,000-plus who will pack the renovated Big House than with roster strength.
• Iowa looks to start strong: The Hawkeyes begin the season ranked ninth in the AP poll, the highest they've debuted since 1988. This Iowa team is good (16 starters return from last year's 11-win squad), but it's also lucky, drawing Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State at home. That should put Kirk Ferentz's squad in prime position to pounce if favorite Ohio State falters -- provided, of course, the Hawkeyes take care of business against Eastern Illinois in the opener. Don't laugh: Iowa needed two blocked field goals in the final seconds to beat Northern Iowa, 17-16, in last year's opener, and the Panthers aren't pushovers (they rank 16th in the FCS coaches' poll). That said, there aren't many pass-rushers like Iowa's Adrian Clayborn in the Ohio Valley, are there?
• Mark Herzlich returns: It's easy to forget that Herzlich used to be one of the best linebackers in college football. Cancer tends to steal the spotlight, and Herzlich missed all of last season while battling Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone caner. But back in 2008, Herzlich's 81 tackles and six picks earned him ACC defensive player of the year honors and a spot among the Butkus Award finalists. Herzlich's return was further hindered by a stress fracture in his foot this summer, but he suited up for practice this week and expects to see some action in the opener against Weber State. Herzlich is the first to admit he's not in peak playing shape because of the injury, and Coach Frank Spaziani, who has a deep and talented linebacking corps at his disposal, hasn't said how many snaps Herzlich will see. Whatever the final number, you won't want to miss it when Herzlich runs out for the first one.
• Case Keenum's quest for 6,000 yards begins: Barring an unfortunate injury or an unthinkable regression, Houston's senior slinger will break the NCAA's all-time passing record this season. He's just 4,123 yards shy, and while that'd be a mammoth passing total for the aforementioned Mr. Locker, it's just a fraction of what Keenum normally posts. (OK, it's not a fraction, but it's way less than the 5,671 he recorded last year.) Keenum's quest for 6,000 yards begins Saturday night against Texas State.
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