This is an article from the Jan. 13, 2014 issue
In 2004 the scoring average among teams in the six BCS auto-qualifier conferences was 25.9 points per game. In 2013 it reached a new high of 30.8. Thanks to Oregon and a slew of other hair-on-fire offenses, scoring and plays per game continue to rise, culminating with the arrival of Auburn—which ranked 12th in the nation with 38.3 points per game—in the championship game. The go-go attacks are likely to spread in 2014 unless defenses find a way to slow down the speed demons. As recruiting and spring practice unfold, look for teams to seek and use more defensive backs, hybrid linebackers and unconventional defensive alignments.
OLD FACES IN NEW PLACES
Penn State, Texas and USC. All eyes will be watching to see how these marquee programs perform under new management. The pressure will be the greatest at Texas, where Charlie Strong will replace Mack Brown, who averaged 10 wins a season. The Trojans (Steve Sarkisian) and the Nittany Lions (searching for Bill O'Brien's successor) have traditions of success, but both programs are digging out from under NCAA sanctions. Can they still draw top-level recruits? Will they get it done on the field? The answers to those questions could have national implications. At the same time, Chris Peterson has—finally—left Boise. Will he be able to duplicate his success at Washington, and what will become of the program he left behind?
Ba-bye BCS, the playoff is upon us. What it will bring to the 2014 season is a new emphasis on strength of schedule, because a committee will now be selecting the final four without consulting the polls. The days of crushing cupcakes are fading, and the era of politicking coaches and ADs pumping up the reputations of their in-conference foes is about to kick into hyperdrive.
CLOSING THE SEC GAP
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops spiced up last off-season by calling talk of SEC superiority "propaganda," then ended the season by spanking Alabama 45--31 in the Sugar Bowl. And for the second year in a row, one of Stoops's former Big 12 foes (Missouri, following Texas A&M in 2012), rose toward the top of the SEC. The Pac-12 had several teams in the top 10 all year and is seeing a surge in recruiting, facility construction and big-name coaches. The ACC put a team in the BCS title game. Sure, Auburn was there too, but the notion of Southeastern Conference dominance is losing traction.
TURNING THE TIDE
Heading into 2013, the Crimson Tide's place atop college football was a given and seemed sure to remain so as long as Nick Saban was in Tuscaloosa. But suddenly Bama looks vulnerable. Coach Saban has to replace quarterback AJ McCarron; he has holes on the offensive line; and the defense has been exposed, particularly against high-octane offenses run by mobile quarterbacks. Saban looks to have the top recruiting class coming in, but will he supplement those new recruits with schematic or coaching changes? His team almost certainly won't start the season at No. 1.
Fresh off an impressive 39--6 pounding of Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Louisville moves to the ACC. The Cards will lose quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who declared for the NFL draft, and Strong, who's off to Texas. Can they maintain the success they've enjoyed in recent years? At the same time a wavering Rutgers and inconsistent Maryland move to the Big Ten. Will the new affiliations push these programs to a higher level? Their conference brethren hope so, since the new teams will impact the strength-of-schedule formulas.
THE BIG TEN
On paper, the postseason looked dismal. Other than Michigan State's 24--20 Rose Bowl win and Nebraska's 24--19 defeat of Georgia in the Gator Bowl, the conference underachieved—especially considering Ohio State's 40--35 fall to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. But Iowa gave LSU all it could handle (21--14), and Wisconsin, without its starting QB, pushed South Carolina (34--24). Losses are losses, but the performance of the second-tier Big Ten teams is progress for a conference that just a few years ago seemed to lack the speed and athleticism even to be on the field with its competitors.