Plenty to watch in college football; Columbian staff predictions

Season begins with many great teams, great players

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College football is in for some big and, some say, much-needed changes with the switch to a four-team playoff.

Before we get to that, there's still a couple more seasons under the current system; the playoffs don't begin until 2014.

And this one will be worth watching.

There's plenty of interesting story lines, from Penn State trying to rebuild in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal to Urban Meyer's return to coaching with Ohio State.

There's no shortage of great players, either.

Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley skipped the NFL for the chance at a national title, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is a blur even without his shoelaces tied, and Wisconsin running back Montee Ball is like trying to tackle a wrecking ball.

Great teams? Could be a few of those, too. USC, Louisiana State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon -- the BCS could be under a lot of pressure this season with those teams all bidding for No. 1.

So to get you ready, we've got a rundown of some of the things to watch out for this college football season.

Enjoy.

Top teams

• USC. Barkley is back. So is his top target, Robert Woods. Former Penn State running back Silas Redd was a nice addition. Postseason eligible again, the Trojans aren't aiming for just any bowl; they want a trip to Miami and the national championship.

• Alabama. The Crimson Tide have won two of the past three national championships. They figure to be contenders for another.

• LSU. The Honey Badger is gone. All those other NFL prospects -- such as defensive end Sam Montgomery and safety Eric Reid -- should keep the Tigers from missing him.

• Oklahoma. The Sooners have a record-setting QB in Landry Jones, a brick wall of an offensive line and with the return of Mike Stoops, Bob's feisty little brother, they should be good on defense, too.

• Oregon. LaMichael James and Darron Thomas are gone? Big deal. The Ducks have plenty of other players who can fly in those new winged unis.

Keep an eye on

• Arkansas. QB Tyler Wilson and RB Knile Davis are back, and coach John L. Smith has calmed the storm after Bobby Petrino's motorcycle crash and subsequent firing. All Arkansas has to do now is get by Alabama and LSU — its only two losses a year ago — which isn't as farfetched as you might think. Both visit the Natural state, one early (Alabama on Sept. 15) the other late (LSU the day after Thanksgiving)

• Florida State. The Seminoles' return to prominence has been rumored for years. Under coach Jimbo Fisher, it might actually happen this season.

• Wisconsin. The Badgers are hungry after consecutive Rose Bowl losses and they have Ball, one of the nation's best running backs.

• Michigan State. Behind RB Le'Veon Bell, the Spartans could be on the verge of breaking a Rose Bowl drought that goes back to 1988.

• Texas. Mack Brown's crew appears to be headed back to the big stage behind a helmet-rattling defense.

• West Virginia. The Mountaineers could make their first season in the Big 12 championship worthy.

Top players

• Matt Barkley, USC. Projected as a high NFL draft pick, Barkley became an instant Heisman Trophy front-runner when he announced he was coming back for his senior season.

• Montee Ball, Wisconsin. The Badgers' star running back changed the pronunciation of his name from Mon-tee to Mon-tay. Whatever you call him, dude's good.

• Denard Robinson, Michigan. The Wolverines' electric quarterback has churned out more than 8,000 yards in his career, most of those the past two seasons. Imagine what he could do if he tied his shoes.

• Geno Smith, West Virginia. The Mountaineers' QB set multiple school records as a junior and more could be on the way in his final season in Charleston.

• Barkevious Mingo, LSU. Been known to train wreck offensive linemen.

• Landry Jones, Oklahoma. He's been around since Barry Switzer was coach. OK, maybe not that long, but the four-year starter will leave as the most prolific passer in OU history.

• De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon. Spectacular as a freshman last season and will likely get more touches this season now that James is in the NFL.

• Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina. Back from a torn ACL last season, he should be one of the nation's top running backs this year.

Big games

• Sept. 1, Michigan vs. Alabama at Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas. The annual opener at Jerry Jones' funhouse has had some great matchups in the past. This one could be the best of the bunch.

• Sept. 15, Alabama at Arkansas. Winner could get the inside track on a national-title run.

• Sept. 22, Michigan at Notre Dame. Last season's epic finish makes this a must-watch.

• Oct. 13, Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas. The Red River rivalry continues after all the conference shuffling and could become epic again with these two teams on the rise.

• Oct. 27, Notre Dame at Oklahoma. A rare meeting between once-powerful programs.

• Nov. 3, Alabama at LSU. We may not get sucked into calling it the Game of the Century again, but it still figures to have national-title implications.

• Nov. 3, Oregon at USC. Triple digits in combined points is a possibility with all those playmakers on the field.

• Nov. 24, Michigan at Ohio State. Meyer is running the Buckeyes and Michigan appears to be back. This rivalry could be heating back up.

The new guys

There was quite a bit of turnover in the coaching ranks over the offseason, with some pretty big names landing in new places.

• Bob Davie, New Mexico. Away from coaching for a decade, Davie tries to turn around a program plagued by embarrassments on and off the field under Mike Locksley.

• Todd Graham, Arizona State. The fast-talking Texan has done everything right in Tempe so far, soothing concerns about bouncing around while building excitement for the program. All that's left is to win some games.

• Mike Leach, Washington State. His offenses are always entertaining. So's his mouth.

• Urban Meyer, Ohio State. Burned out no more, the two-time national champion coach returns to the sideline with one of the country's premier programs -- and too many references to an Urban renewal.

• Bill O'Brien, Penn State. The former O-coordinator of the New England Patriots might have the toughest job in the country.

• Rich Rodriguez, Arizona. RichRod's three-year run at Michigan didn't go so well, but he has Tucson buzzing about football again with his suped-up offense.

• John L. Smith, Arkansas. The Razorbacks needed someone to smooth over the ugliness of Bobby Petrino's firing. The even-keel Smith should be a good fit.

• Charlie Weis, Kansas. Weis' first stint as a head coach petered out at Notre Dame. The Jayhawks are hoping he can turn around a program that languished under Turner Gill.