The road to the National Championship, like every season, will prove to be extremely difficult. However, unlike last season and the four prior seasons, there is a strong possibility that an undefeated team will not run away with the title at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.
The Hurricane’s perfect 2001 season was one to remember for the ages…but don’t count on another perfect campaign by Miami, or any other division one football team for that matter. In 2000, it was Oklahoma who won the title with an undefeated record, FSU in 1999 went 12-0, Tennessee was perfect in 1998, and Nebraska went 13-0 in 1997. This year’s champion should break a five-year trend that started after the Florida Gators won the 1996 National Championship with a 12-1 record.
Miami fans must not take what I am saying the wrong way. I strongly believe that the ‘Canes will return to the National Championship game and become the first back to back title winner since Nebraska did so in 1994-95. However, Miami can and most likely will lose a game this year and still be in line for a repeat. The ‘Canes travel to Florida next week, host FSU on Oct. 12, and visit Tennessee on Nov. 9. UM can lose one of these three games and still play in Tempe come January 3.
But what about the other title contenders?
When looking at the upcoming season, one must begin with the best league by far, the Big 12. The Big 12 has four teams ranked in the top eight of the preseason ESPN/Coaches poll – Texas (No. 2), Oklahoma (No. 3), Colorado (No. 6), and Nebraska (No. 8). Four of the last eight national champions have come from the Big 12.
As talented as these football teams are, their league schedule alone is a nightmare, and ultimately, will allow the teams to cancel one another out and produce a possible one or two loss champion contender. One must not forget that the regular season culminates with the Big 12 title game.
Texas may have the best offensive skill players in all of college football, behind senior quarterback Chris Simms, sophomore running back Cedric Benson, and the outstanding receiver duo of Roy Williams and B.J. Johnson. However, head coach Mack Brown and his Longhorns will play one of their toughest schedules in recent years. Expectations are high for Texas, who landed the No. 1 recruiting class this season. The Longhorns should open the season with five straight victories against sub par opponents, but have an Oct. 12 showdown against Oklahoma in Dallas, in what many believe to be the premier game in this season’s college football schedule. The winner of this contest could determine the conference title, as well as the national champion. After the midseason battle with the Sooners, Texas will be rewarded the following week with a trip to the extremely difficult atmosphere of Kansas State. Finally, the ‘Horns will visit Lincoln two weeks later in a showdown with the Cornhuskers. Of course it is possible for Texas to sweep through their schedule, but based on its past misfortunes and the uncertainty of Simms’ leadership, do not count on it.
Oklahoma is looking to win its second title in three years under head coach Bob Stoops. The Sooners suit up the nation’s most intimidating defense behind junior linebacker Teddy Lehman and sophomore defensive tackle Tommie Harris, and a strong running attack with senior tailback Quentin Griffin. Yet, several obstacles can get in Oklahoma’s way, including their Oct. 12 clash with Texas, Colorado’s visit to Oklahoma on Nov.12, and the uncertainty of their starting quarterback. Jason White is coming off season-ending knee surgery and will try to win his job back from the erratic Nate Hybl, a senior who threw for over 2,000 yards last season but also threw 13 interceptions. The Sooners biggest question will be whether the offense can throw the ball downfield to complement their strong rushing game, which will in effect, keep the stifling defense from being on the field too much.
After having a surprise 2001 season in which Gary Barnett’s Buffaloes won the Big 12 title, nobody will be shocked if Colorado plays in Tempe come Jan. 3. Colorado has one of the best rushing attacks in the country behind tailbacks Chris Brown and Bobby Purify. Colorado also returns eight starters on defense, but must prove they can stop they run, which they struggled with in 2001. Getting in the way of its hopes of a perfect 2002 campaign will be the Oklahoma contest and a season ending trip to Nebraska on Nov. 29. Remember, Colorado destroyed the Cornhuskers 62-36 last year, and Nebraska will surely not forget that.
The Cornhuskers will have to deal with life after Eric Crouch, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner. In their first game last week against Arizona State, new quarterback Jamal Lord ran for 103 yards and threw for 33 yards. It won’t be so easy for Lord as the season rolls on. Nebraska must travel to the hostile environments of Penn State, Texas A&M, and Kansas State this season, while hosting games versus Texas and Colorado. In addition to a tough schedule, Nebraska has their worst recruiting class in years. Look for the Cornhuskers to have an off year.
Tennessee (No. 5) may not be over their fourth quarter collapse to LSU in last year’s SEC title game, which cost the Vols a trip to the Rose Bowl. Coach Phillip Fulmer brings a potent offense behind junior quarterback Casey Clausen and super sophomore wide out Kelley Washington (64 catches in 2001). However, the Vols lost all four d-line starters and play a dreadful schedule that will most likely limit their title aspirations. In week three, the No. 7 Florida Gators travel to Knoxville, and will attempt to avenge last season’s defeat. Tennessee also has two tough road games at No. 11 Georgia on Oct. 12 and at No. 22 South Carolina two weeks later. Their biggest test will come with the ‘Canes visit on Nov. 9. Don’t expect a perfect season for the Vols.
As for the post-Spurrier Gators, their road to a title will not come easy either. Behind Heisman candidate Rex Grossman and speedy tailback Earnest Graham, UF will host the ‘Canes Sept. 7, travel to Knoxville, and finish the season Nov. 30 at FSU. Will Grossman be able to put up huge numbers again without the Spurrier spread out offense and the loss of standout wide receivers Jabar Gafney and Reche Caldwell to the NFL? I am going to go out on a limb and say his numbers will drop a favorable amount. A trip to the Fiesta bowl will be too much to ask for from rookie head coach Ron Zook.
Lets shift gears to our other state rival, FSU, who is coming off their worst season in a decade. FSU escaped a scare last week, with a 38-31 win at Iowa State. The Seminoles (No. 4) return an experienced playmaker in sophomore quarterback Chris Rix (3,123 yards of total offense in 2001), junior tailback Greg Jones and an intimidating linebacker in Michael Boulware. FSU will face an early test with a Sept. 21 visit to No. 20 Maryland, which will most likely decide the ACC champion. FSU also travels to Miami, and will attempt to avoid another wide right. I wouldn’t count on this year’s clash to come down to a field goal however. The ‘Noles also must travel to No. 17 Louisville, and will end the season with Florida at home. After coming off a lackluster season and barely getting passed Iowa State last week, I believe FSU is getting way too much hype for a team who has yet to prove themselves. I will be shocked if FSU plays in the Fiesta Bowl.
Washington State has a Heisman candidate in senior quarterback Jason Gesser (3,010 yards and 26 TD’s in 2001) and their Pac 10 schedule is not too tough due to a down year for the usually potent conference. They have an early nonconference match up at Ohio St. on Sept. 14 and could sneak atop the polls come January if they can slip past their conference foes, which include games at Stanford and at UCLA and home games against No. 15 Oregon and No. 9 Washington in consecutive weeks.
Marshal also will have a Heisman campaign with senior quarterback Byron Leftwich (4,132 passing yards and 38 TD’s in 2001) and will not play a touch schedule in the MAC conference. Marshall’s only test, which will be a difficult one, is a week two visit to No. 16 Virginia Tech. Unlike the other top contenders, Marshall must go undefeated for even a slim chance at a National Championship.