2006 Spring Questions ... No. 7-13

Posted Feb 17, 2006

The twenty big questions going into 2006 spring ball ... No. 7 to 13

By Pete Fiutak 

Spring ball has already begun with North Texas kicking off its off-season sessions on February 13th and with Texas, Auburn and UCLA starting soon. Here are twenty questions heading into this important time to keep you going during this brutally painful time before March Madness.
Spring Questions 14-20 | Spring Questions 4-6 | Spring Questions 1-3

13. What teams are likely to take a tumble this year?
Penn State. The Nittany Lions are coming off an incredible 11-1 season and should be strong again, but there's a fine line between a one-loss, BCS performance and being a four-loss Big Ten also ran. That fine line is Michael Robinson, who never got the respect he deserved last year as the Big Ten's most valuable player (he had a stunningly tough time getting All-Big Ten votes). His leadership and clutch play will be sorely missed. Can Anthony Morelli finally play up to the hype he had coming in as a hot-shot recruit? He hasn't shown anything so far, but he has to be a star this spring and show that he can use all the good young weapons around him. Remember, Robinson didn't exactly set the world on fire as a quarterback until 2005, so it's not a stretch to think Morelli can make the same jump. It also helps that the overall talent level is back up to snuff in Happy Valley, but it's tough to maintain such a high level record-wise in a conference like the Big Ten.

Remember, Penn State had to battle to beat Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State and Florida State. A big play the other way in each of those games and the final record would've been much different. To be fair, Penn State created its own breaks, but teams rarely win all of the close ones (Michigan finish aside) two years in a row. Road trips to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Minnesota, Purdue (who'll make up for last year, more on that in a moment), and Wisconsin should mean at least two losses, if not three. Fortunately, the rest of the slate isn't that bad with the only home games to break a sweat over coming against Michigan and Michigan State.

Georgia would be due for a bit of a fall with a rough loss of personnel for what seems like the 26th year in a row, but the schedule is too forgiving with a joke of a home slate and the tough road games at South Carolina and Auburn along with the neutral site battle with Florida. UCLA will almost definitely slip after a 10-2 season with the loss of RB Maurice Drew, QB Drew Olson, to go along with road trips to Oregon, Notre Dame, Cal and Arizona State to go along with tough home games against Utah and USC.

On a much smaller scale, Arkansas State will have a nasty time trying to win a second straight Sun Belt title. A "home" game against Oklahoma State to be played in Little Rock kicks off a string of eight road games in ten dates including conference battles with UL Lafayette and Troy.

12. Which teams are likely to bounce back?
Washington State. It's hard to lose a runner like Jerome Harrison and hope to be better, but the return of WR Jason Hill for his senior year ensures the Cougars will have one of the Pac 10's most fearsome passing attacks. With five of their seven losses coming by four points or fewer (a total of 17 points against Stanford, UCLA, Cal, Arizona State and Oregon), the Cougars are way due to be on the right side of a few wins this year. The key will be to not get down after a likely opening day loss at Auburn and a late September home date with USC. The rest of the schedule is nice enough to hope for an 8-4 season.

Michigan State and Purdue, two of 2005's bigger disappointments, will be players again. MSU's Drew Stanton should be among the nation's best quarterbacks and has a schedule just favorable enough to hope for a big turnaround with Notre Dame and Ohio State coming to East Lansing and road trips to Pitt, Northwestern and Indiana to go along with the rough dates at Michigan and Penn State. For the second year in a row Purdue doesn't play Michigan or Ohio State, and starts off its schedule at home against Indiana State, Miami University, Ball State and Minnesota. Five of the following seven are on the road, but two of those games are against Northwestern and Illinois before closing out against Indiana and at Hawaii.

The biggest bounce-back team of 2006 should be Tennessee after a stunning 5-6 campaign. The Vols still have as much talent and athleticism as anyone in the country, and now it has David Cutcliffe coaching the offense; things can't be any worse as long as Erik Ainge plays like a seasoned quarterback. The opening four games aren't breathers playing Cal, Air Force, Florida and Marshall, but if they can get off to a 4-0 start before going to Memphis and Georgia, the confidence and swagger will be back. However, the potential is there for another disaster considering the great teams on the slate. Cal, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, LSU, and Arkansas will all spend time in the top 25, if not the top 15.

11. The coaches who have to win this year are ...
Call it a hot seat, a make-or-break year, or anything else you'd like to, but there might not be a 2007 for these ten coaches if they don't have big seasons. Don't expect too many firings since most of the usual bottom-feeders have made recent coaching changes.
10. Houston Nutt, Arkansas
After eight years at Arkansas, Nutt needs to coming up with his first winning season since 2003 or he might not get a chance to let franchise recruit Mitch Mustain turn the program around.
9. Chuck Amato, NC State
Few are able to pull out the job-saving win better than Amato, but he'll have work to do with all the future NFL stars leaving his defense.
8. John Bunting, North Carolina 
He has done a tremendous job considering the schedules his team has had to deal with, but there has been only one bowl game in the last four years.
7. Greg Robinson, Syracuse
He has only been there one year, but another season like last year's 1-10 disaster could start talk of a quick hook.
6. Rich Brooks, Kentucky
Yes, he's still there. Seven wins over D-I teams in three years appears to be acceptable. The best win during the Brooks regime came against Vanderbilt last year. The other eight wins were against Idaho State and Murray State (both D-IAAers), Indiana, Ohio, and Mississippi State (who all went 2-10 in 2003), Indiana (3-8 in 2004), Vanderbilt (2-9 in 2004), and Mississippi State (3-8 last year).
5. Fisher DeBerry, Air Force
All the religious and racial controversies would blow over easier if DeBerry could come up with his first winning season in three years.
4. Dennis Franchione, Texas A&M
Only one winning season in the last three has many Aggie fans still wondering what was so bad about R.C. Slocum.
3. Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee
Not winning the SEC title puts coaches on the hot seat in Knoxville. Going 5-6 makes the buns burn.
2. Lloyd Carr, Michigan
Not being in the national title race since 1997 - bad. Struggling in the non-conference games, especially on the road - really bad. Losing to Ohio State four times in the last five years - nuclear.
1. Larry Coker, Miami
Not playing for national title at Da You is cause enough for putting a coach on the hot seat, but not winning conference titles is cause for a fire alarm. You can only blame the assistant coaches once.

10. The biggest new overall changes to the game this year are ...
Uniform instant replay and a 12-game schedule. All the extra game means is a Cupcake U. or two sprinkled throughout the schedules. The smart big-time teams are using the extra revenue lamb-for-the-slaughter home game to start the year with a tune-up for the important battles ahead. Some are using it as a breather late in the year. On the plus side, the 12-game slate means all the Pac 10 teams play each other so there'll be a true conference champion, unlike the unfair Big Ten where teams like Purdue don't play Ohio State or Michigan, and without the gimmicky championship money grubbing games like several other leagues have.

Instant replay will generate the biggest buzz throughout 2006. Outside of the pathologically grouchy who enjoy missed calls and controversy, no one can fault the college version of instant replay when compared to the bizarre and unfair pro version.

Here's the poop. Instant replay will be like normal with a man in a replay booth looking at every play. He'll signal down to the referee when a play should be reviewed upstairs, and everything will function like before. The problem last year was when it took too long for the process to occur and a play couldn't get reviewed in time. That meant coaches sometimes had to burn a time out just to buy more time, and that, everyone could agree, wasn't fair. To change it, the NCAA has allowed coaches one challenge per game by calling a time out. If the play isn't overturned, then the team loses a timeout and there aren't any more challenges. Fine.

Here's where it gets tricky. If a play is challenged and gets overturned, the team doesn't lose a time out and doesn't lose its challenge. Let it ride. Theoretically, a coach can challenge 743 times a game as long as he's always right, however, he can't challenge if he doesn't have any timeouts left. Technically, that's fine since bad calls should get overturned. Now for the real kicker; the coaches will be flying blind. There won't be monitors in the coaches booth, so unlike the NFL when an assistant upstairs yells at the head coach to challenge a call, a head coach will have to hope that he's right. Expect this to get very, very interesting as the season goes on.

And finally, a rule change that will fly under the radar but will make a big impact involves the kicking game. The height of the kicking tee has been reduced to one inch meaning more big returns and better overall field position for the return teams. Expect this to play a really big role late in games when a team needs to go on a final scoring drive.

9. Everyone will be complaining about ...
The BCS. Again. With the new 12-game schedule, and with some playing 13 games thanks to conference championships, it'll be harder and harder for teams to stay healthy through the long season and there are bound to be more slip ups. No one appears to have a dominant team going into the season, and no one has a sure-thing schedule that assures 12-0. Of course, someone could go unbeaten, but who? Finding two teams at this point in the off-season is next to impossible.

We all got a nice break in 2005 with the cut-and-dry Texas vs. USC national title, but the odds are solid that we'll all have to waste our time comparing apples to oranges, SEC to Pac 10, Big 12 to Big Ten, and/or some other configuration of things before some deserving team is out of the national title game. We're also overdue for a mega-blowup with five deserving one-loss teams jockeying for a spot in the national title.

Also, get ready for a year of ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10 and SEC fans banding together to complain about the Big East. West Virginia achieved a major measure of respect with the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, but there's still a general feeling by SEC fans that the Bulldogs simply took the game too lightly and that the Mountaineers would have never survived an SEC schedule. Just wait until this year.

West Virginia has a three game season hosting Maryland before road games later on against Louisville and Pitt. Louisville has a very respectable home game against Miami and a trip to Kansas State along with a road date with Pitt and the showdown with West Virginia. What happens if Louisville or West Virginia goes 12-0 and, for example, Texas, Ohio State, USC, Florida State and Florida all have one loss? We're talking a hypothetical situation here, but be prepared for a knock down, drag out conference debate. However ...

8. Everyone will be in love with ...
West Virginia. Even with the three other scintillating BCS games and the all-timer Rose Bowl, a lot of the buzz after the bowl season was about West Virginia and their unbelievable young talents QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton. Now the pressure will really be on being tagged as this year's version of the "it" team. However, hyped teams hardly ever play like everyone's darling.

2005's hot team, Wyoming, crashed and burned and 2004's next-big-thing, West Virginia, fell off the map after a decent start. Certainly you remember the fashionable team going into 2003, Auburn, with magazine covers and a preseason number one ranking before cranking out an 8-5 season. Michigan State, with Charles Rogers and Jeff Smoker, was supposed to shine in 2002 and then came up with a 4-8 campaign. How about Sports Illustrated's Oregon State team going into 2001? 5-6.

The 2006 Mountaineers should be rock-solid, but can they handle having the bull's-eye on their back? Can they handle the pressure of being ranked in the preseason top five by some, and how will they deal with the pressure of being picked to play in the national title game by others? The combination of above-average overall talent, sensational coaching and a powder-puff schedule will generate all the hype the program can handle.

7. Which players, coaches and programs have to finally start producing?
While not necessarily on a hot seat, these players, coaches and programs have to start coming through after a few years of hype. 2006 had better be big for these ten, or 2007 might not be a lot of fun.
10. Ralph Friedgen and Maryland
He set the bar too high winning 31 games in his first three years. Two straight 5-6 seasons doesn't mean he'll get fired with another down year, but it'll get Terp fans rumbling.
9. Fresno State
To paraphrase a classic line from GoodFellas, "Screw you, pay me." For all the bluster and big performances from Fresno State over the last few years, it still can't seem to win the WAC. After last year's epic choke job, Pat Hill's bunch needs to finally get over the hump.
8. San Diego State RB Lynell Hamilton
He has all the talent to be a next-level runner, but he has to get through a season healthy. If he can last for a full 12 games, he'll be in the mix for Mountain West Player of the Year honors.
7. John L. Smith and Michigan State
Three signs that things aren't working out as planned. 1) You hired the guy from another team at halftime of a bowl game. Bad karma is kicking in. 2) The former team (Louisville) is better than the current one. 3) Two straight losing seasons.
6. Mike Stoops and Arizona
After two straight 3-8 seasons and only four wins over D-I teams, it's time for the Stoops era to start coming up with victories, or at least be more competitive. This is now his team.
5. Sylvester Croom and Mississippi State
Putting aside the social significance of Croom's hiring, he needs to start putting some wins on the board after only five victories against D-I teams in two years. The offense simply can't be so awful for a third straight year.
4. Fox
Fox did a great job with the Cotton Bowl over the last few years, so there's hope that it'll handle the BCS and national title game without a problem. However, considering the network still believes Tim McCarver should be a part of anything related to the World Series, there's just cause for die-hard college fans to be a little bit concerned. (Two words: Steve Stone. Look into it.)
3. Florida QB Chris Leak
Leak will be done with his eligibility by next year and Tim Tebow will take over, so this is the final chance to win an SEC title and be more than just the transition quarterback from the Spurrier era what Gators fans hope are the new glory days.
2. Former NFL coaches - Dave Wannstedt, Al Groh, Chan Gailey
They can't all be Pete Carroll. The jury is still out on Wannstedt, but another losing season at Pitt will mean 2007 will be a make or break year. Groh and Gailey have done good jobs, but the haven't been able to make much noise when it comes to ACC title races.
1. Florida State RB Lorenzo Booker
1,773 rushing yards, 575 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns aren't exactly what the Noles were hoping for from, arguably, the nation's top recruit in 2002. Blame the coaching staff for not using Booker's blinding speed correctly and blame the problems on the offensive line over the last few years. In any event, he likely would've been a second round draft pick had he come out early, and now he has to be more of a factor in the Seminole offense.