A FRIEND RECENTLY ASKED ME IF I THOUGHT COLLEGE FOOTBALL was in trouble. He had spent the off-season reading stories about a Miami Hurricanes booster allegedly giving improper benefits to dozens of players, Ohio State parting ways with coach Jim Tressel, Fiesta Bowl executives misusing their power ... the list goes on and on. You can't go to your favorite sports website without finding something illicit going on at a major university. Investigative journalists have set their targets on college football, and they've done a great job discovering abuses in the sport. At first I was tempted to tell my friend that the answer was yes. I couldn't remember one positive headline from the off-season.
But when I thought of my experience traveling to college football games across the nation last season, I had to pause. At no point during that fall did I think the sport was struggling. Quite the opposite. Fan passion is at an alltime high. The action on the field is as exciting as ever. And I had the opportunity to talk with some of the young men playing the game. Many of the bigger stars are just as notable for their character as for their talent.
It's not easy to reconcile the damaging headlines with the wild popularity of the sport in recent years. Whether you think the game is moving in a positive or a negative direction, one fact is hard to argue with: College football is changing at a rapid pace. Schools are scrambling to arrange good deals in a quickly shifting television market. Challengers to the BCS have become more vocal and organized, with high-profile critics, including President Obama, calling for a playoff system. Bright young coordinators are transforming the action on the field with inventive strategies and game plans that surpass what's on display in the NFL. And players are doing things we've never seen before.
Change is hard. It's also exciting. A smart college football fan has every right to be cautious about the issues that plague the sport. But that doesn't mean you can't get excited as well. Especially on game day.
College football still provides the best live experience of any team sport. Only a handful of teams will compete for the national title. But on Saturdays the drama and the pageantry are in full effect in stadiums across the country. It doesn't matter if you're in the Big House at Michigan, hanging out in Happy Valley or under the lights in Baton Rouge. Once you get the grill going, the band marching and the student body cheering, nothing matches the electricity of live college football. And then when you get home from the stadium, it's easier than ever to find a great game on TV.
The best part of the college game today is how unpredictable it is ... in every way. It's hard to tell which teams will be good from year to year. It's nearly impossible to predict who will be great. Just look at last season. Auburn was ranked No. 23 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll. No one thought the Tigers were going to storm to a 14--0 championship season. Even during their run, time and time again it seemed as if their dream run was going to come to an end. Auburn was trailing Alabama 24--0 in the second quarter ... in Tuscaloosa. No one beats the Tide in that situation. But Cam Newton and the Tigers found a way to get it done, winning 28--27. Six weeks later they beat Oregon to take home the BCS trophy.
One of the reasons unexpected teams are so dangerous is the innovations that coaches keep generating. While Newton got all the attention last season, insiders pointed to Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as the genius who fueled the Tigers' run. Malzahn—who is credited with popularizing the Wildcat formation—kept opponents guessing with an array of presnap looks that fooled even the most savvy defenses. Once the ball was in play Malzahn still had them guessing by utilizing the multitalented Newton's skills to perfection.
As bold as Malzahn's scheme was, the attack that is really capturing the attention of football purists is out in Eugene. Don't be fooled by the uniforms: The real dazzle in this program is an offense that moves faster than any in history. The Ducks set a pace that isn't easy for defenses to keep up with. Coach Chip Kelly has his players moving quickly from the opening kickoff, and they don't slow down until after the final gun sounds.
Strategy is only part of the surprise every Saturday. One of the great things about following the game closely is seeing under-the-radar players unexpectedly become stars. No one saw Newton coming in 2010. Heisman lists fluctuate wildly during the year and almost always end up being decided in the last few weeks of the season.
One thing that we know for sure will take place is a new season's worth of traditional rivalries, but even those continue to evolve in today's game. Despite conference realignment, such ingrained feuds as Michigan--Ohio State and Texas-Oklahoma are still going strong. We're also seeing new rivalries. Mid-major powers Boise State and TCU will now square off in the Mountain West Conference. Nebraska joins the Big Ten—which this season inaugurates a championship game to get fans fired up—and will likely start forming a healthy dislike for teams such as Iowa and Ohio State. And Utah and Colorado join the Pac-12, instantly creating rivals throughout the West.