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30. The of University of Iowa Hawkeyes (8-5, 4-4 in the Big Ten, W vs. Missouri: Insight Bowl)
Comment: Iowa's prospects for the 2011 season reflect the new reality of the Big Ten. We have not seen any preseason commentators pick the Hawkeyes to finish at or near the top of the new "Legends" division of the 12-team conference. Most publications reserved that honor (and, for many, the pick for conference champ) for Nebraska - a team that belonged to the Big 12 last year. Iowa seems destined to labor in the respectable yet unremarkable ranks along with Penn State, Northwestern and possibly Michigan. We expect Ohio State and Wisconsin to vie for the other spot in the inaugural Big Ten championship game but only Nebraska will field Top 10-level talent this year.
Nebraska's former conference, the Big 12, has played in seven national championship games (represented by Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas) since the first BCS season in 1998-99. Although Big 12 teams have gone 2-5 through that stretch (2-4 if you toss out the 2004-05 win by USC, since ruled ineligible), the Big Ten has three total (!) appearances . . . all by Ohio State. Everyone associated with the Big Ten conference points to the lack of a championship game and the resulting long layoff as the source of the Big Ten's average (10-12 overall) performance in BCS games. For a storied conference including the likes of legendary programs like Ohio State and Michigan, to adopt a school like Nebraska speaks volumes about the ongoing arms race in college football.
Not that we carry a grudge against the Big Ten (okay, maybe we do), but we do think it's too bad the conference had to raid a powerhouse program in a far-flung state to compete with the other elite leagues.
Adding Nebraska to the Big Ten, while in the financial interests of both, reveals an unpleasant result of consolidation: forced "rivalries" with little or nothing at stake. We despair at the prospect of "super conferences" because the traditions and rivalries associated with college football - what makes the game great - would lose significance if not altogether disappear.
Iowa has played for the rights to trophies with two rivals since 1935 and 1977: fellow Big Ten member Minnesota and in-state foe Iowa State, respectively. The Hawkeyes and Gophers duke it out over the coveted Floyd of Rosedale while the Hawkeyes contest for the Cy-Hawk Trophy with the Cyclones. Recent ill-advised redesigns notwithstanding, we think battles over skillets, barrels, war axes and other memorabilia (Minnesota and Iowa play for rights to a bronze "prize hog") are an integral part of the game. Contrast these clashes with "rivalries" between the likes of Nebraska and Iowa, who have played only six times since 1946: the former are time-honored traditions while the latter feels like a PR scheme.
Finally, we wonder about the integrity of those paid to cover the sport. We wouldn't lower the boom on sportswriters like Rob White, who penned the piece in the link above. Covering a program like Nebraska for the hometown paper (or statewide in this case) involves some rah-rah expectations. But is it unrealistic for us to hope for more from national commentators, particularly those on ESPN?
As the flagship for college football, the Worldwide Leader could better delineate coverage from the business aspect of the network. But we would be fools to think that such a thing is even possible, much less that a marketing powerhouse like ESPN would care to try. As an example of the problem, on the August 14 episode of the ESPN roundtable program The Sports Reporters, John Saunders closed the show with his "parting shot" monologue. Saunders described the bewildering changes to the landscape of college football - conference expansion, contraction, teams staying or going - and inexplicably concluded by stating "the biggest winners are the fans." We have to ask: how so?
The College Football Report isn't alone on this one. In another recent roundtable, this time among Sports Illustrated writers, Andy Staples put his thoughts about ESPN trying "to set the agenda for college coverage" bluntly, saying "that ESPN is in bed financially with all the conferences shouldn't affect its journalism choices." We couldn't agree more, Andy.
(Update: the Longhorn Network, a television partnership between UT and ESPN between UT and ESPN, went live on August 26 but no one can watch it. So few cable operators have agreed to absorb the $0.40 per subscriber fee to air the network that no one, in Texas or elsewhere, can access the channel. Too bad.)
Upset Potential: We hear Vegas set the morning line odds for integrity versus revenue at 50-1.
29. The University of Miami Hurricanes (7-6, 5-3 in the ACC, L vs. Notre Dame: Sun Bowl)
Comment: Watching the Hurricanes struggle to consistently win the past few seasons almost makes us yearn for the days of the U swagger under Jimmy Johnson. Almost, but not quite. College football is more enjoyable when teams like Miami, which seem to inspire fierce devotion and distaste, can compete at a high level.
Upset Potential: The 2011 schedule for the 'Canes isn't as loaded as last year, even with three Top 25 teams on the docket. New coach Al Golden faces an uncertain situation at quarterback, with senior (and former CFR crush) Jacory Harris returning and sophomore Stephen Morris waiting in the wings. But Golden shouldn't worry about Miami's "D" - the Hurricanes are poised to dominate on defense, returning seven starters for 2011. Just don't back the "U" as a home favorite . . . over the past four seasons, Miami is 7-15 giving points at home.
28. The University of Utah Utes (10-3, 7-1 in the MWC, L vs. Boise State: Las Vegas Bowl)
Comment: The Utes begin play in the South division of the Pac-12 this season after nearly dominating the Mountain West Conference in 2010. The Utes held serve until early November and entered a highly-anticipated match-up with TCU undefeated at 8-0. But any BCS and conference championship hopes fell flat as the Horned Frogs walloped Utah, 47-7. This year, the Utes eye a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game. By dodging North division dynamos Oregon and Stanford, the Utes figure to have a shot, especially with offensive wizard Norm Chow calling plays.
Upset Potential: Although the Utes face only one ranked team (#25 USC in Week Two), the Pac-12 may prove to be more challenging than the MWC. Conference opponents like Oregon State (#46 in The Other 25!) and Arizona State (#26 ) won't just roll over.
27. The West Virginia Mountaineers (9-4, 5-2 in the Big East, L vs. North Carolina State: Champ Sports Bowl)
Comment: New coach Dana Holgorsen (remember him?) will try to clean up the mess left behind by former WVU coaches Rich Rodriguez (2001-2007) and Bill Stewart (2010-2011). Holgorsen's (no stranger to Vegas himself) trademark spread offense figures to post a lot of points en route to a conference championship. Our advice: take the over.
Upset Potential: Yikes, who agreed to the home-and-home series against LSU? What a tremendously bad idea. Although the Mounties put up a fight in Baton Rouge against LSU last year, losing 20-14, the Bayou Bengals start at #4 this season and figure to paste West Virginia at home on September 24. Then again, LSU might crap out early and show up in Morgantown a dispirited bunch.
26. The Arizona State Sun Devils (6-6, 4-5 in the Pac-10)
Comment: Bring back Sparky! We loved the goofy logo of the imp wielding a trident or pitchfork or whatever. Designed by the late Disney artist Bert Anthony, Sparky appeared after the student body voted to switch from the Bulldogs (formerly the Owls) to the Sun Devils in 1948.
Upset Potential: Spiffy new uniforms won't help against the likes of Oregon (#3) and USC (#25) but if Arizona State can rise above the rest in the South division, the Sun Devils might just get another crack at the Ducks in the first-ever conference championship game in December.
There you have it, folks! The final installment of The Other 25 season preview. The season starts Thursday but the true action gets underway on Saturday in a prime-time match-up between #3 Oregon vs. #4 LSU. We will also keep our eyes on Iowa, Northwestern, Air Force and all the rest from The Other 25 active this weekend. Come back on Friday for picks by the Sports Seal and Free Range Chicken.
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