Sports

Casey’s Call: NCAA Picks, Predictions, & Scandals

(Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)

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After 7 ½ long months, college football is finally back. Alabama enters the season as defending champs but they’ll face a difficult road on their journey for a repeat. The BCS race is wide open and we’re certain to be in store for a crazy and unpredictable season. But before we look forward, let’s take a look back on what transpired from a very eventful off-season…

The top storyline was a near disastrous conference shakeup which luckily fell apart. It all started with the Big 10 who was looking to add a few more power programs to not just ensure a conference title game but bolster the power and attractiveness of the Big 10 Network.

They had their eyes on Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh with the focus on expanding east and involving the New York market. But the crown jewel all along was Notre Dame. It’s no secret the Irish have always enjoyed their independent status. It certainly has its advantages, none bigger than their lucrative television contract with NBC. After taking a hard look at the pros and cons, Notre Dame decided to stay put and pass up on the offer. The Big 10 ended up swiping Nebraska from the Big 12 which was a brilliant move.

I had no problem with the Big 10’s urge and aggressiveness to expand, but where things started to get out of control was when the Pac 10 threw their hat in the ring. The thing they wanted most was a conference title game, but it didn’t stop there…. The major focus was on Texas. Despite not making sense geographically the Pac 10 saw vulnerability in the college football landscape and attempted to lure in one of the nation’s best all-around athletic universities. The Pac 10 knew if they were able to bring Texas in it would swing the balance of power in their favor. But as negotiations heated up, we discovered the Pac 10 wasn’t just after Texas…they were after virtually the entire Big 12. Schools like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Kansas were all targeted with the Longhorns as the main chip.

It became evident that if Texas were to leave for the Pac 10, all the aforementioned schools would follow. Judgment day had arrived for the Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe. He and his fellow suits knew they had to do whatever it took to keep Texas in the conference. In the end, the Longhorns made the right choice and stayed, but not before ensuring that they’d be compensated for their loyal and generous decision. A new television deal was drawn up and let’s just say Texas will be taken care of.

When the dust settled, the Big 12 took just 2 hits…Nebraska left for the Big 10 and Colorado left for the Pac 10, despite Texas’ decision to stay. Both these losses hurt, especially Nebraska, but the Big 12 brass deserves a little credit here…when they’re backs were against the wall they we able to find a way to save the conference, and in a way, save college football.

Here’s a breakdown of all the moves that will take place…

School Old Conference New Conference Takes Effect
Colorado Big 12 Pac-10 2011/ 2012
Boise State WAC MWC 2011
Nebraska Big 12 Big 10 2011
Utah MWC Pac 10 2011
Fresno State WAC MWC TBA
Nevada WAC MWC TBA

A lot of these moves are good for the game. Obviously, the Big 10 and Pac 10 will now have conference title games and that’s huge. But can you imagine what the landscape would look like if Texas jumped to the Pac 10?… You would have 19 teams in one conference! You would see the fold of a major power conference, and those who weren’t lucky enough to migrate west would be left in the dust. At that point, who’s to say the Big 10 and SEC wouldn’t prey on not just those teams but Big East and ACC teams as well?

The bottom line is things would have gotten out of control. I’m all for change, but only when it’s good change. I’m a firm believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Obviously the Pac 10’s ambition was driven by power and money, just like all things in life. But if their grand scheme went through, I believe it would have been catastrophic to college football.

- Scandals, Scandals, Scandals: This off-season had its share of scandals, but none were nearly as big as the Reggie Bush saga. It had long been speculated that something fishy went on during Bush’s recruitment and stay at USC. We heard rumors about cars, cash and houses over the past few years but nothing came of it…until a man named Lloyd Lake stepped forward. Lake is a sketchy figure to say the least.

He’s a former member of the Bloods gang and has been arrested 7 times. At the time he was a wannabe sports agent who was hoping to get the early jump on the hot-shot phenom. He provided Bush with a decked-out car, cash for “living expenses”, airline tickets for family to travel to road games and a $750,000 house for his parents. Lake provided Bush will all these gifts under the agreement that Bush would join his agency and pay him back. Well, when Bush turned pro not only did he not join Lake’s agency, he refused to pay Lake back for the gifts he and his family received. Lake, feeling betrayed and back-stabbed, sued Bush and brought the NCAA into play.

Bush adamantly denied accepting gifts from Lake. His lawyers claimed Lake had no credibility because of his criminal past. Most people agreed and thought Lake was just trying to blackmail Bush…until he came forward with taped conservations he had with Bush’s stepfather. In the tapes Lake expressed concern that Bush will not pay him back for the gifts he provided. The stepfather clearly acknowledged the gifts and told Lake that Reggie is a man of his word and will pay him back. This evidence was fatal to Bush’s stance. The NCAA came down hard on USC because of this. They stripped the Trojans on 12 wins over the course of the 04’-05’ seasons including the 2004 National Championship.

USC is ineligible for postseason play for the 2010 and 2011 season. Bush’s Heisman Trophy from 2005 is forfeited. And on top of it all the program losses 30 scholarships over the course of 3 years. These are some of the harshest penalties the NCAA has ever dealt out… Lake claims that if Bush had just paid him back like he agreed to then he would have never told anybody about their relationship and dealings. To think that all of this could have been avoided if Bush had just kept his word and paid his debt to Lake…

- Ducks Take Hit: Oh my, what could have been… That will be the theme in Eugene this season. Despite Oregon’s dismal performance against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl last year, things were certainly heading in the right direction for Chip Kelly’s Ducks. They would have been one of my favorites to reach the BCS title game but that changed when star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was dismissed from the team.

Oregon is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, but Masoli was the dynamic weapon which truly made the Ducks a legitimate contender. But despite his talent, Masoli had always proven to be immature and irresponsible off the field. Simply put, he was a thug, and he did nothing but feed into that notion when he decided to commit felony burglary. The selfish and inexplicable action got Masoli suspended for the entire 2010 season. As if that wasn’t dumb enough, he gets busted for marijuana possession soon after… How stupid can one person be? Coach Kelly gave him every chance to grow up and mature but Masoli refused to take advantage of his 9 lives. As a result, he was dismissed from the team and rightfully so. Give Kelly credit for passing up on talent in favor of common sense. Masoli has transferred to Ole Miss and he leaves behind a very talented team. He would have been the piece that put the Ducks over the top if he kept his nose clean. Instead, the quarterback reigns will be handed off to Darron Thomas. The main offensive weapon will be LaMichael James and he happens to have some legal troubles of his own.

After pleading guilty for physical harassment in a domestic dispute, James was suspended for the opening game against New Mexico. The bottom line is Oregon will be a very dangerous team that will contend for the Rose Bowl, but I believe Masoli’s selfish actions have cost the Ducks any chance at a National Championship.

- New Era in South Bend: With the way the season unfolded for Notre Dame last year it was only a matter of time before the axe came down on Charlie Weis. Sure enough, Weis’ painfully disappointing tenure came to a crashing end as he was kicked to the curb in favor of Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly. The end of the Weis era also meant the end of the Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate era as well. Both were Weis recruits who jumped ship to the NFL.

In walks Kelly to a full-blown rebuilding situation at the most prestigious college football program in the country. The good news is he brings a proven track record in the recruiting department. Kelly did a phenomenal job bringing in diamond in the rough talent while at Cincinnati, and I expect him to have an instant impact at Notre Dame. But as we saw with Weis, it isn’t always about recruiting…once you get the players in you have to be able to coach them and get the job done on gameday. Whether Kelly can do what Weis couldn’t remains to be seen, but I for one believe that the right man is in place in South Bend and Irish eyes will soon be smiling once again.

- Last Stand For Rich-Rod: There’s no other way to put it…this is a make or break year for Michigan Head Coach Rich Rodriguez. Since posting a 60-26 career record at West Virginia while guiding the Mountaineers to 2 BCS bowls, Rodriguez has faced the brutal reality of Big 10 football. He is just 8-16 in his 2 seasons with the Wolverines. He has yet to reach a bowl game and is a pitiful 3-13 in conference play. To top it off, he was found guilty of practice violations and was punished by the University.

If this was the NFL he’d be fired by now, but in the college game you have to be given a few years to recruit and get his type of players in place. But not only has Rodriguez’s recruiting classes been less than stellar, the thought is creeping in that his system and style just doesn’t win in the Big 10. It worked in the Big East because he had athletes that were just faster than everybody else, but it’s a different ball game in the Big 10. Not that it’s faster, but the combination of strength, smarts and natural talent across the conference is just at a whole other level.

Oregon runs a similar system to Michigan and look how they fared against Ohio State in last year’s Rose Bowl. The bottom line is you can’t get away with just speed and gimmicks in the Big 10 the way you can in other conferences. Patience is wearing thin in Ann Arbor. If Michigan doesn’t beat Connecticut on opening day at the Big House, Rodriguez will be a dead man walking… Nothing short of 8 wins and a top 4 standing in the Big 10 will save his job.

- Big 10 Divisional Breakdown: Takes effect next season… Yes, Ohio State will still play Michigan in the final game each year…

Division 1: Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota

Division 2: Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois

*** Keefe’s Top 10 ***

1. Alabama: Like I always say, a champ is a champ until he’s beaten, and not only are the Tide champs, they might be even better this year. The offense returns 10 starters and will feature a dominant running duo of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and a talented quarterback in Greg McElroy who is entering his sophomore campaign. The one concern is the defense which loses 10 starters from last year but Saban is the finest at replacing talent with talent. Plus, having the nation’s best linebacker (Dont’a Hightower) certainly won’t hurt matters. The other thing to keep an eye on is how much time Ingram must miss due to his arthroscopic knee surgery. It’s one thing to miss the opener against San Jose State…it’s another to miss the showdown against Penn State.

2. Boise State: The Broncos return 20 starters and will look to make a serious push for the National Championship. Kellen Moore and company will be a handful for whoever they face. We will find out if they’re deserving of my #2 ranking when they take the field against Virginia Tech on Labor Day.

3. Ohio State: Sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor leads a talented Buckeye team which returns 14 starters from last year’s Rose Bowl squad. Unfortunately for Jim Tressel, the Big 10 looks to be a beast this season. A slip up at Wisconsin or Iowa may cost them the conference.

4. Texas: The Longhorns lost Colt McCoy, the winningist quarterback in FBS history…but Mack Brown loves what he sees out of Garrett Gilbert. It will be up to him and Texas’ dominant defense to live up to expectations if the Longhorns hope to reach the BCS title game.

5. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz is one of the best coaches in the country and he will have one of his finest teams ever this season. A lot will fall on his tough and talented yet mistake-prone quarterback Ricky Stanzi. The sure thing will be the defense which is led by all-world defensive end Adrian Clayborn.

6. Florida: Things will look a little different in Gainesville without Mr. Tebow walking around. It would have certainly looked really different if Urban Meyer stuck to his initial decision to step down as head coach. Instead, Meyer will be back on the sideline hoping there isn’t too much drop-off with phenom quarterback John Brantley behind center.

7. TCU: The Horned Frogs return 16 starters, including 9 on offense. Their defense will be great once again and if quarterback Andy Dalton can find some consistency TCU will find themselves back in the BCS.

8. Wisconsin: I love this Badger team. I wouldn’t be shocked if they win the Big 10. They have the winning formula in place…dominant running game (John Clay), smart quarterback (Scott Tolzien) who’s protected behind a top offensive line and a tough, resilient, attacking defense.

9. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers will be very motivated this season after they let the Big 12 championship slip away against Texas last year. Despite the loss of Ndamukong Suh, the defense should be just as good thanks to defensive tackle Jared Crick and cornerback Prince Amukamara. The concern is with the offense. It will be up to quarterback Zac Lee and company to provide some support to the defense…something they didn’t do last year.

10. Oregon: Like I said earlier, the loss of Jeremiah Masoli will definitely hurt the Ducks… But even with an inexperienced Darron Thomas taking his place, the Ducks remain a legitimate threat. 15 starters return, the defense should be better and LaMichael James remains one of the best running backs in the country. With USC out of the picture, it will be between Oregon and Oregon State for the Pac 10 crown.

*** BCS Predictions ***

Fiesta Bowl: Texas vs. TCU – The Big 12 champs against the at-large Horned Frogs. Great game, but give the edge to the Longhorns.

Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State – The Buckeyes will have to settle for an at-large bid and they’ll take their frustration out on the ACC champion Hokies. Frank Beamer has a very talented squad, but when push comes to shove they’ll be no match for the Buckeyes.

Sugar Bowl: Florida vs. Connecticut – The Gators get back to the Sugar Bowl as an at-large team but they’ll fall to Randy Edsall’s Huskies. This will be the best UConn team in the history of the program and they have what it takes to combat Florida on both sides of the ball.

Rose Bowl: Iowa vs. Oregon State – Ah yes, the Granddaddy of them all… Big 10 champ against Pac 10 champ. This is an even matchup but I’ll give a slight edge to Iowa. Kirk Ferentz and company know what it takes to win. They’ll do what few others can…stop the Rodger brothers of Oregon State.

National Championship Game: Alabama vs. Boise State – These are the 2 best teams in the country and I think they’re run through the regular season will prove that. It won’t be easy for Boise State to get here. There will be a lot of people dead-set on keeping a non-BCS team out of the title game. The Broncos will have to run the table and win every game convincingly. I believe they will do so but the magic carpet ride will come to an end against the Tide. It’s very hard to win back to back championships but I think this Alabama team has it in them. The offense will be near unstoppable with the backfield duo of Ingram and Richardson along with the maturation and progression of McElroy at quarterback. The key battle will be Kellen Moore and the Bronco offense against the Tide defense…that’s where the game will be won. Not many teams can slow down Boise State’s offense, but I think ‘Bama has the the kryptonite.

Heisman Winner: Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State – Kellen had a monstrous season last year and I expect him to be even better this year. His Boise State team returns 10 starters on offense and the Broncos have a serious shot to run the table…I would be surprised if they don’t. People tend to not take Boise serious because of the conference they’re in, but that’s nonsense. This is a program that has been playing at a consistently high level for several years now. Boise has 2 huge games against great teams…Virginia Tech and Oregon State. In order for Moore to become the first Heisman winner since 1990 from a non-BCS conference, he has to play big in both those games. Can he get it done?…I certainly believe so. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long to find out… Boise State plays Virginia Tech on Labor Day to open the season.

The Best of the Rest…

- Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama: Assuming he returns to the field in time for the Penn State game in week 2, the reigning winner will be in the Heisman race until the end. He’ll be the focal point of an undefeated team that plays top competition. But 2 things will hurt him…he’ll be sharing carries with Trent Richardson and Nick Saban will rely a little more on Greg McElroy and the passing game.

- Terrelle Pryor, QB, Ohio State: Everybody else’s favorite to run away with the trophy. He’s a legitimate threat in the air and on the ground but he’s a little too careless for my liking. Look for some key interceptions to hurt his stock.

- Dion Lewis, RB, Pittsburgh: My dark horse candidate. He has a great combination of strength and speed. He’ll be the focal point of the Panthers offense. If he stays healthy he’ll have his say.

- Case Keenum, QB, Houston: Case will put up monster numbers once again, but the lack of quality opponents will hold him back. He will need a near perfect season to have a serious shot.

Questions or comments?… Email me: ckeefe@wfan.com

Also, I’ve officially jumped on the Twitter bandwagon… Follow me @CaseyKeefeWFAN