1. Is there a true No. 1 team?
What jumps out about this season is that there are no juggernauts, no near flawless programs like last season's Southern California and Texas squads, which early on seemed destined for a January face-off. Even Ohio State, the top-ranked team in both the preseason USA Today coaches' and Associated Press polls, has significant question marks. The Buckeyes replace nine defensive starters, including a trio of stars at linebacker. Coach Jim Tressel's secondary could be the biggest concern.
"From a physical, intellectual standpoint," Tressel said of his entire defense, "they're very capable of being a championship defense."
The other top five teams in the coaches' poll are just as flawed. Texas must replace the almost omnipotent force of Vince Young, the quarterback who led the Longhorns to last season's national title. Notre Dame has no shortage of offensive firepower, but the defense remains suspect. All USC's offense has to worry about is replacing two Heisman Trophy winners, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush. And the 13 coaches who gave Oklahoma first-place votes did so before the Sooners dismissed starting quarterback Rhett Bomar because he accepted excessive pay from a job. By cutting Bomar loose, the Sooners all but crushed their championship hopes.
2. Who will be invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony?
The race is not as clear-cut as last season, when a three-man race quickly emerged. Last season's finalists — Leinart, Bush and Young — all are in the NFL now, which leaves Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn as the returning player creating the most preseason Heisman Trophy buzz.
Quinn, who threw 32 touchdown passes and seven interceptions last year, enters as the favorite (media hype won't be an issue for a Notre Dame quarterback). Quinn could further inflate his statistics in Year Two under Coach Charlie Weis because of the talented cast that surrounds him at the skill positions.
One familiar face who will pose a challenge to Quinn's Heisman hopes is Adrian Peterson, the Oklahoma tailback who was the Heisman runner-up as a freshman two years ago. His chances were undercut last season by injury, but expect his name in the mix again. With questions now at the quarterback position, Peterson could get more than 30 carries per game.
If Ohio State can win at Texas on Sept. 9, either Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith or wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., or both, will be in the conversation as well. Circle Nov. 2 as almost a make-or-break day for four Heisman hopefuls — West Virginia quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, and Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush — because that's when the Big East contenders meet.
3. What do the changes in the BCS format mean?
The Bowl Championship Series standings will still comprise the same three components — two human polls and the average of six computer polls — and the top two schools will still play in the national title game. But the game will be played Jan. 8, not Jan. 4. And 10 schools will qualify for BCS games, not eight.
The BCS games will occur in the usual cities of Pasadena, Calif. (Rose Bowl), Glendale, Ariz. (Fiesta Bowl), Miami (Orange Bowl) and New Orleans (Sugar Bowl). The national title game also will be played at one of these four sites; this year it is in Glendale, at the new stadium of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.
The champions of the six power conferences will automatically earn BCS berths, which leaves four at-large bids. One champion from a non-BCS conference — Conference USA, the Mountain West, the Western Athletic Conference, the Sun Belt and the Mid-American Conference — can earn an automatic berth if it finishes in the top 12 of the BCS standings or finishes in the top 16 of the BCS standings and ahead of one champion from a top six power conference.
And then there is Notre Dame, which can earn an automatic berth with a top eight finish in the BCS standings.
4. Are Fulmer, Carr and Coker really on the hot seat?
Although they may not be fired at season's end, three high-profile coaches who have won national titles are starting to feel pressure, if not from their respective administrations then certainly from their rabid fan bases. No seat may be hotter than the office chair of Miami's Larry Coker, who named six new assistants in the offseason. It hardly matters that Coker is 53-9 in five seasons in Coral Gables. Miami not only went 9-3 last season, the Hurricanes also played in the Peach Bowl for the second straight year, losing in a laugher to Louisiana State, 40-3.
At Michigan, Lloyd Carr has two new coordinators and expects his team to be leaner and better conditioned. The schedule is not kind; games against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State are all on the road. And home success is not guaranteed after last season, when Michigan lost as many home games (three) as it had in the previous six seasons combined. Eight of Michigan's 12 games were decided by seven or fewer points, which means its 7-5 record could have been a little better or a lot worse.
Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, meantime, has offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe back and is hoping he does not have to play musical chairs with quarterbacks again. Fulmer has called last year's 5-6 campaign, in which the Volunteers missed a bowl game for the first time since 1988, an "aberration." Are any of these coaches truly in trouble?
"The minute you think you're not on the hot seat," Alabama Coach Mike Shula said, "that's when you are in trouble."
5. Do the BCS changes make it easier for a small-conference school to earn a berth?
Yes. If the new rules were in place last season, Texas Christian would have qualified because the Horned Frogs finished in the top 16 of the BCS standings (14th), ahead of ACC champion Florida State, which finished 22nd. This season, the Horned Frogs have the best chance among the little guys to earn a berth in the BCS.
TCU Coach Gary Patterson, who has led the Frogs to three 10-win seasons, has most of his skill position players back. Between Sept. 16 and Oct. 5, TCU will face Texas Tech, Brigham Young and Utah, a stretch that likely will define its season.
Another non-BCS conference stalwart is Fresno State, which last season nearly added USC to the list of powers the Bulldogs have knocked off under Coach Pat Hill. Fresno State gets a chance to avenge a controversial loss from last season and establish itself as a national contender when it plays host to Oregon on Sept. 9.
Two seasons ago, Utah, under then-coach Urban Meyer, became the only school outside the top six power conferences to play in a BCS game. Another program is bound to join that exclusive fraternity this season.
6. Did you clear your schedule on Sept. 16?
Do it now. This is the wrong day to visit the in-laws or shop for furniture. Plant yourself on a couch with the remote control all day; it will be worth it. We're not promising Sept. 16 will match the drama of Oct. 15, 2005, when USC edged Notre Dame, Michigan derailed Penn State's perfect season and several other games came down to the wire. But consider this lineup: Auburn hosts Louisiana State; Florida visits Tennessee; Notre Dame hosts Michigan and Nebraska visits Southern California.
There is much more. Two other games could have national title implications: Miami at Louisville and Texas Tech at Texas Christian. If the Cardinals win, they could enter the Nov. 2 game against West Virginia with an unblemished record. And should the Horned Frogs beat Texas Tech, they will begin eyeing an undefeated regular season.
Fans also should check out an always intense in-state rivalry: Iowa State at Iowa. The Hawkeyes will look to avenge a 23-3 loss to the Cyclones last year. And, finally, Oregon hosts Oklahoma in a matchup that looked a lot better a month ago, before Sooners quarterback Rhett Bomar was dismissed.
7. Which new rule will matter most?
Anyone who witnessed the USC-Notre Dame game last season knows that it was long, almost four hours, which was not necessarily a bad thing because the contest was an epic, back-and-forth affair. But the game did not exactly fit nicely into a television time slot.
This season, in a controversial effort to shorten games, a minor rule change will have major implications. The game clock will now start when a kicker connects with the football on kickoffs, not when a player catches the ball downfield. And after a change of possession, the clock will now start when officials give the "ready-for-play" signal, not when the ball is snapped.
The changes are expected to cut as many as 15 offensive plays from games. Fewer plays means fewer opportunities for the best offenses, which in turn could mean more upsets. Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said it is "going to create some problems." Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti went further, saying: "As a coach, I'm appalled at the rule changes. They are major and very severe and will change the game as we know it."
8. Is the Notre Dame hype warranted?
We'll know for sure in mid-September after the Fighting Irish face three bowl teams from last year: Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan. Notre Dame has an offense that should be even more potent than it was last season, when the Fighting Irish scored 20 or more points in every game except one, a 17-10 victory over the Wolverines.
Quarterback Brady Quinn is complemented by 1,000-yard rusher Darius Walker and two deep-threat wide receivers, all-American Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, who missed 10 games last year because of a knee injury. The problem: The defense is vulnerable, as was evidenced in the blowout loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Tom Zbikowski, the junior strong safety-boxer, is the type of hard-nosed player Coach Charlie Weis likes. But the rest of the secondary is slow-footed. How will the Irish keep speedy Penn State wideout Derrick Williams in check?
9. What is the most intriguing conference in the title hunt?
A year ago, the Big East was everyone's favorite punch line. After it lost its three top football-playing schools — Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College — to the ACC, the future viability of the league was in question. Now, the Big East includes two programs — Louisville and West Virginia — that could cause havoc in the national title picture.
The perception of the conference changed to a large degree after the Mountaineers built a 28-point lead against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and held on for a 38-35 victory. It was an outcome Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner, called a "watershed" moment. It meant the conference had a 2006 national contender in the Mountaineers, who have back 15 starters from an 11-1 team.
Both West Virginia and Louisville have more than manageable schedules, which means if the Cardinals beat Miami on Sept. 16, the Nov. 2 Louisville-West Virginia matchup could feature two undefeated teams. In that scenario, the Big East, which some observers felt did not deserve a BCS berth a year ago, perhaps would be on the verge of landing two schools in BCS games.
10. Which players will you know by the end of the season?
If you get a rare glimpse of Colorado on television, check out place kicker Mason Crosby, who has made 11 field goals of 50 yards or longer over the past two seasons. Coach Dan Hawkins calls him an "absolute freak" and said Crosby may attempt a 70-yarder this season (the NCAA record is 67 yards, the longest without a tee is 65).
Another lesser-known name to remember is Garrett Wolfe, the Northern Illinois tailback and the nation's leading returning rusher. Wolfe stands a mere 5 feet 7, but his rep will be quite large if he can turn in a strong performance in the opener against Ohio State. Last year, Wolfe ran for 148 yards against Michigan.
And at South Carolina, Sidney Rice will try for an encore performance after setting school records for receiving yards (1,143) and touchdowns (13) as a redshirt freshman. Coach Steve Spurrier said last year that he has not coached a player who can catch the ball better than the 6-4 Rice, who will have a chance to become the nation's preeminent receiver.