Quite a Talent Show

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Far too often, the college football season is taken hostage by coaches. Or rather, it's co-opted by the obsessive attention devoted to coaches -- to Urban Meyer and where he's going next; to Mike Gundy and his rants about manhood; to Charlie Weis, even though he's coming off a 3-9 season; to lying Nick Saban, who preaches mental toughness even though he bailed because he couldn't cut it in the NFL; even to Joe Paterno and whether he'll retire. It's all coaches all the time, players be damned, which besides the Bowl Championship Series is the primary problem with the college game.

But not this season, which kicks off tomorrow night and begins in earnest Saturday. There are too many great players in the college game this fall to get sidetracked with coaches and their mini-dramas. The Heisman Trophy race could be 10 deep in legit candidates. How many times does a season begin with a Heisman winner returning as a junior? The answer is . . . it's never happened.

But Tim Tebow is back for his junior season, again a threat to run and throw for more than 20 touchdowns each, as he did last season for Florida. It might be the first time since the early 1980s, when the college ranks were populated by the likes of Herschel Walker, John Elway and Dan Marino, that there's so much experienced talent returning.

There's so much at quarterback, in fact, that Tebow might not be the best player at the position. It's fair to wonder, even though Tebow accounted for 55 touchdowns last season, whether he would be any better than honorable mention in the Big 12, which has no fewer than four quarterbacks who'll be fighting over the top all-American spot.

The best of the bunch, and perhaps the best in the nation, could be Missouri's Chase Daniel, who's coming off a season in which he threw for 4,170 yards and 33 touchdowns. Last season, Mizzou was a stunner. This year, it's a favorite in what's probably the second-best conference in the country (after the Southeastern Conference, of course). The Tigers have two all-American-caliber pass catchers in tight end Chase Coffman and all-purpose back-wide receiver-punt returner Jeremy Maclin. The man pitching it to them, Daniel, plain and simple, already is a great college quarterback.

Todd Reesing, though only a sophomore last season, threw for 3,486 yards, which is why Kansas is expected to be more than a one-hit wonder. But there's so much rebuilding for the coaches to do that Reesing might be under too much pressure to be better than he was last season, which will be difficult.

Neither Daniel nor Reesing, by the way, was the top-ranked passer in the country last year. That distinction belongs to another conference quarterback, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, who broke the NCAA freshman record for touchdown passes (36) and has most of his primary targets and a wall of an offensive line back this season.

Neither Daniel nor Reesing nor Bradford, by the way, was the most prolific passer in the conference last year. That distinction belongs to Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, who threw for 5,705 yards and 48 touchdowns. You want must-see TV on Saturdays? Find a sports bar, a satellite dish, do whatever is necessary to see Harrell throw it to a kid named Michael Crabtree, who as a freshman last season caught 134 passes for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns, all NCAA freshman records. They might be the best unseen quarterback-wide receiver combo since Willie Totten-to-Jerry Rice in the early '80s. Crabtree has help, too, with Edward Britton, Aaron Crawford and Detron Lewis, who will share the workload. It takes a while for Texas Tech to play anybody that matters, but the Red Raiders get Texas and Oklahoma in the first three weeks of November. And even when they're playing, say, Nevada, Harrell is worth four hours in front of the TV.

The Big 12 doesn't have everybody worth watching. West Virginia has Pat White, who can hurt opponents with both his legs and his arm. Georgia has a running back named Knowshon Moreno, who was the SEC's best freshman last season. In addition to Tebow, Florida has Percy Harvin, a double-threat receiver-runner. Ohio State has perhaps the best defensive player in the country in James Laurinaitis, who was both the Butkus Award winner and the Big Ten defensive player of the year.

But if I had my choice of any defensive player in the country, I'd likely start with South Florida's George Selvie. He wears No. 95 and he runs people down -- quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, anybody. He's the kind of player offensive linemen often have no answer for in college. He had a national-best 31.5 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks last year.

Wake Forest has a cornerback, Alphonso Smith, who picked off eight passes last season, which is impressive enough, and ran back three for touchdowns, which is outrageous.

Boise State's Ian Johnson, best known to casual fans for proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend after the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, will try for his third straight season with more than 1,000 rushing yards.

You pick up just about any preseason magazine and you'll see Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Southern California or Louisiana State picked to win the national championship. They're all in everybody's top 10. And this season undoubtedly will have its share of voting controversies and noise over the BCS rankings.

You can waste time if you want wondering about how many games the 81-year-old Paterno has to win at Penn State this season to avoid being shown the door, or waste time following rumors over how much money Notre Dame boosters will have to raise to buy out Weis if Notre Dame fails to reach a bowl again.

But that's the angst of the college football season. The thrill of it is watching a long list of great players perform from tomorrow until the end of November, players who if we're lucky will give us a very different kind of college season than we've become all too accustomed to seeing.

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