By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; D1
The best news for college football is that the actual season, thankfully, has come to the rescue for a few months to save the game from the caretakers. The same folks who can't get the postseason right spent the spring and summer trying to ruin the regular season, too, what with conferences realigning and poaching.
Fortunately, there are enough great players and potentially great teams to be a darned good distraction between now and the BCS championship game in January. Best of all could be the conflict between the old guard and the new kids who are convinced this season belongs to them.
Hard to imagine college football could have a better battle line than that. Boise State, which doesn't belong to the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Pacific-10, Big 12, ACC or Big East, is ranked as high as No. 3 (in the Associated Press poll) and the favorite of some forecasters (here) to reach the BCS title game. The Blue Bloods, or at least their fans, plain don't like that. It's probably the most upset they've been since the University of Miami showed up in the early 1980s without an invite and simply kicked in the door.
Boise State has gone 49-4 the last four years and 26-1 the last two years, with one skinny one-point loss to TCU, another of the uninvited, two years ago. The Broncos and Horned Frogs are at the heart of what ails college football, but also what could make it better than ever if the caretakers weren't such Neanderthals. The only thing worse for the BCS conferences than having to share their TV money and New Year's Day bowl spots with the likes of Boise State, TCU and Utah is to lose to them, not just games but prestige and - God help them - the bragging rights that go with winning a national championship that is designed to exclude them.
It's not the only story line of the season. Many of the usual suspects will challenge for the championship, starting with defending champion Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, Ohio State and maybe even that old favorite Nebraska, which is back in the top 10 after quite a spell on the sideline. There seems to be an inordinate number of high-profile players of consequence. The Heisman Trophy race, at least for the first six weeks, could be double-digits deep.
It's not often a Heisman Trophy winner is forced into having to share time. But Alabama running back Mark Ingram will give up some carries to Trent Richardson (especially now that Ingram is out for at least the opener after knee surgery), which means the Alabama running game figures to be as great a weapon as there is in college football this fall.
Three of the best running backs stand no taller than 5 feet 8: Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis and West Virginia's Noel Devine. Two of the top quarterbacks, on the other hand, could be basketball small forwards: Ohio State's 6-6 Terrelle Pryor and Arkansas' 6-6 Ryan Mallett, who led the SEC last year in passing yards and passer rating.
Razorbacks Coach Bobby Petrino was lost in the NFL but his offenses are usually unstoppable at the college level, and as a result Arkansas has become something of a trendy pick to win the SEC, but to do that the Razorbacks would have to beat visiting Alabama on Sept. 25. And it's difficult to see anybody beating the Crimson Tide, considering the potency of the running game and a defensive crew that includes a linebacker, Dont'a Hightower, whom pro scouts cannot wait to see play on Sundays.
The SEC doesn't have a monopoly on impact players. Ohio State might be as loaded as Alabama. Half the defense is all-Big Ten worthy. Washington's Jake Locker will remind a whole lot of people of Tim Tebow but is probably a better passer. Houston quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns last season, will probably put up numbers that double those of other good quarterbacks.
But it's the ability to put up astronomical numbers and lead a really talented and experienced team to an undefeated season that should distinguish Boise State's Kellen Moore this season. His 39 touchdown passes to only three interceptions was probably the most impressive performance of last season. And he's got essentially his entire cast of pass catchers (including Austin Pettis and Titus Young) back with him.
Thing is, the Broncos have to be perfect and get there right out of the box. Monday night's game at FedEx Field against Virginia Tech will decide whether Boise State stays alive for a national championship. One loss, even in the first game, and the Broncos are out. There's no wiggle room, no room for a slip-up. Boise State figures to win all its Western Athletic Conference games, and the Broncos know they must win - and perhaps win impressively - against Virginia Tech on Monday night and Oregon State on Sept. 25.
Fans of SEC teams, particularly Alabama and Florida, are already tweeting and texting and e-mailing their brains out about how Boise State has a cupcake schedule. But at least the Broncos have the guts to get on a plane and travel 2,000 miles to play Virginia Tech in what indisputably is a "home game" for the Hokies. Alabama plays one nonconference road game, at Duke, where Tide fans will probably scarf up half the tickets. And Florida plays only one as well, at Florida State, which simply isn't up to the task of beating Florida anymore. Yes, the SEC schedule is difficult, but too often the SEC schools don't leave home, and almost always play seven or eight of 12 at home. Boise State, at least, plays six at home, six on the road.
Not since the Miami Hurricanes started taking on the established powers has an upstart been in position to put its signature on the season. TCU, as good as quarterback Andy Dalton and the Horned Frogs' offense are, doesn't have a signature game on the schedule that could launch it much higher than its current No. 6 ranking. Boise State starts off high enough to hold its position right through January. And the longer Boise stays undefeated, the longer the Blue Bloods will sweat it out.