I am excited about college football the way I used to get excited about college basketball. There are great teams and potentially great teams all over the place. There are so many impressive players -- many of them NFL prospects -- it is almost impossible to count them all. Whenever Penn State is playing, turn on the TV and pay close attention when the Nittany Lions' defense takes the field. You will not be able to take your eyes off No. 11, LaVar Arrington, who may be the fastest, toughest, cockiest dream of a linebacker anybody has seen in years. The fact that Joe Paterno spends so much time telling us the kid isn't that good yet tells us what a monster player he must already be.
Arrington is the headliner, but the stage is crowded. I wish I could say some of these players were on display at Maryland, but that isn't the case. Not yet anyway. The competition is more intense than ever for recruits, particularly when you're trying to sell football players on a school located in a basketball hotbed. And the Washington area doesn't produce more than a half-dozen great high school football prospects per season, most of whom are trying to go away to college. Maryland, which opens its season at Temple tonight, has a long way to go. Contention is surely a ways off when the head coach hasn't named the starting quarterback 24 hours before the opener. It could be a long, long season having to play in a league that includes my No. 1 pick, Florida State, a really loaded Georgia Tech team and a Virginia team that, as usual, will run the ball, play defense and do all those boring but fundamentally superb things George Welsh's teams do.
It's not a good year to be looking for a breakthrough because there are simply too many good teams that have too many good players in too many good conferences. And you know what else? They're mature players, adults. They're in the polishing stages, upperclassmen who are completing their apprenticeships -- unlike college basketball, where the moment an 18-year-old scores his first basket he declares himself ready for the NBA.
Just look at Ron Dayne and Peter Warrick, who never would have returned to school if they were basketball players. Dayne would have gone high in the most recent NFL draft; he's been a three-year workhorse carrying the ball at Wisconsin. He had every legitimate reason, after his junior season, to think he could be a productive running back in the NFL. But he's back for his senior year, within reach of Ricky Williams's NCAA rushing record and a serious threat to win the Heisman Trophy. Warrick would have been the best receiver in the April draft pool. But he's back for his senior year at Florida State, where he is the spectacularly skilled centerpiece of an almost absurd lineup of talent.
The amazing thing is that cupboard is still full even though the 1999 NFL draft yielded a bumper crop. There are fifth-round picks in some places, such as Steelers rookie linebacker Joey Porter, who are forcing their way into the lineup right away. With that kind of talent procession into the NFL, it figures the colleges would need a year or so to re-stock. Nope.
Okay, Quincy Carter is still just a sophomore at Georgia and he might be the best quarterback in the country based on what he did last season. And Purdue's Drew Brees is a junior. He's the new Tim Couch, the trigger man in a pass-obsessed offense who will break the records he set last season. Beyond them, West Virginia's Marc Bulger is a senior. Georgia Tech's Joe Hamilton is a senior. Louisville's Chris Redman is a senior. Marshall's Chad Pennington (who threw all those bombs to Randy Moss) is a senior. Tennessee's Tee Martin is a senior with a championship under his belt. Louisiana Tech's Tim Rattay is a senior. Notre Dame's Jarious Jackson is a senior.
You want running backs? Dayne, Arizona State's J.R. Redmond, and Arizona's Trung Canidate -- arguably the three best backs in the nation -- are all seniors. The best three wide receivers -- Warrick, UCLA's Danny Farmer and USC's R. Jay Soward -- are seniors. Arrington is a senior, so is his teammate and fellow linebacker Brandon Short. Nine of the 11 teams in the Big Ten return their starting quarterbacks. How many great players stay this long in college basketball anymore? Their premature departure really damages the product, which isn't the case with college football, which keeps so many of its players longer because the NFL and its union have a rule that says a player cannot enter the draft until three years after high school.
All this experience makes a lot of teams really good, none better, however, than Florida State and Penn State. It's splitting hairs, really. I'm taking Florida State because even with Georgia Tech and Virginia being threats, it's much easier to run through the ACC than it is the Big Ten. Plus, FSU has 16 starters back from last season's trip to the national championship game. Every lineman, starter and backup, from last season's team is back. Something else: Street & Smith's very thorough college football preview selects 24 players for its preseason all-ACC team. Seven are Seminoles. Who is going to deal with an offensive backfield of Chris Weinke at quarterback, Travis Minor at running back and Warrick?
Nobody. Not even Miami, which is all the way back, and Florida, which has to replace almost the entire defense. The Seminoles play both those teams. But the Nittany Lions have to play at Miami, Ohio State at home, at Purdue, and Michigan at home. It's a lot to negotiate, but it gives us plenty of times to watch Arrington and appreciate that a kid of his skills, his ferocity, his efficiency, is still playing on Saturdays.