College football really starts to make sense if you think of it as a Mexican soap opera. A telenovela crams love and craziness and drama and villainy into a single season of TV. College football pulls off the same thing in a little more than four months, only with helmets.
It’s not a perfect analogy; it would help, for comparative purposes, if Nick Saban had a mustache he could twirl on the sideline. But you work with what you have.
The new season of “Quest for El Fútbol de Cristal” (don’t hold me to that translation, I took French) premieres this week with Alabama-Michigan, Boise State-Michigan State, Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech and many top-25 squads playing club teams from the local Y. Every week brings surprises (Appalachian State did what?!?), and every week brings constants: late-night Pac-12 upsets, “Seven Nation Army,” variations on the read option, punters from other continents and Lou Holtz (check now to make sure that your mute button is functional.)
Here are 10 mini-dramas to keep track of as this year’s telenovela plays out. We present them in the form of matchups, and no, there are no point spreads, you degenerate gambler.
1. Urban Meyer vs. Urban Meyer
He won two titles at Florida, but by the end his body locked up like a car with a dry oil pan. So he became a TV analyst, reintroduced himself to his family … and took the Ohio State job a year later. Now he’s the head coach at his dream school in his home state, he’s in charge of a football megapower coming off a crippling scandal, and he’s in a proud conference that’s trying to catch up to the one he just left.
Oh, and his friends and family are counting on him to be a human being this time around.
So, yeah, no pressure.
Can Meyer win big without grinding himself into dust? Check back during Michigan week. And watch for oil leaks.
2. The SEC vs. the Universe
Six national titles in a row. Five teams (Bama, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas) in the top 10 of many preseason polls. Four coaches (Saban, Les Miles, Gene Chizik, Steve Spurrier) who have won it all. Three players (Marcus Lattimore, Aaron Murray, Tyler Wilson) on most Heisman watch lists. Two turtle doves. And one conference so tired of beating the rest of the country that it turned the national championship game into an in-house affair.
What will it take to beat the SEC when it matters the most? Maybe a quarterback capable of astral projection in the title game (hello, USC). Maybe a defense built with SEC speed and bulk (hey there, Florida State). Maybe waves of angry bees dressed in multiple alternate uniforms (looking at you, Oregon).
This feels like the year, doesn’t it? The year that some team just below the first tier makes it all the way through? Allow me to place two words into your subconscious: West Virginia. (I place them there so your conscious mind won’t mock me if they go 7-5.)
3. The BCS vs. Chaos Theory
Now that the NCAA presidents have approved a four-team playoff starting in 2014, all the BCS has to do is sneak through two more seasons with no controversy and … oh look, it’s December, and USC, LSU and Oklahoma are all undefeated. And hey, the liquor store down the street from NCAA headquarters is all out of Scotch!
The BCS is a poll. It’s a poll made up of polls, with a pinch of SCIENCE! thrown in, but it’s still just a judgment call, and at some level it turns college football into figure skating. Figure skating wouldn’t have judges if they could just put all the skaters on the ice and let the best one win (and by the way, that would be awesome. Tonya Harding would have five gold medals by now). Every year under the BCS, there’s a threat, sometimes carried out, that an undefeated team will get robbed. A four-team playoff is still a guess, but it’s less of a guess than two.
[This space reserved for 79,000-word rebuttal from team that finishes No. 5 in 2014. ]
4. Denard Robinson vs. Physics
Shoelace is (slightly) bigger than you think. If his Michigan player page is accurate, he’s roughly the same size as Russell Wilson, who might end up starting at QB for the Seahawks. But Robinson plays small -- he’s the nephew that nobody can catch in the touch football game at Thanksgiving.
This is wondrous when it works, and it has worked for the last two years against Big Ten defenses. (We don’t have to write B1G, do we? Let’s just agree on that now.) But this year the Wolverines open against Alabama, where the linebackers are as fast as Shoelace and made from 240 pounds of Sakrete. If he can turn those guys inside out, bring him an NFL contract and the finest meats from Zingerman’s.
5. Boise State vs. Baggage Claim
The silliness of conference realignment can be summed up this way: Starting next season, Boise State will play football in the Big East and most other sports in the Big West. Apparently, Boise is the Continental Divide of sports.
The Broncos end their brief layover in the Mountain West this season, supplementing their conference schedule with trips to Michigan State and Southern Miss. All this traveling and conference jumping, of course, is Boise’s desperate attempt to be taken seriously at BCS time, and soon playoff time. It’s noble, in a way, for Blue U. to take a shot at cracking the bigs. But it’s also an expensive bet in a sport in which players aren’t allowed to stick around (bye, Kellen Moore). And all those long road trips have to catch up to a team at some point, no?
The only sure thing: The jet-fuel vendor at the Boise airport is about to get paid.
6. USC vs. the Depth Chart
Lots of preseason pundit types think the Trojans have the best starting lineup in the country, led by QB Matt Barkley, whose jersey is being crafted from Egyptian cotton at Jacksonville Jaguars headquarters as we speak. The problem is that USC is still on partial probation, which means that it gets 10 fewer scholarship players -- 75 instead of 85. (Please go here to lodge your official protest.)
Sure, 75 still seems like a lot of players … except that college football players tend to get caught smoking synthetic weed, or plagiarizing Stephen King in a term paper, or other things that 20-year-old knuckleheads tend to do. And we’re not even counting injuries. Seventy-five players is plenty to take down Hawaii, but it might not be enough to beat Oregon twice. And USC might have to do that to win it all.
7. The ACC vs. Irrelevance
The ACC is foreign money: It’s beautifully designed and colorful, and it makes you dream of fancy things … but it doesn’t do much for you at the cash register. Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami would be a monster lineup in 1992. Unfortunately it’s 2012, and Georgia Tech has forgotten how to pass, North Carolina is on probation, Virginia Tech is trying out the least intimidating helmets in history and Miami’s most notable returning starter is Nevin Shapiro.
That leaves Florida State. A lot of preseason polls have the Seminoles booked on the upper floors -- my man Phil Steele has them No. 1 -- based on a solid QB (E.J. Manuel) and a defense that finished fourth in the country last year. Then again, that defense gave up 35 to Clemson and Wake Forest in back-to-back weeks. Clemson also has a chance to sneak into the top 10 this year, and yes, I cut and pasted that sentence from every Clemson season preview since Danny Ford left.
FSU plays at Virginia Tech on Nov. 8. If that game has (Morgan Freeman voice) national title implications, then maybe the ACC can start trading euros for greenbacks.
8. LSU vs. the Badger Hole
I guess it’s a compliment to what Les Miles has built, but it was still weird to hear so many analysts say that LSU would be just fine after kicking Tyrann Mathieu off the team. The consensus seems to be that the Tigers will plug in some other All-America and be just as good. Problem is, nobody was doing what Mathieu did before Mathieu was doing it. So why would somebody behind him on the depth chart be able to?
The Honey Badger’s special genius is his ability to stay on his feet in the middle of chaos -- he doesn’t just create the turnover, he adds yards (and sometimes points) to it. Mathieu was the best player on a team that got to the national title game. Surely that’s not just a plug-and-play situation.
After Alabama won the national championship in 2009, I predicted that it’d lose three games the next year. My friend Mike, a Bama fan to the marrow, looked at me like I was high on bath salts. Alabama lost three games. This feels like that kind of year at LSU. This prediction has nothing to do with the fact that I once spent a night in a house with a group of LSU students and a goat. (Some other time.)
9. Mike Leach vs. Geography
The Palouse is a gorgeous part of our great nation, covering parts of three states, including Washington State University in Pullman. Look at these amazing photos. Now imagine those landscapes as God and Mike Leach intended: with footballs filling the sky.
Leach made chicken salad out of Texas Tech by sending everyone out for a pass on every play, including offensive linemen and the team trainers. He beat a top-ranked Texas team that way (the video is blurry because Red Raider fans have watched it 2 trillion times). But even happy couples go through ugly divorces, and Leach drifted for a couple of years -- in a pirate ship, obviously -- before landing at Washington State.
WSU is a tough sell to recruits, seeing as how your five-star types are generally not attracted to canola fields. It’s also in the bottom tier of the Pac-12, a conference with powerhouses at the top. In other words, it’s pretty much the same situation that Leach walked into at Texas Tech. So why not man the pass patterns and try to take down the Trojans? After all, sometimes a pirate can beat a soldier.
10. Fanhood vs. Reality
Now is the hardest time to be a college football fan since the turn of the 20th century, when so many college football players died that Teddy Roosevelt had to step in.
Penn State, the one place we thought was doing it right, crumbled under the monstrous sins of Jerry Sandusky and those who covered for him. Science has proven what we knew all along but tried not to think about: Concussions are a normal byproduct of football, and brain damage is a normal byproduct of repeated concussions.
All that is layered on top of the chronic problems: athletes who generate billions but don’t get paid; players who represent higher learning but don’t learn much; and boosters, agents and bowl reps who make up the corrupt legislature of the sport.
One thing we love about sports -- college football, especially -- is that it makes us feel young again. But true love, grownup love, is about loving something in spite of its flaws. College football is blemished and pockmarked and emotionally unbalanced. But it can still be beautiful, and it can still fill your heart.
I’m not sure how we started talking about Mexican soap operas and ended up here. Doesn’t matter. The game’s about to start.