The season begins

By Jeff Feyeyer

With the Sox falling and the Cubs competing for the wild card, my interest in baseball is dwindling.

However, sports fans can take solace in one fact.

With USC facing off against Virginia Tech Saturday in the BCA Classic, the football season – arguably the greatest sports season of the year – kicks off.

It is college football in particular, not the glitz and glamour of the NFL, that makes the fall so special.

College football doesn’t come with the whiners, the holdouts or the sudden retirements due to wanting to take correspondence courses. Whatever you say, Ricky.

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But it is the unpredictability of college football that makes it great.

Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series, the current national champion determining formula, there have been surprise teams rising to the top to shock the college football world.

There was Tennessee hoisting the hardware in 1998 after losing Peyton Manning.

The Ohio State Buckeyes shocked the NFL-stacked Miami team in 2002 to bring a BCS title to the Big Ten.

Even last year, LSU, who barely broke the Top 25 in the preseason, pummeled Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl with a stifling defense.

However, the 2004 college football season is beginning unlike any other.

Almost every pre-season publication expects four teams – Georgia, Oklahoma, LSU and USC – to be head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.

Of course, there are teams like Florida State, Florida, Michigan and Miami right on their heels, but each have glaring holes that could prevent them from competing with the aforementioned giants of the 2004 college football world.

But I see things differently.

I see four other teams that people should keep their eye on during the upcoming season.

They may not threaten the power of the Bulldogs, Sooners, Tigers and Trojans, but all should challenge for a BCS spot and create some noise of their own.

Texas Longhorns

Every year they are talked about as a possible threat for the national championship.

Every year the Longhorns and head coach Mack Brown churn out NFL talent. Every year they fill in with future NFL talent. Every year they lose to Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout. And every year they disappoint.

But not this year.

They come in with solid offensive and defensive lines, athletic linebackers and defensive backs and three future NFL first-round picks that should lead the way.

Sophomore quarterback Vince Young is a taller, right-handed Michael Vick clone. Running back Cedric Benson is a bulldozer that ran for 1,360 yards last year and 21 touchdowns. Linebacker Derrick Johnson would have been the first linebacker chosen in the NFL draft had he left early.

If they can find some receivers to fill the gap left by the departed Roy Williams, Texas could come out on top in the Big 12.

Virginia Cavaliers

This could be a risky selection considering the construction of the new ACC.

Granted, they lost former conference player of the year quarterback Matt Schaub, and national powers Miami and Virginia Tech decided to jump the Big East ship and swim in the Atlantic coastal waters, but there’s much on this team to like.

They have the best group of linebackers in the country led by Darryl Blackstock and Ahmad Brooks, a dominant offensive line, and a group of skilled position players – including running back Wali Lundy and tight end Heath Miller – that should stretch the field against the athletic ACC defenses.

Their schedule will be tough, but don’t rule out the Cavaliers.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

I know I’ve pinpointed one Big 12 team already, but the Nebraska Cornhuskers will be one of the more interesting teams to watch.

With former Raiders boss Bill Callahan taking over, the Cornhuskers have entered the 21st century and changed from an option-first attack to the West Coast offense as an attempt to jump-start a falling program.

Free safety Josh Bullocks and linebacker Barrett Ruud lead the stifling “blackshirt” defense, and two All-American candidates – center Richie Incognito and tight end Matt Herian – spark the Nebraska offense.

They have a stable of young, athletic running backs to keep the ground game going. But the most important part of the offense will be first-year quarterback Joe Dailey, who has drawn rave reviews from the Nebraska faithful.

If things work out, they could be joining Texas in the Big 12 Championship game.

Wisconsin Badgers

Much to the dismay of the Illinois faithful, my surprise team in the Big Ten does not come from Champaign.

Instead, they reside to the north in Madison.

The Badgers return the deepest backfield in the nation led by preseason All-American Anthony Davis, Booker Stanley and Dwayne Smith. The road for these speedsters will be paved by an always-solid Wisconsin offensive line.

Their offense possesses a pair of solid receivers in Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr, who should keep opposing defenses honest.

The defense is headed by defensive tackle Antaj Hawthorne and safety Jim Leonhard, who rank as two of the best in the nation at their respective positions.

Like some of the other teams I have mentioned, Wisconsin will be starting the season with an inexperienced quarterback.

But as long as he can turn around and hand the ball off to Davis, the Badgers should be in good hands.

But wait…

While I believe Texas, Virginia, Nebraska and Wisconsin could enter the BCS picture, they do have their faults.

And despite what the experts may say, the “Big Four” of Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and USC don’t come without their own faults.

Georgia’s offensive line, with the exception of All-ACC member Max Jean-Gilles, is very green, which doesn’t bode well for the success of senior quarterback David Greene.

Their running game is already in trouble because projected starting running back Kregg Lumpkin was lost for the season to an injury in summer drills.

LSU lost many key players to the NFL, including Michael Clayton, Devery Henderson, Marquise Hill, Chad Lavalais, Matt Mauck and Stephen Peterman. All were key contributors to the Tigers’ title run in 2003 and will be difficult to replace.

Oklahoma probably raises the most questions of any of the top teams.

After dominating their opposition in the first 12 games of the 2003 season, the tables were turned in the final two games as Kansas State and LSU brought the #1 offense in the nation and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jason White down to earth.

White returns and will try to join Archie Griffin as the only players to win the Heisman Trophy twice. But like LSU, Oklahoma lost a bevy of talent to the NFL, making their 2004 championship run that much more difficult.

The most talented team in the nation, USC, may look invincible on the surface, but they have some serious question marks.

With all of the skill and speed on the Trojan defense, the defensive backfield could be beaten by the aerial attack of Pac-10 opponents. Safeties Jason Leach and Darnell Bing are both stars in the making, but the loss of last season’s starting cornerbacks could pose problems when facing the passing games of Arizona State, California and Oregon State.

A non-conference slate including Virginia Tech, Colorado State and Notre Dame will be a formidable task for Pete Carroll and his troops.

Like any college football season, there are some things that are certain.

People will beg for a playoff system, every weekend will be dramatic, and many teams will surprise the American audience.

Everyone, including the experts, may see things differently, but come this college football season, there is only one team that the Illinois faithful hope surprises people.

Jeff Feyerer is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]