Before we get to this week's edition of Three Down and Punt, I want to offer a quick Laurel and Hardy handshake to reader Tom M. from Columbus, who was one of many to respond to my post last week on the top five recruiting head coaches. Tom, whom I assume is from Columbus, Ohio, not Columbus, Ga., sent me this early Valentine:
"I saw you on the TV show NASCAR Now once and as soon as I heard your hick redneck southern accent I should have known you would write this kind of biased southern fried drivel. Sure, Nick Saban is number one on your list. When he was here in the Big Ten where there are actual rules about oversigning he didn't do squat. Goodbye you SEC country bumpkin."
To the plays!
1st Down: The perfect 2011 schedule
As I write this, the 2011 college football season is still just a smidge over 200 days away. But as far as I'm concerned, it's never too early to start digging into the schedule to start figuring out which games are most likely to be each weekend's most scintillating matchup.
With that in mind, I have compiled what I believe to be the most delicious possible 2011 schedule, chock-full of games that figure to shape the season. Now, if I could only get ESPN The Magazine to green light the travel budget ...
Week 1: Sept. 3
This game edges out the Boise State Broncos' trip to Atlanta to face the Georgia Bulldogs because it will pit the Oregon offense, which loses three linemen and little else, against LSU's top-10 defense. Yes, the Tigers will be without Patrick Peterson, but they will return at least a half-dozen starters on D and all but one starter on offense. One of these projected-top-5 teams will have its national title hopes dashed (or at the very least, severely wounded) in the season's first week.
Week 2, Sept. 10
Welcome to the Pac-10 ... er, Pac-12! The Utes open up conference play early with a trip to Southern California, meaning the conference's South division may already be decided two weeks into the season. Also of note this week, the Brigham Young Cougars travel to play the Texas Longhorns and the Alabama Crimson Tide take on the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Week 3, Sept. 17
This weekend will be the chance for the ACC to avenge last year's nightmare weekend when FSU hosts the Sooners, who whipped the Noles 47-17 last season, and the Miami (FL) Hurricanes welcome a suspension-depleted Ohio State Buckeyes team that stomped the Canes much worse than last year's 36-24 score would indicate. This is not the same FSU squad that the Sooners saw last September, as these Noles have a chance to be legit BCS contenders, but not if the likely preseason No. 1 runs them over again.
Week 4, Sept. 25
LSU Tigers at West Virginia Mountaineers
The only conference that had a worse 2010 than the ACC was the Big East. This weekend will be its chance to make a statement in this game and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's visit to play the Pittsburgh Panthers. If LSU shuts down Oregon in Week 1 and West Virginia's made-over offense (featuring new offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen) in Week 4, it's hard to imagine the Tigers giving up much to any team for the remainder of the season.
Week 5, Oct. 1
Alabama Crimson Tide at Florida Gators
Will the post-Mark Ingram/Julio Jones Tide be legit? Is Will Muschamp the answer in Gainesville? We'll know by the end of this day. Another gem on this weekend's schedule is the Big Ten newbies, Nebraska Cornhuskers, at the Wisconsin Badgers. Holy red.
Week 6, Oct. 8
Ohio State Buckeyes at Nebraska Cornhuskers
It's always hard to go with any game this weekend other than the Red River Rivalry, but the Buckeyes have never been to Lincoln, and somehow these two legendary programs have only played twice before, Ohio State home wins in 1955 and 1956. Half of the games on Nebraska's first Big Ten schedule feel like can't-miss affairs, especially the previous week's trip to Camp Randall, the Nov. 19 trip to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines and Nov. 26 border war with the Iowa Hawkeyes. But this one's too big to avoid.
Week 7, Oct. 15
Michigan Wolverines at Michigan State Spartans
The thinnest weekend on the national calendar will be Michigan State's chance to make a BCS statement, but only if it can get by Ohio State on Oct. 1.
Week 8, Oct. 22
Get your track shoes ready. The moment that OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon announced they were coming back, this game became a big one. Blaine Gabbert may be gone, but replacing QBs at Mizzou under Gary Pinkel has never been an issue. If OSU gets by the Texas A&M Aggies and Texas, this should be a matchup of top-10 teams with a top-five ranking on the line. If the Tigers win, it will set up another epic Big 12 matchup the next week at the Aggies.
Week 9, Oct. 29
Stanford Cardinal at USC Trojans
Stanford will be undefeated and Andrew Luck's Heisman nameplate will be all but engraved. USC could also be undefeated, or it could already have three losses. Either way, the Trojans would love nothing more than to knock Stanford out of the BCS title hunt, especially after last year's last-second loss.
Week 10, Nov. 5
Texas A&M Aggies at Oklahoma Sooners
You say there's no Big 12 championship this year. I say this will be it. Alabama at LSU will also be humongous. Also, the winner of that game will likely play in the SEC title game against the winner of ...
Week 11, Nov. 12
Florida Gators at South Carolina Gamecocks
This game will decide the SEC East and either reinforce or completely destroy all of the preseason love for South Carolina as "this year's Auburn." Another biggie: Oregon at Stanford.
Week 12, Nov. 19
TCU Horned Frogs at Boise State Broncos
The Mountain West has yet to release its conference schedule, but if it is smart it will put this potentially BCS-altering game on this relatively thin national weekend. The MWC has already informed the Horned Frogs that they will be traveling to Idaho instead of the other way around, as was originally expected.
Week 13, Nov. 26
Alabama Crimson Tide at Auburn Tigers
This weekend is packed. Iowa at Nebraska and Notre Dame at Stanford could have BCS implications, but the last two years the national championship has run through the Iron Bowl. I'd be a dummy to assume that it won't again. Even if it doesn't, the thought of Bama seeking to avenge last year's collapse or Auburn having a chance to ruin a possible perfect Tide season is enough to make any football fan's mouth water.
Week 14, Dec. 3
Is it possible to get from the SEC title game to the Pac-12 title game on the same day?
Week 15, Dec. 10
2nd Down: The birth of a program
On Wednesday afternoon I attended a town hall meeting at UNC Charlotte (please don't call it UNC-C!), where 49ers athletic officials met with students, alums and faculty to answer questions about the school's decision to start playing football in 2013.
The school has understandably met some resistance from within since the school's board of trustees voted to add football, though most of the problems have been more of a result of poor timing than anything else. The investigation into whether the 25,000-enrollment school should add the sport started more than a decade ago. Just as it gained steam, 9/11 happened. The board finally held its vote of approval on Nov. 13, 2008. One month later, the National Bureau of Economic Research officially proclaimed that the United States was in a recession.
But the tone of Wednesday's discussion was overwhelmingly positive. It was led by athletic director Judy Rose, a name recognized by most college sports fans because of her longtime affiliation with the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee.
Then everyone seemed to brace themselves for angry questions about wasting money and taking away from academics and the sort.
It didn't happen.
Those in attendance didn't bring torches and pitchforks. They brought stadium seats and foam fingers (well, not really, but you get the idea).
They asked about a coach. Rose said that search is ongoing; she wouldn't reveal names, but she said she hoped to have him one by April 1.
They asked about seat license sales. She said the school had sold 3,357 so far for a total of $4.15 million. They asked about conference affiliation, and she said there had been talks with the Big South Conference, Southern Conference and Colonial Athletic Association.
The students wanted to know how many seats they would be allotted (7,000); if Charlotte's light rail line would eventually run from downtown to campus (yes); would the stadium have lights (no); and if Homecoming, now a basketball game, would become a football weekend (yes). Then, they wanted to know about parking and tailgating policies and where the displaced intramural fields were moving.
"People aren't mad about this," Rose said, adding that she has talked to someone from nearly every school that has started football over the last decade and a half, from the South Florida Bulls to the Georgia State Panthers. "Even the people who may have had their doubts about this idea in the beginning are starting to see the same benefits that I have seen as I have looked at this from every angle possible. It will forever change the look and the feel of UNC Charlotte."
3rd Down: Gridiron meets tire iron
In the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, I take a look at NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports and its still-new talent combines that look for new potential over-the-wall pit crew members. The program is packed with college football players, which isn't surprising because the directors are a former Stanford linebacker and a Division II (Wingate University) wide receiver who learned how to scout talent from Saban.
You can read the story in The Mag or online here.
One of the up-and-coming jack men (the guy who pumps those 3,400-pound stock cars in the air) is a familiar face to anyone who followed the Wake Forest Demon Deacons' improbable 2006 run to the ACC championship and a BCS trip to the Orange Bowl. It's former Wake fullback Kevin Harris, who scored two touchdowns in the regular-season finale against the Maryland Terrapins to send Wake to the title game.
"Pit road in NASCAR is packed with college football players," Harris told me as his ran developmental drills behind Hendrick's race shop in Concord, N.C. "I think pitting race cars is made for fullbacks. We're quick and strong and have good hands. At least I hope I do. It's one thing to get hit by a linebacker. It's another thing to get hit by a race car."
Punt: Or, more accurately, bunt
The college baseball season gets cranked up next week -- Feb. 18 to be exact -- and starting in two weeks I'll begin covering the sport for ESPN Insider in addition to my regular work on this here college football blog.
So, to whet your appetite, here are my personal picks for the college baseball preseason top 10:
5. South Carolina
9. Cal State Fullerton
10. Arizona State
Why do I like the Bruins? Well, last season's College World Series runners-up aren't going to outslug anyone, but the new dumbed-down bats make their approach to the game that much more lethal. And good luck to anyone trying to take them out in a three-game postseason series with Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer on the mound.
For more college baseball coverage on Insider, be sure to follow me over to that space when the time comes.