College football is great as it is, but that doesn't mean a little tinkering and some fresh ideas wouldn't improve it. ESPN.com columnists Gene Wojciechowski, Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach have a few suggestions for things they'd like to see as it relates to this season's on-field product as well as larger issues concerning the sport.
1. Respect for the Stiff Arm
Nowhere on the Heisman Trophy ballot does it say anything about strength of character. You can be a knucklehead, Zac Efron's frat brother, a crummy teammate, or a creation of someone's sports information department. But if you're a full-time student in good standing and you abide by NCAA rules, I can vote for you. Not everyone in the Heisman House is going to be Tim Tebow or Mark Ingram. After all, the trophy features a guy carrying a football, not the Ten Commandments. But it would be nice if future Heisman candidates and recent winners took a lesson from the Ingrams, Tebows, Sam Bradfords, etc., of the world. In short, if you can read a defense, then you can read the pricing label on a package of seafood. You shouldn't need a school-supplied 24-hour babysitter. And if you screw up, write your own apology statement. And speaking of writing ... let's read the NCAA fine print about autograph sessions. No more Johnny Sharpie incidents.
2. "Survivor": College Football Playoff-Style
You want real transparency? The kind that rivals a reality show? The kind that would cause former BCS number crunchers Brad Edwards and Jerry Palm to faint with happiness? Then I have eight words for you: College Football Playoff selection committee war room cam. With boom mikes (OK, 11 words). Have you seen the CFP website? It says, "We want to create an arrangement that allows for maximum disclosure while also allowing the committee to deliberate among themselves..." What could be more maximum than letting us see and hear the process? Congress has public hearings; why can't the College Football Playoff selection committee? The first CFP ranking is Oct. 28, the last is Dec. 7. Imagine the committee intrigue, the drama and the debate as the season wears on. Pull back the curtain. Turn on the mikes. Let us see how the playoff sausage is made.
3. A man's got to know his limitations
Leonardo da Vinci didn't paint an alternate version of "Mona Lisa" with a frown. Vermeer didn't paint "Girl With a Diamond Earring." Grant Wood's "American Gothic" doesn't feature the farmer holding a saxophone. Some things you don't mess with, like certain football unis. Alternate jersey and helmet logos are fine. Sometimes they're even better than the primary outfits. But under no circumstances -- the penalty being the offender has to do the Oklahoma drill, against actual OU players -- should the following programs ever change their helmet logos: Oklahoma, USC, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, SMU, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Texas, TCU, Fresno State, Colorado and Notre Dame.
4. College football fixed from within
I'm all for player rights, the full cost of attendance allowances, and medical coverage that extends beyond your playing days. I'm all for exposing NCAA policies and rules that are counterintuitive, anti-player or just plain dumb. I'm for anything that sends the NCAA rules manual to Weight Watchers. But I'm not pro-union when it comes to players doing the Norma Rae thing. College football needs to unionize like Dabo Swinney needs more caffeine and another orange/purple golf shirt. A football scholarship is no small thing, especially at a place such as Northwestern, birthplace of the Kain Colter-led union movement. Is playing football at Northwestern work? Of course. Is it a job in the traditional sense? Sure, if your job provides a world-class education, a training table, medical and conditioning services, elite-level coaching, an academic center, a Northwestern network of alums, bowl experiences, and the opportunity to earn (on average, according to a recent Forbes article on college grads with bachelor's degrees) 74 percent more than a high school graduate over the course of your working career. You know what I'd really like to see: Colter make a run at the NCAA presidency one day.
5. Officials keep their flags in their pockets
Team X scores a touchdown. Or causes a key turnover. Or sacks the QB. In a moment of pure joy, the teammates happily woof at each other, point to their families in the stands, take a moment to yell. So what happens next? More times than not you'll see a game official rush toward the impromptu celebration as if he's worried kittens are being harmed, immediately neutralizing the spontaneity of the moment. In the worst-case scenario, the official will throw a flag if a player is too demonstrative, too "excessive." Lighten up, Francis. It's football. Everything about it is excessive. That's what we love about it. I'm not advocating the taunting of an opponent. (If it were up to me, I'd throw you out of the game for a quarter if you throat slashed.) Or a "Dancing With The Stars" choreographed routine. But enough already with the refs running over to a post-play celebration and trying to break it up as if it was a bar fight.
6. Power to the player
During a four-month period last season, USC's players had four different head coaches. They went from Lane Kiffin to Ed Orgeron to Clay Helton to Steve Sarkisian. Meanwhile, Sarkisian's players at Washington were later introduced to new coach Chris Petersen, while Petersen's old team at Boise State was reintroduced to former BSU assistant Bryan Harsin. So explain to me again why a player shouldn't have a two-week window to transfer after a coaching change? And, please, don't say that a player signs with a school, not a coach -- because that is hardly ever true. At the very least, it should be mandatory for an outgoing coach to address his old team before he meets his new team. He should have to look his players in the eyes and explain to them why he's leaving. Not as punishment, but because it's the stand-up thing to do.
7. No. 9
In a perfect college football world, it would be nice if every conference would play nine league games. The Pac-12 is going to play nine. The Big 12 is going to play nine. The Big Ten (beginning in 2016) is going to play nine. Meanwhile, the SEC and the ACC have chosen to remain at eight conference games. That prompted Stanford's David Shaw to call out the SEC, suggesting it gave the league a competitive advantage in the new playoff era. "We all need to play by the same rules," he said. I'm a huge fan of Shaw, but he forgot to mention that the SEC has been playing a conference championship game since 1992. And that the Big 12 isn't playing one at all. And that the Pac-12 has played one for a grand total of three seasons. For the moment, the SEC has a playoff advantage because it has the best players and best teams. A nine-game conference schedule doesn't make everybody equal; it just means they're playing the same number of league games. Anyway, if the College Football Playoff selection committee does its job, this will all take care of itself.
8. And the winner is ...
Every year you hear the same thing: There are too many bowl games. And there are. Do we really need the Bahamas Bowl? (Yes, if I can cover it.) But if we're going to question the number of bowl games, maybe it's time to do the same with postseason awards. I counted 21 separate awards after the 2013 season. There were three different awards for best player (with two different winners). There was an award for the best quarterback and for the best senior quarterback. There were three defensive player of the year awards. There were awards for best running back, best receiver, best tight end, best interior lineman, best lineman, best center, best linebacker, best defensive back, best place-kicker, best punter, best defensive end, best student, best head coach, best assistant coach, best SAM, best H-back, best ankle taper, best halftime speech giver, best PAT holder (I'm kidding about the last five -- I think). There was an award for most versatile player and most inspirational. Time to thin the awards herd.
9. Shake down the thunder
Remove the egos, the history of bruised feelings and the insistence by lots of Notre Dame alums that the Irish remain football independents, and you're left with one result: ND belongs in the Big Ten. If Notre Dame is going to take the conference plunge (and it keeps dipping its toes deeper into the ACC pool), then it should be in a league that makes the most football and geographical sense. And that league is the Big Ten. I've got nothing against the ACC, but who are we kidding? Nobody is counting the days until that 2015 Wake Forest-ND game. Nobody is getting goose bumps for that 2016 NC State game. If ever a program and a conference needed to kiss and make up, it's Notre Dame and the Big Ten.
10. Four words
Texas vs. Texas A&M: Revive the rivalry. Now.
1. Virginia Tech wins 10 games
First, Frank Beamer, who leads all active FBS coaches with 266 career victories, turns 68 in October. With three very good seasons, Beamer could reach 300 wins at age 70 and get out and go to his vacation home at Lake Oconee in eastern Georgia and play golf with all the other coaches who have homes there while he can still turn on the ball. Second, given the money that head coaches make and the pressure they are under to succeed, I am skeptical that any coach from this generation will stay on the sideline long enough to win 300 games. Beamer may be the last candidate to join the club.
2. A Heisman Trophy winner with no baggage
Is it too much to ask? We had Cam Newton and his entrepreneurial father in 2010 and Jameis Winston's he-said, she-said mess a year ago. Johnny Manziel's NCAA issues didn't bubble up until after he won the 2012 trophy. The only complaint I have about Mark Ingram in 2009 and Robert Griffin III in 2011 is that I didn't vote either of them to win.
3. The play-clock rule amended
Nick Saban had a point. Before college football adopted the 40-second play clock in 2008, the umpire stood over the ball for a short period of time before he "wound up" the 25-second play clock. Up-tempo offenses succeed in part by preventing the defense from substituting. This is what's best for the game? The intent of the 40-second clock, to speed up the time of the game, sped up the game itself. I'd rather watch an offense and defense match strategy than watch which team has the most organized sideline. Amend the rule to allow the umpire to stand over the ball for 10 seconds until both teams have had a chance to sub. Let an up-tempo team win because it wears out the defense once the ball is snapped, not before it's snapped.
4. A sleeper conference contender to emerge
It took only four seasons for Stanford (2008-12) and Baylor (2009-13) to rise from the muck and mire of mediocrity to a conference championship. Each school had different issues to overcome and used completely different schemes and recruiting strategies to make the transformation. That means there are a lot of ways that the below-average can become good, and please, let's see it happen some more. So who is so your candidate to win a conference championship in 2017? Mark Stoops at Kentucky? Mike MacIntyre at Colorado? My pick: Butch Jones at Tennessee. You can thank me later, Geno.
5. A sensible (early) signing date
Enough already -- pass a rule allowing an early signing date and move on. None of the issues raised by coaches are insurmountable. The issues that I have heard or read about are either logistical in nature or merely the discomfort raised by a new, unfamiliar rule. None is more important than the result of an early signing date, which would make the lives of the recruits and their families, not to mention the recruiters and their families, a lot more livable.
6. No more games against FCS opposition
It is difficult not to be sympathetic to the well-being of FCS schools that need paycheck games from the FBS in order to pay the bills. But as college football embarks on a new championship path, schedule strength is more important than ever. And fans don't enjoy paying top dollar to see games that are neither interesting nor competitive. If the power conferences don't use their upcoming autonomy to end those games, let's hope the College Football Playoff committee makes the schools that play those games pay a price.
7. The maturation of two elite quarterbacks continues
Rarely do we focus so intensely on one student-athlete that we see his complete physical and emotional maturation over the course of his collegiate career. But we are at that stage in the career of third-year starting quarterback Marcus Mariota at Oregon and second-year starting quarterback Jameis Winston at Florida State. Mariota, an introvert by nature, is steadily fulfilling the duties of on-field leadership that come with being a quarterback. Might we see him actually get in a teammate's face this fall? And Winston's very public struggles shine a harsh light on a physically gifted player who has made really dumb decisions off the field. Can his off-field brain catch up to the mature thinker on the field? Let's hope.
8. Patience with the playoff
Think about how many changes the BCS made over the course of its 16-year existence, from clearly whiffing on the two best teams early (Nebraska over Oregon in '01, Oklahoma over Auburn in '04) to the relative smoothness with which it picked teams over the last few years. Apply that retrospective wisdom to the College Football Playoff and take a deep breath over the next few years. A system that looks good on paper is bound to trip itself up along the way. We just don't know where yet. So let's be patient, understand that the worst playoff is still a playoff, and hope that the future adjustments are tweaks and not mulligans.
9. Oklahoma State succeeds despite APR penalties
Oklahoma State lost two practice hours per week as a result of a low APR score over the most recent four-year period measured. It is good to see an academic rule with teeth in it, but I hope the Cowboys have a great season. In an era when the demands of a program are so great that a federal labor official decided Northwestern looks like an employer, someone needs to demonstrate that student-athletes can win games and have a real college experience. Oklahoma State may be an unwilling test case, but everyone in college football (OK, outside the Big 12) should be rooting for the Cowboys.
10. An end to the Curse of Bo
From the day that Bo Schembechler died in 2006, on the eve of No. 2 Michigan's 42-39 loss at its archrival, No. 1 Ohio State, the Wolverines have a record of 50-41 (.549). That's an average of 7-6, pretty much the definition of mediocrity. And while Michigan State has arisen over that period of time (64-30, .681), there's no rule that says both programs may not succeed at the same time. Although the fact that the Spartans went 13-1 last season while the other four FBS schools in the state (Michigan, Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan) went 16-33 does make you wonder. Michigan needs to set aside the Curse of Bo this season, and I bet that the Wolverines do so, for state pride if nothing else.
1. The selection committee makes some brave decisions
Chaos has always been good for college football, and here's hoping that the 13-member College football Playoff committee will have to choose from among several undefeated or one-loss teams to fill the four-team College Football Playoff and other major bowls. The committee is striving for as much objectivity and transparency as possible, but there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the process. I want to see guys like former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez sweat over some really tough choices, and then keep a straight face when they say their allegiances (current or past) didn't have anything to do with it. I also want to see if the committee is willing to select a one-loss team at the expense of an undefeated team with a soft schedule (such as Baylor or Wisconsin).
2. Can Florida and Michigan rebound?
College football is a lot more enjoyable when Florida-Florida State and Michigan-Ohio State still matter at season's end. That wasn't the case in 2013. Gators coach Will Muschamp is firmly on the hot seat after UF suffered its first losing season since a winless campaign in 1979. The Gators finished 4-8 and lost their last seven games, including an inexcusable 26-20 defeat against FCS foe Georgia Southern in the Swamp. The Wolverines (7-6) had a better record than Florida but lost six of their last eight games. Both teams are banking on new offensive coordinators to revive their inept attacks. Florida hired former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who has installed a spread attack; Michigan hired former Alabama coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who will attempt to improve a running game that finished 102nd among FBS teams last season (125.7 yards per game).
3. Trevor Knight flourishes as Oklahoma's quarterback
Sportswriters are supposed to remain objective, but it's hard not to pull for a player like Knight, who was the most impressive student-athlete I talked to this spring. Knight, a sophomore from San Antonio, Texas, reminds me a lot of former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Knight is a leader on and off the field, and is the kind of guy you wouldn't have to question casting a Heisman Trophy vote for. Knight enters this season as OU's undisputed starter, after Blake Bell voluntarily moved to tight end and Kendal Thompson transferred to Utah. Knight is coming off his best college game, throwing for 348 yards with four touchdowns on 32-for-44 passing in OU's 45-31 win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Here's hoping Knight picks up where he left off and isn't derailed by the enormous expectations that have suddenly been placed on him.
4. Georgia running back Todd Gurley stays healthy
Running backs seem to be largely an afterthought in the NFL draft nowadays, but it's still one of the most important positions in college football. Gurley, the Bulldogs' sensational junior star, is the kind of running back who can carry a team on his shoulders. When Gurley is healthy, he might be the most valuable player in the sport. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, he was banged up too much last season, missing long stretches with groin and ankle injuries. Gurley still managed to run for 989 yards with 10 touchdowns last season, after gaining 1,385 yards with 17 touchdowns as a freshman in 2012. Gurley is too good to be sitting on the sideline. If he stays healthy, he might become a Heisman Trophy finalist and a potential top-10 NFL draft pick.
5. Charlie Strong succeeds at Texas
Strong wasn't the first choice to replace longtime Texas coach Mack Brown, which will make a tough job even more difficult. But Strong paid his dues as a longtime defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida, and he more than made his mark after getting his first head-coaching job at Louisville. It would be nice to see another African-American coach succeed in a high-profile position, following in the path of Stanford's David Shaw and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin. All three are regarded as being among the best head coaches in the country. The sport has come a long way in terms of hiring minority coaches, but it still has a long, long way to go.
6. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern avoid falling flat on their faces
The small-school powers, which combined to win nine FCS national championships, are jumping into big-boy football this coming season. Well, at least they're joining the Sun Belt Conference in their first season at the FBS level. The Eagles and Mountaineers were really, really good at what they did at the FCS level for a long, long time. But have the programs bitten off more than they can chew by jumping to FBS? The Eagles will play NC State, Georgia Tech and Navy, among others, this coming season; the Mountaineers will play Michigan, Southern Miss and Louisiana-Monroe. Hopefully, they'll adapt to their changes better than Blockbuster and Kodak did.
7. Bobby Petrino falls flat on his face
No, I'm not wishing for another bad case of road burn from a Harley Davidson accident for Petrino, who is about to begin his second stint as Louisville's coach. But you have to wonder if Petrino really learned his lesson after sitting out the 2012 season in exile and working last season at Western Kentucky. That was essentially Petrino's punishment for having an affair with an Arkansas employee, wrecking his motorcycle with the woman on the back, and then lying to Hogs athletic director Jeff Long about the incident. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who hired Petrino for a second time, said his coach is a changed man. I'm betting Petrino could use a little more humility in the Cardinals' first season in the ACC before he truly changes.
8. A sideline flare-up between Nick Saban and his offensive coordinator
There might not be a bigger potential powder keg in college football than Alabama's sideline this coming season. Saban hired Lane Kiffin (formerly the head coach at Tennessee and USC) as his offensive coordinator after Kiffin consulted with the Crimson Tide before their surprising loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, Kiffin was being blamed for Bama's flat offense in that game, and he'll be an easy target for Tide fans if things don't go right again this coming season. Alabama's offense was already a question mark after losing starting quarterback AJ McCarron. FSU transfer Jacob Coker, who sat behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last season, is the odds-on favorite to win the job. If Kiffin is smart, he'll hand the ball to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry more than Nussmeier did.
9. A Pac-12 South team challenges Oregon and Stanford
For all the talk about the SEC being top-heavy, the Ducks and Cardinal have largely dominated the Pac-12 recently, combining to win 93 games and the last four conference championships. This coming season might not be any different, either, as Stanford brings back 14 starters and Oregon expects 16 back. Both teams will bring back very good quarterbacks -- Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Oregon's Marcus Mariota -- along with myriad skill players. UCLA might be the biggest challenger from the South, especially after quarterback Brett Hundley decided to return to school. Jim Mora has recruited exceptionally well, and if UCLA can stay healthy on the offensive line, it might have a chance to make a run. The Pac-12 has tremendous depth in both divisions, but it would be nice to see a Pac-12 South team return to the elite.
10. Alabama lines up for a last-second field goal against Auburn
Would there be a more fitting end to the 2014 regular season than having Alabama line up for a last-second field goal vs. Auburn, with a spot in the SEC championship game and potentially the four-team playoff on the line? Last season, the Tigers spoiled Alabama's three-peat BCS title hopes when Tigers defensive back Chris Davis returned a missed field goal more than 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play of No. 4 Auburn's 34-28 upset of the No. 1 Tide. If similar circumstances arise at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 29, don't be surprised if Saban has Bama's track team on the field.