Commentary

It's a new dawn, it's a new day

Originally Published: August 28, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

This week's top 20:

20. We are …

I'll be at the game of the week -- Michigan versus Alabama this Saturday evening at Cowboys Stadium. But the scene of the week, maybe of the entire season, will take place at noon Saturday at Penn State.

It doesn't matter whom the Nittany Lions are playing. In this case, it's the Ohio Bobcats. It could be the Charlotte Bobcats, and nobody would notice.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Rich Barnes/US PresswireBill O'Brien will usher in a new era at Penn State on Saturday.

The storylines could fill an 85-man roster:

For the first time since 1949, no Joe Paterno on the Beaver Stadium field. No Joe Paterno statue outside the stadium. No Silas Redd. He transferred in the wake of debilitating NCAA sanctions. And he wasn't alone. The Bill O'Brien era begins. So does the era of names on the back of the PSU jerseys. And blue ribbon helmet decals to support child abuse victims.

It will be a bittersweet, conflicted and emotional day for Penn State fans, players, coaches and, most certainly, the Paterno family. Something new, almost foreign and inconceivable is about to happen: a Nittany Lions football program without Paterno, its longtime patriarch.

For decades, Paterno was the face, the body, the all-encompassing presence at Penn State. The Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal changed all that. And in profound, lasting ways, changed Paterno's legacy.

Saturday will be a day of football. But at Penn State it will, and should, be a day of both remembrance and moving forward.

O'Brien has a nearly impossible job this season and in the coming seasons. NCAA sanctions kneecapped his program before he coached his first game. And the mushroom cloud of the Sandusky scandal continues to linger over State College.

But perhaps at noon Saturday, the simple sight of a football in the air will, in some small way, help put some Neosporin on Penn State's flesh wounds. For the sake of the players, who had nothing to do with this long, awful mess, I hope so.

19. BMOC conference picks

I'll make it simple:

Major conferences: ACC (Florida State); Big East (Louisville); Big Ten (Ohio State if it were eligible, but it isn't, so Wisconsin); Big 12 (Oklahoma); Pac-12 (USC), SEC (Alabama).

18. Conference picks -- Part II

The other guys: Conference USA (Central Florida); Mid-American (Ohio); Mountain West (Boise State); Sun Belt (Florida International); WAC (Louisiana Tech); best of the independents (Notre Dame).

By the way, Notre Dame begins its season Saturday without starting tailback Cierre Wood (suspended), former starting quarterback Tommy Rees (suspended), linebacker Carlo Calabrese (suspended), likely starting cornerback Lo Wood (ruptured Achilles) and reserve defensive end Justin Utupo (suspended).

Rees and Calabrese are eligible to return after the opening game against Navy, but Cierre Wood and Utupo are gone until the Sept. 15 game at Michigan State. Lo Wood is lost for the year.

Not exactly the way Brian Kelly wanted to start his third season in South Bend.

17. BMOP (Big Man On Podium)

Or in this case, UTEP president Diana Natalicio.

"I told the president of UT-Austin that we'd do our best to ensure that Oklahoma would be not as competitive after they left El Paso, because we will have shown them a surprise. We're looking very much forward to welcoming the Sooners to the Sun Bowl."

--Natalicio, to The Oklahoman's Jason Kersey, on OU's season opener against UTEP on Saturday.

For what it's worth, Oklahoma is a 31-point favorite.

16. 500 words or less

Spent some quality time at Ohio State a few weeks ago and left Columbus semi-convinced that Urban Meyer has undergone a work-style change.

Don't misunderstand: Meyer is still as intense as the Russian roulette scene in "The Deer Hunter." His icy stare is Pat Summitt quality. I saw it firsthand.

But after coaching burnout caused him to resign from Florida in 2010, Meyer returned to Ohio State with a supposed new attitude. Behind his desk is a framed copy of a "contract" handwritten by his oldest daughter, Nicki, and signed by Meyer himself. In it, Meyer agrees to put his family and his spiritual and physical well-being ahead of football. The 10 promises are non-negotiable.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteWill Urban Meyer keep his promise to his family as Ohio State head coach?

"I just think that he knows that he owes it to us to make sure it's different," said Nicki, a senior volleyball player at Georgia Tech. "I think he knows that it doesn't have to be the way it was, because that's not normal."

The "way it was" overpowered Meyer. It compromised his relationship with his family and affected his health. The losses were the worst.

"Ugh, he would usually go to his den, where he could just go and sit and be by himself," said his wife, Shelley. "Except that he didn't want to be there by himself -- he wanted me to maybe be sitting there with him. Well, I don't want to sit and -- I just don't like to feel that way. I'm a happy person, and I want to be happy. I do not want to wallow in sorrow all night and I didn't know how to help him. I would have just preferred to shake it out of him and just say, 'OK, let's get on with it.'"

When Meyer quit after the 2010 season, it was as if he had to give himself permission to finally relax. But once he did, the effects were immediate.

"I was home for Christmas that year when he was finally done [coaching]," Nicki said. "And he would be sitting on my bed every morning, shaking me awake at 7:30 [and saying], 'What are we going to do today? What do you want to do? You want to go on a walk? Do want to go get coffee? Let's go to Disney World.'

"[There were] just so many things that he had the energy just to go do."

Two months into his self-imposed retirement, Meyer started dropping hints to Shelley about a return to coaching. In October 2011, while attending a Miami Dolphins game in which the 2008 Florida national championship team was honored, Meyer texted his wife from the Sun Life Stadium sidelines.

Read the text: "I got to do this again."

This. Coach again.

A month later, Ohio State approached Meyer about taking over the Buckeyes program. Meyer assumed it was a no-brainer. He was wrong.

15. Meyer -- Part II

In the past, Meyer gave veto power to Shelley and the family on any job change. The exceptions: Michigan, Notre Dame or Ohio State. Those would be automatic yeses.

"It was different now because of everything he went through and what we as a family went through," Shelley said. "So it wasn't as simple as him just making the decision."

There was an emotional family meeting during a trip to see Nicki in Atlanta. That's when Nicki gave her dad the contract, which was written in pencil on a single sheet of pink notebook paper.

"I remember him looking at me and being like, 'This is the toughest contract I've ever had to sign before,'" Nicki said.

He signed the document. Now then, can he follow it once the season starts?

"I know he will," Nicki said. "I am 100 percent confident that he will."

Shelley remains skeptical. She wants to believe, but …

"I'm happy just seeing how he's handled the little blips that we've had so far, but … the season needs to start, and I want to see how he does with the season," Shelley said.

Meyer is eating better, exercising on a regular basis, monitoring his workload and communicating with his family more often. He didn't suffer a meltdown when running back Jordan Hall tore a tendon in his foot.

And if a player screws up off the field, he doesn't take it so personally.

But what it Meyer suffers a relapse?

"It won't get as far as it did before," Nicki said. "I think all of us are watching very, very closely."

14. Heisman Trophy race

Seated in the front row at Best Buy Theater:

• USC quarterback Matt Barkley -- If the Heisman race were Powerball, Barkley would already have four of the six winning numbers.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Kelly Kline/Getty Images for The HeismanMontee Ball was invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony as a finalist in 2011. Will he bring the trophy back to Madison with him in 2012?

• Wisconsin running back Montee Ball -- Ball won't finish 1,339 points out of first place this year. If he puts up the freakish rushing and touchdown numbers of 2011, he might win this thing.

• Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson -- Opposing defenses tape their ankles twice when facing Robinson.

Keep a coat and tie handy:

• Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones -- Capable of huge numbers. Also capable of too many interceptions.

• Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson -- If Arkansas squeezes into the SEC championship -- and national title picture -- Wilson will be the main reason.

• West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith -- Anybody named Geno always gets my early support.

• South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore -- If the post-ACL Lattimore is as a good as the pre-ACL version, the Gamecocks are going to have a season to remember.

Semi-sleepers:

• Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas -- Cam Newton-ish, but without the drama.

• Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas -- He accelerates faster than a Shelby GT500.

• Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei -- If the first name fits …

• Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- An FSU run for a national championship will pole-vault Manuel into the Heisman short-list discussion.

13. Why Vegas sends a limo for me

Based on exhaustive research (seconds' worth of analysis) and a complicated tiebreaker system (the first team logo my dog Oskie sniffs or paws at is the choice), I present my Upset of the Week.

Thought Hard About: Navy over Notre Dame (but saw that the Domers are 1-0 against Navy in Dublin); No. 24 Boise over No. 13 Michigan State (tempting, especially when you give Chris Petersen this much time to prepare a game plan); Vanderbilt over No. 9 South Carolina (just sort of like the Vandy football vibes these days).

Went with: Auburn over No. 14 Clemson (no Sammy Watkins for Clemson).

12. The picks

(Some of these athletic directors should be ashamed of themselves for scheduling these openers. And I'll be ashamed of myself if I don't go at least 21-1.)

South Carolina over Vandy, Michigan State over Boise State, Stanford over San Jose State, Georgia over Buffalo, West Virginia over Marshall, Ohio State over Miami (Ohio), Wisconsin over Northern Iowa, Nebraska over Southern Miss, Florida over Bowling Green, Florida State over Murray State, LSU over North Texas, Arkansas over Jacksonville State, Auburn over Clemson, Oklahoma State over Savannah State, Kansas State over Missouri State, USC over Hawaii, Alabama over Michigan, Texas over Wyoming, Oklahoma over UTEP, Oregon over Arkansas State, Louisville over Kentucky, Virginia Tech over Georgia Tech.

11. 250 words or less

Is it unreasonable to ask why Casey Pachall will be the starting quarterback when TCU opens its regular season Sept. 8 against Grambling State?

Talent isn't an issue. Pachall was a tattooed revelation last season as he set school records in completions, completion percentage and passing yards. Keep this up and it will be, "Andy Dalton who?"

But speaking of revelations, a recent TCU360.com report revealed that Pachall tested positive for marijuana use in February and that he also told police he had used cocaine and Ecstasy. TCU coach Gary Patterson was so outraged by the behavior that he suspended Pachall for zero games.

This isn't about exacting a pound of Horned Frogs flesh. Or picking on Pachall. But given how other programs have dealt with misbehaving players, TCU's leniency seems either naive or conveniently calculated.

LSU star Tyrann Mathieu's drug-related violation of team policy resulted in his dismissal from the Tigers. Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer was drop-kicked from Arkansas State after marijuana and a gun were found in a car he was driving. An offseason drug arrest resulted in a two-game suspension for Clemson star wide receiver Sammy Watkins. All-SEC wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers was suspended indefinitely by Tennessee after a reported substance abuse violation.

See where I'm going with this?

Pachall's situation, the school says, was handled "internally." As dictated by the university student conduct handbook, Pachall was required to complete drug and alcohol counseling. He also is subject to drug testing.

The good doctor himself, Lou Holtz, likes to say that "choices have consequences," and that discipline isn't what you do to someone, "but what you do for them."

TCU's choice was to keep Pachall in the starting lineup. The unintended consequence of the decision -- that there's a perception TCU was soft on Pachall after a failed drug test -- is the program's own fault.

10. BMOC coach under the most duress

The finalists: Tennessee's Derek Dooley, Maryland's Randy Edsall, Texas' Mack Brown, Oregon State's Mike Riley, Texas Tech's Tommy Tuberville, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly.

The preseason choice: Dooley.

After 6-7 and 5-7 seasons, Dooley is under immense pressure to deliver.

9. BMOC comeback player of the year

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lattimore
C. Michael Bergen/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesA healthy Marcus Lattimore will be a huge boon to South Carolina.

The finalist: South Carolina's Lattimore.

The preseason choice: Lattimore. Duh.

Nothing against the likes of Arkansas running back Knile Davis, whose ankle injury caused him to miss the entire 2011 season, but an ACL trumps an ankle.

8. Knucklehead alert

As detailed in ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low's recent report, almost nobody was lamenting the indefinite suspension of Tennessee's Rogers or his impending transfer (to Tennessee Tech).

According to those inside the program, Rogers was an All-SEC talent and an all-planet divisive force within the locker room. Think about it: A head coach clinging to his job all but dismissed one of the best wide receivers in the conference. So either Dooley is a coach of conviction, or Rogers simply wasn't worth the trouble anymore.

Anyway, addition by subtraction is the best way to describe Rogers' departure. If the Vols are going to reverse the gruesomeness of last year's 5-7 record (including a humiliating 10-7 loss to a Kentucky team that started a wide receiver at quarterback) -- and keep Dooley employed in Knoxville -- then the fewer distractions, the better.

Two early reasons for optimism: Quarterback Tyler Bray, who isn't the first person you think of when the words team leader are mentioned, has had a strong fall camp. And new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, formerly of Alabama and the Carolina Panthers, has made an immediate impact.

It sounds ridiculous, but the season opener in Atlanta against North Carolina State could be a defining game for Dooley and his program.

7. BMOC surprise team of the year

The finalists: Tennessee, Ohio State, Nebraska, UCLA.

The preseason choice: UCLA.

Rick Neuheisel is gone, but he won't be forgotten. He left new coach Jim Mora Jr. a nice collection of returning starters. Plus, the Bruins' toughest games (Stanford, USC, Utah and Nebraska) are all played at home.

6. BMOC coach of the year

The finalists: Penn State's Bill O'Brien, Texas' Brown, Ohio State's Meyer, UCLA's Mora, Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Arkansas' John L. Smith.

(Yes, I know: Where's Bama's Nick Saban, Oregon's Chip Kelly, USC's Lane Kiffin, etc.? I'm going with the semi-underdogs here. If, say, the Ducks make a beeline for the BCS championship, Kelly will get his props in this column. But for now, I'm going with these guys.)

The preseason choice: O'Brien.

If the Nittany Lions can manufacture six wins out of their schedule, it will be a blue-and-white mini-miracle.

5. If there were a playoff

(And there will be in two more years …)

Shoulder Pad Bracket: Alabama versus Oregon
Drool is forming at the corner of my mouth. Can you imagine the Nickanator scheming a defense for the Quack Attack?

Chin Strap Bracket: USC versus Florida State
Lots of pregame weaponry issues, what with the Trojan guy and the Seminole guy sticking swords and spears into the turf.

4. BMOC player of the year

The finalists: Barkley, Ball and Robinson

The preseason choice: Barkley.

There's not much going for Barkley: a great backstory, potentially a great team, leadership skills, unselfishness, a telegenic personality. Yeah, I like his chances.

3. BMOC national championship matchup

USC Alabama

There's no reason to overthink this. The SEC has won six consecutive national titles. It has a good chance to win a seventh.

Anyway, it's not like it became the WAC overnight. And please, save the SEC fatigue factor argument for someone else. Since when does the SEC get penalized for being too good?

So figure on Bama, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina or Florida advancing to the BCS championship in South Florida.

At least eight other non-SEC teams could play for a title: Oregon, Florida State, Oklahoma, USC, Texas, Wisconsin, Clemson and Oklahoma State. And I'll throw in Michigan State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia as long shots.

The preseason choice: Roll Tide versus Men of Troy.

I wanted to take a flier on Oregon versus FSU but did the weenie thing and went with the chalk. I hate myself.

2. Two-liners

Alabama and Michigan have played a combined 2,418 games over a combined 249 years. But Saturday's Cowboys Classic at Jerry World will be the first time the two programs face each other during the regular season. … Oregon is playing the guilt card on its website, as it reminds fans that the nation's fourth-longest sellout streak (82 games) is in jeopardy unless people start scarfing up those Arkansas State tickets for the opener at Autzen. Nebraska is the undisputed sellout leader (318 consecutive games), followed by Notre Dame (225) and Virginia Tech (87). … For what it's worth, if TCU beats Grambling State, Patterson becomes the winningest coach in Horned Frogs history, surpassing 1930s legend Dutch Meyer. ("Fight 'em 'til hell freezes over … then fight 'em on the ice.") Season-ticket sales at the $164 million renovated Amon G. Carter Stadium have been capped at 31,257, which is more than double the number of season-ticket sales just four years ago. … Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, now fully recovered from an Aug. 1 concussion suffered during an attack near campus, will begin his Heisman campaign against Northern Iowa on Saturday. It will mark the first time since the loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl that Ball will be subjected to live tackling. (Per coaches' orders, he wasn't involved in full, tackle-to-the-ground contact during spring or fall practices.)

1. The BMOC top 10

No. 10: Ohio State
This was a coin flip between the Buckeyes and Longhorns. Both are motivated to reverse the general suckiness of recent seasons (a history-making seven losses for Ohio State in 2011; a combined 6-11 conference record for Texas during the past two seasons). Both have lots of talent. Love the Longhorns' defense, but love the Urban Meyer Effect (and the potential of quarterback Braxton Miller) an itsy bit more.

No. 9: Florida
The Gators will figure out their quarterback situation and then exact revenge on the memories of last season's 7-6 train wreck. Killer schedule, though.

No. 8: Wisconsin
There is no truth to the rumor that the Badgers are joining the ACC. Instead, they simply keep welcoming former ACC quarterbacks to their starting lineup. Russell Wilson last season, Danny O'Brien this season.

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireCan Oklahoma QB Landry Jones carry the Sooners to the title game?

No. 7: Oklahoma
Retirement and injuries have changed the dynamic of the OU O-line, but the bigger question is: Which version of quarterback Landry Jones will the Sooners see?

No. 6: Georgia
The schedule, relatively speaking, is as soft as Uga's fur. No Bama, LSU or Arkansas until the SEC championship. At least, that's the plan.

No. 5: LSU
No Honey Badger, but maybe not as many in-house distractions? Junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger makes his first career LSU start for the vertically challenged Tigers (106th in passing offense last season).

No. 4: Oregon
The Ducks start a freshman quarterback in the season opener for the first time in 21 years (Marcus Mariota -- pronounced, Mar-ee-oo-tah). They also start a season with a defense that has some actual bona fides.

No. 3: Florida State
What can I say? I'm a sucker for senior quarterbacks (EJ Manuel) and scary good offensive and defensive lines.

No. 2: USC
Senior QB Matt Barkley didn't stiff the NFL, so he could provide product for the new Pac-12 Network. He wants a Heisman and a national championship. He might get both.

No. 1: Alabama
Attendance for the Tide's annual spring game (78,526) was larger than January's BCS Championship Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (78,237). So, no, I don't think Bama is going to freak out over the pressures of making a run at the rare national title repeat.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter