Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NCF Preview 13 [Print without images]

Sunday, August 11, 2013
Updated: August 13, 1:53 PM ET
New season's certainty is uncertainty

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

College football has a major character flaw: It judges people. It takes sides. It likes to stir things up. And all because it cares about just two of the 26 letters in the football alphabet: W and L.

Every year it's the same thing. It goes all "Mean Girls" on the uncool kids. Derek Dooley can tell you all about it. Tennessee thought he was very uncool in 2012. Auburn felt the same way about Gene Chizik, Colorado about Jon Embree, Cal about Jeff Tedford, Boston College about Frank Spaziani ...

Anyway, those guys (and others) are now eating by themselves in the Former Head Coaches cafeteria. If history repeats itself -- and it always does -- they'll have more company by the end of this season.

Lane Kiffin
Can Lane Kiffin return USC to prominence after a disastrous 2012?

Maybe that's why USC's Lane Kiffin has been piling sandbags around his McKay Center office. Nobody has taken more offseason heat more often than Kiffin. His Trojans started last year as the preseason No. 1, but finished 7-6 and a no-show in the Sun Bowl and final polls. It was one of college football's great meltdowns.

Kiffin's margin of error in 2013 is as thin as a laminated play-call sheet. He needs to win at least eight or nine games, minimum -- and they need to be the right eight or nine games. (Sorry, Hawaii and Utah State don't count; breaking a four-game losing streak to Stanford does. Zombie-walking through the Sun Bowl doesn't count; reaching a BCS bowl does.)

Prediction: Kiffin survives.

Tim Beckman got hitched to Illinois last year, but more than a few Illini followers already want the marriage annulled. Beckman went 2-10 (0-8 in the Big Ten) in his first season at Champaign. It wasn't just the losses, but the way they lost: giving up 45 points to Arizona State, 52 to Louisiana Tech, 35 to Penn State (payback for sending eight Illini assistants to State College to recruit transfer-eligible Nittany Lions?), 45 to Michigan, 52 to Ohio State and 50 to Northwestern. Gruesome.

In Beckman's defense (perhaps his only one), the Illini were crushed by key injuries. And in a telling sign, Beckman fired one of his co-offensive coordinators (the other left on his own) and hired former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit.

Prediction: Beckman survives, mostly because athletic director Mike Thomas wouldn't pull the plug on his own hire after just two seasons, would he?

During a recent car wash at ESPN, Virginia's Mike London wore one of those lug nut-sized championship rings that coaches like to break out for public showings. Problem is, it's a championship ring from his days at Richmond, where he won an FCS national title.

This will be London's fourth season at UVA and Cavaliers fans would like to see ACC championship rings one of these days.

Prediction: London survives.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Clemson's Dabo Swinney are as safe as kittens when it comes to job security. But the unexpected success they had in 2012 means anyone who can dot an i, do the Gig 'Em hand sign, or write a check to IPTAY will want more in 2013.

Meyer, in his first year at Columbus, led a bowl-sanctioned Buckeyes team to a 12-0 record. Sumlin, in his first year at College Station, led the Aggies to an 11-2 record and a grape stomping of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. He's also the guy who moved Johnny What's-His-Name to the top of the depth chart.

Meyer is used to the mind-bending pressure of a place like Ohio State and Florida. And he lucked out when it came to dealing with the cult status of Tim Tebow, who was a Heisman winner/assistant coach.

Manziel/Sumlin
Expectations are high for Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Meanwhile, Sumlin now has to contend with the often-suffocating expectations of Aggieland. After last year's success, even Reveille thinks A&M can win it all in 2013.

Adding to the fun is the ever-expanding celebrity universe of A&M Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Remember, coaches love when their starting quarterback is in the news more than the Kardashians.

And Swinney is no dummy. He knows this could be the best team he's had since becoming Clemson's head coach in 2008. He knows it and so does anyone who's tapped Howard's Rock.

Prediction: Ohio State and Clemson will be fine. A&M is a TMZ report away from reaching the tipping point.

This is also the season we judge successors. Mark Helfrich, in his debut as a head coach, takes over for Chip Kelly at Oregon, while Gary Andersen, whose Utah State team nearly beat the Badgers in Madison a year ago, takes over for Bret Bielema at Wisconsin.

Prediction: A seamless transition.

This is the season Mack Brown's legacy at Texas gets a wax and buff, or another dent. The Bevomobile can only handle so many more fender benders (9-4 last year, 8-5 the year before, 5-7 in 2010).

Prediction: The Longhorns' 2013 record will have a nice shine to it.

And can Washington's Steve Sarkisian, who is one game over .500 in four years at UDub, finally break the 7-win barrier?

Prediction: Yes, barely.

The only sure thing about the upcoming season is this: The all-time leader in hot seat appearances -- and it isn't even close -- is absolutely, without a doubt going to get walking papers in January. There will be no settlement package, no golden parachute.

Goodbye, BCS National Championship. Hello, playoff.