Welcome, folks, to TIME’s first annual scandal-free college-football preview. We’ve heard so much about the rule-breaking and misbehavior that have defined the sport’s sordid off-season: Ohio State’s players trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos; a Miami booster showering dozens of Hurricane players with cash and perks (including strip-club outings and prostitutes); Oregon and LSU paying a high school scout, allegedly for access to players he mentored; a couple of LSU players suspended indefinitely after being charged with second-degree battery in connection with a bar fight. Whew. After all that, we’ve decided to give you a break.
From this point forward, the word scandal will not appear. And no, that does not mean that we’ll be forced to dissect small stuff (a primer on the Akron-Kent State rivalry!). In fact, some of this season’s biggest college-football story lines don’t involve the word that shall not be spoken. Here are five of them:
1. The Great Conference Shuffle
If you’re tired of cheating, here’s something to cheer you up: conference realignment! Nebraska, for example, will be playing in the Big Ten for the first time this season. (The classic Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry is extinct; Cornhusker fans will have to get riled up about Nebraska’s Nov. 25 game against neighbor Iowa, which also plays in an ethanol-friendly state.) The Big Ten, by the way, has 12 teams this year. The Big 12, which lost Nebraska and Colorado, has only 10. Meanwhile, landlocked Utah and Colorado will become the newest members of what is now the Pac-12.
This season marks just the beginning of the great conference reshuffling. Just look at what’s going on in the Lone Star State: Texas Christian University (TCU) will join the Big East next season, a move that makes no geographic sense. Texas A&M — concerned that the new ESPN-backed Longhorn Network, dedicated to all things University of Texas, will put the Aggies at a massive recruiting disadvantage — announced on Aug. 31 its intention to leave the Big 12. That would leave the depleted conference with only nine teams. Look for others to flee as well.
Aggressive conference commissioners are looking to expand their “footprints” into new markets, so they can deliver more eyeballs, and more lucrative television contracts, for their schools. These conference-money grabs will continue to destroy regional rivalries with decades of rich tradition and further consolidate the sport’s power base into a few megaconferences. The existence of the Longhorn Network is ludicrous. ESPN, an entity that is supposed to cover all of college sports, is paying Texas $300 million in order to start a network dedicated to a single team. How is that not tilting the playing field?
2. Luck of the Cardinal
O.K., enough, we said we’d stay away from ugly off-field issues. As for the actual football, it’s worth starting with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. If the 2010 Heisman Trophy runner-up had left school after last season, he could have been the top overall pick in the NFL draft. Instead, he gave up guaranteed millions to play his final year of college ball and take another year of classes. Luck is taking a huge risk. A college injury could curtail his pro career, which should be a fruitful one — in some circles, he’s considered top quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning.
With Luck under center, Stanford, who finished 12-1 last year, is a serious title contender. (The school is ranked seventh in the Associated Press preseason poll.) Stanford lost its coach in January: Jim Harbaugh has moved a few miles up the Bay to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. But the new coach, David Shaw, was Luck’s offensive coordinator last year. The transition should be seamless, and hopefully, Luck’s decision to stay will pay off.
3. Can the Broncos Buck the Odds?
This could be the year that a team outside the so-called Big Six conferences gets into the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) title game. (We also promise not to mention another tired topic, the stupidity of the BCS and the absence of a college-football playoff henceforth.) Boise State, ranked fifth in the preseason polls, is a threat as usual. While its offense, led by quarterback Kellen Moore — who has thrown 99 touchdown passes and just 19 interceptions over the past three years — gets most of the attention, it’s defense deserves props too. The Broncos were ranked seventh nationally against the run last season.
Boise State will upgrade on its conference affiliation this season, moving from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West. A tougher schedule — for example, the Broncos are to face TCU, ranked 14th, on Nov. 12 — could keep Boise State high in the computer rankings. Teams like the Broncos must stay undefeated to have a shot at the title game, and Boise State faces its first major test right away: the Broncos will play Georgia, from the big, bad Southeastern Conference, on Saturday night in Atlanta.
4. Big-Name Comebacks
Many big-name programs have struggled recently, and their fans are desperate for a revival. At Michigan, new coach Brady Hoke takes over after the Wolverines finished their worst three-year run in school history. Quarterback Denard Robinson is the classic college double threat — last season, he threw for 2,570 yd. and rushed for another 1,702. Florida is coming off its first five-loss season since 2004, and new coach Will Muschamp has recruited a big name to spark the offense: Charlie Weis, the former Notre Dame coach and architect of the New England Patriots offenses which won three Super Bowls, is his offensive coordinator.
Last year, the University of Texas suffered its first losing season since 1997. (At least the Longhorn Network will be there to document any comeback.) Notre Dame hasn’t been to a BCS game since the 2006 season. The star linebacker for the Fighting Irish, Manti Te’o, went to the same high school as Barack Obama (Punahou School in Honolulu). If Te’o returns Notre Dame to glory, Irish fans would be ready to elect him President.
5. An Inspiration
To move off the field again for a minute, the recovery of Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers University defensive tackle who was paralyzed from the neck down on a kickoff return last October, is worth tracking this season. The initial diagnosis said that not only would LeGrand never walk again, but also he’d never even come off the ventilator. Five weeks later, LeGrand was breathing on his own, and he’s been making amazing progress ever since. On his Twitter page, LeGrand said he had moved his arms “little by little” and started to feel twitches throughout his body. In June, he tweeted a picture of himself standing upright with the assistance of a machine. He provided radio analysis for the broadcast of Rutgers’ 48-0 win over North Carolina Central on Thursday night.
Yes, there’s been much to loathe about college football over the past eight months. Thankfully, guys like LeGrand give us so many reasons to cheer.