Predicting the 10 trends that will define college football this decade
BCS, conference expansion could be among landmark changes sure to occur
Tennessee and UCLA are traditional powers poised to experience a renaissance
The spread isn't dead, but hybrid and option offenses may rule this decade
To understand how much a sport can change over the course of a decade, consider the college football landscape on the brink of the 2000 season.
Oklahoma, coming off its first winning season in six years, had reason for optimism entering coach Bob Stoops' second season, but few had any inkling the Sooners were about to embark on a national championship run, much less earn seven BCS bowl appearances over the next nine years.
USC, Ohio State and LSU had all failed to finish above .500 the previous season, and had either just hired a new coach (Nick Saban at LSU) or would do so in the coming months (Pete Carroll at USC, Jim Tressel at OSU). Those coaches would go on to combine for five national titles over the course of the decade.
Northwestern, coming off a 3-8 season, visited with Clemson offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and installed a version of his shotgun-spread offense. The Wildcats improved from No. 103 to No. 3 nationally in total offense in 2000, and the spread soon became a fixture of playbooks around the country.
Boise State, known primarily at the time for the blue turf in its stadium, began its final season in the Big West Conference before joining the WAC. The Broncos would win seven WAC titles in eight years along with two Fiesta Bowls and finish as high as No. 4 nationally.
Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College competed in the Big East. The Hokies have since won three ACC titles. Cincinnati and Louisville were in Conference USA. The two have combined to win three of the last four Big East crowns.
Meanwhile, only a handful of football fans had experienced the pleasure of watching a game in HD or rewinding a play on their DVR. Four networks that currently air major-conference college football -- the Big Ten Network, ESPNU, CBS College Sports and Versus -- did not exist.
College football enters a new decade this season, and the sport will undoubtedly experience more landmark changes in the years to come. We gazed into our crystal balls to predict 10 trends that will come to define the sport's next era.
At the 2008 BCS meetings, SEC commissioner Mike Slive presented a thoroughly researched proposal for a "plus-one" model, only to discover that most of his colleagues had ruled it out before they'd even arrived. As a result, the BCS extended its existing system (four bowls and a stand-alone national title game) through the 2013 season.
Since then, however, several developments have paved the way for a potential BCS sea change in the coming years.
The BCS dumped television partner FOX in favor of ESPN, which holds far more sway with the sport's leaders due to its season-long contracts.
The Big Ten and Pac-10 -- the two conferences most resistant to change due to their partnership with the Rose Bowl -- reinvented themselves this year, and new Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott has shown he's not opposed to radical makeovers.
The Mountain West, following two impressive seasons, is making a strong push to become the seventh automatic qualifying conference in 2012, aided by a push from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.
"The likely addition of [championship] games in the Pac-10 and Big Ten might be an opportunity to reassess how the BCS is structured, but any changes will be evolutionary, not revolutionary," said Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker.
In other words, while we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for a full-scale playoff, more modest enhancements might be on the horizon.
When the next contract comes up (starting with the 2014 season), look for ESPN execs to strongly encourage BCS officials to add an extra round. Ratings for two of the non-championship bowls would increase substantially by putting the Nos. 1 and 2 teams back in the mix. By then, the political pressure on BCS presidents will have led to the Mountain West (which is substituting Boise State for Utah next season) gaining automatic qualifier status, which will merit adding a fifth bowl to the rotation.
The biggest key will be finding a way to appease the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl. But consider this: By adding an extra game (likely a ninth conference game in the Big Ten's case), Big Ten and Pac-10 teams will face more challenging paths to the BCS. The leagues might choose to surrender their stranglehold on Pasadena if doing so meant adding two more BCS berths, thus increasing their chances of garnering a second invite and providing their champions more leeway in reaching the national title game.
Once upon a time -- like, say, two years ago -- the best a team from outside the BCS' six auto-qualifying conferences could do was go undefeated and hope it finished high enough to receive an at-large berth to one of the non-championship BCS games. From 1998-2005, only one team (Utah in '04) pulled it off. But since adding a fifth game and lowering the qualification threshold (from top 6 to top 12), five non-AQ teams have received berths over the past four seasons. And thanks to victories like Boise State's 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma and Utah's 2009 Sugar Bowl rout of Alabama, voters are now treating such teams with unprecedented respect.
Last season marked a new milestone, when, for the first time, a non-AQ team (TCU) finished fourth in the final regular season BCS standings, invoking the previously unthinkable possibility that a team from the Mountain West might actually play in the BCS championship game. "It could have been last year," said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. "If Nebraska had beaten Texas [in the last-second Big 12 title game], maybe TCU jumps [No. 3] Cincinnati. Who knows?"
The residual effect from last season, when Boise State and TCU met in the Fiesta Bowl and finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the final polls, has carried over to this preseason. Unlike previous "BCS busters" that lost their head coach or graduated their starting quarterbacks, the Broncos and Horned Frogs both return the bulk of their teams. When the preseason coaches' poll was unveiled last week, Boise opened fifth and TCU seventh, meaning they'll have less ground to make up than in previous seasons should either go undefeated. Boise opens with a showcase game against No. 6 Virginia Tech, while TCU meets No. 22 Oregon State.
But even if it doesn't happen this season, programs like Boise State, TCU and BYU have established enough respect that their break figures to come soon enough. "The progress has been steady," said Thompson. "Those teams that are now [starting] fourth and sixth, maybe they jump up to second and fourth. It really depends on where you begin in August."
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