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Posted: Tuesday August 9, 2011 10:23AM ; Updated: Tuesday August 9, 2011 10:23AM

Ten reasons to embrace college football after a year of scandal

Story Highlights

Our nation's love affair with college football remains impervious to NCAA bylaws

Look beyond the stain of scandal to find four months full of invigorating stories

Celebrate the scholar, the phenom, rivalry, community, tradition and much more

By Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples, SI.com

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Andrew Luck elected to return to Stanford to finish his degree despite being a near-lock to go No. 1 overall in the NFL draft.
Andrew Luck elected to return to Stanford to finish his degree despite being a near-lock to go No. 1 overall in the NFL draft.
Jed Jacobsohn/SI

The first eight months of 2011 have not been pleasant for college football enthusiasts. One of the sport's most accomplished coaches resigned in disgrace. One of the four most prestigious bowl games was embroiled in corporate fraud. NCAA investigations hovered over both schools that participated in last season's BCS championship game and a host of other high-profile programs. At conference media days, commissioners' speeches about full-cost scholarships and stiffer sanctions drowned out the usual anticipatory chatter about the upcoming season.

So with fall camps in full swing and opening kickoff a mere three weeks away, it's time for the college football world to stop and press the reset button. While the issues plaguing the sport aren't going away, it's worth reminding ourselves that nearly all the recent scandals -- the tattoos, the agents, the bowl junkets and the cover-ups -- were indictments of the system, not the sport. Strip away the commercialism and the corruption and nearly all the same components that made fans fall in love with this crazy game to begin with remain.

And they'll be on full display yet again during the 2011 season.

At its core, college football is about the connection between the actors on the field and the devotees who watch them. There's something more than zone reads and blitz schemes at work when millions of people choose to spend their Saturdays firing up the grill nine hours before kickoff or working their remote from the couch. Certain elements of our love affair with college football remain impervious to NCAA bylaws and bloated television contracts.

Here, we celebrate a refreshingly gifted quarterback who holds the same affinity for college as for football; a treasured tradition that refuses to die; an iconic coach who transcends multiple generations. Even modern twists like a pair of expanded conferences and an innovative new head coach represent the latest incarnations of more timeless themes.

The 2011 season is upon us. Peer out from behind the stain to find four months of invigorating stories. Here are 10 reasons to embrace college football in 2011.

The scholar: Andrew Luck returns

College football is still played by actual college students, though saying that usually elicits eye rolls. Each year, conferences and other organizations announce various all-academic teams that garner almost no attention. But even the most hardened cynic would have a hard time disputing the fact that the sport's biggest name in 2011 -- a Heisman front-runner and projected No. 1 draft pick -- takes his course reading as seriously as his hot reads.

Andrew Luck is the quarterback at Stanford, which in and of itself requires a certain academic aptitude. But when the Houston native put off the NFL last winter to come back for another season, he did so for more than just another shot at a BCS bowl. He came back to finish his degree in architectural design, which last spring included presenting a design for the school's planned 90,000-square foot arts center. "This is a special place no matter how the football team is doing," Luck said. "It's exciting to go to school here."

MANDEL: Luck relishing final season, chance to improve

The somewhat goofy, mild-mannered 21-year-old grew a farcically long beard over the summer (though sadly trimmed it shortly after Pac-12 Media Day) and is often described as "just a regular guy." That may seem corny to some and hard to believe to others, but Stanford first-year head coach David Shaw says it's true.

"We're so used to great stories being written about guys that end up not being what people said they were," said the Cardinal's former offensive coordinator who replaces Jim Harbaugh. "I often run into people who have run into Andrew and the first thing they said to me is, 'Gosh all the stories are true.' He's humble, he's genuine, he's a good kid. He's a great ambassador for college football."

The phenom: The thrill of the new at Texas

Nothing excites a downtrodden fan base more than the dream of a freshman who can step on campus and change the direction of the program. This year, new Texas Longhorn Malcolm Brown is that freshman. The 6-foot, 215-pound tailback from Cibolo, Texas, probably will generate more discussion in the Lone Star State this month than Gov. Rick Perry's potential presidential run. (But maybe that's only because Perry is an Aggie.) Of course, that's what happens when the wealthiest program in America -- with the easiest natural recruiting advantage -- goes 5-7 the season prior.

True freshman running back Malcolm Brown (No. 28) could revitalize Texas' offense.
True freshman running back Malcolm Brown (28) could revitalize Texas' offense.
John Albright/Icon SMI

Brown's highlight reel from Steele High looks like a burnt orange dream come true. A big back who lines up behind the quarterback and hits the hole with extreme prejudice before bludgeoning a would-be tackler on the second level? Where have folks in Austin seen that before? Maybe from Cedric Benson? Maybe from Ricky Williams? Maybe from -- gasp -- Earl Campbell?

See how easily people can get ahead of themselves? The kid hasn't even played a college down. But what's the fun in waiting? The Longhorns have pined for a dominant back since the running game was ceded to the quarterback for the Vince Young and Colt McCoy eras. Maybe Brown is that player. At Boise State, Bryan Harsin helped turn lightly recruited Doug Martin into one of the nation's best backs. Harsin, now the co-offensive coordinator at Texas, will have a chance to design plays for Brown.

Still, Brown can't do it all on his own even if he winds up being a cross between Jim Brown and Walter Payton. The line will have to block better and the quarterbacks will have to stop throwing interceptions. But if Brown is as good as advertised, he may be the most visible piece of the offseason overhaul in Austin. If Brown doesn't live up to the hype, there's always 2012. That's when the next, next great Texas back, Johnathan Gray of Aledo, will make his Longhorns debut.

High stakes: Two new championship bouts

"Championship Saturday" first made its way into the college football lexicon on Dec. 5, 1998, when, on the final day of the regular season, Miami knocked off undefeated UCLA (in a game postponed from September due to a hurricane) and Texas A&M shocked undefeated Kansas State in the Big 12 title game, crushing the Bruins' and Wildcats' national-championship aspirations. (No. 1 Tennessee survived its SEC title bout with Mississippi State.) Since then, the first Saturday in December has provided no shortage of drama, from K-State's stunning blowout of previously untouchable Oklahoma in 2003, to Florida's improbable ascension to No. 2 in 2006 when its SEC title victory coincided with a USC upset loss to UCLA, to the mass chaos of both No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia going down in 2007.

The day always felt incomplete, however, due to the prestigious Big Ten traditionally closing shop after Thanksgiving. Finally, the conference of Woody and Bo is staging its own neutral-site spectacle in Indianapolis. With the league's rabid fan interest and a central locale, it could eventually come to rival the SEC's wildly successful 20-year-old event. (This year's game sold out in two hours.) "With our fan base in the Big Ten, that's going to be like the Super Bowl the first week of December," said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson.

Meanwhile, the newly expanded Pac-12 -- which had already begun pushing games to December -- is putting its own spin on a conference championship game by playing in the higher-finishing team's home stadium. At a minimum, both leagues' Rose Bowl berths will be decided in winner-takes-all fashion; a BCS title-game spot could be on the line.

And for those who prefer a good-old fashioned round-robin champion, the Big 12's got it covered. When the league decreased from 12 to 10 teams last year, it ditched its title game and introduced a nine-game conference schedule. Not that it won't be heard from in December; the league moved the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State Bedlam Game to Championship Saturday.

Now it's complete.

Community spirit: Football returns to Tuscaloosa

Alabama opens the season Sept. 3 against Kent State, and rarely has a paycheck game meant so much. There is little doubt that the Crimson Tide will destroy the Golden Flashes. But for the city of Tuscaloosa, the game will offer another chance to heal from the devastation wrought by the April tornado that wiped out homes, businesses and lives.

Football means more in Tuscaloosa than it does just about anywhere else, and the Kent State game gives residents -- many of whom are still trying to rebuild their lives -- a reason to come together and cheer after months of struggling. When Bear Bryant's voice growls through the speakers at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the roar might match the decibel level after a last-second win in a critical SEC game. The offseason in Tuscaloosa has been long and painful. Football will help make life normal again.

The game will provide only a brief respite for those still dealing with the tornado's aftermath. The news cycle has continued to spin, but there is still much work to do in Tuscaloosa. For information on how to help, check out Givetuscaloosa.com or call (205) 758-7588.

If no one answers Sept. 3, don't be shocked. They're probably cheering on the Crimson Tide.

 
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