Welcome to Cheesehead TV's College Football Weekend Preview, what will be a weekly column getting you ready for a football-filled Saturday.
As editor of our Pro Football Draft Preview publication, I want to make covering the NFL Draft a year-round exercise, and this is a means to accomplish that end.
The Big Picture
There are two big story lines that dwarf all others heading into the 2012 season: the establishment of a college football playoff and the post-Joe Paterno era at Penn State.
As far as the playoff goes, all that can be said is: It's about time. University presidents approved a four-team playoff beginning in 2014, so it's still two seasons away from becoming reality. Change moves slowly in college football, and at some point there will probably be more than a four-team playoff, but one step at a time.
There was a point in my life when I approved of the bowl system, but that was before the invention of the BCS. I enjoyed watching an abundance of football games around the holidays, and still do. But the system allowed such little access to teams with legitimate claims to becoming national champions that it was counterproductive.
The book Death to the BCS by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan was an eye-opener that brought to light the corrupt system ran by bowl game executives, many of whose personal self interests come before those they serve. The book also showed that the creation of a playoff doesn't mean the end of bowl games as we know them, which is great if you're a college football junkie. Despite reform in the NCAA, the book still resonates if you haven't read it yet.
While a playoff is the silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel in college football, there's a dark thundercloud hovering over the place known as Happy Valley.
In a nutshell, the Jerry Sandusky scandal was sad and unfortunate, something that never should have happened––but did. And now Penn State has to live with the consequences that will cripple the program for years to come.
On a personal note, I'm a University of Wisconsin alumnus and never have been a fan of Penn State, but I always had a soft spot in my heart for Joe Paterno. It started with a book our literature class read in the seventh grade called Something for Joey about Penn State Heisman Trophy-winning running back John Cappaletti.
The book, geared for adolescents, detailed Cappaletti's senior campaign in 1973, but more importantly, his relationship with his younger brother Joey who was fighting a losing battle with leukemia and to whom he tearfully dedicated his Heisman Trophy. Paterno was a main character in the narrative, one who was portrayed as a leader of men and an empathetic figure.
From 2003 to 2006, I was a middle school English/language arts teacher and made the book part of my curriculum as well. It was a way to incorporate my love of sports into teaching and yet, it was a story that transcended sports. Nothing will ever take away the heroics and courage of John and Joey Cappaletti, but I fear my former students will only be reminded of the scandal that occurred at Penn State under Paterno's watch instead of what should be a touching story with more important lessons to take away.
To be sure, my stance on Paterno has changed in the past several months. He could have and should have done more to protect the welfare of the children that Sandusky abused. Again, sad and unfortunate.
Today, Penn State gets ready for their 2012 season opener against Ohio under severe sanctions handed down by the NCAA that will take years, maybe decades for the Nittany Lions to overcome: a four-year postseason ban, a sizable loss of scholarships, $60 million, just to name a few.
Players were allowed to transfer. Last year's leading, returning rusher and receiver are gone. Running back Silas Redd is now a Trojan at USC while wideout Justin Brown is a Sooner at Oklahoma, both of them with sights set on a national championship.
It might take a year or so for the bottom to really fall out at Penn State. The penalties are strict, but there's enough talent to remain competitive in Happy Valley in 2012 under new head coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, particularly on defense where they have one of the best groups of linebackers in the nation.
Regardless, Penn State could actually be in for quite a struggle against Ohio who will be one of the best teams in the MAC this season, led by head coach Frank Solich and quarterback Tyler Tettleton, son of former Detroit Tigers all-star baseball player Mickey Tettleton. The Bobcats have 14 returning starters this year and with all the turmoil going on at Penn State, there's a chance the Bobcats could give the Nittany Lions a run for their money.
What Happened Before Saturday
On Friday evening, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta was host to the first of two match-ups between ACC and SEC schools this weekend, the first being North Carolina State against Tennessee. Auburn and Clemson will play Saturday evening.
Among the players to watch last night was NC State cornerback David Amerson who led the NCAA with 13 interceptions last season and is a preseason All-American this year. Amerson is only a junior but he's already considered one of the NFL's top prospects regardless of position if he chooses to declare following this season.
Unfortunately for Amerson and for anyone hoping to get a glimpse of a future first-round draft pick, the Wolfpack cornerback was burned for multiple touchdowns in the first quarter alone as the Volunteers started off the season with a 35-21 win.
The touchdowns Amerson gave up were all of the long variety, a 41-yard reception to Cordarrelle Patterson, a 72-yard pass to Zach Rogers and Amerson also couldn't catch up to Patterson on a 67-yard run in the first quarter either. It really was an embarrassing evening for a player considered to be one of the best in the nation.
Last evening, NFL Draft analyst Chris Steuber shared his thoughts on Amerson via Twitter, which included the possibility of a position switch at the next level...
— Chris Steuber (@ChrisSteuber) September 1, 2012
Hopefully, for Amerson's own sake, he gets it figured out, because Friday's season opener was not the way he wanted to begin the year. At 6-2 and 194 lbs., Amerson is very tall for a cornerback, so from that perspective, it makes sense that he could and should make the move to safety.
Where College Gameday Is At
The opening weekend of college football doesn't have a lot of marquee games on the schedule, but there's one monster, huge matchup between traditional powerhouses Michigan and Alabama being played at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas where the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. For Alabama, they'll be looking to defend last year's BCS crown while Michigan is out to prove that they're back among football's elite following the disappointing Rich Rodriguez era.
Alabama lost All-American running back Trent Richardson and a lot of talented bodies on defense this offseason, but Nick Saban doesn't have to do a lot in the way of rebuilding. Quarterback A.J. McCarren is back, and their offensive line is arguably the best in the country. On defense, they'll just plug in some highly touted recruits and barely feel a drop off in production.
Meanwhile, Michigan is heading in the right direction under head coach Brady Hoke. In his first year at the helm, he got the Wolverines to a BCS Bowl in 2011 thanks in large part to the defensive turnaround by coordinator Greg Mattison (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens). In just one season, the Wolverines went from allowing an average of 35.2 points per game in 2010 compared to 17.4 last year.
The Alabama defense was one of the best in college football history last season, and that's not an exaggeration. They allowed an average of 183.6 yards and 8.2 points per game, both tops in the nation. Yes, there's been some turnover at both Alabama and Michigan on the defensive side of the football, but these teams should continue to be good defensively, so don't expect a high-scoring game Saturday night.
If Michigan is going to win, it's going to need an unbelievable performance from Denard Robinson who's great running the football but is just an average passer. But he'll have a hard time getting anything going against the Alabama D, especially withou running back Fitzgerald Toussaint in the backfield next to him. Toussaint has been suspended for the Alabama game after a drunk driving incident earlier this summer.
There's a reason the SEC has won the past six consecutive national championships. The talent down South has just been superior to that compared to anywhere else in the country, and it doesn't appear as if the Tide is turning (pun intended). Expect Alabama to win. The game is at 7 p.m. Central time on ABC.
The Wisconsin Connection
The Badgers kick off the season against an FCS foe, Northern Iowa. As far as FCS opponents go, Northern Iowa is a good one after going 10-3 last year and finishing the season ranked, but that will hardly move the needle in terms of national attention on Saturday's game.
All the attention in the Badgers' season opener will be on a pair of skill position players, quarterback Danny O'Brien and running back Montee Ball.
O'Brien transferred to Wisconsin in the offseason from Maryland in a very similar fashion to Russell Wilson the year before. The optimism is high for O'Brien because of his prolific year in 2010 when he was named the ACC Freshman of the Year after throwing for over 2,400 yards with 22 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. However, he followed up that campaign by throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (seven) last season as Maryland had a disaster of year.
The Badgers don't need Danny O'Brien to be Russell Wilson in order to be successful. One of the biggest reasons they've had success under Bret Bielema is because they don't turn the ball over very often. As long as O'Brien can protect the football and just make a couple key completions here and there, the Wisconsin offense can still be high-powered.
As for Ball, everyone is going to want to see he responds to being beaten and suffering a concussion after being jumped by a group of five assailants in Madison a few weeks ago. There were some rumors that the attack on Ball was in retaliation to a fight Ball was involved in a few weeks earlier, but according to reports, there's been no evidence thus far to suggest that's true.
After tying the NCAA single-season record with 39 touchdowns last year and being a Heisman Trophy finalist, the spotlight on Ball will be intense. If everything goes as planned, the Badgers will blow out Northern Iowa, and Ball won't play as much as he would in a closer game. But it will be a positive for him simply to play on Saturday, have a positive outing and get ready for a more important game next week at Oregon State.
The game is at 2:30 p.m. Central time on the Big Ten Network.