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TITLE BOUT

One final thought on last January’s tremendous Rose Bowl ...

“That championship is done!” Texas Coach Mack Brown said over the telephone between portrait sittings, knighthood paperwork, pork ‘n’ bean commercials and department-store appearances. “We’ve got it forever.”

Fair enough.

Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White have moved on -- why shouldn’t we?

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But why, why, why didn’t Pete Carroll punt on fourth and two?

Shouldn’t ESPN be doing a “Five Reasons ... " on this?

It is?

(OK, that’s it pundit, leave it alone).

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The best thing about college football seasons is that no two are alike.

Texas and USC led dawn-to-dusk through last year’s campaign but expect this year to be more open-ended than a Bobby Bowden answer.

It’s so wide open that Ohio State lost nine starters on defense and enters the season ranked No. 1 in both major polls.

Had they lost 10 starters, the Buckeyes might have been picked to win the Super Bowl.

“How legitimate is it?” Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel wondered about the preseason hype. “I don’t know if we know the answer to that.”

So there you have it.

Every would-be contender -- and they are lined up 10 deep at the kickoff kiosk -- could stand a dab of blemish cream.

Some experts fancy Notre Dame, with its clean-cut quarterback and crew-cut coach.

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But this is a franchise that has lost eight straight bowl games and returns meaty portions of a defense that gave up 617 yards to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Safety Tom Zbikowski, in a retaliatory act, turned pro as a fighter in June and knocked out a boxing Buckeyes fan in 49 seconds.

What part of Zbikowski’s off-season game needed work?

“His left jab,” Irish Coach Charlie Weis quipped.

USC has to re-chisel the Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt (Teddy) faces in its Mt. Rushmore backfield, but it does have Washington (Chauncey).

The last time USC lost a Heisman Trophy quarterback, Carson Palmer after 2002, it sputtered, bumbled and leg-dragged its way to ... a share of the national title.

Brown cried three days at the Austin train station when quarterback Young boarded the 5:15 for Nashville, and now the Texas coach is staring at two quarterbacks who have never taken a meaningful snap.

But Texas still has enough talent to beat Oklahoma State’s Cowboys -- and maybe Dallas’.

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In a sport without a playoff, though, and in a year with no clear favorite, always bet the schedule.

West Virginia, out of the Big East Conference, has the best chance to go 12-0 and starts the season ranked high enough in the polls to off-set opponent odiousness. The Mountaineers’ toughest opponents are at Pittsburgh, at Louisville and at Overconfidence.

West Virginia players, normally left alone, have become stars in their own state.

“You walk into a grocery store as an offensive lineman, people know who you are,” said Dan Mozes, the team’s star center. “You get that second look.”

Auburn gets Louisiana State, Florida and Georgia at home and could, unlike in 2004, go undefeated and actually get a chance to play in the national title game.

“I think about it every day,” Coach Tommy Tuberville said in reference to the 13-0 team that watched USC and Oklahoma play for the crown.

So that’s it, West Virginia vs. Auburn for the title, ugly as that may sound, although you never know what’s going to tip the balance.

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Some championships are lost and won in the off-season.

Oklahoma may have kicked the can in July, when quarterback Rhett Bomar was shown the showroom door.

USC may have won it when the NCAA declared receiver Dwayne Jarrett eligible to split out wide against Arkansas on Saturday.

Miami may have lost it when Larry Coker suspended two star players for the team’s opener Monday against Florida State.

Sometimes an academic outbreak can knock you off stride. A fishy sociology class at Auburn drew the New York Times’ interest, which some conspiracy zealots thought interesting because the Times owns the Tuscaloosa News, hometown paper of archrival Alabama.

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Bloggers, if you’re not careful, can be home-field wreckers. At Oklahoma, news of Bomar’s pay-for-play car dealership job first appeared on a Texas A&M; post.

Florida Coach Urban Meyer is so fed up with the Internet -- “it just horrifies me,” he complained at Southeastern Conference media day -- he banned it from his house.

Maybe the tipping point was Meyer’s wife, Shelley, finishing third in a blog of “Top Wives of the SEC.”

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New regulations may play a deciding factor in the title race.

Coaches are apoplectic about 3-2-5-e, a rule that stipulates, after a change of possession, the clock will start on the official’s mark instead of the snap. Some fear as many as 20 plays may be lost as a result.

If you hacked 19 plays off the end of last year’s Rose Bowl, USC would have been leading, 38-33, a down before LenDale White was stopped short on fourth and two at the Texas 45.

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New rule II: To prevent coaches from having to burn timeouts to beg for replays on controversial plays, each coach this year will be allowed one replay challenge a game. If the play is upheld, he loses the timeout. If overturned, he is not charged.

Rogers Redding, the SEC’s coordinator of officials, explained: “My hope is the coaches will not need the challenges because the replay officials will be doing their job in terms of stopping the game anyway.”

My hope is that Redding was joking when he said this.

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This year’s title game moves from Pasadena to Glendale (Arizona), to a new stadium that looks like something that might have once dropped in on Roswell, N.M.

Cardinals Stadium has a retractable roof and a retractable floor. The playing field, a 12-million-pound tray that is 234 feet wide by 400 feet long, is 45 inches thick -- the deepest dish this side of Rush Street.

The field rolls in and out on hundreds of wheels. Tony Hawk wants to ride it if he can find a big enough skateboard park.

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Let’s go over the new championship procedures again:

The Fiesta Bowl gets first crack at the new-fangled “double-host” plan. There are five Bowl Championship Series games this year instead of four, but this is not a playoff.

The extra bowl was created to open up two additional at-large access passes in a successful effort to fend off a possible lawsuit.

The Fiesta has the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 and then, on Jan. 8, the BCS title game between the top two teams in the final BCS standings.

The Rose Bowl remains a Pacific 10 Conference-Big Ten Conference romance unless either champion is ranked Nos. 1 or 2 and makes the BCS title game.

The Rose will have two games in 2010 -- but only one parade.

“There still remains substantial confusion in the public about the change to the format and what it really means,” said Mike Slive, SEC commissioner and new BCS coordinator.

You think?

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New rule III: This year, any non-BCS team ranked in the top 12 gets an automatic berth into a BCS game; before it had to finish in the top six. Any team that finishes in the top 14 of the BCS standings is eligible for at-large consideration.

Notre Dame is an automatic take if it ends up No. 8 or better.

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New rule IV: If a non-BCS school finishes in the top 16 and ranks higher than one of the six BCS conference champions, the non-BCS school gets an automatic bid.

Had the rule been in effect last year, Texas Christian at No. 14 would have been BCS bound and Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State would have been out.

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Other odds and ends:

* The Fox Network, home of Bart Simpson, takes over the bulk of the BCS package, televising the Fiesta, Orange, Sugar and BCS title games.

Fox has promised you won’t need 3-D glasses to view the bowl games -- at least not this year.

ABC keeps the Rose Bowl but loses Keith Jackson.

* A new 12-game season means you get to a bowl game with a 6-6 record, so dream big out there.

* The Pacific 10 Conference is playing a round-round schedule so the only “misses” necessary this year will be in properly addressing your head coach’s wife.

* Folks in Columbus, Ohio, are already comparing Chris Wells, a true freshman tailback from Akron, to Jim Brown. Thank goodness they’re not comparing him to Maurice Clarett.

* Penn State Coach Joe Paterno turns 80 in December, and doctors have told him he’s fit enough to coach 10 more years. Which means 75-year-old Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden may have to coach another 11.


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