Major conference shakeups, the new playoff system, the Heisman race, coaching changes, the players who will take the field this fall, the occasional major upset, and program turmoil are all things that fans of college football have become accustomed to. In my case, I have had some first-hand experience with some of those. I am currently going into my senior season at the University of Pittsburgh where I play safety. To be exact, it is actually my 5th year as I tore my ACL during my sophomore year and received a red-shirt. It has been a tremendous ride over the past 5 years and an absolute privilege to play for the wonderful university that is the University of Pittsburgh. As a student-athlete there have always been ups and downs, whether it has been getting hurt or going through major change, but most importantly as I reflect back on my time here it has been the greatest opportunity of my life in which I have made the greatest of friends and had experiences I will never forget. That’s enough about me, though. It is all about the upcoming season, and hopefully, because I live it every day, my insight can provide some alternate perspective.
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A truly underrated conference that tends to get lost in the shuffle of some of the other conferences such as the SEC and Big 12, but the Big East features some very talented players and some really good teams. As a member of the Big East conference, and playing against other conferences I know for a fact that these teams can play with any across the country. The Big East always is well represented in the NFL so the quality of play is always there. But do not write us off. I expect the Big East to surprise some people this year.
Watch out for:
- Ray Graham-RB/Sr./Pitt
- Aaron Donald-DT/Jr./Pitt
- Tino Sunseri-QB/Sr./ Pitt
- Kasheem Greene-LB/Sr./Rutgers
- Teddy Bridgewater-QB/Soph/Louisville
- BJ Daniels-QB/Sr./Univ of South Florida
- Lyle McCombs-RB/Soph./UConn.
This has always been a tough conference and that should not be expected to change. It’s filled with a lot of firepower and most of these schools can make a run at a prominent national ranking and potential championship, having the ability and caliber players necessary to compete at that level. Across the board, they have the talent and coaching to not only beat up on each other but on other teams across from different conferences. Virginia Tech should be the favorite, but never discount any of the other schools such as Clemson, Miami, and Florida State. This conference top to bottom is tough but look for these four schools to be some of the top dogs.
Watch out for:
- Sammy Watkins-WR/ Soph./Clemson
- Tajh Boyd- QB/Soph./Clemson • E.J. Manuel-QB/Sr./ Florida State
- Lamarcus Joyner-S/Jr./Florida State
- Logan Thomas-QB/ Jr./Virginia Tech
- Bjoern Werner-DE/Jr./Florida State
You never know which one of these teams will compete for the National Championship, because it seems they all can. There has to be something in the water down south, because those boys are animals, displaying an unbelievable blend of speed, strength, and athleticism that just wows viewers. Mixed with some great coaches, these teams are built to win. One, two, maybe even three teams in my opinion can compete for a national championship out of this conference. But they have to go through each other first to see which one of them will have the chance. Alabama has to be the favorite to win this conference again, but LSU can do some damage. Les Miles reloaded and can definitely put up another good fight against the Tide. It seems every year these schools are going to do big things, but Florida and South Carolina will make their runs at it as well.
Watch out for:
- Marcus Lattimore-RB/Soph./ Univ. of South Carolina
- Tyler Wilson-QB/Sr./Arkansas
- Knile Davis- RB/Jr./Arkansas
- Aaron Murray-QB/Jr./Georgia
- Vinnie Sunseri-S/Soph./Alabama
This conference at its core group of teams can compete with anyone. We hear about Oklahoma, Texas, and Oklahoma State. But with the addition of West Virginia and the recent rise of Baylor this conference has become much more well-rounded. I would not discount Kansas St. too, as they are an extremely well coached team and will give a fit to every team they play in this conference. West Virginia, formerly of the Big East, is a tremendous team and should be very competitive in the Big-12. I like what the Big-12 has to offer and with that should have a team or two near the top on the national stage.
Watch out for:
- Geno Smith-QB/Sr./ West Virginia
- Tavon Austin-WR/Sr./West Virginia
- Stedman Bailey-WR/Jr./West Virginia
- Colin Klein-QB/Sr./ Kansas State
- Landry Jones-QB/Sr./Oklahoma
- Jackson Jeffcoat-DE/Jr/ Texas
- Alex Okafor-DE/Sr./ Texas
Here you will find a world of talent and some hard-nosed football. Offenses in the Big Ten tend to be more traditional and play more a power game that resembles that of the NFL. But more and more teams are starting to move to a more “spread” offense type of look, which is going to pay off for the teams due to the talent they have. Ohio State is going to be interesting this year with Urban Meyer taking over, in the wake of Jim Tressel’s departure. Meyer won a couple national championships with Florida and should be able to bring success with him to Ohio State. Michigan had a rebound year in 2011 and I feel they will be able to continue building in their second year under head coach Brady Hoke. But I think Wisconsin has the edge this year in this conference. They bring back a lot of talent and are extremely well coached. Michigan State and Penn State should be tough to beat still. Penn State has a lot of baggage obviously hanging over the program, but they still have some key players this year to compete for a title. When the regular season is over, I expect Wisconsin and Michigan to be competing in the Big Ten championship game.
Watch out for:
- Montee Ball-RB/Sr./Wisconsin
- William Gholston-DE/Jr./Michigan State
- Denard Robinson-QB/Sr./Michigan
- Chris Borland-LB/Jr./Wisconsin
- Braxton Miller-QB/Soph./Ohio State
This is no doubt USC’s conference this year. Coming off the sanctions of a few years ago, Lane Kiffin has built a team with a ton of talent. I just do not think they will be beat in conference play this year. Stanford will be tough again, as they have reloaded. Arizona will be interesting with Rich Rodriguez moving in to coach with his unique version of the spread offense that has been effective in years past. But again look to USC to win this conference and look for the name Matt Barkley. He really has a chance to lead that team to big things.
Watch out for:
- Matt Barkely-QB/Sr./ USC
- Kenjon Barner-RB/Sr./ Oregon
- Robert Woods-WR/Jr./USC
- De’Anthony Thomas-RB/Soph./Oregon
AND THEN THERE’S NOTRE DAME
Notre Dame is a part of the Independents schools that do not belong to a conference and is most likely the one to challenge schools from bigger conferences for titles. Notre Dame is on the brink of getting to BCS bowl games and being a top team in the country. Brian Kelly has done a good job over his short tenure and I see it every year when preparing to play them how they are improving. They recruit a ton of talent nationwide, and he is a good coach, so it is a matter of time before they get over the hump. Any time Notre Dame is on someone’s schedule they need to strap up their helmets because they will be in for a fight.
HEISMAN TROPHY CONTENDERS
The quarterback from the University of Southern California (USC) will probably be the front-runner in many peoples Heisman Trophy conversations. The opportunity is there for him to make a run at it. He has a ton of experience and all the weapons a quarterback could ask for. He makes all the right reads and can make any throw on the field. His success from last year should not be expected to drop off, but only improve as USC can do some damage out in the PAC-12. Keep an eye on this kid.
Nicknamed shoelace because he plays with his laces untied, Robinson has become the most explosive dual-threat QB in college football. The Michigan senior has thrown for 2,000 yards and run for over 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, to go with 68 total TDs. Most of Robinson’s supporting cast will also return so there is no reason to expect his production to drop off. When everything is said and done it could come down to the strong armed Barkley vs. the quick footed Robinson in New York.
Heisman contender Montee Ball
The Wisconsin Badgers had a great season last year and a lot of that success can be attributed to their running back. The senior is poised to open even more eyes this year with his play and make the other Big Ten teams have nightmares when game planning against him. Montee has everything you need in a running back. He has great speed and agility. But he is just a great all around player. He can block, can catch passes out the backfield and just has that knack for making a big play. If Wisconsin can mimic their play and success from last year, it will be certainly determined on the play of Montee Ball.
Geno Smith (Quarterback) and Tavon Austin (WR,PR,KR)
The next two I am going to talk about together. West Virginia is Pitt’s biggest rivalry, but they do need to be discussed in these talks. Playing against these two last year, I saw firsthand the damage they can do in the Big-12 this year. Their offense is extremely potent and both of them are dangerous and will cause fits for defenses. Geno Smith has a lot of weapons on his team and the offensive system helps him be successful and should put up big numbers with the arm and throwing ability he possesses. His main weapon is Tavon Austin who is probably the fastest kid I have ever played against. Anytime he has the ball you can just see his game breaking ability. He can make a run at the trophy if he can continue to get the ball in his hands. As hard as it is for me to say this, these two should definitely be in talks for the Heisman.
My teammate and friend, he is the running back at the University of Pittsburgh and was certainly on the way to a Heisman caliber year until a torn ACL cut his season short. Ray has such a brilliant combination of speed, acceleration, and agility that makes him tough to defend against. It is amazing to see some of the cuts he can make and his ability to find a seam and go. I have had nightmares about trying to tackle him in the open field in practice and cannot imagine what other teams defenders think when playing him on Saturdays. Expect him to come back strong after his knee injury and pick up where he left off last year.
Some of the other names to watch areMarucs Lattimore (RB, South Carolina), Denard Robinson (QB, Michigan), Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson), and Cierre Wood (RB, NotreDame).
How about this new playoff system? I think its great and about time. Let me say this, no matter what the system, there will always be controversy. Look at the NCAA Basketball Tournament, where 68 teams make it, a handful of schools always that plead their case why they should be in it. The college football playoff only has four teams. You better believe there will be teams up in arms about it. But beyond that, I think its great and going to create a ton of excitement and buzz. Its great for the four teams who EARN their way into the playoff, because they get to play their way to the National Championship and not let a computer decide who gets to play for it.
Division 1-AA schools have a playoff system that really seems to work. They do not have bowl games so this playoff is the only way to go. Could FBS level schools get rid of bowl games in the near future and move to a big playoff system? I do not think this will happen. The playoff system should work and eventually grow, but there is too much money to be made for both the NCAA and universities to get rid bowl games.
Regardless of what happens in the future, this season is going to be very exciting as it goes along, and as we are all tracking what teams have the potential of making the playoffs. Obviously, I hope one of those teams is the University of Pittsburgh.
One of the other major headlines is conference realignment, where universities are jumping to different conferences to create what some might call “power conferences.” It is expected that at some point there will be 4 major power conferences, and those may be identifiable now. These four conferences are most likely to be the ACC, BIG Ten, PAC 12, and the SEC.
Personally, I support this and do not have a problem with this type of maneuver. I look at this from two perspectives: first as an athlete and second from a school’s perspective. As an athlete competition is always embraced and if the best teams are put into the same conference, why not welcome it? You get to play against the best players on the best teams on some of the biggest stages that college football has to offer. Nothing is better than that from a player’s point of view, and even from a fan of the game will enjoy these types of games.
Now from a universities perspective, it’s all about the money. If you think about it, football programs (and most other sports) are nothing but cash cows for their respective school. We are talking tens-of-millions of dollars in additional revenue each year. If a school jumps to a power conference, their revenues will certainly increase. TV contracts go way up and with the better competition and football market; ticket sales will more than likely increase. Whether anyone likes it or not, it’s a business and from what I have learned in my business classes at Pitt, the goal of any firm/business is to make money. Though, there are losers with this system; smaller schools that do not get into one of these conferences may lose out on competition and additional revenue that would have come with joining a major conference. Its unfortunate for them, but it’s the name of the game and nature of the industry. At the end of the day, I do not blame schools for jumping to different conferences – its every man (school) for themselves.
I mentioned earlier coaching changes across college football and how I have been through major change, both of these run together for me and my teammates at Pitt. We have been through three head coaches in the past three years. To put this in perspective, just imagine in your workplace you had a new boss, a new CEO every year for the past three years. It is tough duty to say the least and something that has been unfortunate to have to deal with it. With that being said, we are resilient as players and have welcomed every new change with open arms and optimism. It has been a tremendous learning experience not only for football, but also in life in general as change will happen for better or for worse. I had the absolute privilege of playing under Dave Wannstedt, and now Paul Chryst who was hired this offseason from Wisconsin. As I have told people, I truly feel he was a tremendous hire, and will get Pitt back to its storied tradition.
Frankly, I think coaching changes are an issue.
For a coach to get fired is one thing, but a head coach jumping ship and moving on to a new head-coaching job in college is not right. Critics will argue this with, “well he is making a decision that is best for him.” Sure that may be right. He may be headed for a “dream job” or making a sound economical decision. That I cannot argue. It just blows my mind how there is very little integrity when doing so. It is a shame when one school is used as a ladder to the next. They demand so much from us, whether it be on the field, in the classroom, or off the field as human beings. We have always been held to a different standard and set of values, and sometimes it does not hold true for them. Whether they know it or not there is a tremendous family atmosphere that evolves and becomes established between coaches and players during the course of a season(s). When a coach leaves for whatever reason, it is creates trying times. It is straining and something that could be avoided if there was a little more regulation on what seems like a growing phenomenon. I have a first hand perspective of this type of action, and even I know that there is not much that can happen to prevent it. It unfortunately is a part of the industry. But no matter how many coaches may come and go, the players always continue on. There may be a new philosophy, a new offense, a new defense, a new way of doing just about everything, but the kids turn the page and keep going on as I have learned and witnessed.
College football players may come and go, but what occurs during those years they are a part of a team never leaves them. I have seen lives transformed and changed because of college football.
LIFE OF A STUDENT-ATHLETE
I do not think there is anything much better than being a student-athlete. It has been a tremendous blessing to have this opportunity and live it out the past 5 years or so. With that being said, I hope no one undermines the fact that we are student-athletes. School plays a huge part in our lives and it is not just about football. Each individual has the opportunity to make what he wants out of his time in school. Some will have more success on the field than others, but we all have the same chance to leave school with a degree. Schools graduate 100% of the athletes (and students) who want to graduate. I think that is really important. If someone wants to graduate, they will do what is necessary to get it done. It is not easy, but rather something that is challenging and worth working hard for. It takes a lot of dedication to pursue a degree while balancing it with football.
We are generally up before every other student, have to practice, work out, and watch film for hours and hours during the day, together with class and studying accordingly. The process is a gratifying one if you enjoy what you are doing. In my case I love the game and I love the challenge. This attitude is prevalent across the country, I am sure, and most rise up to do their job to be the best at football and best off the field.
We get to play at the highest level of college football and play on national stages. Nothing can beat those and for that I am truly humbled. We are put under a microscope because of this, though, and are always being monitored, whether by our peers or the media. Everything we do, we must think about our own personal brand and the brand we represent (our university) to make sure we are doing the right thing. We have to be careful on any social media site and when we are out in public, a result of the age we live in I guess. It is up to the athlete to follow through with this and, if not, that is where we see a lot of negative publicity. Some people make mistakes. Unfortunately, when this happens, a negative picture is painted of the rest of our population and not enough good is known to overtake the bad. Beyond the field, there is a lot of good that goes on. Whether it is students who excel in the classroom or take initiative in the community, we as athletes are well represented.
Life as a student-athlete is not all glitz and glam as some make it out to be.
It is a lot of work and can be tough at times but at the end of the day it is what we signed up for when we committed to college. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This season should be very exciting and I am truly looking forward to playing on Saturdays. They’re a lot of headlines to follow that should add to the intrigue of the games being played. Whether or not you are a casual fan of the game or an avid follower of your respective university, we as college athletes do the best that we can to represent you and win for you. There will be highs and lows for every program this year, but do not lose sight of the fact that we want to win as badly as you want to and do all we can to make it happen. This 2012-2013 season is starting a new chapter in college football that will certainly just be the beginning of bigger and better things for the sport. I am extremely excited and maybe will see some of you at the games on Saturdays this fall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Taglianetti is a 5th year senior and safety for the University of Pittsburgh Football Team. He has twice been selected to the Big East All-Academic Football Team and is a member of the prestigious Blue and Gold Society at the University of Pittsburgh.