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T.G.I.F: Thank God it's Football!
The Olympics are over.
That means no more tape delays, no more fury over spoiler alerts or lack thereof, no more commentators calling a failed jump off a pommel horse “horrific,” and no more forced media outrage over Crip Walks, track and field marketing deals and misguided 140-digit missives over Twitter.
For two weeks every four years, the Summer Games take the sports world by storm and bring out the very best of amateur (well, in some sports) athletics. It’s pure (sorta), exciting (at times) and free of the ruthless commercialism that ruins the sanctity of sport played by the professionals (hmmm . . . ).
But it’s mid-August, and mid-August is no time for rhythmic gymnastics or speed walking.
Mid-August means one thing and one thing only — it’s time for some damn football.
I’d ask, in my best Hank Williams Jr. voice, if you were ready for some football, but I know the answer already.
Hell, yes, you are.
As we make the transition from caring about the five rings of the Olympics to the three-ring circus that is the New York Jets, here are my 10 reasons to get pumped about the 2012 college and pro football seasons:
1. NFC East is already in midseason form
In Robert Griffin III, the Washington Redskins have an electrifying rookie quarterback on whom the franchise pretty much mortgaged its future. No one’s calling the Eagles "The Dream Team,” but Michael Vick’s already talking about building a “dynasty” in Philadelphia.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, fresh off a second straight year of his Cowboys missing the playoffs, told fans at training camp that, “Y’all should come to Cowboys Stadium and watch us beat the Giants’ ass.”
The New York Giants, meanwhile, you know — the defending Super Bowl champions — are predicted to be the third-best team in the division by Las Vegas bookmakers, are the second-most discussed NFL team in the New York media market and have a two-time Super Bowl-MVP quarterback whom the NFL Network recently ranked as the 31st best player in the NFL. Need any more bulletin-board material, Mr. Coughlin? There are 32 teams in the NFL, but there are enough storylines with just these four to keep us enthralled all season long. Giddy up.
- Jerry Jones wants Dez Bryant to grow up
- Eagles vastly improve during offseason
- You control who wins the NFC East! Sign up now
2. UCLA-USC matters again
So, this rivalry took a few years off. Don’t worry, it’s now as back as it's ever been.
The Bruins not only have a vocal and vibrant new head coach, Jim Mora, but a vocal and vibrant new head coach who stirred the pot quite a bit last week when he told a radio show, “When you're talking about UCLA, it's one of the great schools in the world — not just America, but in the world. It's a safe, beautiful campus in a great area of town. I mean, we don't have murders one block off our campus.” There have since been statements, an apology and a claim that nothing against USC was meant by the comments. Tell the Trojan Nation that. It’s on, now.
Add in the fact that USC returns a Heisman front-runner quarterback, Matt Barkley; two of the top wide receivers in the nation, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods; and a new running back, Silas Redd — and there’s a whole lot to be excited about in the Southern California football scene. It seems as if it’s been decades since Rey Maualuga laid this punishing hit on UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan.
It’s time to feel that heat again in Los Angeles.
- Barkley, Trojans on a mission this season
- Brett Hundley is UCLA's new starting QB
- Silas Redd getting comfortable in USC backfield
3. Rookie quarterbacks are here, there, everywhere
In 2011, two rookie quarterbacks — Carolina’s Cam Newton and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton — surpassed all expectations and pulled rabbits out of their hats despite a lockout, condensed training camps and a limited period to learn their playbooks.
Newton broke nearly every individual rookie quarterback record and Dalton took the lowly Bengals to their first playoff appearance in three years.
This season, there’s a crop of four first-round rookie quarterbacks who could all very well be starting on opening day. They couldn’t be more different. There’s Andrew Luck, the all-everything, former high school valedictorian out of Stanford, replacing Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. There’s Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy-winning former track star out of Baylor, providing hope and excitement in Washington. Then there’s Ryan Tannehill — he of 19 career college starts, the degree in biology, and the Maxim spread wife — in Miami. Then, there’s Brandon Weeden—a 28-year-old former Yankees farmhand who was once traded to the Dodgers for Kevin Brown — in Cleveland.
If it sounds like case from “The Real World: NFL,” it is. Four very different guys, four very different paths to the NFL and four teams in desperate needs of saviors.
Come Week 1, they’ll have all eyes — and the pressure — on them.
- Ryan Tannehill gets his feet wet?
- Brandon Weeden needs some work
- Andrew Luck dazzles in preseason debut
4. SEC is absolutely wide open
I’m not breaking any news when I say the SEC is King. It’s been the king for a while.
SEC teams have won the past six BCS championships, and last year’s top two teams were so head and shoulders above the rest of the competition that no one batted an eye when they were pegged against each other in the BCS Championship Game a mere two months after they’d played in the regular season.
This year could be the SEC’s very best from top to bottom, and though LSU is ranked No. 1 in the preseason coaches poll, arguments can be made for defending BCS champion Alabama, South Carolina, schedule-friendly Georgia, Bobby Petrino-less Arkansas and conference newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri. Florida’s always dangerous, Auburn’s sneaky and Mississippi State could have a bounce-back year after a disappointing 2011.
The SEC has long been the best conference in football, and 2012 could make for its most competitive season yet.
5. New York Jets are a reality TV show that's impossible not to watch
PRESEASON TOP 30
A brash head coach who poses for photos with attractive young women in bars while wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words, “I’d hit that,” a backup quarterback who runs shirtless in the rain and gets twice as much media attention as the starter, a big-mouthed cornerback who already has indicated he believes he’s the second-best wide receiver on the team and an owner said he was “surprised” by the amount of media attention the team has received this offseason — the Jets are headed down a road to nowhere and they’re headed there fast.
I made my thoughts known last week, when I declared their 2012 season dead on arrival, but I could be wrong. Maybe it all works. Maybe Mark Sanchez throws for 4,000 yards, maybe Tim Tebow scores 20 touchdowns in the red zone, maybe Darrelle Revis stays quiet about his contract, maybe the two new safeties play as if they’re both five years younger, maybe the cast of unproven receivers put on their big-boy pants and deliver. Maybe!
Either way, we’ll be watching. Based on ESPN’s coverage of training camp, I have a feeling we have no other choice.
- Tim Tebow makes preseason debut with Jets
- Rex Ryan punishes team with sprints
- Can Jets compete with Pats for AFC East?
6. Even more Saturday night prime-time college football to look forward to
If there weren’t enough reasons to stay in the house and eat buffalo wings on Saturday nights in the fall, FOX is giving us one more this season.
For the first time ever, there will be a full season’s slate of Saturday night games on FOX this year. Big 12 and Pac-12 heavyweight matchups, Erin Andrews, Eddie George and Joey Harrington in the studio and Charles Davis and Gus Johnson in the booth — this is all very, very good for your football viewing appetite — and probably very, very bad for your social life.
- Find out how Gus Johnson improves CFB on FOX
- Go behind the scenes with Erin Andrews
- Schedule your life around college football
7. San Francisco 49ers could have the best defense we’ve ever seen
OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating, but there is a chance this defense does things this season we didn’t even think was possible. In an era when four different quarterbacks can throw for 5,000 yards and it’s no big deal, the 49ers are a throwback to the days of old.
Their defense — ranked No. 1 in the league in rush defense a season ago — lays punishing hits, never misses tackles and makes offensive players think twice about coming across the middle.
They’re brutal, they’re mean and they’re ferocious. The best defense in the league from a year ago returns all 11 starters this season. The sick part? They’re only going to be better in 2012.
Aldon Smith, a guy who recorded 13.5 sacks in his rookie year, could near 20 sacks in his second campaign. Get excited about your fantasy football team and all the big offensive fireworks of today’s NFL, if you’d like, but don’t sleep on the last remaining great defense in the league. They’re going to be special in 2012.
- Bucs' Greg Schiano changes the culture
- Vernon Davis leads by example
- Get a leader for your Fantasy team
8. New Faces of College Football
As Andrew Luck and RG3 take their talents to Indy and DC, respectively, we look to their replacements as the new faces to lead their programs.
At Baylor, Nick Florence — a guy who got some action when RG3 was injured a few years ago — takes the reins in Waco.
In Palo Alto, it’s a two-man battle for the gig between Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes.
Joe Southwick will replace Kellen Moore, the NCAA’s all-time winningest quarterback, at Boise State, while Wes Lunt takes over for for Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State.
Get used to these names now. You’ll be hearing a lot about all these guys over the next few months.
- Get to know the replacement quarterbacks
- Miss out on media days? Here's full coverage
- Which first-year coach will have most success?
9. Angry, motivated and overlooked New Orleans Saints
We’re used to feeling all warm and fuzzy about the New Orleans Saints. The way Drew Brees took an ailing city on his shoulders and led it to a Super Bowl title, the vision of the quarterback’s adorable son celebrating the win — headphones on, covered in confetti — is ingrained in our memories forever. And an offensive attack that is not only eye-pleasing but awe-inspiring has always made it very difficult for the casual NFL fan to dislike the Saints. Well, that’s all changed.
After an offseason in which the team’s head coach and starting middle linebacker were suspended for the season, an audio leak of the ex-defensive coordinator telling the Saints defense that an opposing wide receiver “becomes human when we f****** take out that outside ACL” and an alleged wiretapping incident — the Saints are no longer the league’s feel-good story. They’re the villains. That could make them all the more entertaining this season.
Brees got his long-term deal, no one’s picking the Saints in the NFC South and there are a lot of players in that locker room with giant chips on their shoulders. The 2011 New Orleans Saints were a fun team to watch. The 2012 team could be a scary team to watch.
- Steelers' Big Ben will play nice with Todd Haley
- Falcons look to make noise in NFC South
- Fantasy football strategy: Should you draft any Saints?
10. Denard Robinson’s final act
If it feels as if you’ve been watching Denard "Shoelace" Robinson terrorize opposing Big Ten defenses for half a decade, it’s because you have.
Entering his fourth year as the starting quarterback for Michigan, Robinson’s the bridge between the forgettable Rich Rodriguez era and the promising Brady Hoke one in Ann Arbor. Michigan hasn't received preseason hype such as this since the Lloyd Carr era, and Robinson’s the main reason for that.
An electrifying and charismatic playmaker, Robinson also has a BCS bowl win under his belt. The 2012 season could be his Heisman campaign.
Wisconsin's the biggest threat in the conference, but Ohio State’s probably another year away from being back (the Buckeyes are not bowl eligible in 2012, anyway), Penn State’s no longer a threat after its recent NCAA sanctions and Michigan State lost its starting quarterback and top two receivers in the NFL Draft. Nebraska struggled in its first year in the Big Ten a season ago, Iowa’s got a long way to go and the rest of the conference’s powers are replacing key pieces at key spots. This could be Michigan’s year, and if it is, it’d be a hell of a way for one of the game’s best players to go out — on top.
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