College football back with new look, attitude

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College football spent the last eight months in therapy, facing its flaws and refining its goals.

It returned in earnest Thursday night after a transformative and tumultuous offseason new and improved, more honest about where the sport is headed and open to accepting ideas on how to take it there. But after so many questions in boardrooms and courtrooms about players unions and pay-for-play systems, finally the time has come to find answers on the field.

Welcome back, old friend. You were missed. Players come and go, conferences shift and national championship formats change, but there's still nothing quite like a Saturday afternoon by your side.

They agree in South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame hosts Rice on Saturday amid an academic investigation that has overshadowed the preseason. Given the distractions, Notre Dame's opening opponent will be the most welcome Rice on campus since Tony in 1988.

Four key players at the center of the probe will sit after investigators sifted through student email looking for irregularities among current and former players, according to a source. A fifth player, reserve safety Eilar Hardy, was identified Thursday. How many more names will surface?

With or without the university suspending players to protect its academic integrity, the football team looks destined for a 9-3 season because of an unforgiving schedule great for TV ratings but lousy for AP polls. Quarterback Everett Golson returns from a cheating scandal to run coach Brian Kelly's offense, but defensively the Irish lack the depth and explosiveness to stop the likes of Stanford, Florida State or USC. Trojans cornerback Josh Shaw says USC's defense will play better than you could imagine.

Speaking of hyperbole, be careful not to get too carried away with the annual fast start of Northwestern, which begins its season in prove-it mode. No program in America underwent as much scrutiny as coach Pat Fitzgerald's in the offseason because of former quarterback Kain Colter's efforts to establish a college players union. Fitzgerald believes the experience unified the Wildcats, but that might make them the most cohesive 6-6 team in the country.

Expect quarterback Trevor Siemian to flourish not having to share the job this season, but the Wildcats will miss Colter on the field, if not in the locker room. They need a consistent playmaker after running back Venric Mark abruptly left the program this month — leaving a trail of unanswered questions — and wide receiver Christian Jones sustained a season-ending knee injury.

Traditionally, scoring points poses fewer problems for Northwestern than giving them up — an oddly enduring trait for a team coached by a former All-America linebacker. Only when its defense changes that reality will Northwestern truly be able to look ahead at marquee games and expect victory, as Gary Barnett used to say.

Still, the expectations are higher in Evanston than in Champaign, where Illinois figures to either play in a bowl game in December or conduct a coaching search. Nobody will be shocked if it's the latter, especially with road games at Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Illini also play Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State in the opening month — opponents that should make any Big Ten athletic director blush.

Coach Tim Beckman, despite leading the Big Ten in enthusiasm, is 1-15 in conference play and likely must finish .500 or higher in Year 3 to justify staying. If that sounds hasty or harsh, welcome to big-time college football, which the Illini have been strangers to for too long. Transfer quarterback Wes Lunt will create excitement, but the Illini defense will determine when locals start counting down to basketball season.

By that time, Michigan State will be on its way to college football's first Final Four. Prediction time: The Spartans will represent the Big Ten on New Year's Day in one NCAA semifinal, playing No. 1 Florida State. In the other semi, Oklahoma will play Auburn. The Sooners, with nine returning defensive starters and versatile quarterback Trevor Knight, will beat the Seminoles for the national title.

More predictions: We will argue as much as ever over who deserves a shot at the title. That thud you hear in DeKalb will be the Northern Illinois program falling back to earth without Jordan Lynch. The flashiest thing in Oregon won't be the uniforms, thanks to Marcus Mariota, my Heisman Trophy guess.

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, the conference's best, will make Rutgers wonder why it joined the Big Ten. UCLA will be the most overhyped thing in SoCal since the Kardashians. Texas coach Charlie Strong will have more wins than suspended players — no small feat at his rate.

Alabama coach Nick Saban won't overrule offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin until at least the third quarter of the opener. USC coach Steve Sarkisian will miss Seattle by Labor Day. Brent Musburger will make each game he announces the one to watch every Saturday — the best day of the week during the greatest time of the year.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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