Uncertainty is afoot in 2010, on a level unlike any year in recent memory. Sure, Alabama, the defending national champion, is a consensus No. 1 pick in polls and magazines. But it’s foolish to think the Crimson Tide are a certainty to become the first team to win back-to-back national titles since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995. Alabama will certainly be good, but nine - nine - new starters on defense makes them far from perfect.

Uncertainty is afoot in 2010, on a level unlike any year in recent memory.


Sure, Alabama, the defending national champion, is a consensus No. 1 pick in polls and magazines. But it’s foolish to think the Crimson Tide are a certainty to become the first team to win back-to-back national titles since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995. Alabama will certainly be good, but nine - nine - new starters on defense makes them far from perfect.


Alabama got 54 of 60 No. 1 votes in the Associated Press media poll and 55 of 59 in the USA Today coaches poll. The Tide are an overwhelming top pick, a dominant No. 1.


But to paraphrase Vincent Gambini, Are you sure about that pick? Are you sure about that pick?


It’s naive to think a team with just two returning starters on one side of the ball won’t have its bad moments. It’s naive to think a team with just two returning starters on one side of the ball won’t slip up against a schedule that includes Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks and a trip to LSU two weeks later, plus a possible second meeting with Florida in the SEC Championship Game, or perhaps Georgia.


“What the maturity is,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at a press conference Monday when asked the biggest question about his team. “What the identity is going to be. The things I’ve talked about before. What is the chemistry of the team? Are the young players going to mature? Are there enough older players that have played to provide the leadership and example to affect those guys and help their maturity?


“I think those are the big things.”


That’s not to say Alabama shouldn’t be at the top of the preseason polls. The Tide’s offense will be better - even without Heisman winner Mark Ingram early in the season - and there are immensely talented players stepping in for those who departed. Of all the teams that could contend for the national championship, Alabama looks the most likely to win it.


However, they are a much less secure top team than Florida the last couple of years, USC in 2007, Ohio State in 2006 and USC the couple of years before that, every one of which ended the season ranked no worse than fourth. With 12 new starters overall, Alabama is a team a lot more likely to struggle than other preseason favorites.


But it’s not just the Crimson Tide who are picked to be great but must overcome something in order to do so. Every team that seems to be in contention has serious questions. 


Ohio State is second in both preseason polls. And like Alabama, there’s no question the Buckeyes will be good. But a clear-cut No. 2, with the other four top votes in the coaches poll and three of the remaining six in the media poll?


Ohio State brings back plenty of experience - nine starters on offense and seven on defense. But Terrelle Pryor is the quarterback, and for all he did in last year’s Rose Bowl win over Oregon, all he’s done to date is show flashes. He has not come close to showing he can consistently play at a high level, and he’ll need to in Week 2 against Miami and throughout the year against a schedule that includes trips to Wisconsin and Iowa.


Florida - third in the USA Today poll and fourth in the AP poll - doesn’t have Tim Tebow, and new quarterback John Brantley, for all his high school accolades, is completely unproven. Texas - fourth in the coaches poll, fifth in the media poll - similarly doesn’t have Colt McCoy anymore, and is not only breaking in Garrett Gilbert but changing the offense to de-emphasize the spread and institute more of a traditional running game.


The Gators would have to get past Alabama twice and has LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State to navigate. And the Longhorns have a schedule that includes Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Nebraska twice if both teams make the Big 12 Championship Game.


First-year quarterbacks, no matter how highly recruited, sometimes show that they’re first-year quarterbacks.


“This is the first start for (Gilbert),” Texas coach Mack Brown said on Monday. “It’s been his team since spring practice. Coming out of the national championship game, he’s worked very hard to make good decisions and drop the ball off and lead his team. He’s got a lot on his plate right now. I’m sure his head will by spinning some by Saturday.”


And then there’s Boise State.


The Broncos are third in the AP’s preseason poll and fifth in the coaches poll. No team has as an easier path to the national title game. If they beat Virginia Tech on Labor Day - no guarantee - with just one more team ranked in the preseason polls (Oregon State) they very likely will play in Glendale, Az., on Jan. 10.


But seriously. Beating Virginia Tech and its six new starters on defense is one thing. Beating Alabama or Ohio State or Florida or Texas is something completely different. So is beating Oklahoma, Nebraska or Iowa, any of which are as legitimate contenders for the spot currently bestowed upon Alabama as the Crimson Tide.


And that’s the point.


There are about 10 teams pretty indistinguishable from one another, all with lots of strengths but at least one crucial weakness. Unlike last year when it was pretty clear Texas would play the SEC champion for the national championship, or the year before when it was pretty clear Florida was head and shoulders above everyone else, there will be contenders from all parts of the nation.


There’s no great team this year, no monster that’s a privilege to see, no one that will dominate each week while running the table and go down in the annals of history as one of the best ever.


Instead, call it a season of uncertainty. Call it parity. Call it a crapshoot.


Call it a season that figures to be a lot of fun.


What We Learned


The Big Ten got it right.


Wednesday evening the conference announced how it will divide its teams in 2011 when Nebraska joins and the Big Ten becomes 12 teams strong.


The rumor was that Michigan and Ohio State, the flagship teams of the conference and schools that have one of the best - if not the best - rivalries in all of college football would be placed in separate divisions. No big deal, so long as they still play every year on the final Saturday of the regular season, as has been the tradition that’s led to so many winner-take-all battles for the conference championship.


But there was also the rumor that, while the Wolverines and Buckeyes would still play each year, their game would be moved to earlier in the season so that should the teams win their respective divisions and meet in the conference championship game they wouldn’t be playing two weeks in a row.


Thankfully, the Big Ten did the right thing.


Michigan and Ohio State are indeed split, but they will continue to play every year and continue to do so on the final weekend of the regular season. The rivalry will be unchanged, the tradition unchanged.


“Basically, we decided to go with the final season date because that was a way to maintain the tradition,” said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. “The conference has a wonderful history of not only rivalry games but trophy games.”


What makes the Big Ten’s decision so important is what the Big 12 didn’t do when it formed. That conference killed a rivalry that was every bit as intense as Michigan-Ohio State.


Oklahoma and Nebraska were the linchpins of the Big 8 for decades, and their annual Thanksgiving weekend game was often for the conference championship and an automatic berth in the Orange Bowl, just as Michigan and Ohio State’s games are often for the conference championship and a an automatic berth in the Rose Bowl.


When the Big 8 merged with four teams from the former Southwest Conference to form the Big 12, Oklahoma and Nebraska were put in separate divisions. But instead of mandating that the teams play every year, and keeping that game on Thanksgiving weekend, the conference made no allowance for the rivalry.


Oklahoma slipped shortly after joining the Big 12 while Nebraska maintained its excellence. By the time Oklahoma rebounded, Nebraska started to slip. Meanwhile, Texas recovered from a long stretch of mediocrity.


Suddenly the annual Texas-Oklahoma game, always a secondary rivalry - Oklahoma had Nebraska and Texas had Texas A&M - became the biggest on the schedule for each school. The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, meanwhile, faded.


Nebraska will leave the Big 12 after the 2010 season and join the Big Ten. Unless they schedule a non-conference game, there will be no more Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry. Not that there’s much of one anymore anyway.


The Big 12 killed one of college football’s great annual games, and no doubt that contributed to Nebraska’s departure from the conference - there was nothing to keep the Cornhuskers there. The Big Ten, on the other had, is making sure its great rivalry is preserved.


The Big Ten got it right.


And here’s hoping that Oklahoma and Nebraska take advantage of the Cornhuskers’ departure from the Big 12 to schedule an annual non-conference game against one another and put it at the end of the season the way Florida and Florida State do, as well as Georgia and Georgia Tech, and Clemson and South Carolina.


Just because the powers that be in the Big 12 were foolish when the conference began play in 1997 doesn’t mean the powers that be at Oklahoma and Nebraska can’t right a wrong.


Game of the Week


The ACC will be front and center on opening weekend.


A conference that has struggled for respect and failed to live up to its potential since raiding the Big East for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, plays marquee games against non-conference opponents throughout the first weeks of the season.


The first of those games are this weekend when North Carolina plays LSU on Saturday night and Virginia Tech takes on Boise State on Monday night.


The Tar Heels - who have a wicked defense - were on the cusp of becoming a top-10 team last year and can make a statement that they belong there this year if they can beat one of the SEC’s powers. The problem, however, is that they’re embroiled in a scandal that could cost them plenty of players as the season progresses, and could they be a completely distracted bunch against the Tigers.


The scandal - which already cost them stud defensive lineman Marvin Austin for Saturday night - of course, surrounds one of the offseason’s main storylines, contact with agents.


“We’ve had to be somewhat prudent in the number of practice repetitions certain guys get,” North Carolina coach Butch Davis said during Wednesday’s ACC conference call. “It’s just something that we kind of have to play by ear.”


The Hokies, meanwhile, are always on the cusp of contending for the national title, and with a win over the Boise State can at once eliminate the Broncos from the championship chase and vault themselves into it. They have a spectacular offense but must replace six starters on defense.


“Boise State (is a) very impressive football team,” Virginia tech coach Frank Beamer said during Wednesday’s ACC conference call. “Impressive, too, the fact that they have so many veterans returning. ... We know what a challenge we’ve got Monday night.”


The challenge they’ve got is to beat a team with national title hopes and in doing so embolden their own such hopes. They can also boost the reputation of a conference that’s not particularly respected.


If I Had a Ballot ...


1. Alabama (0-0): An undefeated season is unlikely, but a one-loss run to the title isn’t out of the realm.


2. Oklahoma (0-0): The experience Landry Jones got last year in Sam Bradford’s absence could prove the difference when the Sooners play Texas.


3. Iowa (0-0): The Hawkeyes get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home.


4. Ohio State (0-0): The Big Ten could come down to Nov. 20 at Iowa, though Sept. 11 against Miami will play a role in the Buckeyes’ overall season.


5. Virginia Tech (0-0): If the Hokies beat Boise State, they belong.


6. Florida (0-0): Tim Tebow is gone, but 14 starters return.


7. Boise State (0-0): If they beat Virginia Tech, all that stands between the Broncos and an undefeated season is Oregon State.


8. Nebraska (0-0): An improved offense should land the Cornhuskers back in the Big 12 Championship Game.


9. Wisconsin (0-0): With 10 starters back on offense, the Badgers stand a chance of surpassing Ohio State and Iowa.


10. Texas (0-0): Colt McCoy’s absence - and Jordan Shipley’s - is a lot to overcome.


Contact Eric Avidon at 508-626-3809 or eavidon@cnc.com.