Can Alabama make it three in a row? Will Johnny Manziel survive September? Will anyone mourn the Bowl Championship Series when it's gone after this season? The NCAA Division I-A college football season begins Thursday night and the veteran Post-Gazette sports writer begins to sort out the national picture with this primer to the season ahead that includes the following five story lines that will play out over the course of the next four months.
1. THE END OF THE NCAA?
Maybe a bit dramatic, but the bottom line is this -- the changing landscape of college football, conference expansion and contraction and the widening gap between the haves and have nots have clearly changed the way the organization will do business. The conference commissioners from the power conferences want changes and want them now, and NCAA president Mark Emmert has made it clear he hears them. The biggest change could be the power conferences and their football teams breaking away into a new division. A big sticking point is the idea of paying athletes a stipend of some sort. The power schools want it; the smaller schools not so much. And there are all kinds of Title IX implications. There are still significant parts of this restructuring to be decided and still a lot of questions as to how it will work, but there is no question this is the end of the NCAA as we know it, and that could be a good thing.
2. TO SIGN OR NOT TO SIGN
This is sort of part two of point No. 1 -- call it the Johnny Manziel rules. Obviously the Heisman Trophy winner's autograph-signing controversy sparked a lot of discussions about the hypocrisy of the NCAA when it comes to rules about amateurism as well as what schools can do to prevent situations like this from happening. A number of schools quickly announced changes to their autograph-signing policies for their student athletes, and the NCAA has begun to re-examine some of the rules regarding the issue of autograph money. The NCAA has already made changes to what they sell and market as well as with whom they have licensing agreements in response to the Ed O'Bannnon lawsuit and other criticism.
3. BYE, BYE BCS
The Bowl Championship Series was implemented in 1998 as a means of putting the top two teams together in a national championship game. The system has had mixed results and reviews, but more often than not, it got it right. Yes, there were arguments and controversies, but generally the team that won the championship has been regarded as the best team. This is the final year for the BCS, so it will be the final year of overhyped poll watching and silly computer formulas ... well, at least until next year when the arguments expand to identifying the top four teams in the country in anticipation of the first four-team playoff.
4. JOHNNY FOOTBALL
Manziel will be a major story line whether he is allowed to play or not. If he plays he has an opportunity to win a second Heisman, perhaps orchestrating another upset of top-ranked Alabama along the way, and get the Aggies into the national championship discussion. Or he can flame out, proving that an offseason of distractions, bad decisions and silliness are too much to overcome, which in some ways would be an even bigger story. But if Manziel is declared ineligible or is suspended for a few games, the discussions will turn to the NCAA and its rules and whether they are fair. Manziel, for better or worse, is the highest profile player in the game right now, so whatever he does is going to be magnified and scrutinized.
5. THE AAC (NOT A TYPO)
The AAC is the American Athletic Conference, a k a the "new Big East," only not really. Yes, Cincinnati, South Florida, Connecticut, Rutgers, Louisville and Temple are in the conference, so there is a Big East flavor to it, even without Pitt and Syracuse. But Rutgers and Louisville are leaving after this season, and the conference will have a decided Conference USA feel to it as it already has Houston, Memphis, SMU and Central Florida and will soon add Tulane and East Carolina. The bigger issue for the AAC is this: The conference still has the Big East's automatic BCS berth this year, but this is the final year of the BCS and that likely means this is the last year it will enjoy major conference status. It could, however, produce a national championship contender this year -- Louisville is expected to make a run at being undefeated.