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Ten biggest questions heading into 2013

12/31/2012

The 2012 season isn't quite complete, even if the calendar year is in its final hours. What can we expect from the new year, knowing 2012 was a season in which college football experienced a variety of adventures? Notre Dame resurged. The SEC, just when it seemed out of the national title hunt, maintained its foothold. And the new playoff took shape.

What should we look forward to in 2013? Here is a 10-question primer for the college football year ahead.

1. Will Chip Kelly still be Oregon's head coach?

NFL head coaching jobs are opening at a quick pace. So if Kelly really is mulling a move, what better time to hand-pick a favorable situation? Jumping into turbulent franchises thwarted the attempts of Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and others, although it's not as if they were exempt from criticism.

Kelly could also be motivated to follow Pete Carroll's lead of outracing the NCAA guillotine, given some of the smoke around the Oregon program. (Carroll landed in a pretty good spot, as it turns out.)

Look, it's going to happen eventually. Count me among those interested in seeing whether Kelly's offensive system works in the NFL. Those I've spoken with are divided on the subject. And isn't a defense also required to play professional football? Oregon has made strides on defense, but it's not as if Kelly's offensive mind alone will lead to success.

Regardless of how it goes, nothing I've been told in the past month has made me feel any differently: It would be a surprise if Kelly were still at Oregon for spring ball, let alone the 2013 season. It will likely be offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich's program not too long after the Fiesta Bowl.

2. Who will be the surprise title contender?

This is something of a prequel to a post I'll have in a couple of days in which I look for the 2013 versions of Notre Dame, Florida and Ohio State -- teams that will take the next steps toward title contention and/or undefeated seasons.

I doubt there will be any surprises from the SEC. Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M -- even South Carolina -- aren't sneaking up on anyone; they all had solid 2012 seasons. Clemson in the ACC might fall into that category too, though most would be surprised if the Tigers were able to put together an entire season and not just a hot stretch at the beginning or end of the fall.

Here are two programs to watch:

Washington has steadily put together a good young coaching staff and it's getting talent like tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and linebacker Shaq Thompson to go with it. The Huskies could be a team to watch in the Pac-12, if the offensive line and defense progress.

And sigh, I keep riding this one, but keep an eye on Texas in 2013. It returns a load of talent and adds more with its recruiting class. Plus, the Longhorns have incrementally improved, getting back to eight wins in 2011, then nine in 2012. Ten or more wins in '13 wouldn't be outlandish, but UT has to play far, far better in the Red River game to really turn heads. Manny Diaz's defense has to improve. It can't play any worse, right?

3. Will this be Mack Brown's last season at Texas?

Win or lose, 2013 just might be it for Brown at Texas. At what point do the scrutiny and the demands of all-access TV become enough for Brown to opt for his North Carolina mountain home?

Prior to this season, Brown was already talking up the potential of the 2013 group. So it doesn't seem out there to wonder if Brown has been rallying the program for one last run, rebuilding from the five-win season in 2010 to the present state.

I've spoken with several peers and coaches about the Texas job, asking who might be interested if it were open. Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Baylor's Art Briles were names that surfaced in those conversations, though I'd think Texas would at least check to see if TCU's Gary Patterson would be interested.

As you heard this season from Brown, certain elements of the job -- like the media time commitment -- might not make it as appealing to someone like Patterson or Boise State's Chris Petersen, another name that has started to surface in connection with a possible opening at Texas.

4. Can the SEC win eight national titles in a row?

I fully recognize it has yet to win seven in a row, but let's face it, Alabama is a touchdown-plus favorite in the BCS title game and it would be a pretty sizable upset if the Irish pull it off. A Bama win would leave the SEC with another year of bragging rights and would increase the rest of the country's general unrest and irritation.

The Crimson Tide, in a supposed rebuilding mode in 2012, sure look like the favorite in 2013. They have a ton of talent coming back on both sides of the ball, along with whatever is added in recruiting.

Other teams in the conference, though, are knocking on the door. Florida had just one loss, an ugly one against Georgia, and its offense will be in the second season with coordinator Brent Pease. Texas A&M, which handed Bama its only loss, isn't going anywhere with the way Kevin Sumlin recruited on top of a solid returning crop, including the first freshman Heisman winner. Georgia, LSU and South Carolina shouldn't be far off the pace either.

To paraphrase former wrestler Ric Flair's astute philosophical assertion, "To be the men, you've got to beat the men."

5. Can Lane Kiffin do more with less?

I recall wondering this summer how USC, and particularly Kiffin, would react to having expectation placed squarely on its shoulders. The obvious answer was not well.

Athletic director Pat Haden came out toward the end of the season and said Kiffin's job was safe, but you can feel his leash getting shorter. So it's a big year for Kiffin, who will have to put his first Matt Barkley-less team together. It's not as if he's bereft of talent, even with the NCAA's scholarship reductions; Marqise Lee will be back and Nelson Agholor is a future star.

Defensively, I'm curious to see what happens in the post-Monte Kiffin era. That has been the team's soft spot since Carroll left. With players like linebacker Dion Bailey, there's ability on that side of the ball too.

Kiffin's next 12 months could define his career even more than the past 12 months have.

6. Is college football ready for its second two-time Heisman winner?

The odds are probably against Johnny Manziel's winning a second Heisman Trophy, but he'll have three years to try to equal Archie Griffin's feat. (He'll have four years at A&M -- do you really think a 5-foot-11 QB is leaving early?)

It'll be intriguing to see how Manziel performs without some important pieces on the offensive line, presuming Luke Joeckel and/or Jake Matthews leave early. And we'll soon know how much of Manziel's success was attributable to former offensive coordinator and new Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury.

One thing we already know: Manziel will have plenty of competition for the Heisman in 2013. The quarterbacks alone -- Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Oregon's Marcus Mariota -- will be viable candidates. USC's Lee, fourth in the voting this season, returns. The top defensive candidate figures to be South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the likely No. 1 pick in 2014.

7. Is Notre Dame a one-hit wonder?

Regardless of what happens in the title game, Brian Kelly and the Irish deserve a truckload of credit for getting the program to this stage. He's the perfect politician and coach to manage pressure and help his players maintain focus. After a few uninspired coaching hires at Notre Dame, it sure appears the administration got this one right.

Maybe this is just a 2012 thing, a team that won all of its games thanks in large part to a talented and experienced defense. But it doesn't really feel that way, does it? Notre Dame is currently third in our RecruitingNation rankings. South Bend is again an attractive option for high-end talent. If Stanford can find smart guys who can win games, why can't it also happen at Notre Dame? The corner sure seems to have been turned. We might look back on 2012 as a benchmark year in the program's history.

8. Will the postseason system finally go nuclear in its last go-round?

Each year in late November, it appears that we're destined for BCS chaos -- and each year, for the most part, things settle by the time the national championship game is set. The 2012 season was no different when Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame were all 10-0 in mid-November. It didn't take long for that to change; now here we are with a Bama-Notre Dame final.

Is there any way that a logjam actually transpires in the final year of the current system? There's obviously no way to know now, but I do know a lot of fans who root each year for chaos. It's sort of college football's version of NASCAR fans who want to see The Big One.

9. What does the future look like for Boise State?

The original BCS buster has now been to (and won) three consecutive Las Vegas Bowls and is four seasons removed from its most recent BCS game. Some thought this might be when coach Petersen considered other jobs -- with Boise State's talent pool dipping after sending a half-dozen or so players to the NFL and its uncertain conference future, with the program weighing a move to the Big East versus remaining in the Mountain West.

Either way, it'll be interesting to see whether Boise can remain relevant as college football moves toward, then enters the playoff system.

10. How will the playoff plan come together?

It has been a slow trickle of information regarding the 2014 playoff -- it's like playing poker and seeing the cards being turned over one at a time. Soon, however, we'll know what's on the table.

We'll know the details of the four-team playoff, the other "access bowls" and the when and the where. We'll also know how the new system's committee will function and how it will go about determining those final four teams.

We're almost there. The 2013 season will carry us to the doorstep of a new day in college football. The playoff might not solve every issue with the college postseason -- OK, that's a lock -- but it does figure to bring new excitement to college football.