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Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is no more avid fan in America, then the one that prefers the collegiate game over its professional counterpart. Rivalries are not just formed on the playing field, but rather in living rooms across the country, where recruiting players is done with ruthless aggression.

Miami, Florida and Florida State are a perfect example of this, as all three programs leave no stone unturned in the Sunshine State, to land the best the state has to offer (and it has a lot to offer). It certainly would be easier to find Bigfoot, or the Lochness Monster, rather than a Miami fan that also likes Florida and Florida State, or a Gator alum that is passive when it comes to the Hurricanes or Seminoles. No, you won't find an FSU fanatic that enjoys the way Miami or Florida plays the game either. Border wars hold no more significance than in college football.

Because of that, predicting a college football season is never easy and is always open to criticism, both good and bad (mostly bad).

Although I know this going in, I will not tread lightly, as putting my neck on the line comes with the territory.

The 2002 season is inching closer and closer and here are just a few things to ponder:

EXPECT BIG THINGS: The Big 12 holds the key to the 2002 season, as it very well could have the top two programs in the country. Oklahoma is just two years removed from a national title and Bob Stoops has a full cupboard again in Norman and will probably start the season as the top team in the land. The defense lost All-Americans Roy Williams and Rocky Calmus, but the offense will be so much better this season, that it may not matter. OU's biggest threat will come from Red River rival Texas. The Longhorns are primed for a huge season with the Golden Boy (Chris Simms) at the helm. With some of the nation's most explosive offensive weapons and a stingy defense, Mack Brown may finally ascend the Big 12 mountain and take home the conference crown, while earning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in January. Serious threats will come from another pair of Big 12 preseason top-10 teams in Colorado and Texas A&M. The Buffs are the defending conference champs and have a ton of talent returning. The Aggies are the wildcard, as a seasoned team on both sides of the ball may just shock everyone and win the league crown.

Where exactly will Nebraska end up? The Huskers are still smarting from the absolute whipping laid on them by the Hurricanes in the Rose Bowl. Frank Solich must try to fill the huge hole left by Eric Crouch (easier said than done), but with home tilts against Texas and Colorado, not to mention road trips to Penn State, Texas A&M, Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, things will not be the same in Lincoln this year. Is it possible that Nebraska is only the fifth-best team in the conference?

Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden's Seminoles failed to win at least 10 games for the first time in 14 seasons last year.
SUNNY DAYS: Bobby Bowden's team lost four games in 2001. It still sounds a little weird saying that. With a 9-4 campaign last year, the Seminoles failed to win at least 10 games for the first time in 14 seasons, not to mention losing their stranglehold on the ACC title. It will be a brief decline, as the 2002 season will see the 'Noles back in the national title picture. FSU is loaded on both sides of the football and may have the best offensive and defensive lines in the country. With a young, but now experienced Chris Rix under center and a whole host of weapons at his disposal, this team could put up huge numbers this season en route to a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

The defending national champs will look to repeat, but it certainly won't be easy for Miami. The team benefited from the nation's best offensive line and secondary last year and relied heavily on both units to win the national title. Larry Coker's team still has a great deal of talent, but the Hurricanes will have a tough time becoming the top team in their state, let alone the nation this season.

The Florida Gators will be an enigma to start out the season. How can you lose talents like wideouts Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell on offense and defensive end Alex Brown and cornerback Lito Sheppard on defense, not to mention head coach Steve Spurrier and not take a step back? The answer of course is Rex Grossman. Last year's surprise Heisman candidate is a legitimate threat to win it this season and it's only a matter of time before he locks in on his new favorite targets. The team will probably use the running game a bit more and that can only make Grossman that much more dangerous. While the Gators may just be the third-best team in the state of Florida, they could still wind up with a top-10 finish.

RETURN TO FORM: The SEC took a step back last season, as Tennessee knocked off Florida, while LSU took out Tennessee, leaving no one left standing when the music stopped. This year, the SEC should get back in the national hunt, with as many as four teams from the conference hovering around the top-10 all season long.

The best of the bunch could very well be the Volunteers. Sure there have been numerous offseason setbacks, but Fulmer's offense could be one of the country's finest. The only question is whether the defense can keep pace.

The aforementioned Gators will once again fight tooth and nail with Tennessee for SEC East supremacy and first-year coach Ron Zook will look to make an immediate impact in the league, letting everyone know that Florida football will thrive in the post-Spurrier era.

Like the Volunteers, Georgia will get a chance to climb to the top of the league standings, behind a potent offense. The Bulldogs will need their defensive unit to show up each week, but this offense can blow away any team, including the Vols and Gators in the East.

Finally, Lou Holtz has the kind of program in South Carolina that could make a serious run at the big boys (Florida, Tennessee, Georgia). The Gamecocks will run the ball down team's throats and the old adage the speed kills certainly applies in Columbia this season. One thing is for sure, USC football will certainly be fun to watch in 2002.

The West doesn't hold the trump cards that the East does, but that certainly won't stop teams like Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss from proving the SEC is back.

ON THE HORIZON: With unthinkable campaigns by teams like Fresno State (11-3), BYU (12-2), Washington State (10-2) and Hawaii (9-3) last year, the pattern has been set for underdog teams to follow. Who will be this year's surprise programs?

This very well could be the year that Mike Price's Cougars take it all in the Pac-10. Last season's success was rather unexpected, but a loaded team led by a Heisman Trophy candidate (Jason Gesser) could have the program finally taking it all after year's of cellar-dwelling.

Florida State should win the ACC, but NC State could very well be this year's Maryland. The Terps shocked the nation as they went home with the league crown in 2001. The Wolfpack are similar in many regards this season and Chuck Amato's team could very well be atop the standings when all is said and done. NC State did go into Tallahassee and win last year (the first league opponent to do so).

Utah and Colorado State are the teams to beat in the Mountain West, with both programs looking to build on winning seasons in 2001.

The WAC could have a new look at the top of the standings as well, with Boise State and Louisiana Tech coming into the season with a great deal of optimism. The Broncos were supposed to take a step back last season, but quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie proved to be a suitable field-general. With Dinwiddie returning, along with the team's top rusher (Brock Forsey) and wideout (Jay Swillie), the Bronco offense will certainly put points on the board.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS: Picking the league champs before the season is not easy and certainly open for opinion, but here goes:

ACC - Florida State
Big East - Miami-Florida
Big Ten - Ohio State
Big 12 - Texas
Conference USA - Louisville
Mid-American - Marshall
Mountain West - Utah
Pac-10 - USC
SEC - Tennessee
Sunbelt - Middle Tennessee State
WAC - Boise State

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.


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