Rocky’s V: Things to watch for this season in college football

08/27/2013

Rockys VI. Can Johnny Manziel take the next step?

I could spend the next ten blogs talking about the off-the-field areas where Johnny Manziel could improve, but for the sake of this entry, I want to ponder his development on the field. In 2012 Manziel burst onto the college football scene as a cagey gunslinger who invented, created and dazzled all the way to a Heisman Trophy. He was always able to find a way to make a play in A&M’s run/pass option offense. But in order to not be a one-hit wonder, “Johnny Football” must evolve and grow as a quarterback. Defensive coordinators have spent an entire offseason traveling the country meeting with other great football minds and watching tape to figure this kid out and game-planning coverages and blitzes to defeat him. I feel that Manziel has much work to do on his mechanics and in his ability to read defenses, which will undoubtedly come at him with more creativity this year. Manziel can be a victim of his own success in terms of his development…Vince Young in the NFL comes to mind. Young exploded in his rookie year, but never took the time to improve as a QB and by the next year he’d been figured out. Hopefully Manziel became a student of the game this offseason, but with all the headlines, parties and scandals, it begs the question: did he even have the time or the focus to take the next step?

II. SEC an elite quarterback conference?

For years, the SEC has been synonymous with dominant front sevens and smash-mouth football, but often lacking in the elite QB category. With the exception of Cam Newton, past names like Jordan Jefferson (LSU), John Brantley (Florida), Greg McElroy (Alabama) and Stephen Garcia (South Carolina) were adequate players but not elite, explosive playmakers. That all changes this year, as there are three legitimate QB weapons in the conference. Aaron Murray comes into the season with 10,000 yards in three seasons at Georgia and a 61% completion percentage, AJ McCarron of Alabama is coming off a season of 30 TD passes and only 3 picks, and of course, there’s Johnny Manziel. Throw in the potential of South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and the SEC is the conference of top quarterback play — as if it needed more to add to its resume.

III. Oregon with new head coach Mark Helfrich

The narrative all offseason in Eugene has been about the “seamless transition” from Chip Kelly to longtime offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, but I’m a little skeptical. While Helfrich has been the offensive coordinator since 2008, Kelly was the primary signal caller at Oregon and Helfrich comes with zero head coaching experience. The annals of college and pro football are filled with examples of great coordinators that did not turn out to be great head coaches (Rex Ryan anyone?). The word I’ve gotten is that Kelly had his hand in every aspect of that program – from the scheduling of the player’s classes to the type of protein shakes they drank post-workout. If that’s true, he leaves a huge void and a lot of pressure to fill it for a guy who has never been the man in the spotlight. You don’t have to look far for an example of how this can go sideways quick. Just ask Arkansas about their “seamless transition” last year from Bobby Petrino to longtime Razorback assistant coach John L. Smith – a season started with talks of an SEC title and ended in a 4-8 disaster. Just saying.

IV. My Heisman pick is Tajh Boyd

Last year I took Clemson WR Sammy Watkins as my preseason Heisman pick… and well, that turned out to be ill-advised. Once bitten, twice shy? Not me. This year, I’m taking the guy who will be throwing the ball to Watkins – his Clemson teammate Tajh Boyd. In 2012, Boyd threw for 3,896 yards, which was almost 200 more than Johnny Manziel and a thousand more than Cam Newton when he won the Heisman in 2010. I thought Boyd took great strides last year in his decision making and accuracy, which were questions coming into the season. All Boyd needs to do this year besides put up big numbers (which he will) is to show up in big games. Dates against Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina will provide the backdrop and I think Boyd takes advantage.

V. Who raises the final Crystal Football?

Let us pay homage to the BCS before the four-team playoff comes to college football in 2014 and gives people something new to complain about.  So who do I think will win hoist the final BCS trophy?  I’m going out on a limb – mostly because I can’t even bear the thought of a third straight Alabama championship and fourth in five years – and taking the Stanford Cardinal. Yes, you heard that right. Last year I got the pleasure of being on the broadcast for Stanford’s upset of the then-unbeaten Oregon Ducks and it was a thing of beauty. Stanford to me is the only team that has the finesse to win shootouts, but the power and grit to go up against the SEC. Nine starters return to a defense that was fifth against the run (97.0 ypg) and 11th in scoring defense (17.2 ppg). The offense will lean more heavily on QB Kevin Hogan, who emerged last year as a legitimate dual threat. The schedule is very manageable, and if the Cardinal can beat Oregon when the Ducks visit Stanford Stadium on November 7th, it could be a perfect season in Palo Alto.

- Rocky Boiman

Rocky Boiman is an analyst for our coverage of NCAA Football. Each week in “Rocky’s V,” the former Notre Dame captain and Super Bowl champion writes about five topics that have captured his interest from around college football. You can also follow Rocky on Twitter.

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