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NCAA 2011 | On college football

Landscape has some changes

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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It used to make more sense, didn’t it? The Big Ten had 10 teams. The Big 12 had 12 teams. Jim Tressel was entrenched at Ohio State, seemingly running a program that was the envy of the country. The Big East, despite being raided once before, seemed to be at least surviving, if not thriving, with a collection of schools east of the Mississippi. And the Southeastern Conference had established itself as the epicenter of the college football world with a succession of teams contending for and winning national championships.

With the 2011 season about to start, some of the landscape has changed but much remains the same.

Alabama and LSU are regarded as prime contenders in the SEC’s quest for a record sixth consecutive national championship. And the SEC may again have to deal with NCAA violations that could involve defending national champion Auburn and LSU.

But a closer look at the overall product reveals some startling changes.

The Big Ten, which went to 11 schools with the addition of Penn State a generation ago, will introduce a 12th member in Nebraska, which will give the conference two divisions and its first championship game in December.

The Big 12 is left with 10 schools (Colorado defected to the Pac-10) and no championship game.

Tressel, who appeared headed for Woody Hayes status in Columbus, was forced to resign in May as a result of his players receiving improper benefits from the owner of a tattoo parlor. Tressel reportedly lied to investigators about how much he knew about the scandal.

While the Big East wrestles with expansion plans, the eight-team conference will grow by at least one next season with the addition of TCU, which is east of Lubbock, Texas, but hardly seems to be a good geographical fit with schools such as Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and West Virginia.

And there is more turmoil. Texas A&M has openly flirted with the SEC, which could start the next wave of conference expansion. Miami is in the middle of a major investigation that some have suggested could shut down the program.

Here’s a quick look at some of the story lines in the power conferences.

Pac-12: It could be a fun year out West. The conference added Utah and Colorado and split into divisional play with a championship game. Oregon and Stanford are the best teams. Southern Cal is on probation and not eligible for bowl play. Oregon is being investigated by the NCAA for its alleged ties to a Texas recruiting service.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, but gone is Jim Harbaugh, the architect of the Cardinal’s dramatic turnaround.

Big Ten: Nebraska, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez, is one of the favorites. Wisconsin will have an interesting year if quarterback transfer Russell Wilson pans out. Michigan has a new coach in Brady Hoke, and Penn State still has Joe Paterno.

The league’s inaugural championship game will be played in Indianapolis.

Big 12: Bob Stoops’s Sooners, propelled by quarterback Landry Jones, are the class of the field.

Big East: A conference that struggles for recognition will have West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and South Florida battling for a BCS bowl slot.

ACC: Florida State appears poised for a return to glory. The conference features new coaches in Randy Edsall (Maryland), Al Golden (Miami), and Everett Withers (North Carolina), who got the job on an interim basis when Butch Davis was fired last month after an academic and recruiting scandal.

Mountain West: Boise State, powered at quarterback by Heisman candidate Kellen Moore, is the overwhelming favorite.

Locals: Boston College could be a better team with a worse record, but Frank Spaziani’s team could again be bowl-bound if the offense can jell under quarterback Chase Rettig. Expect Harvard to prosper again under the guidance of coach Tim Murphy.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.