National college football primer

TWO MUST-SEE GAMES

1. Alabama at Texas A&M, Sept. 14: The two-time defending national champions will try to avenge their only loss of last season. Granted, the matchup loses a lot of luster if an NCAA investigation sidelines Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel. Otherwise, the game is the most anticipated of the season: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 7 A&M; the proud Alabama defense vs. the quarterback who completed 24 of 31 passes and ran for 92 yards against the Crimson Tide last season.

2. Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 7: These teams were a combined 24-3 last season and open this season ranked Nos. 3 (Oregon) and 4 (Stanford). The stakes will be high, as they were the past two years. Last season, Stanford won in overtime in Eugene, Ore., knocking the Ducks out of the national-championship race. In 2011, Oregon won at Stanford, handing the Cardinal its only loss of the regular season. This season, the Pac-12 North showdown is scheduled for a Thursday night, unusual for a game of this stature.

TWO MUST-SEE PLAYERS

1. Johnny Manziel, sophomore quarterback, Texas A&M: After a jaw-dropping, Heisman-winning season as a redshirt freshman a year ago, Johnny Football had a tumultuous offseason that included an NCAA investigation of whether he was paid to sign autographs. Unless the off-field troubles keep him off the field, Manziel will be college football's most watched player this season: What can he do for an encore of a rookie season in which he obliterated the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards (3,706 passing and 1,410 rushing)?

2. Jadeveon Clowney, junior defensive end, South Carolina: After capping last season with a ferocious hit/fumble recovery against Michigan in the Outback Bowl — a play that became a "SportsCenter" and YouTube sensation — Clowney will command attention in what he acknowledges will be his final collegiate season. Whether some opposing quarterbacks fear him, as he claims they do, all of them clearly respect his combination of size, speed and strength as a game-changing force on defense. He had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss last season.

STREAK BREAKERS?

If the SEC does not win an eighth consecutive BCS championship — granted, a big if — here are the most likely candidates (in order) to break the streak:

Ohio State: Florida won the BCS championship in its second season under coach Urban Meyer. Now Ohio State is in its second season under Meyer, and the Buckeyes went 12-0 in his first. This time, they're postseason-eligible. And they have one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Braxton Miller.

Stanford: After winning 35 games and reaching three BCS bowls in the past three seasons, Stanford should be as good, or better, this season. It has a star quarterback (Kevin Hogan) and a stellar defense. If the Cardinal continues its habit of winning the close games and if it gets past Oregon, who knows?

Oregon: The Ducks overcame their first obstacle to national-championship contention this season when they avoided a postseason ban in the NCAA's sanctions against the program. The team has to manage a coaching transition (Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich), but dual-threat star quarterback Marcus Mariota should make that easier.

Clemson: The Tigers and star quarterback Tajh Boyd open and close their regular season against formidable SEC opponents: Georgia in the opener and South Carolina in the finale. If they win both of those games and the ACC championship, they could make a strong case for the BCS title game.

HEISMAN WATCH

Our ranking of the top candidates for this season’s Heisman Trophy:

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: He put up big numbers in his first season in Urban Meyer's offense (2,039 yards passing and 1,271 yards rushing) and figures to put up bigger numbers this season.

2. A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama: If the Crimson Tide is still in position to win a third consecutive national title when votes are cast, and if McCarron has a typically stellar season, he could be hard to vote against.

3. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: Yes, he plays on defense, which Heisman voters usually neglect. But yes, he also may be the best player in college football this season.

4. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: The first player to win the Heisman as a freshman (albeit redshirt freshman) would be the second player to win two Heismans (Archie Griffin, 1974-75).

5. Marqise Lee, WR, USC: He finished fourth in the Heisman voting last season, when he had 1,721 receiving yards (14.6 per catch). He could be even more important in the Trojans' offense this season.

6. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: The dual-threat QB completed 68.5 percent of his passes and accounted for 38 touchdowns at the helm of the Ducks' hyper-speed offense last season.

7. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: By season's end, the four-year starter's career stats are going to be off the charts. And if the Bulldogs' offense is as prolific as expected, he'll command a lot of attention.

8. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville: He passed for 3,718 yards last season on a team that finished 13-1. Similar things are expected from him and his team this season.

9. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson: He'll put up big numbers — he passed for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns last season — and if Clemson is in the national title mix, he'll get Heisman consideration.

10. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: He led the nation in rushing as a sophomore last season (1,929 yards), but his team's success will determine whether he can get on Heisman voters' radar.

NON-CONFERENCE SHOWCASES

This season’s most compelling nonconference games (listed chronologically):

Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (Georgia Dome), Aug. 31: Alabama opens against the same opponent in the same place as it opened its 2009 national championship season.

Georgia at Clemson, Aug. 31: The first meeting in 10 years of these programs is expected to produce a high-scoring shootout.

Florida at Miami, Sept. 7: Only the fourth regular-season meeting since 1987 between these Sunshine State rivals.

Oklahoma at Notre Dame, Sept. 28: This series from college football's history books was revived last season.

Notre Dame at Stanford, Nov. 30: A power-football matchup of two teams ranked highly in the preseason (Stanford No. 4 and Notre Dame No. 14).

Georgia at Georgia Tech, Nov. 30: In this state, anyway, this one always belongs on a list of compelling matchups.

COACHES ON HOT SEAT

Coaches who will open the season on — or close to — the hot seat (listed in order of temperature, hottest first):

Lane Kiffin, USC: The Trojans started last season as a top-five team and ended it with a 7-6 record and a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.

Randy Edsall, Maryland: After going 6-18 over the past two seasons, Edsall's program needs to make strides before heading to the Big Ten next year.

Steve Sarkisian, Washington: His margin for error has been reduced by three consecutive 7-6 seasons and a loss to Washington State last season.

Charlie Weis, Kansas: Yes, he's been in the job only one year, but another season like that one — 1-11 — could spell job insecurity.

Kirk Ferentz, Iowa: After going 4-8 and losing its final six games last season, Iowa may be looking for some new dividends from its coach, who has a lucrative contract and big buyout.

COACHING CHANGES

Thirty-one of the 125 FBS teams — about 25 percent — have new head coaches this season:

School: Former coach (years in job); New coach (previous job)

Arkansas: John L. Smith (1); Bret Bielema (Wisconsin head coach)

Arkansas State: Gus Malzahn (1); Bryan Harsin (Texas co-offensive coordinator)

Auburn: Gene Chizik (4); Gus Malzahn (Arkansas State head coach)

Boston College: Frank Spaziani (5); Steve Addazio (Temple head coach)

California: Jeff Tedford (11); Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech head coach)

Cincinnati: Butch Jones (3); Tommy Tuberville (Texas Tech head coach)

Colorado: Jon Embree (2); Mike MacIntyre (San Jose State head coach)

Florida International: Mario Cristobal (6); Ron Turner (Tampa Bay Bucs QB coach)

Georgia State: Bill Curry (5); Trent Miles (Indiana State head coach)

Idaho: Robb Akey (6); Paul Petrino (Arkansas offensive coordinator)

Kent State: Darrell Hazell (2); Paul Haynes (Arkansas defensive coordinator)

Kentucky: Joker Phillips (3); Mark Stoops (Florida State defensive coordinator)

Louisiana Tech: Sonny Dykes (3); Skip Holtz (South Florida head coach)

Nevada: Chris Ault (28); Brian Polian (Texas A&M special teams coordinator)

New Mexico State: DeWayne Walker (4); Doug Martin (Boston College offensive coordinator)

N.C. State: Tom O'Brien (6); Dave Doeren (Northern Illinois head coach)

Northern Illinois: Dave Doeren (2); Rod Carey (Northern Illinois offensive line coach)

Oregon: Chip Kelly (4); Mark Helfrich (Oregon offensive coordinator)

Purdue: Danny Hope (4); Darrell Hazell (Kent State head coach)

San Jose State: Mike MacIntrye (3); Ron Caragher (San Diego head coach)

South Florida: Skip Holtz (3); Willie Taggart (Western Kentucky head coach)

Southern Miss: Ellis Johnson (1); Todd Monken (Oklahoma State offensive coordinator)

Syracuse: Doug Marrone (4); Scott Shafer (Syracuse defensive coordinator)

Temple: Steve Addazio (2); Matt Rhule (N.Y. Giants assistant offensive line coach)

Tennessee: Derek Dooley (3); Butch Jones (Cincinnati head coach)

Texas-El Paso: Mike Price (9); Sean Kugler (Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach)

Texas Tech: Tommy Tuberville (3); Kliff Kingsbury (Texas A&M offensive coordinator)

Utah State: Gary Andersen (4); Matt Wells (Utah State offensive coordinator)

Western Kentucky: Willlie Taggart (3); Bobby Petrino (Arkansas head coach, 2011)

Western Michigan: Bill Cubit (8); P.J. Fleck (Tampa Bay Bucs wide receivers coach)

Wisconsin: Bret Bielema (7); Gary Andersen (Utah State head coach)

THE NUMBERS GAME

Some numbers to know as the season begins:

2 Teams since the start of the BCS era in 1998 that have won the national championship after being ranked preseason No. 1 by the Associated Press (Florida State in 1999, USC in 2004)

3 Consecutive Rose Bowl appearances by Wisconsin, which has lost in all three

11 Consecutive wins by Navy over Army, the longest winning streak in series history

12 Consecutive wins by Ohio State, the longest active winning streak by any FBS team entering this season

15 Consecutive road wins by Oregon entering this season

20 Touchdown passes needed by Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray to break former Florida QB Danny Wuerffel's SEC career record of 114

27 Seasons as Virginia Tech's head coach for Frank Beamer, whose 27th team opens the season in Atlanta's Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against Alabama

51.5 Louisiana Tech's points per game last season, most by any FBS team

IN ELITE COMPANY

Alabama is the preseason favorite to, once again, win the BCS championship. Already, coach Nick Saban is one of only four coaches in college football’s modern “poll era” (since 1936) to win four or more national championships:

Coach; Titles; School(s); Seasons

Paul “Bear” Bryant; 6; Alabama; 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979

Frank Leahy; 4; Notre Dame; 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949

John McKay; 4; USC; 1962, 1967, 1972, 1974

Nick Saban; LSU, Alabama; 2004 (LSU); 2009, 2011-12 (Alabama)