Stage set for historic 2009 season

It has been all but automatic in college football for more than a quarter-century, since Herschel Walker took his 1982 Heisman and turned pro after his junior season at Georgia. The brighter the college football star, the shorter he stays. The game's best players spend three years on campus, staying that long only because the NFL won't take them any sooner.

This year, however, as college football celebrates its 140th anniversary, the formula is different. College football has gone old-school, back to an era when the game's best didn't leave. You want throwback jerseys? Try No. 14 at Oklahoma, No. 15 at Florida, No. 12 at Texas and No. 2 at USC.

That would be Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Taylor Mays, respectively. The best player on four of the top five teams in the final polls last season turned down the NFL to return and lead his team again in 2009. The old blood at the top of the polls will be fueled by old stars.

That is why the Gators, Longhorns, Sooners and Trojans, the top four in ESPN.com's preseason power rankings, begin the new season pretty close to where they finished the last one (they finished 2008 1-4-5-3, respectively, in the final AP poll).

Past performance may not be a guarantee of future results, as our financial statements have reminded us. But if you like seeing college football history being made, then it looks like you've come to the right season.

Take the race to win the 75th Heisman Trophy. Never before have two former winners returned to the college football field. Not in 63 years have the top three vote-getters from the previous season returned. It doesn't make sense to pick someone other than Bradford (2008 winner), Tebow (2007 winner) or McCoy (2008 runner-up) to win the Heisman, unless you like history.

Heisman winners who have returned to college football have been held to a higher standard by the voters. That's why only one -- Archie Griffin in 1975 -- has repeated as Heisman winner. Still, the extra time college football has with those players makes it almost as if 2009 is a leap year. Enjoy the extra time with them. There's no telling when the opportunity will arise again.

The spotlight trained on those three quarterbacks this year has left the other stars of the game in the dark. Take Mays, the USC senior free safety who would have gone very early in the 2009 draft. Mays is one of only three returning starters on the Trojan defense, yet no one is so concerned as to suggest that USC will fail to win its eighth consecutive Pac-10 championship.

There's also Tennessee strong safety Eric Berry, Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant -- there is no shortage of stars whose wattage has dimmed because of Bradford, Tebow and McCoy. Senior tailback Damion Fletcher of Southern Mississippi has rushed for 4,287 yards in three quiet seasons. If he maintains that pace as a senior -- and he'll be working behind an experienced line -- Fletcher will finish among the top five FBS career rushers.

Fletcher's career may be a metaphor for the overshadowed Conference USA. The Golden Eagles join TCU and BYU in the Mountain West and Boise State in the WAC as the prime candidates for a BCS bid among the leagues without an automatic berth.

The Southeastern Conference has won three consecutive national championships (Florida-LSU-Florida). No league has finished No. 1 four straight seasons since the Associated Press began polling in 1936. That said, the league's dominance as a whole is being challenged by the Big 12, which put more teams in the final AP top 25 (five) than the SEC (four) a year ago.

The BCS National Championship Game returns to the Rose Bowl, where a Big 12 team won the crystal football four years ago. Texas has gone 32-7 in the three years since and not even played for a Big 12 Championship. That's a tough neighborhood.

Oklahoma won its third straight league title in 2008 without beating Texas, a feat it would prefer not to repeat in 2009. The Sooners and the Longhorns once again headline the list of marquee games that await us.

The rise of the spread offense has affected no league more than the Big 12. Warm weather in the state of Texas used to mean bluebonnets. Now it means 7-on-7 tournaments. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini sounded almost defensive last month when he spoke of the relevance of the running game.

"You can talk about throwing the football all you want," Pelini said. "If you want to win championships, at some point you have to be physical enough to run the football."

Well, sure. That's one of the verities of the game. But you have to wonder. Texas finished No. 3 in the nation while gaining 64.8 percent of its offense through the air.

Or this: Florida has not had a 1,000-yard rusher in Urban Meyer's four seasons. Two national championships, yes. A 1,000-yard rusher, no. Maybe it's not the yardstick it once was.

Florida has the luxury of not playing Ole Miss, the only team to beat the Gators last season. The Rebels, expected to contend for their first visit to the SEC Championship Game, have SEC West rivals Alabama, Arkansas and LSU all coming to Oxford.

Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly let defensive coordinator Joe Tresey go after the Bearcats won the Big East and went to the Orange Bowl. Why? Kelly wants to play a 3-4 defense this fall, not Tresey's 4-3. Kelly got tired of running players on and off the field depending on down and distance. He wants the versatility of a 3-4.

"We're just trying to react to what we're seeing offensively," Kelly said.

Kelly has 159 victories, tied for 10th among active coaches, as he begins his 19th season as a head coach. If he wins 10 games a year for the next 20 years, he still would be a couple of dozen victories short of Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, each of whom returns to the sideline for their 44th season as head coach.

In a year of job losses in the public and private sector, the NCAA laid off 14 of Bowden's 382 victories as punishment in an academic scandal. Florida State must "vacate" the victories, and like state-mandated furloughs in California and Arizona, it is a vacation that no one wants.

Economists might say that 14 victories is a cut of only 3.66 percent. None of them, however, could be football fans. With one stroke of the pen, the NCAA erased 10 years of excitement. At the beginning of the 1999 season, Paterno had 307 victories to Bowden's 292. By 2003, Bowden overtook Paterno, who needed five seasons to retake the lead.

After last season, Paterno had 383 victories, Bowden 382. At the beginning of this season, the score (pending Florida State's appeal) is 383-368. Bowden is accustomed to being 14 ahead before he steps on the field. In this case, he fell another 14 behind.

If Florida State wins the appeal, the battle between Paterno and Bowden should remain close throughout the season. Both the Nittany Lions and the Seminoles are expected to contend for their conference championships. Bowden may have his most potent offense in several years. While the Seminoles' defense is young, veteran coordinator Mickey Andrews always finds a way.

Bill Snyder returns to Kansas State, where he won 136 games before retiring after the 2005 season. The man whom Snyder replaced after the 1988 season returns to head coaching as well. Can there be anyone who has survived greater odds to getting another head coaching job? Stan Parrish went 2-30-1 in three seasons with the Wildcats. More than two decades later, Parrish gets another chance with Ball State, which went 12-2 last season.

Parrish's 27-game winless streak should end in the opener against North Texas, which has gone 3-21 in the past two seasons. But what's amazing about Parrish going 0-26-1 is that it's hard to stay employed when you're unsuccessful that long. Given the quick hooks that athletic directors have today, Parrish's streak appears safe.

The new coach who has attracted the most attention is Lane Kiffin of Tennessee, who is hoping that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Kiffin takes over a team that is mediocre, is giving them new schemes to learn and will turn them out to compete in the same division as the defending national champion and four other bowl teams.

And there's no such thing as patience anymore. The intense public debate over Charlie Weis' future last December after four seasons at Notre Dame is another recent illustration. Coaches must win quickly. Players who dominate can't leave for the NFL fast enough.

That's what makes the 2009 season so special. The best players in the game stayed. Enjoy.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.