The countdown has hit zero. No more days to be spent waiting, no more anticipation. Four games kick off tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern time, and that means it's time to embarrass myself with some sure-to-be-inaccurate predictions for the season (nothing like the last minute, right?).
Here we go ...
* Florida will win the national championship. A loss is possible at some point -- it's still college football, after all -- but even a one-loss Gators team has a good shot at getting in the national title game (unless that loss is in the SEC championship game). And considering that they have almost everyone coming back from a team that beat Oklahoma -- which might still be the second-best team despite suffering significant personnel losses -- it'd be hard to pick anyone else to finish No. 1.
* Tim Tebow will become the second player in history to win the Heisman Trophy twice. Colt McCoy could give him a good run -- Tebow and Sam Bradford each have a Heisman already, so there will be some sentiment that it's McCoy's turn if Texas beats Oklahoma -- but I don't think there's ever been a returning player like Tebow, who has basically been proclaimed a saint and receives nothing but constant and effusive praise from everyone around him and in the media. I suppose this could backfire to an extent, but I think there are also a lot of voters who are eager to reward him for coming back for his senior season. And yes, if Tebow ends up with two Heismans and three national titles (although one came as a part-timer behind Chris Leak), I think he'll have to be considered the greatest college football player of all-time.
* USC will lose two games. I'm not sure which two (yay for being specific), but with road games at Ohio State, Cal, Notre Dame and Oregon along with home games against Oregon State and UCLA, I just have a feeling that this is the year the Trojans' ridiculous streak of top-five finishes comes to an end. If you put a gun to my head (please don't), I'd guess that the losses come against Ohio State and Oregon.
* Oregon will win at least a share of the Pac-10 title. I was shocked when I saw that the Vegas over/under on Oregon's wins was 7.5, because with USC and Cal both coming to Autzen Stadium, I think Oregon wins at least one of those two and finishes no worse than 9-3 overall. The catch: If the team that loses to the Ducks (USC or Cal) beats the other in Berkeley on Oct. 3, a three-way tie (like we saw in the Big 12 South last season) would actually go to the highest-ranked team in the BCS standings, so Oregon's game tonight against Boise might actually be the difference in whether the Ducks end up in Pasadena.
* Notre Dame gets to 9-3 and salvages Charlie Weis' job. I think ND is vastly overrated this year, but I just don't see many threats on the schedule. A split against Michigan and Michigan State, a loss to USC and a loss to Pitt (a fairly pessimistic view of their four toughest games) only gives the Irish three losses, and other than that ... UConn? Stanford? Meh. An ugly outing like we saw last year against Syracuse is certainly possible, but a strong start might even allow ND to have one of those bad games and still get to nine wins.
* Notre Dame won't play in a BCS bowl. The thing that will help the Irish get to nine wins is the same thing that will keep them out of the BCS: a weak schedule. It's likely that USC will be the only ranked team ND plays all year, and it'll be very hard for a team with fewer than 10 wins -- none of them over ranked teams -- to get into the top 12 in the BCS standings.
* Michigan will finish 7-5. I won't do a game-by-game breakdown, but there are five games on the schedule that should be definite wins for UM and five more that fall into the toss-up category (I'm putting Penn State and Ohio State down as probable losses). When I look at how close Michigan was in some of its losses last year despite playing a walk-on QB for half the season, committing a gazillion turnovers and starting freshmen everywhere, improvement seems to be a given. Assuming that Tate Forcier can provide competent quarterback play and force defenses to respect his running ability -- something that didn't happen last year with Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan -- that should be enough to swing a couple of those toss-up games and get UM into a respectable bowl. If I had to guess, I'd say UM beats Notre Dame (just because it's in Ann Arbor) and Wisconsin.
* If Boise State loses to Oregon tonight (yes, I'm hedging here), there will be no "BCS buster" this year. BYU, TCU and Utah are all ranked in the preseason polls, but BYU plays Oklahoma, TCU goes to Clemson and Utah visits Oregon. Oh, and they all have to play each other in the Mountain West. I don't see any of the three coming out unscathed. Boise State, on the other hand, should have a clear path through the WAC ... but the Broncos have to get past Oregon first.
* The winner of the Texas-Oklahoma game will run the table and play Florida for the national championship. And the winner of that game will be ... hold on while I flip a coin ... I'll go with Texas. It's basically a toss-up, but Oklahoma's rebuilding project on the offensive line concerns me just a bit, so right now, I feel like Texas is the slightly better team.
* Michigan State will fall short of expectations, but not by much. MSU is kind of in the same boat as Notre Dame: The schedule is favorable enough (missing Ohio State, for example) that it will be difficult to lose more than four games. But without Javon Ringer and with a new starting QB, I just don't see Sparty generating enough offense to avoid losing at least three. I'm predicting 8-4.
* Arizona State, picked as a dark horse in the Pac-10 by such geniuses as Mark May, will struggle to reach a bowl game. The offense could be atrocious -- the running game is nonexistent and Danny Sullivan should not be a Pac-10 starting quarterback -- and while the defense should be pretty good, a late-season stretch against Stanford, Cal, USC, Oregon and UCLA will be a killer. I think the Sun Devils' best-case scenario is 7-5, and 4-8 isn't out of the realm of possibility. I'll stay in the gooey middle and go with 6-6.
* If Ohio State beats USC (there's that "if" again), the Buckeyes will finish undefeated. Their only real challenge in the Big Ten is Penn State, so there's a good chance that the winner of the game in Happy Valley on Nov. 7 will run the table against the rest of the conference and finish 12-0. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Penn State wins in "Whiteout" conditions, but I like OSU's defense a lot, and the Bucks have come up just short in enough big games over the past few years that I feel like things are bound to go their way at some point.
And just to be sure that I make a complete idiot of myself, here's my projected top 10 at the end of the regular season (note that this is NOT a preseason ranking or a list of teams I think are the best, just a guess at how the polls will look going into the bowl games):
3. Ohio State
6. Penn State
10. Boise State
I originally had Virginia Tech at No. 10, but the ACC has enough good teams (Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina, etc.) that I don't see the Hokies getting through unscathed without Darren Evans. And even if Boise State loses tonight against Oregon, I don't think the polls will be that punishing -- cruising through the WAC and finishing 11-1 would probably still be enough to get the Broncos into the top 10.