Saban returns and USC rules

There's a new savior in Alabama, and new head coaches at 22 other schools.

New rules will mean more football in 2007 &

or at least more plays &

which is never a bad thing. Unless you're playing Southern California. The Trojans are loaded, and that's nothing new.

So let's start in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Nick Saban is king of the Crimson Tide, a storied program that has endured more than a decade of dysfunction while searching for a coach to live up to Bear Bryant's legacy.

For $4 million per year, Saban returned to the Southeastern Conference after two unsuccessful seasons with the Miami Dolphins. That 15-17 NFL record hardly matters to the Tide faithful. They were so pumped up by Saban's arrival that 92,000 filled Bryant-Denney Stadium for the spring game.

"That's the kind of positive energy that I think is going to be important for us to sustain as a program and will be very beneficial to us become successful in the future," he said during SEC media days.

Saban, who won a national championship with LSU in 2003, gives the SEC four head coaches with a national title on their resumes, joining Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Florida's Urban Meyer, whose Gators enter the season as defending champs.

Florida was last seen dismantling Ohio State in the BCS national championship game. Most of the defense that dominated in that surprisingly easy 41-14 victory has moved on to the NFL. Also gone is quarterback and championship game MVP Chris Leak.

Florida is now Tim Tebow's team. The fiery, bulldozer of a quarterback appears to be the perfect match for Meyer's spread-option attack. Even with a rebuilt defense, don't expect much of a drop-off from the Gators.

Of course, even the slightest regression might be too much to overcome in the nation's best conference.

LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, Arkansas and South Carolina all could stand in the way of a Florida repeat.

Though Saban is the only new coach in the SEC, he's just one of 23 in their first year with a school.

Miami stayed in house to replace Larry Coker, selecting former Hurricanes defensive coordinator and linebacker Randy Shannon to put the program back on track after a 7-6 season.

Louisville wasn't looking to replace Bobby Petrino after the school earned its first BCS bid, but Petrino made like Saban and decided to give the NFL a try when the Atlanta Falcons came calling.

The Cardinals quickly wooed Steve Kragthorpe from Tulsa, who's already scored his first victory by convincing star quarterback Brian Brohm to return to Louisville for his senior season.

Before Saban's hire, North Carolina appeared to have landed the biggest catch, hiring former Miami coach Butch Davis.

Arizona State also turned to a former Miami coach, getting Dennis Erickson to leave Idaho after one season for a third tour of duty in the Pac-10, the home of the best program in college football.

In what was essentially a rebuilding year at USC, Pete Carroll's Trojans went 11-2, contended for a national title, tore apart Michigan in the Rose Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 4.

Most of that team is back, and the Trojans look scary.

"I think SC has to beat themselves," Washington State coach Bill Doba said. "I think he (Carroll) just has to guard against overconfidence or not being prepared or having really, really, really bad luck."

Ten starters return on defense for USC, including stellar linebackers Brian Cushing, Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga. On offense, quarterback John David Booty leads the way. The last two USC quarterbacks &

Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart &

have won Heisman trophies. Booty, who threw 29 touchdown passes in his first season as starter, could make it three in a row.

Booty and Brohm enter the season as two of the top Heisman contenders, but last year's runner-up, Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, leads the way.

It's banner year for running backs with Michigan's Mike Hart, Rutgers' Ray Rice, West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Boise State's Ian Johnson among the best.

Johnson and the Broncos became everybody's favorite underdog last season, busting into the BCS from the Western Athletic Conference and knocking off Oklahoma in an overtime classic at the Fiesta Bowl.

Looking for the next Boise State? TCU from the Mountain West Conference is a candidate, as is the Broncos' WAC rivals Hawaii, led by record-breaking quarterback Colt Brennan.

Brennan set an NCAA record with 58 touchdown passes running June Jones' run-n-shoot offense, and this season he'll have more time to break the record.

The NCAA tried shave some time off the ever-increasing length of games last season with new rules that kept the game clock moving more often. Coaches hated the changes, and they've been abandoned. The result should be about seven extra plays per team per game this season.

Now, the NCAA will take a new approach to shortening games. The play clock will be 15 seconds instead of 25 after a TV timeout, which will be shorter. And kickoffs will be from the 30 instead of the 35 to create fewer touchbacks.

Despite all the cries for change, the Bowl Championship Series remains the same. It'll be New Orleans turn to double-host, putting on the Sugar Bowl on Jan. — and the national championship game a week later.

The list of contenders to reach that title game is lengthy and includes many of the usual suspects &

LSU, Florida, Michigan, Texas and Oklahoma. West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin have their sights set on New Orleans, too.

But there's no denying USC, which begins the season as the favorite. Again.

"We're just a bunch of guys trying to put together a terrific team," Carroll said, "and we'll see how far that takes us."

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