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SPRING PRACTICE-A TEASE, BUT WE'LL TAKE IT

Screw pitchers and catchers-we'll be looking at their HGH-swollen features for half of the next year. (For more information on HGH, the Library of Congress wouldn't recommend the Enquirer, but we will.) The main attraction for us and our readers is spring practice, where the defenses always look fantastic, the offenses are unstoppable, and the fans sit with sweatshirts on and wonder why they came.

The biggies we're watching for:

March 21: Oklahoma. Jason White and his two robotic knees are gone, which leaves everyone writing off the Sooners for rebuilding and a three-loss season. Do not count on it. We'll put the Tee Martin Principle in play here: an unheralded qb (Rhett Bomar? Is that a real name?) who does not make mistakes comes from nowhere, safely herds the absurdly talented team to a great bowl game, and trumps expectations in Norman. Never hurts to lose White's ability to implode at the worst moment imaginable, either. We predict the Sooners will be fine, even if they run most of their running plays out of the shotgun, which we hate like we hate Satan and those horrid Jared Diamonds commercials.

March 1(!): Auburn. Evidently Auburn doesn't dedicate much time to basketball-the Tigers got cracking March 1, well before anyone else in the SEC with the exception of Alabama. (Think the rivalry isn't important anymore? I'll bet they moved the date up just to antagonize them. At this rate, spring practice will begin two days before their bowl games.)

Tommy Tuberville gets our respect for a number of reasons. When he couldn't find a job coaching, he opened a catfish shack and worked the deep fryer for 12 hours a day until Jimmy Johnson called. If that ain't country, you can kiss his ass. But a coaching genius he's not, which is why we attribute most of the tactical prowess of last year's team to his coordinators, Gene Chizik and Al Borges. (No relation to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer and critic.)

Tommy sees it in his nightmares.

We were shocked by Auburn's newly found executioner's hand in games last year, putting opponents out cold one cruelly aimed shot at a time. Borges seems to be getting most of the credit for this, but don't forget Chizik, the defensive coordinator who built their Gigantor defense and taught Junior Rosegreen that if you hit a man hard enough, he'll have to leave the game with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. (Fair shake to Reggie Brown of UGA: walking off the field after that hit was man-sized stuff, especially after a hit that would have made us shit our pants and die on the spot.)

While the coverage focuses on replacing the entire backfield, we'll be watching the defense. With Chizik gone for Texas-Mack Brown, another non-genius like Tuberville, knows he needs all the help he can get-we're forecasting a Tiger rebuild this year. Some of this comes from a perfectly reasoned estimate of the difficulties of replacing offensive talent on the field and defensive talent on the sidelines. Most of it comes from a gut feeling that life for Catfish Tommy can never, never be that easy.

March 16: Florida. Urban Warfare, Urban Sprawl, le epoque de l'urbanite, whatever the hell you call it...it's here, and for the first week or so, we're guessing Florida fans will be horrified. Balls will be all over the place. Wide receivers will carry the ball, and will likely drop the ball. A lot. We just encourage Florida fans to take ten seconds, breathe deep, and avoid shaking the baby. Meyer's offense will take some time to build, leading to gripes from the Fire(InsertNameHere).com crowd, and will likely spark a qb controversy when Gavin Dickey busts a long run or two in the spring game.


Florida's new offense: will it include "jazz hands down?"

Whatever happens, Chris Leak will be the staring qb in the fall, and things will be fine. Just remember, your new coach will not get into shouting matches at neighborhood frat houses, and he will not respond to every question with "we'll just keep getting better and better" after his team blows another lead in the 4th quarter. Just a friendly reminder, Gator fans.

March 23:Iowa. Kirk Ferentz hath wrought a rough beast. Okay, two beasts: first, Robert Gallery, who's in all those NFL network Raiders commercials with the spaceship and Al Davis.(Here's the link, complete with the side-splitting Big Man Dance Challenge Ads.) Gallery, the Outland Trophy winner, awed us with his plowhorse blocks and his Conanesque locks.

The second rough beast Ferentz brought into the world is the Hawkeyes' football program, the quietest upcoming dynasty around. They play with a cold efficiency taken straight from the NFL, and pump no-name talent into wins and primo bowl games. Ferentz has made the crush list for NFL vacancies for the past three years now, and Iowa now sits at the crux of its development as a program.

This year's the tricky one, though; having compiled a 21-5 record in the last two years, Iowa now has the icky weight of expectations, which have killed better men that Ferentz and more talented teams than this year's Iowa squad. They went to their fifth and sixth running backs last year, so a repeat of the mad injury bug seems highly unlikely. If it does happen again, we can assume that Ferentz is cursed, and is actually summoning the Children of the Corn with his canny tactics and winning ways. If not, Iowa has to nut up and beat ass like the beasts everyone thinks they are, including a game versus the Evil Sweatervest and Ohio State in Columbus. Or Ferentz has one more winning season with a few key disappointments and before jetting to the NFL. Either way, it's going to be a seeerrrrious year in Iowa City.

Arizona State: March 19. Dirk Koetter is having another one of those expiration date years, the one where wonks and fans alike scratch their collective asses trying to decide whether this thing is going to work. ASU has been the tempting pick for Next Big Thing the last three years running, mostly the result of a huge offense capable of tossing up old school Pac-10 numbers while simultaneously making equally catastrophic mistakes. Last year the Sun Devils tossed in the potential for a breakthrough year early, but recovered nicely in discovering Sam Keller at qb. So why not pick 'em to make a run at the Pac-10 title? Or go bust and cost Koetter his job? Or to upset USC on Oct. 1 in Tempe? Or to lose to Temple? The Sun Devils could do all of those in one year this year, especially given the erratic defense. So what are we saying? That they'll be good? Or awful? Or both? Our answer: yes, exactly...

Dirk Koetter, celebrating. Or screaming. For ASU, it's all the same.