Four-down territory: decisions loom at UNC

First off, a quick Saturday programming note at the NFP. Starting next Saturday morning, the Four-down territory feature will be replaced by the NFP Saturday Tailgate — your one-stop shop for all things college football. I’ll keep you covered and up-to-date on all things college pigskin from all the programs across the nation. Can you believe we are one week away from drinking beer at 8 a.m. and partying with co-eds?

…On Thursday, news broke that the University of North Carolina had uncovered academic infractions within its football program and self-reported the findings to the NCAA. The academic issues reportedly center on a former tutor — once a nanny and tutor for head coach Butch Davis’ son — writing papers for players. This news comes while the NCAA is still investigating players at UNC and other schools for improper contact with agents — an inquiry which started when news broke of the infamous South Beach party.

Clearly the situation in Chapel Hill is bleak for the university, the athletic department, Davis and the entire team. While no suspensions were announced at the news conference Thursday night — and none may be made in the immediate future as the investigation continues — it doesn’t look like there’s any way stud senior defensive tackle Marvin Austin and senior wide receiver Greg Little will be on the field for the season opener against LSU at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The two are at the center of the investigation involving agents, and UNC can’t risk having to forfeit if the two are declared ineligible after the fact.

The major issue for the Tar Heels is what happens to the players involved in the academic irregularities. If the investigation isn’t concluded by the time the season kicks off next weekend, how can Davis risk putting the players involved on the field when they could possibly be declared ineligible at any time?

Robert QuinnICONRobert Quinn is reportedly one of 15 players that could be involved in the UNC academic scandal.

We read the reports of at least nine players — including projected first-round picks Austin, defensive end Robert Quinn and linebacker Bruce Carter — being relegated to the scout team at practice on Wednesday. On Friday, reports broke that 15 players could be involved in the academic scandal, with nine of them starters. In addition to Austin, Little, Quinn and Carter, cornerback Kendric Burney, running backs Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston and H-back Ryan Taylor are among those being investigated. With the exception of Houston, all are starters.

UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said that no decisions have been made on which players might have to sit out the opener. But if you’re the Tar Heels, you almost have to sit anyone involved right now to guard against possible ramifications that would further affect what was supposed to be a standout season in the ACC.

…Late Friday afternoon, Oregon head coach Chip Kelly named Darron Thomas his starting quarterback for the season opener against New Mexico. I must admit that I’m surprised by this move, despite the fact that Kelly was always high on Thomas. The sophomore did see action in five games as a true freshman in 2008, when he completed 16 of 33 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns — including almost leading the Ducks to a come-from-behind win at home against Boise State. He redshirted last season.

I thought Nate Costa, a senior who has had three knee surgeries during his five years with the Ducks, would get the nod because of his hard-working nature and the fact that it is such a veteran team. It is easy to forget, however, that Costa himself only has one career start.

Nate CostaICONNate Costa lost out in his bid to start for the Ducks.

When fall camp began, Kelly said he simply wanted his quarterback to distribute the ball to his playmakers and not take on such a burden in the offense as Jeremiah Masoli and Dennis Dixon have in the past. I wonder how much that will be the case, though, because Thomas is more of a threat on the ground, much like Masoli, while Costa is the more traditional passer.

Perhaps the determining factor was the closed scrimmage on Thursday, where Thomas completed 14 of 23 passes for 125 yards and three touchdowns, while Costa was just 17-of-37 for 138 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Even without LaMichael James, the Ducks should handle New Mexico rather easily. But we’ll see how Thomas handles the role the following week at Tennessee. Despite the state of the Vols, it is never easy to play at Neyland Stadium.

…Should the Pac-10’s other Oregon team, the Beavers of Oregon State, be worried about one of their star players and All-America candidates? With the season opener on the horizon next Saturday against TCU at Cowboys Stadium, senior wide receiver James Rodgers missed part of Thursday's practice because of a bruised shoulder.

Exhale Beavers fans.

Head coach Mike Riley said Rodgers was sidelined only because the joint was a little sore. Certainly, with new quarterback Ryan Katz already facing a daunting challenge against the tough Horned Frogs’ defense, playing without the team’s leading receiver would make beating TCU that much more difficult.

According to Paul Buker of The Oregonian, however, the injury shouldn’t be considered serious as Rodgers wasn’t even icing the shoulder when he arrived for dinner later in the evening.

Chalk this one up to the coaching staff being extra cautious.

…First Derrick Washington. Now Washaun Ealey.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt suspended his star running back for at least one game following the sophomore’s arrest after he was charged with hit and run and driving on a suspended license early Friday.

Washaun EaleyICONWashaun Ealey will miss at least one game while on suspension.

Ealey, the team's leading rusher last season, was expected to split carries with junior Caleb King this season.

You never want to see poor judgment from a player at any time, but a week before the season opener is certainly about the time you want to be on your best behavior. The Bulldogs, however, are lucky to have King in the fold. He is unquestionably a talented back, as the 5-11, 210-pounder has a great blend of size, speed and quickness. He hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon him when he arrived in Athens, but he did finish with 594 rushing yards and seven scores in ’09.

Richt may have ended up playing the hot hand anyway in the backfield, so maybe King can make a nice impression against Louisiana-Lafayette and perhaps beyond in Ealey’s absence.

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