After some careful analysis – not to mention some serious soul-searching – I have come up with my preseason top 25 for college football.
The most popular picks du jour come from the Southeastern Conference, of course. That is because the SEC is working on back-to-back national championships – both at the expense of Ohio State.
If you truly take a look at the teams that should have the best shot at playing in Dolphin Stadium for the BCS title next January, however, you cannot overlook the Buckeyes. They were overachievers last year when they made the national championship game, and despite what most of the so-called experts would have you believe, they did not get run out of the Superdome by LSU.
Based on that experience, the fact that nearly every vital starter from last year’s team has returned, and a schedule that spreads out all of the toughest road games, it seems Ohio State would have to be the team to beat.
It won’t be easy, of course. The Buckeyes probably have to go undefeated just to play in Miami. And if they go undefeated, that will mean they have beaten USC in the Coliseum for the first time since 1946, they will have notched an unprecedented fifth straight win over archrival Michigan, and they will have won a third straight undisputed Big Ten championship – and that has never been accomplished by any conference football team.
But you know what the old coach said: “Anything easy ain’t worth a damn.” With that, here’s my preseason top 25.
1. Ohio State – Go ahead and call me a homer if you want to, but any team with 20 starters back from the squad that went to the title game a year ago simply must be the favorites to win it all this season. If the Buckeyes are truly interested in shutting the mouths of their critics once and for all, they’ll never have a better chance than 2008.
2. Florida – This is the team to beat in SEC, not Georgia. The Gators are likely to have a more potent running game this year to protect Heisman winner Tim Tebow, and their offense will be lights-out if WR/RB Percy Harvin returns healthy. All Urban Meyer’s team needs to do is play better on defense, and they could be headed for a rematch with the Buckeyes in Miami.
3. Oklahoma – Consistency is the key for the Sooners, who sometimes go into midseason funks when you least expect it. They should be the class of the Big 12 this year, especially with an offense that boasts the precision passing attack of QB Sam Bradford couple with the one-two punch of running backs DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown.
4. Southern California – There is no doubt that Pete Carroll has again amassed a roster so full of talent that many NFL teams are envious. But for all of their obvious strengths, USC hasn’t won a national title since 2004. The Trojans are experienced everywhere but quarterback and receiver, and it will be interesting to see how those players respond to the early-season task on Sept. 13 when Ohio State comes to town.
5. Georgia – Any other year, I would pick the Bulldogs as one of the favorites to go to the BCS title game. But I don’t think they even get to their own conference championship game. Their schedule is brutal with a non-league trip to Arizona State and SEC road games at South Carolina, LSU and Auburn, not to mention playing Florida in Jacksonville.
6. Auburn – Here is your sleeper team in the SEC, especially if the Tigers embrace their new spread offense. If Auburn can avoid its annual stumble at the beginning of the season, it could be the conference team making BCS title noise down the stretch because it gets LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia all at home.
7. Missouri – If you think the Big Ten has gotten weaker in the recent past, you haven’t been paying attention to the once-mighty Big 12. Not to besmirch the job Gary Pinkel did last year at Mizzou, getting within a game of playing for the national championship. But the Tigers are pretty much a one-trick pony with quarterback Chase Daniel at the control of a high-octane offense. Stop Daniel and you stop Missouri.
8. Wisconsin – All the Badgers need to do is find a serviceable quarterback and they will be in the hunt for another 10-win season. Former Kansas State starter Allan Evridge appears to be the favorite to win that job, but there is a reason why he transferred and has not been able to win the starting job in Madison before now. Try a completion ratio way south of 50 percent. Yikes.
9. West Virginia – The Mountaineers would appear to have one more year left in the tank despite the loss of their head coach to Michigan. New boss Bill Stewart isn’t expected to change much, meaning the spread attack led by quarterback Pat White will remain the most potent offense in the Big East. Stewart’s only problem would seem to be keeping White healthy.
10. Clemson – This is the year Tommy Bowden has been waiting for. He arguably has his best team ever, featuring an offense led by the backfield duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller along with quarterback Cullen Davis, the top-rated passer in the ACC last season. Pile on a talented defense, including all four returning starters in the secondary, and you begin to realize why the Tigers are so excited for the 2008 season to get under way.
11. Virginia Tech – Something always seems to happen to the Hokies to prevent them from playing for a national championship. Nevertheless, Frank Beamer’s team annually flirts with the top of the polls and this year should be no different.
12. South Florida – Remember the Bulls? They got all the way up to No. 2 in the nation last year before slipping at the end of the season. But what happened along the way was a learning experience for a relatively young program, and no opponent had better go to sleep on USF this year. The defense is led by DE George Selvie, one of a handful of players who could be considered the top defender in college football.
13. Texas – If the light finally goes on at full wattage for quarterback Colt McCoy, they’ll be a top-5 contender. If, however, McCoy meanders through the season as he did in 2007, Texas has too many other holes to fill to be a serious threat, especially with back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Missouri in mid-October.
14. Wake Forest – Here is another team for which opponents had better keep their focus. The Deacons finished 9-4 last season and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see them better than mark in ’08. You may have never heard of such players as QB Riley Skinner, RB Josh Adams, LB Aaron Curry and K Sam Swank, but they are some of the best at their positions in the ACC.
15. BYU – It shouldn’t be too much of a shock to see the Cougars back among college football’s best teams. When they hired innovative defensive whiz Bronco Mendenhall a couple of years ago, you figured it would be only a matter of time before BYU was back. The team finished 11-2 last season and has set a goal of crashing the BCS party this season.
16. Penn State – If this is going to be Joe Paterno’s final season in Happy Valley, you know he want to go out with a bang. In that vein, he has switched back to the spread offense that garnered his team a Big Ten championship a couple of years ago. If he can find the right quarterback to engineer that attack, Paterno definitely has the horses on defense to compete for the conference title.
17. Texas Tech – Some experts are picking the Red Raiders to win the Big 12 title this season, but I just can’t see it. It sure is fun to watch Double-T throw the ball all over the lot, and WR Michael Crabtree had perhaps the finest season any freshman receiver has ever had last year. But until Tech head coach Mike Leach invests at least one-quarter of his time to defense, the Raiders are never going to be a serious contender for their conference much less the BCS race.
18. Illinois – Call me crazy but I think the Illini are hard-pressed to match last season’s 9-4 showing. I think they caught a couple of opponents napping and the so-called experts are downplaying the effect of the loss of running back Rashard Mendenhall. If quarterback Juice Williams cannot be more consistent, the offense will be without an identity and I don’t think Ron Zook can rely solely on his defense.
19. Tennessee – A new starting quarterback and a tough road schedule makes the Volunteers nothing more than a dark horse candidate in the SEC. Tennessee struggled the past two years in games when QB Erik Ainge was hurting, and now that Ainge is gone, they will have to rely on untested Jonathan Crompton. Add in away games at UCLA, Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina, and the Vols are going to be fighting for their lives in 2008.
20. LSU – The coaches poll has the defending champs all the way up at No. 6. I just don’t see that. The Tigers lost a barrel full of talent from 2007, including all-everything defender Glenn Dorsey. They’re also starting over on offense after starting QB Matt Flynn graduated and heir apparent Ryan Perrilloux was kicked off the team. No way do I envision a conference title repeat much less another trip to the national championship game.
21. Utah – I don’t know why the Utes aren’t getting more love from the prognosticators. They won eight of their last nine games in ’07, return eight starters on an offense including QB Brian Johnson and RB Darrell Mack, and return the bulk of a unit that led the pass-crazy Mountain West in scoring defense last year. We’ll get to see early just how good Utah can be. They travel to Ann Arbor for opening day Aug. 30.
22. Boise State – What’s not to like about a team that is worth its weight in gold as far as raw entertainment value is concerned? Yes, the Broncos are facing wholesale changes in personnel but they’ve faced that before. Over the last 10 seasons, Boise State is one of only three schools to post 100 wins or more. The others are Oklahoma and Texas. That stat alone makes them worthy of anyone’s preseason rankings.
23. Cincinnati – The Bearcats were one of the surprise teams of 2007, but you need only look at head coach Brian Kelly’s résumé to know he’s a winner. This year, Kelly welcomes back a bunch of defensive stars from last year. And if he can find a suitable replacement for quarterback Ben Mauk – former starter Dustin Grutza is still around as is Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones – Kelly could steer Cincinnati right back into the Big East title picture.
24. Fresno State – The only thing stopping the Bulldogs from being ranked higher is their mentality for playing anyone at any time. That is surely to be commended, especially in this day and age when most of the big boys are stuffing themselves on any many cupcakes as the schedule will allow. Fresno’s non-conference slate takes the Bulldogs to Rutgers, Toledo and UCLA – all before September ends. And that doesn’t even count a home contest against Wisconsin.
25. Nebraska – The cupboard in Lincoln may not be quite as bare as some would have you believe. If Bill Callahan’s leftovers buy into the kind of defensive scheme new head coach Bo Pelini has installed, there is no reason why the Blackshirts shouldn’t re-emerge. If the Cornhuskers can turn the corner on D, they can begin the long road back to prominence … perhaps as early as this season.
You will notice some noteworthy teams not in my rankings, including Arizona State, Oregon, Michigan and Notre Dame.
The Sun Devils, ranked No. 16 in the preseason coaches poll, did it with mirrors last season. I don’t see them sneaking up on anyone in 2008. Likewise, the Ducks are going to see what life is like without QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart. They got a taste of that last year when Dixon was sidelined and they were a completely different team.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines may experience some excruciating growing pains as they completely overhaul the program under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. Eight or nine wins is not totally out of the question, but then again a losing season isn’t either.
As for the Irish, how about you show me something – anything – before you start complaining about not getting any love? You were 3-9 last year and it was a particularly ugly 3-9. Get to .500 and then we can talk.
ANOTHER CAUTIONARY TALE
Ohio State fans obviously remember Maurice Clarett and the mess he made of his young life. Part of that, of course, was due to the tremendous amount of poor advice he received from family members and handlers, including the ill-fated attempt to challenge the NFL for early entry into the draft.
You may also recall the year that Clarett was initially ruled eligible to join the draft – a decision that was later overturned in court – USC wide receiver Mike Williams joined Clarett as sophomores declaring for the draft. When the case was thrown out, Williams sat out a season and then returned to the Trojans in 2004.
Detroit made him the No. 10 overall pick in the 2005 draft, and he spent two nondescript seasons with the Lions, catching 37 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns.
Williams was traded to Oakland on draft day in 2007, but the Raiders released him in October. He latched on with Tennessee last November, but by then was a shadow of his former self. His weight had ballooned to about 270 pounds, and the Titans told him to get his weight and conditioning under control.
Williams lost about 30 pounds in the offseason, but his conditioning was still suspect when the Titans released him just before practice on July 31.
Born this day were such luminaries as longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas; Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland; actor/comic Richard Belzer (Detective John Munch on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”); Hall of Fame running back John Riggins; actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton; former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; former U.S. world-class distance runner Mary Decker; former MLB pitcher Roger Clemens; four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon; 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch; actors Dylan and Cole Sprouse (“The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”); and U.S. Senator and presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Today also marks the 50th birthday of actress Kym Karath. The name may not ring a bell but I’ll bet you have seen her work. Her most famous role was that of Gretl, the youngest member of the Von Trapp family in the 1965 Oscar-winning “The Sound of Music.”
** I am blogging from beautiful, sun-drenched Marco Island in southwest Florida. And while I’m trying to squeeze in the last days of vacation before football season, I am left with one thought: Why does basic cable in Marco Island, Fla., offer the Big Ten Network when it is not available in Columbus, Ohio?
** In any event, I am having some fun checking out the BTN while I’m here. Like other sports-only networks, there is a lot of repetition. But it was fun to watch some of the Michigan-Appalachian State game from last year. Not so much for the replay of the Minnesota-Penn State contest. But there is supposedly a special report from Ohio State practice on Tuesday, so I’ll be eager to check that out.
** Congratulations to Brian Kelly and his University of Cincinnati football program. The school recently announced that season ticket sales had reached 11,000, the highest mark in program history.
** Maybe there are a few too many bowl games. The ACC just announced that it has entered an agreement with the new Congressional Bowl to send its ninth-place team to that game. I don’t care how competitive your league may be – a ninth-place team has no business going to the postseason.
** On Saturday night in Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed six new members. It seems unbelievable that Randy Gradishar, Jim Lachey and Cris Carter were not in that group.
** It’s a shame that the Ken Griffey Jr. era in Cincinnati ended with such a whimper. Junior’s myriad injuries and a long streak of losing seasons robbed Reds fans from being able to enjoy watching a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in action.
** After weeks of being bombarded by endless attack ads and mindless drivel from each campaign, I would like to take this opportunity to formally announce my candidacy for President of the United States. I think I can be just as viable as the major party candidates because I, too, can be consistently vague on all the issues and I have no problem making promises that I will be unable to fulfill.