For the preseason Top 25.
Of all the preseason polls in college football this season, there is a consensus Top-5 and not coincidentally, they include the past four national champions: Tennessee (1998), Florida State (1999), Oklahoma (2000) and Miami (2001) – along with Texas, which hasn't won a national title since 1970.
For the record, Sporting News, Lindy's, Football Digest and CBS Sportsline have ranked the Sooners No. 1 heading into the season. CNNSI, Fox Sports and Pigskin Post.com pick Miami to win it all. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and College Football News tabbed the Longhorns to break their 32-year drought.
So naturally, the three matchups involving those five teams should determine which teams arrive in Tempe, Ariz., for the Jan. 3 national title game at the Fiesta Bowl. Therefore, mark Oct. 12 on your calendar as the key date of this college football season. That's the day Miami hosts FSU and Oklahoma faces Texas in Dallas. Also, the Hurricanes travel to Tennessee on Nov. 9.
Consider that the past five national champions have finished unbeaten (not since Florida in 1996 has a one-loss team been crowned No. 1). I am betting that streak will end this season, since the usual contenders have tougher schedules and finally are starting to schedule each other. I could envision a one-loss team, perhaps Florida State, beating a previously unbeaten team, say Oklahoma, in the Fiesta Bowl. So these rankings to follow don't reflect how things will stand in December, rather on Jan. 4.
Curiously, aside from Athlon's it seems that nobody is picking the Seminoles No. 1, even though they return 15 regular starters plus both kickers.
But I will.
1. FLORIDA STATE
The Good: Collectively, no team has better lines in the country, not to mention all those from the head coach's mouth. The offensive line should dominate and Chris Rix should play much, much better after a learning season.
The Bad: The season could come down to one game – and that one is on the road: Oct. 12 at Miami.
The Motivation: The four-loss season should make this team hungry – and angry. It had an off-season to re-dedicate and stew after losing to UNC, Miami, N.C. State and Florida. The Seminoles may end up in Tempe even with one loss.
The Good: The Sooners schedule is set up for another national championship run. On paper, only Texas, Colorado and Texas A&M stand in the way before the Big 12 Championship Game and Fiesta Bowl.
The Bad: Oklahoma lost two key assistants, including offensive coordinator Mark Mangino (head coach at Kansas). The offensive line needs rebuilt and defensive superstars Rocky Calmus and Roy Williams are gone.
The X-Factor: In my opinion, Bob Stoops is the best head coach in the game right now. He is smart enough to know how to get to 13-0 by using the running game more and winning with defense. And he owns Mack Brown and the Longhorns (Oct. 12).
The Good: Ken Dorsey and an outstanding defensive line.
The Bad: How can you lose so many players to the NFL and not drop off? Also, finding a way to keep a team that hasn't lost in almost two years motivated, hungry and not overconfident is always difficult.
The Big ‘Least': For once, the schedule could catch up to the Hurricanes. Trips to Florida, Tennessee and Syracuse and home games against FSU and Virginia Tech present five very tough games. If they run the table this season, there is no doubt who is No. 1.
The Good: The Longhorns should have plenty of offensive firepower as long as the offensive line matures.
The Bad: Golden Boy Chris Simms has played miserably when the Longhorns needed him most. This season, there's no Major Applewhite to come out of the bullpen.
The Ugly: The schedule is very weak, which should allow Texas to start 5-0 (if it gets by North Carolina Sept. 15) before the showdown with Oklahoma. But can Mack Brown win a big game, let alone a conference championship?
The Good: Casey Clausen has matured into a fine quarterback. The Vols and their fans may have a newfound sense of security now that their main nemesis resides in Washington, D.C., not in Gainesville.
The Bad: Tennessee has to break in a new defensive line, losing dominating players John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth.
The Schedule: Wyoming, Middle Tennessee and Rutgers are patsies; Miami is the challenge.
6. WASHINGTON STATE
The Good QB Jason Gesser was the best-kept secret to fans east of the Mississippi. He had a spectacular 2001 season as the Cougars raced to a 7-0 record. The Pac-10 is average enough right now to be taken by a team like Washington State.
The Bad: Washington State does not return any experienced linebackers.
The Schedule: With Nevada, Idaho and Montana State on the schedule, the Cougars will get off to a good start, but the outcome of the Sept. 14 trip to Ohio State may determine how big they dream.
The Good: This offense, led by QB Cody Pickett, should be one of the nation's most explosive -- and balanced.
The Bad: The defense fell apart late in the season, giving up 49 points to Oregon State, 65 to Miami and 47 to Texas, and returns only five starters. The opener is at the Big House.
The Comebacks: The Huskies are never out of a game, rallying five times to win last season after trailing in the fourth quarter. That belief they are never out of it is crucial in big games.
8. OHIO STATE
The Good: The Buckeyes' defense will be one of the better units in the nation. Nine defensive starters return, including the entire line that dominated Michigan, and there is plenty of experienced depth.
The Bad: Ohio State has not had an effective quarterback since 1998 and will go with a first-year starter (probably junior Craig Krenzel). Dangerous non-conference games await at home against Texas Tech and Washington State and another at Cincinnati.
The Sleeper: If the quarterback plays well and consistently, the Buckeyes should win the Big 10, especially since Penn State and Michigan come to Columbus.
The Good: Rex Grossman may not win the Heisman, but with him, the Gators should win at least nine games. Also, enthusiasm and intensity will no longer be a problem for UF as it was at times under Steve Spurrier.
The Bad: The mind under that visor now schemes to score on the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles.
The Unknown: First-year coaching staffs always take time to blend. And first-year head coaches take time to learn clock management and how to make crucial decisions in game management. Ron Zook faces these problems with a schedule that includes Miami, Tennessee, Georgia and FSU.
The Good: Michigan usually is very sound on defense, and this season should be no exception with nine starters returning.
The Bad: The Wolverines endured inconsistent play at quarterback from John Navarre and don't appear to have a second choice ready. New offensive coordinator Terry Malone faces a big challenge with fewer playmakers on campus than usual. Expect a lot of low-scoring games.
The Unusual: One of the more consistent programs in history, the Wolverines lost three of their final five in 2001 and open against Washington Aug. 31. The fans may grow cranky if UM starts 0-1.
The Good: Suddenly, Colorado fans have warmed to one-time genius Gary Barnett, whose record is 20-16 in three seasons in Boulder.
The Bad: The schedule isn't easy, with USC, UCLA and trips to Oklahoma and Nebraska.
The Guess: So which Colorado team will show up this season? The near-perfect one that destroyed Nebraska and Texas, or the uninspired team that lost to Fresno State and was whipped by Oregon? Neither, probably a team that will win nine or 10 games.
The Good: Have you seen QB Byron Leftwich play? I would take him over any other collegiate quarterback.
The Bad: The defense will be very inexperienced, which may force the Herd to win every game in a shootout. Marshall also lost both coordinators, including offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher to Florida.
The One-Game Season: Sept. 12 at Virginia Tech is The Game. If Marshall wins it, 13-0 is possible.
The Good: The Cornhuskers have eight home games again and Oklahoma is not on the schedule.
The Bad: There hasn't been a good feeling among Cornhuskers fans since the 62-36 shellacking at the hands of Colorado last November. It carried over to the Rose Bowl loss to Miami. Suddenly, Coach Frank Solich is under fire.
The Very Easy: Nebraska hosts Troy State, Utah State and McNeese State.
The Good: Mark Richt has a season of experience after blowing two games with terrible decisions in the final seconds.
The Bad: The Bulldogs have never appeared in the SEC Championship Game, which debuted in 1992, but...
The Optimism:Many experts think this is the year. Plenty of experience returns for the Bulldogs, who finished 8-4. Lefty quarterback David Greene enjoyed a breakout season as a freshman and will get even better. Dawg fans haven't been this pumped in years.
The Good: QB Dave Ragone is big, tough and a winner. The lefty can carry the offense on his back. The defense should be even better than the one that enabled the Cards to win 11 games last season.
The Bad: The offensive line in front of Ragone returns only one starter.
The Big Game: If Louisville gets off to a good start, the Sept. 26 game at home against FSU could be the school's most-hyped home game ever. Other than that, the schedule is easy pickings.
The Good: The running game should be very effective, and that is essential given the Ducks will break in a new quarterback.
The Bad: QB Joey Harrington is gone and seldom do teams win conference titles with first-year starters at the most-crucial position.
The Schedule: is cake, at least early. The Ducks open with Mississippi State, Fresno State (no David Carr), Idaho and Portland State -- all at home -- to start the season.
The Good: Nick Saban has done a great job rebuilding the talent base, which had fallen through the 1990s.
The Bad: The Tigers got on a huge roll at the end of last season because of the hot hand of QB Rohan Davey. He is gone and so is All-America receiver Josh Reed. The Turnover: Again, Saban has to replace his defensive coordinator. He always has been known as the hardest coach to work for, and his demands ultimately cause instability in his staff.
The Good: QB Zack Mills is a player to watch. He single-handedly fired up the Nittany Lions and saved their season after an 0-4 start in 2001. Expect him to put Penn State back into the rankings.
The Bad: Some say the talent has dipped dramatically in the past three years. This is a must season for Joe Paterno to win at least eight games.
The Edge: The Nittany Lions play their first four games and eight overall at gigantic Beaver Stadium, but travel to Ohio State (where they are 0-4 since joining the Big Ten) and Michigan.
The Good: The Tide won its final four games last season and could carry huge momentum, despite the off-season distractions of NCAA penalties. The roster still holds plenty of talent. The defense should be much better.
The Bad: No bowl possible and a nasty trip to Norman, Okla., awaits. The Rules: Which is what this program needs to pay attention to. Franchione and Alabama's leaders have to remain clean to restore some credibility. Alabama needs to win at least eight games, avoid injuries and recruit well to weather the NCAA storm.
20. VIRGINIA TECH
The Good: Frank Beamer and his staff continue to produce one sound team after another, and now the talent level seems to be rising, too.
The Bad: QB Grant Noel sustained a torn ACL in spring practice and probably won't be ready in September.
The Schedule: Is Tougher than usual. LSU, Marshall and Texas A&M pose September challenges when the Hokies will be starting an inexperienced quarterback.
21. N.C. STATE
The Good: QB Phillip Rivers and his Bernie Kosar-like delivery is fun to watch. The Wolfpack can score.
The Bad: Chuck Amato had a re-shuffling of his staff, including losing his defensive coordinator to Navy. The Wolfpack lost four offensive linemen.
The Soft: The Wolfpack will play one of the easiest non-conference schedules in the nation: New Mexico, E. Tenn. State, Navy and UMass.
22. SOUTHERN MISS
The Good: The Eagles return 18 starters and have plenty of senior leadership. The Bad: Southern Miss will break in a new quarterback.
The Consistency: For 11 years under Jeff Bower, this has been one of the most over achieving programs in the nation. Southern Miss schedules tough, and still manages one winning season after another (eight straight).
23. TEXAS TECH
The Good: Skilled players are everywhere and QB Kliff Kingsbury is back to run Mike Leach's pass-happy offense.
The Bad: Tech can't pick up the tough yards because it doesn't try to run. Then it can't when it needs to on third-and-short.
The Unbalanced: The Red Raiders are fun to watch with their brand of flag football, calling a running play about as often as their basketball coach apologizes for a misdeed. But this team isn't balanced enough to make a run at the Big 12's South.
24. TEXAS A&M
The Good: Eighteen starters return to a program that always plays good defense. The Bad: The Aggies can't seem to play well in November, and can't score from outside the red zone in any month.
The Result: A&M needs another fast start and then to pull off a few upsets in October and November to make a run at nine wins. Anything worse and R.C. Slocum's popularity will continue to slide.
25. MICHIGAN STATE
The Good: Sixteen starters are back from a 7-5 team that finished strong. The schedule is the Big Ten's easiest, with the Spartans almost guaranteed a 3-0 start before facing Notre Dame, which it has beaten five straight.
The Bad: Coach Bobby Williams appears overmatched at times during a game, choosing to constantly argue with officials rather than focus on upcoming decisions.
The Grass: Spartan Stadium now has grass for the first time since 1968. That should help out with injuries, which have been a Michigan State nemesis in recent years.
FORGET ABOUT:Notre Dame: Brutal schedule could leave Irish with losing record in Tyrone Willingham's first season; Kansas State: With another creampuff schedule, Wildcats will win enough to go bowling, but won't be a Top-10 factor; Illinois: Look for defending Big Ten champ to fall hard; South Carolina: Time to rebuild for Lou Holtz; Maryland: I see the Terps and the Fridge falling back into the ACC pack.