Time once again for me to embarrass myself.
That's right, with another college football season looming just two weeks away it is time yet again for me to roll out my preseason predictions for you to scoff at now and laugh at four months later.
Over the last five years my published preseason pigskin picks have been…well…inconsistent. Here's a look at my published preseason No.1s over the last five years:
1999—Florida State (won the national title).
2000—Alabama (finished 3-8 and fired its head coach).
2001—Georgia Tech (finished 7-5).
2002—Texas (finished 11-2).
Now, I do my predictions different from some others. I do a preseason ranking based on how I think they will finish at the end of the season. Many websites and magazines try to have it both ways, by selecting the best teams going in and then projecting how they'll finish. That's gutless.
I do two sets of rankings each summer. First, I rank the teams based on talent and experience returning. Second, I then project each team's win-loss record and re-order my rankings to that effect.
Beyond my preseason top 50 you'll also see my bowl projections.
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2003 Top 25
By Steve Deace
1. Texas Longhorns
The good—No program in America has more talent. Mack Brown has recruited better than any other coach in the country has over the last five years.
The bad—The Longhorns are known as one of the softer teams in the country, and their heart is in question until they finally beat Oklahoma.
The big game—vs. Oklahoma on October 11th.
The key question—Will the loss of Chris Simms at quarterback actually be addition by subtraction?
The bottom line—Texas reminds me of another orange-clad team that recently won a national championship. In 1998 Tennessee was expected to fall back after the loss of Peyton Manning, who never beat Florida. But the pressure was finally off the Volunteers, just as it is Texas now, and they finally bested the Gators. Look for history to repeat itself in 2003. The Longhorns will finally conquer Oklahoma, and then conquer the nation.
2. Michigan Wolverines
The good—Dominant offensive line, 1,000-yard rusher and receiver, and a fifth-year senior quarterback are usually ingredients for success.
The bad—Michigan's defense has been inconsistent since the outstanding '97 group, and last year it surrendered at least 24 points in seven games.
The big game—Ohio State on November 22nd.
The key question—Have the Wolverines solved their placekicking woes of a year ago?
The bottom line—No other major contender has a better combination of experience and friendly schedule. If Lloyd Carr can get the Wolverines back to playing traditional Michigan defense this should be a team in the Sugar Bowl hunt all season long.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
The good—If defense can win championships by itself than you might as well give the Sears Trophy to the Sooners right now.
The bad—A new starting quarterback with two gimpy knees, the loss of the four most productive pass-catchers in school history, and the graduation of all-everything running back Quentin Griffin.
The big game—vs. Texas on October 11th.
The key question—They can't really lose the state championship to Oklahoma State for a third year in a row, can they?
The bottom line—If Jason White can stay healthy at quarterback for the entire season the Sooners are the team to beat. However, given White's tendency to tear knee ligaments that is too big of an if for me.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
The good—It's been a while since a defending national champion retained this many key components. Based on talent returning the Buckeyes deserve to be No. 1 until someone knocks them off.
The bad—Ohio State was just so downright lucky last season that it's hard to believe they can be the darlings of destiny again.
The big game—at Michigan on November 22nd.
The key question—Will the Buckeyes lose Maurice Clarett as a result of the numerous NCAA investigations pertaining to his academics and finances?
The bottom line—All of the tough games are in Columbus except for the toughest one at the end. And it's that trip to the Big House that will prevent the Buckeyes from repeating.
5. LSU Tigers
The good—Nick Saban is assembling a power in Baton Rouge, and the Tigers have the best roster of young talent in the SEC as a result of his tireless recruiting. The schedule also includes just one road game against a team that went to a bowl game last season.
The bad—Nothing really sticks out as a negative, although linebacker Bradie James will be tough to replace in the middle of a defense that was second in the nation against the pass last season.
The big game—Auburn on October 25th.
The bottom line—The Tigers have the schedule to run the table with all of their toughest foes coming to Death Valley. Don't be surprised if LSU is a surprise participant in the Sugar Bowl.
6. Pittsburgh Panthers
The big game—Miami (Fla.) on November 29th.
The key question—Is this once proud program, which hasn't played in a major bowl game since 1984, finally ready to live up to expectations?
The bottom line—With its combination of friendly schedule and returning experience, this is finally the year that Pittsburgh becomes a national presence in college football again.
7. Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes
The good—The NFL's top farm team has had 13 players drafted in the first round the last three years, and pro scouts are predicting this year's team actually has more talent.
The big game—at Virginia Tech on November 1st.
The key question—Can the Hurricanes compete for another national title with a new starting quarterback, running back, and revamped defensive line?
The bottom line—Miami is still the beast of the Big East, but it will have a bulls-eye on its back because of its controversial decision to bolt the league for the ACC. Plus, it faces its three most difficult foes – Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Pittsburgh – on the road and that's why there won't be a third straight appearance in the BCS national title game.
8. Auburn Tigers
The good—The Tigers feature one of the more athletic rosters in the country, including a bevy of future pros at running back and linebacker.
The bad—Auburn has the most difficult schedule of all the major contenders. There are road games at Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia. Plus home dates with USC, Tennessee, and Alabama.
The big game—at LSU on October 25th.
The key question—Is quarterback Jason Campbell finally ready to live up to his advanced billing?
The bottom line—The Tigers have scary-good personnel in several areas. Unfortunately, the brutal schedule is even more horrifying and that will keep them out of the Sugar Bowl.
9. Kansas State Wildcats
The good—The best offensive backfield in the country can be found in Manhattan. K-State also benefits from playing in a depleted Big 12 North Division.
The bad—The losses of Terry Pierce and Terrance Newman on defense leaves huge voids in talent and leadership.
The big game—at Nebraska on November 15th.
The key question—Can Bill Snyder piece together enough junior college studs on defense to forge a sixth 11-win season in seven years?
The bottom line—The schedule is tougher than what the Wildcats are used to with road games at 2002 bowl squads Texas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and Nebraska. It's unlikely K-State will be able to run the table against those foes with an unproven defense.
10. USC Trojans
The good—With traditional conference rivals UCLA and Washington breaking in new, inexperienced coaches the Trojans could be poised to dominate the Pac-10 for the foreseeable future. Oh, and they've got pretty good players too.
The bad—You just don't replace a guy like Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman Trophy and was the top pick in the NFL draft. And don't forget how well the departed Justin Fargas played down the stretch last year too.
The big game—at Notre Dame on October 18th.
The bottom line—If Palmer were back, this would be the unquestioned top-ranked team in the country. Without him, the Trojans will just have to settle for being the top-ranked team in a soft Pac-10.
11. North Carolina State Wolfpack
The good—In quarterback Phillip Rivers and tailback T.A. McClendon the Wolfpack has the most explosive run-pass combo in the country. Confidence within the program is also at an all-time high after a rout of Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.
The bad—The offense will have to win some shootouts early while the defense jells and some questions in the kicking game are answered.
The big game—at Florida State on November 15th.
The key question—Can N.C. State become the only ACC team to beat the Seminoles in Tallahassee two straight times?
The bottom line—The ACC race is wide-open, so I'll give the nod to the team with the best quarterback and that's N.C. State with Rivers.
12. Maryland Terrapins
The good—Under Ralph Friedgen the Terrapins have posted double-digit wins the past two seasons and return 16 starters from last season's 11-win squad, the best record at the school since 1976.
The bad—Linebacker E.J. Henderson, the best college football player at Maryland in decades, will be hard to replace.
The big game—at Florida State on September 6th.
The key question—Can the Terps win at Florida State and North Carolina State in the same season?
The bottom line—A third straight double-digit win campaign for the first time in school history is a legitimate goal. But the schedule works against Maryland in its bid to win a share of its third straight ACC title.
13. Georgia Bulldogs
The bad—The entire starting offensive line and linebacker trio must be rebuilt. A rigorous schedule also awaits the defending SEC champions.
The big game—at Tennessee on October 11th.
The key question—Are the Bulldogs poised to permanently dethrone Tennessee and Florida as the new power in the SEC East Division?
The bottom line—Mark Richt has the Bulldogs back among the nation's elite and a repeat SEC Championship isn't out of the question despite the grueling schedule.
14. Purdue Boilermakers
The good—The Boilermakers led the Big Ten in total defense and total offense last season, and 19 starters return.
The bad—Road games at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan will likely prevent Purdue from winning its second Big Ten championship under Joe Tiller.
The big game—at Michigan on October 25th.
The key question—Is there a place-kicker on campus?
The bottom line—If the road schedule was reversed, Purdue might be a dark horse to run the table. Nevertheless, they'll just have to settle for a nice bowl game in Florida on New Year's Day.
15. Virginia Tech Hokies
The good—All-world recruit Kevin Jones finally gets the tailback position to himself, and he may share the offensive backfield with quarterback Marcus Vick, better known as Michael's little brother.
The bad—The personnel on defense looks good, yet these are the same guys that struggled at times last season. Road games at West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Virginia could keep the Hokies out of the BCS picture.
The big game—Miami (Fla.) on November 1st.
The key question—Did this program peak or is it still a viable national contender?
The bottom line—The Hokies have descended somewhat, and the slide could become more ominous with the impending doom of the Big East. This may be their last, best chance at the BCS.
16. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The good—Tyrone Willingham knows he goes into battle every Saturday with solid defense and special teams, and that keeps you in a lot of games.
The bad—The Irish still lack the skill, speed, and precision to properly exploit Willingham's offense until new recruits blossom.
The big game—at Michigan on September 13th.
The key question—Can Carlyle Holiday successfully fake being a West Coast offense quarterback this season as well?
The bottom line—Willingham is steadily building the program he wants, but his second team in South Bend looks very similar to his first.
17. Virginia Cavaliers
The good—A roster busting loose at the seams with young talent thanks to some outstanding recruiting classes under Al Groh.
The bad—The Cavaliers won nine games last season despite having one of the worst defenses in college football. That dubious feat isn't likely to be duplicated again.
The big game—at North Carolina State on November 1st.
The key question—Can much-hyped linebacker recruit Ahmad Brooks make an impact in his first year on a defense that sorely needs him?
The bottom line—Groh is recruiting an ACC powerhouse just in time to welcome Miami, Boston College, and Syracuse to the league. The Cavaliers have great personnel, but consecutive road games at N.C. State and Maryland will prove to be their undoing.
18. Florida State Seminoles
The good—Despite all of their recent troubles they're still the Seminoles, with the kind of talent, depth, and speed that is the envy of about 90 percent of the teams in college football.
The bad—Quarterback Chris Rix is despised by his teammates, but they're forced to play with him because there isn't anyone else. The schedule, arguably the toughest in the country, features 10 bowl teams from a year ago.
The big game—Miami (Fla.) on October 11th.
The key question—Will Bobby Bowden retire if FSU finishes out of the top 10 for a third straight season?
The bottom line—Inner turmoil seems to be doing what Florida State's adversaries could not—take the program down. Anything from a national title run to a five-loss meltdown is possible in Tallahassee.
19. Oklahoma State Cowboys
The good—It's college football's version of the triplets. In quarterback Josh Fields, tailback Tatum Bell, and wide receiver Rashaun Woods the Cowboys arguably feature the three best players at those vital positions in the Big 12.
The bad—There are some questions on special teams and stud Kevin Williams will be missed on the defensive line.
The big game—November 1st at Oklahoma.
The key question—Is Oklahoma State ready to take the next step and challenge for the Big 12 South Division title?
The bottom line—New facilities, a massive upgrade of Lewis Field, the retention of the entire coaching staff, and two straight wins over Oklahoma has Stillwater buzzing. This is a program on the rise.
20. Tennessee Volunteers
The good—Casey Clausen is the most battle-tested quarterback in the SEC, and the Volunteers have elite depth and talent at running back and linebacker.
The bad—Road games at Auburn, Alabama, Florida, and Miami. The word we are looking for here is ouch!
The big game—at Florida on September 13th.
The key question—Is the complacency, poor leadership, and injury problems that plagued the program last year gone?
The bottom line—I'll gamble that the intangibles that went against the Vols last year work in their favor this time around.
21. Oregon State Beavers
The good—New Coach Mike Riley, who laid the groundwork for the unprecedented success enjoyed by the departed Dennis Erickson, inherits a talented roster with 17 returning starters, including top-flight running back Steven Jackson.
The bad—The Beavers' shot at a Pac-10 title comes down to the final two games against Oregon and USC. Unfortunately, they're both on the road.
The big game—at USC on December 6th.
The key question—Dennis Erickson took Oregon State to new heights on the foundation Riley established. Can Riley now do the same thing with Erickson's players?
The bottom line—If the Beavers are ever going to get back to the Rose Bowl, and past a resurgent USC in the Pac-10, this is probably their best shot.
22. Arizona State Sun Devils
The good—The Pac-10 is wide open and the Sun Devils return 19 starters, including record-setting quarterback Andrew Walter.
The bad—Two of the starters lost were All-American Terrell Suggs and leading receiver Shaun McDonald, who just so happened to be the two best players on the team.
The big game—at Oregon State on September 27th.
The key question—Is a program that has always traditionally struggled on the road prepared for a challenging schedule that includes six road games?
The bottom line—The team with the strongest quarterback usually wins the Pac-10, thus Walter gives Arizona State a puncher's chance.
23. Minnesota Golden Gophers
The good—The best offensive backfield in the Big Ten returns, as well as eight starters on both sides of the ball. The Gophers also have momentum after routing SEC West Division champ Arkansas in the Music City Bowl.
The bad—Special teams have been a strength under Coach Glenn Mason, but Minnesota will be without the services of kicker Dan Nystrom, punter Preston Gruening, and return specialist Jermaine Mayes.
The big game—at Penn State on September 27th.
The key question—Which is the real Minnesota defense, the one that held the Razorbacks to 14 points in the bowl game or the one that surrendered at least 28 points in six of eight league games last season?
The bottom line—There are seven definite wins on the Gophers' cushy schedule, so an upset or two is all it will take to make them a factor in the Big Ten race.
24. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The good—Even in an off year, the Huskers still made it to another bowl game. The facilities and tradition of Nebraska football are nearly unparalleled in the sport, and that has to count for something.
The bad—Tradition is great, but winning still comes down to having players and Nebraska was simply out-manned too often last season.
The big game—Oklahoma State on August 30th.
The key question—Will the massive shakeup of the coaching staff in the offseason yield immediate results for Frank Solich, who is a man on the hot seat?
The bottom line—This is a make it or break it year for Solich, who cannot afford a second straight mediocre season. Call it a hunch, but I think reports of the demise of the Big Red are greatly exaggerated.
25. Wisconsin Badgers
The good—The Badgers lost six games last year, but only two of those defeats were one-sided. Wisconsin welcomes back 19 starters, including two of the most dangerous skilled players in the Big Ten in Anthony Davis and Lee Evans.
The bad—Wisconsin has won just one Big Ten game at home in each of the last three seasons. That's got to change if the Badgers want to get back in the league's first division.
The big game—Ohio State on October 11th.
The key question—Is Jim Sorgi ready to take over for Brooks Bollinger, who graduated as the winningest quarterback in school history?
The bottom line—There is a sense or urgency in Madison now that Barry Alvarez will become the school's athletic director next Spring. He's probably not long for doing double-duty, so this may be his last chance at joining Woody Hayes as the only Big Ten coach to win four Rose Bowls.
BEST OF THE REST
26. Washington …Cody Pickett-to-Reggie Williams is the most lethal pass-catch combo in the country, but how much chemistry fallout will there be from Rick Neuheisel's ouster?
27. Colorado State…The Rams are easily the class of the Mountain West but have to face top conference challengers BYU and New Mexico on the road.
28. Florida…The Gators welcome a stellar recruiting class, but this season could be a downer with a schedule only a sadist would love.
29. Iowa…Several All-American candidates remain from last season's storybook run, but the schedule is tougher and the Big Ten is better than it was a year ago.
30. TCU…Last season the defense keyed the Horned Frogs to the Conference USA crown. This year it's the offense's turn.
31. Texas A&M…Great facilities, phenom quarterback in Reggie McNeal, and fertile in-state recruiting territory means it's only a matter of time before Dennis Franchione turns the Aggies back into a national power.
32. Mississippi…Eli Manning gets one last chance at the Heisman Trophy and the SEC championship.
33. Alabama…The Crimson Tide always has athletes, but they're working on their fourth coach in three years.
34. Fresno State…A healthy Bernard Berrian at wide receiver teaming with sophomore quarterback Paul Pinegar means the Bulldogs will be a factor again.
35. Oregon…Will last season's brutal second half of the season carry over to 2003? It better not because a challenging schedule awaits.
36. Arkansas…Every summer Houston Nutt's team gets overlooked, and then every fall they're a factor in the SEC West Division race.
37. Hawaii…Keep an eye on quarterback Tommy Chang, who should light up scoreboards in the WAC under the tutelage of June Jones.
38. Clemson…It's put up or shut up time for Tommy Bowden, whose Death Valley tenure might expire if the Tigers settle for another minor bowl.
39. Penn State…Heavy personnel losses for Joe Paterno are somewhat offset by a favorable schedule.
40. Iowa State…The schedule is daunting, with most of the toughies coming to Ames. But with 40 of their top 48 lettermen returning the Cyclones won't fall back to obscurity.
41. New Mexico…Keep an eye on the Lobos with a soft schedule plus 54 lettermen and 17 starters returning from last year's Las Vegas Bowl team.
42. Missouri…The preseason chic pick of a lot of publications features difference-maker Brad Smith, but where's the defense?
43. South Carolina…Lou Holtz raided the JUCO ranks for some top talent in a bid to get the Gamecocks back in the postseason.
44. West Virginia…Rich Rodriguez's spread offense should be good enough for a minor bowl bid somewhere.
45. Colorado…Here's a lead-pipe lock you can take to the bank: there's no way the rebuilding Buffaloes will win a third straight Big 12 North Division title.
46. Southern Mississippi…A terrific defense makes the Golden Eagles the only legitimate challenger to TCU in Conference USA.
47. Air Force…The most underrated program in the country returns scintillating quarterback Chance Harridge.
48. Syracuse…The young and athletic Orangemen are poised for a bounce-back season despite a tricky schedule.
49. Northern Illinois…The Huskies own the best defense in the MAC and the nation's leading returning rusher in Michael Turner.
50. Illinois…Under Ron Turner the Illini tend to perform better when there are low expectations and that is the case again heading into 2003.
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2003-04 BOWL PROJECTIONS
New Orleans Bowl: December 16th (ESPN2)
Tulane vs. North Texas
GMAC Bowl: December 18th (ESPN2)
Northern Illinois vs. Southern Mississippi
Tangerine Bowl: December 22nd (ESPN)
Clemson vs. Iowa State
Fort Worth Bowl: December 23rd (ESPN)
Syracuse vs. Missouri
Las Vegas Bowl: December 24th (ESPN)
Air Force vs. Oregon
Hawaii Bowl: December 25th (ESPN)
Hawaii vs. Cincinnati
Motor City Bowl: December 26th (ESPN)
Illinois vs. Central Florida
Insight Bowl: December 26th (ESPN)
Virginia Tech vs. Washington
Continental Tire Bowl: December 27th (ESPN)
Virginia vs. Notre Dame
Alamo Bowl: December 29th (ESPN)
Iowa vs. Nebraska
Houston Bowl: December 30th (ESPN)
Texas A&M vs. Arkansas
Silicon Valley Classic: December 30th (ESPN2)
BYU vs. Fresno State
Holiday Bowl: December 30th (ESPN)
Oklahoma State vs. Oregon State
Music City Bowl: December 31st (ESPN)
South Carolina vs. Penn State
Sun Bowl: December 31st (CBS)
Arizona State vs. Wisconsin
Liberty Bowl: December 31st (ESPN)
Colorado State vs. TCU
Independence Bowl: December 31st (ESPN)
Florida vs. Colorado
San Francisco Bowl: December 31st (ESPN2)
New Mexico vs. West Virginia
Outback Bowl: January 1st (ESPN)
Minnesota vs. Tennessee
Gator Bowl: January 1st (NBC)
Maryland vs. Miami (Fla.)
Capitol One Bowl: January 1st (ABC)
Purdue vs. Georgia
Rose Bowl: January 1st (ABC)
Ohio State vs. USC
Orange Bowl: January 1st (ABC)
North Carolina State vs. Pittsburgh
Cotton Bowl: January 2nd (FOX)
Kansas State vs. Auburn
Peach Bowl: January 2nd (ESPN)
Florida State vs. Mississippi
Fiesta Bowl: January 2nd (ABC)
LSU vs. Oklahoma
Humanitarian Bowl: January 3rd (ESPN)
Miami (Ohio) vs. Boise State
Sugar Bowl: January 4th (ABC)
Michigan vs. Texas
In next week's Monday Musings we'll focus our pigskin periscope on the Big 12.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Central Iowa each weekday from 4-7 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)