Sneak Peek to 2006
1. West Virginia…A total of 14 starters return, including the dynamic duo of Pat White and Steve Slaton. Plus they play in the anemic Big East and their only non-conference road games are at Mississippi State and East Carolina. They have the best shot of finishing undefeated in a wide-open race. But can they handle the burden of high expectations?
2. USC…Can they make it four straight? The offense will be young at spots without you-know-who, but so was the 2003 championship offense when we were first introduced to those you-know-whos. The defense will be improved, and the schedule is fortuitous (the top three Pac-10 contenders come to the Coliseum), the talent bountiful, and Pete Carroll is still coaching the team.
3. Auburn…True, the Tigers were manhandled in the Capitol One Bowl as a big favorite, but they were the best team in the SEC in November and the bulk of that team returns. In addition, the schedule that coaxed along 2004's undefeated team is back, with only two road games – at South Carolina and Alabama – against teams that went bowling in 2005.
4. Florida…Chris Leak as a senior, four-year starter more accustomed to the Urban Meyer offense. Then there's an aggressive, fast defense. The Gators also enter next season with momentum after blowing out their in-state rival and winning the Outback Bowl. The only reason they're not higher is that it's an even-numbered year, which means road trips to Knoxville and Tallahassee as well as a date at Auburn.
5. Oklahoma…The young and restless Sooners matured as the season wore on, culminating in a convincing win over a top 10 Oregon team in the Holiday Bowl. Unfortunately they face the Ducks again, but this time in Autzen Stadium. A win there will be treacherous. Other than the Red River Shootout the Sooners should be favored in the rest of their games, and look for Adrian Peterson to get back on the Heisman radar in 2006.
6. Ohio State…They have two tough road games – at Texas and at Iowa – and if they split those and beat Michigan at home that might be enough to get them in Fiesta Bowl. The offense will be absolutely loaded but the defense a huge question mark. The Buckeyes are looking at almost a complete rebuilding project on that side of the ball.
7. Notre Dame…They will be ranked higher than this in many preseason polls, but the Irish have some issues. Brady Quinn is great, and so is Charlie Weiss. However, Maurice Stovall, Anthony Fasano, and the bulk of a solid offensive line will be missed, and recruiting in 2003 and 2004 didn't necessarily leave the cupboard full of replacements. The defense should get better, but the biggest plus for the Irish is a schedule that features only three true away games.
8. Florida State…Even with injuries, no consistent quarterback play, and youth the Seminoles still won the rugged ACC. No major team played more freshman than did FSU. Depending on what happens with standout linebackers Ernie Sims (with the NFL) and A.J. Nicholson (with the criminal justice system), the defense will be terrific. The offense should improve with experience. And other than an opening night trip to Miami the schedule is favorable.
9. Michigan…The Wolverines return 16 starters from an injury-plagued team that lost five games by 26 points, but won three others on the final play. Coaching staff changes are expected after the Wolverines suffered their first more-than-four loss season since 1984. The schedule is friendly and comes down to two games—at Notre Dame and at Ohio State. And Lloyd Carr is just 2-7 against those primary rivals since 2001.
10. LSU…The skill positions are teeming with talent, maybe too much of it if you look at a crowded quarterback derby. One of those three players will be transferring in the next 90 days. Defensively the Tigers lose some standouts up front, but have recruited very capable fill-ins. The schedule features road dates at Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee. Winning two out of those three to stay in the national title race won't be easy.
Dirty Dozen others to watch (in alphabetical order):
Arizona State…Talent aplenty, but the schedule the first half of the season could be the toughest in the country.
California…Returns a nearly intact roster, but faces a tough opener in Knoxville against Tennessee.
Iowa…There are significant holes at three spots, but Drew Tate plus a favorable schedule makes the Hawkeyes a dark horse.
Iowa State…Most thought 2005 was to be the breakout year, but this team will be better in 2006.
Miami (Fla.)…Were the coaching changes a panic move or a necessary correction for a program that seems to be slipping?
Nebraska…Folks are excited after the Alamo Bowl win, but five road games – including USC – may temper that enthusiasm.
Oregon…Another Pac-10 team returning a lot of experience that faces a tough schedule.
TCU…The mid-major team most likely to spoil the BCS party should be the favorite to repeat in the Mountain West.
Texas A&M…At some point Dennis Franchione will make his mark, and with a much more manageable schedule this will be the year. Last year I correctly predicted Penn State would be a lot better than people think. This year I think the Aggies will be the surprise team in the country.
Texas…No longer InVinceable – and with no obvious heir apparent on campus – plus a tricky schedule means no repeat in Austin.
Utah…The young Utes shocked many by dispatching Georgia Tech in the bowl game.
Way Too Early BCS Projections
National Championship Game—USC vs. West Virginia
Rose Bowl—Ohio State vs. Notre Dame
Sugar Bowl—Florida vs. Texas A&M
Orange Bowl—Florida State vs. Michigan
Fiesta Bowl—Oklahoma vs. TCU