Going to Miami

If you take a look at the bottom portion of some experts' preseason Top 25 college football polls, you might see Notre Dame on a couple of them. While there are plenty of teams that are featured in the bottom seven or eight spots of all of the polls, there seems to be a consensus when it comes to the top five.

The orders may be different, but most experts agree that Georgia, Florida, Ohio State, Southern Cal and Oklahoma are the top teams heading into 2008. With a pair of SEC teams in the top five and the Buckeyes and Trojans facing off in the third week of the regular season, it will be an exciting race to the 2009 BCS National Championship Game in Miami. None of the roads will be easy, but two will make it.

In the race to the national title game, a number of factors come into play. First is the team because a team without a superbly talented roster just isn't going to make it. Next is the schedule since the only way for a team to guarantee itself a trip is to win each and every game on the slate.

Aside from the team and its schedule, other teams and their schedules come into play as everyone jockeys for position in the polls late in the season. Also, the teams that start the season ranked high will be more likely to be able to shake off an early season loss than a team that is ranked low and could be knocked out of the race with a Sept. loss.

Year in, year out the Southeastern Conference lays claim to the unofficial title of best conference and with two giants like Florida and Georgia, this year will be no different. Along with the Gators and the Bulldogs, LSU, Auburn and Tennessee seem to be in everybody's top 25, giving the SEC as many, if not more top teams than any other conference. Of course with a premier league, comes a premier schedule and as always is a factor, the conference could beat itself up.

The Gators have a huge Sept. 20 matchup at Tennessee after an early bye week. On Oct. 11, the Gators will welcome LSU to Gainesville, but they don't have Auburn, who beat them in 2007, on this year's Western Division schedule. As usual, Florida finishes the regular season with a Nov. 29 matchup at Florida State.

The Bulldogs also have a big Sept. 20 contest when they travel to Tempe for a game with Arizona State, who is also ranked in almost everyone's top 25. Georgia is not as fortunate as Florida is as the Bulldogs' Western Division conference schedule features road dates with both LSU (Oct. 25) and Auburn (Nov. 15). Georgia will need to prove that it can win outside the state this year. Last year, the Bulldogs were just 2-1 in games outside of Georgia and the two wins were by a combined six points over Alabama and Vanderbilt.

And of course there is "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party", or whatever they call it now, when Florida and Georgia meet in Jacksonville on Nov. 1. The winner of that matchup should be in the driver's seat for a trip to the SEC Championship Game and most likely another game with LSU or Auburn.

LSU and Auburn have no easy road to the SEC Championship, never mind the BCS Championship, as they each have to play each other along with Georgia. LSU has that Oct. 11 matchup with the Gators while Auburn plays Tennessee on Sept. 27. The Volunteers have the same problems as the rest of the SEC squads with Florida and Georgia on its schedule along with a season-opening matchup at UCLA.

Either Southern Cal or Ohio State is going to suffer a damaging blow to its National Championship hopes after their Sept. 13 showdown at the Coliseum, while the winner will instantly become a favorite to make the trip to Miami. Still, the game comes so early in the season that either team could still be able to reach the championship if it runs the table and things break correctly.

After the Buckeyes, USC has a bye week before traveling to Oregon State (Sept. 25) and back-to-back home games against Oregon (Oct. 4) and Arizona State (Oct. 11). If the Trojans make it through that stretch, they will most likely head into the last two games of the season at home against Notre Dame (Nov. 29) and at home against crosstown rival UCLA (Dec. 6) with a clear road to Miami.

If Ohio State is victorious in the Sept. 13 matchup, the Buckeyes could make their third straight trip to the National Championship. Ohio State has home games against Troy and Minnesota after the Trojans and before traveling to Madison for an Oct. 4 contest against Wisconsin. If the Buckeyes get past the Badgers, they'd be a good bet to reach their Nov. 15 matchup at Illinois unscathed. After Illinois, the Buckeyes would still have to get past archrival Michigan to reach the National Championship.

If the SEC doesn't have the most top teams, than the Big 12 does. Oklahoma is the clear favorite in the conference, but Missouri and Kansas proved what they can do last year, Texas is Texas and when any of the teams face off against Texas Tech they know they'll have to score some points to win.

Oklahoma opens with games against Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Washington, TCU and Baylor before playing Texas in the Red River Shootout on Oct. 11. The Sooners then take on Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State to round out the regular season. None of the games are gimmes, especially the three-game stretch against the Big 12 North's Jayhawks, Wildcats and Huskers, but the Sooners should be favored in each.

Oklahoma blew out the Aggies and the Cowboys last year, but lost 34-27 at Texas Tech, so the task will be to stay focused each week. If Oklahoma does make it through the regular season unbeaten, they could very well be playing an unbeaten Missouri in the Big 12 Championship Game.

The Tigers open the season with a non-conference matchup with Illinois in St. Louis. Missouri will have a tough October stretch against Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Texas and Colorado, but they should be favored in each of those games except in Austin. If the Tigers make it through October without a loss, a regular-season finale with Kansas on Nov. 29 will loom as large as it did last year. Kansas could make a bid itself, but the Jayhawks' schedule against the South Division of the Big 12 would make it difficult.

The Jayhawks have a crucial non-conference game with South Florida on Sept. 12 before that contest with the Sooners on Oct. 18. If Kansas can pull off a stunner in Norman, they would still need to win a shootout against Texas Tech before a Nov. 15 matchup with Texas. If Kansas were to win out and defeat Missouri in the last game of the season, it would still most likely have to beat either Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech again in the Big 12 Championship.

Texas could win the Big 12 South if it can upset Oklahoma, but could have the most difficult schedule in the conference. In addition to the Sooners, the Longhorns also have Colorado (Oct. 4), Missouri (Oct. 18), Texas Tech (Nov. 1) and Kansas (Nov. 15) on the schedule. And if they want a shot at a trip to Miami, the Longhorns will most likely have to beat Kansas or Missouri again in the Big 12 Championship.

Back in the Big Ten, the team with next best chance after Ohio State looks to be Wisconsin. The week before their matchup with the Buckeyes, the Badgers will travel to Ann Arbor to play Michigan (Sept. 27). The week after Ohio State, Wisconsin hosts Penn State (Oct. 11), but if they can sweep that stretch they will be in position for a chance at the title. The final potential hurdle could be an Oct. 25 home game against Illinois. The Badgers close with road trips to Michigan State and Indiana before hosting Minnesota and FCS Cal-Poly.

With all of these top teams playing each other - and possibly eliminating each other - it could open things up for run from a team in the Big East, ACC or even a non-BCS Conference, although that is highly unlikely this year.

West Virginia is considered by most to be the top team in the Big East and is the team in the league with the best chance of making it to Miami. The Mountaineers' most difficult games come in non-conference matchups at Colorado (Sept. 18) and home against Auburn (Oct. 23). West Virginia's toughest conference games will be home against Rutgers (Oct. 4), at UConn (Nov. 1), at Pittsburgh (Nov. 28) and home to South Florida in the last game of the regular season (Dec. 6). The Mountaineers certainly have to take care of business in the Big East, but if they can beat Auburn they could have a chance to claim what they lost out on last year.

If USF wins that Sept. 12 matchup with Kansas, the Bulls could also have an undefeated record when they play at West Virginia. The Bulls have a non-conference matchup at North Carolina State (Sept. 27), but they get Pitt (Oct. 2), Rutgers (Nov. 15) and UConn (Nov. 22) at home. If USF can beat West Virginia in that final game and the Bulls are undefeated at the end, they could sneak in.

The ACC is more competitive than the Big East with Clemson, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Florida State appearing in numerous top 25 polls while North Carolina and Miami are seemingly on their way back. Much of how the ACC plays out this year will depend on the outcome of a Thursday night matchup between Clemson and Wake Forest.

Coming off a 9-4 season in 2007, the Tigers are considered the team to beat in the ACC. The Tigers open with a non-conference game against Alabama (Aug. 30) on the first weekend of the season in Atlanta. Of the upper echelon teams in the conference, Clemson has to play just two, although both on are on the road against Wake Forest (Oct. 9) and Florida State (Nov. 8). If Clemson can manage the regular season schedule, they could be playing an ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech or North Carolina for a shot at the marbles.

Now, if the Demon Deacons beat Florida State on Sept. 20 and take that Oct. 9 game, they become the team to beat in the ACC. Wake will have a couple of extra days to prepare for its Oct. 18 trip to Maryland the following week with the rest of the regular schedule schedule featuring winnable games.

Either way, Wake Forest or Clemson could very well be facing an unbeaten Virginia Tech squad in the ACC Championship. If the Hokies are going to finish the regular season unbeaten, they will have to endure a pair of tough back-to-back road stretches. Virginia Tech will play at North Carolina (Sept. 20) and at Nebraska (Sept. 27) before consecutive games at Boston College (Oct. 18) and at Florida State (Oct. 25). That type of schedule will give Virginia Tech an impressive resume should they run it along with a win in the ACC Championship.

Of all of the non-BCS teams that have a chance at crashing the party, BYU could have the best chance at it in 2008. The Cougars have scheduled early season games at Washington (Sept. 6) and against UCLA (Sept. 13) in order to boost a relatively weak Mountain West schedule. If BYU can win both of those games and take a perfect season into the finale at Utah (Nov. 22), the Cougars could be in a position to make an argument if they are the only undefeated team.

Arizona State is a team that has a slate that may be too difficult to reach the final game, but with matchups against Georgia (Sept. 20) and USC (Oct. 11), the Sun Devils could play spoiler. Illinois, Tennessee, Texas Tech and Oregon are in similar situations as strong teams with even stronger schedules.

The beauty of college football is that, hypothetically, every team has a chance. One could argue that if the Irish get off to a quick start and ride that momentum they could conceivably go through the first 11 games of the regular season without being a substantial underdog. Of course, then there would be one last regular season game in Los Angeles. But before any of that can happen Notre Dame needs to take care of business against San Diego State.

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