Magazine expert likes OU's title chances

College Football Magazine Preview expert Phil Steele talks about gives his reasoning for picking Oklahoma No. 1 despite the concerns on the offensive line. Steele also ranks OU's defensive backs, which includes sophomore Reggie Smith (pictured), as the top group in the country.

Phil Steele produces what is considered by many to be the most comprehensive and most accurate college football preview magazine on the market. In addition, Steele and his staff produce regional magazines, including the Big 12 issue with Adrian Peterson on the cover, which will hit newsstands on July 19. You can order any of his publications by going to

I visited with Steele to discuss the upcoming college football season.

TS – You have picked Oklahoma as your pre-season number one team even though the Sooners are coming off of a four-loss season and have questions in the offensive line. What went into to your evaluation process that led you to make that selection?

Steele - A lot of folks do question when you pick a team number one that has lost four games the previous season but, ironically, three times in the last six years, the eventual national champion has lost five games the previous year. So the Sooners are in pretty good shape compared to that crowd. And one of those teams that lost five games the previous year was the 1999 Sooners, who were playing in the lowly Independence Bowl and lost to an unranked Mississippi. Next year they win the national title.

The thing I like about Oklahoma this year, love about Oklahoma this year, is the defense. They're my number one rated defensive line, my number two set of linebackers, number one set of defensive backs. Overall, it's the number one defense in the country in my rankings. Unlike other preseason magazines, I put more emphasis on defense than necessarily the skill players and I also don't look as much at last year's final record as I do at last year's statistics.

If you look at Oklahoma offensively this year, remember last year Adrian Peterson was coming off almost a 2,000-yard season. He "only" had about a thousand yards rushing last year, a little over a thousand because of injuries. He's healthy this season. Rhett Bomar didn't even begin the year as a starter. He ended up starting as a freshman, now he's an experienced sophomore and keep in mind, last year Bomar completed 54 percent of his passes. Brady Quinn (Notre Dame QB) in his first year as a starter only completed 47 percent of his passes as a freshman. So he had a better freshman season than Brady Quinn did. I like the receiving corps. With some of the newcomers, I think there's good talent and good speed there. Of course the biggest question on Oklahoma is the offensive line, but once again, good talent throughout. I think they're gonna surprise a lot of folks on the offensive line.

And then I look at the schedule. The only two question mark games I have on their schedule all year, at Oregon in Autzen Stadium, of course the Ducks have knocked off quite a few teams nationally ranked heading into Autzen, but I think Oklahoma has beaten Oregon the last two years and has a good shot at winning there, and then Texas. And while Texas is loaded – seven of their eight positions rank in my top 25 in the front of the magazine, including my number one O-line, number three D-line – the thing about Texas is, if you watched their big games, like the Rose Bowl the last two years, they got their victories with the ball in Vince Young's hands. I think it's going to be a completely different Texas team without Vince Young at quarterback and of course, Bob Stoops knows a thing or two about beating Texas.

TS - And of course, looking at the national scene and what everyone has coming back, there was really no clear-cut choice to put at the top. People want to talk about West Virginia, Ohio State, Notre Dame, maybe USC, even Louisville, but every one of those teams, including Oklahoma, has a very large question mark somewhere as you break down the different positions.

Steele - And tougher schedules. You look at Notre Dame, for example. They've got to play USC on the road, which is a game I've got them an underdog in and they also play Michigan State on the road, a team that's really given them a lot of hassles in recent years. And Michigan State is going to be one of the most underrated teams in the country at the end of the year. Even Georgia Tech, their opener, they play them on the road. Georgia Tech last year knocked off both Auburn and Miami, FL, on the road. They get Notre Dame at home in that one. Very difficult schedule. In fact I ranked it seventh toughest schedule in the country. I think it's going to be tough for them to run the table.

USC is a team, if you look at their schedule, they simply play the toughest schedule in the country. All 12 of their opponents are BCS conferences. They play all nine Pac-10 teams, plus they play two of my most improved teams, Arkansas and Nebraska and they also have to face Notre Dame. It's going to be tough to overcome all those draft losses, but when I went through and did USC's schedule, I actually have them favored in all their games. But taking on the nation's toughest schedule and with massive losses to the NFL, it's going to be difficult for them to run the table.

So I just looked at everybody's talent and schedule. Ohio State, for example, has to play Iowa and Texas on the road at night. Believe it or not, Ohio State has lost five straight night road games. They don't play night road games very often in the Big Ten, about one per year for Ohio State. All five games they've been favored, all five they've lost outright. Here's two games where they might just be underdogs, Texas and Iowa.

That's why I've got Oklahoma ahead of all those other major contenders. And once again, for me, it comes down to defense when I do my magazine, generally, and the Sooners have my number one rated defense.

TS – So I would think teams from conferences that are weaker, such as West Virginia and Louisville, might fall short in your evaluation, even though they might have favorable schedules.

Steele - Yeah, West Virginia is this year's preseason darling, much like Tennessee was last year. If you remember, Tennessee was ranked either number three or number four in the AP poll heading into the season and I caught a lot of flak in Knoxville last year when I actually forecast Tennessee to finish third in the SEC East and every other preseason magazine and outlet out there had them first in the East and number three or four in the country. But one thing I looked at with Tennessee last year was they were a false team. They had gone 7-1 in the SEC the previous season but they actually only out gained SEC foes by 14 yards per game. Now, generally when you out gain you out gain your conference foes by 14 yards per game, you go 4-4. Tennessee had a lot of good fortune go their way and that's why they were able to go 7-1.

So they weren't as good as folks thought last year and much the same with West Virginia this season. West Virginia last year in four of their victories was actually out first downed. And then you take a look at the Louisville game last year, for example, in the fourth quarter, West Virginia trailed that thing 24-7 and if you're watching the game, you probably shut it off because Louisville had the ball, about nine minutes to go, fourth and one in West Virginia territory, their tight end drops a first down pass. Now, had he caught the pass, Louisville probably coasts to a 31-7 win in West Virginia, but the Mountaineers managed a miracle comeback, they won it in three overtimes and one of their onside kicks, the Big East officials later apologized for the call. But somehow, West Virginia won that game, you know and other games like the South Florida game, they were out first downed 23-16. In the bowl game, they had incredible fortune, they finished plus three in turnovers. It was a West Virginia team that was plus 14 in turnovers last season, probably not quite as good as the record would indicate.

They've got to play teams like Louisville and Pittsburgh on the road this year. I've got Louisville winning the Big East. They've got my number two rated quarterback in Brian Brohm, number one running back in Michael Bush and they've got their toughest games at home and that includes Miami, FL. As you recall, Louisville went into Miami and really should have beaten them in a Thursday night game. So I think Louisville will be a surprise team, but even if Louisville finishes undefeated and let's say an Oklahoma does and Auburn does, there's no way Louisville is going to play in the national title game coming out of the Big East.

TS - Looking at the Big 12 Championship game, you have Oklahoma obviously winning the South and you like Nebraska, who you mentioned as one of your most improved teams, to win the North.

Steele – Yeah, anytime you switch from the option offense to a passing offense, it's generally a three to four year process and I didn't make a lot of friends in Lincoln two years ago when I actually called for Iowa State, who had finished 2-10 the previous year, to finish ahead of Nebraska, who was 10-3 the previous season. But then the first year of the passing offense, they really struggled and Iowa State did indeed finish ahead of Nebraska.

It took Notre Dame four years to make the switch from the option offense to the pass offense and they averaged 22 points per game in the first year, 20.3, 24.1 and then last year they exploded to 36.7.

The reason I think Nebraska can do it in three years as opposed to four is the heavy juco transfusion. They brought in juco offensive linemen, they brought in juco receivers, running backs and of course, even their quarterback, Zac Taylor, is a juco product. So I think Nebraska's offense will be able to adapt to this passing offense in the third year. They're going to be much more potent.

And then, defensively, I rate them the number seven defense in the country. In fact, they have two big toss up games in Big 12 play, they host Texas – I give them a shot at winning that one – and at Texas A&M. Other than that, I have them a favorite in all their games. It wouldn't surprise me to see Nebraska go 8-0 in the Big 12 this year and wouldn't that make for an excellent Big 12 Title game, an 8-0 Oklahoma against an 8-0 Nebraska, because it's a shame that rivalry got disbanded with the Big 12 going into divisions.

TS- Your magazine is generally considered the most thorough and the most anticipated college football publication of the preseason. Talk a little bit about what goes into your preparation and how you come up with all the information that you do.

Steele- It's just what we work on 365 days a year. I have a staff of about 30 employees that work for me. On page 17 of this year's magazine, I show a little picture of the 12 TV's I have in front of me, so I get to watch 12 college games all day long every Saturday, 12 NFL games on Sunday. And then I assign different members of my staff to different conferences. What they do is, they go in and read the local papers and underline all the important things that are happening with that team on a week-to-week basis.

Now, I don't have time to read all that during the season, but I do read that in the months of December, January and February, and it really gives me a good feel and a good flavor for each and every team. Unlike other preview magazines, I write each of the 119 team previews myself. The other magazines generally hire a writer from that region, so they'll get a whole bunch of different forecasts. But I write on each of the 119 teams myself and during the course of the season, I go through the play-by-play of every single college game every single week.

You ask me a question about basketball and I'm illiterate. I can tell Lebron James plays for Cleveland, other than that I don't know anything about basketball. But when it comes to football, that's what I work on 365 days a year and as far as the magazine goes, I feel we have at least twice the information as any other college football preview. We give you the last five years' results, game by game stats for last year, last six years team by team stats, complete list of statistical leaders, the write ups on the left-hand page are what I think are very in depth. And then the projected starting lineups as opposed to just giving the player's name as his height and weight in the two-deep, we give you the player's name, height and weight, and where he ranked coming out of high school, what he's done so far in college, if he has 4.3 speed or benches 500 pounds we mention it. So you get a little bio on each of the players.

We try to make the magazine a little bit bigger and a little bit better each year and I do read each of the comments that the readers send in. If they request something - like this year we added the rankings, where the teams that they faced ranked the last five years and where the team was ranked last season – always willing to add stuff to it because I like to feel it's got more information than any other college football preview.

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