NATIONAL TOP 25
(Note: This is not a talent ranking of how good these teams are, but rather a look at how they'll perform against their remaining schedules and where they'll be ranked on January 9.)
Next: at No. 15 Arkansas
USC gets its five toughest opponents (Nebraska, Arizona State, Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame) at home, where they have not lost since 2001. If the Trojans can make it past the wildly underrated Razorbacks – their toughest road game of the season – and Nebraska two weeks later, their next Top 15 opponent will not visit until November. That should give USC, who inarguably has more talent than anyone in the country, time to grow comfortable with all their new faces.
The defense is absolutely tremendous, returning nine starters off a Top 10 unit, and should come close to the production of the 2000 unit that won the national title. Texas not withstanding, defense wins college football championships, and Oklahoma undoubtedly has the best defense in the country. They will be double-digit favorites in all but two games (Oregon and Texas), so the loss of Rhett Bomar is all that knocks them off the top line.
Because these are predictive and not talent rankings, I worry about putting an SEC team this high because I do believe the conference is the deepest in the country. Plus, any would-be national title contender has to clear the additional hurdle of the SEC Championship Game. However, no one else jumps out at me for the spot, frankly. Additionally, Auburn should be strong – returning 12 of their best starters from last year's 9-3 team. And look at the schedule! The Tigers miss Tennessee altogether, and they have only four road games: Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Alabama. Auburn should be favored in all 12 games, so while they could easily finish the season 8-5, they also could take the national title outright.
The offense should be the best in the country. The schedule is the most overrated in the country – vs. Michigan and at USC might well be the only games with single-digit lines for the Irish all season. 16 starters return, so the only question is the defense, which should be light years better... but I will believe it when I see it.
Next: at No. 18 Tennessee
Visits to Tennessee and USC are big hurdles, but with Oregon and Arizona State visiting Berkeley, the Bears could be touchdown-plus favorites in every other contest. 15 starters return, and even with the injuries that have struck, the offensive line, tailbacks and secondary might be the best respective units in the country. And the defensive line and receivers are not far off. The major question is quarterback play, causing the national media to underrate the Bears because the position is so visible, but Cal is deep enough to weather a few interceptions and could well run the table.
Why "only" sixth? The losses along the offensive line (a combined seven years of starts from First-Team All-American left tackle Jonathan Scott and First-Team All-Conference right guard Will Allen) are as significant as the loss of Vince Young. Plus, Texas must host Ohio State and visit Nebraska and Texas Tech – the third and fourth-best teams in the conference – in addition to the annual showdown with Oklahoma. Texas is talented enough to win them all, and the Big 12 Championship Game and national title to boot, but that is a lot of "ifs" for a team everyone else has first, second or third in the nation.
7. Florida State
Next: at No. 20 Miami (Sept. 4)
If the ‘Noles can win at the Orange Bowl, a game where Miami will not be at full-strength, only three road games remain on the schedule – North Carolina State, Duke and Maryland. The ‘Noles also duck Virginia Tech and are flying under the radar after losing their last three regular-season games of 2005. Replacing three first-round draft picks in last year's front seven is the major challenge.
The toughest road game is Kansas State? Only Miami and West Virginia, both of whom visit, are Top 25 caliber. All four starters in the secondary return, so with the one-two punch of quarterback Brian Brohm and tailback Michael Bush, the Cards could go all the way to the national title game.
Only on the visit to Michigan or the visit from Ohio State could the Hawkeyes lose without making national sports headlines. 14 starters return on a team that has averaged nine wins over the last four seasons. The question is a secondary that loses two starters after allowing a 62% completion rate last season.
10. Virginia Tech
With eight home games and Miami the only definite Top 25 team on the schedule, the Hokies can go as far as green quarterback Sean Glennon carries them. Only 10 starters return, but the special teams are always a major tipping factor in the Hokies' corner for a team that has won at least eight games each season for nearly a decade.
On raw talent, the Gators are in a stratosphere with only Texas, Oklahoma, USC and Notre Dame, but the schedule is a killer. Visits to Tennessee, Auburn and Florida State, plus tough tests with South Carolina, Georgia, LSU and Alabama could conceivably see the Gators finish under .500, and should be dampening expectations a lot more than they have – this is not Steve Spurrier's SEC. Still, the potential is there to win it all.
A tough schedule, with visits to Ohio State, Penn State and Notre Dame, keeps Big Blue down here, as this is the best team on paper in years. Good news is that most of the talent returns next year, when Ohio State and Notre Dame must come to Ann Arbor. All of last year's losses did come by a score or less, so victories over Ohio State and Iowa could catapult Michigan to their third Rose Bowl in four years.
And so starts the Joe Tereshinski III era. As much for his name as anything, he has received tons of flak that he is not ready to step in the shoes of D.J. Shockley and David Greene. Maybe, maybe not, but give him a chance before you declare him a bust. The Dawgs do have the easiest schedule in the SEC East, but only nine starters return from last season. Three starters in the secondary, two First-Team All-SEC and one – free safety Greg Blue – First-Team All-American, went in the first five rounds of the draft, so the pass defense figures to be a question.
14. Ohio State
Last year at this time I wrote Michigan was more liekly to finish fourth in the conference than fourth in the country, their preseason rank. This year, let me say Ohio State is more likely to finish third in the conference than the country. The reason? Two, let me repeat, two returning defensive starters. Have the poll voters gone mad?
Here is my sleeper team of the year. An incredible 19 starters return from a team that should have gone 7-4 given their stats, but went just 4-7. The ‘Hogs have just four true road games, with Auburn and South Carolina the only hosts with a pulse, though USC, Alabama, Tennessee do come to Fayetteville (and LSU to Little Rock). Given all the new faces at USC, Arkansas could pull the opening week shocker. Even if they come up short against the Trojans, a split against Auburn and LSU might be enough to send them to the SEC Title Game.
16. Boise State
Oregon State, at Utah and Fresno State are the only games that will have a line of less than seven. With an incredible 18 returning starters, headlined by quarterback Jared Zabransky, and a formidable home-field blue-turf advantage, I look for Chris Peterson's first year at the helm to be wildly successful. I think the Broncos have a great shot at an undefeated season, which would be great timing since the BCS just expanded to 10 teams to improve access for mid-majors.
Fresno State, USC, Cal and Arizona State are all on the road and Oklahoma visits in what will likely be rated the toughest schedule in the nation, else the Ducks might be a little higher. Jonathan Stewart should become a household name with a 1,000-yard season, and the talent on both sides of the ball is impressive. The defensive line is the question with the departure of Haloti Ngata and Devan Long.
Like Michigan, Tennessee appeared to be growing stale and complacent under a sleep-inducing coach, but should approach this season with renewed energy after last year's setback. Cal, Florida and LSU all visit, though the Vols must go to Georgia and Arkansas. Quarterback Eric Ainge and a linebacking corps with no returning starters are the questions, but the Vols should return to their three- or four-loss, good-but-not-great seasons since their 1998 title.
19. West Virginia
Score a lot of points in a bowl game victory, and all of a sudden you become one of the most overrated teams in the country (see also: Texas, Ohio State). Yes, quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton, both sophomores, are a great foundation for years of success, so maybe 2007 will be more successful. Just five defensive starters return off a team that was ridiculously lucky to go 11-1 last season (four close wins and +14 in turnovers), so 8-3 is more likely than the 11-0 some people expect. Still, the visit to Louisville is the only tangle with a Top 25 opponent in the undermanned Big East, so West Virginia still could flirt with perfection.
On talent, the ‘Canes are Top 10 caliber, but the suspension of key players for the Florida State opener, the visit to Louisville two weeks later, and a final five games as tough as any in the ACC (at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, at Maryland, at Virginia, Boston College) concern me. Only one starter returns off an offensive line that had its worst year since 1992 (though the top quarterback, tailback and receiver do return), and on defense the loss of linebacker Willie Williams takes away one of the few playmakers on a unit that won the national title five short years ago loaded with explosive players. The ‘Canes will not be significant underdogs in any game, so if they exceed expectations, the sky is the limit.
If the Horned Frogs can get past early tests against Texas Tech and Utah, they could top last year's 11-1 mark with a team that looks better on paper. The expansion of the BCS to 10 teams could help this team land a big payday.
22. Arizona State
Who knows what this team's mental state is after the quarterback controversy and transfer of Sam Keller. How well the JUCO talent can mesh into the defense is also a question. Unquestioned is an offense, and a passing attack, that should be in the Top Five nationally.
23. Texas Tech
Guns up! Mike Leach is starting to attract serious skill position talent with his innovative schemes, though, on the other hand, just five players return on defense. The Red Raiders duck most of the top teams in the Big 12 North, but placement in a division with Texas and Oklahoma will cap their upside for years to come.
Everyone is waiting for Nebraska to return to its former glory, and while the Big 12 North is as great a division as any to make a run, I do not think Nebraska has the pieces in place yet. The Huskers must also host Texas and visit USC, so anything less than three losses (presumably they would meet Texas or Oklahoma were they to make it to the Big 12 Title Game) would be a shocker. (What an amazing football town though. I stopped in Lincoln on my drive this month from Michigan to Stanford and cannot put the experience into words.)
This team has the talent to win the national title and the schedule to win four games. They must visit Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas, plus host Alabama, Arizona and Fresno State. Only one starting defensive lineman from 2005 returns, and quarterback JaMarcus Russell needs to cut down on the interceptions.
RAMBLINGS 'ROUND THE COUNTRY
Weekly BCS Projection:
ACC: Florida State
Big East: Louisville
Big 10: Iowa
Big 12: Oklahoma
At-large: Notre Dame
At-large: Cal (at least that Rose Bowl drought should continue)
At-large: Boise State
Projected Heisman finalists, and order of finish:
BIG GAMES ON TAP
Last season: 16-18-2 ATS, 22-14 SU.
1. Florida State at Miami (Sept. 4) - Florida State is clearly more talented, which should be enough to overcome their horrible luck against the ‘Canes and the Orange Bowl crowd. Florida State 27, Miami 17.
2. California at Tennessee - The Pac-10 needs this one if anyone is going to think the conference is more than a one-trick pony. Luckily, Cal has a lot more experience than the Volunteers. California 24, Tennessee 10.
3. USC at Arkansas - Great, I am about to pick all three road teams. I think Arkansas has a great shot at the upset though, and think that they give USC as much as they can handle in Fayetteville. USC 27, Arkansas 24.
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