I ran the final 2006-07 AP poll against my preseason rankings here a year ago, as well as the preseason poll of the AP poll and preseason rankings of Phil Steele, the most accurate and respected preseason magazine. Not to toot my horn, but the results were virtually indistinguishable. I actually called more eventual conference champions than the AP, and ranked Boise State and Arkansas, two teams they ignored for another month. Steele had Florida all the way down at No. 20, while I was too pessimistic on Ohio State and LSU. Long story short, I did about as well as a paid professional and an aggregation of 70 paid professionals. Called all four Final Four teams in March too, so why not keep the luck rolling…
NATIONAL TOP 25
(Note: This is not a talent ranking of how good these teams are, but rather a prediction of their final ranking, taking future schedule into consideration.
They will be the near-unanimous top pick in the polls, and in my mind they have better odds than not of an undefeated season. (At tradesports.com, they have 22 percent odds of winning the national title; Florida and Michigan are next at 11 percent, respectively, followed by West Virginia, Texas, LSU and Oklahoma.) The defense is probably the best ever in 100 years of college football. 10 starters return from last year - Steele tabs seven of them as First-Team All Pac-10, including all three linebackers. The problem is the toughest road schedule in the nation: Nebraska, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and Arizona State. Wide receiver is also a question with last year's top-three, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett and Chris McFoy, all gone. Intensity seemed to be an issue last year, but if this team is hungry, they might just take the AFC West along with the Sugar Bowl.
Someone might come out of nowhere, but this is the only SEC team that looks top-10 caliber. Their road slate is a dream: Mississippi State, Tulane, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, plus they duck Tennessee and Georgia from the SEC East. Also, the premier out-of-conference tilt with Virginia Tech is at home. JaMarcus Russell leaves, but 14 players return from last year's Sugar Bowl Champions, who might well make a return trip this year.
Like the team above and below, the road schedule is laughable: Tulsa, Colorado, Iowa State and a depleted Texas Tech. (Texas is at neutral-site Dallas, and Miami does visit Week Two.) Still, this team was a whisker from a 13-1 finish last year (robbed in the onsides-kick game versus Oregon, and stunned by Boise State in the Statue-of-Liberty Fiesta Bowl for the ages) and returns 15 players. However, there is no all-world running back Adrian Peterson or quarterback Paul Thompson. It should not matter - the offensive line is arguably the best in the country (and averages 6'5", 317), as is the secondary, which returns all four starters. That will be enough to make them touchdown-plus favorites over everyone save for the ‘Canes and ‘Horns.
Next: Appalachian State
How is this for a dream road slate: Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin. The three-game stretch of Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State plus the Ohio State finale will test, but Michigan's returning skill position players - Chad Henne, Michael Hart, Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington - can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Left tackle Jake Long could be the top pick in next year's draft after returning for his senior season, so Michigan may well top its 4.3 yards per carry and 62 percent completion rate of last year. The big question is the defense, where four of last year's starters went in the first two rounds. Still, Michigan has lost more than one game at home only once in the past seven years. The Wolverines could be dancing in the Rose or Sugar Bowl if that trend continues.
Quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton will put up the biggest numbers this side of my PlayStation, and Michigan star safety transfer Ryan Mundy should make the defense equally intimidating. 15 starters return for essentially a three-game season: at (underrated) South Florida, at (overrated) Rutgers and versus Louisville. With the Cards at home, the Mountaineers should be favored in all 12. I look for West Virginia to run the table, only to get slaughtered by a real team in the BCS Title Game.
The big names – quarterback Colt McCoy, running back Jamaal Charles and senior receivers Billy Pittman and Limas Sweed – all return from a 10-3 squad that averaged 36 points per game last year. It is essentially a three-game season for Texas: vs. Oklahoma, vs. Nebraska and @ Texas A&M, as the Big XII lacks the firepower of other top conferences this year. The defense is good, but might not be great with significant losses on the line and in the backfield. Still, this team almost has to win 10 games against its schedule.
Next: Murray State (Aug. 30)
The Cards should literally be double-digit favorites the first two months, as West Virginia, USF and Rutgers all come in November. Quarterback Brian Brohm and Miami transfer linebacker Willie Williams are the class of their position nationally, and with 14 returning starters, the rest of the team is not too shabby either. But Steve Kragthorpe takes over the reins from Tulsa, and with the coaching change and the West Virginia tilt in Morgantown on a Thursday night, I think it is a 11-1, second-place Big East, cross your fingers for a BCS bid type of season.
8. Ohio State
Next: vs. Youngstown State
The new faces (only 11 starters return - quarterback Troy Smith, tailback Antonio Pittman, and receivers Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez not among them) will have time to adapt, as the Buckeyes will be touchdown-plus favorites until a final stretch of @ Penn State, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Illinois and @ Michigan starting October 27. With only one defensive lineman returning, Nagurski-winning linebacker James Laurinaitis will have to earn his hype anchoring the defense this year. None of the quarterbacks inspire confidence, but if Tressel can find a way to beat Michigan for the fourth straight time, the Buckeyes could get another shot at the national title.
16 starters return, and you have to figure they will focus a little harder and the fans will be that much more raucous after last spring's tragedy on campus. It should be lunch-pail, old-school football in Blacksburg, with linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi the standouts on defense, and tailback Branden Ore the offensive heartbeat. I think they win the ACC, but the Week Two visit to LSU and a November slate of @ Georgia Tech, vs. Florida State, vs. Miami and @ Virginia keep me from pegging the Hokies higher.
Next: at Louisiana Tech (Sept. 8)
This year's Boise State lost the blue turf and relocated 3,000 miles to the south. Hawaii has the experience (14 returning starters, including Second-Team All-American senior quarterback Colt Brennan), the schedule (Boise State at home, no other big-name opponents) and the firepower (averaged 47 points per game last year), but will they have the luck? 12-0 takes quite a few bounces, and if they fall the Warriors' way at Nevada and versus the Broncos in mid-November, the BCS by-laws (must take any non-BCS school in the top-12) will leave the powers that be no choice but to include these guys.
If anyone is going to stop USC's six-year Pac-10 dynasty, this is the team. They return an incredible 20 starters from last year, easily the most in the NCAA (the most I have ever seen in following the sport for 10 years). The schedule is also conducive to big things: no top-notch non-conference opponents (@ Utah and vs. BYU and a rebuilding Notre Dame), and Oregon, California and Arizona State all visit. I still question Karl Dorrell's ability to win a close game, but if this team plays to its potential, it will be 11-0 visiting an 11-0 USC on December 1.
12. Florida State
After a rare 7-6 campaign, Bobby Bowden has the tools to rebound for a conference crown this year. The talent is always there (14 returning starters, eight on defense – the line and secondary are stacked), but the biggest challenge has been coaching in recent years. Bowden brought in Chuck Amato from North Carolina State to coach the linebackers, Jimbo Fisher from LSU to coach the offense (and replace his laughably ineffective son) and West Virginia's O-line coach for his unit. If the players take to the coaching, the schedule is kind enough, as the Noles will be favored in their first nine before visiting Virginia Tech and Florida in November.
13. South Carolina
I went out on a limb with Hawaii; I went out on a limb with UCLA. Now I am going to call for South Carolina to win the hardest division in modern-day college football – the SEC East. An incredible 10 starters return off a unit that allowed only 19 points per game last year, and most of the skill position players return on the other side of the ball. Visits to Georgia, LSU and Tennessee are a nightmare, but the defense should keep those games close. Arguably the best gameday coach in the last 10 years should find a way to pull them out. The schedule is too tough for the Gamecocks to run the table and make anyone forget about that other USC, but with a few breaks, this team could easily be in the BCS.
A blowout at USC deflated the Ducks, who seemingly went from a 7-2 start to a 7-6 finish overnight. The team is better than its 2006 record indicates, and it returns 14 starters, including quarterback Dennis Dixon and tailback Jonathan Stewart. The offensive line is the question mark, but the secondary allowed under 200 yards per game and should be better yet this year. The schedule is a whale, as they take on Michigan, Fresno State and Cal before September ends.
A safe pick, as the Canes have too much talent to finish much lower than here, but too tough a schedule (@ Oklahoma and Texas A&M out-of-conference, plus @ Florida State and Virginia Tech) to finish much higher. Randy Shannon inherits a loaded team – top recruits up and down the roster and 16 returning starters, nine on offense. The 19.6 points per game last year was so abysmal that star quarterback Kyle Wright's father got in a drunken shouting match with fans. If Wright can find the confidence to display his physical gifts (the senior was the top-ranked quarterback in his class), the Canes could near 10 wins with a few breaks.
Honestly, this is probably high, but you get the benefit of the doubt when you just won the national title and signed one of the nation's best recruiting classes. The schedule is not awful (Tennessee, Auburn and Florida State at home, though South Carolina and LSU are away), but the attrition is. The Gators lost four players in the first four rounds – on the defensive line alone! All told, nine Gators were drafted and only two starters return on defense. Still, the talent is such that even a rebuilding season in Gainesville could see 10 wins.
With a power vacuum atop the SEC save for LSU, Alabama is a good a contender as any to surprise with a double-digit win season. They do have to visit Florida State, but their only SEC road games are Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Mississippi State and a rebuilding Auburn. Tennessee, LSU and Georgia are at home and there is no game with Florida, so the Tide should challenge for a BCS slot in Nick Saban's first year.
The six road games are more than most teams ranked this high, and just five players return on offense. But if the Frogs can stun Texas on Week Two, they will have earned the respect to claim an at-large BCS bid should they run the table. (Perhaps they could take on an undefeated Hawaii?) The key stretch starts on October 18, with successive games vs. Utah, vs. New Mexico and @ BYU (all three should contend for the Mountain West).
Yeah, they only finished 6-7. Yeah, 14 returning starters is nothing incredible (though the defense looks pretty good). But the out-of-conference schedule is Northern Illinois, Syracuse, @ Iowa State and Western Michigan, and neither Michigan nor Ohio State are on the schedule. If Penn State and Wisconsin fall on their faces, the Hawkeyes might well finish their season having played no top-25 teams – they have to win at least eight, right?
20. Penn State
The Nittany Lions are this year's trendy Big 10 pick, and I can see why. They return eight players on offense and start nine upperclassmen on that side of the ball, including quarterback Anthony Morelli, tailback Austin Scott and receiver Derrick Williams, a one-two-three punch with the talent to put up serious numbers. The defensive line is still a little young, and the overall speed is not at a Michigan or Ohio State level, but Penn State could win 10 with some luck this fall. Every potential toughie (Notre Dame, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue) save for Michigan is in Happy Valley.
The professionals will rank the Bears higher, but I am not buying it. Only five starters – and just two of the front seven – return to a defense that was not up to Tedford's standards (366 yards allowed per game) last year. Marshawn Lynch, Brandon Mebane, Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Daymeion Hughes and the underrated Desmond Bishop all went on the first day of the Draft. The receivers (Lavelle Hawkins, Robert Jordan and DeSean Jackson) are all returning upperclassmen, and should be the best corps in the country, if Nate Longshore can bounce back from a tough finish to last year. The schedule is not friendly, with visits to UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State and the season-opener against Tennessee.
The Bulldogs are another top-tier team with only four true road games. However, the fact that they return just four on defense – their bread and butter under Mark Richt – forces me to rank them here. The offense is solid, if not scary, but with only one returning starter in the front seven, it looks like a repeat of last year's 8-4 campaign is on tap.
If the USF game were in Florida, I would be pegging Jim Leavitt's Bulls here. Rutgers got quite lucky last year (+11 turnovers, three close wins), and though quarterback Mike Teel and tailback Ray Rice do return, I do not see the New York media's wishes coming true this season. The recruiting has picked up to the point where it is now on par with West Virginia and Louisville, so look for the Knights to continue battling with the big boys in a few years.
The season-opener at Cal – whom the Vols thrashed last season – should tell us a lot. I think Tennessee gets embarrassed there, gets embarrassed at Florida two weeks later, and probably drops games against Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina in a brutal October. The receiving corps is the big question, as it loses its top three, but both lines should be much better. As long as the Vols win the games they should, they will likely match last year's 9-4 mark.
25. Texas A&M
On talent, the Aggies are probably about No. 40, but the Big XII (especially the North) is really a joke after Texas and Oklahoma. Someone has to fill that void, and if the Aggies can get past Fresno State and a visit to Miami in September, they have the players to do it. They return 15 starters off last year's 9-4 squad that ran for 207 yards per game, and with 274-pound halfback Jorvorskie Lane and four O-lineman returning, the rushing game is probably the best in the conference. They would win the Big XII North, but I have trouble seeing them stunning Texas and Oklahoma.
RAMBLINGS 'ROUND THE COUNTRY
Weekly BCS Projection:
ACC: Virginia Tech
Big East: West Virginia
Big 10: Michigan
Big 12: Oklahoma
At-large: Ohio State
Predicting the Heisman:
1. John David Booty, USC
2. Steve Slaton, West Virginia
3. Michael Hart, Michigan
4. Colt McCoy, Texas
5. Colt Brennan, Hawaii
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