As we await the release of the preseason AP and Coaches polls in the early parts of August, here’s an attempt to cast a pseudo-vote with minimal bias and some logic that I’m sure will be questioned. I like the idea of getting my picks out there before they’re tainted by what everyone else thinks in these polls, so if I had a vote in the AP Poll this week, it would go something like this:
25. South Carolina - A new quarterback (Tommy Beecher?) will try and utilize RB Mike Davis and All-SEC WR Kenny McKinley to build a consistent offense in year four under The Ballcoach. The defense rests on adjustments and returns for several top players, including Eric Norwood, Jasper Brinkley, Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook under new coordinator Ellis Johnson. Carolina was 6-1 last year before losing five straight to close; is this the year they find consistent SEC success?
24. Boise State – No reason to start doubting them now with Ian Johnson back and all the pass catchers, though the Broncos must find a new quarterback to replace Taylor Tharp and rebuild the offensive line. Still, Boise returns seven on defense. An early tilt at Oregon will be enlightening for both teams, but the Broncos may not be challenged again until the unofficial WAC Championship Game when Fresno State comes to the blue turf.
23. Oregon – Nate Costa and Justin Roper (who led the 56-21 Sun Bowl win over USF) duel to replace Dennis Dixon, while tailback-by-committee will attempt to replace Jonathan Stewart. But the Ducks return almost everyone else on offense and seven on defense in a program accustomed to success. The Ducks play Purdue, USC, Arizona State, Cal and the Civil War all on the road.
22. Alabama – Year two under Nick Saban looks to produce better results than the same six losses that ran Mike Shula off. Still, last season all of Bama’s losses were one possession games. John Parker Wilson returns for his senior season with an experienced backfield running behind a great offensive line. The defense is more questionable, and Bama may again be asking for too much from their younger kids. Still, if this team puts themselves in position to win as they did last year, look for them to come away with more than seven wins.
21. Florida State – I really didn’t want to put the Noles anywhere on this list because I feel they’re often overrated for simply being FSU, but even though they haven’t won 10 games since 2003, this team has talent. They’ll first have to get past Wake Forest on September 20 while still playing without multiple starters due to suspension. When at full strength, their defense is solid at every position. Drew Weatherford will probably still be under center, for better or for worse, but experience abounds throughout the offense. More than anything, they play in a weak ACC and simply don’t play a difficult road game unless you count Miami. The schedule is forgiving enough to allow this team to succeed.
20. Illinois – You’ll find out how good Illinois will be without Rashard Mendenhall right away, as they open the season in St. Louis against Missouri once more. Juice Williams continues to have his moments, and without Mendenhall he’ll need more of them. Arrelious Benn is still around, as well as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who is required to show up in every Illini preview so we can all stare at his name. Ohio State and Wisconsin are the definitive Big 10 leaders, but the Illini are the best of the next group right now and showed last year they’re capable of pulling the upset. January 1, at least, should be an attainable goal.
19. BYU – This season’s flavor of choice among the mid-majors, the Cougars have won 11 games each of the past two seasons and return a loaded offense (QB Max Hall and RB Harvey Unga leading the way). The question for teams like this involving the BCS has to go right to the schedule; BYU is at Washington on September 6 and hosts UCLA the following week. Beyond that, they simply have to navigate the Mountain West portion of their schedule, which will include a couple dangerous road trips to TCU and the season-ending showdown at Utah. The BCS is the goal and it’ll probably take 12-0 to get there, but even if they stub their toe along the way this is still a good football team.
18. Wake Forest – The 2006 ACC Champions finished 9-4 last year after an 0-2 start, and two consecutive years of success is enough to earn my respect. Riley Skinner is still just a junior and back under center; he led the nation in completion percentage last season. The loss of WR Kenneth Moore must be addressed, but the defense returns nine starters from a group that was only really busted up once in a 44-10 loss to Clemson. It’s Clemson again who’ll lead the ACC pack on paper, but overlooking Wake a third year in a row would be a bad idea.
17. Kansas – The Jayhawks only have one good year under their belt, but at 11-1 it certainly got your attention. Now they’ll get a chance to prove both that they weren’t a fluke and that they can do more than beat up on a soft schedule. A laughable non-conference schedule gets an instant boost from a trip to South Florida, while their Big 12 schedule replaces Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M with Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. Todd Reesing will be back to lead the charge with plenty of returning weapons to throw to, while a battle is emerging at RB between Jake Sharp and juco transfer Jocques Crawford. If they get past South Florida they’ll probably be 6-0 in mid-October…then we’ll find out exactly how good this team really is.
16. Texas Tech – The Red Raiders are still looking for a complete season, one where they continue and score some upsets while avoiding the upset bug themselves. They’ve been a lock for 8-9 wins every year this decade, but haven’t been able to get past that mark and win the Big 12 South. And until they do, I fear the nation will continue to view them as a gimmick team. The gimmick will certainly be back at full speed this year, with Graham Harrell throwing to Michael Crabtree. Eight starters return on a defense that always seems to be a question mark. Last year TTU beat Oklahoma but lost to Colorado and Oklahoma State. Consistency is the key to rising in the Big 12.
15. Arizona State – A chance for instant credibility comes with the Sept. 20 date with Georgia. You know the names on offense: Rudy Carpenter, Keegan Herring, Chris McGaha. But they can’t help if the offensive line isn’t better – last season the line allowed 55 sacks, and only two starters return. Seven starters return to a defense that can still improve. The Sun Devils’ only losses last season were to Dennis Dixon’s Oregon, USC and Texas. Even if they don’t beat Georgia, as always success in the Pac-10 comes down to beating USC.
14. Clemson – Like Arizona State, a team that returns all of its skill players but has huge issues on the offensive line. But while Spiller and Davis may get the hype, it’s the defense that can really carry this team. Eight starters return from a unit that was in the top ten in scoring and total defense last season. They’ll get tested right away with the neutral site opener against Alabama. The ACC is weak this year and Clemson is the only team that looks great on paper…but the Tigers have traditionally found a way to stub their toe more than once each season under Tommy Bowden. If the offensive line doesn’t get them beat, the talent is there to think championship…but the tradition is there to think more frustration.
13. Auburn – A solid offense with no spectacular pieces but a very good whole looks to come alive under Tony Franklin; Auburn didn’t score a ton of points but did get a ton of yards in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl win over Clemson’s tough defense. Auburn is one of several teams who might have the third best offensive line in the SEC and the third best offensive line in the country. The defense too is solid all around, with Sen’Derrick Marks and Tray Blackmon leading the way. This team will be very interesting to watch; like many in the SEC, they can go the distance or they can go 8-4. There’s a road trip to West Virginia stuck in there in October, but the SEC schedule sees Florida rotate off and LSU, Tennessee and Georgia all come to Jordan-Hare. If the offense continues to improve and Auburn avoids a lifeless game or two that’ve plagued them in the past, they can win the SEC. Quarterback play is the key.
12. South Florida – Of all the surprises from last season, I think USF has the best chance to duplicate their success. Most of that has to do with the fact that they play Kansas in Tampa, and they play in the Big East. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Matt Grothe and nine other starters back on offense, with George Selvie returning as last season’s Big East Defensive Player of the Year. They did get murdered in the Sun Bowl, but their three regular season losses were by a combined fifteen points last season. If they beat Kansas and avoid an upset, they’ll be 11-0 headed to West Virginia on December 6.
11. Wisconsin – Quarterback play is key here too, where it could determine whether the Badgers are Big 10 Champions or an afterthought in 2008. If it’s Allan Evridge, he needs to do what Tyler Donovan excelled at: minimize mistakes and let defense and PJ Hill win it for you. There’s a talented stable behind Hill as well, and four starters return on the offensive line. The defense returns nine starters and must be stronger; in Wisconsin’s four losses last season they allowed an average of 32 points. The Big 10 this year appears to be Ohio State and then everyone else, but Wisconsin is at the front of that next group and gets OSU in Madison.
10. Tennessee – The Vols are considered an afterthought by many, but I’m still not sure why. The defending SEC East Champions return every skill player on offense and all five starters from a line that allowed four sacks in 2007. Defensively, there’s no replacing LB Jerod Mayo, but the only other major personnel loss was FS Jonathan Hefney, who’ll be replaced with the returning Demetrice Morley. Erik Ainge will be replaced by junior Jonathan Crompton, who’s probably receiving more hype than he deserves right now, but time will tell. The defensive line must come together and Rico McCoy is the only sure thing at linebacker, plus the Vols could get burned in the punting game while Britton Colquitt serves a six game suspension. But Tennessee plays best when the spotlight isn’t on them, and between the Gators and Dawgs there’s been little of it left for the Vols this season. Tennessee is good enough to win every game they play.
9. Texas – The reloading continues, as Colt McCoy may benefit from a year where he doesn’t enter the season as a Heisman favorite but still has plenty of weapons, even in the absence of Charles and Sweed. Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley are assets at receiver, while the backfield is inexperienced but, of course, full of raw talent. The line will have to carry the defense early in terms of experience, but Will Muschamp takes over as coordinator and will have lots of talent to play with in the LBs and DBs as well. The September schedule is forgiving, which should give Texas time to know what it’s got heading to the Red River game. Playing OU and Missouri in consecutive weeks won’t be fun. Still, it’s Texas, where talent grows on football fields.
8. West Virginia – I thought the most impressive performance in college football last year was in the Fiesta Bowl, where a West Virginia team who’d been heartbroken by Pittsburgh and was without their head coach played the team I thought was the best in the nation…and won by 20. Pat White is back to run the offense and take another stab at the Heisman, while Noel Devine should make people aware of his presence instead of Steve Slaton’s absence. It’s a defensive issue that keeps West Virginia out of surefire National Championship conversation; only four starters back (though the ’07 group was surprisingly great). They might get tested at East Carolina or at Colorado early, but they’re without a doubt the most talented team in the Big East and play USF at home to close. The national title talk begins and ends with the Auburn game.
7. USC – I’ve heard it said that there’s no truly great team in college football this year, but a bunch of really good ones, and that list starts here with USC. The offense gets placed in the hands of Mark Sanchez and whichever talented back gets the most carries. You judge this offense because it doesn’t have names like Palmer, Leinart, Bush or Williams – and maybe there are legitimate questions about how good these receivers are, and the fact that only one starter is back on the line – but just because you don’t know all the names doesn’t mean it still won’t score a lot of points. And with seven back on last year’s second best defense in the nation, the offense won’t have to win many games for them. These are the best linebackers in the country and the secondary is in the conversation. The Pac-10 is getting more competitive and Stanford proved you can’t take anything for granted, but most still believe that USC’s biggest hurdle to Miami is Sept. 13 against Ohio State. If the Trojans win that one, they won’t be this far down anyone’s list.
6. LSU – It’s privilege as defending National Champion to be ranked a couple spots higher than you probably should be, especially when you’re inexperienced at quarterback. But everywhere else, LSU is still very good. The backs and receivers are deep and experienced and the line is incredibly good, it simply falls to Andrew Hatch or Jarrett Lee to make it work. Remember – LSU won it all last year with Matt Flynn, so these new guys don’t need to win the Heisman for the Tigers to succeed. The Tigers return the best defensive line in the SEC even without Glenn Dorsey, but it gets a little muddy from there: Beckwith is the only returning LB, and only one starter is back in the secondary as well. Plus, Bo Pelini is in Nebraska. So it’ll be a real work in progress on that side of the ball, but again, that doesn’t mean they won’t ultimately be good. LSU has been to BCS bowls the last two seasons and is still right there in the uber-competitive SEC. They have the misfortune of trading Kentucky for Georgia on the SEC rotation and go to The Swamp, but they can still probably win the division if they can win at Auburn.
5. Missouri – Another very good team, I heard Chase Daniel on ESPN talking about being glad that people weren’t ranking them higher because it’s good motivation. These Tigers just aren’t going to get past the next four teams when it comes to preseason polls, but they could be every bit as good as them. Daniel returns with weapons to throw to, and though I’m sure they’d like to see something even more productive from the running game, Daniel has a chance to win the Heisman. Even better, the defense returns ten starters. Even better, they catch most of Kansas’ good fortune in the schedule from last season: the only time they’d see Oklahoma is in the Big 12 Championship, and while they must go to Texas, their other draw from the South division is at Baylor and home to Oklahoma State. Can’t overlook Illinois in the opener or Kansas at the close in the neutral site games, but this team has all the pieces and the schedule to head to the Big 12 title game in the running for Miami.
4. Ohio State – The Buckeyes might be the best looking team on paper, but after two years of coming up way short at the finish line and now facing a schedule that sends them to SoCal in week three, this is the last team in the country I’m going to assume with. Their only real loss is Vernon Gholston, which means Todd Boeckman, Chris Wells, Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline, James Laurinaitis, Malcolm Jenkins and the rest are all back for more. They’re easily the most talented team in the Big 10, though they’ll face the next best things on the road (at Wisconsin Oct. 4, at Illinois Nov. 15). If the Buckeyes win each of those three big road games, they’ll deserve another shot at the big prize. Until then, I’m tempering expectations.
3. Florida – The Gators set the world on fire by beating Tennessee 59-20 in September…and then didn’t do a whole lot after that. They finished the year with four losses, and against Georgia and Michigan the defense gave up 40+. The good news is, the offense is almost completely intact with Tim Tebow looking for another ring and another Heisman. Whoever plays tailback will be lightning fast, while Percy Harvin will continue to rack up the yardage in a number of ways. The line should do a better job this year of protecting #15. The defense should be better on the tail end, with all three (good) linebackers returning and experience in the secondary as well. But the line is a giant question mark, with only Jermaine Cunnigham at end having any experience and a ton of sophomores filling out the depth chart. The Gators open with Hawaii and Miami, which should be interesting, before going to Knoxville. If teams can take advantage of their weaknesses and run the football on them, keeping Tebow and friends off the field, Florida is vulnerable. But if the Gators shore things up defensively, look out.
2. Georgia – The Dawgs are the odd man out in the SEC’s upper elite; four others have won National Championships since the league expanded in 1992, and Auburn had an undefeated season. So while Georgia is often counted among the SEC’s top half, they need a championship to really solidify it. This team was in a very bad place last year, and then inexplicably came out of it against their most difficult opponent. Since that Florida game, Georgia has been one giant momentum train, and it’s clearly rolling into 2008. A stretch of games from mid-September to mid-October will tell us if the second half of ’07 was the real deal: Georgia is at South Carolina, at Arizona State, then home to Alabama and Tennessee during that stretch. If UGA is truly a National Championship contender, they’ll run that table and set themselves up for the second half, where they’ll go to LSU, play Florida in Jacksonville, and then go to Auburn. It’s the toughest schedule I know of, and I’m not sure any team could come out of it clean. For Stafford, Moreno, an offensive line with questions and a defense with nine starters back, this season will show what they’re truly made of.
1. Oklahoma – The best combination of good players, experience, and a manageable schedule makes Oklahoma my best choice to make it to Miami. Nine starters return to an offense that averaged 42.3 points per game, and that doesn’t include RB DeMarco Murray. The defensive line will be dominant, though there are questions at linebacker and at the corner positions on defense. Still, Sam Bradford should be able to lead this offense and make a real run at the Heisman. The Sooners catch a break in the non-conference because Washington was a much better team when they scheduled the matchup years ago, but now that road trip doesn’t appear to be very threatening. They won’t see Missouri unless it’s for the Big 12 title, Kansas comes to Norman and Texas will be waiting in Dallas. What’s their most difficult road trip, at Kansas State? At A&M or Oklahoma State? Those are your best options. They’ve had a terrible time in BCS bowls recently, but as far as getting to Miami in 2008, no team is better equipped to do it than the Sooners.