Monday, August 21, 2006

College football 2006: the top and the bottom

Being here in Dubai has not caused me to forget that my favorite time of year – college football season – is now less than two weeks away. Here’s my take on the coming football season, looking at both the top and the bottom of Division I-A.

Both the AP sportswriters’ and the USA Today coaches’ preseason polls are out. Ohio State, coming off last year’s 10-2 season, is the preseason favorite in both polls. Coach Jim Tressel has a lot of talent to work with this fall, including quarterback Troy Smith and wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. They’ve lost a lot of starters on defense, however, and that early-season game against Texas at Austin as well as an always-tough Big Ten slate could give them problems. Truth be told, however, I really don’t know that much about the 2006 Buckeye squad. Maybe somebody who knows a little more about OSU than I so (ahem, Steve?) could provide a better evaluation of this team than I can.

Last year’s champion, Texas, is second in the USA Today poll and third in the AP poll. I think this accurately reflects the fact that the Longhorns are going to have another good season but probably won’t repeat as national champs without Vince Young at the helm. No offense to his talented but inexperienced successors, freshmen Jevan Sneed and Colt McCoy, but Vince Young is the reason the ‘Horns won it all last year.

Notre Dame is second in the AP poll and tied for third with USC in the coaches’ poll. Maybe I’m not looking at this objectively because I really dislike the Irish, but are they really going to be that good this year? At least one sportswriter doesn’t think so. We all know that USC, which comes in at #6 on the AP poll, doesn’t rebuild; they simply reload. Whether they can make a run for their fourth championship game in as many years without Matt Leinhart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White remains to be seen; thinks they can.

Oklahoma is picked fifth by the coaches and tenth by the sportswriters. This doubtlessly reflects the fact that quarterback Rhett Bomar (as well as offensive lineman J. D. Quinn) was kicked off the team after the USA Today poll came out but before the AP poll appeared last week. The Sooners still have Heisman contender Adrian Peterson in their backfield, however, which is why they’re still expected to have a good year. If OU can put the Rhett Bomar distraction behind him, and if his replacement can perform, the Sooners might still have a good year.

Auburn comes in fourth in the AP poll and sixth in the USA Today poll. The Tigers look good on paper, but will they be able to live up to expectations, or will they fall from their lofty preseason perch like they did a few years ago? They’ll have tough competition in the always-brutal SEC from teams like Florida (#7 AP, #8 USA Today) and LSU (#8 AP, #9 USA Today). Auburn gets both of these teams, as well as Georgia, at home, which is a plus for them, but their creampuff out-of-conference schedule – Washington State, Tulane, Buffalo and Arkansas State – might be a minus in the minds of the pollsters.

Rarely is an 11-2 season considered a disappointment, but for LSU, whose 2005 season was marred by disruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina as well as an inexplicable home loss to Tennessee, not even their destruction of Miami in the Peach Bowl was particularly satisfying. The Bayou Bengals are loaded at skill positions and are as much of a championship contender as anyone, but playing Auburn, Florida and Tennessee on the road is going to be a challenge. Meanwhile, Gator coach Urban Meyer discovered over the course of last year’s 9-3 season that coaches at Florida don’t get a honeymoon period; they’re expected to come in and win immediately. The pressure’s going to be on him as well as star quarterback Chris Leak this season.

The sportswriters assign a preseason ranking of #5 to West Virginia; the Mountaineers come in #8 in the coaches’ poll. I was impressed with their upset of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last year, and I have my eye on them this year. One big strike against them is their ridiculously weak schedule, however.

Rounding out the top twelve in the two polls are California (#9 AP, #12 USA Today), Florida State (#10 USA Today, #11 AP) and Miami, Florida (#11 USA Today, #12 AP). I really don’t know a lot about these teams other than the fact that the Hurricanes are going to have one of the nation’s best defenses this fall and are going to absolutely destroy my Cougars in October. The Seminoles will always be formidable, but I think the golden years of the Bobby Bowden era are behind them. Maybe somebody with more knowledge of the Golden Bear program (again, Steve?) can assess Cal’s upcoming season.

So which school is going to win it all? I have no idea; unlike last year, when it was clear to just about everybody going into the season that USC and Texas would meet in the Rose Bowl, this season is wide-open. I’ll go out on a limb and pick West Virginia. I think Rich Rodriguez is a solid coach, and if they can take care of business on the road against Louisville and Pittburgh I think that will put a lot of criticism about their schedule to rest.

So those are the top teams in the nation going into the season. On the other end of the scale is the lowly Sun Belt Conference, which columnist Pat Forde calls “the cold, hard basement of Division I-A.” While technically in the same division as schools like Ohio Sate, Notre Dame, USC and Texas, in reality the eight teams of the Sun Belt are a different world away from these schools in terms of budgets, fan support and talent. Last year the league went 1-for-27 in its slate of out-of-conference games against I-A opponents.

However, Forde gives the six-year-old league a measure of commendation in its effort to claw its way out from the bottom of the college football barrel. The Sun Belt has managed to improve itself by becoming more geographically compact, putting more games on TV, improving facilities and attendance, playing more games at home and slowly weaning itself off the practice of scheduling “body-bag games:” road games against big-time programs that come with a guaranteed payout along with a guaranteed loss. This practice hasn’t disappeared entirely, however; my two favorite teams in the Sun Belt, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas, have scheduled road contests against programs like LSU, Texas and Texas A&M this fall.

As a University of Houston fan, I feel the Sun Belt’s pain in terms of fan support, facilities, budget and losses against big-time competition. Conference USA, as a whole, really isn’t too much better off than the Sun Belt (although it helps that C-USA has multiple bowl tie-ins whereas the Sun Belt only has one). The fight for respectability in the college football landscape is tough, but, as the saying goes, when you’re at the bottom there’s no place to go except up. That’s why I’m hoping that the schools of the Sun Belt, Conference USA and the rest of the “non-BCS” conferences manage a few break-out wins this fall.

No comments: