Thursday, August 21, 2008

2008 college football outlook

Exactly two years ago today, I sat in a Dubai hotel room and wrote about the upcoming college football season. Amazing how history repeats...

Anyway, with college football one week away - the first games will be played on the evening of Thursday the 28th - I guess it's time for me to get to work. I'll provide my preseason takes on the University of Houston Cougars and the University of North Texas Mean Green in the coming days. For now, here are my thoughts on the top teams going into the season.

Both the preseason Associated Press sportswriters' Top 25 Poll and the USA Today Coaches' Top 25 Poll are now out, with Georgia earning the top spot in both. MSNBC's John Tamanaha takes issue with the fact that the two polls are so similar, with only minor differences between the teams and their placements. "I can see that type of consensus starting to form in October," he writes, "but prior to the season starting and with no tangible evidence to use it is absolutely ludicrous."

Uh, John? You do realize that, following your logic, the entire idea of preseason polls is ludicrous because no games have yet been played and there's no "tangible evidence" by which to rank any of these teams, right? Unlike Tamanaha, I don't think consensus is a bad thing, even the preseason.

And, with the Georgia Bulldogs, the consensus is pretty clear. Georgia is picked to be the preseason #1 not only by both polls, but also by NBC, ESPN and Sports Illustrated. I think this is a fair ranking, because I believe the Bulldogs were playing the nation's best football at the end of last season. It makes sense for them to pick up where they left off; they return 17 starters from last year's 11-2, Sugar Bowl Champion team that ended the season ranked #2. But their problem is going to be the schedule. The Bulldogs have early-season road trips to South Carolina and Arizona State and then, beginning in late November, a murderous four-game road trip to LSU, Kentucky, Jacksonville to play Florida, and Auburn. Home games against the likes of Tennessee and Alabama aren't going to be cakewalks, either. And don't look overlook that end-of-season rivalry game against Georgia Tech. If the Bulldogs can make it through that lineup unscathed, they deserve to be champions.

The Southern Cal Trojans come in second in the coaches' poll and 3rd in the AP poll. There is no question that USC, in spite of losing ten players to the NFL draft, is loaded with talent, and the Trojans should have no problem dominating the Pac-10 and returning to another BCS bowl. But this is also the same Southern Cal program that, over the last couple of seasons, has developed an uncanny knack for losing games it shouldn't; see Oregon State and UCLA and 2006 and Stanford (!) last season. Will Pete Carroll's team get tripped up by an inferior opponent again this year? One thing is for certain: the nation will get a better view of the national title picture early on, when the Trojans host Ohio State on September 13th.

Speaking of Ohio State, they enter the season 3rd in the writers' poll and 2nd in the USA Today poll; CFN thinks they're #1. The Buckeyes have gone all the way to the national championship game two years in a row, only to come up empty. This brings up the obvious cliche: will the third time be a charm? The Buckeyes return almost all of last year's starters, so there's no question that the talent is there. One potential obstacle for the Buckeyes is their schedule: while they do get Penn State and archrival Michigan at home, road trips to Wisconsin and Illinois - not to mention that early-season showdown against Southern Cal - are going to be obstacles. Then there's the fact that, by virtue of the Big Ten schedule ending the week before Thanksgiving, the Buckeyes have to endure a rust-inducing six-week-layoff between the regular season and a BCS bowl. I honestly think that this lengthy idle period was one of the factors in their championship-game losses two years in a row.

Oklahoma shows up at the number four position in both polls. The Sooners appear to have a team that is talented enough to contend for a national title - for example, QB Sam Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency last year as a freshman (!) - but they need to prove that they can close the deal. Right now, Oklahoma is on a four-game BCS bowl losing streak, including last year's 28-48 spanking at the hands of West Virginia and that wild Boise State upset of two years ago. Even Oklahoma's shot at the Big XII South title isn't guaranteed: there's that October showdown against Texas in Dallas, and they better not overlook that November game against Texas Tech.

Rounding out the top five in both polls is Florida. Tim Tebow would probably like to put a second Heisman in his trophy case, and under his command the Gator offense will certainly be one of the nation's most productive. The defense needs to improve if Florida is going to contend for the title, and the rash of preseason injuries they've suffered - seriously, five torn ACLs? - is not exactly a good portent for the season. The Gators get LSU and South Carolina at home, which is good, but have to travel to play Tennessee. Florida will be looking for revenge when it meets Georgia in Jacksonville, but another Gator rival, Florida State, will be looking for some revenge of its own.

Missouri is ranked 6th in the AP poll and 7th in the USA Today poll. No doubt the Tigers, who went 12-2 last season but were passed over for a BCS bowl by the Kansas team they defeated, are looking for redemption. Missouri returns a lot of talent, including Heisman finalist QB Chase Daniel, and is favored to repeat as Big XII North champions. Last year's national champion, LSU, comes in 7th AP and 6th USA Today. The Tigers return a lot of starters from last year's team but the prospects of the Bayou Bengals repeating as champions were dampened when star QB Ryan Perrilloux was kicked off the team earlier this year. LSU's conference schedule - roadies to Auburn, Florida, South Carolina and Arkansas - is brutal. West Virginia shows up at #8 in both polls. The Mountaineers are adjusting to new coach Bill Stewart but still have Pat White behind center and are still favored to win another Big East title.

The Clemson Tigers rank #9 in both polls. Are they underrated at that position? NBC, which has them #3 in their own rankings, thinks so. Auburn gets the #10 spot per the sportswriters, while Texas is number 10 according to the coaches. With new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a schedule that has LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia at home, the Tigers have a real shot at capturing the SEC West. They need to find a quarterback first, however. The Longhorns are going to miss Jamaal Charles at running back but should still be formidable. The schedule is tough, however; in addition to the game in Dallas against Oklahoma, the 'Horns have to play Texas Tech (preseason rankings of #12 AP and #14 USA Today) in Lubbock and their inter-divisional slate includes Missouri. Wisconsin takes the #12 spot on the USA Today poll. They managed a 9-4 record last season in spite of a slew of key injuries and hope for an even better outing this fall with healthy players. The Badgers get all of Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois at home, which is a plus.

Those are what are expected to be the top teams going into the season. Who do I think is going to end up winning it all? It's hard to say: I'm concerned about Georgia's schedule, I'm not sold on USC, Ohio State and Oklahoma have postseason demons they need to exorcise and Florida does not have a championship-caliber defense. I wouldn't be surprised if this season ends up being a repeat of the last, wherein nobody makes it to the title game without at least one loss. It's entirely possible, furthermore, that none of these top five will end up with the national championship: Florida started their championship season in 2006 ranked #7 and #8 in the two preseason polls. In that regard, there's something oddly alluring about this year's Missouri program that has me thinking that they might be able to pull it off.

But I'm going to go on record: Ohio State will do what they haven't been able to do the last couple of seasons win it all in January 2009. They'll lose an early-season thriller to USC in Los Angeles but will regroup and run the table, while the Trojans will find a way to lose a later-season game to Cal or somebody and be penalized accordingly by the BCS pollsters and computers. Georgia will trip up somewhere along the way - their schedule's just too tough - and just miss a shot at the national title. Ohio State will end up playing either Oklahoma or Missouri in the BCS National Championship game, where they will win it all.

Remember that you heard it here first. Also remember that I'm usually wrong when it comes to preseason prognostications such as these. Truth is, I really don't care who wins. I just want the season to begin.

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