A week-long look at SMQ’s preseason ballot.
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There are no questions here about the defense, which wreaked all kinds of havoc down the stretch and returns basically everybody (with the notable exception of Marcus Howard and his 9.5 sacks in the last six), or about the identity of the offense on an average day, which needs not go further than Knowshon Moreno. Those elements are a given. But to take the next step, to break into the mythical title game, all expressions of optimism are riding on a) a continuation of the rolling stone from last year’s six-game winning streak, following a year and a half of relative malaise, including losses to Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and South Carolina, a pair of blowouts at the hands of Tennessee and skin-of-the-teeth affairs with mediocrities (or worse) from Colorado, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Alabama; and b) Matt Stafford evolving when the chips are down into the quarterback he was supposed to be out of high school, as opposed to the quarterback he’s been.
Make no mistake: Stafford has been fine since a rocky start in ‘06, often very good -- he was positively brilliant in last year’s opener over Oklahoma State and in the momentum-building outbursts against Florida and Auburn. But he also had iffy games, throwing a pair of picks with the running game on less solid ground against Alabama and Kentucky and completing less than half his passes in the losses to South Carolina and Tennessee and the Moreno-led win over Georgia Tech. Given Knowshon’s presence in the backfield, the lack of a reliable, game-breaking receiver is hardly a deal-breaker, but the direction of Stafford’s continued growth into an efficient, consistent slinger -- however capable his arm, this offense does not need him lobbing bombs -- is. When the focus on Moreno leads to inevitable creeping toward the line of scrimmage, Stafford’s ability to make defenses pay is a prerequisite for survival.
So far, so good -- but if he’s really good, Stafford’s just getting started.
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I emphasize "survival" because my main argument against UGA in the penthouse is the unusually brutal nature of the road it faces: as we saw Friday, only one of the mythical champions of the BCS era (Miami in 2001) has faced more than four teams that wound up in the final AP poll in their championship season, and Georgia likely faces six teams projected for the poll going into the season (Arizona State, Alabama, Tenessee, LSU, Florida, and Auburn). That doesn’t even include games at South Carolina and Kentucky, and the finale against Georgia Tech, maybe the most mysterious team in the country going into the year. After the first week of September, other than Vanderbilt (knock on wood) and a couple of actual bye weeks, Georgia has no breaks; LSU, Florida and Auburn in a four-week span, all away from home, is particularly brutal, almost unfairly so, and I think almost precludes a run to the top barring the same kind of highly unlikely assistance LSU benefitted from last year. Consider, for comparison, that division mate Florida, even while getting Miami and Florida State outside of the league, only plays three teams in the preseason rankings, draws Ole Miss and Arkansas from the West instead of Auburn and Alabama, and gets LSU and South Carolina at home. Even if the Dawgs beat the Gators in the Cocktail Party and drag home another big win or two -- and there are enough of them that two or three high profile victories should probably be taken for granted -- that’s too many mines in the field, too long to be "on," to stagger out on top in December.
4. Ohio State
This is not exactly a logical conclusion, based on the entire sum of available evidence, but anyone who claims to harbor zero doubts about Ohio State’s competence re: elite competition after the last two BCS championship games is a liar. Look in their eyes, and at their votes:
They may be No. 1, but no one has it in them to actually rank them No. 1; the coaches didn’t want to pull the trigger, either. I’ve expounded against this notion, on logical grounds, and concede that, on paper, the Buckeyes look like the best team in the country. Or at least the team with the best shot at running the table, again: they have a senior quarterback, a H*i*m*n favorite shouldering most of the load on offense, another manageable schedule, and a complete stranglehold on the rest of their conference, a mile ahead of the pack of teams vying to be the top challenger.
Still, when I consider the team that’s closed the last two seasons in humiliating championship beatdowns visiting the team that’s closed the last two seasons on the better end of triumphant Rose Bowl massacres over teams that had pushed the Buckeyes to the brink (or, in Illinois’ case, past it) a few weeks before, and that’s won 38 of its last 39 at home, let’s just say OSU has not earned the benefit of the doubt. In a field of contenders this crowded, there is no room for doubt.
All of the above could be invalidated if Ohio State wins in L.A. on Sept. 13, where it is, after all, the more experienced team, the more consistent team, and can plausibly claim the best player on the field on any given play in Beanie Wells or James Laurinaitis. It’s impossible not to focus excessively on the date with USC, not only because it’s one of the biggest non-conference blockbusters in recent memory (though OSU’s heavyweight battles with Texas in 2005-06 were in the same class, and had the same filtering effects for the winner on the eventual mythical championship shot), but with the Big Ten schedule being what it is, it’s the Buckeyes’ only real opportunity to pre-empt the gnashing of teeth destined to accompany another scarlet and gray turn on the big stage in January.
OU is in a similarly prone PR position, off four ill-fated BCS appearances in five years, but the Sooners have a few more practical concerns, as well: six of the starters in the back seven on defense are new, elite receiver Malcolm Kelly left early for the NFL, and none of several options at tailback has proven durability and/or consistency over any extended period of time. This is a problem for Sam Bradford -- though he was extremely well-protected as a redshirt freshman, and should be again with five mountainous starters back on the line, Bradford’s sky-high efficiency rating belied his dependence on a strong running game. His four lowest-rated games, against Colorado (a loss), Iowa State (in which OU scored just 17 points in a harrowing near-miss), Texas Tech (another loss in which he was knocked out of the game almost immediately), and West Virginia were easily the team’s worst games of the season, and all four came on the road, to defenses without much of a reputation but that largely kept Oklahoma runners intact. Though he had some outstanding games against respectable teams -- an efficiency rating over 200 against Miami, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, for starters -- much of Bradford’s statistical success was amassed against rock-bottom units like North Texas, Utah State, Tulsa, and Baylor. Against foes that could actually defend themselves, the question is still out about his ability to guide the offense through an entire season without an unexpected lapse.
If the Sooners want it, it’s DeMarco’s time to shine.
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To be sure, there will be no expected lapses. The schedule here is really well-suited for a championship run, combining plausibly good enough opponents outside of the Big 12 in Cincinnati, Washington, and TCU to avoid the scourge of the "soft" schedule without posing much legitimate threat of an upset, while drawing the toughest games, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas Tech, at home (with Texas at the neutral Cotton Bowl, obviously), and avoiding the conference’s only other likely heavy hitter -- in the regular season, anyway. It will take another stunning upset to keep the Sooners from running the table through the Big 12 Championship, and if last year’s efforts against Missouri are any indication, a few new ideas on the Tigers’ part -- or whomever emerges from the North -- to keep Oklahoma from either playing for the BCS Championship or complaining loudly about an inexcusable snub.
2. Southern Cal
I have two competing, diametrically opposed instincts re: USC, both of them enticing and backed by reasonable evidence, and both lacking as a complete theory. On one hand, Pete Carroll has thoroughly out-recruited everyone in the country on an annual basis over the last six years, dominating an entire recruiting cycle that’s left the Trojans as monolithically talented and potentially overwhelming as ever. On the other hand, the "second wave" of blue chip kids under Carroll has not lived up the standard of the 2002-05 teams, losing three random, paradigm-shifting games the last two years and another (at Oregon last October) that, while less shocking, further chipped away at its unbreakable hold on the conference -- the last two conference championships, while acknowledged via polls and tiebreakers, were actually co-championships, shared with Cal and Arizona State, respectively. In relative terms, SC has looked rusty on offense, lacked consistent playmakers, and generally shown many early symptoms of a hegemon in decline.
Maybe only because of the emphatic way they closed last season, routing Oregon State, Cal, Arizona State, UCLA, and Illinois with a healthy lineup, at last, the "dominant powerhouse" role gets another year to make its case before the doubts begin to take over. This is not, like, stubborn or naîve or anything -- where SC may be the least experienced team in the entire countdown in terms of returning starters, all the way back to No. 25, the supposed newbies were very much in the fire last year, and held up well; based on their talent and early returns in limited duty, any or all of the "inexperienced" lineup of Mark Sanchez, Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight, Ronald Johnson, Kris O’Dowd, and/or Everson Griffen could be a star by the end of the season, along with the existing stars (Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Kevin Ellison, and Taylor Mays) off a defense that finished second to Ohio State in total and scoring defense. No one can ask for a return to the heights of the Leinart-Bush-White-Williams-Jarrett years on offense, but the sheer volume of potential firepower on offense should lead to more explosiveness -- with Johnson, McKnight, Johnson, Patrick Turner, Vidal Hazelton, David Ausberry, and on and on with the VHT mustangs, there’s no good excuse for the relative stagnation of the last two years. Even among four new starters on the offensive line, all four were once hyped recruits and started at least once in last year’s injury-plagued shuffle.
Once they get past Ohio State, if they get past Ohio State, the Trojans find themselves in the same position as Oklahoma: no particularly daunting road trips, and nobody coming into the Coliseum worth dropping the point spread below, say, ten. Of course, this is the same old story, callously interrupted by the chaotic appearances of Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, and Oregon the last two years, but as much talent as remains on hand here, the smart money is on another happy ending somewhere along the way. Offensive line be damned, I can’t uncover any good reason this team won’t dominate the Pac Ten, as usual.
All endorsements of the Gators must answer straight away for the defense, which is no red herring of manufactured doubt. Last year’s D was 71st in pass efficiency (national champions, as we covered Friday, virtually always finish in the top 20 against the pass, specifically, if not the top ten), for allowing 310 yards and a 155 efficiency rating to low-fi Ole Miss; 415 yards and five touchdowns at Kentucky; three touchdowns and an astronomical 200-plus rating against Georgia; and 373 yards, three touchdowns and a 160 rating to supposedly lame duck Michigan in the bowl game. Meanwhile, while leading the SEC against the run overall, when not being torched through the air, they were severely gashed by competent ground games: 247 and three touchdowns at LSU (not to mention yielding to successful dives on two crucial fourth-and-one situations and another third-and-goal on the Tigers’ game-winning drive, which featured 13 runs in 15 plays and kept the Gator offense off the field for eight of the most crucial minutes of the season); 196 and three touchdowns against Georgia; and 151 and two touchdowns -- it should have been more, if not for two uncharacteristic Mike Hart fumbles at the goal line -- against Michigan. Eight of the Gators’ defensive starters were freshmen or sophomores, with more filling in off the bench, and they often played like it.
The good thing about noobs, though, is that they grow up, and in Florida’s case, all signs are that the wounded pups are destined to mature into relentless pit bulls on the order of the front seven that dominated the SEC and the mythical championship game in 2006. Rivals might be better at this argument, or perhaps Phil Steele, whose aggregate system rated Carlos Dunlap, Torrey Davis, John Brown, and Justin Trattou among the top dozen incoming defensive linemen in the country last year; they’re joined this year by three more of the same caliber, in Troy Epps, William Green, and Omar Hunter, with future first round prospect Jermaine Cunningham back at end and prodigal firearm enthusiast Ronnie Wilson, a starter on the offensive line in ‘06, returning to walk on as a defensive tackle. The linebackers last year were a pair of sophomores and a true freshman, one of whom (Brandon Spikes) was first team all-SEC by the coaches, anyway, and all three return; even the much-maligned secondary is led by two sophomores (Joe Haden and Major Wright) expected to emerge from the freshman kiln as reliable all-conference types, if they’re not overshadowed by incoming Will Hill, who’d have to change his name to "Tebow" to raise expectations any higher.
Assuming the offensive production remains steady -- Tebow, Harvin, actual tailbacks, et al aside, it’s hard to ask much more than 42 points a game -- just how much better does the defense need to be to close the gaps?
The front seven has dominant potential, and should be outstanding again in the pass rush and against the run overall, but the secondary is still a work in progress, and expecting a wholesale reversion to the elite 2006 version is not realistic, regardless of the recruting stars (remember, too, that most of the ‘06 numbers are deflated to an even greater extent by that season’s offense-sapping clock rules). The very good 2005 effort, however, is well within reach, and in fact is probably the minimum standard for improvement for a group this talented. That team, Meyer’s first, was out of the mythical championship running by mid-October because it was subpar and occasionally pathetic on offense (3, 17, and 22 points in losses to Alabama, LSU, and South Carolina, respectively, and just 16 and 14 points in wins over Tennessee and Georgia).
This edition has no such problem -- in fact, if there were any offensive issues last year, it was that the Gators couldn’t get their hands on the ball enough:
You cannot score if you do not have the ball, and in each of its losses, Florida suffered from at least a four-and-a-half to five-minute deficit in possession due mainly to the epic drives allowed by the defense. Like most clear-eyed non-haters, I have very little doubt the Tebow Child’s sophomore season of destruction was no fluke and that we are, in fact, watching one of the rare superstars whose presence and production nearly defy hyperbole -- even Vince Young did not dominate to such an extent so quickly, and it was Young that I thought of during the first half at LSU, when Tebow effectively stole the show from the vaunted Tiger defense (scoring drives of 47, 77, and 72 yards in four possessions) before being held to 16 non-desperation plays in the second half because his youthful counterparts on the other side couldn’t get LSU off the field. He only had 55 plays altogether against Auburn. If the defense is just a little better -- and obviously it should be much, much better -- Tebow and Co. should be that much harder to avoid, and nearly impossible to outscore.
You realize, of course, I’ll regret all of this by the time voting begins, much less the season itself, determined to rip all assumptions to ribbons of bloody hubris. This time of year is so much damn fun.