Woo! Last second is the only way to do it...
Waiting: UCLA, South Carolina, Boise State, Texas Tech, Clemson, Oklahoma State, BYU, Tennessee, Boston College, Texas A&M.
...and by "it," I mean everything, unfortunately. Such is the burden of procrastination.
Anyway, I'm happy with this. Happier than most people seem to be with their first ballots, anyway, maybe because I did manage to attach a number to each school based on the 1-9 win value I've outlined here before. The final numbers weren't inviolable because of schedule concerns - West Virginia would be ahead of Texas if they were, because I think the Mountaineers are less likely to lose against their basically one-trick (Louisville) schedule - but they did serve as a reliable guide and the results are for the most part straight down the line.
The most important thing to remember about this ballot is that it's an attempt to predict the final ballot of the season in January as accurately as possible. It will fail at this, of course, spectacularly, but that's the goal, and that's why schedule concerns are paramount, and why the Big East places three teams in the top dozen: WVU, Louisville and Rutgers are so unlikely to lose outside of one another, regardless the perceived weakness of their conference, that they will get the benefit of being 11-1 or 10-2 at the end of the season. Frankly, Ohio State and Wisconsin wouldn't be top ten teams if I didn't feel essentially the same way about the lower reaches of the Big Ten. This was the case last year, and if events unfold similarly - I imagine they will, especially in the Big East - winning will overcome concerns about schedules.
Re: USC, I'd only like to note that I don't think the Trojans are invulnerable or, like, OMG the best team evah! I explicitly said so in my Pac Ten preview. I do think it's the best team this year, and certainly in a better position than any of its nearest competitors, schedule-wise, to run the table. The Trojans don't face a team I project in the top ten and don't have to play a conference championship game. But, the Pac Ten being the chaotic, parity-driven mash-up it is, there aren't many obvious breaks, either; it's not like any team in the SEC can complain about games with Idaho and Stanford with the I-AA/Mississippi State skeletons hanging in their own closets. If it comes down to a three-horse race for two mythical title slots, that schedule might hurt them, a la 2003. When that time comes, maybe I'll just be wrong, which should go without saying. Being wrong a lot of the time is intrinsic to the game.
At the same time, I feel the same way about the small resistance to USC as number one to start the season as I feel about people who claim to hate The Beatles. These individuals are working way too hard to stand out, instigate or resist cliche. Not in a partisan way, but it's natural to look for a risk with a big payoff in such a low stakes game as football predictions (or popular musical taste), and picking against the overwhelming mainstream favorite can earn vastly more year-end prestige than any member of the "herd" will gain from veering toward the popular choice. But, as the saying goes, it's popular for a reason: for anyone whose main interest is being right, the Trojans are the pick. They have the most available talent on hand, a steady, veteran quarterback, an absurdly athletic, deep and experienced defense, a favorable schedule and a recent history of performing well - sometimes extremely, shockingly well - in big games. For glass-half-empty sorts, the question marks and caveats to a Trojan title are far less damning than anyone else's. Every team is vulnerable as a rule, and I might be picking USC to lose at some point by October, but at this point there is no good reason to expect this team to finish behind whoever else you might be considering.
Enough of that. Moving on:
The SEC doesn't fare that well because everybody's going to be beating on everybody, and I'm beginning to get the feeling the West is going to be a bit of an overlord. Not on the level of the Big 12
North South over the South North (duh - ed.), but LSU is obviously the strongest team in the conference going in and Arkansas, Alabama and Auburn is a stronger trio of teams than the very young outfits from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee; they're also less likely to be sniped from below by Ole Miss and Mississippi State than the East frontrunners are by wannabe-sleepers Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The Gators came out much lower than I expected, but given their potentially debiliating losses on defense and another bitch of a schedule, their fall to fourteenth does not bother me. The fact that that spot happens to be next to Miami and Florida State is pure coincidence, but the state does look more equitable than it did last year, at least until Urban Meyer's army of young storm troopers matures into a nightmare in '08.
Obviously, perhaps paradoxically, I'm not willing to extend the same courtesy to the youth at Georgia. Partly this is because the Bulldogs have an extra "tough game," the opener with Oklahoma State, and therefore one more realistic chance than the Gators to lose. Mostly, though, I think it's because I have more faith in young defensive linemen, especially with the bodily-kinesthetic merits of Florida's, than young offensive linemen, and Georgia happens to be fielding too many of both. Florida's O-line sets it apart from the rest of its division.
Arkansas rockets up for something of an unknown: the Hogs have no out-of-conference challenges and will be (or should be) favorites by my estimation in every game until the finale at LSU. That's not to say I think they'll survive the rest of the SEC undefeated - the early trip to Alabama is the most dangerous because it will be without Marcus Monk, and therefore any semblance of a passing game - but they don't face Florida and no team in the conference, maybe in the country, matches the big play, "force of nature" factor Darren McFadden and Felix Jones bring to the table here. Arkansas at eleventh is my nod to the best player in the country, and it didn't win a tough division last year by looking a gift horse in the mouth.
All ties in rationale go to McFadden.
- - -
If I was ranking them side-by-side, head-to-man, man-to-man, or in other hyphen-heavy scenarios, LSU would come out slightly ahead of Texas, almost across the board. The 'Horns are not as strong defensively, especially in the secondary, and if UT can match the Tigers' skill talent, its young offensive line doesn't really even come close. Paper comparisons like that ignore the reality, though, which is that a) Texas has a championship track record and a coach widely recognized as one of the best in the country and b) Texas doesn't have to navigate a minefield of a schedule. LSU has Virginia Tech, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn and the SEC championship between it and a mythical title bid; realistically, Texas has Oklahoma and Nebraska and probably Nebraska again (or, uh, Missouri?) in the Big 12 championship. One or two among TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M will be tough to put away on that given afternoon, but until Les Miles puts the questions about his temperment and consistency to bed by winning the SEC with the gobs of talent at his disposal, Mack Brown is the more likely choice to take a capable team the distance.
In my mind's eye, Montage A is huge, neon-clad mustangs from Oregon running up and down the field, and Montage B is Anthony Morelli lying flat on his back after an interception. So the Ducks at 20 and Penn State at 13 seems initially like it should be reversed. I guess I can't get over my other picture of Oregon, though, which is of them losing by four touchdowns at home to Arizona. For all its problems on offense, Penn State hasn't shown itself to be vulnerable to such wild swings, and because I think the Lions catch Notre Dame at home at the right time, seems like a lock to win nine games. Oregon has the potential on offense to lead the nation in scoring, but has demonstrated over and over again it's not a lock to do anything. The Ducks also have to be better against the run on a regular basis, a problem Penn State only encounters on its three or four toughest days.
And at the bottom, I changed my mind about how to deal with Hawaii. I know some other people took my advice about considering an undefeated WAC team's status at the end of the year, and when the Rainbows or Warriors or whatever they are run the table at 55 points per game, I have little doubt they'll be in the top ten after Boise State's egalitarian crusade last year. But when I run their schedule through the wringer, or BSU's, it just doesn't add up. It's a fluffy three-month run through teams that literally are I-AA or should be, with nothing to redeem it. So unless it beats these stragglers senseless - I'm talking margins of 40, 50 points on a weekly basis, which may happen - Hawaii's virtues will be met with skepticism. If I fall for them at some point, shake me. Wake me up.
Everything in this or any poll should be met with skepticism. As an egomaniacal blowhard once said: THAT'S...WHY THEY PLAY THE GAMES!....