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Blog Poll Countdown: The Wildcards

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A week-long look at SMQ’s preseason ballot.
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There’s always a debate about exactly what a preseason poll is supposed to be. In this case, rather than a "power poll" that attempts to order teams according some abstract notion of inherent strength, the goal is to predict as closely as possible what the final poll will look like in January -- that is, since all polls then look different, as well, what my poll will look like in January, when I won’t even remember what nonsense I projected here, much less care. As such, schedules factor in pretty heavily.

25. Oklahoma State
This is, to my knowledge, only the second vote in any poll for the Cowboys, although not a surprising one for regular readers given my optimism toward OSU when I looked closely in June. For all the Texas Tech love this summer, the Cowboys outpaced the Raiders for points in conference games, had the most balanced offense in history (243.2 per game rushing, 243.2 per game passing, a year after rushing for 208 and passing for 202 in 2006) beat Tech head-to-head and return eight starters from the offense, including a duel-threat quarterback who matched Graham Harrell’s efficiency rating in Big 12 games (with 847 yards and 9 touchdowns, Zac Robinson is also the leading returning rusher); possibly the best all-around tight end in the nation (Brandon Pettigrew was the coaches’ first-team all-Big 12 pick over Martin Rucker, Jermichael Finley, Martellus Bennett, Chase Coffman, Derek Fine and Jermaine Gresham); a sophomore tailback who ran for over 700 yards as a backup (Kendall Hunter), backed up by a junior (Keith Totson) who ran for over 800 yards as a true freshman in 2006; and another up-and-coming receiving star in Dez Bryant. If the system survives the departure of coordinator Larry Fedora, OSU should easily average about 35 points for the third year in a row.


OSU: just fingertips from breaking through. Well, fingertips and a pass rush.
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Defense, obviously, remains the hang up. But the talent level on that side is improving, and this group was very, very close to breaking through last year, if not for blow second half leads against Texas A&M (one-point loss) and Texas (three-point loss) and a two-point loss to Kansas State. Overall, last year’s schedule was fairly ridiculous and gets much nicer; assuming there’s not another September surprise, a la last year’s Friday night debacle at Troy, there is no non-conference heavy on the order of Georgia, which decisively ended the buzz surrounding this team at the start of last season. The Cowboys should start no worse than 5-2 (with A&M coming to Stillwater, I’d bet 6-1), and barring a complete nosedive in November -- which means at least splitting back-to-back road games at Texas Tech and Colorado before a likely loss to Oklahoma in the finale -- should finish no worse than 8-4.

24. Kansas
As I’ve said before, KU’s run was not a fluke -- the Jayhawks only took two games by less than a touchdown, a four-point win at Colorado and the three-point win in the Orange Bowl, tough games in tough environments that they led by double digits in both cases with under four minutes to play. Their average margin of victory (26 points per game) was the highest in the country, and even when not padded with non-conference cupcakes, was the highest in Big 12 games (just shy of 19 per game). By the numbers alone, KU was the most balanced, impressive team in the country. And after the Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech, the "no big wins" argument rings hollow.

So this is not, like, they got lucky -- personnel-wise, anyway. The schedule is another story: as shocking as the 11-0 start was, once Nebraska’s defense decided to take a year off, the Cinderella run didn’t actually require KU to play Cinderella, at all; before the finale against Missouri, in fact, the Jayhawks were favored in every game but one, when they were a mere +3 at Kansas State, a vertiable toss-up. The inter-division draw from the South was Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor, i.e. the fourth, fifth, and sixth-place finishers, which meant Kansas didn’t actually beat a team all season that finished with a winning conference record. Forget that this time around. They’ve added a tough non-conference road game (at South Florida), and four games on the conference schedule -- Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech from the South, and revamped Nebraska, in Lincoln, where KU hasn’t won since the Lyndon Johnson administration -- that project as tougher than any game last year’s team won in the regular season. Then there’s still Missouri at the end.

From that perspective, it’s a testament to the respect I have for Todd Reesing and the offense’s ability to keep up with the conference’s heavier hitters that I kept the Jayhawks in the mix at all over, say, Alabama. But even if they play as well as they did last year, it will be a stunning, stunning performance to threaten double-digit wins again.

23. Cincinnati
This looks like a sketchy pick, since the Bearcats have zero top 25 votes in any other outlet and in fact are widely expected to be gasping for air and a shot at a nowhere bowl game within the mediocre Big East. Actually, though, as far as limbs go, I feel pretty good about this one.

Sixth in the Big East? Really? I can only assume the prognostoscenti is reacting to Ben Mauk’s pending ascension to the peak of Mount Sinai, or whatever, and no doubt the opinions would be more optimistic if the school’s single-season passing leader gets his sixth year between now and the end of August. Even if he doesn’t, though, UC has a fine option in Notre Dame refugee Demetrius Jones, who was too hyped coming out of high school to let his two series’ worth of halfhearted spread option against Georgia Tech cloud his potential in Brian Kelly’s offense, which has had a hell of a three-year run -- unless, I guess, you think setting single-season records at two different schools while leading both to banner seasons (Central Michigan won the MAC championship in 2006 and ten games for the first time since 1979; last year, Cincinnati finished in the final polls for the first time ever in Kelly’s first go-round) is some kind of happy accident. Jones is more athletic than Mauk or CMU’s Dan LeFevour, and has four receivers back who combined for 26 touchdowns last year. The defense has all-Big East-caliber players on the interior line (Terrill Byrd), linebacker (Corey Smith) and at corner, where Mike Mickens is consistently listed among the best cover guys in the country, with DeAngelo Smith not far behind. Given Jones’ alleged physical ability and Kelly’s recent track record with multi-faceted quarterbacks, I’m not sure what the Bearcats are supposed to be missing that makes them significantly removed from last year’s ten-game winner.


Look, I’m not saying I don’t like you. I just don’t NEED you.
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They’ll lose at Oklahoma and at West Virginia; assuming defeats in those two, to get here UC will have to go at least 3-2 in games with Rutgers, South Florida, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Louisville, and possibly 4-1. But the ‘Cats were 3-2 against those teams last year, with wins over Rutgers, USF and UConn. It took narrow upsets at the hands of Pitt and Louisville to keep this team from joining the party-crashing ranks of Kansas and Hawaii, so I don’t see that this position is out of order at all.

22. Wake Forest
I remain extremely wary of the Deacons, who scraped to the ACC championship by the skin of their teeth two years ago and were consistently outgained again last year; they're like the MacGuyver of nine-win seasons, cobbling together underwhelming, last-second victories from third-string, two-star running backs and a little bit of twine. I only have a little faith in within-the-offense pin-up boy Riley Skinner, who slightly regressed as a sophomore, and I think the offense and return game will badly miss their best athletes, Kenneth Moore and Kevin Marion, who are not as easily replaced here as they might be on teams with deeper talent pools.

But they did it twice, in the same superficially sketchy fashion, and the ACC is so wide open that Jim Grobe is beginning to pass for a stalwart -- your middle school nephew who just woke up to the outside world in 2004 probably thinks of Wake as "always pretty strong," or something. For now, amazingly, he’s right. I still don’t think much of the offense, but aside from maybe Clemson, none of the competition in this conference is set to start lighting up scoreboards, and the defense will keep it close with just about anyone on this schedule -- again, the Tigers serving as the only possible exception, especially after ripping Wake for 44 points last year. Otherwise, the defense has nine starters back and legitimate all-America/NFL prospects in linebacker Aaron Curry and cornerback Alphonso Smith. Clutch kicking maestro Sam Swank returns, too, to turn the tables in deadlocks.

The Deacons also miss Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Georgia Tech from the Coastal and don’t face a tougher non-conference test than Ole Miss, at home. So while I’m sure there are at least three losses in the schedule, the only one I can actually identify is Clemson -- and that’s in Winston-Salem, so who knows.

21. Nebraska
Again, I find myself completely alone in endorsing the Huskers, although in this case the reluctance is perfectly understandable: the lingering stench from last year’s "defense" continues to overwhelm whatever silver lining exists in luring one of the country’s best defensive architects to guide possibly the most talented team in the division. Only Steele picks the Huskers ahead of Kansas in the North, and even he’s not willing to pull the trigger on a top 25 bid.

I’ve already articulated why I think it’s unfair to hold last year as the measuring stick for a team that won the division in 2006 and, however far it had fallen from the power-running, chart-topping glory days, had never descended to such depths before. The pieces are in place for a quick recovery, mainly on the offense, which was crazy (600 yards, 54 points per game) in Joe Ganz’s three starts. Cut that by a full third, and it’s still pretty good, as long as the defense returns from oblivion to something remotely resembling competence. In terms of athleticism and experience, the odds are good, and the arrival of Pelini -- whose defense legitimately rocked here in his only season as coordinator, 2003 -- puts me on the optimistic side of that question. There is also no way the team has the misfortune of finishing –19 in turnover margin two years in a row. Again, going back to Pelini’s only season, the ‘03 Huskers were one of the best in the country at taking the ball away, finishing +23; they haven’t finished on the plus side of the turnover battle since. Success has followed Pelini so far, and this pick puts all its eggs in his basket.

As I’ve suggested, the key to the Huskers’ season is the date with Virginia Tech in Lincoln on Sept. 27. They’ll be 3-0 (god help them if they’re not 3-0 against Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State, god help us all), coming off a bye week and looking past the Hokies at back-to-back games Missouri and Texas Tech to open the conference season. Va Tech is vulnerable in their own right, and if Nebraska can get by that one, it can get away with a .500 record in-conference and still count the effort as a confident step forward.