A week-long look at SMQ’s preseason ballot.
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15. Texas Tech
Well, they can throw -- have you heard? -- and with a lot of people paying fairly close attention for a change, I imagine a rapid ascent from the mid-to-low teens into the top ten with a high-flying, probably record-breaking 5-0 start against Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU, UMass, and Kansas State, against which Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree will accumulate a season’s worth of statistical feats in the span of about a month. With that padding, the season actually begins in October.
The Raiders have a very real opportunity to move into the mythical title consciousness with a sweep of Nebraska, Texas A&M, and Kansas over the next three weeks, leading into a wild, possibly dangerous environment in Lubbock if Texas comes in on Nov. 1 with Tech sitting at 8-0. Its like an old video game with progressively tougher and tougher levels, until you reach the big, bad boss in the end -- in this case, from mid-major pushovers in September to the conference middleweights in October, then on to well-heeled overlords in November, with heavily-favored Oklahoma playing the role of big boss in Norman, where none of Leach’s teams have come within two scores of the Sooners in four tries. The Big 12 Championship would be like some kind of giddy but challenging bonus level, like the "Star Path" in "Super Mario World," only there are no shortcuts to get there.
Personally, although I might not be exactly surprsied by an 8-0 start prior to the Texas game, I’m not willing to bet on it. There are many reasons to doubt the alleged defensive transplant, in the first place -- especially against the run, where the Raiders were routinely gashed even after Ruffin McNeil took over the D in late September -- and it’s a significant point that Tech has been a quantifiably different team on the road lately:
The record doesn’t even account for the weird games that reinforce the position one way or another: at home, the Raiders put up 70 twice in a three-week span as one-score home favorites over TCU and Nebraska in 2004, but later lost to Texas A&M on the road; they trounced the Aggies and beat Oklahoma in Lubbock in 2005, but lost in Stillwater to last-place Oklahoma State; in 2006, Tech averaged 33 points but scored just three at TCU and six at Colorado, both surprise losses; and last year it was crushed by 31 at Missouri but came home to beat championship-bound Oklahoma a month later.
So Texas might find itself in a game in Lubbock, but the Raiders are unlikely to survive the midseason road swing of Kansas State, Texas A&M, and Kansas unscathed, and less likely to get out of Norman with championship hopes of any sort intact. It’s significant that there are championship hopes to begin with, and that the Raiders are considered a threat in every game, but this is a strong conference and a schedule frought with land mines, likely leading to the Alamo Bowl.
14. Penn State
The continuity on defense alone justifies a push at ten wins: PSU has finished in the top ten in rushing defense, scoring defense and sacks three years in a row, and in the top fifteen in total defense; it’s also the only defense to allow less than three yards per carry each of the last three years. So nine returning starters, with much expected of the youngsters moving into the vacant positions, is an appropriate foundation for high optimism. There is no chance with this group that the bottom will fall out.
Maurice Evans will, in fact, do everything around here, if necessary. If the quarterback sucks, or whatever. Just let him know, alright?
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As good as it’s been and should continue to be, though, it’s hard to imagine the D being very much better, which shifts the onus to the offense to improve its output in big games -- against teams that finished in the final polls the last two years, the Lions are 2-7 and have averaged 15.5 points. The hope is that most of the malaise is at the feet of Anthony Morelli more than it is an indictment of the offense in general, which has a lot of potential if outfitted with a competent quarterback -- there are multiple, attractive options at running back and receiver (for the time being, anyway) and the offensive line is completely intact. They’re not a challenger to Ohio State, especially with the game in Columbus (OSU has won the last seven vs. PSU at the Horseshoe by an average of three touchdowns), but if Daryll Clark can pass well enough, or Pat Devlin run well enough, to balance the much-publicized "Spread HD," the Lions are a BCS contender. But that probably means going 6-1 against Oregon State, Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan (the Lions get the rebuilding Wolverines at home but have lost nine straight in the series), Iowa, and Michigan State, which is going to take more than two touchdowns per game.
The big-picture on the Tigers sounds almost identical to the skinny on Penn State: a consistent, veteran defense holding down the fort while the stagnant offense decides between an emphasis on running or passing in the shift from a ‘traditional’ scheme based on power running to a new, more spread-friendly philosophy. Auburn, too, returns all five offensive linemen and a good-not-great set of skill players, and, at last rid of a longstanding burden, also finds itself torn between the athlete who emerged in the bowl game (Kodi Burns) and the passer (Chris Todd) at quarterback.
The difference is that Auburn has been more competitive against good teams (a solid 5-5 the last two years over teams that finished in the final polls, including two straight wins over Florida), and against its main target, LSU, which has been trading wins based on the site the entire decade -- though the combined margin in the last four games is just 13 points, the home team’s won eight straight in the series, and an even-numbered year means it’s Auburn’s turn. If only that were all: regardless of what happens against LSU in September, AU still must look forward to Tennessee, West Virginia (on the road, at night, in late October) and Georgia, then, if all goes according to plan, either Florida or Georgia in the SEC Championship. For a team with a new quarterback and an uncertain identity on offense, that’s too small a margin of error to forecast great things.
The Longhorns are supposed to be vulnerable, for a change, but aside from a question mark at running back -- and, from Priest Holmes to Ricky Williams to Hodges Mitchell to Cedric Benson to Jamaal Charles, when hasTexas not had an outstanding tailback? -- I don’t see it. They’re devoid of some of the elite stars of the past few years, temporarily, but the well is too deep and too rich to go to sleep on this bunch.
Admittedly, they weren’t very exciting last year, except at the times ‘exciting’ is not exactly a good thing -- as in, "Texas must rally from large fourth quarter deficits against Nebraska and Oklahoma State, then score 50-plus to keep pace with Texas Tech to win exciting games in consecutive weeks." Back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M are disheartening, especially when the Big 12 schedule stiffens this time around with the additions of Kansas, Missouri and a trip to Colorado and Texas Tech in Lubbock. The defense, while typically stacked, athletically, is relatively green, especially in the secondary, and the known commodities on offense -- Colt McCoy, Quan Cosby, maybe Jordan Shipley -- are all in the ‘reliable’ mold, with nary a true gamebreaker a la Jamaal Charles in sight. It’s hard to see the defense getting away with allowing 25 points per game again, as it did last year, by far the worst performance of the Mack Brown era.
USF: Okay, this time, totally ready for their close-up.
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Without the impressive bowl rout of Arizona State, I’d have more skepticism, but Brown seemed to instill a sense of urgency and aggression in that game with the explicit purpose of beginning 2008 on the right foot, and carried that over in the offseason by hiring Will Muschamp away from Auburn to whip the defense back into shape -- and he’s certainly got the groceries, as they say. I don’t expect UT to threaten Oklahoma’s hold on the South, but even with the increased degree of difficulty, this is an immensely talented, consistent program, and it’s still a disappointment if the ‘Horns drop more than two conference games.
11. South Florida
At the start of the process of putting this poll together, I probably would have balked at the prospect of the Bulls in the top 20, much less on the cusp of the top ten -- my image of USF, after it fell out of the top 25 with three straight losses last November and then was destroyed by previously foundering Oregon in the bowl game, was still essentially of the little underdog who could, briefly, but then was destined to fall more or less by the wayside.
But I looked at the offense, which lost only the right tackle, and the defense, which has successfully hemmed in West Virginia two years in a row and returns maybe the most feared pass rusher in the nation in George Selvie, and then I look at the schedule, and I have a hard time envisioning USF entering the finale in Morgantown at worse than 9-2. Really, with Kansas coming to Tampa in September for one of the most interesting early litmus tests of the season (for both teams), I’d rank the Bulls as a tentative favorite in all eleven, and, based on the last two years, a serious threat in a winner-take-all showdown with the Mountaineers. There are a lot of caveats to that: games with KU, Cincinnati, Rutgers, and Pitt are toss-ups, to say nothing of UConn and trips to Central Florida, Louisville, and NC State, which makes for a manageable schedule but still one frought with danger; the graduation of two tremendous cornerbacks is a glaring concern, and the offense can’t get away with being as reckless with the ball as it was in losses to UConn (–1 in turnovers despite a big advantage in total yards), Cincinnati (–6), and Oregon (–4). But as long as Selvie and Matt Grothe are healthy, the ceiling here is higher than it has any right to be for a program that’s only been in existence for a little more than a decade.
As we’ve seen the last two years, the addition of the fifth big money game has cast the BCS’ net almost as wide as it can go -- as long as only two teams per conference are eligible for the Series, and assuming the runners-up in the SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten are virtual locks for three of the four at-large spots, the only possibilities for the last spot are the runners-up of the Big East, Pac Ten and ACC, a mid-major insurgent, or Notre Dame. The Irish will be better, but not that much better; the ACC and Pac Ten, behind clear favorites in Clemson and USC, do not have strong candidates to run the table in those conference the way the Bulls can behind West Virginia in the Big East. USF has taken progressively larger steps on an annual basis, from mid-major obscurity to minor bowl team, to minor bowl winner, to surprise national insurgent and legit Big East contender. If it can get past the Jayhawks in the third game, that last at-large bid would be the next logical step.