A week-long look at SMQ’s preseason ballot.
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There has to be a second banana in the Big Ten, and with Michigan presumably on a temporary hiatus from Rose Bowl ambitions, I don’t see a better candidate than the Badgers. No other Big Ten team behind Ohio State has been as consistent as Wisconsin the last four years, including the Wolverines, and the personnel on offense is ideal for UW’s prefered style of grinding defenses to dust: the backfield is deep, led by big, two-time 1,000-yard thumper P.J. Hill, behind a huge, experienced, deep offensive line with 104 career starts among the five likely starters, and Travis Beckum and likely up-and-coming Kyle Jefferson to keep defenses loose. The running game should be formidable enough to keep new, iffy quarterback Allan Evridge in his comfort zone, just as it did for similarly underwhelming athletes Tyler Donovan and Jon Stocco before him. Without impressing anyone very much, Donovan and Stocco were 47-17 as starters and led units that averaged 29 points or more the last three years, a testament to the offense’s ability to succeed consistently as a power running attack without a great quarterback, as long he makes defenses pay occasionally.
The difference in a run at the BCS (very likely the Rose Bowl, if Ohio State takes care of its business) and another New Year’s morning tilt in Florida (currently at four in a row) is whether the defense veers more towards last year’s mediocrity -- which allowed 241 yards rushing to Michigan State, 289 to Illinois, 221 to Penn State, 145 to Indiana and 211 to Ohio State (most after taking a brief lead in the second half) in one dismal midseason stretch -- or the killer 2006 unit, which finished in the top five nationally in scoring, total, and pass efficiency defense. Given Bret Bielema’s track record as a defensive guru at Kansas State, and the nine starters back on this defense, the better bet is probably on the 2006 version, or something closer to it. If they can get out of the midseason gauntlet of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan State -- with the toughest games, against the Buckeyes, Lions, and Illini, all in Madison -- at 4-2 and avoid a stumble against, say Fresno State, I’d chalk up the Badgers as favorites for one of the big money affairs.
Ostensibly, the Tigers’ only question mark post-Perrilloux is quarterback, because there are no questions about their unfair talent and depth at running back, receiver, offensive line, safety, and especially defensive line, stocked with cadres of enough excessive blue chip firepower to blow up opposing quarterbacks a thousand times over.
But no matter how punishing any particular combination of the front four is on defense, the looming tribulation under center is hardly academic. Remember how many extremely close calls the Tigers had, not even including the pair of overtime games it lost: four points over Florida, six points over Auburn, seven points over Alabama, all fourth quarter LSU comebacks that were in doubt in the final minute -- in the case of Auburn, down the final harrowing second. Matt Flynn was probably an underrated leader last year, and essential in those games -- he led the winning drive against Florida, threw the winning touchdowns over Auburn (where he had a sky-high 166.8 efficiency rating) and Alabama and was nearly flawless in the mythical championship win over Ohio State (166 rating, four touchdowns, five of six passing on third down). Without him, the offense was held to a season-low 14 points in the SEC Championship and had to rely on the defense to provide the winning margin.
Last year’s edition would not have played for a shot at No. 1 with two losses in any other season in the history of such a designation -- in fact, no SEC West champion since 2003 had won the division with more than one conference loss, including LSU in ‘03 and ‘05 -- and it survived a trio of extremely close, back-and-forth games to survive long enough to back into that opportunity. With trips to Auburn and Florida and Georgia coming into Baton Rouge, it’s hard to see the Tigers walking the same tightrope again with any regression at quarterback (not to mention the graduation of two senior corners on defense), which seems inevitable. Even if they survive at Auburn and into the conference title game for a rematch with UF/UGA, the best bet is the Cotton, Outback or Bowl Formerly Known as the Citrus on Jan. 1.
The more I think about the Tigers, the less I consider them as merely a default pick to win the ACC -- though some people aren’t even extending that consideration -- and the more I think of them as a team on the verge of legitimate breakthrough. Part of that does come from the schedule, which has the interesting neutral site game with Alabama to open but not much else that falls outside of "Taking Care of Business," depending on your opinion of the dangers inherent in a Thursday night trip to Wake Forest and back-to-back visits to Boston College and Florida State to open November. Contrary to popular myth, Clemson does not always fold at the end of the season (as often under Tommy Bowden, they’ve done the exact opposite), and it’s significant that it probably enters every game on the schedule, with the possible exception of Alabama, as at least a touchdown favorite, and is favored to win the ACC for the first time since Florida State joined the conference -- it only took four wins over Papa Bowden in five years for the prognostoscenti to give Tommy the benefit of the doubt.
Disregarding the schedule, though, there’s no denying Clemson has moved into position to finally conquer the ACC in the last four years: the Tigers’ recruiting classes have dramatically improved, from consistent finishes in the 50s and 60s in Rivals’ rankings -- behind the likes of Maryland, NC State, Virginia, and North Carolina, among others -- to four straight top 20 classes that have produced better records on the field (three straight eight-win seasons for the first time since 1989-91, again, just before FSU entered the conference) and NFL-bound talent like Cullen Harper, James Davis, C.J. Spiller, Michael Hamlin, Ricky Sapp, Thomas Austin, Chris Clemons, Jacoby Ford, and Dorell Scott, for starters.
Now boys, it’s time to fly.
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It is true that the Tigers have consistently lost games they shouldn’t lose (to Wake Forest, Maryland, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech since 2005, for example), and that precedent is probably keeping them on the fringe of the top ten and out of the mythical championship discussion. But there’s a strong argument, which probably couldn’t be made before, that Clemson is the most talented team in the conference, and it’s been building toward this season with incrementally greater expectations and results the last years; we’ve been waiting for a program to really take hold of this conference since it became obvious FSU and Miami weren’t up to it, and every possible factor points to Clemson taking that step this fall. If not now, then the doubts are really justified.
If you think margins matter, Missouri is your team: the Tigers (this stretch of the countdown does love its Tigers, no?) outscored opponents last year by 17 points per game and only took two of their dozen wins by single digits, over Rose Bowl-bound Illinois in the opener and Orange Bowl-bound Kansas in the finale -- and both the Illini and Jayhawks had to stage late rallies to get the final score within a touchdown. They were felled by the pair of losses to Oklahoma, and basically dominated everyone else, including Nebraska (+35) and bowl teams Texas Tech (+31), Colorado (+45), Texas A&M (+14), and, maybe most memorably, Arkansas (+31) in a Cotton Bowl rout that wasn’t nearly that close. On a week-to-week basis, this may have been the best team in the country.
It seems part of that magic is bound to wear off, since Chase Daniel and the nearly point-a-minute offense can hardly be expected to be better than they were, and there’s only one way to go, etc. But Daniel didn’t come from nowhere: he was excellent as a sophomore, when he completed 63 percent of his passes for 3,500-plus yards and 28 touchdowns, and no one who watched him carve up Illinois, Kansas, and Arkansas on national TV (these are the games I watched personally, in addition to the much less impressive championship loss to Oklahoma) can possibly write him off as a fluke as long as he has a target of the caliber of Jeremy Maclin. It will be a disappointment if they don’t crack at least 35 points per game again, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect 40. Daniel is all he’s cracked up to be.
The caveat is not so much the potential drop-off in the running game with the departure of Tony Temple, or the limitations of the good-not-great defense; it’s more that it seems impossible for Mizzou, a team that hasn’t won a conference championship in many of its players’ parents’ lifetimes and hasn’t made any remarkable inroads in recruiting, can threaten to go undefeated two years in a row. Like Clemson, it’s a presumptive favorite throughout the regular season, in specific games, but Illinois in St. Louis, at Nebraska (Mizzou is 0-15 in Lincoln since 1978), at Texas, and Kansas in Kansas City are serious tests, to say nothing of home games against potentially feisty Oklahoma State and Colorado. And if the Tigers do manage to achieve 12-0, there’s Oklahoma again -- or, just as daunting, some team that managed to beat OU for the South title -- waiting in the Big 12 Championship. In the context of the last four decades of this program, in a year with so many elite contenders, I guess it takes an encore before it deserves the benefit of the doubt.
6. West Virginia
I’ve focused consistently this offseason on the theme of the Mountaineers’ season, which as I see it is something along the lines of "Last, Best Chance" with Pat White and the unprecedented momentum of the RichRod era before falling from the national spotlight, content to compete within the Big East and make the odd run into the polls, as they did under Don Nehlen. That may be dramatic, but expecting WVU to field another combination on the order of White-Slaton or, presumably, White-Devine seems like a sucker’s bet to me. This year figures to be the Mountaineers’ fourth straight top ten finish, which is completely unprecedented (they’d never had two in a row prior to White/Slaton) and probably specific to this particular era.
Despite the overwhelming favor of the preseason polls, WVU has managed to lose two Big East games each of the last two years and must solve South Florida’s defense -- a season-low 19 points vs. USF in 2006, and just 13 in Tampa last year -- before it can take another conference championship for granted. By the time the Bulls roll into freezing Morgantown on Dec. 6, though, at least the stakes will be clear, and the Big East should be up for grabs, if not already sewn up; the Mountaineers’ national ambitions will be defined by two extremely interesting Thursday night games, at Colorado in September and at home against Auburn on Oct. 23, national showcases that could vault WVU onto the mythical championship short list if White remains healthy behind a fully intact, potentially dominant line and the spread ‘n shred remains sharp. Clearly, based on big bowl wins over heavily favored Georgia and Oklahoma since 2005, this team doesn’t mind the bright lights, or the baddest competition. As much as matching up athletically in the big games, it will be finding the consistency and versatility when things get tough against the Rutgers and Cincinnatis that will make the difference between another very good year and an all-time great one.