6. Ohio State
Sure, Ohio State is almost certain to be the Big Ten champion when the season is over, but the Buckeyes' consecutive waxings at the hands of SEC teams on the sport's biggest stage have devalued that title just a bit.
Granted, Ohio State brings back a roster loaded with the talent that took the Buckeyes to the second of those teams; but what does that tell us, really? Ohio State beat not a single team that ended the season in the Top 15 in the AP poll. They beat the eventual No. 24 team -- Wisconsin sans P.J. Hill -- by three TDs and the No. 18 finisher -- Michigan -- by the score of 14-3. That was a team, remember, that lost to Appalachian State.
This year, Ohio State has a chance to prove itself worthy of national title buzz by defeating Southern Cal. But if the Buckeyes don't, how do they move back into the No. 1 or No. 2 slot? By beating Troy the next week? Wisconsin a few weeks later? Penn State? Illinois? A rebuilding Michigan? Would a one-loss Southern Cal, Georgia, Florida, Missouri or Oklahoma not have a far stronger case for a shot at the title than an Ohio State team that will likely not have a Top 10 win to offset its Top 10 loss?
So talk about Todd Boeckman coming back. Talk about Beanie Wells' Heisman campaign. Talk about James Laurinaitis returning to the linebacker spot. But the Buckeyes ultimately have to prove their worth on the field before they can get a Top 5 ballot from this voter. Here's betting they don't. SBN Blog: Around the Oval
7. The Team from the Upstate
Other blogs have already noted the peril of expecting the Team from the Upstate to actually win the ACC and live up to the preseason hype. And Year 2 has pointed out that Tommy Bowden's tenure is already the longest without a conference crown. But -- please wait for a moment as I am anesthisized to kill the gag reflex before delivering this statement -- I believe in the Tiggers.
Granted, part of this is a sadistic fantasy. I would love to see TTFTU come into the South Carolina 11-0 and ranked in the Top 5 before getting knocked off by the Gamecocks. But we know this isn't going to happen, in part because South Carolina likely wouldn't beat a team that good and in part because TTFTU will drop a game somewhere, when you least expect it.
But when? Against N.C. State, Sept. 13? At Wake Forest, Oct. 9? At Florida State, Nov. 8? From the scheduling standpoint, I can see no two weeks that are likely to hold back-to-back battles against ranked teams for the Tiggers. And it's hard to find a trip game anywhere on the schedule. Sure, that could happen if South Carolina grabs a ranking and the opponent in an ACC Championship Game is ranked, but that would be the only way.
Meanwhile, the DaviSpiller is back, and with it, 1,832 yards and 13 TDs rushing. Returning as quarterback is Cullen Harper (282-of-433, 2,991 yards and 27 TDs), a capable, high-efficiency guy who will win a few games on his own and won't lose any. A good chunk of the defense, ranked 9th in the country last year while only allowing 306.8 ypg, is back. If this team loses, it's not the fault of the talent -- it is the coaching, and Clemson should fire give a long term extension to Baby Bowden.
Unless Florida State rises from the ashes (as some expect) to top the Tiggers, there appears to be nothing to stop them from winning the ACC and heading to the BCS for the first time. Ugh.
New quarterback. Two new coordinators. But the Brandon Cox experiment is over, and Al Borges has taken his decreasingly effective playbook away from the Plains. That should count for something.
How much, though? Is Auburn really good enough to beat out LSU for the lead in the SEC West, or are they just a default pick because the Bayou Bengals are supposed to be down a few pegs this year?
Tommy Tuberville is promising a new kind of spread, though, like the West Coast Offense in the NFL, every contending college team must now pledge fealty to the spread while telling you how theirs is really much different from everyone else's. Pick a quarterback -- the assumption has been that Kodi Burns is the front-runner, but Chris Todd is coming on strong -- and Auburn should be able to take off offensively. This is the year for Ben Tate, who rushed for 903 yards and 8 TDs last year, to emerge as a legitimate top-notch SEC back. (Having plans B and C like Brad Lester and Mario Fannin doesn't exactly hurt.) We might find out how good the WRs are now that they look to have a competent passer on the other end of the throws.
Seven starters return to a defense ranked 6th in the country (and 2nd in the SEC) last year, allowing 297.9 ypg. The only major loss is Patrick Lee, with 10 passes broken up and four INTs. Antonio Coleman brings back his 8.5 sacks.
And Tuberville is known for getting the best out of his teams. He's the only coach in recent memory to go undefeated in the SEC and not win a national title, though the Auburn faithful are hopeful that that could change retroactively. Not winning the West will be a disappointment. SBN Blog: Track 'Em Tigers
9. Texas Tech
When I began this exercise, I was skeptical about the buzz surrounding the Red Raiders. After all, isn't this the same Texas Tech team that always has a video game offense and no defense to speak of. Isn't this the same squad that loses games 59-43, 49-45 and so on?
Well, technically, yes. But this year could be different. While the national defensive numbers weren't impressive in 2007, Texas Tech was among the top three in the conference in scoring, pass efficiency and total defense. The rushing numbers, 177.0 ypg, were abysmal, but the defensive line is just as deep and experienced this year as it was young and green last year. The only major losses are leading tackler SS Joe Garcia, pass break-up machine CB Chris Parker and LB Paul Williams.
And the offense is exactly what you've come to expect from Texas Tech: They will pass early and pass often. QB Graham Harrell comes back after a 5,705-yard, 48-TD campaign. WR Michael Crabtee returns with his 1,962 receiving yards and 22 scores. Of course, this being Texas Tech, you would like to see more running. The Red Raiders have topped 100 ypg just twice in the last six years; last year, Texas Tech picked up 59 ground yards a contest.
The schedule is manageable. The only mildly interesting contest in September is Nevada, and it's hard to argue that Texas Tech won't be 6-1 or (more likely) 7-0 before a three-week stretch that includes at Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma State. A bye week comes before the likely division-defining showdown at Oklahoma on Nov. 22. SBN Blog: Double-T Nation
The Bengals are one of those teams that you almost have to rank every year by dent of their talent. (Yes, I'm trying to avoid a sentence using the words "rebuild" or "reload." Oops.) Nick Saban put the program on auto-recruit several years ago, and it's stayed there through the early successes of the Les Miles year.
But Miles looks fall a few salt-water taffy pieces short of the SEC West crown this year. Auburn is also loaded, and LSU loses Matt Flynn, Jacob Hester and Early Doucet on offense and Craig Steltz, Ali Highsmith, Glenn Dorsey, Jonathan Zenon and Chavis Jackson on defense. At least they have Ryan Perrilloux coming back to handle the quarterback duties. What's that you say? Oh. Well.
But, again, it's LSU. They can almost glide to nine wins, right? With the schedule they have -- maybe. The first three games should be wins, particularly since the Tigers won't overlook Appalachian State after the Mountaineers' win at the Big House. (ASU-Michigan mention No. 2.)
The first challenge is the annual bizarreness known as the Auburn game, played Sept. 20 this year on the Plains. But that begins a five-game stretch that also includes Mississippi State (Sept. 27), at Florida (Oct. 11), at South Carolina (Oct. 18), and Georgia (Oct. 25). It's not hard to see LSU sitting at 5-3 after that. But the season ends with Tulane, Alabama, Mississippi and at Arkansas. More than one loss among those teams would be stunning.
If LSU wins all the games they should and pulls out one of the Auburn-Florida-Georgia tandem, they're set up for a 10-2 season. Just another year in the Bayou. SBN Blog: And the Valley Shook