Why They’re Here: The Iowa Hawkeyes are kind of like that girl in high school that is actually really hot but no one notices her because she has a flat chest and is kind of antisocial. She’s got a nice body and is really cute in the face (maybe she’s got a weird nose or something) but she doesn’t talk to anyone or go to parties, so she never gets included in the “hottest girl in school” conversation, even though she absolutely should be. The Hawkeyes’ great body is their offensive line, which even without LT Bryan Bulaga and a number of other stand outs from last season should be above average. The face is quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who can absolutely play the game, but isn’t flashy, big or particularly interesting for any reason. And the fact that they’re antisocial is really due to them being boring and antisocial – and from Iowa.
The Good: Kirk Ferentz is quietly starting to look like one of the best coaches in the Big (11, maybe 12 next year) Ten Conference, if not the best. He has a knack for building and rebuilding offensive lines and for installing powerful rushing attacks. He’s a master of the faceless team – outside of Stanzi and Bulaga, can you name a starter on either side of the ball for Iowa in 2009? They return eight starters to last year’s fantastic defense and they get to play Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State at home this year.
The Bad: The offensive line – the key to any success on offense – will need to be almost completely rebuilt. Bulaga was the biggest departure, but the Hawkeyes will also have question marks at right tackle and the center position. This offense needs an anchor at left tackle to keep Stanzi upright and Center is the most important position on the line for the running game and for making calls in the passing game. How well Ferentz fills those holes will determine how good this team is.
The Last Word: Stanzi is the key. Those who make College Football Odds know the defense should be there, the running game should be there and the coaching will be there… but can Stanzi deliver? If he has a great year – meaning the offense can rely on him to actually make plays, not just to keep them from losing by throwing stupid interceptions – this team can compete for a national championship. Really. The stars have aligned for the Hawkeyes this year and they’ll be flying just enough below the radar to have a chance. If Stanzi holds up his end of the bargain, there should be a lot of chips on the table when Ohio State comes to town on November 20.
Final Record: 12-1
Why They’re Here: The question to be answered this year is whether Texas’ pathetic excuse for a running game the last four years can be great again. With guys like Cedric Benson, Jamaal Charles and Ricky Williams having toted the rock for the burnt orange in recent memory, it’s absolutely bewildering that this is a team that’s been unable to find a running game the last few years. Mack Brown, who will probably be college football’s next incarnation of Bobby Bowden, is still at the helm and he’ll have to show that he can replace a legendary quarterback (again).
The Good: Despite losing LB Sergio Kindle, DT Lamar Houston and S Earl Thomas to the League this year, the Longhorns are poised to have probably the best defense in the Big 12. They return seven starters including every member of their secondary except Thomas, which ain’t too bad given what we saw from Blake Gideon and the Brown boys (Chykie and Curtis) last season. Nate Newton’s son, (who I think is literally half the size Nate was when he played for the Cowboys) Tre, returns to the offensive backfield along with my second favorite name in all of college football, (after T-Bob Hebert) Fozzy Whittaker.
The Bad: In Austin the question is whether Colt McCoy carried the ground game on his back because he could or because he had to. Without him, the Longhorns did basically nothing on the ground last season. If sophomore QB Garrett Gilbert doesn’t turn out to be a playmaker of McCoy’s caliber, the offense may be in some serious trouble. McCoy didn’t just make plays in the running game, he bailed himself out of a lot of bad situations in the passing game as well. That’s something you can’t design or put into a gameplan. The loss of Jordan Shipley is going to be huge as well, since he was not just a playmaker on offense, but on special teams as well. Finding guys who can play at the level of those two stars and creating a running game not dependent on the quarterback are Mack Brown’s two biggest issues this season.
The Last Word: I expect this team to be all defense this year. Nothing against Garrett Gilbert, but watching him against Alabama in the national championship game last year did not bring me memories of Vince Young or Colt McCoy. It’s hard to follow a legend, and it’s gotta be even harder following two. I can’t say that I see Gilbert carrying this team the way both of those guys did and Mack Brown hasn’t shown he’s got what it takes to win without a superstar at QB. Then again, he hasn’t had to. The horns have a four-week death row on their schedule where they play at Texas Tech, then home for UCLA, to Dallas for Oklahoma and then to Lincoln to play Nebraska without a week off. I fully expect them to lose two of those games, and three wouldn’t surprise me. If they can come out of that stretch unscathed, though, be prepared to talk national championship.
Final Record: 9-4
Lane Kiffin is at it again… Over the weekend he hired Kennedy Pola to be his new Offensive Coordinator for the Trojans. Only problem, he ruffled Jeff Fisher’s feathers in the process. You see, until recently, Pola had been the Titans Running Backs coach, and Kiffin didn’t even bother to ask Fisher’s permission ahead of time. Classy, Lane. Real classy.
Why They’re Here: Question marks abound for this Oklahoma team. Landry Jones is a big question mark at quarterback, but he’s not the biggest one. Gerald McCoy anchored this defense and Trent Williams anchored the offense. The importance of an all-American left tackle cannot be overstated and neither can that of an all-American defensive tackle. The skill players get all the glory, but it’s the big hogs down in the trenches that really define a team and make the difference between greatness and mediocrity. I’ve never known a Bob Stoops team not to reload, but he lost some once-in-a-lifetime big boys this offseason.
The Good: Oklahoma returns nine starters from last season. Getting Landry Jones gametime experience last year turned out to not be so great, but that was last season. That bodes very well for this season. You can’t replicate the intensity of the fourth quarter on the road against Oklahoma State or against Texas in the Red River Rivalry. The kid has now gone through it, taken his lumps and lived to fight another day. As Kobe Bryant would say, he’s “battle tested,” and a battle tested quarterback is an absolute necessity in the Big 12.
The Bad: In addition to losing two big, beefy hosses in Williams and McCoy to the NFL, Stoops will also have to replace RB Chris Brown and TE Jermaine Gresham on offense. On defense, the Sooners only return four guys who started last year, and two of them are on the D-line, which will be a big question without McCoy. Also, Landry Jones was nobody’s Sam Bradford last year. With a full offseason and spring as the team’s leader behind him, he’s all out of excuses if this team doesn’t win.
The Last Word: Stoops is an excellent recruiter and he brought in a top 5 class this offseason that included not one, not two, but three four-star defensive tackles. With his penchant for finding freshman gems, I doubt there will be a significant drop off in talent. I expect this team to reload and be back to national prominence. Folks in Norman don’t take too kindly to appearances in the Sun Bowl. Don’t be surprised if they are squarely in the hunt for the national championship this season. But that all – and I do mean all – depends on Landry Jones.
Final Record: 12-2
Why They’re Here: Nesbitt, Allen and Jones. This backfield trio carried Tech last year to the ACC title with only six scholarship seniors on the team. The triumvirate, which I will absolutely have to think up a name for (I was considering “The Blackfield” but that doesn’t really do them justice), is college football’s most potent rushing attack. Even after 50 years, teams still haven’t figured out how to shut down the triple option – especially when it’s run by the right players.
On defense, the team returns nine starters to a unit that was less than stellar last season. Tech will be instituting the 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Al Groh. If anyone can make the 3-4 a winner it’s Groh, a disciple of Bill Parcells and former Virginia head coach.
The Good: In addition to Nesbitt, Allen and Jones, adding Al Groh to the mix on the defensive headset is huge. Head Coach Paul Johnson’s triple option doesn’t look to be any less effective than it was in 1906 when he first started running it. The best thing about this offense is that it’s always a change of pace for defenses to prepare for. It completely changes the way linebackers, defensive ends and corners have to play. It also forces a defense to play disciplined football. Any team with players looking to make superstar plays instead of covering their assignment is going to get beat. And you couldn’t ask for three better guys to run it, Josh Nesbitt is a triple option coach’s wet dream in terms of running power and decision making. He can also put the ball in the air and make things happen.
The Bad: This ain’t Navy. Johnson has run the triple option successfully in the ACC for two years and as impressive as that is a) It’s been a down couple years in the ACC and b) ACC defensive coordinators get paid a lot more money and have access to a lot more resources. With the drastic improvements all over the conference, Johnson’s triple option will be going up against some serious challenges this year. Now that they’re the champs, the bullseye is squarely on the Yellow Jackets’ back. Then there’s the defense.
Tech was BAD on defense last year, but their offense was able to put up enough points to still win games. Adjusting to a new system and a new coach is usually not the recipe for a championship season, even with a good defense.
The Last Word: Iowa’s victory in last year’s Orange Bowl showed what a team with a strong and disciplined defense could do against the Jackets. Everyone is expecting the defense to be better under Groh, but it remains to be seen whether it was the system or the players that failed Tech last year. Heavy is the crown and Georgia Tech won’t be flying under anyone’s radar this season.
Final Record: 9-4
Why They’re Here: It’s the end of the Tebow era and no one is quite sure what that means. John Brantley is the man now and I think he’s got Peyton Manning Danny Weurffel-level talent. The defense lost five starters and so did the offense, which is a lot of leadership to give to the NFL. How good they are this year will be determined by how well they fill those holes.
The Good: Everyone in Gainesville is excited for John Brantley. He’s not Tim Tebow by a long shot, but he excels in a number of different areas. From what we’ve seen of him in Gator blowouts and this year’s spring game, he’s got a rocket for an arm and is tremendously accurate. They’ve also got freshman Trey Burton and the converted tight end Jordan Reed to run the option. Burton’s feet looked great in the spring game. He had a 76-yard scramble where he ran through tackles and spun around defensive backs.
This year’s recruiting class also has Gator fans doing backflips. Coach Meyer’s class was ranked number one in the nation by both ESPN and Scout.com. Word is, this class could be as good – or better (gasp!) – than the 2006 class that included Tebow, LB Brnadon Spikes, and WRs Percy Harvin and Riley Cooper. While the question of how good this class really is remains to be seen, if they can contribute the way the class of ’06 did, don’t sleep on this team.
The Bad: The Gators are basically playing this season without a senior class. In addition to the notable departures of CB Joe Haden and DE Carlos Dunlap, Florida also lost all-conference tight end Aaron Hernandez, PR/KR/WR Brandon James, one-half of the Pouncey twins, C Maurkice Pouncey; and S Major Wright. This is in addition to the stellar senior class that is gone and of course…this guy http://bit.ly/cDPJ8E. It’s tough enough to lose a leader and a player like Tebow and a group like the 2010 class, but losing most of the big names from the 2011 class may just be too much.
The Last Word: The questions for the Gators this season aren’t at QB, they’re everywhere else. There’s no doubt in my mind that John Brantley will be phenomenal. Had the 2011 class come back for their senior year, I would absolutely have this team rated in the top 5, maybe even in the top 3. But they didn’t. Even with all that, Florida still has the best head coach in the business and the best recruiting class in the nation. If guys like Burton, Jelani Jenkins and Dee Finley can be difference makers for the Gators, they can challenge Alabama again for the SEC title (Alabama-Florida III!). Even if all that happens, Florida’s schedule includes a tough Georgia team this year and Alabama at Tuscaloosa followed by LSU the next week. Add to that, they’ll face the biggest challenge from Florida State they’ve had in seven years.
Final Record: 11-3
Why They’re Here: Some people have the Huskers ranked above the Longhorns and the Sooners in the Big 12 this season. While I’m not going to go that far, I will say this team can be dangerous. Apparently Bo Pelini is a recruiting savant. Since he’s been in Lincoln the Blackshirts are finally back – I know the so-called experts say this every time Nebraska’s defense isn’t pathetic, but I think this is the first year it’s actually been true.
The Good: Bo and baby brother Carl Pelini have the Nebraska defense back at a level of respectability they haven’t had since the 90s. He’s also found his running game with the emergence of Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead. The offense also returns 10 starters, including four out of five offensive linemen.
The Huskers had a top 25 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com, which goes a long way in the ultra competitive Big 12 conference they’ll be leaving next year and the not-at-all competitive Big 12 North.
In fact, the Huskers only challenge in the North this year will come from Missouri, who they devoured 27-12 in a rainy day affair last year. They’ve also wisely replaced Virginia Tech on this year’s schedule with South Dakota State. Save for some monumental hiccup, the Huskers should be 5-0 heading into their October 16 showdown with Texas.
The Bad: The defense returns seven starters from last year’s defense, none of whom are named Ndamukong Suh. Here’s the thing, having a DT who can get 12 sacks, 85 tackles and 10 passes defended in a season will really help hide any deficiencies in your defense. Suh was a monster and probably one of the best to ever play the position (most people probably don’t realize how out-of-this-solar-system those stats are for a defensive tackle). Without him there to disrupt plays and pressure the quarterback, it remains to be seen what Nebraska’s defense is really made of. There’s also the question mark at quarterback. Zac Lee is back, but apparently his spot is being challenged by redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez and sophomore Cody Green, who were very impressive in Nebraska’s spring game. Quarterback controversy is never good for a team. To paraphrase the old adage, if you have three quarterbacks, you have none.
The Last Word: If Nebraska can settle on a starter before the season starts and stick with him through the season and if the defense proves to be more than 10 guys who rode Suh for 14 games last season, they could compete for their final Big 12 Championship. They’re almost assured to be there by virtue of the competition, or lack there of, in the North, but what’s important is what they do when they get there.
Final Record: 9-4
Why They’re Here: The Badgers return 10 starters on offense from a team that finished last year with 10 wins. It looks like the Badgers are back to hard-nosed, grind-it-out football, with a renewed commitment to running the ball. They’ve also got QB Scott Tolzien returning as the guy who gets the ball from the center and hands it off, which is a definite plus. Tolzien may not be a big stud with first-round potential, but he’s a senior and he’s had experience in the offense, which is always a good thing.
The Good: Wisconsin should have the best one-two punch of running backs in the Big (12?) Ten. All-conference hoss RB John Clay will bring the wood and at 6’2 and 247 lbs, defenders would be advised to watch out. Clay is a big, bad man who brings to mind recollections of Ron Dayne…and Shaft. The Badgers also have a great change of pace back in Montee Ball, who – at 5’11, 225 – is no punk, himself. These two big, beefy beasts will be running behind a line that returns all five starters, including All-Big Ten OT Gabe Carimi and OG John Moffitt.
The Bad: The defense will need to be rebuilt and Tolzien will need to be effective for the Badgers to be anything other than the third best team in the conference. And he will have even greater expectations now that backup Curt Phillips has torn his ACL and will be out for the season. If Tolzien is truly plebian, the Badgers could even finish fourth in the conference like they did last year.
The Last Word: This team will go as far as Tolzien takes them. Teams are going to load the box to try to stop Clay and will probably be daring the Badgers to throw on them. I’m confident that with Ball and RB Zach Brown to spell him, Clay will be a destructive highlight machine this year, the question is whether that will translate into big wins or just SportsCenter highlights. If the Badgers can put some wins together (they play Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Iowa back-to-back-to-back-to-back) Clay could be a finalist for the Heisman and this team could compete for the Big (12?) Ten title.
Final Record: 9-4
Why They’re Here: There’s another hot seat in the SEC and it belongs to Mark Richt. The fact that Les Miles (although, he deserves it for that monumental brain fart in the Ole Miss game) and Richt have questionable job security really shows you how outrageous people’s expectations are in college football. Richt is 90-27 all-time at Georgia and has a 7-2 bowl record. But that’s not what’s important to people in Athens. All they know is Richt hasn’t won an SEC title since 2005 or even an SEC East title since that year. They’ve been owned by fierce rivals Florida (excluding that little episode in 2007 that we won’t speak of) and Georgia Tech since 2005 as well. Having a number one draft pick guide the team, which was ranked number one to start the season, to a 10-3 record and an appearance in the Capitol One Bowl in 2008 didn’t help things. And last year’s starter Joe Cox and an 8-5 record weren’t much help for Richt’s cause either.
The Good: Georgia is still considered an elite SEC team and can legitimately make a run in the polls. The team returns its entire O-line, star-in-the-making RB Washaun Ealey, and WR AJ Green, who is probably the best receiver in the conference. This team has weapons on offense and if there’s a coach in the SEC, other than Urban Meyer, who knows how to use offensive weapons, it’s Mark Richt.
The Bad: Quarterback isn’t just a position in college football, it’s THE position in college football. Having a quarterback is 90 percent of the battle at this level and the knife cuts both ways. The Dawgs had a QB in waiting with Logan Gray and a top 25 recruiting class this year that included two potential QB starters, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger. Unfortunately Mettenberger was dismissed from the team and Gray was converted to wide receiver and then almost transferred. With guys like Matt Stafford, DJ Shcokley, Quincy Carter and David Greene in recent memory, it’s hard for Dawgs fans to put up with sloppy quarterback play. Last year’s starter, Joe Cox, was probably the worst Georgia QB in 15 years. If no one shows up behind center for Georgia this year, it’s game over.
The Last Word: The big question for Georgia going into the season is what Richt will do at quarterback. With a stacked running attack (rhyme unintentional) and an offensive line like the one Georgia has returning this year, anyone worth a scholarship should be able to get out there and put some points on the board. The defense should be rebuilt as well, but may still have some problems getting to the quarterback. This team is flying under most people’s radar right now, which should help them. Their September 11 game against South Carolina will go a long way toward measuring both teams potential this season.
Final Record: 9-4
What would have happened had the Lakers not won two home games in a row? Defending champs, favored to do it again, and what’s best, they were playing the Boston Celtics. Revenge time, it all comes full circle, not only is there redemption for what happened in 2008 …
It almost blew up.
See, in 2008 when the Lakers lost I wasn’t devastated. Sure it was sad. It was even worse that the clincher, game six in Boston, was a serious stomping. But it was fine, the Lakers shouldn’t have been there. They were just another NBA team that got Pau Gasol donated and all of a sudden they get to the championship.
Just happy to be there.
But they rallied the next year. This one had potential for major hurt because the Lakers were the better team. And when the better team loses it’s heartbreaking.
I have had a few bouts with my favorite teams losing when they were the better team. Some I have recovered from, others haunt me to this day. Luckily, I don’t have to recover from a 2010 Lakers collapse.
Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots, 2001 AFC semifinals
Although I’m not from Oakland, as a kid the Raiders played in Los Angeles. They were my pro team. So when they moved to Oakland I still followed them.
This was a solid team that seemed like they had made a big defensive stand by stripping the ball from Tom Brady. They were on the verge of securing a win in snowy New England.
Then the inexplicable tuck rule was called. That must be the most replayed play in NFL history. Brady clearly wasn’t throwing the ball. So it’s a fumble, right? To this day that’s one of the strangest calls in sports history.
The Patriots went on to win Super Bowl XXXVI.
Oakland Raiders vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl XXXVII
The Raiders with their wealth of veteran talent went to the Super Bowl and were favored against the Buccaneers. Oakland had more talent and was led by NFL MVP Rich Gannon.
Unfortunately for them, their former coach, Jon Gruden left to lead Tampa Bay. When these teams met, it wasn’t even close. Gruden knew exactly what his former team was going to run. Raiders coach Bill Callahan changed nothing.
What should have been a sweet taste of the Vince Lombardi trophy for the Raiders turned into gut-punching defeat. How could a team with Gannon, future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Rod Woodson, Bill Romanowski and other Pro Bowl caliber players lose so badly?
In NFL films footage Buccaneers safety John Lynch tells his teammates during the game what plays are about to happen. In some instances Callahan didn’t even change the audibles for the Raiders.
With that inside knowledge Tampa Bay won, 48-21. Thanks for nothing, Bill Callahan.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons, 2004 NBA Finals
This was the one that had the potential of being the most devastating run in sports history. Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson … This was too good to be true.
Like Persephone in “The Matrix Reloaded” noted, “Such a thing was not meant to last.” It’s easier to hear when Monica Bellucci in a sexy dress says it. The Lakers were making their fourth trip to the finals in five years.
They had dominated the league during Jackson’s reign. The Lakers were so fearsome when they returned to the finals in 2004, forward Rick Fox said the previous year’s misstep was a “pause.” People had said Shaq and Kobe were so good, it was like Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain were on the same team.
Who could stop these guys? NBA Commissioner David Stern once noted the best finals matchup would be the Lakers vs. the Lakers. And that’s what happened.
The Detroit Pistons happened to be there. Kobe vs. Shaq, Big Chief Triangle vs. the organization, Gary Payton vs. the team, Karl Malone’s injury. NBA analyst Tom Tolbert said if the Lakers lost the championship the whole season would be a disappointment.
He was right. The franchise was dismantled after the loss. Shaq was traded for far below value, Malone retired, Payton and Fox were traded, and Derek Fisher signed elsewhere. But Kobe re-signed. These guys had limitless potential.
Shaq still plays and had he been teamed with Kobe, along with other prime free agents, the Lakers could have won more than five titles in 11 years. Those were sad years after Shaq left.
USC Trojans vs. Texas Longhorns, 2006 college football national championship
Texas was a great team. I think USC was a bit better. Unlike a seven-game series, however, the better team doesn’t always win in football.
This one really crushed me. USC had won two straight national championships and were in line for a third. This was and still is unprecedented in the modern era. And don’t think for a second that Reggie Bush’s parents living in some house had something to do with success on the field.
Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart came close to capping off a career with three national titles and one loss. These numbers would have put Leinart up there with one of the best, if not the best college quarterbacks of all time. But Vince Young of the Longhorns had a monstrous game passing for 267 yards and rushing for 200.
Surprisingly, Young’s effort gave him so much notoriety, ESPN named him one of the 25 greatest players in college football history and not Leinart. So Leinart wins more national titles than Young, wins a Heisman Trophy, puts up better numbers and wins more games and Young gets named to this list?
USC Trojans vs. UCLA Bruins, college football, 2006 regular season finale
In a rebuilding year USC needed to win one game to advance to the Bowl Championship Series title game. UCLA was an average team, but had some strong players on defense.
It was a game Bruins fans will remember forever. And Trojans want to forget it. I was at that game, sitting on the UCLA side, my friend and I the only ones wearing cardinal USC shirts.
The Bruins put together one of the most stellar defensive efforts ever, holding the Trojans, an offensive powerhouse, to just nine points.
What hurt most about this loss was the potential opponent for USC in the title game: Ohio State, the whipping dog of championship foes for years. Florida whipped the Buckeyes for the national championship. That could have been USC.