Why They’re Here: They’re the champs. And you’ve got to beat the champs to be the champs. On offense, the Tide only got better. They return eight starters from a team that was exceptional last year and that includes Heisman Trophy winner RB Mark Ingram. Alabama will need to reload on defense, but come on, this is Nick Saban we’re talking about.
The Good: You know you’re ridiculously, obscenely loaded with talent when you’ve got a returning junior Heisman Trophy winner and he’s not even the thing you’re most excited about for the season. ‘Bama has always been defense, defense, defense and more defense during the Saban era (amazing that era is only four-years-old isn’t it?). After defense, the team’s next thought was defense. No more! This year the Tide look to be loaded with talent, from Ingram to fellow RB Trent Richardson to WR Julio Jones, the Tide look scary on O. Perhaps the biggest reason for head coach Nick Saban to smile may be QB Greg McElroy, who’s entering his senior season. He’s got all the weapons a young quarterback could ask for and from the look of things, he’s got all the skills too. On defense, the Tide only return three starters, but if there’s any coach and any team that we should believe can overcome that problem it’s this coach and this team. They also retain first team All-SEC S Mark Barron.
The Bad: There is cause for some worry in ole Tuscaloosa. First, no SEC team has every completed back-to-back undefeated seasons in the history of the conference. Alabama is also trying to go 8-0 in SEC play for the third straight year (the 2008 loss to Florida in the conference championship game doesn’t count), no team has ever accomplished that. Not only is history against the Tide, but historically speaking, the conference is too good for one team to dominate it for more than a year or two. ‘Bama will also have to play six teams coming off their bye week, that’s two more than any other team in conference history has every played. The teams they’ll play: arch-rival Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee. Not exactly the children of the poor. Not only will the target be on their backs, but six pretty good teams will get an extra week to prepare for them.
The Final Word: This team will need to be ready for war every time they step on the field. If there’s even a hint of complacency the Tide are going to get rolled and it won’t be pretty. They’ll get their first test on Sept. 11 against Penn State and the hits will keep on coming. They get Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Tennessee in a murderers row after playing Duke. If this team makes it to the national championship they’ll have earned it and they’ll be as good as we all think they can be. As good as they are, I don’t know that even this team can overcome everything that’s stacked against them. Then again, if any team can do it, it’s this team.
Final Record: 13-1
Why They’re Here: Like everyone else who writes about college football, I refuse to give up and accept that the Big (12) Ten has become an inferior conference. The Buckeyes are sort of like the Spurs this past year. You know that there’s no way they’re actually going to win a championship with the roster they had assembled, but you have to take them seriously anyway, because they’re always a threat. You never know what Head Coach Jim Tressel’s got up his sleve, and QB Tyrelle Pryor may just be great after all. Remember Vince Young’s sophomore season? Atrocious – 1,849 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions. There’s certainly hope for the young Mr. Pryor, yet.
The Good: For all the crap I give the Buckeyes, this is actually a very, very talented team at almost every position. They return stand-out running backs Boom Herron and Brandon Saine and 16 starters from last year. Their secondary has been monstrous the past couple seasons and shows no signs of not being able to reload. Tressel has also been building for this year since 2005 when he first started recruiting Pryor. He’s been trying to create a pocket passing quarterback who can read the field, make all the throws and deliver the long bomb, but can also pull the ball down and beat anyone on the field to the end zone. Most coaches have been content to let their mobile quarterback simply be a runner or a passer. Tressel is trying to groom Pryor to be the first college QB who is a legitimate pocket presence, but can also destroy you for not respecting his scrambling ability. If it works, watch out.
The Bad: If it doesn’t work and Tressel has overloaded Pryor like a lot of people in Ohio think he has, the coach better watch out. He could be getting the ol’ pink slip. This whole season is on Pryor’s shoulders and if he can rise to the occasion, he’ll be legendary, but legends aren’t made, they’re born. The question is, does he have it in him?
The Last Word: One of three things will happen to Ohio State this season: 1) Tyrelle Pryor will emerge to silence all his critics by becoming the unholy spawn of Vince Young and Peyton Manning. It will literally be impossible to stop him and he will score five touchdowns against Michigan to win The Game for the Buckeyes in what sports writers across the nation will call “The Greatest College Performance Ever Witnessed.” The Buckeyes go undefeated and demolish Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in a cudgeling not seen since Oklahoma – USC 2005 (a game that, according to the N-C-Double-A-holes, never actually happened). 2) Pryor gets injured, doesn’t spend enough time with his playbook or generally underachieves, but the Buckeyes still win the Big (12) Ten because Iowa has no playmakers on offense and the rest of the conference has been in the trash compactor since 1999. They then get squarely beaten in the Rose Bowl by whatever team from the Pac (12) Ten gets USC’s spot. 3) Prior doesn’t get hurt, but underachieves to the point that the Bucks lose stingers to Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin, or at least three of those games, Pryor gets benched and Tressel gets fired. My money’s on number two, but one or three would make this a much more exciting football season in general.
Final Record: 8-4
Why They’re Here: Boise State is movin up in the world. This is the highest ranking the Broncos – or as I’ll be referring to them as henceforth, Blue Magic – have ever had and they’ve certainly earned it. They’ve managed three undefeated seasons in four years and have played in two BCS bowls and won both in that time. That’s an impressive resume no matter who plays in your conference. They’ll have to earn their way in, but if Blue Magic takes care of business they have an amazing chance to play for the BCS National Championship this year. That’s something no one would have thought even three years ago.
The Good: Blue Magic have everything going for them. They’ve managed to keep their coach from dumping them for a prettier program with no money, their first-thought Heisman quarterback is returning for his junior season – his third as a starter – and the running game and defense have never looked better. In fact, this squad returns 19 starters from a team that beat one of the nation’s best teams in last year’s Sugar Bowl. They’re ready for this number three ranking. They’ve earned it.
The Bad: Boise State being ranked third (which they probably will be in most national polls when the season starts, not just here) is sort of like Rudy starting for Notre Dame. Yeah, you pulled for him to get in the game, because he had to earn it and we all cried a little when he hit the field, but do you really want him out there starting the game with the first team D? Ask yourself how you’d really feel about a guy “five-foot-nothin, a hundred-and-nothin,” starting for your team. That’s sort of how it is with Boise State. We all loved them as a Cinderella story, but do we really want them out there with the first string D, week in and week out? With respect comes expectations and Blue Magic is going to have to bring it every week. They’ve always had the bull’s-eye on their back in the WAC, but they have now become every other team’s ticket to the national spotlight. One off week, one bad play, one botched call and it’s all over and the program may never have this opportunity again. No one at Boise has ever had to carry that kind of load – they were always the Little Engine That Could – and it will be interesting to see if they’ve got the stones to make it happen. Having a first-thought Heisman candidate who will have to air it out to get the necessary votes to become the school’s first-ever winner will add another wrinkle to the equation – especially since Blue Magic are at their best when the utilize the ground game.
The Last Word: Can you imagine splediferousness (that’s a Don King word) of a Boise State-Alabama national championship game? It would put Duke-Davidson to shame. It would be the greatest thing to happen to college football since Tim Tebow. Bama-Blue Magic would bring in a 40 rating, easy. Who wouldn’t want to watch The Little Engine That Could take on the most illustrious, untouchable program in the history of college football, coached by probably the most pompous, swaggerific coach in the game this side of Lane Kiffin? Would you miss that game? Not for the birth of your first son. The football gods have been plotting this one. I may be all alone in this one, but I think they can do it.
Final Record: 14 – 0
Disclaimer: When I made this top 25, I had the [Name Removed] as my number four ranked team. That was before certain players had their Heisman trophy taken away, entire seasons were removed from the record books and they were banned from not only bowl games, but from even being considered for the coaches poll.
The Good: I figured even without [unnamed former coach] and with a cloud of NCAA sanctions hanging over them, [Name Removed] could compete for a Pac-10 title and maybe salvage something from this season. Because [Name Removed] were challenging NCAA sanctions, I thought – as apparently [Name Removed] officials, coaches and the now-fired athletic director did – that [Name Removed] would still be ranked this season. We were all wrong. This team still has a ton of talent, even without Seantrel Henderson, D.J. Shoemate and others who have abandoned [Name Removed] and if they weren’t barred from being ranked, they could probably be ranked pretty high. As high as number four on a preseason top 25 list, for instance.
The Bad: They’re playing for nothing. No rankings, no bowl, no championship, nothing. I can’t even begin to imagine how deflating that’s got to get. What do you even say to a team in a locker room before a game? “Boys, I know even if we win tonight it won’t mean anything and no matter how well we do this season, we’re playing for pride and nothing else and this isn’t even a rivalry game we’re playing, but we need to win. We need to win because…because…well…because you can’t lose. You don’t want to be a loser. Losers never get laid.” I could see Kiffin giving that speech.
The Last Word: Everything about this essentially nonexistent season will depend on whether or not this team can keep trucking along knowing they’re playing for nothing. Their situation sort of reminds me of the beginning of “Operation Mayhem” where Ed Norton and Brad Pitt would make recruits stand outside and if the recruit stayed for three days without food, water or encouragement he would be let in. Except in this case it’s two years.
Final Record: 12-0. Not that it matters, but I’m praying to every god in existence that they go undefeated. Would anything be more hilariously ironic than seeing this team go undefeated and having no chance to play for a national championship or any bowl game at all? Maybe I just have a twisted sense of humor. Maybe I’ve been living in LA too long.
The Good: The Hokies still have Tyrod Taylor and Frank Beamer. Coach BMW has proven the last few years that you don’t need superstars or even particularly good players to compete year-in and year-out for a conference title. Tyrod Taylor also showed that he might actually be able to pass the ball with some consistency last year, which is dangerous for opposing defenses. The Hokies should be stacked on offense this year, unlike the past few where they’ve relied almost entirely on their defense and Taylor’s play-making ability to even stay competitive. RB Ryan Williams is poised to have a breakout season and with defenses already scared to death of what Taylor can do with his feet, the Hokies’ offense should have a lot to work with.
The Bad: I make it a point to never doubt the capacity to rebuild on defense of a defensive mastermind and I won’t do it here. I’ll just point out V-Tech is only returning four starters on defense and leave it at that. Tech had the No. 1 rated pass defense last year, but they’ll need to replace three of their secondary guys. They’ll also need Taylor to show up and throw the ball downfield. Taylor will need to be able to threaten defenses with his arm regularly, not just on occasion, for this team to triumph in the ACC.
The Last Word: The game that could determine this entire college football season happens on Sept. 6 when Va. Tech hosts Boise State. If Boise wins, they have a legitimate claim to be the number 2 team in the country, given their victory in last year’s Sugar Bowl and their likely preseason top 5 ranking. If Tech wins, they would have a rightful claim to that potential number 2 or 3 spot, which could potentially put two ACC teams into the top 5. That would center the college football world squarely on the conference and provided they can keep up the winning – Tech then plays James Madison, Eastern Carolina, Boston College, NC State, Central Michigan, and Wake Forrest before their next legitimate game against Georgia Tech – the ACC champion will most assuredly be in the National Championship game. The first game of the season has never meant more to more people. Rest assured, the entire NCAA is praying for Virginia Tech.
Final Record: 11-2
Why They’re Here: As much as I hate that stupid slogan and as overused and hackneyed as it’s become, The U is…you know what, on second thought I’m not going to say it. But I will say this, coach Randy Shannon has rebuilt the program into a more than formidable foe and this team has the personnel to bring the glory back to Coral Gables…and Miami.
The Good: The young man QB Jacory Harris has reached that pivotal season in his career where he’s no longer an overachieving youngster. During his freshman and sophomore campaigns no one was expecting too much from him, but all that is over this year. I expect Harris to be in the Heisman conversation come December (and yes, I’m aware I’m pretty much alone in that expectation). The Canes lost RB Javarris James, but five-star recruit Storm Johnson should be able to step in and tote the rock admirably. Coach Shannon also brought in a pair of big four-star recruits on the line to help shore things up. And THIS JUST IN: The Canes officially inked consensus No. 1 2010 recruit OT Seantrel Henderson. Henderson is 6’8” and 340 lbs and will almost certainly start immediately. If these young bucks can be immediate difference makers, nothing can hold Jacory Harris back but Jacory Harris. The team will also return its all-conference punter and place kicker. Never underestimate the value of a solid, dependable kicking game, it takes a lot of pressure off the offense.
The Bad: Pass protection was a big problem for Miami last season. Eventually Harris just got tired of taking the hits and folded. He started throwing up wild passes and interceptions and generally lost his rhythm in the pocket. They lost some senior leadership this season and will have to rebuild what was not a great O line last year. The question marks about the U are going to start and end here. As my old football coach once told me, “Football is all about blocking and tackling. The team that does those two things better than the other is going to win. Every time.” The Canes also get Ohio State on Sept. 11 and Pitt in a Thursday night game on Sept. 23, both on the road. Why Shannon insists on making things as difficult on his team as possible I will never understand.
The Last Word: My money in the ACC is on this team, but it all depends on Jacory Harris. He wilted down the stretch last year, after playing an incredible first half of the season, and now there are questions about whether Harris has what it takes to get it done. He’s going to have to be straight up better than Tyrod Taylor and nothing else will do. Coach Shannon showed he could get it done with the best of them in the offseason by signing a top-15 class that absolutely has to be considered top 10 with Henderson on the books. If Shannon can get it done as well during the season, the sky is the limit for The U’s near future.
Final Record: 12-2
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
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