Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The 323 - Preseason College Football Top 10

As anyone who can read has no doubt already gleaned, both Donny and myself have an infatuation with baseball that borders on obsessive-compulsion. Sadly, I cannot even place baseball alone atop my list of vices that subsume my life, as our national pastime must share that mantel with our country's other great passion: football.

Both Donny and I played football together in high school, side by side in both the offensive and defensive trenches. Donny played for a year in college, while I have pursued a coaching career on the high school level for the past three seasons. In a word, there are few people in New England not named Belichick who know more about the game than I do. In the past 6 years have attended countless games, broken down days worth of game film, and have more blue books filled with offensive and defensive schemes than I know what to do with. If I may be as bold as I am arrogant, listen to what I have to say about the game. I know what I am talking about.

While I would never even dream of missing a Patriots game, as the title of this post indicates I love college football (323 references the number of wins for Bear Bryant, the greatest football coach of all time). What follows is my first attempt at a preseason top 10. However, it would be somewhat inaccurate to describe what follows as a true preseason poll as the teams are not ranked in order of skill, potential, or dominance, but rather in the order that I believe represents the likelihood each team possesses of making it to the championship game.

Methodology: So how did I come up with this rather unorthodox looking preseason top 10? And what does it mean? Well, as I explained earlier, the following poll lists the teams, in order, that possess the best chance of making it to the championship game. While many factors went into the equation that produced this list, essentially it can be boiled down to the reconciliation of a team's talent against its schedule.

Step #1 - I chose the 20 teams who are realistically in the discussion for the national championship this season. All of these teams came from the BCS conferences, because, frankly, as much as I love Fresno State, Boise State, and everyone from the MAC (by far my favorite college conference), those teams do not have a realistic opportunity to play for the BCS championship.

Step #2 - Based on a 12 game season, I flat out gave each of these 20 teams 8 wins over their 8 weakest opponents. This 8-0 record (7-0 for teams who only play 11 games) represents the best-case scenario for a team with national title aspirations. Basically, it assumes that each of these 20 teams is not going to lose a game that they are supposed to win. Now I concede that this is an imperfect science, but this list is all about comparative chances and not mathematical precision.

Step #3 - I determined the 4 most difficult opponents for each of the 20 teams based on four factors: (1) the strength of the opponent's returning players, (2) the strength of the opponent's recruiting class and/or transfers, (3) where the game is going to be played, and (4) any significant history between the two teams.

Step #4 - I made a list with each of the 20 teams in one column, and their 4 toughest opponents in an adjacent column. I then used process of elimination to divide the 20 teams into 4 categories: national title contenders who could realistically go undefeated, national title contenders despite the fact that they are likely to lose 1 game, teams that are likely to lose more than 1 game, and pretenders.

Step #5 - I arranged the teams in each category in the order which I believe best represents their preseason chances of going to the national championship game. This determination was based on the relative skill and talent of each team, and the relative difficulty of their 4 toughest games. Voila, a preseason top 10 that is likely to look different than any you have seen so far.

#1 - Auburn

Someone upstairs loves Auburn. The Tigers return a core group of players led by a potential All-SEC backfield comprising of Kenny Irons and Brandon Cox (one of the more underrated signal callers in the conference, if not the country). Though Auburn was hurt some by graduation and defection to the NFL, they return their two best offensive weapons, and their two best defensive players in converted safety Will Herring and CB David Irons.

What vaults this team into the top spot, though, is a schedule that has seemingly been touched by the hand of God. Of their 4 toughest opponents, the three best teams (LSU, Florida, and Georgia) have to travel to Auburn, and the games are spread out with at least two weeks in between each of these contests. The only difficult road game Auburn has this season will be the finale against Alabama in the Iron Bowl. While this game is always a war, this is not the magical Alabama team of last year. Auburn has the talent to dominate the Crimson Tide, and will be especially amped for the game if they enter it 11-0. Two games to watch out for: the opener against a strong Washington State team (although after losing the opener a season ago, my money is on Auburn demolishing the Cougars), and their Oct. 7 date with Arkansas (who is an SEC sleeper) which has the look of an obvious trap game the week before Florida comes to town. Tommy Tubberville has proven that he is one of the best in the business, and I say he has his troops ready each week.

#2 - Louisville

Another surprising selection, but perhaps they shouldn't be given their talent, conference, and schedule this season. Assuming star QB Brian Brohm is healthy, the Cardinals boast three of the best at their positions in all of college football in Brohm, RB Michael Bush, and most importantly head coach Bobby Petrino (who is, along with Dan Hawkins and Rich Rodriguez, one of the finest offensive minds in the college game today). Though the defense is not star studded, they always seem to get their explosive offense the ball just enough to win.

Like Auburn, Louisville has an amazingly favorable schedule. Of their four toughest games, only two are on the road: at Syracuse (a very poor team whose presence on the list of Lousiville's toughest games speaks to the decline of the Big East), and at Pittsburgh (who is maddeningly inconsistent). Home dates against clearly the two best teams they play all season, Miami (Sept. 16) and West Virginia (Nov. 2), will determine if Lousiville takes the next step towards becoming a national power. Louisville played inspired football at the Orange Bowl last season, serving notice that they would not be intimidated by Miami. The smart money is on Brohm and Co. taking care of Miami in Kentucky, setting the stage for a battle of unbeatens, and a possible spot in the national title game, when a very strong West Virginia team comes to town Nov. 2. Louisville gets the nod playing on its home turf.

#3 - USC

While it seems almost impossible to rank USC so high based on the amount of talent they lost to the NFL draft, it is even more impossible to think about how much talent they still have on this team. They still boast the best receiving duo in the nation in Dwayne Jarrett (who looks like a #1 overall pick if ever I saw one), and Steve Smith. The much-maligned defense should be much stronger this year with double digit sack man Lawrence Jackson, and as young and talented a LB corpse as there is in the country led by super Soph Rey Maualuga. While the loss of all of their backfield could potentially derail this dynasty, both John David Booty and Matt Sanchez were former #1 overall recruits (!!!!), so they clearly have the ability to succeed. The development of whichever one wins the starting QB battle will determine just how far USC falls this season (if at all).

Thanks to what appears to be a loaded Pac-10 this year, USC's schedule is by no means easy (road games at much improved Arizona, Washington State and Stanford will be a chore). It is, however, favorable in that their the two toughest opponents, Notre Dame and California, have to travel to the land of Troy. Even though ND and Cal represent two of the most offensively talented teams in the country, I have to believe that USC will be favored to win both of them based on their defensive superiority. Their other two toughest games, Nebraska at home and at UCLA, are tremendous steps down in terms of competition. Though I loved what Nebraska was able to do in the second half of last season, they are not ready to step on the field with the athletes USC can throw at them quite yet. Ditto for UCLA who appears to be heading backwards already, after a surprising 2005 season (although BYU transfer Ben Olson may be the most highly sought after QB by NFL teams by the end of the season). One other game that USC needs to watch out for: their opener at Arkansas. Houston Nutt is a fantastic coach and I think Arkansas could be a real sleeper in the SEC. Given that USC will be traveling across the country, and playing their first game in three seasons without Matt Leinart, it could have the making for an early season shocker.

#4 - West Virginia

A second Big East team in the top 4, how can that be? Well, it's easy. If the chips fall as they should and Louisville holds serve against Miami, they will meet on Nov. 2 for the Big East title and a shot at a national championship. While West Virginia's schedule is a joke, their team is far from one. RB Steve Slaton and QB Pat White form an explosive backfield, both capable of taking it to the house from anywhere on the field. Head coach Rich Rodriguez has installed the perfect offense for these two playmakers, and they should be even better with another year under their belts. The real question is going to be whether White can throw the ball more consistently if teams stack the line against Slaton. Sadly, save for their games against Louisville and maybe Pittsburgh, it won't matter.

There is no doubt that WVA has the easiest road to the BCS of any contending team. That said, its not as if there aren't landmines along the way (hence their #4 ranking). Aside from their trip to Louisville (where they will not be favored), WVA has to travel over 200 miles north to play a much improved UConn team (with a great coach who will be ready for them) and travel to Pittsburgh for their rivalry game known as "The Backyard Brawl." While WVA will be favored in both, the Mountaineers aren't balanced enough on either side of the ball to overcome a sub par performance on the road.

#5 - Notre Dame

While fifth might seem awful low for Notre Dame, to be honest I was hesitant to even rank them this high. Yes 2005 was a wonderful season for Notre Dame. And yes Charlie Weis is a great coach who has seemed to turn this program around. And yes they have the best offense on paper in the country. But for all the ballyhoo surrounding Notre Dame's "resurrection" last year, I find it interesting that they only beat one team of consequence the entire season (Michigan). In fact, Notre Dame received more accolades for almost beating USC than they did for any single win the entire season. I just wonder how well they will fare with a much tougher 2006 schedule.

All that said, the Irish offense is stacked. Brady Quinn is hands down the best QB in the country, and Jeff Samardzjia has transformed himself from a third or fourth college wideout into a top 10 NFL pick. Though they lost Marice Stovall to the NFL, many believe that his replacement, Rhema McKnight (who was actually starting over Samardzjia before getting hurt last season), may actually be a better natural receiver. While there is no arguing that the offense will put up world class numbers, I fail to see any improvement in a defense that was consistently outclassed last season, especially in the secondary. Safety Tom Zbikowski is a great player, but he is at his best near the line of scrimmage making tackles. The bottom line is that the Irish defense doesn't have anyone that can cover. They were torched last season by mediocre passing offenses such as Michigan State (44 pts), Ohio State (34 pts), and Stanford (31 pts). At some point, this defense is going to need to make some plays and I am not certain they can consistently do it.

As I referenced earlier, the Irish schedule is significantly more difficult this year. Two of their four toughest games require trips to teams that beat them last season (Michigan State and USC). While Notre Dame will probably be favored against the Spartans, Michigan State always seems to play up to (and down to) the level of their opponents. When the Irish travel to East Lansing they will be coming off a brutal opening schedule which includes home games against their other 2 toughest opponents: Penn State and Michigan (though they get both of them at home), and a season opening trip to Georgia Tech (who happen to have the best WR in the country not playing for the Irish in Calvin Johnson to test their secondary early and often). Add creative Michigan State QB Drew Stanton to the mix and that game has the makings of a potential shocker early in the season. If the Irish somehow manage to get through their early schedule without a loss, their finale at USC still looms. I cannot foresee any circumstances where Notre Dame would be favored in that game, although if they are playing for an undefeated season and a chance at the national title I wouldn't bet against them. Overall, Notre Dame just has too many difficult road games to be considered as a team likely to go undefeated.

#6 - Ohio State

Ohio State is in a nearly identical situation to Notre Dame. They possess all the talent in the world, but have as tough a schedule as you can find. Offensively, the Buckeyes look imposing. Troy Smith became a bonafide heisman contender last season, and Ted Ginn Jr. finally realized that he plays for a division 1A powerhouse. That said, 5 games does not a career make, and neither Smith nor Ginn have the pedigree that guys like Quinn and Samardzjia have. This could be troubling for Ohio State because they will need those guys to be dominant every game. The defense was decimated by graduation, especially to the LB corpse. OSU should be typically strong up front with all world DT Quinn Pitcock, but it has been four years since they played a game without AJ Hawk, and the OSU LB corpse is the most reconstructed unit in the nation. The defense could struggle early.

Like Notre Dame, Ohio State's schedule is murderous. Three of their four toughest games are on the road, including a trip to defending national champion Texas in the second week of the season (at Iowa and at Michigan State being the others). Its true that some guy named Vince Young is gone to the NFL, but Austin is a tough place to play no matter who they are trotting out there, and I would be shocked if OSU was not at least a field goal underdog in that game. The Buckeyes do catch a break, though, getting Michigan at home, but that's one of those rivalry games and it wouldn't be the first time that an undermanned Michigan team ruined Ohio State's season in the last game. Ohio State, like ND, has the ability to win each of those tough road games individually, however it’s hard to imagine that they could play all three without slipping up along the way.

#7 - Oklahoma

How quickly people forget just how good Adrian Peterson is. Taking absolutely nothing away from Brady Quinn, or Troy Smith, or Marshawn Lynch, Peterson is by far the most talented offensive player in the country. He alone is enough to carry Oklahoma into the top 10. However, Oklahoma is set up for a very nice bounce back season. QB Rhett Bhomar improved steadily over the course of last season, and Peterson's presence should do nothing but aid his development into a top flight college starter. But, aside from Peterson, the offense is not the strength of Oklahoma. Bob Stoops is an old school defensive coach and his 2006 defense may be his best since Oklahoma won the national title. Seniors Rufus Alexander and Larry Birdine are all America caliber players who should consistently dominate for the Sooners. Add CJ Ah You, Zach Latimer, and DJ Wolfe, and you can get the picture that this will not be a fun team to face in 2006.

While the personnel may be in place for another title run in 2006, the schedule is not. All four of the Sooners' toughest games are away from Norman: at Oregon, at Texas A & M, at Oklahoma State, and in Dallas against Texas. That's the bad news. The good news is that, but for Texas, none of these teams should be in the top 25 by the end of the season. Oregon should prove the toughest test, but the Sooners were able to beat them in the Holiday Bowl last season and have only gotten better. After being embarrassed in the Red River Shooutout last season, and then watching the UT band play "The Eyes of Texas" while Vince Young held the national title trophy, Oklahoma should be burning for their showdown with Texas in 2006. Adrian Peterson wasn't healthy for the game last season, if he is in 2006, the Sooners will probably be favored.

#8 - Miami

If it's possible, I think Miami is being a little bit underrated this season. Though they may not have some of the explosive athletes on offense as in years past, Miami has as much talent as any team in America. The Hurricane's season will really come down to 2 things: (i) how healthy is Tyrone Moss, and (2) whether Kyle Wright can develop into a more consistent player. If Moss is healthy he gives the Canes the offensive gamebreaker they lacked last season, and instantly becomes one of the top 5 backs in the country. As for Wright, he showed a lot of promise in his first season as a starter. He has a live arm, and showed he can be productive at times. In WR Ryan Moore, and "the next big thing" TE Greg Olsen, Wright has plenty of options. As usual, though, the strength of Miami will be their defense. They have the best set of safeties in the country in Brandon Meriweather (who I absolutely love as a football player) and Kenny Phillips. Add NFL quality lineman Baraka Atkins and Bryan Pata, and Canes should give up very few points once again.

Playing in the ACC, Miami has a very tough schedule, and that was before they signed on the play Louisville at Louisville. The good thing for Miami is that aside from their trip to Kentucky, they get Boston College, Florida State and Virginia Tech all at home, and should be favored in all three games. If Miami can somehow beat Louisville (which it's clear I don't think is going to happen), they will have the opportunity to hold serve at the Orange Bowl and play for a national title.

#9 - FSU

Like Miami, Florida State will get the opportunity to prove that the reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, since both teams' opportunity comes when they meet at the Orange Bowl on Sept. 4, only one will be able to prove the pundits wrong. To me, FSU looks like Miami's doppelganger. They are loaded on offense (whereas Miami is loaded on defense), but inexperienced on defense (whereas Miami is inexperienced on offense). Personally, I believe in Sophomore Drew Weatherford. He has the chops to be an excellent college passer, but more importantly he has the teammates. RB Lorenzo Booker steps into the lead role for the departed Leon Washington and should be as good running the ball while also adding something to the passing game. Weatherford also finds himself throwing to perhaps the most talented trio of WR in the nation in Greg Carr, Chris Davis and De'Cody Fagg. On the flip side, the FSU defense was hit hard by graduation. Losing Brod Bunkley, Ernie Sims, AJ Nicholson, and Antonio Cromartie represents an extreme exodus of talent. LB Buster Davis is a stud, as is DT Andre Fluellen. But for the most part, FSU will be relying on guys like Freshman Myron Rolle and Sophomore Tony Carter to get the ball back.

Florida State catches a break in that they play their toughest game of the year in week 1 at Miami. This gives them an opportunity to get extra preparation (which will be critical for the young players). Also, even if they lose, it gives the team ample time to climb back into the BCS picture. Outside of that game, the schedule is very favorable as FSU gets Clemson, BC and Florida all in Tallahassee.

#10 - California

It pains me to put Cal so low on this list because I have so much respect for Jeff Tedford, and I truly believe they are the most talented offense in the country (even more so than Notre Dame). RB Marshawn Lynch is the best back in the country not named Peterson, and Justin Forsett may also be in the top 5. QB Nate Longshore is unproven, but come on, we all know there is no better QB guru in the world than Tedford (See Rodgers, Aaron; Harrington, Joey; Smith, Akili). Add last season's #1 overall recruit Desean Jackson and Cal has an offense to rival anyone's.

That said, they have a very difficult schedule. As I have said already, I believe the Pac-10 is the most difficult conference in the nation this year, top to bottom. So much so that games against Arizona State, and at Washington State don't even make their top 4 toughest games. I may be giving Arizona too much credit, but I believe playing at Arizona is one of Cal's toughest games, although they should be favored going into Tuscon. Cal should also be favored when they travel across the country to play Tennessee, although the next easy game at Knoxville will be the first. I sincerely hope that Cal can somehow navigate their Pac-10 season undefeated until Nov. 11 when they head to USC as the last team to beat the Trojans on their turf. If both teams enter that game undefeated, the winner could find themselves playing for a national title.

Just Missed:

Clemson - I love this team to be a big time sleeper this season. They have top 10 talent but road games at BC, Florida State and Virginia Tech are just too much to overcome.

Nebraska - Again, I love what Bill Callahan has done, and they should take the weak Big 12 North. However they look like they are a year away, especially with games at USC, at Oklahoma State, and at Texas A & M.

Georgia - Will probably start the season 8-0, raising hopes in Athens, before dropping at least 2 of their last 4 which includes visits from Florida and Georgia Tech, and a trip to Auburn.

Michigan - Talented team, but I would be surprised if they didn't drop at least two of their three road games at Notre Dame, Penn St., and Ohio State.

Not Even Close:


Texas - Possibly the toughest 4 games of anyone in the country: Ohio State at home, Oklahoma in Dallas, at Nebraska, and at Texas Tech. And losing VY hurts a little bit too.

LSU - At Auburn, at Florida, and at Tennessee. They also didn't do themselves any favors by scheduling the always tough Pat Hill coached Fresno State Bulldogs.

Florida - At Auburn, at Florida State, at Georgia, and LSU at home. For a soft team to begin with this looks like way too much to overcome. Seeing as they also go to Tennessee, and get Alabama and South Carolina in Gainesville, this looks like a 6-5 team to me.

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