I'm going to get this blog going with a little preseason predictions...
Point of clarification: This is how I believe these teams will end up after the end of the season, not how they will probably be ranked in the preseason...hence no Notre Dame
1. USC -- Yes, I know, I'm a pansy for this pick, but who else deserves this spot? After waxing a very good Michigan team in the Rose Bowl, the Trojans are everybody's preseason favorite. These aren't the glam Trojans of Leinart and Bush, either. The Trojan D returns 10 starters from a swarming unit that finished 11th in the nation in scoring defense (in the high-scoring Pac 10). Stars in the making Brian Cushing (LB) and Lawrence "Lo-Jack" Jackson (DE) will be a menace to opposing defenses. Don't worry about offense either...everybody knows that the Men of Troy are 4 deep at every skill position with 5-star recruits. John David Booty will be a Heisman favorite, Vidal Hazelton and Patrick Turner will explode this year. Remember the label of Running Back U? Surely one or two of the stud recruits will step up to the plate -- and don't forget true freshman Joe McKnight, labeled the next Reggie Bush (without being paid...or is he?) Any way you look at it, USC will be stacked. But let's not forget the last time USC was a unanimous preseason favorite... So who is this year's Vince Young?
2. Michigan -- This is where it gets difficult. The Wolverines are seriously depleted on defense, but I don't believe any SEC team is good enough to run the table, the Big 12 is still down, and please don't talk to me right now about the ACC or Big East at the #2 spot. However, Michigan returns what should be the most potent offense in the nation. Chad Henne has been criticized, but when given time to throw, he has been as good as any QB in the nation. Jake Long, preseason All-American left tackle, will give him time, as will the other members of a veteran offensive line. Mario Manningham and (possibly?) Adrian Arrington will be two of the finest receivers in the nation, and Mike Hart will run for his ho-hum 1,500+ yards without a fumble. Although the defense returns only a handful of starters, lets not forget what Ohio State did last year under the same circumstances (barring the title game choke job). What really separates Michigan from the rest of the pack is the schedule. Michigan plays all non-conference games in the Big House (Notre Dame, Oregon) and Penn State and Ohio State are also at home. In fact, the only notable road trip this year is a November game in Madison against the Baaadgers, which will probably make or break the season for the Big Blue.
3. LSU -- How can a team that just lost its starting QB for the last few years (a #1 draft pick no less) be ranked so high? Easy. Insert Matt Flynn, 5th year senior and leader of the Bayou Bengals to a 40-3 woodshed victory against the Miami Hurricanes in the 2005 Peach Bowl. Remember, it wasn't a given that Jamarcus Russell was going to be the starter last season. In fact, some people believe that last year's LSU team would have been even better with the more consistent and less turnover prone Flynn at the helm. LSU's offense will also lose Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis, however speed is never a factor in the Tigers' receiving corps -- enter Early Doucet. On defense, LSU will be stacked as always; Glenn Dorsey and Ali Highsmith should stand out in a group full of stars. The big question is which LSU team will show up to big games. The Tigers have a history of annihilating the bottom feeders and completely self destructing against quality opponents (..no I'm not counting Notre Dame as a quality opponent..) At any rate, LSU should be the class of the SEC, and again the most all-around athletic team in college football.
4. West Virginia -- Oh no, you say. He has fallen for the preseason hype for the 'Eers. The ranking here is simple; WV should have the most talented team in the Big East. Since they basically play a 2 game season (Louisville and at Rutgers), I will go out on a limb and say the finish with no more than 1 loss, putting them easily in the Top 5 in a normal college football season. Back to the team itself...you know the drill - Pat White, Steve Slaton, blah blah blah, maybe some Darius Reynaud thrown in when White actually decides to pass. Although WV loses some key linemen (C Dan Mozes), White and Slaton are so fast, they don't really need that much help (especially against Syracuse, UConn, and other "powers" of the Big East). The Mountaineers will be a fun team to watch, regardless, and hopefully they will get to play somebody with half a pulse in their bowl game this year (no non-VaTech ACC teams need apply).
5. Virginia Tech -- The Hokies are ranked highly for many of the same reasons as our previous team, WVU. The ACC is terrible, awful, replacing the Big East as the worst BCS conference in football. I don't see any reason why this team will lose any conference games. There is no excuse... don't give me the Jimbo Fisher hype at FSU or Randy Shannon hype at Miami. Please. Those programs need a lot more than that to get their heads on straight (i.e. stop recruiting criminals, stop stomping on other players during a brawl, stop letting 175 year old coaches keep coaching) Virginia Tech, however, is the one good team in the conference. The defense will be absolutely nasty, and the offense will be serviceable. The departure of WR David Clowney will hurt, but Josh Morgan and Co. won't miss a beat. With veteran QB Sean Glennon and potential star RB Branden Ore, the offense could actually put some points on the board. On defense, everything revolves around stud linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi, but don't forget about DE Chris Ellis, the team's returning leader in sacks. VaTech has a ridiculously tough game in September in Baton Rouge, but it should be smooth sailing the rest of the way. On another note, it will be interesting to see how this team responds to the tragedy, but my guess is that the Hokies will use the support of the school and play inspired football this fall. One thing is for sure, everyone across the nation will be rooting for these guys this year.
6. Florida -- The defending champs. Can they do it again? What does Urban Meyer have up his sleeve this year? Expect more unusual, exciting football out of the Gators this year. Although they have lost a ridiculous amount of talent and role players (Chris Leak did win a national championship, people), the beneficiaries of top recruiting classes the last couple of years will be locked and loaded. Tim Tebow takes over full control of the offense; it will be interesting to see how he responds. Here's guessing he will do just fine. How could this guy run for 7 yards every time last year when opposing defenses KNEW he was running right up the middle?? He is special, and expect some special things this fall (well, maybe not as special as his hanging jump pass against LSU last year, but still pretty special). Percy Harvin is a freakish athlete- when you look up "Florida speed" in the dictionary, his picture is there. The defense loses pretty much everybody you know, but a new batch of 5-star recruits at every position will fill in quite nicely. Remember Florida's brutal schedule last year? Oh yeah, they won a national championship. This year, well, the schedule is still brutal. The Gators get Auburn at home (their lone loss last year was at Jordan-Hare) but have to play at LSU in what should be the game that determines the national title contender out of the SEC this year.
7. Wisconsin -- On Wisconsin, the sexy pick to win the Big Ten this year. They are returning everybody (except the only two people I could name from last year's team, OT Joe Thomas and seventh year QB John Stocco), and the schedule works out fairly nicely. The do return RB P.J. Hill (oops, forgot him), the reincarnation of Ron Dayne. What else is there to know about Wisconsin... oh yes, solid defense, power running game, consistent QB play. The defense finished in the Top 5 last year in total defense, the running back was a Freshman All-American, and John Stocco was, well, John Stocco. The new QB will be a battle between Tyler Donovan and Allan Evridge, but the QB position at Wisconsin is more of a formality anyways. It's really just earning the right to hand the ball off to PJ Hill. The defense returns 7 starters from that stellar unit, and should be back among the nation's elite. The Badgers get Michigan at home, but have to travel to Columbus and Happy Valley for tough road games. Too early to tell if this team is ready to become one of the nation's elite, or if they will just continue to be old, reliable Wisconsin, racking up a solid 9 or 10 win season and grinding out a boring bowl game against some unsuspecting SEC team.
8. Texas -- So the post Vince Young era did not get off to such a great start down in Austin. Although Colt McCoy showed some serious potential as a freshman, he isn't conjuring up images of #10 any time soon. However, in what appears to be another down year for the Big 12 (happening a lot recently, isn't it?), Texas should be the cream of the crop. With Colt fully healthy and top target Limas Sweed back, the Longhorns should have an explosive offense. However, the defense took some big hits with the loss of S Michael Griffin, CB Aaron Ross, and a host of others. But this is Texas, isn't it? As most elite teams, they will reload with top tier talent. The schedule is also more forgiving this year, with no non-conference land mines like Ohio State last year. All 4 non-conference games are at home against non-BCS teams (although TCU is no slouch). With the recent resurgence of Texas A&M and Nebraska, the Big 12 schedule should be tougher, but expect the 'Horns to win the title.
9. Georgia -- Question: How can a team that lost to Vanderbilt last year be ranked in the Top 10? Answer: When you end the year with victories over three straight ranked teams, including a beatdown in Auburn, Alabama. Georgia was an enigma last year, starting 5-0 and leading big at the half against Tennessee, before the roof caved in. Then came losses in 4 out of 5 games and Georgia's rollercoaster season seemed to be in a tailspin. A funny thing happened though. UGA's freshman quarterback came of age. Settling the QB controversy once and for all, Matthew Stafford led the Dawgs to victories against Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech to close out the year, and looks to use that momentum to propel Georgia to an exciting year in 2007. In addition to Stafford, the offense returns WRs Sean Bailey and Mohamed Massaquoi, RBs Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown, and several key members of the O-Line. The defense needs to be rebuilt, however, as DEs Charles Johnson and Quintin Moses and CBs Tra Battle and Paul Oliver have left. Although the defense will have serious question marks, in the offensively challenged SEC, Georgia should be able to outscore opponents.
10. UCLA -- Our last team on the list just happens to be the last team to beat current heavyweight favorite USC. While UCLA played solid defense in that game, much of that goodwill was lost when they got manhandled by Florida State in their bowl game. Which UCLA team will show up next season? Quarterback will be an issue, with much heralded, 45-year old Ben Olson (second coming of Chris Weinke?) being named the starter over scrappy Pat Cowan, hero of the USC game and absorber of Brian Cushing's vicious sideline hit. Olson was the number one recruit in the nation back in the day, went to BYU, went on a Mormon mission, transferred to UCLA, got hurt... but he has yet to prove himself on the field. With the return of 10 starters from last year's tough nosed defense, the offense should be the unit to make or break the season for the Bruins. The schedule is pretty difficult, with the Bruins playing BYU, Utah, and Notre Dame (no automatic victories) non-conference, and closing out the season against the Trojans in the Coliseum. Can UCLA pull off the unthinkable 2 years in a row? Probably not, but the team should be good enough the rest of the year to think about an at-large BCS bowl.