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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

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(read the method behind SMQ's prognostication madness here)

July 29: #1 SOUTHERN CAL
It would be nice to go against the crowd here...but no.

History tells us USC will lose - in the nearly 110-year history of such titles, no team has ever been voted national champion three straight years; this USC team has its troubles, too, namely continuity problems with the loss of both coordinators (especially offensive guru Norm Chow) and a pair of All-Americans on the defensive line, a starting corner suspended from school amidst a rape charge and a pair of teammates injuring one another in a fist fight over money.

But forget about all that; what team isn't starting an ex-con? The Trojans are not only the favorites to win it all; they are the most dominant team on paper entering a season SMQ can ever remember, the only consensus, undisputed No. 1 by everybody, and, if they live up to potential (i.e., twelve more performances remotely resembling the Orange Bowl wipeout of a very, very good Oklahoma team) they'll go down as the most dominant team of all-time, hands down.

Very quickly: Pete Carroll returns the Heisman Trophy winner and could-have-been top overall draft pick (QB Matt Leinart); another Heisman finalist and the most dangerous player in the country with the ball in his hands (RB Reggie Bush); another stud tailback who actually started over Bush and led the team in rushing (LenDale White); a young, deep receiving corps that rivals anybody's (Dwayne Jarrett and sparring partners Steve Smith and tight end Alex Byrd, for starters); four returning starters on the offensive line, including two All-america types (Sam Baker and Fred Matua), plus its best player (Winston Justice, ba ck from a year-long suspension). That's just the offense, which averaged around 40 points last year - need I go on about the defense (Lawrence Jackson, Dallas Sartz, Darnell Bing)? The special teams (highlight/freak show return man Bush, top-flight punter Tom Malone)? Or about God knows what else is waiting on the bench from all those top-ranked recruiting classes?

Assuming Leinart stays healthy (which he has, and which may not matter if John David Booty is half what he's hyped to be behind him), there is only one sort-of test, at California - where USC lost for the only time the last two years in 2003, and also struggled against the Bears in L.A. last year - and then it's the Rose Bowl for the championship and the history books. Nothing has ever looked more inevitable.

So, Marcus Vick, you wanna be like Mike? A couple hints: a) Stay out of trouble - Frank Beamer runs a tight ship, and he doesn't deserve any Whizzinator moments (right, Onterrio?); and b) get yourself a nasty defense, consistent running game and steady, big-play special teams.

SMQ was fortunate enough to be on hand for the elder Vick's most spectacular college performance, and is certainly one of the legions who's anxious to see if Marcus can give us more of the theatrics Michael exhibited in a too-brief, too-injury-filled stint in Blacksburg. But honestly, Tech's success during Michael's two-year stint was due largely to old fashioned blocking, tackling and kicking by the rest of the team, and Marcus has all of the same advantages, right down to the all-conference kicker (Brandon Pace). Even if Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes aren't Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs - or even Andre Kendrick and Shyrone Stith - they'll be good enough to keep the pressure off of Vick and the young receivers, as will Darryl Tapp and Jimmy Williams and the rest of the defense. Block a kick or two like the old days, and Vick's job is basically "don't screw up."

Unlike last year, when they were supposed to be swallowed up by the new, big, bad ACC and wound up winning the thing (remember, too, they won at Miami to do it and also almost stunned USC in the opener), the Hokies aren't sneaking up on anybody. But if Vick's even an SNL-worthy imitation of his brother, big play-wise, it won't matter.

July 27: #3 OHIO STATE
Too often teams are elevated in preseason rankings because of the way they finish the previous season, based on an impressive win or two, and SMQ has long disliked the practice; momentum very rarely carries across summer break. For Ohio State, however, he will make an exception.

Maybe the best thing that could have happened to the Buckeyes last year was the unheard of, almost four-touchdown loss at a wounded, then-middling Iowa team - OSU's third in three Big Ten contests - because it prompted the insertion of quarterback Troy Smith. And even if Smith wasn't Michael Vick, or even Vince Young, he did win five of six starts, went crazy on league champ Michigan in a stunning blowout Buckeye win and got the team on such a roll it didn't even need him to wax Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. And now that Smith has been cleared of the rules violations that kept him out of that game (he'll still be suspended for the opener against Miami, Ohio, too, for some reason), re-assuming the reigns of the offense will be an even smoother proposition.

There are so many great things to say about this team on paper - Smith; the loaded defense that includes stars named Pitcock, Hawk and Youboty; Santonio Holmes and terrifying Ted Ginn, Jr., leading probably the nation's best receiving corps; four starters back on the offensive line - it's easy enough to overlook the main deficiencies (running back - this would be Maurice Clarett's senior season! - and kicker, where team MVP Mike Nugent is gone). The kind of chemistry Tressel's 2002 team used to carry it to an unlikely national title doesn't transfer from paper, though, and it will have to pick up right where it left off for any national dreams to come true: Texas comes to town in Game Two - Smith's first start - for the Horseshoe's biggest non-conference game in ages. Lose that one, and the ceiling is the Big Ten championship...not that there's anything wrong with that.

July 26: #4 OKLAHOMA
Here, it seems SMQ is in the vast minority in projecting Oklahoma to win its fifth Big XII South title in six years, what with the lousy Orange Bowl show and without its two-time Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback and eleven draft picks (five in the first two rounds) and Mack Brown's Texas beast looming to the South. A reasonable projection by reasonable individuals, to be sure.

SMQ, however, intends to operate on observable prinicples, and he has yet to observe Texas beating Oklahoma this decade. Nor has he observed a more impressive, unstoppable player returning for any team than Adrian Peterson, who soon should be taking his spot among the greatest college running backs of all-time, or a Bob Stoops-led team fail to reload and pick up where it left off in the thick of the national championship race. Observe also that, despite the sudden problem of postseason letdowns for a program that was once money in big games, Oklahoma has won 23 straight regular season contests.

Thus, it is reasonable to hypothesize based on the available data: the Sooners are still the king of the Big XII hill. Don't be fooled.

July 25: #5 LSU
Nick Saban turned Baton Rouge into one of the two or three top recruiting hubs anywhere, and it's a shame he bolted to the NFL before fully reaping the rewards. Unless, that is, you're Les Miles, and you're walking into a job that's the envy of every new coach this side of Larry Coker.

Everyone who will touch the ball for the Tigers this fall is a former blue chipper (specifically: Alley Broussard, Justin Vincent, Joseph Addai, Skyler Green, Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet, Craig Davis, David Jones, for starters), and only one question is more pressing than figuring out how to distribute the synthetic pigskin among this bevy of speedy young men: who will be the distributor? He will be a highly-regarded recruit - either yesterday's savior, JaMarcus Russell, or today's, incoming Ryan Perrilloux, or Matt Flynn - but will he be any good on the field? Russell's inconsistency while splitting time with now-graduated Marcus Randall landed him on the bench for the second half of his freshman season; is there any reason to think Perrilloux (whose name ludicrously popped up in a book on "Pro Football's Greatest Quarterbacks," as the only member of the "Next Generation") will be the instant hit his equally hyped, physically identical predecessor wasn't?

That question's really a qualm, because the depth of the talent surrounding the quarterback - and SMQ hasn't even mentioned the defense, which is on the same level - is enough to win the SEC if Russell, Perrilloux or Flynn is good enough to merely not lose games; if one of them is good enough to win them, look out.

July 24: #6 MIAMI
SMQ's not the first to point this out, but Coral Gables is home to what's been referred to elsewhere as "The Coker Slide": in Year One under Larry Coker, the 'Canes were undefeated national champs, lost once (the title game) in Year Two, twice in Year Three, and dropped three games last year. Does that mean, um, 8-4 in '05?

Well, no - it is Miami, you know, rivalled by probably only USC for its collection of physical freaks. But again, talent is a given here; the issue is whether the mix of new faces and old ones in new places, or at least places they haven't been in a while, will resemble Coker's first two dominant teams or his last two "merely" very good ones. To wit, Coker is relying on the untested virtues of:

- The rehabilitation of possibly his two best players, Eric Winston and Ryan Moore, each coming back from season-ending injuries,
- Highly regarded backups who have to now be the go-to guys at running back (Tyrone Moss) receiver (Lance Leggett, Sinorice Moss) and tight end (Greg Olsen),
- A new spot for kick return assassin and former receiver Devin Hester, as a starting cornerback,
- The team's most fearsome raw physical talent, redshirt freshman linebacker and Florida court system vet Willie Williams, to stay out of prison,
and, most of all,
- Super-recruit Kyle Wright, tosser of nine college passes, to run the show more in the fashion of Ken Dorsey than his more physically-similar predecessor, Brock Berlin.

What Coker does have for sure is two rock solid lines and a deep secondary. And really, the new guys will be fine. But national title fine? Not unless they have the edge, the killer instinct that had people quaking in their cleats to see the 'U'. What's this team doing losing - in back-to-back weeks, no less - to North Carolina and Clemson? It should have lost to Louisville last year, too, remember, and had to rally from a dreadful offensive performance to take out Florida State in overtime. The feeling is, temporarily at least, that the title of "team to beat" in the ACC has been unexpectedly annexed by the league's other newcomer, V-Tech. Coker's earlier, Dorsey-Johnson-Vilma teams wouldn't have heard of it; the expectations for this blue chip bunch are just as high, and it shouldn't stand for another second place performance, either.

July 23: #7 MICHIGAN
With Michigan, you can pretty much fill in the blanks: big, prototype pocket passer; stout, all-star rusher behind a big line; a couple blazing receivers; a strong, deep defense full of all-conference types - it's all there. And, like every Michigan team for the last four decades, it will be at the top of the Big Ten title hunt...and will fall short of any national championship ambitions.

This at once the most consistent program in the country and maybe the most disappointing for the way it never seems to put it all together (only one national title since Bo Schembechler resurrected the program in the mid-sixties). An opposing Big Ten coach, in the most candid, pleasant surprise of one of the glut of available preseason magazines (the same one that somehow picked the Wolverines' Steve Breaston, who didn't even start as a sophomore, as the best receiver in the country) seems to think the same way:

"[Michigan is] extremely talented, but they don't show up every week. I think they're pompous, over-recruited arrogant-type kids...Which school has better players, Ohio State or Michigan? Michigan. If you lined them up and had them run 40-yard dashes and took them into the weight room and had them bench press and power clean, yeah, they are better than Ohio State. Markedly better. The Michigan kid has more talent, but the Ohio State kids played harder. And to me, that's a microcosm of the two programs."
Maybe you could make the same criticisms of Ohio State (not a ton of national titles for the Buckeyes, either). And don't think SMQ doesn't respect any program that can win so consistently; the Wolverines will have another nine or ten-win, top ten season, and have no reason to expect any less. More often, though, they should accomplish just that little bit more. Maybe this is the year; probably not.

July 22: #8 TENNESSEE
Just when SMQ thought Tennessee should be getting used to four-loss seasons and Peach Bowl berths, Philip Fulmer pulls off his best coaching job since the post-Peyton 1998 miracle. If a team that was supposed to be a year away can win at Georgia with a freshman quarterback and slip into the SEC Championship, how good can it be with everybody back for the season that was circled for success all along?

Well, since you asked, really, really good, as long as sophomore Erik Ainge is the star he looks like and doesn't turn out to actually be the guy we saw in two awful starts against Auburn. Anyway, Gerald Riggs, Parys Haralson, Jesse Mahelona, Omar Gaither, Kevin Simon (back from injury), Jason Allen, etc., etc...the Vols are loaded, okay?

But does any team play tougher back-to-back games in consecutive weeks than at Florida, at LSU in September? The Vols could start 1-2. Two weeks later, Georgia comes to town, then it's at Alabama and, two weeks after that, at Notre Dame, who stunned UT in Knoxville last year. Tennessee won't survive that slog unscathed, but if it can limp into the November cupcakes with only one loss, the biggest goal - an SEC title - will still be there, and with it, a decent shot at the Rose Bowl.

July 21: #9 FLORIDA
Let the Ron Zook Experiment in Gainesville be further evidence - alongside Frank Solich, Bill Curry, Dan Devine and Robert Patrick - of the Golden Rule of any high-profile employment: never be the guy to follow The Guy. "Hey, my grandma coulda won an SEC title with Spurrier's players!"

Not that Zook was all that bad, really, but this Urban Meyer, now he's got the idea: get on at small to mid-level programs (check), raise said programs from the dregs (check), become wunderkind with choice of big-time jobs (check), rake in the big money (double check). Pressure, of course, comes with this job, and Meyer will shoulder a mountain. But it will take at least two years of Zook-like 8-4 records before we see FireUrbanMeyer.com (oh, wait).

Even if the deck was stacked against Zook from the start, this probably would have been his best team, and Meyer will benefit more than anything else from the talent back on hand. Namely, Chris Leak, who is exactly the kind of smart, adequately athletic kid Meyer turned into an unlikely Heisman finalist in Utah, and Leak has better tools as a passer than Alex Smith. So Meyer's apparently not all that thrilled with his running backs; the defense, linebackers especially, will be better than the one that was fairly torched in the Gators' five losses last year.

Ultimately, Saint Urban will be judged by the same measuring stick any Florida coach will ever be judged by: Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State and, this year, LSU. That slate is why making the SEC Championship is so tough, and Meyer will deserve every penny if he has Florida back there - so long as he doesn't lose to Mississippi State along the way.

July 20: #10 FLORIDA STATE
Let's clear something up: SMQ picked the 'Noles at No. 10 before this. Or this. Or this. Or this. It hasn't been such a hot month for Bobby Bowden, or prognosticators like SMQ who thought FSU was a shoo-in for the first ACC Atlantic Division title.

But if any team can overcome a torn ACL to an all-everything cornerback, domestic battering and drunk driving linebackers and a lyme-diseased quarterback who tells police he's the "Son of God", it's always-super-deep FSU, huh? Who's going to beat them, NC State? Boston College? And anyway, the charges against Ernie Sims are probably going to be dropped. So there.

Ugh. It's not like Bowden hasn't had to deal with his share of star receivers illegally accepting free merchandise, quarterbacks sleeping through final exams, kickers facing deportation, etc., but never so many major problems to such key players in the kind of single, giant wave that's threatening to capsize his team before the season even begins. Speaking of which, could there be a worse opening day opponent for a squad in flux than Miami? Bowden will still have the guns - Leon Washington, Buster Davis, Pat Watkins, and probably Sims and Nicholson once their situaions are cleared up - to win the lesser of the league's divisions, but a return to the top ten for the first time since 2000 (really, it's been that long)? Give SMQ a mulligan for this one.

July 19: #11 GEORGIA
Mark Richt has always tended to lean a bit towards the pass as a play-caller, both at Florida State and in four years as head man at Georgia. It's not really that hard a call, is it, when you have a David Greene throwing to a Fred Gibson or Reggie Brown?

Greene and Gibson and Brown are gone after four of UGA's best seasons in school history - more than 40 wins, one SEC title in two trips to the league championship game - but it's still easy for Richt: with a new quarterback who's better with his feet than his arm, three all-league caliber young tailbacks, and all five starters back on the offensive line, Mark's going to run the damn ball for a change. If, that is, there are even enough carries in a game to keep Danny Ware, Thomas Brown, and Kregg Lumpkin happy, and if they can stay on the field; all have missed time to injury in their short careers. If Richt is absolutely compelled to put the ball in the air, there's freaky tight end Leonard Pope but no experienced receivers.

If there's a drop-off, it's more likely to be because the defense, sans lynchpins David Pollack, Thomas Davis and Odell Thurman and coordinator Brian Van Gorder, all gone for the NFL, has trouble replacing that fire and leadership; not likely. Even if it did give a momentary inch to Florida and Tennessee in the East, Georgia is too talented and, under Richt, consistent to be an underdog to anybody in the league. And unlike their division brethren, the Bulldogs miss LSU - just watch out for Boise State in Game One, a good measuring stick opportunity for a program that should be on cruise control against one seeking to kick it into another gear.

July 18: #12 IOWA
Iowa is sort of the football purist's equivalent of a puppy: three straight seasons of double digit wins behind quietly sound, no-frills blocking and defense despite a lack of star power? And you can do it even without your top five running backs? How adorable!

Anybody that can turn a decidedly middle-of-the-pack outfit into the Big Ten's most consistent program this side of Ann Arbor, much less coax ten victories from a team as injury-riddled as the '04 Hawkeyes, is SMQ's kind of coach; Kirk Ferentz further proved his worth as one of the country's best by taking a team with a young quarterback and no healthy rushers, that fell totally off the radar after losing early games by a combined 74-24 in back-to-back weeks, into a winner of eight straight that took one game along the way by the score of 6-4 and another by tossing up a prayer on the final play.

For his next next trick, Ferentz will have to do even better with higher expectations than Iowa City has seen in decades. As for the star power thing, well, folks warmed up to QB Drew Tate - armed with a deep cache of good wideouts - after his gutsy Outback Bowl performance (as with Vince Young - see below - SMQ warns against overrating anybody based on a postseason peak, but admits difficulty resisting this floppy-haired young man's blue collar resourcefulness) and stud linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are everybody's All-Americans. If Ferentz can add a running back from the first aid ward to that list, and a defensive lineman or two from an entirely new group with some big shoes to fill, his team will be as good as any of the many in the thick of the loaded Big Ten race. Or even if he doesn't.

July 17: #13 CALIFORNIA
So Cal lost 13 starters and a first-round quarterback. And the nation's top rusher. And the school's all-time receiving and sack leaders. And all three of the linebackers. And some luster following a Holiday Bowl shellacking from Texas Tech. So? Jeff Tedford's got what looks like a reloadable program on his hands.

Marshawn Lynch, for instance, may have rivaled Adrian Peterson, Michael Hart or Jamario Thomas as the best true freshman back in the country if he wasn't playing behind 2,000-yard man J.J. Arrington; as it is, Lynch averaged just shy of nine yards per carry and has four starting linemen back, including all-stars Ryan O'Callaghan and Marvin Philip. And it's not like Tedford has had problems with first-year starting quarterbacks, so if Joseph Ayoob or Nathan Longshore doesn't join his coach's growing lineage of first-round signal callers, he should at least be adequate. The defense will be fine, especially if two of the new starters, Donnie McCleskey and Tosh Lupoi, pick up where they left off before injuries sidelined them last year.

The Bears won't be as good as the lights-out version that drubbed just about everybody last year. But if they win the games they should - and especially if they win the one they shouldn't (nobody has been better against SC the last two years) - a January date will be in order.

July 16: #14 TEXAS
Okay, SMQ knows: No. 14? But this is The Year, right? The Longhorns have spent virtually the entire decade in the top ten, and if it weren't for that one damn...well, anyway, Mack Brown gets over the hump this October, right? Vince Young is the most exciting quarterback in the country, right? That other team in the Big XII South is down, right? Right?

Most prognosticators seem to think so; the Longhorns are prohibitive favorites in the Big XII, and not without some good reason. SMQ doesn't want to be negative, but he has a few questions, though: Young's amazing Rose Bowl performance against Michigan was an all-time eye-popper, but did that single game overly inflate his reputation as a Heisman contender? Does his arm scare anybody? Does Limas Sweed or Nate Jones (those are Young's starting wideouts - you can look it up)? How much will the 'Horns miss their two best players, Cedric Benson and Derrick Johnson, both four-year studs who were lynchpins almost from Day One? Was Benson the main reason for the nation's second best rushing game (299 yards per), or will the four returning offensive line starters make it just as easy for Young and Benson's replacement? And, oh yeah, can Mack Brown beat Bob Stoops?

It's not just Oklahoma - there's a huge September trip to Ohio State, and never discount A&M and Tech at the bottom of the slate - and it's bad form to reduce a four-month season to a single game, but the stakes are pretty clear: no team anywhere needs to win any game this year more than Texas does on Oct. 8. Problem is, the Longhorns have barely been competitive in the last five Red River Shootouts, and were shut out and pushed around in Dallas last year because the offense was too one-dimensional. Yeah, they'll still run for 250 against Baylor, Missouri and Kansas, but can Young throw well enough to keep a fast Bob Stoops defense off-balance? Psychologically, can Mack Brown navigate his boys around that crimson stumbling block? Most analysts seem to be answering "yes"; SMQ will believe it when he sees it.

July 15: #15 LOUISVILLE
There's a tendency to write something along the lines of, "Now we'll see what Louisville's really made of" in the wake of the Cardinals' move to the Big East, where the elusive BCS spot involves no busting. Except that, from U of L's position, the new league probably isn't looking a whole lot scarier than the old one: two of the Cards' new conference rivals are the same - fellow C-USA refugees Cincinnati and South Florida - and potential contenders West Virginia and Pittsburgh are minor upgrades at best over old foes Memphis, Southern Miss, UAB and TCU. They're all just sources of bodies upon which to run up scores.

Rampant and ruthless scoring, of course, being the Cards' favorite past time, and one they practiced often last year in the form of roughly seven end zone visits per game. Whatever concerns exist for new, highly-touted quarterback Brian Brohm (there certainly are few) are tempered by his many options: running back Michael Bush, receivers Broderick Clark, Montrell Jones and Joshua Tinch, plus 80 percent of last fall's starting line. Considering the production lost - QB Stefan LeFors, top receiver J.R. Russell and the top two rushers - expectations will reasonably drop, say to somewhere in the neighborhood of only 40 per?

Recall how close this bunch was to beating Miami and busting the BCS as an undefeated mid-major juggernaut last year, and how middling the Big East was (Pitt was league champ?), then try to come up with a reason U of L can't fill the 'Canes' shoes as conference king for the forseeable future. If the league still has a hope of retaining its big-bowl affiliation, Louisville is it.

July 14: #16 PURDUE
For almost a decade now, since Joe Tiller first brought his pass happy WAC attack from Wyoming to Woody Hayes' stodgy Big Ten, discussing Purdue has meant discussing quarterbacks and receivers. So allow SMQ, at least, to give some love to the Boilers' D, which has EVERYBODY back and ought to (really) be good enough to compete with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Iowa for the title of "best defense" in a league in which punting doesn't figure to be at a premium.

At the very least, the defense ought to keep Purdue in every game; but then, it did that last year, and the Boilers lost four straight in the league and five of its last seven after a gangbusters start to finish 7-5. How can they avoid a similar slide in 2005? Hint, hint: all five losses were a) to winning teams (only one of the seven victories, Ohio State, was against a winner) and b) all five were by four points or less. The Boilers have to not only play with good teams, but show the chutzpah to beat them over the last hill. It helps, maybe, that the most important of the few new faces, quarterback Brandon Kirsch, has not shown a lack of chutzpah in his appearances thus far; he hasn't shown a lack of putting the ball in trouble, either.

It also helps, of course, to get a schedule conspicuously absent of Michigan AND Ohio State. As far as SMQ is concerned, no team with the benefit of this sort of glitch should be eligible for a conference title - you're saying a team can win a championship without beating either of the league's top two contenders? - but the Big Ten standings make no such distinction; on paper, this is Tiller's best team since the Drew Brees Rose Bowl team in 2000, and the cards couldn't be much better to replicate that run than they are now.

July 13: #17 UTAH
If there's any coach and quarterback who can relate to each other, it has to be Kyle Whittingham and Brian Johnson. Whittingham is replacing Urban Meyer, already mythical for leading Utah to two conference titles in two years, orchestrating the school's first undefeated season and becoming the first coach outside of a BCS conference to take his team to one of the big money bowls before riding off into the Sunshine State for some big money of his own. All Johnson has to do is impersonate Alex Smith, school record setter, Heisman Trophy finalist, number one overall NFL Draft pick and top notch scholar. If things get tough, at least they have each other.

Don't bet, though, on things getting too tough just yet. Like Auburn, Utah lost too much to have any reasonable expectation of repeating last year's magic, but also like the Tigers, there's enough coming back to make a go of it. Johnson has Smith's athleticism and most of his offensive line, with Steve Fifita, Spencer Toone and Eric Weddle holding down the fort on defense. No one in the Mountain West could touch this bunch last year (average margin of victory in MWC games: only 24.7 points), and regardless of the losses, no one should be able to this year, either.

Which brings us to Utah's best feature: its schedule. The toughest game? At TCU in September. Get by the Frogs, a trip to North Carolina and Wyoming in Salt Lake City, and hell, these guys could crash the BCS again. The gut feeling, though no one here should be able to touch the Utes, is that some unlikely someone is going to put these white boys, momentarily at least, in their place, but as long as the New Year's party is in Memphis, Whittingham can count his debut as a success - that means what, maybe one slip-up allowed?

July 12: #18 AUBURN
Undefeated run to the league championship, Sugar Bowl victory, etc., etc.; yes, yes, except for the whole being frozen out of the national championship game part, 2004 was one of those once-a-generation seasons for Auburn. Now, onto more pressing matters, namely: how to replace four first round draft picks (three in the top nine, plus the quarterback) and, maybe more importantly, recapturing the elusive chemistry, luck or whatever plucky intangible intrinsic to any unbeaten squad.

Not that the Tigers aren't plenty talented: the inevitable fall to earth will be cushioned considerably by the return of virtually the entire undersized but too-quick front seven on defense, which shouldn't miss a beat with ends Stanley McClover and Quentin Groves - sophomores who were great in reserve roles last year - joining the top-notch linebacking corps (Travis Williams, Antarrious Williams, Kevin Sears, Karibi Dede). New trigger man Brandon Cox has a slew of talented, veteran receivers.

But let's be honest: is there anyone who thinks this program, typically a seven- or eight-game winner, can strike lightning again, especially without the stud rushers and cool QB who orchestrated last year's magic? Staking a claim to "consistent contender" status will require repeating as SEC West champs.

July 11: #19 ALABAMA
Here's your situation entering the fall if you're Brodie Croyle: Your defense is stacked. Your coach isn't going anywhere for a while. Your top four receivers are back. If Alabama isn't still in the hunt for the SEC West title in mid-November, the nation's most rabid fan base will turn its crimson eyes to you. No pressure or anything.

'Bama fans can be forgiven for putting so much on the quarterback, given how well every other position on the field has played during Mike Shula's first two seasons. Even against defenses geared to stop the run, the Tide can succeed as a grind-it-out offense, and the defense, well, in a year of loaded defenses across the nation, none looks faster or more fearsome than 'Bama's (that is, ten returning starters from the nation's second-ranked unit, headlined by a veteran group of headhunting linebackers - DeMeco Ryans, Freddie Roach, Juwan Simpson - and a safety - Roman Harper - who plays like a 'backer).

In short, this team is fast, talented and experienced. But if Croyle is hurt and misses more than half the year for the third straight season, and the offense again becomes one-dimensional, it all comes crashing down.

July 10: #20 PENN STATE
Why the 2004 Lions suffered through their worst season in JoPa's half-century at the helm: 17 points per game, six times held to ten points or fewer, and an average of about one touchdown in seven games against winning opponents. In other words, week after week, the offense crashed and burned.

Why the Lions will be the most improved team in at least the Big Ten: nine starters are back from a quietly bad-ass defense, the only one in the country that didn't allow more than 21 points in any game. There's no reason to think, with lynchpins Tamba Hall, Dan Connor, Paul Posluszky and Alan Zemaitis all back, that generally offensively-challenged Big Ten opponents will be able to average more than two touchdowns on this bunch - that assumption alone is enough to envision PSU getting back to the postseason.

The hangup is whether the offense will be able to score on anyone, and particularly whether new quarterback Micahel Robinson, a part-time runner/passer/receiver the past three years, can consistently provide a spark with his arm. With this defense, last year's entire starting offensive line and a couple experienced backs (Austin Scott, Tony Hunt) behind him, Robinson won't have to be Michael Vick; the difference between five wins and eight will be his cool in crunch time.

July 9: #21 BOISE STATE
Here's a comforting thought for a program whose first ever undefeated regular season still wasn't enough to carry it to New Year's Day: if BSU does it again, it will definitely find itself with a more prestigious date than the Liberty Bowl. That's because doing it again will mean winning in Athens, Georgia, on opening day, and, surviving that, handling Bowling Green and the annual tilts with Oregon State and WAC rival Fresno State. As much respect as SMQ has for the unlikely reloadable program Dan Hawkins has built in Boise (and for the innovative and, goddammit, feel-good way he successfully incorporates so many different players into so many different roles), winning eleven for the fourth straight year against that upgraded schedule is out of BSU's range.

Yet the Broncos have consistently proven to be the wrong team to pick against, and they're still the bet to top the WAC because, well, at this point, they're Boise State. As usual, Fresno looks a challenger - the only challenger - for the conference crown, but Boise is the Oklahoma to the Bulldogs' Texas: the streak is four years and counting over FSU since the Broncos entered the league in 2001. Make it five.

It was here that Urban Meyer jumped on the fast track to becoming the next Steve Spurrier, transforming the plodding, moribund offense of a MAC bottom-dweller into a creative spread attack that, entering Year Three post-Meyer, has the Falcon offense on defensive coordinators' short list of the scariest anywhere - BG put up 40 or more nine times in 2004, including each of its last seven games, and all-conference types are back at every position.

Meyer and successor Gregg Brandon have built that fearsome passing game on the arms - and feet - of a couple athletic quarterbacks, Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs, who busted the seams on Harris' considerable shoes as a sophomore by blistering defenses for 4,000 yards, 41 touchdowns and a measly four interceptions - and lest you toss those almost unparalleled stats aside as merely picking on the little guys of the MAC, remember that Jacobs threw for 218, two TDs and no picks in the Falcons' 40-24 loss at Oklahoma...in his first start.

There's no such impossible road block as the Sooners on the 2005 slate, but there are two early chances for big non-conference wins before getting mired in the easily-dismissed MAC road: at Wisconsin, at Boise State. It wouldn't be an upset for BG to beat either; it could start the ubiquitous "BCS Buster" talk if it beats both. That scenario's a lot more likely if the defense, which allowed 123 points in three losses, cuts down on the big plays.

July 7: #23 VIRGINIA
Since he landed at UVA in 2001, Al Groh's been recruting with the ACC's big boys. Now - can his team play with them? The Cavs have looked the part against the rest of the ACC, winning all of their five conference victories by at least three touchdowns or a shut out last year - with even more lopsided results out of the league - but were outscored 91-34 by Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech. UVA lost its bowl game, too, which leaves the most persistent question not one of talent, but of balls in big games.

Much has been made of what the Cavs lost - seven NFL Draft picks, five in the first four rounds, including early departures Daryl Blackstock and Heath Miller - but check out what Groh has back: do-it-all tailback Wali Lundy (he should hit 1,000 yards after splitting time the last two years and also has 58 career receptions, although he needs to cut the fumbles), gloriously-monikered tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and stud linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham give UVA as much front line talent as at least, say, Florida State. Even elusive but inconsistent passer Marques Haggans will be a big asset in a league whose other serious contenders are all breaking in new quarterbacks.

So what's the big difference between an FSU and Virginia? Last year, it was 33 points in Tallahassee. If UVA wants to keep competing with the elite on the recruiting trails - Groh's class this spring was again rated in the top 20, for what it's worth - that gap has to close, and sooner rather than later.

July 6: #24 UCLA
SMQ is not what you'd call a big Karl Dorrell fan. Nor has he ever been high on a program that annually has talent, expectations and an occasional big win or two early because the Bruins are inevitably, chronically soft; they were creampuffs, as usual, in 2004, when they finished last in the PAC Ten in defense, were especially awful against the run, beat no teams with a winning record, lost five of their last seven and wound up in the Las Vegas Bowl, where they blew a fourth quarter lead to prairie powerhouse Wyoming. Any team with talent like Spencer Havner, Maurice Drew and Mercedes Lewis should be better than six wins and a postseason date named after a city.

So here's guessing, tentatively, that the Bruins will be, especially if quarterback Drew Olson's knee is okay. If it's not, another highly-touted Olson, Ben, transfered from BYU to back him up, but either way the quickest route to eight wins is via Maurice Drew. Resist the onset of contagious PAC Ten pass wackiness and place the ball more often into the hands of this talented gentleman (Drew had only 160 carries last year, still gaining 1,000 yards), and see if the pollsters don't start paying attention for the first time since the early days of the decade.

July 5: #25 TEXAS TECH
Step right up, Cody Hodges - you're the next contestant on "The Leach is Right," Tech coach Mike Leach's annual offensive production that makes stars of future Arena League quarterbacks and fools of defensive coordinators everywhere. Hodges looks the role - veteran, six-foot white guy with an okay arm - and anyone who thinks the loss of three starting linemen and two receivers will keep him from tossing up 35 touchdowns like Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons before him hasn't been paying attention to what Leach has going on out there.

But forget the offense for a minute, we know the offense will score no matter who's chucking it around. No, the question is whether the Raiders can stop a decent offense, which is still as in the air as the footballs around Lubbock (seriously, folks, they threw it 54 times per game in 2004) - teams with winning records averaged almost 31 points against Tech last year. The Raiders likely won't have to deal with a team of that variety until they visit Texas on Oct. 22, when the nation's puffiest non-conference slate (Florida International and I-AA who dats Sam Houston State and Illinois State) and the softer side of the Big XII will probably have Tech at 6-0 and chomping at the bit. We'll find out what we need to know about this bunch's ability to take the next step up to New Year's Day contender after said trip. Until then, happy passing.
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8:37 AM

Are you not getting crazy with some of these preseason rankings? Iowa at No. 12? Purdue at No. 16? And maybe Bowling Green at No. 22? Come on. And you know how I feel about Penn State being ranked No. 20. I'll give you this much...you make your points well.
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And don't let the name fool ya - second guessing the phenomenal athletic feats and split-second decisions of college kids under extreme physical duress is for every day of the week.

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