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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

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Only, what, two, three years ago SMQ believed the Big Ten had seen its heyday, was on the decline for lack of a dominant, national title contender when sized up against the SEC, Big XII and even PAC Ten. But this year, no league is as deep or as top-heavy as this one. Three teams - Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa - have the opportunity to win the league, and maybe go on to bigger things, and a fourth - Purdue - is lurking around with not a little preseason notice. The next four could finish in any order, and all could be in bowl games. Just about everybody who's anybody is back, player-wise, and the bottom of the league even offers the chance to watch a couple new coaches try to turn around floudering Illinois and Indiana. All in all, top to bottom, the most competitive conference in the country right now.

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH (As determined by this system)
1. Ohio State
2. Michigan
3. Iowa
4. Purdue
5. Penn State
6. Wisconsin
7. Minnesota
8. Michigan State
9. Northwestern
10. Illinois
11. Indiana

Player his team can least afford to lose: Minnesota desperately needs Laurence Mauroney now that he's alone in the Gophers' RB spotlight, but not as much as Michigan State will need do-it-all quarterback DREW STANTON, who actually led a good rushing offense (tenth nationally) with almost 69 yards per game.
Most Likely to Prove SMQ Wrong: Is it wise to predict more wins in a single season for a team than said team has won in the previous two seasons combined? For PENN STATE's sake, as well as that of his own prognosticating ego, SMQ hopes so.
Most Likely to be Benched: Penn State's MICHAEL ROBINSON won't be benched, exactly, but moving better passer Anthony Morelli under center would allow the athletic senior to contribute at other positions.
Least Informed Prediction: Iowa's defensive line will be fine. Why? Because it's been fine? The guy's who made it fine are gone, and their replacements are totally inexperienced.
Surest Bet: Maroney will run for 1,500 yards. He's come close without even being the for real starter the last two years, and still has the heart of the great line in front of him.
Why All the Hype About: SMQ knows why people like PURDUE, but really, how good can a team be when its biggest asset is that it doesn't play two other, clearly better teams?
Why is No One Talking About: Northwestern linebacker TIM McGARIGLE, the nation's leading tackler? Being the only player to make more than 100 solo stops in a given season is worth a fair amount of hype, thinks SMQ.
No One Will be Missed More Than: Brandon Kirsch has played some before, but KYLE ORTON more or less "got it" last year, and it would have been nice to have seen him for another, potentially Brees-like year in Purdue's offense. Chad Henne will also miss throwing up prayers to BRAYLON EDWARDS.
Put Up or Shut Up: If PURDUE is going to repeat its '99 Rose Bowl season any time soon, this would be the year, right? If they can win the Big Ten again, regardless of who they are or are not playing to do so, then the Boilers will be worth the hype.
SMQ Will be Watching: Maroney, and the Gophers' beautiful blocking...The Big Three race: Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan, all of which host one of the other and visit one of the other...Penn State's effort to score two touchdowns, just two, to win some close games.
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SMQ National Rank: #3 - 2004: 8-4 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: LB A.J. Hawk and fellow receiver Santonio Holmes may be more sure-fire All-America types, but this Ted Ginn looks like the most exciting, frightening young ball handler this side of Barry Sanders (so maybe I picked OSU to win the league, Brian, I did at least call Ted Ginn a "frightening young ball handler").
Season Hinges On: Putting the ball in the possession of the track team manning the receiver positions, which means the quarterback has to be capable, which means a running game needs to emerge to open things up downfield, which means the offensive line has to gel. So all that, whatever it takes to get the pickle to Ginn and Holmes.
SMQ Likes: Obviously, the wide outs, and the return game with Ginn. Whatever other problems the Bucks have on offense, Hawk, Pittcock and Youboty are going to keep people off the board.
SMQ Doesn't Like: Does Troy Smith suck? We won't even get to find out for real until the monster blowout ADs-with-a-sack non-conference game of the decade with Texas in Week Two; we do know Justtin Zwick sucks, as might Antonio Pittman and the offensive line. Uh, who's gonna bail out all those stalled drives with Mike Nugent gone?
Best-case: Smith plays like all the other teams are wearing maize and blue, or is at least a winner (he was 4-1 as a starter, and that was a good enough quality in less-gifted Craig Krenzel), and the running game has enough, ahem, legs (seriously, this is Ohio State, so there has to be a stud back and at least a second round-quality plower somewhere) to open things up for the wide outs. Undefeated? No, not with Texas, Iowa and Michigan - to say nothing of trips to Penn State and Minnesota - but close.
Worst-case: The Real Troy Smith is a limp-armed Stanley Jackson impersonator with no running game upon which to lean, and opponents can jump all over the screens and whatever other tricks have to be employed to get Ginn and Holmes involved. The schedule is a bear, and rather front-loaded, too, so if Smith isn't immediately in form and Texas puts a big wallopin' on him, the effect could be the same slow start we saw last year. There are six conceivable losses.
Why They'll be Back in the BCS: If Maurice Clarett had hung around, he'd be a senior and OSU'd be penciled in with USC in a good old-fashioned-type Rose Bowl. As its is, the schedule is too tough for this squad to make that leap. But nobody's going to score a lot, and with two good drives, a big play, a turnover and a Ginn return or two per game, the Buckeyes can beat just about anybody.

SMQ National Rank: #7 - 2004: 9-3 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: RB Michael Hart, yet another consisten, stout, workhorse Wolverine runner.
Season Hinges On: Given the last two games of '04, Lloyd Carr had better be overseeing a few pursuit drills in weeks leading up to Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State, all teams with at least fairly athletic quarterbacks.
SMQ Likes: Plenty of proven offensive firepower: Hart, receivers Steve Breaston and Jason Avant, tight end Tim Massaquoi, four o-line starters back and that big, pro-style Henne kid. Let SMQ also point out here that no college team runs the screen year-in and year-out like Michigan - Carr's always getting big plays from the simple tailback screen. Very good, deep d-line, and a couple up-and-coming secondary stars.
SMQ Doesn't Like: Except for the names, the above paragraph describes every single Michigan team of the Carr era, and the Wolverines always wind up losing to somebody, or, more accurately, a couple somebodies. The linebackers, usually a strength, aren't so hot.
Best-case: If Henne progresses, the offense ought to be tremendously balanced and scary. The defense will be fine if it can find a way to corral running QBs. Goal No. 1 should be a third straight conference title, which is obviously well within reach. Like Ohio State, UM is capable of winning every game on its schedule, but even in a best-case scenario that seems too far out; hope for one loss and another BCS berth.
Worst-case: Henne struggles without Braylon Edwards to toss jump balls at, and the Wolverines drop a couple games they shouldn't, which has happened enough times before. But when's the last time the Wolverines lost more than three games in a season? That should be about as bad as it will get.
Why It's New Year's in Florida: UM always could be a national title contender, but hasn't actually been one in almost a decade now and doesn't show any signs of taking that step now; maybe next year. After a couple seasons popping the bubbly in Southern California, the Sunshine State might not seem so great even to frozen Meechiganers (Meechiganites? Meechiganarians?). If this is so, SMQ says get over it and consider yourselves lucky to have a team that's consistently good enough to be ho hum about anything less than Pasadena.

SMQ National Rank: #12 - 2004: 10-2 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: LB Chad Greenway, in a nudge over fellow stud 'backer Abdul Hodge. Both have been around forever.
Season Hinges On: Not losing the top four running backs to injury and finishing last in the league in rushing - not that it made all that much difference in the end last year.
SMQ Likes: SMQ has already called this team the football purist's equivalent of an adorable puppy, so clearly the myriad winning ways of Kirk Ferentz have won him over. The offensive line is good. The receivers are good and really deep. The linebackers and corners are fantastic. Just look at lil Drew Tate - who couldn't love that face?
SMQ Doesn't Like: Seriously, 2004 was smoke and mirrors, right? The running game had better be on more solid ground with a couple for-real running backs. And can Greenway and Hodge make every tackle? Because the line in front of them, so good the past couple years with Matt Roth and Jonathan Babineaux, is all new.
Best-case: Healthy backs=the physical running game Ferentz prefers, and opens up Tate to make plays without having to shake three defenders off his back. The linebackers make up for the young line and at the very least bend but don't break. Again, the Big Ten is too deep to imagine any but a USC-type team running the table, but Iowa has shared two of the past three league championships, and none of those teams looked as good on paper entering the year as this one, so an actual, outright Big Ten crown is sitting right there on the table.
Worst-case: Given the injuries, it's hard to imagine a worse situation than last year, and they still won ten. Still, the offense could struggle if it's one-dimensional, and the inexperienced, undersized d-line is going to have to prove it can hold its weight. The schedule's unforgiving enough to drop these guys, without a couple breaks, into some place like the Alamo or Music City Bowl.
Why They'll Win Ten Again: By now, we can all agree the Hawkeyes are legit, huh? They don't lose games they shouldn't, so the season boils down to Michigan and road games with Ohio State and Purdue - no reason to think UI can't win two of those.

SMQ National Rank: #16 - 2004: 7-5 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: Well, there are no big stars, but safety Bernard Pollard seems to be the most consistently well-regarded of the many solid, all-conference types..."the anchor," who's "more linebacker than strong safety."
Season Hinges On: The non-implosion of Brandon Kirsch.
SMQ Likes: Actually, the defense, if you can believe that. Yeah, Purdue's got a rocking D, one that finished 15th in the country in scoring defense last year and returns all eleven starters (though a couple are actually listed as backups). The offense finally got back to chucking it around last year, and there are a couple good targets for Kirsch.
SMQ Doesn't Like: None of those receivers are named 'Stubblefield,' and more importantly, the quarterback isn't named 'Orton.' Kirsch has not always been the most consistent passer in the past, though he does offer some athleticism his predecessor did not.
Best-case: No Michigan or Ohio State, huh? Well, bully. That means, if Kirsch is okay and gets a little help from the running game, the Boilers will be favored in most league contests. A BCS shot is there, realistically, even if it's sort of by default.
Worst-case: Tiller still has to navigate his team around Iowa and Minnesota and Penn State and Wisconsin and Michigan State and Northwestern, which doesn't exactly constitute and "easy" schedule (oh, there's Notre Dame, too). The last time we saw Kirsch, then a freshman, the Boilers were limping into subpar bowl games at .500.
Why They Won't Win the League: Purdue is a contender primarily because it doesn't play the league's best two team, which really makes it a pretender. Pretenders don't win championships in conferences this deep. The Boilers should wind up back in a New Year's Day game, though.

SMQ National Rank: #20 - 2004: 4-7 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: CB Alan Zemaitis is getting the most ink of anyone on the stacked defense - well, except for Dan Connor, but for a different reason.
Season Hinges On: Scoring more than one touchdown a game against winning teams.
SMQ Likes: Deeee-fense! You know by now the Nittany Lions were the only team in America that didn't allow more than 21 points in any game, and they've got all but one linebacker and one safety back. Wonderfully-named Paul Posluszny and Connor are as good a white-guy tandem at linebacker as any in the country (rivalled by Hawk and Anthony Schelgel at OSU).
SMQ Doesn't Like: The offense [limp trumpet: "wah wah waaaaah"]. The best hope for this anemic unit is a true freshman, Derrick Williams, and that's never good - especially when Paterno's likely to hold the guy back as long as "Fr." is next to his name.
Best-case: With all five of last year's starting linemen and a couple decent backs, the running game could be all right, and needs to be, given the quarterback situation, where the best result would be for Anthony Morelli to take over and allow Michael Robinson to play some receiver. The defense will keep any game close, and a bit of opportunism could equal up to eight wins. PSU should be undefeated entering October, at least.
Worst-case: If you see any more 6-4 Punt Bowls, that's probably a bad sign (thank God they don't play Iowa this year). With such little firepower, there could just as easily be a repeat of 2004's 2-6 league mark.
Why They'll Be Back in the Postseason: The Lions are more experienced and should be able to manage a .500 league record, and with the far less-taxing non-conference lineup, the two-year bowl absence should end.

SMQ National Rank: #46 - 2004: 9-3 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: Center Donovan Raiola, little bro of former Nebraska and current Detroit Lions hoss Dominic Raiola.
Season Hinges On: Rebuilding the defensive line and secondary.
SMQ Likes: No Anthony Davis? Step right up, Brian Calhoun, a Colorado transfer who'll be the next in the line of big time Badger running backs under Barry Alvarez; if not Calhoun, then Booker Stanley. The receivers are good and have been around a while now.
SMQ Doesn't Like: The defense that carried the team's 9-0 start lost its whole front four (primarily, Erasmus James) and three of four in the secondary (primarily, Scott Starks and Jim Leonhard). John Stocco (5-10, 197) wins the Joe Germaine Award for Least Impressive Body by a Quarterback, and he's not as good as Germaine.
Best-case: The offensive skill talent is all right, maybe not as good as the last couple years but good enough to win with - Calhoun's addition was a boost and should allow the Badgers to run the ball control scheme they always want to. Getting off to a good start - that is, showing they're going to be competitive by beating Bowling Green and North Carolina - will be crucial. Cracking the conference's top four, or slipping into another New Year's Day game, would be an accomplishment.
Worst-case: If the new guys on the defensive line can't stop the run, and/or the secondary can't stop the pass, what are they going to do? What if Stocco is forced to beat people with his arm? Bottom barrel: 4-7.
Why Barry Goes Out With a Resounding "Eh": Wisconsin is never bad, and it would be nice to see Barry Alvarez, who once coached from the press box in a cast, go out with a bang. But this is a decidedly mediocre team whom SMQ actually has just missing out on the postseason. The end-of-year slide last season doesn't engender much confidence.

SMQ National Rank: #51 - 2004: 7-5 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: RB Laurence Maroney, who should get the ball 50 times a game.
Season Hinges On: Better defense, more consistent passing game to complement the rushing attack.
SMQ Likes: Maroney and the kick ass offensive line, which has gotten in the habit of whipping people who know what's coming and rolling up the yards on the ground. With Marion Barber The Third finally gone, Maroney will put up unheard-of numbers. Mark SMQ's words. There a couple pretty good receivers.
SMQ Doesn't Like: Bryan Cupito was too inconsistent as a passer despite having the awesome running game to take the pressure off. Big Ten opponents handed it to the defense, which lost of its front seven. And why are the Gophers always losing it towards the end of the season?
Best-case: The defense keeps games close enough to allow Maroney to get the ball as much as humanly possible and Cupito to do some good in the play-action game. Winning enough to get to a fourth consecutive bowl game will require an upset or two.
Worst-case: The Gophers fall behind, Cupito struggles, defenses load up to stop Maroney. Another inexplicable loss like last year's 30-21 fall to Indiana could spell doom, because there's such little margin for error on this schedule. God help them if Maroney goes down.
Why They Won't Escape the Middle of the Pack: Not enough in the way of a passing game or defense to take the leap they appeared on the verge of making early last year. The Gophers will still be plenty competitive, but other than Maroney, the talent level is still just below the upper echelon.

SMQ National Rank: #52 - 2004: 5-7 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: QB Drew Stanton has the same kind of fiery, field general type of thing going for him as his more hyped namesake over in Iowa, and probably more talent.
Season Hinges On: Curing the schizophrenia that was evidenced in wild swings of big wins and terrible losses at unpredictable intervals.
SMQ Likes: Stanton is highly regarded and versatile enough to have led the nation's tenth-ranked rushing offense; backs Jason Teague and Jehuu Caulcrick are back, with three starting wideouts, one of whom, Matt Trannon, might be really, really good. The team can score.
SMQ Doesn't Like: Bad defense done the Spartans in, and six starters left. The run defense couldn't stop much of anybody.
Best-case: Absolute thrashings of Minnesota and Wisconsin proved how good this team can be when it's clicking, and it also took Michigan to the edge in one of the year's best games. A little consistency, with Stanton running the show, could mean as many as seven or eight wins.
Worst-case: Losses to Rutgers, Hawaii and Penn State (badly, in the final case) showed how bad this team can be when it's off. That squad doesn't have much of a prayer at even making the postseason.
Why They'll...Do...Something: How is SMQ supposed to assess this team? Putting together two straight weeks of similar-looking play, one way or the other, would be welcome.

SMQ National Rank: #60 - 2004: 6-6 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: MLB Tim McGarigle, the nation's leading solo tackler in 2004.
Season Hinges On: Turning a couple more of the many close games in their favor - maybe a return of some of that Wildcat luck that worked so amazingly well in 2000.
SMQ Likes: There's tackle machine McGarigle, first of all. The Wildcat offense has been able to consistently do damage without a whole lot of talent. Brett Basanez is a three-year starter with an underrated receiver, Mark Philmore. And don't forget that the Wildcats beat Ohio State and Purdue last year.
SMQ Doesn't Like: Defensive end Loren Howard suddenly decided to transfer in the wake of knee surgery, leaving the line that was very solid last year pretty thin. Basanez hasn't been a consistent threat with his arm; in general, there's just not enough talent here to get very far.
Best-case: NU won three of four overtime games last year, so the ability to win in the crunch exists - just do it a bit more consistently and there'll be a bowl berth waiting.
Worst-case: Teams may be able to run all over the 'Cats. The running game won't be in as good a shape as it's been in the past, allowing defenses to gang up on Basanez, who'll be under more pressure. No guaranteed wins in this league.
Why They'll Fall Short of the Postseason: The loss of Howard, a good player and a leader, really hurts. This is a middle-of-the-pack group that can scrap and compete, but ultimately isn't talented enough to win much in such a deep conference.

SMQ National Rank: #89 - 2004: 3-8 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: RB Pierre Thomas, who can also do some damage as a return guy.
Season Hinges On: If the new coach avoids a fight with campus frat boys, let's call it a success.
SMQ Likes: Uhhhhh...well, Ron Zook is a, uh, he's an interesting guy.
SMQ Doesn't Like: Anything. The Illini stank on offense, stank on defense, and the new coach more or less stank at his last job. Special teams? Let's say they stank there, too.
Best-case: The Illini might start 2-0, and might beat Indiana to match last year's 3-8 record. Four wins would mean a stunning upset somewhere along the way.
Worst-case: Illinois probably won't lose every game, but it might lose its mascot.
Why They Won't Finish Last: The Illini are better than Indiana...barely.

SMQ National Rank: #101 - 2004: 3-8 - 2005 Schedule
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Best Player: Linebacker Kyle Killion is a bright spot on a cover-your-eyes sort of defense.
Season Hinges On: Whether Terry Hoeppner can inject some excitement into a limp program.
SMQ Likes: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis transferred to Ole Miss, and one of his replacements will be Yamar Washington, meaning Hoeppner at some point, conceivably, had to turn to an assistant and say, "We lost BenJarvus. We're going to go with Yamar." That's good.
SMQ Doesn't Like: 450 yards a game? That's pretty damn awful defense. The quarterback is new, and they're not sure yet who exactly it'll be.
Best-case: At least the non-conference schedule allows for a possible 3-0 start against Central Michigan, I-AA Nicholls State and Kentucky. The only really likely chance for a league win is Illinois, in Game Five. So a 4-1 start could lead to some confidence before the heavier hitters start whaling on them.
Worst-case: A loss in any of the first three games would send a bad sign. An 0-8 conference record is very likely.
Why They Won't Climb Out of the Cellar: New coaches always offer the opportunity for a quick change of attitude and a turn-around, but that would require a modicum of talent that Terry Hoeppner just doesn't have.
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11:53 PM

Purude's most recent Rose Bowl season was 2000, not 1999.
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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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e-mail Sunday Morning Quarterback at sundaymorningqb@yahoo.com

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