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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Thursday, August 17, 2006

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(SMQ's 11-25 can be found here)

The preseason BlogPoll is official, you know, and now we sooper smartypants Web folks with our fancy charts have an idea why the professional-type pollsters have been so consistently wrong for so long: this is hard! Everybody stinks.

SMQ himself didn't file his ballot until 9:15 a.m. Central (yikes! Did not consider time zones then. Good thing Michigan's on the same latitude longitude as Mississippi [at least you caught that yourself instead of some smartass commenter - ed. Swear to God I'm not a total idiot]), 45 minutes before the deadline, with the help of a haphazard spreadsheet ranking his top ten by position, offense and defense as a whole, coaching, exracurricular elements he feels especially important (namely, quarterback experience and run-stuffing ability on defense) and his perception of a team's overall talent level, based largely on past recruiting rankings. Each was rated 1-10, final rankings based on the end average. After weeks of hemming and hawing over fractions involving Central Michigan and Ball State, this analysis literally took less than an hour. The results may reflect this.

The results are, however, still as good a guess as anyone else is going to make this year, this insane year with team after legitimately, deeply flawed team written off for its apparent unworthiness, then rediscovered, rethought, shed in a new light, and uplifted by the medicority of those around it. Forecasting this sesason might be the most imperfect effort in the history of one of the planet's most imperfect sciences. And we, brothers, should take solace in that universal uncertainty rather than snipe at one another's inevitable ignorance and misfortune at the hands of unpredictable young men chasing a cruelly oblong ball in directions no combination of statistics, spreadsheets or soothsaying could possibly foresee.

Which is to say, SMQ is certain the rightest he can be in this context is still completely wrong. So don't jump on his back too hard when this is proven empirically by Penn State's mythical championship run.

So here we are, number one. Number One. Gotta be somebody. And SMQ hates to be one of these people, he really does, he was hoping it wouldn't come to this, honestly, you must believe, reader, but, uh, yeah, so, OK, er *closes eyes very tight* ...

1. Notre Dame
OK. Though SMQ did contribute to an Irish-centered publication this offseason, this selection is in no way influenced by imbibing of any green brand name sugar-water mixures. The very long, very loud and almost very consensus raps on Weis' army of storm-trooping clones and Manchurian Candidate Brady Quinn are readily apparent: the defense was regularly torched. The offense put up its lauded numbers against horrendous teams and in grass imported from the backyard of an abandoned shack in the northern Argentenian jungle. The previous two Irish "resurgences" this decade were followed by two of the school's worst seasons in the past half-century. Heisman Pundit picked them number one - with a reference to the dreaded Gang of Six Four, even (four? What happened to Boise State and Utah? Oh, yeah). Et cetera and so on. All valid. All true.
Basically, SMQ just thinks these are more easily-overcome problems than Ohio State's emerging-from-the-crib defense, Auburn's size against the run and inexperienced O-line, Texas' pack of freshman quarterbacks, Florida's whimpering babes on the offensive line and in the secondary, SC's unavoidable succumbing to the Inviolable Laws of an Indifferent Universe and the lingering Jeff Bowden/Lloyd Carr problems at Florida State and Michigan. Notre Dame is flawed, but in SMQ's mind, the least flawed. Or the least fatally flawed. And that is the ringing endorsement.
The defense was shredded to little pieces by a runaway train Ohio State team in the Fiesta Bowl. This is undeniable because SMQ watched most of it happen. He also watched it happen to Florida in the 1996/7 Fiesta Bowl, in much grislier fashion, and the Gators rebounded the following season to win the mythical title. He also watched it happen to Tennessee in the 1997/8 Orange Bowl, and the Volunteers rebounded the following season to win the mythical title. Obviously, this doesn't mean Notre Dame will accomplish the same feat against a potentially brutal schedule, but it does mean they're not automatically excluded because of the poor postseason showing against a team virtually no one - maybe even either of the two Rose Bowl participants - was going to beat at that point. Plus, very importantly, the defense is going to be better. Has to be better. The linebackers are a question, but SMQ is willing to go with the experience and underrated talent (according to dubious recruitniks) on the line and in the secondary, admitted cornerback warts and all. This includes especially pass rushing specialist Victor Abiamiri and safety/knockout artist Tom Zbikowski, whom - in light of what Phil Steele reveals as sub-4.4 speed, two return touchdowns, two interception touchdowns, an instant knockout in his first pro fight and a menacing Marine cut- SMQ dubs the scariest player in the nation. If it didn't alright belong to all-time Terror Team hall-of-famer Mitchell Friedman, Zbikowski would be a mere Chuck Cecil collision/felony battery or firearm charge from earning the "Fright Night" handle. Ambrose Wooden was a top ten CB recruit, took his youthful lumps, and now needs to start paying dividends as a junior. At the least, it could improve to roughly USC's production (361 yards, 22.8 points allowed per game), which was more than enough for the Trojans' offense to surpass without much trouble. Notre Dame's offense may not be 49 per game material - the running game is just OK as a keep-em-honest necessity, compared to USC's galloping thunder stallions - but it will be good enough to leave a lot of margin for error on the other side, as much room as any team in the country, probably, and still get out unscathed.
And Penn State, Michigan, Purdue and UCLA=all at South Bend. No guarantees in sight, but, per the typical deception of the "impossible" Irish slate, the schedule doesn't shape up as brutally as it might appear on first glance. Certainly no more than Ohio State's.
And the offense! Gang of four! Score, baby, score!
Rending ballots to shreds in regret? Of course you are. Of course you are. Of course you are. SMQ is always right...Charlie Weis...Charlie Weis...

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Tom Zbikowski is out to grind your bones

2. California
This pick involved copious amounts of brand name sugar-water concoctions, of SMQ's own rendering. This is the one that will have to be defended to the justifiable skeptics. This is much crazier than Notre Dame on top. The one guy who picked Cal No. 1 is teetering on the edge of a dark, dark abyss at the core of his sanity; SMQ knows, because he's an early adoptee into the cult and almost put the Bears up there his own self.
SMQ first got into Cal sometime in July, talked himself into their prospective mythical championship success based on their embodiment of many time-tested underdog characteristics, the unreal yards per carry averages of the talented and gentlemanly Marshawn Lynch and backup Justin Forsett, Jeff Tedford's stellar and nearly unblemished history of molding average passers into fearsome, overrated draft picks, the return of six of the front seven on defense, including a legitimate all-American (DT Brandon Mebane) to clog up the middle and a pair of senior corners with the chops to hang with the likes of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith (Daymeion Hughes and Tim Mixon combined to pick off 8 passes and break up another 22 last year).
Mostly, though, this pick is made with the firm belief that no single program, no matter its dominance, can continue to rock everyone's world in the fashion USC has the last three and a half years. Not when they've lost all that USC's lost. Nebraska 1996. Florida State 2001. Miami 2002. Oklahoma last year. This is just the way of nature, what SMQ's NFL namesake would refer to as an "Immutable Law": 'dynasties' run their course in about three years, when a large number of core players depart at once.
Cal, for all the reasons above, is the main beneficiary of the law's ruthless application this fall to USC. Definitely, they are not as talented as the Trojans. But they are more experienced, and in key spots - running game, defensive line that relatively contained USC and Oregon in a rebuilding year and allowed 3.3 per carry over the season - they are mythical champion quality. The receivers are very solid, very, very fast DeSean Jackson perhaps a star-in-waiting and at least the necessary gamebreaker in a pinch. SMQ likes to think of last year's pre-injury starter, Nate Longshore, especially under Tedford's watch, as the next Matt Mauck, and also reminds skeptics that Mauck's team won part of a mythical title with one loss. The main difference being the Bears have ab opportunity to circumvent the subsequent futile bickering by ensuring the loss is not to USC.

3. Ohio State
Maybe the best offense around, though Troy Smith ultimately is going to belong in the pantheon with Brad Smith or Michael Robinson, maybe, not Vince Young. This is no knock on Troy, just an assumption that either of those quarterbacks could also make a serious mythical title run with the kind of blazing talent accompanying him this year. What is going to put a kink in that run, of course, is the defense, which was legitimately as killer on a weekly basis as any in the country last year but lost the whole kit. Really, all of it - certainly this is the first preseason favorite to bring back an entirely new set of starters at linebacker and defensive backs (SMQ is more concerned about the latter). Getting over the inexperience there to put the Bucks on top is too much, though it's a testament to the terrifying offense and the ability of OSU's recruiting clout to restock the other side that they're this high.

Hypothetical but likely thoughts from the reader: You know, for a guy who talks up defense so much, SMQ, you're really riding the HP/Maisel bandwagon here, aren't you? Notre Dame, Cal, Ohio State...point machines, dude, but who they gonna stop? You're a hypocrite, SMQ. A hypocrite and a sell-out.

Hard to argue, reader, except that a) SMQ has always touted balance - offense and defense, run and pass - as the road to wellness, and b) there is nothing at this point to suggest anything like the bonanza of hellraising defenses we saw in 2005. When will college football experience the point-pinching quality of last year's units from Virginia Tech, Penn State, Ohio State, Miami, LSU, Alabama, Texas, Tennessee and NC State in the span of a single fall again? All of these teams were outstanding - save the last two, which were merely competitive - despite mostly middle-of-the-pack offenses.

Now, though, those defenses have each been wracked by attrition with none vying to take their place, while experience and talent abounds on the other side at the above schools as well as on much of the rest of the poll. It looks like a high-scoring year. Which is not to say the best defensive teams won't still be as successful, but there will be fewer very good defensive teams and they won't be as good as the units that stood out so much in '05 - SMQ sees no team with a defense he feels can carry it into the top ten without some amount of firepower to go with it. But everybody up here, and in Tuesday's list, has the skill talent (offensive line is a different story) to average about 25 a game, minimum. Most of them will need to do better than that.

This has nothing to do with any overarching trends in strategy or anything, just returning talent and experience, which is far more concentrated this time around on the offensive side of the ball.


These guys can still play defense, as they return a full third of all the linebackers with starting experience nationwide (seriously, 7 LBs here have at least half a dozen career starts, and that doesn't include Rey Maualuga, the star sophomore who's probably the best of the gorup), plus a first-level pass rusher in Lawrence Jackson and the leading tackler, safety Josh Pinkard. The corners may be a problem and are the reason SMQ sees vulnerability against DeSean Jackson and the like.
But the real issue here is dealing with the loss of Leinart, Bush, White and three starting linemen on offense. The receivers definitely rule, but running back is a legitimate concern, given its youth and injury/eligibility at the position (is Chauncey Washington going to play or not?), and can't approach the insane production of the past two seasons. As stated above, the laws of nature will not allow this program to survive such losses with another trip to the mythical title game - nobody pulls this off four years in a row. Not USC, not nobody. But still, you know, they're very, very good.

5. Michigan
Maybe SMQ's gullible here, picking the Wolverines almost ten spots higher than the poll at large, but overrating in the past doesn't preclude more, um, overrating. Or something...you get it. Anyway, this seems pretty safe, actually, given the amount of talent returning on both sides and the lack of an obvious debilitating weakness that pretty much every other school around them is facing. We're talking about a quarterback in his third season as a starter, a steady running game, a couple potential all-league caliber receivers, four returning O-linemen, two potential all-America caliber defensive linemen, all three linebackers back, three out of four in the secondary - none of it overwhelming on its own, this not having been a great team last year, but collectively it adds up to one of the most complete wholes in the top ten. And this was a consistently competitive, oft-injured group that could have just as soon been a double-digit winner as 7-5. It is not wild conjecture to presume that kind of return from this talent.
Still SMQ doesn't really see them containing Troy Smith.
Important: This ranking is completely contingent on the health of Mike Hart, who has improved the offense by about 70 percent when he's been in the lineup that last two seasons, and is not valid in the occasion of persistent ankle injuries, or any other ailments necessitating his absence from the lineup. Three of the four debilitating Michigan losses last season were with Hart out or hobbled, and two of the three best wins, Penn State and Michigan State, were his best games. Nobody else ran on the Nittany Lions all season with such success.

6. Florida
Love love love the front seven on defense, maybe the nation's best such collection, and the passing game, even if it is occasionally hopelessly conservative. But the offensive line and secondary seriously undermine championship hopes outside of the conference. UF allowed 35 sacks last year, four or more in five games, which is unheard of among this elite territory. And there are four new starters up there this time around, which means big problems are ahead for Chris Leak and probably the running game, again.
Leak has plenty of very good options with the ball, though, and the D-line and linebackers are going to keep things within striking range of Meyer's offense, whether or not it's less grind-it-out than it was in its SEC debut last year.

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Florida's ranking will roughly correspond to the number of times per game this happens to Chris Leak

7. Texas
Everything is in order here otherwise, but no way is SMQ signing on to either of a pair of brand, brand new quarterbacks taking this team past the Big XII championship. That they're the consensus now, post-Lexusgate, to advance that far is a testament the overwhelming abilities of the rest of the squad. But as far as repeat mythical championships go, we must recall that the first one required the greatest efforts of one of the most dynamic athletes the sport has yet produced - a little out of the range of Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead just yet. All bets are off, though, if one of those guys does enough to beat Ohio State.

8. Florida State
SMQ said Tuesday one of his initial efforts resulted in the 'Noles on top, largely because of an old-school schedule that includes Miami up front, Florida at the back, and not much apparent danger in between. The inexplicable ACC loss, and often two of them, has become the routine in the darkness of the Rix years and on into Drew Weatherford Era, but not necessarily guaranteed to continue. For one, the late season slide coincided with season-ending injuries to three starting offensive linemen, an area that ought to be counted as a veteran asset this year. Two, the win over Virginia Tech and hard-fought overtime loss to Penn State in the Orange Bowl were reminiscent of the old FSU teams that finished up here without fail. And three, Mickey Andrews has another crop of robotic mustangs set on 'destroy.'
The only real requirments for a major comeback season that would include a more convincing conference championship in a vulnerable league are health, a reduction in picks from Weatherford and a better willingness to get the ball into the hands of very dangerous backs Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith. Won't win 'em all, but every game is winnable, at least.

9. Auburn
If Michigan is a wack No. 1 pick an unfamiliar Southerner might fall for, Brian, SMQ would say the same about the Tigers for Midwesterners. Orson may be ridin' with AU, but SMQ has concerns about the young receiving corps and especially the loss of Marcus McNeil and Troy Reddick, a massive and vital tackle combo that will be much-missed regardless the experience on the interior. Similarly, the defense will miss Stanley McClover and especially Tommy Jackson, who was an essential run plugger in the middle of an otherwise speed-rushing unit. SMQ still believes teams can line up and run straight at 215-pound converted DBs at linebacker with success, as Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Alabama (when it wasn't being sacked to death) and then Wisconsin in the bowl all did to some degree last season.
Optimism is clearly in order for the pass rush, Kenny Irons and probably Brandon Cox, who got a bad rep for an interception-riddled (but otherwise very assured) start against Georgia Tech's relentless blitzing but dramatically cut back on mistakes over the season. SMQ is willing to call these Tigers the class of the SEC West, if only because he much prefers Tommy Tuberville to...

10. LSU
Les Miles and his pristine, square capped excitability are another of several SEC teams (Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia) faced with replacing the overwhelming bulk of an unstoppable D-line bent on destruction, and the Tigers' losses (Kyle Williams, Melvin Oliver and Claude Wroten) might be the most severe. They're also looking to replace Cameron Vaughn, the defense's most productive player at linebacker. Glenn Dorsey and Ali Highsmith ought to be better than serviceable in those roles, but a 38-sack, 3.0-yards-per-carry repeat is not very likely. The offensive line is also replacing both tackles - though one of the potential new guys, Philip Loadholt, is a 6-9, 344-pound JUCO monster.
SMQ likes: again, the skill guys. JaMarcus Russell is only a junior! What? He has a good chance to live up to his huge hype after all. Alley Broussard, Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet, etc. are all frightening options with the ball.

Got all that? Now forget it, if you know what's good for you.

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5:18 AM

I think that you do a better job justifying a high Cal pick than I did, but I agree with everything you said about them. I think that I would have rather had them 3rd, 4th or 5th, given the disappointment that they usually create, but somebody had to go #1. It should be a fun season to watch.
Being a Cleveland Indians fan, I am used to disappointment. Saying that, I have had the same w/the Bears....until Tedford. He adds the "entertainment" to Sports Entertainment, and win, lose, or triple overtime, the Golden ones are definitely entertaining. Like an Omar Visquel, bare-handed, double play, they do not disappoint. Let's hope Cal can be "Golden" this year...it will be so much fun to watch 'em all bow down to.....OSKI???????
Cal Cornerback Tim Mixon is out for the season with a torn ACL.
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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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