Looking for five teams with at least a chance at a national championship? You're looking at them. The preseason top five rolls out Monday. ...
No. 10 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
Yes, the NCAA took the Trojans behind the woodshed, dishing out a two-year postseason ban and extensive scholarship losses in the coming seasons. Pete Carroll has flown away to a lucrative nest in the Pacific Northwest. Southern Cal went 8-5 a season ago. Lane Kiffin remains an untested commodity --- amazing for a guy who has at age 35 has already coached an NFL team and succeeded two college coaches who won national championships.
The defections have already begun, most notably with prized offensive line recruit Seantrel Henderson bolting for Miami. The prognosis for the Men of Troy from 2011 through 2013 is uninspiring at best and disastrous at worst.
Yet 2010 is still in play, and there's still plenty of Carroll-recruited talent dotting the roster. The Trojans' defense isn't what it was just a few years ago --- Oregon State, Oregon and Stanford did a nice job of obliterating that notion last season --- and Southern Cal can't simply expect to out-athlete the rest of the Pac-10 as it did for much of the Aughts. But Kiffin's first Trojans team could wind up being his best (who really expects him to stay through the entire rebuilding process?)
So much depends on whether the players give a damn about salvaging a bit of pride for a program so blatantly out of control that the NCAA actually hammered it rather than issuing an extended "tsk-tsk." The Trojans have no excuse not to win their first four, and they should be favored in a home date with Washington to open October.
At 5-0, the possibility of playing spoiler at the national level would have to seem might appetizing (even if a BCS title is out, the Trojans can still finish first in the AP poll). Yet there might not be a team more in danger of mentally checking out after a single defeat than Southern California.
Kiffin's unproven beyond his ability to talk a good game. If his first team back in L.A. stumbles even once, it will be a lot easier to gauge just how sharp he really is.
No. 9 TEXAS CHRISTIAN
If there's one thing to know about the great Horned Frogs, it's that they can cook up some amazing defenses in Fort Worth.
As in five of the top 13 defensive units since the turn of the century
TOP TOTAL DEFENSES, 2000-09
217.8: 2008 Texas Christian
219.5: 2006 Virginia Tech
221.4: 2004 N.C. State
221.8: 2008 Southern California
233.0: 2007 Ohio State
234.9: 2006 Texas Christian
236.2: 2001 Texas
237.9: 2001 Virginia Tech
239.7: 2009 Texas Christian
240.3: 2002 Texas Christian
242.8: 2006 Louisiana State
244.1: 2009 Alabama
245.0: 2000 Texas Christian
245.5: 2004 Alabama
247.6: 2005 Virginia Tech
249.0: 2002 Kansas State
251.9: 2009 Texas
252.0: 2003 Louisiana State
252.2: 2006 Rutgers
252.6: 2009 Florida
That 2008 TCU defense gave up 1.72 yards a carry, the best figure nationally in the last 10 years. Last year's outfit wasn't quite as dominant, but at 80.2 rushing yards yielded a game, it was still quite stingy.
It's a consistent performance, and Horned Frogs fans can bank on it repeating this season. Seven starters are back, including three on the defensive line (but not star defensive end Jerry Hughes, who had 11.5 sacks a year ago).
Oh, and TCU might have its best offense in Gary Patterson's 10-year tenure.
The trickiest games --- Oregon State (Sept. 4), Brigham Young (Oct. 16) and Utah (Nov. 6) --- are ideally spread out, and the Horned Frogs have opened with a defeat of a power conference school in five of the last six seasons. If TCU gets by Oregon State (a real possibility given the Beavers' chronic slow starts), it could be on its way to another 12-0 season and BCS berth.
No. 8 OKLAHOMA
Boy, do the Sooners probably wish they played more than six home games this season.
It's Oklahoma's turn to be the home team in the Red River Shootout Rivalry whatever you want to call it. It must return a 2008 visit from Cincinnati, albeit with Brian Kelly safely removed to South Bend. But it does get Florida State, Texas Tech and four others in Norman, and stands a pretty good chance of remaining at the top of this list:
LONGEST ACTIVE HOME-FIELD WINNING STREAKS (last loss in parentheses)
30: Oklahoma (2005 vs. Texas Christian)
26: Boise State (2005 vs. Boston College in MPC Computers Bowl)
17: Utah (2007 vs. Air Force)
15: Houston (2007 vs. East Carolina)
15: Texas (2007 vs. Kansas State)
14: Alabama (2007 vs. UL Monroe)
14: Texas Christian (2007 vs. Utah)
12: Cincinnati (2007 vs. West Virginia)
11: Florida (2008 vs. Mississippi)
10: Oregon (2008 vs. Boise State)
10: Troy (2007 vs. Florida Atlantic)
Six games elsewhere won't help, but it's also unlikely the Sooners will endure a pair of injuries as crucial to the season's outcome as the losses of Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham were.
Preview mag guru Phil Steele lists Oklahoma at No. 1. The numbers certainly look nice for the Sooners, but an offensive line that struggled to get traction a year ago remains a concern. This should be a better team than last season's 8-5 bunch and probably would be a disappointment if it doesn't wind up in the top 10 at season's end. Nonetheless, 2011 might be a better time frame for expecting a national championship.
No. 7 BOISE STATE
At long last, there's a non-power conference team with a chance to completely game the BCS system.
Utah went undefeated in 2004, but began the season ranked 20th. The Utes were No. 5 in the final regular season poll.
Boise State was unranked to begin the 2006 season, and made it to No. 9 heading into the Fiesta Bowl.
The next year, Hawaii opened at No. 23 and made it all the way to No. 10 after a dozen wins in a row.
Last season, Texas Christian leaped from No. 17 to No. 3, while Boise State charged from No. 14 to No. 6.
But this year, the Broncos will start in the top 10. Maybe even the top five. And given the inane and intellectually lazy habits of poll voters of all stripes, Boise State could vault into the national title game thanks to its head start in the rankings.
It could turn out to be a fantastic outcome, but the manner in which it could be clinched would be less than impressive. Teams rise up the rankings when they win and tumble when they lose. Once they go up, it's tough for them to come down (at least much, anyway) without a loss simply because that's not how most voters roll.
Boise State can solidify top-five standing with a defeat of Virginia Tech in the season's opening week. But after that, how many legitimate top-25 teams will the Broncos face? Maybe Oregon State on Sept. 25? In a bigger stretch, perhaps Nevada the day after Thanksgiving? So if the Broncos can get up for a huge game --- as they have in sweeping a home-and-home from Oregon the last two years --- the door to a national title game appearance doesn't just swing open, it basically falls off its hinges after slamming against the wall.
Why? Because Boise State won't get severely penalized by many --- arguably, a substantial majority --- of voters just because the totality of their schedule is middling. (And that's nothing new; in the last four years, the titans of the Smurf Turf have played six ranked opponents, including three in bowl games. The only other ranked opponent outside the Oregon series was Hawaii in 2007). If it can somehow get into the top two, Boise will be difficult to dislodge due in large part to voting inertia.
But that's the system, even if it is severely flawed. And if the Broncos can exploit it after getting the shaft several times in recent years, bully for them.
This is all rendered moot if they can't beat Virginia Tech on Labor Day. But with 20 starters returning, Boise at least has a realistic chance to to undermine some stale conventional wisdom, and that's always both good and entertaining.
No. 6 VIRGINIA TECH
It's a Bizarro Year in Blacksburg, where up is down, black and white, and defense and special teams are the apparent question marks.
But Virginia Tech fans might want to scrutinize something else: What would the trickle down be if Bud Foster's unit didn't perform especially well.
Hint: It is one giant unknown, especially where quarterback Tyrod Taylor is concerned.
That seems counterintuitive, since Taylor has started 28 games over the last three seasons. But consider that in those starts, he's faced a deficit of more than a possession just five times.
Sure, he led a comeback from down 17-3 against North Carolina in 2008 (going 5-for-8 for 53 yards in three scoring drives in the second half; the Hokie rally included a 30-yard touchdown drive preceded by a fumble recovery and a 45-yard field goal set up by a Tar Heel personal foul).
There were also four setups with a deficit of at least two possessions --- Boston College and Miami in 2008, Alabama and Georgia Tech last year --- that didn't work out so well.
Presumably, a weaker defense would mean Taylor might get that chance from time to time this season. And if it happens against one of the more imposing teams on Virginia Tech's schedule, such as Boise State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Miami?
Well, check out Taylor's work against ranked teams in his career (of the games in 2007, Taylor only started against Clemson):
|at Louisiana State
|vs. Boston College
|at Florida State
|vs. Boston College
|at Georgia Tech
|Total (12 G-8 GS)
It's not a gigantic sample size, and Taylor obviously played well against his last two ranked opponents a season ago. Nonetheless, he doesn't seem like a guy who will win games on his own --- or produce multiple significant comebacks in a season.
The Hokies certainly possess some options in the running game, between Taylor himself and Ryan Williams (as well as Darren Evans and his surgically reconstructed knee). It might not be smart, though, to discount the impact of rebuilding the left side of the offensive line.
This entire discussion is based on the idea the Hokies will struggle on defense. Yet that hasn't happened since 2003.
VIRGINIA TECH, CONFERENCE DEFENSIVE RANKS, 2004-09
At some point, the defensive system warrants a bit of trust. Foster passed that point a while ago, cranking out elite units even as players come and go. And it's not like the Hokies just neglect defensive talent in their recruiting efforts.
On the surface, yes, things appear to be different. But absolutely no one should be surprised if this turns out to be a typical Virginia Tech defense complemented by perhaps the program's best offense since joining the ACC.
Taylor's probably a dicier option when a rally is needed than Hokies fans probably realize (or care to admit), but here's guessing such heroics won't be needed all that much this year. There's a loss lurking somewhere along the way, but Virginia Tech looks like it should win the conference for the third time in four years.