Down to the top 20 on the countdown. Time to unveil many of everyone else's chic picks that just aren't entirely trustworthy for a full season.
No. 20 ARKANSAS
Everyone seems to love the Hogs, and to some extent it is understandable. Quarterback Ryan Mallett (30 touchdowns, seven interceptions) has a bit to do with that, but he also returns much of his help.
So let's agree for a moment the Razorbacks are going to be fun to watch on offense. Heck, with Tim Tebow off to the NFL, Arkansas might even possess the most explosive team in the SEC.
But two very troublesome, very unavoidable things stand out.
First, the Razorbacks aren't going to replicate their gaudy +15 turnover margin. They just aren't. It might be on the positive side, but it won't be that favorable over the course of another season unless the Hogs are really lucky. And the regression to the mean will not only nullify some of Arkansas' improvement, but also create greater issues for a defense that yielded more than 400 yards a game last season (easily the worst in the SEC).
Second, the early gauntlet remains, even if it isn't quite so scary. Florida rotates off the schedule and Mississippi isn't quite so strong, but playing Georgia (road), Alabama (home), Texas A&M (in Jerry Land) and Auburn (road) in succession in the first half of the season could easily send the Razorbacks tumbling from the top 25.
So, yes, Arkansas will be better. It just might not be enough to do much better than 8-4 or 9-3.
No. 19 AUBURN
A lot sets up swimmingly for the Tigers, who may not really be better than Arkansas or Louisiana State but certainly don't face as difficult a road to 10 wins as their SEC West brethren.
First of all, both of those teams have to visit the Plains. And so do Arkansas State, Clemson, Louisiana-Monroe and Chattanooga.
That's right, Auburn is sticking to its recent game plan of staying at home as much as possible. Since 2004, the Tigers have played just one nonconference road game (a 34-17 loss at West Virginia in 2008).
Heck, even Alabama played Clemson in Atlanta two years ago (and is visiting Duke this year).
In any case, the Tigers are good enough on offense and talented enough (if not effective enough) on defense to have a prayer at getting to 11-0. There are SEC trips to Mississippi State, Kentucky and Mississippi --- hardly automatic wins, but better than trips to the Swamp and Death Valley --- and a lot of home cooking before an Iron Bowl trip to Tuscaloosa.
This isn't a prediction Auburn cracks the top 10 and has a chance to win the SEC entering Thanksgiving weekend; a defense that gave up 30 points on seven occasions last year would make that borderline nuts. But there would be more surprising outcomes this season than a stealthy BCS push by the Tigers.
No. 18 MIAMI
Here's the moment of truth: Does anyone really trust Miami to become a consistent team?
This isn't the sort of question along the lines of "Does anyone think the Hurricanes won't get shut out by Virginia?" Miami's moved past that sort of problem, and it absolutely must be viewed as a top-20 team going forward.
This is a bunch that beat Oklahoma hammered Georgia Tech and pulled out a stirring opening week defeat of Florida State. It also flopped at Virginia Tech and North Carolina and nearly got stung at Wake Forest.
Jacory Harris can be one of the nation's top quarterbacks. He can also be a complete wreck, depending on the day. Those 17 interceptions don't just throw themselves.
The defense is good. Not vintage The U good, but that's an absurd standard. It should still be better this fall than it was a year ago.
And so it's time to return to the original point. Can Miami be trusted to be a top-10 team all the time? The guess here is not quite yet. There will be nights when the Hurricanes look invincible, and there are a couple national title contenders (Ohio State, Virginia Tech) that had better hope it doesn't come at their expense.
But that wasn't an every-week occurrence for Miami last fall. Until proven otherwise, it's best not to count on it being the case now, either.
No. 17 NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels will be fine on defense, what with a unit stocked with future pros and solid enough special teams.
But the offense ... oh dear.
Yes, 10 starters are back, but they're part of a unit that ranked in the bottom 10 percent nationally in total yardage and the ACC's third-worst passing attack (behind Georgia Tech's option-scheme and whatever snarky moniker you wish to provide to Virginia's attempt to throw the ball last year).
In particular, there's the question of whether T.J. Yates is a good enough quarterback to lead a team to a championship. It's a great curiosity, and it has to be one of the top questions on the minds of Tar Heels fans --- beyond, of course, (a) Is Harrison Barnes a hardwood deity; (b) Did John Henson add any muscle this offseason; and (c) What nuggets of wisdom did Roy Williams get from his massage therapist lately?
OK, enough with poking fun at Carolina as a hoops school. Its football --- a sleeping giant since Mack Brown departed for Texas --- should be good this fall. But what exactly does it take at quarterback to win the ACC.
Let's cue up the last 10 years:
QUARTERBACKS ON ACC CHAMPS, 2000-09
It's funny. Yates' completion percentage from a season ago would rank fourth on that list. His yardage trumps half of those guys. His touchdown total was more than the last four title winning QBs. And his interception total ... well, that's better left untouched.
(It's also crucial to mention Taylor had 738 yards and seven touchdowns rushing in '08, while Nesbitt had 1,037 yards and 18 TDs on the ground last year).
The overall point here is Yates isn't a massive outlier among guys who have hauled home a conference title of late, which might surprise Carolina fans.
Sure, he probably won't be an NFL star (who on that list above was) and he still needs to get better --- cutting down on those 15 interceptions would be a nice start. But Carolina's offensive problems can't all be pinned on him, and the Tar Heels need to improve everywhere as a unit and not just under center. If that happens, Butch Davis' team might not just be a trendy pick. It could be an accurate one.
No. 16 GEORGIA TECH
With Paul Johnson running the offense and former Virginia coach Al Groh handling the defense, the Yellow Jackets are virtually certain to lead the league in hubris. Both are extremely intelligent guys when it comes to their profession, both can maximize the production of their units among the best in their business and they're both keenly aware of their knowledge and abilities.
There's also a better chance than most realize that the Yellow Jackets lead the league in wins, too.
Georgia Tech is the rare situation where turnover in offensive linemen is actually a good thing. Johnson is slowly but surely working his preferred sort of blocker --- quick and agile over slow and plodding --- into the mix. And don't worry much about Jonathan Dwyer's departure; the Yellow Jackets will simply plug-n-play Anthony Allen, who averaged 9.7 yards a carry a season ago.
There are some questions on defense, but Groh can usually coach up players as well as anyone. One telling thing about Virginia teams of the last decade --- even the bad ones in recent years --- is they never quit on Groh. That said, he'll probably be pretty happy to coach the defense of a team that held the ball for 33:49 a game last season. Coordinating the defense is a bit easier when the offense keeps you off the field.
Ultimately, it will be Josh Nesbitt (and his ability to stay on the field) that determines whether this projection is too optimistic. While running backs are particularly disposable in Johnson's system, effective quarterbacks are not.
The Yellow Jackets' season will hinge on a stretch featuring consecutive trips to Clemson and Virginia Tech, followed by a home date with Miami. If Nesbitt makes it to that point unscathed, Georgia Tech will have a chance to return to the Orange Bowl this year.