Five more teams as the top of the list inches ever closer ...
No. 25 NOTRE DAME
Go ahead and underestimate Brian Kelly. Dare you.
For once, Notre Dame didn't simply elevate an assistant with no head coaching experience (Bob Davie) or pluck a fairly successful coach from an academically-oriented school (Tyrone Willingham) or just hand the keys to a storied program to a blustery NFL coordinator with virtually no background in the college game (Charlie Weis).
No, this time, the Irish went with a long-time coach at three schools who simply won. A lot. He went 34-6 in three years at Cincinnati, a run that's going to look downright impossible another 20 years down the road.
Unlike Willingham (who won six of his first eight games by 10 points or less) or Weis (who beat three ranked teams in his first five games on the job and then knocked off one more in another four-plus seasons), Kelly actually should get credit if Notre Dame surges this year. After a 6-9 record in one-possession games the last two seasons (some "decided schematic advantage," huh?), no one will complain if luck favors the Irish.
Kelly is fortunate to have a schedule designed for a bounceback season. The Irish play three true road games (Michigan State, Boston College and Southern California), and Western Michigan, Tulsa and Utah all pay a visit to South Bend in what might be Notre Dame's least glitzy home schedule in quite some time.
Kelly's a confident guy, willing to speak his mind --- but in a less abrasive way than Weis. That will help erase some lingering frustration from the last few seasons. But more than anything else, winning will do that. Kelly has exactly one losing season in 20 years as a head coach, and it's not likely for that total to double this autumn --- or in any year in the near future.
No. 24 WEST VIRGINIA
The Mountaineers have rattled off eight straight winning seasons --- the first time the program has done so since a 12-year stretch from 1914 to 1926 (there was a season lost to World War I in there).
Throughout this stretch, there have been periods West Virginia has gone through as a program. There was the "Hey, Rich Rodriguez got the team fast in a hurry" phase. Then came perhaps a hint of impatience in 2004, followed by the three straight 11-win seasons.
Rodriguez, of course, bolted, and Bill Stewart managed a pair of 9-4 years. A third in a row could be in the cards.
The Mountaineers need to find a new quarterback (again), only this time they'll turn to a true sophomore rather than a fifth-year senior (Jarrett Brown). That's going to cause some early issues, and while the defense should be better this fall, Mountaineers fan could easily feel like their team is plateauing a rung below where it was only a couple years ago once this season is through.
No. 23 FLORIDA STATE
No, there wasn't some plan to trot out Florida State the same day Christian Ponder's new website was unveiled. Besides, Ponder --- as good as he is --- is going to account for only so much improvement on his own.
The issue in Tallahassee for the foreseeable future is defense. It was, to put things diplomatically, below average a season ago.
The most telling number: The Seminoles gave up 40 points three times in four weeks during one midseason stretch. Florida State had 40 hung on them three times total during one 16-year stretch (1987-2002).
An up-close look at the Seminoles in November revealed a startlingly shoddy defense. It was sort of like watching North Carolina's basketball team in 2002; sure, the trappings were basically the same, but the talent just wasn't there.
There's a new defensive coordinator (Mark Stoops) and plenty of new starters, which in this situation isn't all bad. If the Seminoles can just achieve adequacy on defense, Ponder and a veteran offensive line will take care of securing the program's first Atlantic Division title since 2005.
No. 22 PENN STATE
If there is a team whose expectations should be reined in simply because of its schedule, it is Penn State.
The Nittany Lions must visit Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State, all while breaking in a new quarterback and working with a revamped front seven on defense.
The schedule does bring a nice treat --- a "road" game against Indiana in Landover, Md. But effectively playing five conference home games (who really thinks FedEx Field will be a pro-Indiana environment on Nov. 20?) only does so much to make up for the brutal road the Nits will face.
The last five years were incredibly impressive in Happy Valley --- 51-13, with a couple BCS bowl appearances. Penn State probably won't make a trip to Pasadena on New Year's, but a 10-3 season isn't out of the question. That would include Joe Paterno's 400th career victory, a feat Nittany Lions fans can only hope comes during one of three midseason home games.
No. 21 PITTSBURGH
Tailback Dion Lewis is back for another romp through the history books. That's good.
Quarterback Bill Stull, who completed 65.1 percent of his passes last season and tossed 21 touchdowns against eight interceptions, is not back. That's not good.
Oh, and that guy on the sideline. He still scares the heck out of me. The Panthers have won their share of close games the last few years, but it's also worth pointing out the Panthers' last five losses have come by a combined 21 points.
Nonetheless, Pittsburgh has accrued plenty of talent in the last few seasons, and it's important to allot some of the credit for that to Dave Wannstedt. At this point, it's left the Panthers in as good a position as anyone in the Big East.
That's why, with a measure of reluctance, Pitt is the pick here to win the Big East. There's ample opportunities for a nonconference loss (Utah, Miami, Notre Dame) and it's difficult to imagine the Panthers hanging around the top 10. But it's a solid group, and a trip to the Orange Bowl is the next logical step for a program that's won 19 games the last two years.