August 27, 2010
Now in its sixth year, the Blog Poll is a weekly effort of dozens of college football-centric Web sites representing a wide array of schools under the oversight of founder/manager/guru Brian Cook at MGoBlog, and now appears on SB Nation. This week, the Doc is counting down his preseason ballot, from No. 25 to No. 1. Schedules were strongly considered in an effort to predict the landscape at the end of the regular season: This is not a power poll.
15. Miami. If this was a power poll, and I was just scanning the depth charts, the 'Canes might be in the top 10 with better than "darkhorse" ambitions. This is still the most athletic roster in the ACC, and with the hyped recruiting class of 2008 rounding into form in its third year, one that can no longer count "youth" and "rebuilding" as excuses.
They've already flashed too much potential for that, anyway, especially in last year's early wins over Florida State, Oklahoma and eventual conference champ Georgia Tech. For the season, the offense averaged 400 yards and 30 points under new coordinator Mark Whipple for the first time since the dominant 2002 team that played for the BCS championship; on the other side, the defense allowed fewer points for the third year in a row, and the 'Canes rolled in for their first top-20 finish since 2005. So far, so good.
Given the upward trajectory of the last two years and the available talent – especially in the passing game, a disaster for five years before Whipple let sophomore Jacory Harris and the deep receiving corps air it out early and often in '09, to good effect before Harris injured his thumb in November – the only good reason not to expect the 'Canes to take the next step in their recovery program is the buzzsaw of a schedule: They're at Ohio State and Pittsburgh in September, as a daunting prelude to dates with fellow Coastal Division frontrunners North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech down the stretch. That's five top-25 showdowns – i.e. potential losses – before you even get to the back-to-back dates with Clemson and Florida State in early October. Against that kind of gauntlet, this could be another significantly improved outfit compared to a year ago and still wind up counting its blessings to finish 9-3.
14. Iowa. In 2008, Iowa had the best running back in the nation and the best defense in the Big Ten, but lost four of five games decided by three points or less and had to settle for a nice consolation prize in the Outback Bowl. In 2009, a less impressive team on paper won four of five by three points or less and ultimately landed the program's highest AP poll finish since 1960. All hail the fourth-quarter heroics of Ricky Stanzi.
Patriotic grit in the clutch notwithstanding, what we have here is essentially a 9-3 team that's a couple late touchdown drives in either direction from being "really good" or "really meh." Specifically, getting All-American Adrian Clayborn back alongside three other returning starters on a frequently dominant defensive line is really good. Losing four veteran, All-Big Ten-caliber starters on the offensive line is not so good, especially considering Iowa finished near the bottom of the conference in rushing and total offense in spite of the postseason accolades for the big guys. Split the difference, and you'd have to be one diehard partisan in the Americanzi Party to imagine the Hawkeyes in another BCS game.
13. Georgia. This is considerably more love than the Bulldogs earned in either of the mainstream polls, or in the preseason magazines, which have tended to account for a pair of red-siren "X-factors" – a redshirt freshman quarterback and a totally revamped defensive scheme under a new coordinator – by dropping the 'Dogs into the 20-25 range, or omitting them altogether. This is a rational response.
I find it hard to believe, though, that either fledgling QB Aaron Murray or Todd Grantham's trendy 3-4 scheme on defense will turn out to be a significant downgrade from departed QB Joe Cox and whatever it was former defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was doing to lead the D on a steady decline over the course of his five-year tenure. This is still one of the most talented lineups in the SEC on both sides of the ball, and Murray will be surrounded by nearly the entire 2009 offense, including first-rate target A.J. Green and all five starters on the offensive line (who, along with oft-injured Trindon Sturdivant, have combined for more career starts coming into the season, 155, than any other offensive line in the country). If any team is going to bust up the Gator-Tide duopoly at the top of the SEC, Georgia is the bet.
12. Wisconsin. Ten returning starters from the Big Ten's most productive offense should be a no-brainer for preseason hype: Combine quarterback Scott Tolzien's veteran consistency, tailback John Clay's prolific heft between the tackles and the truly grizzled line (John Moffitt, Kevin Zeitler, Travis Frederick, Josh Oglesby, Peter Konz and Gabe Carimi have logged 104 career starts between them), and – on paper, anyway – you have easily the best attack in the conference again. There's also no Penn State on the league slate, and no non-conference threat that should come any closer thatn two touchdowns to a potential upset.
Still, pundits are almost unanimously withholding their top-10 love until Bret Bielema wins something that might qualify as a "big game." In four years under Bielema, the Badgers are 0-3 against Ohio State,
0-2 1-2 against Penn State, have lost two straight to Iowa and dropped games to Rose Bowl-bound Michigan in 2006 and Illinois in 2007. The otherwise formidable offense wilted in its biggest games last year, yielding a combined 10 sacks and five turnovers in double-digit losses to the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes. As stacked as it looks on paper, this can't be considered a BCS-caliber team until it actually beats a BCS-caliber opponent.
11. Nebraska. It's not like replacing planetary defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and two other All-Big 12 picks from the nation's top scoring defense is a given. But there's a reason all anybody wants to know about the 'Huskers is who the starting quarterback is going to be: After averaging all of 11 points in last year's four losses, even the slightest hint of an offensive spark could lift them into the BCS championship picture.
The offense was such a rock-bottom affair last year that it has to come up to some degree, just as the defense has to regress a bit from its dominant heights under Suh and Co. If the offense comes up further than the defense falls, the 'Huskers should easily be back in the Big 12 title game with a chance to leave the building with its first championship in a decade. Barring a total collapse by the defense, they'll probably carry the North Division, anyway. If they're going to get by Oklahoma or Texas in December, though, they have to find a quarterback who can actually get them into the end zone at least once when push comes to shove, and it's still not entirely clear that they have one on the roster.