Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Now in its seventh year, the College Football BlogPoll is a weekly effort of dozens of college football-centric Web sites representing a wide array of schools under the oversight of SB Nation. This week, the Doc is counting down his preseason ballot, from No. 25 to No. 1. As always, schedules were strongly considered in an effort to predict the landscape at the end of the regular season: This is not a power poll. Previously: 21-25: The Outsiders, 16-20: The Wildcards.

BlogPoll Countdown, 11-15: The Darkhorses15. WEST VIRGINIA. Geno Smith may not be the second coming of Pat White. But with Dana Holgorsen fully in control and pulling the strings of the offense, even a mediocre passer would be in line for PlayStation-esque numbers on quantity alone, and if Holgo could have handpicked any quarterback in the Big East for his system, Smith's success as a first-year starter in a far less stat-friendly system still would have made him the obvious choice. Add Tavon Austin's late emergence as a big-play threat in November, a nearly intact offensive line and the lo-fi nature of Big East offenses, in general, it's almost impossible to imagine the Mountaineers not delivering the most prolific numbers in the league as long as the principles are healthy.

Still, the Mountaineers made their bread last year on defense, which suffered massive attrition in the form of seven departing starters — six of whom were voted first or second-team All-Big East. The most likely to be missed: Defensive linemen Chris Neild and Scooter Berry, whose run-stuffing thunder is giving way to the lightning pass rush of undersized end Bruce Irvin.

BlogPoll Countdown, 11-15: The Darkhorses14. SOUTH CAROLINA. It took almost 20 years, but finally, the Gamecocks caught up to the traditional heavyweights of the SEC East in terms of sheer talent, most of it coming from their own backyard: Between home-grown headliners Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore, Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina has as enviable a cast of above-the-fold stars as any team in America.

And yet, one gets the curious sense that Carolina's fate rests in the unpredictable hands of one Stephen Garcia, whose official return to the lineup from his latest suspension is better than the alternative — the gap between Garcia and true freshman backup Connor Shaw was too wide in 2010 for Shaw to have possibly closed it in a single offseason — but still leaves USC at the whim of which Garcia happens to show up on a given afternoon. If it's the one who looked like a poised, veteran leader last year in early outings against Auburn (the first time around) and Alabama, the Gamecocks could be on their way to its first SEC title. If it's the inconsistent "gunslinger" who served up multiple interceptions in losses to Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn (the second time around) and Florida State, they could be headed for just another, slightly larger disappointment.

BlogPoll Countdown, 11-15: The Darkhorses13. TCU. It's still a little strange to think of TCU as a "brand name" pick, given that it's barely a decade removed from a 1-10 season in the WAC and was more than 40 years removed from its last appearance in the preseason top 10 before last season. At this point, though, there's no safer bet in college football than Gary Patterson's defense: The Horned Frogs have led the nation in total defense three years in a row and finished first or second in total D six times since Patterson joined the staff in 1998. Even with seven seniors gone from last year's dominant outfit, there are three All-Mountain West picks en tow — linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock and defensive end Stansly Maponga — to keep the beat.

The pedigree on offense is less established, especially in the absence of Andy Dalton, a four-year starter who came up one victory shy of matching Colt McCoy's record for career wins by a starting quarterback. There's also the matter of four new starters on the offensive line: The new quarterback, Casey Pachall, could be every bit as good as his predecessor, but odds are he's going to have to wait another year to have a decent chance to prove it.

BlogPoll Countdown, 11-15: The Darkhorses12. NOTRE DAME. The offseason buzz in South Bend — or should that be the offseason angst? — was all about the offense. Who's going to be the starting quarterback? Could receiver Michael Floyd manage to navigate the legal and institutional thickets standing between his drunk driving arrest in March and his return to the starting lineup? Is there finally a back on hand good enough to ditch the maddening running back-by-committee approach of the last four years? The answers: a) Dayne Crist, b)Yes, yes he can; and c) Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later. Seriously, the offense is going to be fine.

But last year's late surge over the last four games had a lot more to do with the return of the defense on the heels of embarrassing losses to Navy and Tulsa. High-scoring Utah managed all of three points in South Bend, as did Army a week later in Yankee Stadium; USC's only touchdown in the regular season finale came on a four-yard "drive" following asn Irish fumble. In the same game, the Trojans came away with just three field goals on drives beginning deep in Notre Dame territory, all set up by Irish turnovers, and ND covered the vast majority of a 7-play, 77-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown on the ground. Miami's only touchdowns in the bowl game came in the fourth quarter, long after the door had been shut on a serious comeback bid. If eight returning starters pick up where they left off, the Irish ought to be favored to win at least ten of their first eleven games, and the standby "Wake Up the Echoes" headlines will out in force by Halloween.

BlogPoll Countdown, 11-15: The Darkhorses11. LSU. No doubt most of the pundits who went through this process earlier in the summer wish they could have their ballots back right about now, to reconsider their assessments of the Tigers as serious national championship contenders in light of the late-breaking suspensions of quarterback Jordan Jefferson and wide receiver Russell Shepard — both coming on the heels of offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe's abrupt exit due to Parkinson's disease earlier this month. Really, though, there were already plenty of cracks in their case as an elite contender before the offense started to go pear-shaped.

In the first place, the offense was already fairly pear-shaped, off back-to-back seasons as one of the least-productive attacks in the SEC. The defense is putting most of its faith in hyped but unproven up-and-comers (Sam Montgomery, Tyrann Mathieu, Barkevious Mingo, Anthony Johnson, Craig Loston) fulfilling their potential. And no Les Miles-coached team yet — even the BCS champions in 2007 — has managed to make it through an entire season with fewer than two losses. The talent level alone may be enough to carry the Tigers to double-digit wins, but with the sudden upheaval in the lineup and a schedule that includes seven opponents in the preseason polls, I wouldn't hold my breath for a breakthrough.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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