August 29, 2011
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, 11-15: The Darkhorses.
10. TEXAS A&M. It's been a long, long time since Texas A&M was relevant nationally — it hasn't won a conference championship or played in a BCS bowl since 1998, and hasn't finished in the top ten since 1994 — but when the Aggies make their move, they go big. Last year's out-of-the-blue winning streak over the second half of the season carried A&M into 2011 with no glaring weaknesses: There's the savvy senior quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), the best 1-2 tailback punch in the Big 12 (Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael), a completely intact receiving corps, a nearly intact offensive line and eight returning starters from a vastly improved defense — not including its best player.
Even the schedule is relatively nice, keeping A&M out of hostile territory until a Nov. 5 trip to Oklahoma, where the Sooners have been nearly unbeatable for the last decade. If the Aggies get past early tests against Oklahoma State (in College Station) and Arkansas (in Dallas) on consecutive weekends, they could very well go into Norman at 8-0 with visions of a national championship run dancing in their heads. That's a long way from the hot seat coach Mike Sherman lived on after back-to-back losing records in his first two seasons, and with their pending defection to the SEC promising more hard times ahead, it's a lot of goodwill to waste if they can't deliver on the opportunity, too.
9. WISCONSIN. Every headline out of Madison this summer seemed to involve the new quarterback, late-arriving N.C. State transfer Russell Wilson. But the fact is, the starting quarterback at Wisconsin has never been and never will be more than another face on the assembly line of bruising Badger ground game. With the Big Ten's deepest, ruggedest and most productive ground game at his disposal, Wilson's mission statement is still, "Don't screw this up."
As cogs go, though, Wilson is an unusually versatile, polished one, especially compared to the uninspiring alternatives. If nothing else, Wilson brings better balance to a veteran lineup, sliding in as the final piece that makes a return trip to the Rose Bowl possible. But the engine of the offense is still the pair of 1,000-yard rushers and colossal offensive line that makes it go on the ground.
8. OREGON. Yes, this is a bit behind the curve for the Ducks, who are still sleek and fast and widely expected to hold their ground in the top five on the heels of last year's run to the BCS Championship Game. But I have two issues with Oregon's championship credentials, neither of which have anything to do with Willie Lyles.
The first is the mass exodus of seniors on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Along with three offensive linemen (Jordan Holmes, C.E. Kaiser and Bo Thran) who combined for nearly 100 career starts over three seasons, Oregon is also sending off its leading tackler (Casey Matthews), its best pass rusher (Kenny Rowe), its best interior run-stuffer (Brandon Bair) and a three-year starter at linebacker (Spencer Paysinger) who finished as one of the team's top two or three tacklers all three years. Some of the new starters — namely, linebackers Boseko Lokombo and Michael Clay and lineman Dion Jordan — played a lot as backups, but the Ducks still have to replace both interior tackles on defense and as a whole will be dramatically younger than the group that returned eight starters last year from the 2009 Rose Bowl team.
The second is Oregon's less-than-spectacular track record in big games outside of Autzen Stadium. There were no daunting road trips in 2010, prior to the championship game itself; this year, there are two: The season opener against LSU in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Tiger crowd in Dallas, and the winner-take-all showdown for the Pac-12 North title at Stanford. The last time the Ducks were in Palo Alto, they were beaten to a pulp, and the Cardinal offensive line hasn't gotten any friendlier.
7. VIRGINIA TECH. The Hokies are tweaking the offense a bit to account for the transition from undersized scrambler Tyrod Taylor to human ziggurat Logan Thomas at quarterback, but Beamer Ball is Beamer Ball: They're going to pound the ball offensively with David Wilson, they're going to play first-rate defense under longtime coordinator Bud Foster and they're going to win the ACC's Coastal Division for the fifth time in six years. Et cetera, et cetera. We know this.
The difference this fall is a schedule that gives Tech a legitimate chance to run the table for the first time since Michael Vick was setting the Big East on fire more than a decade ago: With a September slate consisting of Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall, and with Florida State conspicuously absent from the conference slate, the Hokies will be favored in every regular season game and likely won't face a ranked opponent until the conference championship. Whatever happens from that point on, there aren't enough potential upsets in the regular season to keep them from getting back to Charlotte with eleven wins.
6. FLORIDA STATE. There's been no shortage of "Seminole Rising" headlines over the past six weeks hailing FSU's return to claim its birthright among the elite, most of them citing the perennial reservoir of talent. But at its root, the latest, most effusive round of optimism is less about the specifics of the 2011 roster than it is the general line of progress coming off Jimbo Fisher's first season as head coach. He accomplished his primary goal, reestablishing some momentum after a decade of stagnation and decline under septuagenarian Bobby Bowden. The 'Noles are not only a talented, experienced lineup coming off a division title; by the end of 2010, there was a palpable sense for the first time in ages that the program is actually moving forward.
That sense, combined with a talented, experienced lineup, a manageable schedule and pollsters apparently determined to see the Seminoles as the garnet-and-gold-clad Horsemen of the Apocalypse who ran roughshod over college football throughout the nineties, has bought them a ticket that says "BCS or Bust." The recent history of power programs breaking through in their second year under a new head coach only raises the stakes.