A lot of storylines, predictions and flat-out guesses have been flying around for the last eight months, and they've naturally coalesced into some rough consensus. I've made my own share of picks along the way, too, because that's the nature of the offseason beast, and all of the hedges, contradictions and blatant nonsense is on ignominois display.
But I don't really have an inviolable position on which of the half dozen strong contenders will emerge as the mythical champion, or of the order of the mess of comparable teams behind West Virginia in the Big East, or whether Auburn or LSU will emerge in the SEC West. Those are true toss-ups that defy probability. On the eve of the first full weekend of the fall, though, I remain convinced of my position on a few very disputable narratives, staunch opinions and items of controversy I may rue soon enough, but about which I refuse to be swayed. On these, you can quote me:
Wisconsin will be the top challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten.
I don't know if there's anything to what you might call the "Pendulum Effect" -- the notion that 'traditional' power teams will gain a strategic advantage as defenses get lighter and more familiar with spread offenses -- but I don't think that matters much with Wisconsin, the most run-heavy team in the Big Ten. The Badgers have the perfect mix of backfield depth (thumpers P.J. Hill and John Clay and quicker Lance Smith and Zach Brown) and veteran offensive line heft (five returning starters, averaging well over 310 pounds) to shove their way to 30 points per game, wit the best receiver in the conference (tight end Travis Beckum) on top of the manly iso game.
The defense regressed last year after a lights out effort in '06, but Bret Bielema has an outstanding track record here and at Kansas State and has nine starters back. There's very little separation among the conference's second tier -- Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois, probably Michigan -- but unless Allan Evridge is a complete disaster in the "nondescript game manager" role, I think the Badgers are en route to the BCS. Speaking of which . . .
No team from a non-BCS conference will bust the big money games.
BYU is a runaway favorite to finish in the mid-to-high teens in the polls, but even if the Cougars are the only insurgent with the superficial ingredients to replicate Utah, Boise State and Hawaii's recent runs, they have to replace a whopping eight starters on defense and probably face a tougher schedule than any of those teams: at Washington (where Boise fell last year), against UCLA (which beat BYU in L.A. when healthy and should have beaten the Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl when beset with injuries and an interim coach), then at TCU and at Utah in the conference. That's a tall order for a team with more question marks than their many backers seem willing to acknowledge.
Elsewhere, Fresno State should be eliminated by its schedule (at Rutgers, vs. Wisconsin, at UCLA, at Boise State); Boise by a young quarterback and rebuilt offensive line (not to mention a trip to Oregon); Tulsa by its atrocious defense; and Utah, again, by the schedule (get by Michigan, and there's still Oregon State, TCU and BYU, if all else goes according to plan). There's no dominant outfit with the relatively clear sailing of the party-crashers before them.
Clemson will live up to the hype.
This is supposedly a perpetual underachiever, but the Tigers have never had the combination of talent, experience and accompanying expectations across the board as they do now, and the schedule, as well, if they get past Alabama on Saturday. If Tommy Bowden can't break through with a ten-win season with a senior, draft-worthy quarterback, the most dynamic running back duo in the nation, all-conference players on the line and at receiver, eight starters back from a defense that finished in the top 20 in total and scoring D, a thoroughly weakened Florida State and a Virginia Tech-free schedule where the toughest test post-Bama is a trip to Wake Forest -- [deep breath] -- then you can call Clemson an underachiever.
Kansas will regress in wins and losses.
I specify "wins and losses" because the Jayhawks may be as good on the field as last year's version. But, as most everyone seems to recognize, the schedule is a different bear: at South Florida, at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas, Missouri and at Nebraska, where KU hasn't won in 40 years, are all tougher games than any of Kansas' regular season triumphs last year, and probably cap their potential at eight wins.
It's debatable, too whether Kansas will be as good on the as in '07: it lost its best players in early draft entries Aqib Talib and Anthony Collins and all-conference defensive tackle James McClinton, as well as leading rusher Brandon McAnderson and leading receiver Marcus Henry. I don't know that last year's success qualifies as "lightning," as they actually only won a single game (+3 at Kansas State) as an underdog during the regular season, but whatever it is, it's not striking again.
And finally, god help them . . .
Notre Dame will be much, much better.
In the first place, the Irish can't be any worse. In the second case, this was an extremely young team last year that knew it had to take some lumps. But this will be the first edition of Notre Dame that's almost entirely Charlie Weis' doing, and the talent level is significantly better than in the Davie or Willingham days. And it's stumbled out of total n00b territory.
More importantly, last year's schedule was over-the-top brutal -- the first ten games were all against eventual bowl teams, five of them with at least eight wins -- and this year's is embarrassingly friendly, replacing Georgia Tech, Penn State and UCLA with San Diego State, North Carolina and Stanford, and the Michigan-Michigan State-Purdue triumvirate is eminently winnable.
I know you don't want to hear it, but the Irish could triple its win total and challenge for the top 25 -- and look on the bright side: moderate redemption in the short term inevitably leads to outsized expectations and subsequent schadenfreude in 2009. So there's always that.
- - -
Photos of P.J. Hill and Jimmy Clausen via US Presswire.