August 30, 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, 6-10: The Short List.
5. NEBRASKA. When Nebraska hired Bo Pelini in 2007, it was to execute one clear, immediate mission: Fix the defense. And so he has. Three years later, the revived Blackshirts finished among the top dozen defenses nationally last year in yards and points allowed for the second year in a row, and among the top five against the pass — all after losing the most dominating lineman of the last decade. With eight returning starters and potential All-Americans/first-round draft picks at every level, the Cornhusker D is second to none in its old conference or its new one.
Still, the 'Huskers begin 2011 in much the same place they began 2010, in search of a spark for an offense that wasted away over the course of three losses in the final four games. At least this time there's no question about the starting quarterback, or his place in the offense: Before an assortment of injuries snuffed out his highest gear, Taylor Martinez was one of the most lethal "dual threat" QBs in the country. Assuming he remains a threat as a runner, Martinez doesn't have to become John Elway overnight. But his right arm and durability are essential to snapping Nebraska's 11-year drought without a conference championship, and if he shores up the rash of turnovers that contributed so much to last year's decline, the Big Ten crown may not be the highest rung on the ladder.
4. OKLAHOMA. The Sooners dominated the voting in both major preseason polls, as expected, picking up nearly two-thirds of the first-place votes on the strength of a veteran offense full of recognizable stars and the blue-chip Oklahoma brand. In fact, though, it's been as rocky an offseason in Norman as anywhere in the country, particularly for the OU defense. All-Big 12 cornerback Jamell Fleming was briefly suspended in February, costing him spring practice. Starting linebacker Austin Box was found dead in May, a tragedy that will stay with the team all season. All-Big 12 linebacker Travis Lewis will miss the first month of games, including dates with Florida State and Missouri, with a broken foot. The status of defensive end Ronnell Lewis is still in the air. On the other side, the gem of the incoming recruiting class, five-star receiver Trey Metoyer, has enrolled in a junior college.
Not that Landry Jones needed another target to make the passing game go, with Ryan Broyles, Kenny Stills, Trey Franks and Dejuan Miller already forming the deepest receiving corps in the country. He'll have plenty of time behind a nearly intact offensive line, too. But the combination of the unproven running game, the unproven defense and a schedule that sends the Sooners to Florida State and Oklahoma State — not to mention the annual tangle with Texas in Dallas — is enough to cast some reasonable doubt on their claim to the top spot.
3. BOISE STATE. Screw the "underdog" motif: Boise has players. Among 15 returning starters, the Broncos bring back future draft picks in the backfield (running back Doug Martin), on both sides of the line of scrimmage (left tackle Nate Potter and defensive tackle Billy Winn) and in the secondary (safety George Iloka), along with three others tabbed as preseason all-conference picks. One of whom also happens to be a returning Heisman Trophy finalist who led the nation in pass efficiency as a junior, already owns every school passing record and has a 38-2 record as a starter. (The two losses coming by a combined four points, one in overtime.)
But you knew that. The question, as always, is how far two marquee games — one against Georgia in the season opener, one against TCU for the Mountain West crown in November — can carry the Broncos if they run the table in the regular season for the fifth time in eight years. My inclination, if it comes to that point, is to assume the sky is the limit: Including the Bulldogs and Horned Frogs, Boise has seven likely bowl teams on its schedule (see also: Tulsa, Nevada, Fresno State, Air Force and San Diego State) and an enviable starting position in both major polls. If they get to 12-0 and get a few breaks from the competition, I think a real path exists for the Broncos to sneak into the BCS Championship Game. A controversial path, of course, but a real one.
2. STANFORD. Time travelers from 2006 just died from the sudden combination of shock and laughter, but it's true: The day the best college quarterback in America rejected the NFL on the heels of the best season at Stanford in 70 years was the day the Cardinal actually began to look like legitimate contenders.
Besides Luck, they have a 1,000-yard rusher (Stepfan Taylor) back behind a pair of potential All-Americans (David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin) from an offensive line that kept Luck absolutely spotless all season. They have a majority of starters back from a vastly improved defense, including the top four tacklers and the top two pass rushers. They have a manageable schedule that brings both the toughest tests of the season, Oregon and Notre Dame, to Palo Alto.
Even the new head coach, David Shaw, was promoted from offensive coordinator with an eye toward keeping the ship on the course set by NFL-bound captain Jim Harbaugh. If Shaw maintains the status quo, the Cardinal can check off every box on the "BCS Championship Contender" checkbox for the first time (and probably the last time) in ages — with one fairly important exception: Championship talent across the entire depth chart.
That's not a knock on the talent the Cardinal do have, beginning with Luck and Martin, another first-rounder-in-waiting. If the Cardinal run the table to New Orleans, though, it will be with a roster that's well behind the curve, recruiting-wise, compared to the blue-chip-hording powerhouses that have traditionally played for the title. Even if they ace the headline tests, the margin of error on an off-day in the Pac-12 is much narrower than what Boise State faces in the Mountain West.
Like Boise, though, Stanford seems to have an unusual knack for either unearthing gems or manufacturing them at an alarming rate, and as long as the crown jewel is healthy, it should be favored to win every game on the schedule. Consider it the last ride of the Harbaugh Miracle.
1. ALABAMA. It's not that the Crimson Tide have fewer questions than anyone else in this stratosphere, necessarily: The unresolved quarterback derby and absence of a go-to receiver will be persistent issues throughout the year and will lead to a few harrowing moments. It's just that Alabama's defense is going to be so dominant that nothing else matters.
Not to be all obvious, but the parallels with the team that took home the BCS title two years ago are just too obvious. The 2009 champs had a rocking, veteran defense; the 2011 team has a rocking, veteran defense. The 2009 champs had a first-rate workhorse (Mark Ingram) and a hyped true freshman (Trent Richardson) running behind a line with three returning starters; the 2011 team has a first-rate workhorse (Richardson) and a hyped true freshman (Brent Calloway) running behind a line with four returning starters, three of whom were just voted to the preseason All-SEC team by league coaches. The 2009 champs had a new quarterback who came out of a legitimate competition; the 2011 team has a new quarterback who will come out of a legitimate competition. The head coach and both coordinators are the same. The overall talent level now is probably a little bit higher.
But the best thing about the 2009 champs — and ultimately the biggest difference between them and their statistically superior successors in 2010 — was the defense's ability to make up for lapses on the other side. When the foundering offense managed just two touchdowns over the course of a three-game October funk, the defense obliged by holding Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee to just one TD, and only then when Tennessee took over with a short field following an untimely Ingram fumble. With an interception return against the Gamecocks and a pair of picks that set up automatic field goals at Ole Miss, the '09 D was often responsible for putting as many points on the board when the offense was struggling as it allowed to the other side.
This defense, with ten returning starters and at least four future first-rounders, should be every bit as good as that one, if not better. If the new quarterback keeps them out of trouble, the Crimson Tide will not lose, period.