August 29, 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.
5. Texas. Considering the wealth of talent the Longhorns sent on to the next level off the BCS disappointment against Alabama in January, there's not a lot to recommend the 2010 edition as a serious national contender outside of the sticker on the helmet and some flashy recruiting rankings. This is quantifiably one of the greenest lineups in the country. But against another schedule devoid of a heavy-hitting non-conference foil, the in-state pipeline alone can still carry the baby 'Horns a long way.
Besides Florida (see below), Texas is the team in the "obviously rebuilding" phase that has the best chance of uncovering the next generation of blue-chip killers that will have the pundits falling over themselves in 2011: Between quarterback Garrett Gilbert, receiver Malcolm Williams, defensive linemen Kheeston Randall and Alex Okafor and linebacker Keenan Robinson, there's a hyped up-and-comer moving in behind every outgoing draft pick, even before you account for the instant-impact types in the latest celebrated recruiting class. As for more immediate concerns, UT suffers in the tale of the tape with Big 12 South rival Oklahoma from the lack of proven playmakers around Gilbert, and from the fact that Landry Jones' apprenticeship to OU's star quarterback, Sam Bradford, ended in the first game of last season, whereas Gilbert didn't take a meaningful snap until Colt McCoy went down in the BCS title game. Fundamentally, though, the Red River Shootout is a toss-up, and the winner is all but guaranteed to be favored against everyone else.
4. Florida. See above. The Gators face an identical situation, staring down a season with a statuesque new quarterback in place of a prolific campus legend and a rebuilt defense plugging future stars into multiple holes created by the draft. If anything, Florida will be even younger than Texas with as many as a half-dozen members of its ridiculous recruiting class likely to crack the rotation on defense alone, and its immediate future may be a little brighter.
Also lacking a serious non-conference threat (assuming Florida State is still a year or two away from a potential insurgency at the end of the schedule), the Gators' season also comes down to a red-siren game on Oct. 2, at Alabama, and avoiding the upset everywhere else. Not that LSU and/or Georgia isn't due for a swipe to put the young 'uns in their place after falling far short against Tebow and Co. the last two years, but the blue-chip assembly line in Gainesville has been too productive to set its sights any lower than another BCS game.
3. Alabama. In the big picture, the massive attrition from the best defense in the nation shouldn't cost the Tide much: Even if they give up a full touchdown more per game over last year's phenomenal number, there's too much to like between Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Julio Jones on offense to write 'Bama out of the championship picture. And the defense isn't going to take that dramatic of a hit.
I remain convinced, though, that the combination of something less than the best defense in the nation and the tendency of the passing game to go into deep funks for games at a time is a death knell for the Tide's 24-game regular-season winning streak against a schedule with plenty of potential land mines. Whether one close loss is enough to kill the return trip to the BCS Championship everyone seems to be expecting probably depends more on the "when" than the "who" or "how." But whatever the circumstances, the SEC title game should be waiting for them again in December for the third year in a row.
[Previously: 6. USC, 7. Oregon, 8. Boise State, 9. TCU, 10. Virginia Tech, 11. Nebraska, 12. Wisconsin, 13. Georgia, 14. Iowa, 15. Miami,16. North Carolina, 17. West Virginia, 18. Utah, 19. Notre Dame, 20. Penn State 21. Georgia Tech, 22. Auburn, 23. LSU, 24. Pittsburgh, 25. Arkansas]
2. Oklahoma. The Sooners were established early on as this season's undisputed "Mulligan Team," the perennial power granted automatic passage back into pundits' good graces on the historic strength of the brand. And if you're deadset on mining a contrarian championship pick from the lower layers of this year's uninspiring list of contenders, OU has all the darkhorse credentials: With 10 starts under his belt, sophomore Landry Jones now qualifies as a seasoned quarterback, and returns a similarly beleaguered but now battle-tested offensive line. There are bona fide playmakers in running back DeMarco Murray and receiver Ryan Broyles. The defense, after a relatively sketchy effort in 2008, returned to the national elite last year in every major statistical category.
And by almost any measure, the Sooners were the unluckiest team in America last year: Besides a rash of debilitating injuries, OU was 0-4 in regular season games decided by a touchdown or less, falling to eventual top-20 finishers BYU, Miami, Texas and Nebraska by a combined 12 points. The Sooners' eight wins, on the other hand, came by an average margin of more than 31 points, none of them closer than 12 until the 31-27 bowl win over Stanford. Statistically, it was still a far more dominant team than the record suggested. With Jones entrenched under center and Murray primed for a C.J. Spiller-like farewell tour, the offense should be back around the 40-point-per-game bar, which ought to be plenty of cushion for the defense to find itself in time for the defining showdown in the Red River Shootout.
1. Ohio State. As recent preseason favorites go, I certainly wouldn't put these Buckeyes in the class of USC in 2007 or Florida in 2009, or any of the half-dozen viable contenders (including Ohio State, returning the vast majority of the roster from its surprising run to the BCS title game in 2007) that staked a claim on the top spot going into 2008. Through the first seven games last year, the Bucks were saddled with a hopelessly mediocre offense that had been unable to muster the killer instinct for a statement win over vulnerable USC in September, then suddenly found itself reeling in the aftermath of the worst loss of the Jim Tressel era, a 26-18 flop at Purdue. As of Halloween, OSU had lost six straight against top-10 opponents since 2006 and didn't look like it would even get another chance to snap its three-year losing streak in BCS bowls come January.
But as of the start of this season, this is the only team that checks off virtually all the boxes on the "preseason favorite" checklist. It has the veteran quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, now 23 starts into a career that should begin to catch up to the hype in year three. It has the lethal deep threat (DeVier Posey) surrounded by reliable senior role players (Dan Herron, Brandon Saine, Dane Sanzenbacher) all over the offense. It has the grizzled offensive line, manned by five returnees who have combined for 93 starts over the last two years. It has the All-American headliner on the defensive line (Cameron Heyward) backed by the "heart and soul" seniors (linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan) who do all the routine things that keep the defense rocking with the nation's best on an annual basis. It has the big-picture talent and depth, with top-five recruiting classes in 2008 and 2009 just beginning to ripen.
Most importantly, OSU seemed to bury the lingering big-game blues, rebounding from the Purdue debacle to wrap up the outright Big Ten championship with wins over 8-1 Penn State and 9-1 Iowa (not to mention its fifth straight win over Michigan) and shutting down Oregon for its first big-money win since 2005 – good for a three-game winning streak against top-10 opponents to close the year. The Rose Bowl was easily the best game of Pryor's career, a tantalizing hint at what the offense can look like when Tressel trusts his quarterback enough to operate a real spread offense that isn't just the usual cloud-of-dust affair in disguise.
The last time that was the case, Troy Smith won the Heisman on a coast-to-coast run at No. 1 in 2006. The ending to that story, the grisly championship collapse against Florida, remains probably the best argument against an outfit that seems to have everything else going for it again: For too long, the biggest stages were the Buckeyes' biggest enemies. But this is a very different cast from the one that endured serial traumas against the Gators, Tigers and Trojans, and given how quickly it came together when the sky seemed to be falling last November, it seems to be made of the stuff to finally finish the job.