As warned, here's the preseason top 25 that will serve as my first BlogPoll ballot of the 2008 season. Just to give you an indication of how accurate you can expect this to be, my preseason ballot from last year did have the eventual national champions (LSU) at #3, but they were surrounded by Southern California, Virginia Tech, Texas, and Michigan in the top five. Ohio State was down at #11; Georgia didn't appear until #16 -- one spot above Nebraska. So, uh, beware. I'd add one of those "for entertainment purposes only" disclaimers, but that would imply that somebody might find this entertaining.
I'll break it into groups of five to keep things manageable. Now let's begin, because I'm not planning on making y'all wait very long for a reason to call me an idiot.
1. Ohio State
OK, so I've got the great and powerful Bulldogs at number three behind two teams that have laid a combined four gigantic BCS eggs the last two years. What the hell?
I know some people are going to penalize the Buckeyes and Sooners for having taken the pipe so dramatically in the '06 and '07 bowl seasons, but I just don't think that should be a factor in ranking them for '08. Regardless of what happened in January, I think that Ohio State and Oklahoma bring the most top-to-bottom solid and talented teams to the table in August, and even if one of them ends up getting humiliated once again in the national-title game, the fact remains that, at this point, I think they're more likely to get to that game than anyone else.
Why is Georgia at number three? It's not because of the schedule, because in these preseason rankings I'm trying to judge teams based on how good they are right now and not how good we're going to think they are two or three months from now. Honestly, all of the top three teams are good enough that trying to compare their relative strengths and weaknesses involves splitting some pretty thin hairs, but Georgia has just enough question marks -- can they find someone to replace Trinton Sturdivant at left tackle? How will Blair Walsh do as the new kicker? Will one of the receivers step up to replace Sean Bailey and become a team leader? -- that I can't quite put them up on tOSU or OU's level at the moment. Or maybe I'm just afraid of the karmic repercussions I would face by ranking them #1. Yeah, that's probably it.
I think Missouri is going to be terrific again this year, and has at least an outside shot at getting revenge on Oklahoma in this year's Big 12 title match and making it to the national-championship game. As for Florida, yes, I do think their defense will be better this year, but if you're expecting improvement based on a "can't get much worse" rationale, then you're probably not talking about a national-championship-caliber team -- at least, not a team with as clear a path to the national-title game as everyone seems to think at this point.
6. Southern California
9. South Florida
10. West Virginia
I'll probably be expounding more on this over the next few days, but I'm not buying the Trojans as a serious national-title contender this year, either. Consider that last year, they were a consensus #1 pick in nearly everyone's preseason rankings yet still managed to lose to Stanford and needed high-profile collapses by a couple of their Pac-10 rivals to claim their fifth straight conference title; well, this year's USC team is probably going to be notably inferior to that one in a number of areas. The Trojans' defense will be outstanding, but the most experienced part of their offense is a receiving corps that didn't exactly set the world on fire last year; elsewhere, they'll have a brand-new quarterback behind an O-line replacing four of five starters. And depending on how long it takes Mark Sanchez to return from his injury, that new QB may be Mitch Mustain, who does a bang-up job of handing off but really hasn't done a whole lot else at the college level. Pete Carroll's awesomeness gains them a few extra points, and they'll probably win the Pac-10 again this year if for no other reason than because nobody else is going to want it enough, but I don't see them in the BCS title game this year -- nor do I even see them beating Ohio State on September 13.
I'm not all that confident about the other four teams in this group, either, but I did scramble things at the last minute to put Wisconsin above LSU and South Florida above West Virginia. The Badgers and Tigers both have equally big question marks at quarterback, but Wisconsin's QB does have some actual starting experience, and their defense returns a lot more experience than LSU does. At first it seemed like a big leap of faith to put South Florida above West Virginia, but then I remembered that, oh yeah, the Bulls have beaten the Mountaineers the last two years, and they return 17 starters while WVU is having to break in a new coach and deal with some big holes on defense that had already been pretty inconsistent over the last few seasons.
13. Texas Tech
I did some last-minute re-jiggering here, too, and I'm a little nervous about having Kansas at #11, but I'm more confident about them there than Auburn, who's breaking in two new coordinators and an entirely new offensive system, along with a new starting QB. Actually, the Tigers may be too high even at #12 -- I think the people who have predicted a fast-track transition to Tony Franklin's spread system are reading a little too much into Auburn's bowl win. (If individual bowl games were solid grounds for sweeping future predictions, then Taylor Bennett would've been a Heisman Trophy finalist last year.) Still, Auburn will once again have a killer defense to fall back on, and it's not like that defense didn't pretty much singlehandedly win them nine games last year.
Texas Tech is another team I'm worried about putting too high. All the talk has been about how they're finally going to have a solid defense this year to go with their offense, but no matter how good they are, the Red Raiders always seem to lose one total head-slapper of a game each year (it's been Colorado the last two seasons), plus they haven't beaten Texas since 2002. So maybe I should have Texas above TTU . . . but the way the Longhorns may end up struggling on defense again this year, probably not. Oregon I'm kind of shaky on, too, but if they can settle on a solid starter at the QB position, they'll be the ones most likely to break out of a fairly mediocre Pac-10 and challenge USC for the league title.
16. Arizona State
18. Wake Forest
19. Brigham Young
20. Penn State
Arizona State is a big question mark for me this year: They could've been one of the best teams in the country in 2007 if they hadn't hung Rudy Carpenter out to dry to the tune of 55 sacks, but this season they go from a relatively experienced O-line that flat-out sucked to an inexperienced line that only returns 33 career starts. This is another one of those units that falls into the "has to get better by default" category, but how much better I have no idea.
After ASU comes the first ACC team in these rankings, which should give you some idea as to the regard with which I hold that conference this year. And the fact that I have Wake Forest right below Clemson should indicate that I don't think the Tigers will have nearly the cakewalk through their schedule this year that a lot of people have been predicting. As Sunday Morning Quarterback showed us a few weeks ago, Tommy Bowden's Clemson teams have been at their worst when preseason expectations have been at their highest, and that spells disaster the way the Tigers have been touted this year. Wake Forest has some big holes to fill on offense, but I'm more confident in Jim Grobe's coaching than Bowden's -- Grobe, after all, actually has an ACC trophy on his shelf -- and I'm already looking forward to a Clemson-WFU game on October 9 that could be one of the big season-altering upsets of 2008.
I'll go ahead and throw my lot in with the people who have pegged BYU as this year's most likely BCS-buster, I'd probably have them several notches higher if their major lack of experience on defense didn't make me worry that deep down they're just Hawaii 2.0 -- i.e. a team with incredible offensive firepower that blows through a comparatively easy schedule to get to a BCS game, but gets exposed the first time they go up against a major-conference team that can match them punch for punch on offense. Penn State I might have too low, given all the talent they bring back this year, but they're breaking in brand-new guys at the two most important offensive skill positions.
21. Virginia Tech
24. Fresno State
25. Boise State
The Hokies are going to be another really, really green team this year, and it's mainly my faith in Frank Beamer's coaching (and VT's perennial strength on defense no matter how inexperienced they are) that has them ranked this high. Tennessee, on the other hand, might be too low if Jonathan Crompton turns out to be a superstar. Obviously, as a Georgia fan I'm hoping the kid sucks, but then I was saying the same stuff about Erik Ainge back in 2004.
And now it's apparently time to dump all the remaining mid-majors in here. Utah should end up with their best offensive production since they became the first team to earn the title of "BCS buster" in 2004, and could actually challenge BYU for those honors this year; after that comes Fresno State, a team that, on paper, also seems like another good BCS-buster candidate but who always seems to cough up a couple games each year they had no business losing. I may have subconsciously included Fresno and Boise State on here as a package deal, since there's every reason to believe Boise could jump up and beat the Bulldogs at home in the regular-season finale and ruin Fresno's season anyway.
In the waiting room:
Cincinnati is my sleeper just-outside-the-top-25 team for this season because they have a fantastic coach in Brian Kelly and because the controversy over whether or not Ben Mauk will return at QB is kind of disguising the fact that they already have two good options at quarterback and should be fine on offense this year. With Michigan State I may be getting too hyped up over the fact that last year, for the first time in what seems like forever, they managed to put together a season that wasn't a crushing disappointment, but they're going to return a very strong offense this year and could be the surprise team in the Big 10. In other words, something along the lines of what Illinois was last year but won't be this time around, not without Rashard Mendenhall.
I know I like to make fun of South Carolina as much as anyone out there, but once you get past the soap opera at their QB position and Steve Spurrier's continuing weaselry, they look like they're going to be pretty solid this year -- I could see 9-3 if things shake out right, maybe even 10-2 if they can knock off Clemson at the end of the regular season. Last year's week 2 upset of UGA notwithstanding, I'm really glad we're getting them early enough in the season that none of their quarterbacks may necessarily have their heads screwed on straight just yet.
Finally, Rutgers is a team that has a big playmaker to replace (RB Ray Rice) but should be pretty solid everywhere else. Not enough to make a real run at the Big East title, but I'd put them a solid third behind South Florida and West Virginia.
So that's my best moderately educated guess as to where things stand in the preseason; feel free to tear this to shreds in the comments thread. First BlogPoll roundtable will be up tomorrow.