Just as you can tell it's Christmas season when you can't find a parking space to save your worthless life when you head to the mall, you can tell football season is here when the BlogPoll ballots start popping up.
I'm sure most of y'all know by now what the BlogPoll is -- voting works just like the AP and coaches' polls, but the ballots are all cast by bloggers. This year, though, the poll makes what I think will end up being a very worthwhile move to the SB Nation network, which has given it not only an easier-to-use interface but also more prominence, at a venue run by folks who really get what the poll is supposed to be all about.
So here's my inaugural ballot for 2010. Keep in mind that this is no less wild a stab in the dark than anyone else's; also keep in mind that my ballot in particular is meant to be an attempt at figuring out which teams would beat which other teams on a neutral field right now, not a projection of where everyone's going to end up at the end of the season. It's hard enough to predict the outcome of one game; I'm not even going to try to do that for 12 or 13.
But anyway, let's get started, with the honorable mentions first.
Brigham Young. Always going to be competitive, though in their case that's just good enough to get them to a Las Vegas Bowl. If they go this year, and there's plenty of reasons to think they will, that'd be their sixth trip in a row to Sin City. What do Mormons do in Vegas, anyway? This has never been adequately explained to me.
Utah. If the Cougars don't make it to Vegas, their neighbors up the road in Salt Lake just might.
South Carolina. With all that returning talent coming back, this is Spurrier's year to make a run at the SEC East if he's ever going to do it. But the Gamecocks have given up 30+ sacks and had a league-worst rushing game for three years running, and that's a big stigma for a perennial also-ran to overcome.
Southern California. Even before Pete Carroll left, this team's returning-talent situation was going to be dicey, particularly for a team that'd surprised everyone with an 8-5 face plant the year before. Then Carroll booked back to the NFL. Then they hired Kiffykins. Then the NCAA sanctions dropped and players started leaving right and left. Look, maybe this is residual Kiffinfreude talking, and if that turns out to be the case I'll be the first to step up and admit I was wrong come January -- but I'm hardly going out on a limb by suggesting that the Trojan dynasty is on hiatus at the moment, or that they might have to content themselves with a trip back to the Emerald Bowl this year (or the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, or whatever they're calling it now). They might be lucky to make it that high.
Florida State. Talent-wise, this is a pretty solid group, though the defense has got a good bit of ground to make up. My biggest questions concern Jimbo Fisher, whom I'm still not sold on as a head coach. The 'Noles are nevertheless the best bet to represent a bad division in Charlotte this December, but if they only get there at 7-5 and then get blown out by, say, Virginia Tech, is that really all that big an improvement from the mediocrity that eventually pushed Bobby Bowden out the door?
And now we begin with the actual top 25 . . .
25: North Carolina. Most returning talent in the ACC by a wide margin, killer defense, potential superstars all over the place -- yet a lot of that was true in 2009, too, and I couldn't keep from covering my eyes every time the offense took the field. Still might only be the fourth-best team in their division.
24: Arizona. Gonna have to win a lot of shootouts this year, but let's face it, in this year's Pac-10 that's still enough of an endorsement to count them as a Rose Bowl contender. For this year, at least, we may be heading back to the late '90s, when it seemed like every Pac-10 game ended 51-48.
23: Pittsburgh. I originally had Pitt ranked above the next team you'll see on this list, and then decided I was just being a sheep following the pack of people who seem to think the Panthers are the de facto money bet to win a lousy Big East this season. They'll compete for the conference title, but outside of running back there's not really any particular unit that blows me away on this team.
22: Connecticut. If you're looking for a sleeper to tout ad nauseam and confound all your buddies with, friends, here is your team. Sixteen starters back from a team that was 15 points away from going undefeated last year. Take out the mid-season suckerpunch they had to endure -- the tragic murder of defensive back Jasper Howard -- and it could've been the Huskies in the Sugar Bowl. Keep your eye on these guys.
21: Arkansas. Best quarterback in the SEC? Stipulated. I'll even go out on a not-very-skinny limb and say they'll field the best offense in the conference period. But they're coming off two straight years of worst-in-the-league defense (the more recent of which was accomplished by a unit with 10 returning starters), and in what's arguably the tougher of the SEC's two divisions this year, that's probably not good enough to crack the 10-win barrier.
20: Georgia. Ever the hard-nosed realist, Kyle left the Dawgs off his preseason ballot entirely, which for karma's sake is probably what I should've done. It wouldn't take a huge miracle for Georgia to have a special season in 2010, but it would take their newly realigned defense growing up in a big, big hurry. The talent is there, though, and contrary to the pundits who don't really follow Georgia closely enough to know what they're talking about (coughPaulFinebaumcough), I think the coaching is, too.
19: California. A cursory glance at their roster seems to indicate the Golden Bears are talented enough to win the Pac-10 this year -- it just seems like they always do something in the first month of the season that makes you think, "Yeah, they're not for real after all."
18: Houston. On paper, they've got a chance to finish the regular season 12-0 -- not as much of a chance as, say, Boise State or TCU, but not that far off, either. The defense needs to get a lot better, though. That unit's inconsistency was a big part of how the Cougars could pull of stunning upsets over Big XII teams but then get strafed by UTEP and UCF.
17: Georgia Tech. This isn't that far below where most of the pundits seem to have Tech ranked, but I can hear their indignant fans already: "HOW CAN YOU PUT US SO LOW, WE STILL HAVE NESBITT, OUR DEFENSE IS GONNA BE BETTER, STUPID UGAY BULLDOG." (Yeah, they're the kind that type in all caps.) Nesbitt can ball, but let's be real here -- he's not the beating heart of this offense, Jonathan Dwyer and Demaryius Thomas were, and they're both gone. As for the defense, if you think your transition to a 3-4 is gonna be any more easily wrapped up than ours, best of luck to you, fellas.
16: Oregon State. Fast, gutsy, and one of the few Pac-10 squads that consistently plays defense year in and year out. Bastard of a non-con schedule (TCU, Louisville, and Boise State in the first three games of the season), so don't lose faith just because they start 1-2 -- I think they'll still be in the running for the Rose Bowl into November.
15: Texas. OK, I can see how one might perceive a disconnect between the above photo and the ranking, which is quite a bit lower than where I've seen most other people put the Longhorns. But we're not ranking pom squads, we're ranking teams, and I think UT is going to struggle more than people realize this year. For the record, Garrett Gilbert isn't this team's problem -- it's a rebuilding offensive line and a running game that has been AWOL for a couple years now. The defense should be excellent, but the Big XII is not the kind of league where you want to only be scoring 20 points a game these days.
14: Nebraska. Also too low? Maybe -- their offense certainly has to be better than the 2009 version almost by default. But if you checked out Ndamukong Suh's stat line from last season (check comment #5 here), you might share my doubts that the 'Husker D will be able to weather his departure without missing a beat.
13: Oregon. Enough players are coming back from last year's Pac-10 title squad that the dismissal of Jeremiah Masoli isn't necessarily the end of the world. Nate Costa better stay healthy, though, and that's not something he's done tremendously well the last few years.
12: Wisconsin. Their offense is going to be beastly; their defense, though, will take a big hit from losing three guys on the line. And though they may have stunned Miami in their bowl game last season, let's not forget that they also had to survive nailbiters against the likes of Northern Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana.
11: Penn State. Somehow I've gotten it in my head that Joe Paterno sat down with his team a few weeks ago and told them that this was his last season and not to tell anybody. Upon further reflection, I still may have the Nittany Lions ranked too high, but they're going to play good defense and run the ball extremely well, and that still seems to be a pretty good way of winning a bunch of games in the Big Ten.
10: Miami. Phil Steele seems to think they're going to win the ACC, and they seem like as good a candidate as any. But Jacory Harris got hung out to dry pretty badly in a couple games last season where his O-line didn't step up, and that looks like it's going to be a pretty big risk this season as well.
9: Iowa. Another team that's probably ranked too high, especially given all the beef they've lost on the offensive line, but again, they've got a deep stable of running backs and their defense doesn't look like it should drop off much. Plus they've got Ricky Stanzi, the most American quarterback in college football history. If ever there was a guy who screamed "throw four interceptions but still pull out a win by three points," it's that guy.
8: Auburn. Maybe my biggest reach in this entire list, and no, I can't believe I'm putting a Gene Chizik team in the top 10 either. But I prefer to think of this team not as Chizik's but rather as Gus Malzahn's, and if Malzahn can turn Chris Fricking Todd into a worldbeater, I can only imagine the kind of assassin he'll be able to fashion out of a QB who was once poisted to inherit Tebow's circumcision scalpel at Florida. If there's a looming undoing on this team, it's Ted Roof and his defense, though it bears mentioning that nearly everybody else in their division has some major questions to answer on that side of the ball as well. All I'm saying is don't be surprised if the Tigers have already made it to double-digit wins by the time they roll into Tuscaloosa the day after Thanksgiving.
7: Virginia Tech. Yup, this is probably the fourth or fifth year in a row I've had the Hokies ranked too high in the preseason, but the joke's on you, assholes: That fifth punch on my card means I get a free six-inch sub at the Subway in Blacksburg (with the purchase of any sub of equal or greater value, of course).
6: Florida. Considering that the Gators finished last season at #3, I probably haven't dinged them nearly enough spots for losing Tebow, Charlie Strong, and pretty much every receiver who amounted to anything last season. But what can I say, I know better than to make the dismissive wanking gesture in Urban Meyer's direction at this point. Not quite complete enough to make a run for the national title this year, or even necessarily win the SEC, but I see an at-large BCS bid somewhere in their future.
5: TCU. Came close to knocking off Boise State in the Separate But Equal Bowl last year, and I think they were good enough to have done the same to Texas had things shaken out that way. The loss of DE Jerry Hughes takes a big bite out of their pass rush, but at every other position they look like they could be better than last year. (And no, I don't know what it is about the state of Texas and pom squads.)
4: Oklahoma. Maybe I'm drinking too much of the Phil Steele Kool-Aid with this one, but Phil Steele's Kool-Aid is pretty good, actually. Consider that losing Sam Bradford in the second quarter of their season opener was only the start of the Sooners' injury troubles last year, yet they still came within a single score of beating Miami, Texas, and Nebraska -- combined margin of loss only 11 points, in fact. Landry Jones, in particular, had a fantastic year, especially considering he wasn't supposed to be doing anything other than mop-up duty when the season started. So go ahead and put them in the Fiesta Bowl again (even if they'll only lose it once they get there).
3: Boise State. Twenty starters coming back from a team that went 14-0 last season? Yeah, I'd say they're worthy of being in the national-title discussion. I know the support for that view is hardly unanimous, and yeah, once you get past the early games against VaTech (in D.C.) and Oregon State (at home), their schedule is pretty soft-serve. But if they beat those two BCS-conference teams, then sweep their WAC slate, who's to say they don't deserve a shot at the crystal football? Particularly if they're one of only two undefeated teams left standing?
2: Ohio State. I've had to remind myself of Michael Elkon's "Charles Rogers Theorem" and not go completely bug-nuts over the Buckeyes just because they surprised the whole world (including Jim Tressel, I'm guessing) by beating Oregon in the Rose Bowl last season. But let's just say for the sake of argument that Tressel has finally figured out how to use Terrelle Pryor and play some offense. I think we can all agree that that plus tOSU's perennially stifling defense would equal a national-title-worthy team. In fact, I briefly had them at number one, but wussed out and decided I had to go with . . .
1: Alabama. The big knock on this team is that they got ransacked on defense by graduations and the NFL draft. Hey, I'll stipulate that the Tide defense won't be as good as it was last year; I saw all those guys get drafted just like y'all did. But I've also seen Nick Saban and Kirby Smart recruit over the last few years, I've also seen them coach over the last few years, and I just can't willfully suspend the amount of disbelief it would take to picture this defense completely collapsing. I mean, if they allow 75 more yards per game this year, that'd still more than likely put them in the top 25 in total defense nationwide, not to mention the top half of the SEC. No, it's not an imaginative pick, and no, they're not gonna have a third straight 12-0 regular season, but they're still the kings until somebody knocks 'em off.
So what do you think? There's still a few days to mess with this thing before the "official" preseason BlogPoll comes out, so hit me with your suggestions. And no, I'm not gonna do the Steve Spurrier throw-a-bone-to-the-former-employer thing, but if you can make a case that UAB deserves to be in there on the merits, then I'm all ears.