Today I put the finishing touches on my first ballot for the BlogPoll, and as per the BlogPoll rules I'll be putting these up each week so that my ignorance and/or hubris can be viewed that much more plainly and ridiculed more directly. As the BlogPoll rules dictate, these rankings are not meant to predict where I think these teams will end up at the close of the season, just how good I think they are now. Obviously, I'll be rooting against many of these teams regardless, but anyway, here's the list:
1. Ohio State
I'm not 100% confident about having the Buckeyes up here, and in fact I probably would've put Oklahoma in the top spot before Rhett Bomar got himself booted off the team. But somebody's gotta go in the top spot, and based on what I've seen from Jim Tressel's defenses in the past, I've got a sinking feeling that returning only two starters on defense isn't going to hurt the Buckeyes nearly as badly as a lot of people are hoping.
Kinda iffy on this one, too, since there's no way losing Vince Young isn't going to cause at least a few Saturdays' worth of Excedrin headaches, but aside from that I just don't see where the Longhorns have a lot of weaknesses, and their coaching staff is well poised to make the most of all the talent they've got. The defense alone puts them in the top 10.
Auburn looks incredibly dangerous this year, and down here in Alabama there are already scores of Tiger fans penciling AU in for an undefeated season and a national-title shot. Yeah, remember what happened the last time y'all did that? High expectations have never been the Tigers' friend, and I don't expect them to be this year.
Let me go on record right now as saying it would not be the least bit surprising to me if LSU punked Auburn again and ended up going to the SEC title game. If JaMarcus Russell and Alley Broussard prove to have made a strong recovery from their injuries, they could be a serious dark-horse contender.
5. Notre Dame
ESPN is already furiously pumping out propaganda to convince us that this is the new OMG WTF Hottest Team EVAR, but . . . well, I'm not buying it until the Irish's secondary steps up. Still, I'm betting they win enough games to snag another BCS berth, even if it means muscling some quite-possibly-more-qualified-but-less-nationally-marketable team like Iowa or Auburn out of the way in the process.
6. Southern California
I'm ready for USC to have a 7-5 season and fall off the map. Really, really ready. But under Pete Carroll I just don't see it happening, unless the Big One hits and Los Angeles floats off into the ocean or Carroll converts to Scientology and brings Tom Cruise in to give the team pregame pep talks about Xenu and the need to cleanse themselves of Thetans.
The first real surprise of the bunch, but I just got a feeling about these guys. Plenty of returning talent, lots of good guys at the skill positions, and it doesn't seem like anybody has been talking about them yet.
Their offense is plain ridonkulous, they only lost five starters from a team that went 9-3 last year, and I'm guessing their coach isn't going to be distracted by job offers from Auburn this season (though they might come from elsewhere). I would be only slightly shocked to see them beat Miami and West Virginia (both of whom they get at home) and end up 12-0.
9. West Virginia
Yes, as the fan of a team that got the mother of all surprise beatdowns from WVU in the Sugar Bowl last season, I probably ought to show the 'Eers a little more respect, but I've got sincere doubts about their ability to deal with suddenly astronomical expectations, and I'm not the only one. They're going to have a much harder time sneaking up on people this year, especially if they don't discover the forward pass sometime soon.
As explained earlier, this is predicated entirely upon whether the team starts to figure out Urban Meyer's offense and whether the O-line starts to gel. I think they'll take another step toward getting there, but still not quite enough to be considered real national-title contenders.
To my mind, the most unpredictable team on the list other than perhaps Tennessee. They could run the table and play for the national title; they could go 7-5 and play in the Champs Sports Bowl. They've got all the talent in the world and a murderous defense, but at the same time, a 40-3 dismembering in the Peach Bowl and an assistant-coach housecleaning to close out one season does not generally bode well for the following one.
If anybody can knock off USC this year, it's clearly the Bears, but they better have their QB situation completely sorted out by then. Actually, they better have it sorted out the minute they take the field, what with their first game being in Knoxville and all. But if they can manage that, it doesn't require too much suspension of disbelief to envision them hoisting the Pac-10 championship trophy this year.
Another one of those terrific-on-paper teams whose outlook is smudged by some unsettling intangibles -- namely, that they've found a way to knock themselves out of the national-title race by the end of September in each of the last five seasons. As good as they should be this season, they still might be only the third-best team in the conference.
14. Virginia Tech
I have a bajillion relatives who went to Tech, and I owe all of them an apology, because I completely left the Hokies off the first draft of my ballot. I have a feeling I'm not the only one, since embarrassing controversies like Marcus Vick's have a way of overshadowing everything else. Yet forget about the Vick headlines for a minute, and what have you got? A team that may be fairly vanilla on offense (with the possible exception of the running game) but will still be superb on defense and special teams. That sounds kinda like every team VT has had since the first Vick left Blacksburg, and they seem to have done just fine.
I think this is pretty safe for a team that has some major re-jiggering to do in the passing game but is very solid everywhere else. I just hope Mark Richt doesn't fall into the trap of pulling the same kind of constant QB-switching that killed Tennessee last year.
16. Florida State
Yeah, still not sold on these guys. Drew Weatherford is good, but not so good that Jeff Bowden can't find a way to completely screw things up, and the defense got pillaged by the NFL draft, particularly in the secondary. I'll pencil them back into the ACC title game because I'm just not confident in the ability of any of their division rivals to knock them out, but I'll bet they're not in the top 10 come December 2.
Like I said earlier, I had these guys at #1 before Rhett Bomar decided to mount a candidacy for the 2006 Maurice Clarett Award for Potentially Superstardom-Ruining Stupidity, and while I wondered if 16 spots wasn't too big of a penalty for them, their offense is definitely going to require some retooling. And it won't matter how good Adrian Peterson is if the new QB, whoever he ends up being, doesn't give opposing defenses something to respect.
18. Texas Tech
Mike Leach could put me in at quarterback and he'd probably find a way to get me to throw for 5,000 yards. He can worry about defense some other time.
Except for maybe Miami, probably the hardest team to peg in the entire list. There's a chance that David Cutcliffe's return could immediately give the Vols a surge of confidence and leadership that sends them to 11-1 and an SEC title; however, there's probably an equal chance that the program has hit a trough and, even with Cutcliffe, can only muster six or seven wins this year. I'll split the difference and say they win eight or nine. Cutcliffe is definitely an improvement over Randy Sanders, but one man isn't enough to instigate a wholesale championship-winning turnaround, and the Volunteers' problems are not limited to the QB position.
A potential BCS sleeper, again, though I've got to be careful not to put too much stock in their Emerald Bowl blowout against a team that had clearly given up before opening kickoff. Still, it's kind of interesting how everyone decided to completely forget about these guys the minute Urban Meyer's moving van left for Gainesville.
21. Boise State
A proven offense and tons of returning talent across the board -- the only question is whether new coach Chris Peterson can engineer a smooth transition from the Dan Hawkins era, but as Hawkins himself proved, dropping a new coach into this system is hardly a death sentence for the Broncos. Probably the second-biggest threat to crash the BCS after Utah, which should make their face-off on September 30 one of the best (and probably most underrated) of the year.
22. Boston College
Don't they always seem to end up ranked somewhere in this region? They've always got way more talent than you think but never quite enough to knock off the perennial conference powerhouses, and I see that as pretty much being the case this year.
Losing Kellen Clemens hurts, but the guys backing him up on the depth chart weren't exactly total novices, and at the very least they'll have a terrific offensive line to work behind.
Everyone's pegging this as the year the Tigers finally break through and displace FSU atop the division, but how are they going to do that with an almost-brand-new quarterback? I'm also still not completely sold on Tommy Bowden, even though I like the guy, as a coaching genius.
25. Texas Christian
For some reason I don't see them as being nearly the BCS-crashing threat that Utah is, but they're easily the biggest threat to Utah's march for the Mountain West title. After a couple very shaky years, the Horned Frogs' defense seems to be getting back to what we typically expect from them.
And five in the "Honorable Mention" category, teams that I may later regret not having included in my official top 25 ballot:
Kind of in the Michigan mode of the team that looks great on paper but always finds a way to blow it early. Their offense should be tremendous this year, but I see them getting caught in a whole bunch of shootouts, which of course would be such a shock coming from the Pac-10.
Lots of people took last year's Alamo Bowl upset as a sign that things were finally turning around for the Huskers, but I'm gonna need to see more than one last-minute pulled-out-of-one's-ass win to convince me that Bill Callahan is fully on top of things in Lincoln. There's no reason for Nebraska not to win the Big 12 North this year; if Callahan can't manage that, it might be time to start asking some serious questions.
OK, I know I said these guys are still a year or two away from being true conference contenders, but even last year they were dispensing with the likes of Tennessee and Florida, and with Spurrier at the helm I could see similar things happening this year.
On paper, this is the best team they've fielded since Chan Gailey became the head coach, but . . . so what? Yes, Calvin Johnson is a freak of nature, but this offense is never going to be anything more than satisfactory as long as Reggie Ball is running the show. And it's been a hallmark of Gailey's tenure that no matter how many big upsets they notch during the season, they'll still find a way to lose to enough eminently beatable opponents to remain stuck at 7-5. No reason to think that won't be the case this year.
Hard to say where the Nittany Lions are going to end up now that Michael Robinson's gone, and I'm not entirely confident that it's not going to be a repeat of 2003, when they lost Larry Johnson to the NFL draft and everything went conspicuously downhill. I foresee another strong defense but some real struggles by the offense until the O-line really starts to gel.