The Seven Sisters: a term coined in ancient times to describe part of a heavenly body seen at night.
If you were paying attention, you remember learning about it in high school. The Pleiades. The constellation Taurus.
All right, so you've never been away from the city lights far enough to know what is "up there" when the sun goes down. We'll skip the rest of the astronomy class.
Suffice to say, in Greek mythology, the Seven Sisters were bad news for whomever crossed them—a very dangerous group.
In the following projections we lay down the law regarding a similarly dangerous group, this one of college football teams: those who enter the 2009 season as possibly surprising season wreckers and perhaps long shots to prevail.
This term is generally used to describe teams with the potential to achieve. We will buy that definition. As for the season ahead, there appear to be three schools that qualify under the heading. Going from weakest to strongest, we find:
3. N.C. State Wolfpack, ACC
Loaded for bear (or is it wolf?) with 14 returning starters, head coach Tom O'Brien leads a team featuring the sensational quarterback Russell Wilson and some heavy hitters on defense.
Wilson's touchdown to interception ratio last year was 17-1 as a true freshman. In 2008 the 'Pack ended East Carolina's unbeaten season, crushed UNC by 31 points at Chapel Hill, and ended up going to the Papa John's Bowl. Look for more of the same.
2. Pittsburgh Panthers, Big East
Fifteen returning starters and the best defense in the conference will anchor the hopes of Dave Wannstedt's grind 'em up unit in 2009.
Pitt won nine games last season, whipping several Bowl teams along the way. Wins over Iowa, West Virginia, and Notre Dame show QB "Big" Bill Stull can get the job done in prime time. A dangerous and curious mixture of a contender.
1. California Golden Bears, Pac-10
Although supporters of the Oregon Ducks may angrily deny it, this could be the team best equipped to challenge Southern California in the West.
Fifteen returning starters will be on hand for coach Jeff Tedford, a man who has come close to becoming a nationally known figure based upon the performance of his Bears.
Back-to-back games with Oregon and USC may be all that prevents Cal from challenging for the national championship.
A somewhat derogatory term in certain instances. Usually reserved for a team that has the ability to do well but doesn't always maximize their ability to the fullest. Still, the spoiler is the most feared team on the schedule of any national title contender.
3. Utah Utes, Mountain West
The undisputed "King of the Sleepers" in 2008, the fine group surrounding coach Kyle Whittingham will enter this season as a solid No. 3 in the Mountain West, behind BYU and TCU.
What makes a sleeper turn into a spoiler? Two reasons in this case.
One, the loss of several tremendously talented players but still having enough coming back to lay a whipping on anyone venturing into Salt Lake City.
Two, they just may have enough to derail the BCS Bowl hopes of BYU, TCU, and Oregon. If they pull that off on the road, you can start calling the Utes the "King of the Spoilers."
2. Miami Hurricanes, ACC
Hurricane warnings return to the south Florida coast along with 15 starters from 2008.
Last season the Hurricanes could not count on their offense—they were outrushed by their opponents and also had 10 more turnovers.
Look for that to change this season with the injection of new blood into the coaching ranks. As we all know, a balanced Hurricane is a dangerous Hurricane.
1. Illinois Fighting Illini, Big Ten
Two years ago coach Ron Zook had the Illini in the Rose Bowl, and quarterback Juice Williams was the talk of the league.
The defense and turnovers let Illinois down last season. That should improve with the return of 46 lettermen. Experience is the best teacher for mistakes.
By the end of October Zook's warriors will have faced Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Missouri, and Michigan. We'll find out how well the Illini have learned the lessons of 2008.
The Dark Horse
Face it, you never want to be the dark horse in July; you want to be the dark horse after the first couple of road games. This term is reserved for the unexpected team with true potential to win a national title. Who will that be in 2009?
Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Independent
On the way to his feathering at the tar pit, a funny thing happened to Charlie Weis. He admitted some mistakes have been made, and a more humble man the Midwest has rarely seen.
The comparison between this year's Irish and the dark horse beauty of last season, Penn State, is fascinating. Certainly a case could be made that Penn State will assume the position again.
However, the improvement in the arm of Jimmy Clausen over the past two seasons makes this outfit downright dangerous.
It is likely the winner of the Oklahoma State-Georgia game will be perceived as the dark horse early in the season.
A steady hand from the experience of 15 returning starters could make Notre Dame the team most likely to have that reputation by October.
So there we have it: the nuts, bolts, and screws of the uncanny measuring stick of the 2009 season, the Seven Sisters of Surprise.