1. Notre Dame: You've heard about the offense before, but let's spell it out: the odds-on Heisman favorite at QB; one of the nation's top wide-outs in Jeff Samardzija; the return from injury of an even more athletic receiver (Rhema McKnight); one of the most underrated RB's in college football (Darius Walker); a veteran O-line; all under the offensive wizardry of Coach Charles J. Weis. "But," you say, "the defense is bad...THE DEFENSE IS BAD!" No, it's not. Weis has made defense priority one in his second year. The secondary - led by probable first-day draft pick Tom Zbikowski - will improve immensely in its second season playing under Rick Minter. Depth at linebacker is a question mark, but that may be mitigated by the switch of RB Travis Thomas to LB. Plus, if USC has proven anything over the years, it's that when your offense puts up 50 per game, you can still go pretty far with an average defense. 2007 looks a bit bleak for the Irish, so expect Weis to try and make the most of the talent he has this season. If ND can get through its early schedule unscathed and remain healthy at the offensive skill positions (depth is a concern here), then we're looking at a chips-and-salsa reunion with the Buckeyes in January.
2. TheOSU: A high-powered offense and an unproven defense? Who are you, and what have you done with the real Jim Tressel? But seriously folks. The offense showed its chops to the tune of 617 total yards in the Fiesta Bowl last year, and returns basically everyone. Ted Ginn Jr. and Troy Smith form one of the nation's most explosive duos, and Antonio Pittman, with over 1,300 yards on the ground last season, ain't no slouch either. The questions are on defense. No matter what anyone tells you, no team can replace 9 starters on one side of the ball without going through a significant adjustment process. The Buckeyes had better hope that process is complete by the end of the Northern Illinois game, because Texas looms large in Game 2. There's no doubt that at some point, Tressel will have his defense back in form. But it won't be overnight, and it could cost a win if the offense is unable to outshoot its opponent on the scoreboard. The Big 10 schedule is hardly a gauntlet, but the Buckeyes will be tested by Penn State, Iowa and Michigan.
3. West Virginia: So, the Big East has finally decided to actually earn its BCS bid this year. The Mountaineers made a statement all over the face of the Georgia Bulldogs in their own backyard last January, and they hope to carry that momentum forward this year. What will help WVU? A laughable schedule that could easily lead to an undefeated regular season. What will hurt WVU? A laughable schedule that will certainly drag down their S.O.S., and probably put the kibosh on a Top-2 ranking.
4. Auburn: The Tigers will look for QB Brandon Cox to make a step up in his sophomore season, but he'll need someone to throw to. There are also some holes to fill on defense. Their schedule isn't quite as pillowy-soft as it has been in past seasons (Citadel or Louisiana-Monroe, anyone?), but still relatively plush. Mark Sept. 16 vs. LSU (see below) on your calendars as a bellwether for the rest of SEC season.
6. Texas: Vinnie Young won a lot of games for Texas last year - a lot more than he will be winning for the Titans this year, and a lot more than the Longhorns will be winning this year. Favorable schedule, but an early loss to Ohio State probably ends any title hopes.
7. Florida: Talented and well-coached. But Chris Leak isn't Urban Meyer's quarterback, and a brutal schedule (Tennessee, Auburn, FSU on the road; Alabama, LSU, Georgia at home) will keep the Gators out of the BCS picture.
8. USC: Guess what? Unlike 2004, the Trojans were anything but unbeatable last year, as ND, ASU, and Fresno St. can attest. The losses of LenDale, Matt and Reggie make this at least a two-loss team (I'll go with Cal and ND), no matter how many mercenaries...er, recruits Coach Petey has up his sleeve. Tied for 3rd in the Coaches' Poll? Please, give me a break (preferably in John David Booty's right elbow). Sorry boys: enjoy the Holiday Bowl, and save the unwarranted hype for '07.
9. Cal: Marshawn Lynch is the best running back in the country not named Adrian Peterson. If Nate Longshore can stabilize the QB position, which was abysmal after his season-ending injury in the first game last year, this team has the potential to unseat USC as the class of the Pac-10 (for this year at least). The season opener against Tennesee at Rocky Top will be a test - for both teams. If the Bears pass it, they could be the favorite to be smelling Roses.
10. Miami: Want a sure sign that things are getting out of hand quickly for your football program? How about when one of your players is shot in the ass after another teammate exchanges gunfire with a gang-banger in front of their residence, which happens to be owned by your team's defensive backs coach? Coupled with the suspension of four players for the season-opener against FSU, and it appears Larry Coker's ship is taking on water fast. Then again, I think they might just thrive on this stuff at Miami.