I am not a big fan of pre-season polls. If I had it my way, polls would not be released until the season was at least 4-5 weeks underway. I understand the need for hype and fan spirit. However, being ranked in the top ten pre-season is a built-in advantage for the most visible programs. It leads to media bias and lost objectivity of both voting coaches and voting reporters. But that's a whole other topic.
I'm going to swallow my distaste for pre-season polls and do my best to identify who I think are the top 25 football programs (on paper) in the country for the 2008 season. This is not a prediction of how the season will necessarily end. I'll leave that for the end of the column.
#1 Ohio State. Beat USC in the Coliseum and they have a very good shot at getting in the national title game again to every college football fan's (except for buckeyes) dismay. The schedule is that easy. Only Rich Rodriguez and the Wolverines stand a real shot of keeping the bucknuts out of the title game and that chance is minimal unfortunately.
#2 Southern Cal. Basically, the same deal as The University of Ohio State. Win on September 13 against the poisonous nuts, and they're well on their way to the BCS championship game in Miami. The Pac 10 is a horrific conference, even worse than the Big 10 in my humble opinion. With Dixon gone, Oregon is now a middle tier team and the Trojans have the Ducks at home. The Sun Devils visit the Coliseum as well. And UCLA is nowhere near ready to challenge Pete and his boys. I give TUOOS (the university of ohio state according to incoming frosh Terrell Pryor) the edge simply because of the returning talent. USC has plenty of its own but whoever wins that game is headed to the title game.
#3 Oklahoma. Very favorable home schedule, another year of experience for Bradford and Murry as well. Add in the embarrassment they suffered in the Fiesta Bowl last year and you have an extremely motivated team. The early part of their schedule should be a roll over. The Sooners have Texas Tech and Kansas at home and if they get out of the Big 12 with one or less losses they have a very good shot at getting to Miami.
#4 Florida. Out of all the SEC powers, Florida has the most favorable schedule. Miami at home and the road challenges are Tennessee and Florida State. Add to that the fact that they do not have back to back tough games and that's a recipe for getting to the SEC championship game. Beat Georgia and they're in. Don't think that the Gators have forgot how last season ended as well as how the cocktail party went in Jacksonville against the Bulldogs. This Florida team will be vastly improved on defense and will likely add a true running game in USC transfer Emmanuel Moody and frosh Chris Rainey. That will take a little bit of the pressure off Tebow. Florida is a very real threat.
#5 Georgia. Absolutely loaded on offense. But a murderer's row of a schedule. Central Michigan is no pushover at home. Immediately following that game, they're on the road against the fighting Spurriers, the Sundevils in Tempe, and then have tough home games against Bama and Tennessee before going away from Athens at LSU, in Jax against the Gators, and at Auburn before finishing at home against Georgia Tech. SEC or not, that schedule looks like at least two losses minimum. Plus, as good as a QB as Stafford is, UGA is still weak at wide receiver and their not exactly a program that has lived up to expectations in the past. I think they'll make a BCS game but not the title game.
#6 Clemson. If the offensive line steps up, this team could be in the national championship hunt come December. A senior QB in Cullen Harper, Davis and Spiller at RB, and an cake schedule makes Clemson a viable contender. The only question is, will Tommy Bowden choke it away as usual?
#7 Missouri. If Mizzou gets past Illinois on August 30th and Nebraska on October 4th, they could be looking at a showdown at Texas on October 18th. Loaded with juniors and seniors, Missouri is likely to build on its great 2007 season. Potential trap game at home against Colorado on October 25th but other than that and the finale against Kansas, this Mizzou team should have a real shot at getting another crack at Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.
#8 Texas.Talent, talent, talent. Colt McCoy should be much improved and if they find a running back they could be dangerous. Opener at home against Florida Atlantic should be very interesting and could determine the Longhorn season. Adding former Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp should translate into an improved Texas defense.
#9. Auburn. One of my sleeper picks this season to make some serious noise on the national scene. Coached by one of the best in the country at getting the most out of his talent, Tommy Tubberville and company, should get off to a fast start this season against be 3-0 when LSU comes to town on September 20th. I predict a victory for War Eagle that day. Tennessee is the next week but Auburn has them at home. After that, a road trip to West Virginia should be interesting. And Georgia and Bama to close the season. Auburn has a real shot at winning the SEC West and getting to the SEC Championship game.
#10 LSU. The Tigers open with Appalachian State. With a QB who has never started a game. They're once again blessed with talent but a five game back to back stretch of at Auburn, Mississippi State, at Florida, at South Carolina, and Georgia should equal a minimum of two losses if not three. The Tigers crack the top ten based on respect for last year and their talent more than anything else.
#11 West Virginia. Time to see how WVU plays now that Rich Rodriguez and company have left town. Having a trained by Rich Rodriguez and staff Pat White doesn't hurt. The only thing that can appear to stop Noel Devine is himself or injury. The defense should be improved and the Mountaineers should be one of the top teams in the Big East. Will they survive at home against Auburn and early in the season on the road against Colorado? If they do, they could end up playing at Pittsburgh for a potential BCS championship spot.
#12 Kansas. Can the Jayhawks build on last year's success? Todd Reesing and company look to do just that and have a beneficial early schedule. October 18 at Oklahoma should be a major wake up call for Kansas. Four of their last five games are against Texas Tech, at Nebraska who is looking for payback, Texas, and Missouri. A tough tough road. Kansas most likely drops three on the season and ends up in Florida on New Years Day.
#13 Tennessee. The Vols are in the middle of the toughest conference race in the country. Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina are also vying for the SEC East Division. Fortunately for UT, Florida is at Knoxville this year. However, the Vols have to travel to Athens for what is sure to be a very heated contest against the Dawgs after Tennessee blasted Georgia last year in Neyland. Luckily, Tennessee's defense, especially the secondary, is loaded. Add in a new offensive coordinator who has Knoxville buzzing and the SEC better be on high alert for the Vols this year.
#14 BYU. Loaded with upper classmen on both sides of the ball and a relatively easy schedule, BYU looks to build on its ten game winning streak. At Utah to finish the season is going to be a battle but if they get through that the Cougars could be a potential BCS bowl sleeper team.
#15 Texas Tech. Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree are back and this team has a healthy schedule. Could this be the year Texas Tech challenges for the Big 12 championship? Many think so and I agree. At Kansas, home against Texas and Oklahoma State, and at Oklahoma is as tough as it comes for a four game stretch but it is towards the end of the season and the Red Raider offense ought to be a hummin' by then.
#16 South Florida. What a job Jim Leavitt has done at this program. Having Matt Grothe back along with George Selvie, the Bulls will have some star power this year. A home friendly schedule should put them in the Big East Championship race.
#17 Utah. This team is dangerous. The opener at Michigan will thrust Utah's name into the national scene. A senior dual threat QB in Brian Johnson and an underrated RB in Darrell Mack are going to put pressure on opposing defenses all season long. At Michigan and BYU at home in the season finale will determine Utah's BCS fate.
#18 Arizona State. Erickson year two is exciting for Sun Devil fans and rightfully so. The man is a terrific coach. Having 13 starters back should help ASU's chances as well. However, who is going to block for Carpenter and Herring? If the Sun Devils can find a suitable offensive line, they can challenge for #2 in the Pac 10. Forget about beating USC though Sun Devil fans. That game is already over.
#19 Pittsburgh. This is a hard one for me. Dave Wannstedt has proven to be a terrible in game coach. However, he has also proven to be a great recruiter. Landing LeSean McCoy was huge and he keeps bringing in more talent. Freshman Jonathan Baldwin is a highlight reel type of receiver. The schedule is very healthy and should give Pitt a chance to compete for the Big East title. This is all assuming that Pitt can field decent QB play this year.
#20 Wisconsin. This team could go either way. The Badgers have a brutal four game stretch in which they start at Fresno State, go to Michigan, have Ohio State the next wee at home, and then Penn State. Add in at Iowa and at Michigan State and this thing looks really tough. It's kind of ironic given the fact that Wisconsin is one of two Big 10 teams that usually skip out on playing all three of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State (Iowa being the other). PJ Hill is a bruising back and Beilema should have the Badger back in Tampa or Orlando on New Year's Day.
#21 Rutgers. The defense is loaded this with juniors and seniors and has a chance to be very good. Mike Teel will steady the offensive attack for the Scarlet Knights and if they can find a running game, they might just join USF, Pitt, and WVU in the Big East championship race.
#22 Penn State. This may be it for Joe Paterno. Losing linbeacker Sean Lee was a big blow for Nittany Lions but Penn State is always loaded at linebacker. The offense has three very good receivers and if Daryll Clark performs and PSU gets anything out of the run game this could be a special offense. Add that to a less than difficult schedule and PSU should no worse than 8-4.
#23 Illinois.Can the Illini back up last year's strong season with a top 15 or better finish in 2008? Opening in St. Louis against Missouri should be a stiff test for the Illini defense. Juice Williams will start but split time with Eddie McGhee. Can Illinois find an adequate replacement for Rashard Mendenhall? They better if they hope to challenge for the Big 10. Back to back road games at Happy Valley and at Michigan are not going to be walks in the park.
#24 Florida State. This could very well be the end for another coaching legend: Bobby Bowden. The Noles are loaded on defense and assuming Weatherford can get it together this year, the Noles will have a shot at the ACC but it won't be easy. FSU draws Wake, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Florida at home this year but has to go on the road to hated Miami, NC State, and Georgia Tech.
#25 Michigan. I'm not buying the doom and gloom. Michigan is loaded on defense and there is plenty of talent on offense as well. Michigan will be inconsistent due to playing a freshman quarterback in a new system but Rich Rodriguez is pretty darn competitive. Following this program as closely as I do, I guess you could argue I am biased. But my friends would tell you differently and even label more of a pessimist when it comes to Michigan. This team will most likely end up 7-5 but an 8-4 season is not as unlikely as some would like to think.
Close but no cigar: Virgina Tech, Oregon, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Cincinnati, Miami, Boston College, Michigan State, Wake Forest, Florida Atlantic, South Carolina.
This list got very tough to order when choosing between #20-#25. A lot of this is just me reading the tea leaves.
I do like to predict the national championship game every year and this year is no different. This year I'm going with USC vs. Florida in Miami. I'm taking USC to win it all. Thanks for reading.