Don't look now, but early analysis shows that two teams, both in major conferences, have a couple of distinct scheduling advantages that may enable them to lock up in the national title game in Glendale this coming January: Texas and Auburn.
Now before all of you OU and 'Bama fans beat me up too badly, hear me out.
UT returns 14 starters from last year's No. 2 ranked team, but will be missing QB Colt McCoy, WR Jordan Shipley, and S Earl Thomas. But as you know, UT simply reloads each year and the pipeline is full.
QB Garrett Gilbert was thrown into the worst possible position last year, replacing an injured McCoy in the National Championship Game, but certainly showed glimpses of his potential. RB 'Tre Newton returns as the Longhorns' leading rusher, as do wideouts James Kirkendoll and Malcolm Williams . UT also sports two senior lockdown CBs in Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown .
But the schedule is where the 'Horns stand to really benefit.
UT plays two neutral-site games: one against Rice in Reliant Stadium in Houston and one in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas against Oklahoma. It plays just three "true" roadies with certainly winnable games at Kansas St. and at Texas Tech. Its toughest game will be in Lincoln against the Cornhuskers. Seven home tilts include lightweights Wyoming, Fla. International, Iowa State, UCLA, Baylor, and Oklahoma St. Its toughest home game is against Texas A&M in the last week of the regular season.
So it's entirely possible that beating Nebraska and A&M will mean a 12-0 season and a berth in the Big 12 (or whatever they're going to call it) Championship Game.
Most prognosticators believe Auburn's still at least a year away from being mentioned as a possible SEC Champion. They may be right, but the Tigers are an intriguing dark-horse team to match up with UT in this scenario.
Auburn returns 16 starters from last year's 8-5 team, finishing in style with a dramatic win in the Outback Bowl over Northwestern. They'll be replacing QB Chris Todd and RB Ben Tate on the offensive side, but head coach Gene Chizik (pictured) has done a great job in recruiting over the past two years and once again has the fans on the Plains chanting "War Eagle!"
The QB battle may come down to the wire between Barrett Trotter and Florida-transfer and JC stud Cameron Newton , while the RB position seems locked down by stud Mario Fannin . Junior wideouts Quindarius Carr and Darvin Adams had big spring games, and defensively Auburn returns eight starters from a physical SEC defense, including arguably the best LB trio in the SEC (I said arguably ).
Schedule-wise, though, is where the rubber meets the proverbial road. Let's examine:
The Tigers don't play Florida and play just four roadies with stops at Mississippi St., Kentucky, Ole Miss and, of course, in the Iron Bowl, this year at Alabama. Eight home games include layups from Arkansas St., Louisiana-Monroe, and UT-Chattanooga. Their toughest home games, by far, are against ACC Clemson, improving South Carolina and Arkansas, and toughies LSU and Georgia. That GA game is tough as it's the week before the Iron Bowl and Georgia's the real deal this year, so there will be no looking past the Bulldogs.
UT will also have a distinct advantage of starting much higher in the polls than the Tigers, and I've seen the Longhorns in preseason ranked as high as No. 3.
Auburn is more of a sleeper pick. I've found the Tigers in preseason rated as high as No. 19, but typically behind other SEC heavyweights 'Bama, Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas.
But they've got a great kicker (for close games) and an experienced, physical defense which is perfectly suited to the SEC and Newton as a wild card.
A win at 'Bama and "must have" wins at home against Arkansas and Georgia could put the surprise Tigers in Cinderalla's slipper come January.