Thursday, September 01, 2005

Columnists' Corner

A coast-to-coast look at what they are saying as we get ready for the coin toss. In comments.

6 comments:

dawizofodds said...

Odds stacked against USC to win three in a row

Bud Withers
Seattle Times

You heard it here first. USC will not win the national championship this year. The Troy Boys will go down.

Maybe not far, but somebody will get them this year and USC is going to be looking up in the polls at a team like Texas or Michigan. Or Louisville. Or Ball State. But somebody.

OK, spare us the e-mails. We know about Matt Leinart's consistency and how tackling Reggie Bush is like trying to catch a fly in a bonus room. The Trojans are the Next Big Thing, cubed.

"Who wants to play 'em?" Washington State coach Bill Doba asked recently.

Nobody, to be sure. Probably not Oklahoma, judging by the torment USC visited on the Sooners in last year's title game. Probably not Washington State, which tried an onside kick to open the game last fall in Pullman.

"I don't really know why they did that," Leinart said. "A lot of teams, there is that factor in the back of their heads, like they know they can't win."

But they can. Here's why:

1. The Trojans have had one too many assistant-coach departures.

Most of the frown wrinkles around a USC three-peat have to do with the departure of Norm Chow, the veteran uber-assistant, and whether the youngish Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian will be a match for the cagey Chow.

For good reason.

"I don't know what went on in the meetings," Doba says, "but I know this: Trying to coordinate against him defensively was a struggle. He always had a good scheme. He was able to make adjustments. You could tell the kids were well-coached."

In his last two partings, from Brigham Young and North Carolina State, the two offenses that succeeded Chow's were less productive.

"Losing coach Chow is one thing, but Sarkisian is like a big brother to me," Leinart said. "You guys are going to find out. They're both [Sarkisian and Kiffin] probably two of the smartest young coaches in college football."

USC has so much offensive talent, it could probably win with Paris Hilton calling plays. It says here the bigger adjustment will be replacing defensive-line coach Ed Orgeron. His hosses been so good in recent years the Trojans have been able to harass passers with four-man rushes and not endanger themselves with excessive blitzes.

"He was our disciplinarian, our probation officer, basically," defensive end Frostee Rucker said of Orgeron. "He had a big impact on recruiting, and in staying on top of you."

2. Yes, USC went 13-0 last year. No, it wasn't easy.
The landslide win over Oklahoma tends to obscure the narrow escapes USC had in half of its Pac-10 games, winning by eight points or less. If a California receiver doesn't slip running a post route in the end zone, it's the Bears, not the Trojans, playing for the title.

"They're hanging by a thread against Oregon State," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "Against Cal, against Stanford. It's not as easy as the media want to make it out.

"I remember at Oklahoma [coming off a 2000 national title], people were telling us how great we were. It's the hardest thing when people tell you you're this, you're that. It's a lot of pressure. It's draining on you."

USC's schedule is arduous, including three games on the road against Pac-10 teams figured for the top half of the league — Oregon, Arizona State and Cal. Don't be surprised if the Trojans' number comes up Sept. 24 in Eugene.

3. Outscoring people is usually not the recipe for winning a national title.

The Trojans ought to have an offense to die for this year. But the defense might kill them; it lost Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu.

Not that USC will trot out Division III talent on defense.

Five starters have played on two national-championship teams. Leinart, asked to name a couple of unknown players who might emerge, targets Patterson's replacement at defensive tackle, Sedrick Ellis, and Scott Ellis, a 215-pound junior-college transfer "who's going to be a stud" at free safety.

History says that teams over-reliant on offense usually come up short somewhere. Before USC, the closest a Pac-10 team came to the Bowl Championship Series title game was UCLA in 1998. Getting it done with their offense, the Bruins found themselves a quarter from the title game in the finale at Miami, then succumbed to Edgerrin James and the Hurricanes, 49-45.

4. USC has been relatively fortunate with injuries.

Those who see another coronation in the Trojans' future ought to love this quote from Leinart:

"Last year, the whole season, I played probably 75 percent," he said, referring to a groin pull and a sore elbow that required offseason, outpatient surgery. "I'm feeling a lot better this year, so I feel I can perform even better."

So he went from the training room to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York.

Receiver Steve Smith missed much of the 2004 season after injuring a leg against Cal, and freshman Jeff Byers started four games at guard (taking the place of the injured John Drake). It was USC's inexorable recruiting under coach Pete Carroll that allowed the machine to keep rolling.

But USC hasn't had the kind of injury, to a Leinart or Bush, that could really crimp the offense. (Having said that, ever notice how the good teams don't seem to get guys hurt?)

5. This is college football, after all.

One loss can slay all the dreams, one letdown can sabotage history. With the Trojans getting everybody's best shot, all it takes is a day when maybe they don't bring their "A" game. It's exceedingly difficult for 20-year-old kids to be primed emotionally week after week.

"Coach Carroll always preaches," said defensive end Lawrence Jackson, "that the only team that can beat us is us."

Even on the days when USC's reign has been imperiled, the Trojans have been such a good second-half team they usually right themselves. In the two championship seasons, they've outscored the opposition 458-184 in the second half. It wasn't until the eighth game last year that anybody scored more than a touchdown after halftime against them.

"You can't body-punch a champion," Washington coach Tyrone Willingham said. "You've got to knock 'em out. That's what someone's going to have to do."

They will.

I've got the field — Texas, Michigan, Tennessee and Florida Atlantic, too — against USC. At least until Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush run out of the tunnel, that looks pretty good.

dawizofodds said...

Payback time for Spurrier?
New South Carolina coach may get comeuppance in SEC

Tony Barnhart
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


ESPN officials expect millions of viewers to be glued to the tube Thursday night when Steve Spurrier makes his much-anticipated return to college football at South Carolina.

And that's just counting the coaches, players and fans he ticked off in his first tour of the SEC.

"If Steve struggles, I don't think there are going to be any tears shed in the coaching community," former Auburn coach Terry Bowden said. "That's because he made us all cry when we had to play against him."

Bowden will be watching intently tonight from his home in Orlando. Now a TV analyst for ABC, Bowden went 2-4 against the former Florida coach — not a bad clip considering Spurrier's 87-14 record against SEC teams in his 12 years in the league.

Philip Bonfiglio will be watching from Atlanta. The vice president of the Georgia chapter of the University of Tennessee alumni association will be rooting hard for Central Florida. One, because he also happens to be the director of development at Georgia Tech, where UCF's George O'Leary used to coach.

And two, because it's Spurrier, who used to take shots at his beloved Volunteers every chance he got.

"Nothing thrills me more than to see Spurrier lose," Bonfiglio said.

Spurrier's comeback to the conference he once ruled has been the talk of college football since he was introduced as Lou Holtz's successor in November. It's such a big deal that ESPN decided to kick off the season with South Carolina against UCF, a team that went 0-11 last season. The network is even sending its GameDay crew to town.

"We realize we have not done anything to earn the spotlight," Spurrier said, "but we'll take it."

Spurrier has promised to be kinder and gentler than he was during his visor-flinging, evil genius days at Florida. His news conferences have been milder, his pot shots fewer. But the coaches whose teams he ran up scores on will believe he's changed his ways when they see it.

"On a bad day, he would just beat you bad," Bowden said. "On a good day, he would humiliate you."
Let us count the ways:

— Spurrier mocked former Georgia coach Ray Goff, wondering what happened to all those great players the Bulldogs would sign when they met his Gators in Jacksonville. Spurrier was 11-1 against Georgia, 6-0 against Goff.

— He tormented Tennessee and coach Phil Fulmer, including his famous "You can't spell Citrus without UT" line, referring to the second-tier bowl the Vols frequented.

— His 2001 Gators, still embarrassed by a loss in Starkville the previous season, walloped Mississippi State 52-0 in a game that wasn't that close. Spurrier tacked on a late touchdown pass because the equipment manager, who got knocked over by MSU players the year before in Starkville, asked him to.

So if Spurrier's Gamecocks are on the wrong end of a few lopsided games this season, his former coaching colleagues won't weep.

"I think it's safe to say there is a list of guys who will be watching very closely," said Gerry DiNardo, who was 1-7 against Spurrier as the coach of LSU and Vanderbilt.

They're more curious than anyhing to see how much magic Spurrier can work. These Gamecocks don't resemble his Gator powerhouses. South Carolina doesn't have the talent or tradition Florida did — and it could be a while before it approaches those levels.

"There are 20 million people in Florida, and a lot of those kids grow up wanting to be Gators," said former Auburn coach Pat Dye, who went 0-3 against Spurrier. "There is no question he can coach. But he also had great quarterbacks and wide receivers at Florida. He may eventually get that kind of talent at South Carolina, but it won't be easy."

South Carolina has posted just one 10-win season in 113 years of college football. Nine of Spurrier's 12 Florida teams won 10 games or more.

"Steve has proven he can coach good players, but what he has to realize is that the other teams in the league won't come down to his level. He has to recruit up to their level," said former Arkansas coach Danny Ford, who went 0-3 vs. Spurrier. "No matter how good a coach you are, it's hard to win week in and week out in the SEC if you don't have really good players."

Former coaches believe Spurrier was a little humbled by his two years in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, where he had seasons of 7-9 and 5-11.

"He kicked our butts [at Georgia], but when he got to the NFL those guys were waiting on him," said former Georgia coach Jim Donnan, who was 1-4 against Spurrier. "They take a lot of pride in their coaching in that league, too."

But former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said it would be a mistake to bet against the guy with the .861 SEC winning percentage and six conference titles.

"I know the guy, and trust me when I say this: Steve doesn't want anybody's sympathy," Sherrill said. "In fact, he wants people to make fun of him because the more they make fun, the tougher he will get.

"And here's a warning to anybody who might make fun if he struggles early: You better look out when he finally gets his players in there. He's on a mission. He will get the job done."

Whether he does or not, everyone seems to agree: College football with Spurrier is better than it is without it.

"He is great for the conference," Dye said. "I like Steve because he is what he is. He's cocky, he's arrogant and he makes no apologies for it. I respect that."

dawizofodds said...

Football polls an inexact science
Reliance on previous season often leads pollsters astray

Brian Davis
Dallas Morning News

Fear not, UT-El Paso, Bowling Green and Notre Dame fans. After all, history's on your side, even though your teams are unranked. A great season could be looming, and those 65 Associated Press voters just don't know it yet. Kickoff, which comes Thursday for some, can't get here fast enough, right?

All you Oklahoma, LSU and Florida fans should beware. Those three are ranked in the top 10 now. But somebody will experience a looong season. Just remember this: Division I basketball teams can begin practice at 7 p.m. on Oct. 14.

One fact jumps off the page when examining the AP poll over the last 10 years. Preseason polls are based on how a team did the previous season.

Alabama went 10-3 in 1999, won the SEC championship game and played in the Orange Bowl.

Here's what your typical AP voter was thinking over the summer of 2000: "The Crimson Tide has a fantastic tradition, the cupboard should be well stocked with players, and, after all, it's Alabama!"

But a season-opening loss at UCLA set the tone for a 3-8 season. Coach Mike DuBose was shown the door, and Dennis Franchione was welcomed with open arms before the 2001 season.

Opening with a loss hasn't spelled trouble for every team.

An unranked Colorado team lost its season opener in 2001. The Buffaloes put their foot on the gas and won the Big 12 North title and played in the league championship game. Colorado capsized Texas, 39-37, and faced Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buffs, who were 3-8 in 2000, finished the 2001 season ranked ninth.

If AP voters were clairvoyant enough to pick the one team that would surprise everybody, well, then that team would have been in the top 10 to begin with.
BYU seemed like a solid team prior to the '96 season but didn't crack the preseason poll. Led by quarterback Steve Sarkisian, the Cougars were 7-4 in 1995. That's solid but not spectacular.

Sarkisian torched Texas A&M's secondary in the 1996 opener. He threw for 536 yards and six touchdowns in a 41-37 upset of the 13th-ranked Aggies. BYU went on to a 14-1 season and knocked off Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.

Unranked UCLA lost its first two games in 1997. Then, the Bruins hung 66 points on John Mackovic's Texas Longhorns in Austin and turned things around. UCLA finished the year with a 29-23 win over A&M in the Cotton Bowl and earned a top-five ranking.

It's a fun exercise to guess which team will be the surprise of 2005.

Georgia Tech is an interesting selection. Only quarterback Reggie Ball's inconsistency is a question mark.

Penn State? Joe Paterno has suffered a miserable two years (3-9 in 2003 and 4-7 in '04). Surely, the Nittany Lions are better than that. But facing Ohio State and Michigan back to back in October will be brutal.

Utah lost quarterback Alex Smith to the NFL. Can new coach Kyle Whittingham duplicate Urban Meyer's magic?

Ten years of AP poll history cannot be wrong. Somebody will prosper and somebody will flounder in 2005. The unknown, that's what makes the national championship race so exciting.

After all, it's not where you start. It's where you finish.

Year after year, surprise teams knock polls out of whack
Coaches insist the preseason college football polls are meaningless. "It's not where you start, it's where you finish," they decree. Blah, blah, blah. Whatever.

Some research found at least one thing to be true.
Preseason polls are wrong.

Each of the last 10 years, one team has come out of nowhere and finished in the Associated Press top 10. And it may come as no surprise that the opposite is true. Eight of the last 10 seasons, one team picked in the preseason top 10 has stumbled and finished out of the final top 25.

BOOMS AND BUSTS

A look at teams the last 10 years that were unranked in the preseason Associated Press poll but finished in the top 10, and the highest ranked teams each preseason that wound up unranked in the final poll:

1995
Boom: Kansas State ... Went 10-2, finished No. 7
Bust: Oklahoma ... Started No. 15, went 5-5-1

1996
Boom: BYU ... Went 14-1, finished No. 5
Bust: USC ... Started No. 7, went 6-6

1997
Boom: UCLA ... Went 10-2, finished No. 5
Bust: Colorado ... Started No. 8, went 5-6

1998
Boom: Tulane ... Went 12-0, finished No. 7
Bust: Arizona State ... Started No. 8, went 5-6

1999
Boom: Michigan State ... Went 10-2, finished No. 7
Bust: Arizona ... Started No. 4, went 6-6

2000
Boom: Oregon State ... Went 11-1, finished No. 4
Bust: Alabama ... Started No. 3, went 3-8

2001
Boom: Colorado ... Went 10-3, finished No. 9
Bust: Oregon State ... Started No. 11, went 5-6

2002
Boom: Kansas State ... Went 11-2, finished No. 7
Bust: Washington ... Started No. 9, went 7-6

2003
Boom: Iowa ... Went 10-3, finished No. 8
Bust: Virginia Tech ... Started No. 9, went 8-5

2004
Boom: Louisville ... Went 11-1, finished No. 6
Bust: West Virginia ... Started No. 10, went 8-4

MOVING UP IN 2005?

Bowling Green
QB Omar Jacobs (above) is electric and elusive, as Wisconsin will discover this weekend. Saturday is the Falcons' opportunity for early headlines.

UT-El Paso
Mike Price will ceremoniously bury the pickax in the end zone each week, and the Miners will bury everybody in Conference USA's West Division.

Notre Dame
Ty Willingham caught lightning in a bottle in his first season in South Bend. New coach Charlie Weis could do the same thing implementing NFL-style schemes.

GOING DOWN IN 2005?

No. 5 LSU
The Tigers have everything they need to win the SEC. But Les Miles has spent the last few years thinking about beating Oklahoma, not thinking about winning the national title.

No. 7 Oklahoma
Losing DE Larry Birdine, an inspirational leader, hurts the pass rush. And the secondary has question marks. RB Adrian Peterson can't do it all.

No. 10 Florida
New coach Urban Meyer has been successful everywhere he's gone (Bowling Green and Utah). An early date with Tennessee (Sept. 17) will be an early indicator.

dawizofodds said...

Showtime for Schiano

Dick Weiss
New York Daily News

Not everyone in New Jersey is a true believer anymore, but we still feel Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is a good fit for this job.

The likeable Schiano, who grew up in Wyckoff, N.J., has an NFL, Penn State and University of Miami pedigree and strong ties to the state. He has been an effective recruiter in Central and North Jersey and in Florida. But he is at a crossroads after a 4-7 season. The Scarlet Knights have won only three Big East games in the past four years, two of which came against Temple, since booted from the Big East. The other was against Syracuse in 2003.

The Knights, who open Saturday at Illinois, need to win and win now for the credibility of this embattled program and to rekindle the faith of a long-suffering fan base that has bought fewer than 15,000 season tickets.

Not to mention Schiano's job security.

No one is demanding eight victories. But, given a comfort-building, non-league schedule that includes home games against Division I-AA Villanova and Navy and a road trip to Buffalo; and a Big East that has replaced ACC refugees Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College with Cincinnati, South Florida and Louisville, it is reasonable to expect Schiano to produce a winning season, something the school has not had since 1992.

"When I took the job I had to find out whether the house had termites," Schiano said. "I knew there was something living in there."

Schiano has cleaned up the mess. "I thought going into last year, if everything went well, we had a chance to be a bowl team," he said. "Unfortunately, things didn't go well. Some of it was self-induced. We lose our leading receiver, Shawn Tucker, for the year in the first game and then don't have our leading rusher, Brian Leonard, to play against Syracuse. Little things.

"Then we had the devastating car accident near campus that cost us three of our defensive backs. And we shot ourselves in the foot the second game against New Hampshire. All those things add up.

"The next question is, 'What do I think this year?'" the coach said. "This is a bowl team."

Schiano, 39, can afford to be cautiously optimistic, based on what he saw in his best preseason camp. The Knights, with 16 starters returning, have experience. There are 17 seniors - seven of them fifth-year players.

Rutgers, which averaged 397 yards and 24.5 points, will score. The Knights have a prolific, if less than consistent, senior quarterback in Ryan Hart, who passed for 3,154 yards and should be more efficient if he adapts to new coordinator Craig Ver Steeg's West Coast offense; a future NFL fullback in Leonard, who led the Big East in all-purpose yardage; the deepest receiving corps in the league now that Tucker has rejoined wideout Tres Moses, who set school records with 81 catches and 1,054 yards, and 6-6, 255-pound All-Big East tight end Clark Harris. Sophomore kicker Jeremy Ito made 15 field goals, six longer than 40 yards.

If true freshman tailback Ray Rice from New Rochelle, a first-team All-Stater who rushed for 31 touchdowns and who originally committed to Syracuse before changing his mind when Paul Pasqualoni was fired, is as good as he was in the Governors' Bowl or preseason scrimmages, he could spike a stagnant rushing game that averaged 2.5 yards per carry.

Hart will have to cut down on the 19 interceptions that plagued him last year. And Schiano, whose leaky defense gave up 4,716 yards in 11 games, must find a way to stop the rush with a less-than-dominant line, and make sure the Knights don't get caught too often with a young, potentially vulnerable secondary.

To that end, Schiano, perhaps sensing the gravity of the situation, has made a decision to pull a Pete Carroll and will return to his roots as defensive coordinator, a role he played well when he was at the University of Miami. He has already decided to limit substitutions at linebacker, the Knights' strongest position on defense. Hopefully, his enthusiasm will rub off.

The Illini will be a good barometer for the Knights, who enter the game as 1-point favorites. Illinois has a new coach, Ron Zook, who was pushed out at Florida, and an untested junior quarterback Tom Brasic, who has thrown only one pass for a second-tier Big Ten team that finished 3-8. But the Illini have underrated talent, and Zook's no-huddle, spread offense could cause problems.

"There's no question we're light years ahead of where we were, but expectation levels rise," Schiano said. "We need to find a way to get over the hump."

dawizofodds said...

His top 25

Chuck Culpepper
Newsday

25. HERE COMES CHARLIE WEIS. Majoring in echoes, Notre Dame's new coach invited Rudy - the real Rudy - to speak to the team, whereupon Rudy said, "Never quit on yourself." It hasn't been reported whether he continued that sentence with, ". . . even when somebody in a Southern California uniform is blowing by you like you're tied to a post."

24.THE SAN DIEGO CREDIT UNION POINSETTIA BOWL. Welcome, capitalists, to the bowl list, as our new bowl gives San Diego two and brings us closer to a national football-fan daydream. Maybe one day, every bowl can occur in San Diego.

23. WYOMING! Not only did the Cowboys snare their first bowl win in 38 years, but writer Matt Hayes reported their much-liked coach, Joe Glenn, rides around in a '66 Mustang convertible living with Elvis. Not to say we need more of that in sports, but let's just say I hope they win every game from now until the end of time.

22. TEXAS AT OHIO STATE, SEPT. 10. Bravo to both for scheduling this early intersectional treat. May anyone voting the loser downward after the game be sentenced to nine hours watching video of Texas Tech's opening three games against Indiana State, Sam Houston State and Florida International.

21. THE BAWDY NEW ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE. Done with pillaging other conferences for a while, it's stocked up with 12 teams, a championship game in Jacksonville and two divisions called "Coastal" and "Atlantic." When purported representatives of higher learning can come up with nothing less dreary than "Coastal" and "Atlantic," we might worry for our nation.

20. A NEW COACH AT SYRACUSE AFTER ALL THIS TIME. Greg Robinson takes over after 14 Paul Pasqualoni years and brings experiences coaching defenses in Kansas City (Chiefs) and Austin (Longhorns). From that alone, you can already figure he ought to have skin of a crocodilian thickness.

19. INSTANT REPLAY. Following the Big Ten's lead, the major conferences will employ it in some form this year, unfortunately. It will rob citizens of this country years and decades of bristling because some doofus blew some pivotal call that became indelible on the local human brain.

18.77-for-77. As Louisville enters the Big East preparing to devour it, you might look at kicker Arthur Carmody's extra-point statistic from last year. It's not so much the 77 made - although that's great - as, well, what kind of Godzilla offense gets a kicker 77 attempts?

17. THE BEST PLAYER YOU MIGHT NOT SEE. He's DeAngelo Williams, running back, Memphis, and he might serve two purposes. He might gain 2,000 yards and he might occasionally remind everybody there's still something out there in the world called Conference USA.

16. 41/4. That's Omar Jacobs' touchdown passes-to-interceptions ratio last year in his first year as Bowling Green's quarterback. That not only means those numbers belong in the Museum of Modern Art, but that we'd be wise to watch Omar Jacobs this time around.

15. ANOTHER VICK. If Marcus Vick - brother of, yeah, that's right - thrives most of the time when Virginia Tech's great defense gets him the ball this year, Virginia Tech might just go ahead and give the Vick family a present. The university.

14. THE MOST VISIBLE SOPHOMORE. Some feel that with quarterback Jason White gone, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson might slump from his 1,843 rushing yards of 2004. It's true, it's terrible: He might get only 1,500 yards and finish, like, only third for the Heisman.

13. THE HARRIS POLL. With 114 voters including former coaches, former players, former sports information directors, former athletic directors, the new human tool to help sort out the BCS title game clearly requires that its voters live on planet earth. Which separates it from past coaches' polls.

12. SOME TEAM FROM NOWHERE. If form holds from the last three years, somebody like Auburn in 2004 will bolt from the shadows to muck up the national title picture and cause great arguments. For which there's only one apt reaction: Glory, glory hallelujah.

11. THE WORLD'S MOST APT SMIRK. With only 10 starters returning at South Carolina, with many a play figuring to come up short of brilliant standard, new coach Steve Spurrier returns from the NFL to his rightful domain and should get to utilize that smirk plenty. For which there's only one apt reaction: Glory, glory hallelujah.

10. MY WASHINGTON & JEFFERSON PRESIDENTS FROM WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA (ANNUAL SMALL-COLLEGE PICK). We have Chris Edwards throwing to Aaron Krepps again this year. So if you think we can't get past the D-III quarterfinals this time, you're talking some righteous trash.

9. IS THIS THE YEAR TEXAS FINALLY BEATS OKLAHOMA? If not, a tip. On the night of Oct. 8, tune your Internet radio to find a call-in show in Austin, Texas, for some of the best low-priced entertainment still remaining in a capitalist society.

8. URBAN LEAGUE. The nation's most scalding coach not named Pete, Urban Meyer, relocated to Florida with his singular tactics like players lifting sandbags in practice or the coach putting arch-rivals' decals on the bottoms of urinals, but it should be a seamless adjustment. Bumper stickers in SEC/NASCAR country have simulated urination on disliked decals for years.

7. SUDDENLY, THE BIG, BIG TEN. With Iowa in a Kirk Ferentz experts-say-he's-the-best-coach heyday, Ohio State both rugged and dazzling, Michigan an amusement park on offense, Minnesota running around with a Heisman-candidate running back, and Purdue trying to recover from 2004 while not playing either Ohio State or Michigan, the Big Ten looks uncommonly bumptious.

6. THE MAN WHO CAN CARRY TEXAS (AND TEXAS IS BIG). When quarterback Vince Young turned a perfectly majestic Rose Bowl with Michigan into your basic American backyard with the big kid running circles around the runts, he filled those expectant Texas Longhorns fans with hefty 2005 hope. That's a heap of prospective drama to pack into one autumn.

5. THE MOUNT RUSHMORE SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE EAST. With Spurrier, Meyer, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer and Georgia's Mark Richt, it sets the all-time single-division star-power record. For an accurate statement of regional importance, they should just etch the faces on Stone Mountain.

4. THAT MIGHTY WEST COAST FOOTBALL. With the prospective game of the year Southern California at California on Nov. 12, we might end up complaining those East Coast games air on TV so inconveniently early. By the time you get to the best stuff, you're worn out.

3. THE LEINART-BUSH AXIS. Southern California will return both the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback Matt Leinart) and the 2004 team most valuable player as voted by teammates including Leinart (all-purpose back Reggie Bush). It's almost as if Los Angeles is a really fun place to go to college.

2. 34-0-1. On Oct. 6, 2002, Pete Carroll stood 9-8 at Southern California, and everyone assumed it predictable, but across the 35 voluminous Saturdays and bowl days since then, USC has gone unbeaten in regulation time, losing only in triple overtime at California on Sept. 27, 2003. It's frightening.

1. COMPLACENCY. Many think that's the force that will stop Southern California. If so, complacency must have a tremendous defense.

dawizofodds said...

Big 12 remains bottom heavy
South's dominance not likely to diminish any time soon

Keith Whitmore
Dallas Morning News

It has been a long, strange trip getting to the Big 12's 10th football season. From the very beginning, it was awkward blending the old Big Eight and Southwest Conference schools.

And then that first championship game in St. Louis (St. Louis? Today, that sounds odd as a Big 12 championship site) turned everything upside down. Texas was supposed to get pummeled by Nebraska, but the Longhorns pulled off a daring play and won, 37-27.

That set the tone for the Big 12's future. Expect the unexpected.

When the Big 12 began, the power was in the North with Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas State. Oklahoma went 3-8 in that inaugural year of 1996.

Today, you can't find a Big 12 North team in The Associated Press Top 25. Oklahoma and Texas are the powerhouses. Nebraska is coming off a losing record.
This has been a conference with little status quo. And this season is no different.

South up; North down

The Big 12 would make a poor compass, the way its directional divisions are heading.

There are four South teams in the Top 25. The North, meanwhile, is recovering from a season in which its co-champions were 4-4 in league play.

Things were so bad, there was talk of realigning the divisions. Saying the North should be improved this season is like saying a sequel to Gigli should be better than the original.

The problem with the North last season wasn't just that the teams weren't very good, it was that they were boring. Only Kansas State ranked in the top 50 in scoring offense. No North team was in the top 50 in total offense.

That should improve in 2005. Colorado and Iowa State, the 2004 co-champs, return a lot of players. Nebraska should be better in its second year in the West Coast offense. Missouri's Brad Smith may be allowed to run free again, and Kansas State's quarterbacks should be better with age.

But don't look for dramatic improvement by any one team. Anyone who says there's a clear favorite in the North is lost without a compass.

Scheduled for departure

One thing we've learned about the Big 12 is the schedule can determine everything.

In 2000, Oklahoma won a national title in its second year under Bob Stoops. The Sooners swept through the Texas, Kansas State and Nebraska gantlet and were forged into champions.

In 2003, Kansas appeared to have arrived in its second year under Mark Mangino. The Jayhawks went to a bowl with a 6-6 record. Three wins were nonconference games against UNLV, Wyoming and Jacksonville State. One of the three Big 12 wins was against Baylor. The fallback to 4-7 last season wasn't a surprise.

Two teams in 2005 have schedules that could make the difference in their level of success.

Iowa State, one of the North favorites, doesn't play Texas or Oklahoma. That's a huge break.

Texas Tech not only has a cushy nonconference schedule, but also the Red Raiders get Texas A&M in Lubbock, where the Aggies haven't won in their last five trips. That game should have bowl and division title ramifications.

Upset specials

Last year, Baylor upended A&M to send chills through the league. As for this season, well, if you could predict upsets, then they wouldn't really be upsets, would they?

But there are signs that things may not go as the majority of experts have forecast.

For one thing, it could be Reggie McNeal, not Vince Young, who emerges as the Heisman favorite from the Big 12. Young deserves all the attention he's gotten, but never underestimate McNeal.

The dark horse in the South is Texas Tech. The schedule sets up for a 9-2 finish or better. If the Red Raiders had a returning starter at quarterback, they would be getting more interest.

No one is picking Kansas to win much this year, but the Jayhawks have a solid defense and lost a lot of close games last season. The Jayhawks are due for good luck. Of course, if they don't get any more offense, it won't matter.

The same goes for Missouri, which also had a season's worth of bad breaks.

September storms

Despite placing four teams in BCS title games over the years, the Big 12 gets criticized for its soft scheduling, and deservedly so. But most of the league's best programs aren't afraid to play at least one good opponent. How about these road risks:

Sept. 3: Texas A&M at Clemson
Sept. 10: Texas at Ohio State
Sept. 17: Oklahoma at UCLA
Sept. 24: Colorado at Miami

And then there's Texas Tech, a preseason Top 25 team that plays Florida International, Sam Houston State and Indiana State, all at home. That's two I-AA opponents and one team, FIU, playing its first season in I-A.

Last year the Red Raiders scored 70 points twice. This year they could hit 100 by October.

FORECAST

South
1. Texas: With 16 starters back, UT should end OU's reign
2. Oklahoma: Many big names to replace, much young talent
3. Texas Tech: On a Holiday Bowl roll; schedule is favorable
4. Texas A&M: May be better than Tech, but it travels to Lubbock
5. Oklahoma State: Could be a rough transitional year
6. Baylor: Bears are better, but it's still a long climb

North
1. Colorado: 16 starters back along with veteran QB Joel Klatt
2. Iowa State: Exciting QB Bret Meyer and a favorable schedule
3. Nebraska: If new QB comes through, could improve rapidly
4. Missouri: If Brad Smith returns to form, the Tigers could contend
5. Kansas State: Talent pool isn't what it once was
6. Kansas: Needs oomph in offense to go with good defense