Monday, August 11

Preseason Top 25, by Chris and James

Taking advantage of one of those rare opportunities to sit down and talk with a co-blogger on the other side of the country, we came up with a joint ranking for the NCAA preseason top 25.

First off – screw you, Alabama. Screw you, Notre Dame. We’re not buying that shit, not yet. Go actually win something, and beating UL-Monroe doesn’t count. Neither does Duke.

1. Ohio State

God, how this selection pains us. It’s not like we actually like Ohio State or even want them to win anything, but they do return pretty much everyone from last year’s second-best team on both sides of the ball. Basically, we both were hoping the other person had some conclusive reason not to place (t)OSU first. When that didn’t happen, we were pretty much shit out of luck. What separates Ohio State from Georgia is simple: the Buckeyes have proven wide receivers and a little more experience on the line. This means there’s yet another thing Mohammed Massaquoi has dropped. What separates Ohio State from USC is the returning starter count.

2. Georgia

While Georgia came on like a freight train at the end of last year (culminating in a not-that-surprising beatdown of Hawaii), they do have a couple of minor holes. On the plus side, the defense returns nine starters and should continue to wreck everybody, and those three freshmen who started on last season’s offensive line now have a year’s experience together. Their passing game is suspect as far as results go – Massaquoi and Stafford are plenty talented, but for some reason the results just haven’t been there yet. We suspect it’s because of the giant holes in Massaquoi’s hands; he is the football Jesus, after all.

(Any doubt you had that we weren’t going to hell just ended right there.)

3. USC

Rey Maualuga and the six other returning defensive starters should keep just about any opposing offense in check, if not running away screaming in terror. It doesn't hurt that the Trojans have 12 seniors in the defensive two-deep, either. By the numbers, USC returns just four offensive starters. Factoring in Sanchez’s reasonable amount of experience and USC’s RB-by-committee approach last season, and it’s effectively six. Here’s a number that doesn’t lie, though: four new starters on the offensive line. If the line develops, the Trojans could end up winning the title, but if not, we can look at Arizona State '07 for a good model. Also, as of now Sanchez is out with a busted kneecap, and he could be out for "up to eight weeks" - or as we like to term it at LFB, "out for three weeks, then miraculously recovers before the Ohio State game".

4. Florida

The second tier starts with the Gators. They have Superman, Prince Percy, and eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, but there is plenty of reason to have doubts about this defense given their results last season. It’s unrealistic to expect Tebow to have an even better year than the one he just did, so stepping up to that elite group will require more any contribution from the running backs and more consistent, higher quality defensive play. I don't think anyone would argue the Gators' D last year wasn't consistent; it just wasn't consistently good.

5. Missouri

Missouri’s 2007 offense basically returns intact – Alexander and Coffman have plenty of game time, not to mention outstanding skill at their positions. Replacing Tony Temple will be tough, but the backups are capable. Defensively, essentially everybody is back except Pig Brown and Lorenzo Williams. That’s no small loss, but again the talent is there. Bonus for having one of the best kickers in the country, Jeff Wolfert, who hasn’t missed a FG or PAT in conference play in two seasons.

For the Tigers, it’s going to come down to mental toughness and maintaining aggressiveness. Can they overcome last season’s dominance by Oklahoma should the teams meet in the conference championship?

Missouri ending Oklahoma’s run of Big 12 championships (and Fiesta Bowl losses) would be James’ AND IT HAPPENED call of 2008.

6. Oklahoma

Over the last five seasons, the Sooners have been one of the best programs in the NCAA from September through December. Apparently the egg nog is spiked with everclear, though - and they drink it on New Years' and Christmas to boot. That doesn't work, y'all. Of almost equal concern, half the defense graduated and that includes the four leading tacklers. Bradford & co should rock everybody on offense, but the Big 12 is full of teams who can play the high-scoring game.

7. Auburn

Auburn is a semi-sleeper pick to contend for the title in 2008. They have all the pieces – sixteen returning starters, a defense that should once again terrorize the opposition, and just what we love to hear: last season’s completely inept senior quarterback graduated. Nine offensive starters return, Brad Lester is recovered from injury, and Kodi Burns plus the implementation of the spread offense might finally allow the Tigers to win games to win games where the defense gives up all of 19 points against Mississippi State. Of course, that doesn't even count leading rusher Ben Tate, who could give the Tigers a mini-Cadillac and Brown attack (with Burns playing the role of Campbell). Does it smell like 2004 to anyone else in here, or is it just me?

Auburn finishing seventh or higher would be Chris’ AND IT HAPPENED call of 2008.

8. Clemson

Clemson has the talent to compete with anyone outside the top three, is an extremely experienced team (count em – nine starters on each side of the ball are juniors or seniors), and plays in an utter joke of a conference (we’re completely at loss for why the ACC doesn’t take at least as much flak as the Big East for being soft, particularly when considering their 1-9 BCS record versus the Big East’s 6-4). What needs to happen is that Spiller or Davis need to be involved in 65-75% of the plays. That may sound excessive, but three of their four lowest rushing attempts games were losses.

If you're looking for weaknesses, their offensive line is very inexperienced (one returning starter!) and the Tiger playcalling has a bizarre fascination with trying to see if they can win games *without* Spiller and Davis. Here at LFB, we appreciate degree of difficulty as much as anyone, but that's just retarded.

9. West Virginia

Make no mistake about it, the offense is going to miss Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, and Darius Reynaud. Those players had too much talent to simply say “Noel Devine!” and pretend nothing has changed. However, Devine is arguably better than Slaton, the offensive line returns all five starters, and Pat White should be better than ever. That’s good, because Bill Stewart wants him throwing the ball a little more often. That's always a smart move when you've averaged over 6 yards a rush for the last two years. Also of concern: four returning defensive starters, including none in the back four.

Ultimately, there's no reason WVU shouldn't end the season at 11-1, but that's assuming they split between Auburn and USF. They should have a handy temperature advantage against USF, but that Auburn game will be critical. If they win that, we can start talking about WVU in the BCS, but otherwise, they'll have their work cut out for them. That being said, kudos to the Big East for putting what's likely their de facto championship game as the last game of the season - well done, guys.

10. Texas Tech

As Texas Tech has shown in their last two bowl victories, they are never out of any game. In the crazy world of college football, that’s a great ability to have. Having the nation’s best QB, best WR, and one of the best offensive lines doesn’t hurt either. Know what else is great? The ability to stop anybody with a pulse. That’s why the Red Raiders are outside the top 5.

Early rumors are that the Red Raiders actually have a D this year; we'll believe it when we see it. Although Mike Leach and his fascination for pirates might've been the second-best storyline to come from this summer. (The best, of course, is the Iowa recruit who led police on a 20-minute foot chase while half-naked ... and then refused a Breathalyzer.)

11. LSU

The statistic of losing ten starters may exaggerate the truth – the Williams/Scott/Holliday trio should do fine at RB and Ricky Jean-Francois was suspended for most of last season. However the Tigers lost their two top QBs (way to go, Perriloux!) and three starting members of their fearsome secondary, which throws them out of any preseason top ten discussions. LSU was unfortunate to draw Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina as their East opponents, but on the other hand their nonconference schedule is a complete joke.

12. Wisconsin

The Badgers are very experienced on the O-line, on defense in general, and they have PJ Hill and Travis Beckum. That’s really all you need to beat everyone in the Big Ten except Ohio State, right? Bonus for drawing Ohio State, Penn State, and Illinois as home games.

Wisconsin is pretty clearly the second-best team in the Big 10, but we don't know if that means anything or if that's damning with faint praise. For now, we assume the latter - you're awesome, Jim Delaney!

13. Kansas

We suspect that Kansas will drop faster than an impressionable follow’s pants at Friday Night Blues. (And yes, we know that only three other people will get that. We don’t care.) Nonetheless, Todd Reesing is a legitimately good college QB, the offensive line has four seniors, and the defense returns all but two starters. Okay, so those may have been their two best defensive players (the “may have” refers to McClinton’s standing as a DT; Talib was unquestionably the best player on this entire team)… hwhatever.

If there would be a way for 2007 Kansas to play 2008 Kansas, that'd be the best gauge of how good this team is; we likely won't be able to look at their records for an indication, as this year's schedule is much harder than last year's. Last year's 12-1 could easily be this year's 9-4.

14. USF

Losing Mike Jenkins and Ben Moffit will have an impact on this defense. The offense, however, will be one of the most experienced in the nation as ten starters return – the lone newbie being a senior at right tackle. Rush defense was a major issue in their four losses last season, and something must be fixed there as Pittsburgh’s offense should be markedly improved and West Virginia is of course West Virginia.

The thing to watch with the Bulls this year is how the rush offense evolves. Mike Ford has been touted as one of the best RBs this program has seen, and if he can develop into a capable secondary threat to Grothe in the backfield that'll provide worlds of help for USF. Obviously, we'd love it if Ben Williams and/or Jamar Taylor emerged as a secondary threat, but for now we're content with one solid back. 4.3 ypc won't get it done at the level USF wants to achieve.

15. Texas

The Horns are a team that could go either way, and what that most likely means is that as Colt McCoy goes, so Texas will go. The Longhorns do have one of the more difficult four game sets in the country (OU, Mizzou, Tech, Kansas) but everything else is winnable just by playing well. Of course, the odds of ol' Mack going 1-3 in that stretch is probably 65%.

Things to watch for here: who emerges in the running game. Vondrell McGee is the leading returning RB with just under 300 yards. Early indications are that Texas should have a few talented running backs, and with new RB coach Major Appelwhite in tow, LFB is confident all of them will rush for 1,000 yards at least. We worship the Appelwhite ground over here.

Tune in later when we discuss how Mack Brown can screw up every single game this season with bad coaching moves.

16. BYU

Max Hall is back and practically his entire offense returns with him. Okay, so the Cougars also lost eight defensive starters. For a top ten team that’s a huge deal… realistically, BYU is going to get into a lot of shootouts where they have the better offense, and they weren’t relying on suffocating defense to win games anyway. Of course, they don't return anyone on said un-suffocating defense, so maybe that's a good thing.

17. Arizona State

If the Sun Devils are best-equipped to challenge the Trojans for the Pac-10 crown, then USC’s streak of BCS appearances is pretty safe. We like what Dennis Erickson did here last season, but remember that they got wrecked by Oregon, USC, and Texas – ie, the three best teams they faced. We don’t see this year’s squad as significantly better or worse.

The Sept. 20th game against Georgia should be fun, but the biggest problem that the Sun Devils had last year was between the tackles in a very literal sense - their offensive line was shit. Early returns indicate much the same this year, but here's hoping the Sun Devils at least make the 'Dogs blitz to reach the QB. We're not too confident of that, though.

18. Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech is one of those teams who can lose seven defensive starters and still be expected to field a top 20 (if not top 10) defensive unit. They’re also one of those teams whose offense can get outscored by the opposing defense on any given Saturday. Sean Glennon is horrible and they lost Brandon Ore, ie the only player worth a damn on this offense. Of course, since they avoid Clemson until (likely) the ACC Championship game, there's a good chance they could roll in there at 10-2 or 11-1.

For Chris, the most intriguing game on VT's schedule is at Nebraska in late September. It's a semi-bizarre matchup between a couple of teams who are in much the same boat. The game quality probably won't be spectacular, but kudos for keeping it interesting.

19. Penn State

Penn State is another team who returns a ton of starters (18) and benefits from the graduation of an inept starting QB – byebye, Morelli! Unfortunately, we don’t have the same faith in Daryl Clark as we do in Kodi Burns and there’s little reason at this point to buy into the Nittany Lions’ hype. Losing their two best defenders (Dan Connor, Sean Lee - torn ACL, medical redshirt) doesn't make matters any easier. Fortunately, Oregon State is their toughest game in the first four weeks of the season, and that's a home game.

20. Utah

Utah is a reasonably experienced team with two very strong players – Brian Johnson and Darrell Mack. Unfortunately, Johnson’s ratio last season was just 11-10 and the Utes are losing two of their top three receiving targets. His improvement (or lack thereof) could catapult the Utes to a perfect season or leave them unranked with four losses once again. One thing’s for sure, we’ll be rooting for them in their opener at Michigan.

If Utah is able to sustain their success, we'll likely hear about them in their first game of the season (against Michigan), then against Oregon State in early October, then against BYU to close out the season. They don't play any other huge games, so 9-3 should be the worst they'll do in the regular season.

21. Wake Forest

What happens when your offense sucks to begin with, and then you lose six starters on that side of the ball? The answer is that you’re a conference title contender – if you play in the ACC. Bonus that Wake has a great opportunity to increase the ACC’s (retarded) Colley Ranking by facing Baylor, Mississippi, and Vanderbilt.

Really, Wake is the best of the "modern-traditional" ACC teams; passable to good defense, complete fucking lack of offensive talent. But they play in a glorified high school stadium, so bully for them.

22. Tennessee

When the only Tennessee fan on this blog says he isn’t buying it, we’re not buying it. But as was the case with Tennessee last season, we’ll know more after they travel to the state of California for their opener and then face the Florida Gators a few weeks later. (wow: 3-3 would be a decent start once again… talk about front-loading.) For the Vols, success will largely be dictated by the Clawfense; we're hoping that happens, since it'll let us stick Claw in front of freaking everything. Good times.

That being said, Eric Berry will haunt your dreams. And your children's dreams.

23. Illinois

The Zooker is getting a ton of recruiting talent coming into Urbana-Champaign, and Juice Williams showed remarkable improvement from his freshman season to his sophomore, leading us to an expectation of even more improvement as a junior. J Leman is going to be tough to replace and defense will be a concern for the Illini, although Martez Wilson will at least up the Illini in the coveted "highest average letters in name per LB" category.

This could be a pretty rough season for the Illini, as they miss Michigan State and Northwestern. In other words, they get OSU, PSU, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa. Yikes.

24. Fresno State

There’s a fair amount of hype surrounding the Fresno State Bulldogs, and a fair amount of reason to buy into it. Ten offensive starters return, the lone replacement being a senior at center. Though leading tackler (by 51!) Marcus Riley is gone, the defense does return seven and there’s a fair amount of experience here. Pat Hill doesn’t do his team any favors by scheduling Rutgers, Wisconsin, and UCLA – but this is why we’ve come to love the Bulldogs in an era where many top programs fill their nonconference slots with creampuffs.

Bonus points: KR AJ Jefferson returned two kickoffs for TDs last year and had the #1 return average on kickoffs in the NCAA. Good job.

25. Oregon

Oh man… ohhh man. The piss yellow and random spikes are back. Oregon loses a ton of talent – Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart among others – but the heart of the defense returns. Backup QB Justin Roper proved himself in the surprising Sun Bowl massacre of USF, and Jeremiah Johnson eases any worries about the RB position. Nathan Costa was injured last season and could also be a capable starter at QB. One thing’s for certain – Brady Leaf graduated, so Ducks fans have one less thing to worry about.

On defense, the Ducks lose FS Matt Harper, but all the other losses are largely minimal, and ROV Patrick Chung returns. CB Walter Thurmond III (...really) is a beast, giving Oregon one of the best secondaries in the Pac-10. Not bad if you can get it.

National Title Hopefuls:
Ranking their odds of making it to the big game, in order:

1. USC.
USC went out and scheduled a tough nonconference slate - facing Virginia, Ohio State... and yes, the annual rivalry matchup with Notre Dame. (mildly tougher than the Citadel) However, unlike what we saw last season, the Pac 10 is not providing a strong #2 this season. There's a ton of mid-level teams, but nobody who can knock off the Trojans unless USC totally drops the ball. (or has 57 injuries - hello, 2007 Stanford)

2. Ohio State.
Like USC, Ohio State's schedule really comes down to just one game. We rank Ohio State's odds as a little lower given that a) the USC game is played in LA and b) playing Wisconsin in Madison at this point looks tougher than anything on the rest of USC's tab.

3. Georgia.
We think there's no way Georgia runs their schedule unbeaten. However, like 2006 Florida, if a bunch of teams end up with the same number of losses, Georgia will probably get the nod as long as they win the SEC championship.

4. Missouri.
No offense to Illinois, Kansas, or Texas... but Missouri should - should - stroll into the Big 12 Championship unbeaten. Bonus that the BCS powers that be may be feeling slightly retarded after passing up the Tigers last season only to watch them annihilate Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. (like 03 -> 04 USC? Not quite, but a similar effect) If they are matched up with Oklahoma, though, that is a nightmare matchup for the Tigers. So we'll see.

5. West Virginia.
They'll be penailzed heavily, perhaps a little unfairly, for playing in the Big East. The matchup with Auburn may be tougher than we originally gave it credit for.

6. Oklahoma.

They face Texas Tech, Texas, Kansas, and then probably Missouri in the conference championship should the Sooners win the South. And at this point, is anyone willing to give the Sooners the benefit of the doubt if multiple teams share the same record? We're not.

Sounds like USC vs Georgia is the most likely matchup. That would be pretty awesome.

Beyond these top six it's not worth getting into at this point. Auburn, Florida, and Clemson (if they get their shit together) would all be entertaining title game contenders, and we're not going to preclude BYU or Utah sneaking in either. Suffice it to say, based on 2004 Auburn, the preseason top 15 is probably a hard cutoff unless shit hits the fan once again. And that's a damn shame.

Preseason Conference Rankings

1. SEC - It's tradition to rank the SEC #1, isn't it? The southland has four teams in our top eleven though, including two in the top four. Scary.

2. Big 12 - They have two top six teams and three more in the top 15. Granted, the dropoff after Texas is like a rock. But even half of the crappy teams play offense and have solid QBs - the Big 12 is the top conference for quarterbacks - making upsets a possibility.

3/4. Big 10 - They're supposed to be better than in 2007. Like that's a tough act to follow.

3/4. Pac-10 - It's basically the 2007 Pac 10 minus Dennis Dixon -- that the loss of one player would drop them from a 1/2 to a 3/4 says something about how close the top conferences are in strength.

5. Big East - Louisville fell off a cliff, Cincinnati fizzled, and South Florida was embarassed, but West Virginia continues to carry the conference on its shoulders. Pitt could be better with Bill Stull recovered from 2007's week 1 season-ending injury. There's a large gap between them and the Big 10 / Pac-10, though.

6. ACC - When your conference favorite goes through random games where they intentionally keep the ball out of their best two players' hands, that's a really bad sign. So is having Duke. And if you've watched the ACC mid-level teams play each other, you'll understand why we want to rank these guys lower than 6. Special Olympics doesn't even begin to describe it.