August 06, 2005

Challengers to the throne

Everyone in their right mind expects the USC Trojans to win the national title. How can you debate against it? They return Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Matt Leinart. They also still have Reggie Bush, their do-everything tailback/returner/slot receiver. Wide receivers were young last year, but the Trojans managed and with Leinart throwing the ball to you, you can become a star in Pete Carroll's system.

The change for the Trojans is the loss of offensive coordinator, Norm Chow to the Tennessee Titans. The debate is how big of a loss is Chow. Look, Leinart isn't suddenly going to forget how to throw a football. Bush's speed will still be in the 4.3-4.4 range (for a 40-yard dash). Also, depending upon who you believe, Pete Carroll was calling the plays anyway. I think Chow's departure will show up next year, when Leinart graduates and a new quarterback takes the reins.

So let's talk some other teams, capable of ascending to the throne of college football:

The Longhorns return Vince Young, fresh from shredding the Michigan Wolverine defense in the Rose Bowl with his legs for 192 yards and four touchdowns. For good measure, Young added 180 yards passing and one touchdown through the air.

What the Longhorns lose is Cedric Benson. Tailbacks Selvin Young and Ramonce Taylor will get the first shot of replacing Benson. Good luck. Benson took a lot of heat off Young, the QB.

The Skinny:
The main belief in Texas stems from the Rose Bowl appearance. This is still a program that can't beat Oklahoma (ala Tennessee and Florida in the mid-90's). Also added to the schedule is a September 10 date at Ohio State. The much improved Buckeyes will provide an early glance of Vince Young without Cedric Benson. Win that and the OU hurdle still exists. Lose, and your hopes are gone on September 11th.

The LSU Tigers return everyone on offense and seven starters on defense. JaMarcus Russell has the quarterback position for now, unless Ryan Perilloux, a brash recruit who audibled to LSU late from Texas, comes to Baton Rouge and turns the place upside down.

The backfield depth and talent is the best in the nation with Justin Vincent, Joseph Addai, Alley Broussard, and Shyrone Carey. WR is set with Skyler Green being the leader and Early Doucet the most explosive element as a sophomore.

What the Tigers lose is the swagger remaining from their championship season, and their fiery leader, Nick Saban. Les Miles comes in from Oklahoma State and he is a perfect successor to Saban's boot camp.

The Skinny:
Watching LSU's offense last year was a bit like the bear not knowing how to kill the bunny. With all the claws and fangs, LSU didnt know how to kill the bunny. The defense was a brute minus lapses, most notably against Georgia and the last play of the Iowa game. The schedule is a coaches dream. Tennessee, Florida, and Auburn all come to visit with Alabama being the toughest road game. The problem is that Tiger Stadium is electric at night and so-so during the day. All of those home games might be on CBS in the afternoon. The schedule will get LSU to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, giving them a shot at Pasadena.

Miami returns all 11 defensive starters. In heyday years, that would get them the #1 ranking right there. However, its the skill positions on offense that are developing and will need that defense to carry them. Devin Hester's legs will provide the speed on defense, receiving, and special teams where he made an impact.

What Miami hasn't had is a playmaker since Ken Dorsey. Brock Berlin could make the fabulous comeback, only after he put the Canes in the hole to begin with. Without Dorsey, the Canes have been 20-5 the past two years. Anywhere but the "U" and this would be a banner two-year record. The five losses have featured non-existent scoring and even a loss to lowly North Carolina. Miami isn't even the same team that took the field against Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. The swagger was shattered that night and the Canes are still searching for it.

The Skinny:
The schedule opens up brutally with Florida State and Clemson on the road and then Colorado comes to town. Take a closer look however, and you see the FSU will struggle in finding a QB to replace Wyatt Sexton. Clemson is coming off a bad year for Charlie Whitehurst after NFL scouts were warming to his game, and Colorado did win the Big 12 North last year, but with 4 conference losses.

In other words, the first three teams are solid, but not what they once were. The showdown comes November 5th at Virginia Tech. The Hokies went into Miami last year with the ACC title on the line and came away with the 16-10 win. That was the surest sign that the swagger isn't there as the Canes slept walked through a crucial game.

Miami still will have talent, they still will have playmakers, but if Kyle Wright can make the offense run smooth and the players get back the hunger, the U could easily be in Pasadena.

Michigan has Chad Henne and Mike Hart returning as QB/RB. Both are sophomores and both came on late, pacing Michigan to a Rose Bowl appearance and Big Ten title. However, the taste remaining in the mouth of Wolverine fans is one of a defense that melted down against Ohio State and Texas allowing both of their mobile quarterbacks to post huge rushing numbers.

Michigan's strength will be their offensive line and really, everything on that side of the ball is ready to go today. Steve Breaston and Jason Avant are the WR duo to replace Braylon Edwards. They will do just fine.

What Michigan loses is Edwards, a playmaker who took over games. The question will be for Breaston to step up and be #1. If he makes the transition, then forget you ever read this entry. However, it goes without saying that Breaston did see a lot of single coverage thanks to Edwards.

The big problem is the secondary. Corners Marlin Jackson and Markus Curry are gone along with safety Ernest Shazor. Shazor being the guy winning the Purdue game with the punishing hit to cause the fumble by Purdue's Dorien Bryant.

The Skinny:
Michigan's front seven on defense will be the key to the season to get pressure on the quarterback to protect the green secondary. The good thing is that outside of Notre Dame, the Wolverines will not play a lot of passing offenses in the first month. Tricky games exist at Michigan State (a 42-37 loss to UM in the Big House last year) and at Iowa.

The other problem is Lloyd Carr. This year's Michigan team will need to gamble a bit with their playcalling, but don't expect that from Carr. The good part is that the offense could win some shoot-outs and the schedule is nicely spaced to provide rest between showdowns.

Michigan does get Notre Dame and Ohio State at home. They dont play pass-happy Purdue, and they can win a shootout at Iowa. They could make the Rose Bowl, yes, but it would take a morphing of Lloyd Carr into a gambler to win that one.

Oklahoma Sooners
What? Oklahoma? Come on, man, USC is still scoring on them! True, Oklahoma did get blasted by USC in the Orange Bowl, but the Sooners going back to the Rose Bowl is not far fetched. Besides, this whole "getting blown out last year, but come back to win the title over said team next year" angle has been done. See the 1991 Duke Blue Devils beating UNLV after losing 103-73 in the previous' years title game.

Adrian Peterson makes the whole thing possible for OU. Peterson was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, posting 1,928 yards rushing. He could have gotten more yards, but was held out in some blowout games. Without Jason White at quarterback, Peterson will be more of the focus of the offense as well as the opposing defenses.

The Sooners must decide between junior Paul Thompson and redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar at quarterback. They also have questions at receiver after losing four seniors and the secondary will be weakened. There are no Roy Williamses on this defense.

The Skinny:
Making Texas a favorite over Oklahoma is foolhardy in my opinion as the Sooners completely own the Longhorns. An early game at UCLA will test the chosen quarterback along with a later game at Nebraska. Texas A&M and a game in Lubbock against Texas Tech round out the schedule.

Oklahoma can use last year as motivation. They can use being an underdog against Texas as fuel for the fire. They can slide under the radar this year all the way to Pasadena.

Photos courtesy:
Leinart/Bush - AP
Vince Young - AP
Justin Vincent - Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Devin Hester - AP
Henne/Hart - AP
Adrian Peterson - The Oklahoman

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Heavenly time period: College football season until the championship game of March Madness.