We've never taken this long to put together a top 25. But frankly, we've never had this much data. Watch as we take information well past the point of diminishing returns and put together rankings that, in all likelihood, are just as accurate as the one put together by a chicken peckiing at random bits of corn on the ground.
13. Nebraska. The Big 12 North--also known as the lucky winner of one massive ass-whipping from either Texas or Oklahoma, redeemable at the Big 12 Championship game--will likely be won by the wonderfully balanced team from Nebraska. Bill Callahan's mystical offense is sometimes talked about in hushed tones and only presented with the help of a smoke machine, diffused lasers, and the opening keyboard riff from the Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius." In reality, most of the time the 'Huskers shift three times, put a man in motion, and then run right up the middle or throw a five yard hitch. To the disappointment of offensive extremists on both sides, they run just as much as they pass. It's the Fluffernutter offense: a white bread sandwich with some exotic filling.
Yet that and a competent defense will get one far in the Big 12 North.
Sam Keller's the most experienced first year starter at any school, which is a bit of a cheat because he's a transfer from Arizona State and has been keeping his arm warm by throwing cups at bystanders who dare to take his parking spots. A solid wall of Nebraska beef blocks out for Keller and halfback JB Phillips--300 pounds plus across the line, and capable of pushing around defenses. (As SMQ cannily notes below, we misread the depth chart here--Marion Lucky is the I-Back here, a 762 yard rusher last season and a likely 1000 yard rusher. We blame society for the error, and Nebraska's pesky habit of still using the term "I-back.") Your name to remember to sound knowledgeable without learning the whole depth chart on defense is Bo Ruud, 1st team Big 12 strongsider and awesome name bound for wrestling glory. (Though for bonus points, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is an AP student's specialty. A sure 5 for someone who drops this one in conversation.)
And like any pro-style coach, they'll drop two or three games based on the sort of things that seem to happen to pro-style coaching: playing it too close to the vest, as in last year's Baffler Meal of a gameplan against USC, or getting blitzed by a cutthroat team determined to burn out the scoreboard lights and being unable to keep up, which happened last year against Oklahoma State. And there's the Doormat slot in the Big 12 Championship game, of course.
But for the moment, an air of competence surrounds Bill Callahan. Typing that just bent our irony meter seventy degrees in the wrong direction, but irony be damned. He's done a fine job remolding a seemingly unchangeable program in a positive fashion.
14. Ohio State. Look, ma, no offense! Along with Frank Beamer, Jim Tressel ranks as the coach with the least actual need for a functional method of scoring points to win football games. Just take their schedule, get a fresh Sharpie, and pencil in 17-10 for every score. On three or four of them, flip the numbers for an OSU loss; on the rest, put OSU in the winning slot.
There's much to crow about defensively. When not paralyzed with a brainless gameplan (see: National Title game) the Ohio State defense features the jacked-to-bejeezus Vernon Gholston at end, Andy James "Brent Musburger craves my musk" Laurainitis at linebacker, and Malcolm Jenkins at cornerback. They'll be asked to do the lion's share here, as the defensive line is down a bit in the experience department. Otherwise, they're a fine 11 man squad to put in the trenches for what will surely be some ugly Big Ten wars of attrition. 12.8 points a game last year seems possible again, though not likely given the offense won't be kicking in as much possession time. (The defense could miss Troy Smith as much as the offense. And no, we're talking about OSU's defense, though Florida will miss him in their own way, too. Especially Derrick Harvey.)
Offensively, there's running. And more running. And whoa, golly, we'll bet on some wacky qb draws, too, as the offense should be Krenzel-tastic without a clear-cut starter under center. The fine Chris Wells is the opposite of fun for defenses at running back, while the receiving corps loses Ginn and Gonzalez with little other than what we'll call the "short threats" of Robiskie and Raymond Small.
ARE YOU READY FOR SOME OF THE HARDEST PUNTING YOU'LL EVER SEE? It's Tresselball time, babeee.
15. Oregon. Your Pac-10 runner-up to USC this year. Muscular defense and the Pac-10 don't really appear in the mental thesaurus very often outside of USC's arcane collection of blitz packages, but Oregon's defense bursts with some burly talent, including your obligatory vowel-heavy Pacific islander of great size, tackle David Faaeteete. They're clean and green through the rest of the defense, too, with good experience at all positions and few losses overall. Strong safety Kwame Agyeman runs a 4.33, putting a lot of a into the "f=ma" equation from the force-heavy safety spot.
The offense is learning a new tango with OC Chip Kelly, a wunderkind at New Hampshire who'll have some adjusting to do at the D-1 level, for sure. Yet the basic offensive blocks are there and more than just sound, especially Jonathan Stewart at running back. And he'll carry a good bit of the load, as qb Dennis Dixon is busy playing baseball this summer, albeit sleepily, and won't possibly have the whole playbook digested in time for camp.
They remain the most complete team in the Pac-10 outside of USC, a clarifier that almost seems unnecessary at this point given Trojan dominance in-conference in the Carroll era.
16. Penn State. The twin saviors of the Penn State football program over the past three years have been cagey codger Galen Hall and DC Tom Bradley, whose reworking of Penn State's moribund schemes have been the spark for Joe Paterno's fifth (sixth? seventh?) golden era as a head coach/zombie. (Paterno's the Yeats of coaching. We think this is the "rag and bone shop of the heart" period in the parallel. This aside brought to you by the English Majors Society of America: Bringing you your lunch and walking your dog proudly for two hundred years.)
Defensively, there's no letup, with your "Linebacker Announcers Will Introduce As The Entire Defense" metonymy victim as Dan Connor, ace LB and prank call enthusiast. We can only hope he screams "Prince Albert in a CAAAAAN!!!" after making a nasty hit.
The issue as always for Penn State will be points, or a deficiency thereof. Anthony Morelli looked greatly improved once the offensive playbook lost a few pages last year, and will rely on a run game to back him up and clear some green space for him to boom play-action bombs to Derrick Williams, whose tantalizing 4.2 speed hasn't found a proper release point in the Nittany Lion offense. Is the running back over 200 pounds? Of course he is: Austin Scott, a senior with 220 or so to bludgeon other teams with along with the 8 returning starters on offense.
To complete the Yeats comparison:
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
That could be the exact sight many teams coming to Penn State this year see before losing. And given Joe Pa's age, it's entirely possible Yeats wrote The Second Coming about Penn State football.
17. Florida State. A neighbor in the geriatric section, and one in the process of getting a brain transplant. Jimbo Fisher, Rick Trickett, and Chesty Amato all flocked to Tallahassee in the offseason, a drastic procedure provoked by a merely mediocre 7-6 record and a paltry 26 points a game or so for three seasons straight.
We'd love to put them higher for the sake of watching the pain and agony as the fall, but our last scads of integrity prevent us from doing this for personal reasons. The defense has changed nothing and needs to change nothing: eight returning starters, Boston, Fluellen, Rolle...your standard collection of fleet bastards looking to hit at the fleshy or concussable parts of a quarterback or running back.
The reclamation project is and will continue to be the offense, which contrary to popular opinion will not start by scoring fifty a game just yet. The quarterback quandary alone is an eighth-level conundrum, with both qbs being pick-prone and unexposed to anything resembling a proper college offense. They'll be running the hell out of the ball as a result, a change in philosophy that will take a while to sink in, though Rick Trickett's spent the better part of the offseason whittling fat off the o-line in order to make them a more nimble unit.
The primary beneficiary of all this retooling should be 6-6 wideout Greg Carr. Jimbo Fisher's fond of monstrous, physical wideouts (Dwayne Bowe, Michael Clayton at LSU) and Carr is youuuuuuuuge and set to pull defensive misery out of the sky one ball at a time. This year's the warmup, as there's some reshuffling and proofing to do on the offense. But they should be in peak form for the UF/FSU game in November, something we're oh-so-thrilled about.
18. Oklahoma State. If we're going to bump South Carolina up to six, then we've got to put the Cowboys at 18 if only to keep ourselves awake and laughing. We'll address the greatest concern first: the defense. And for that...we have no answer. Fairy dust. Pure raw supposition. Wishing to make it so. All three are more substantial than anything concrete we can mention in defense of the group, though they have trended downward to allowing 25ish points a game in 2006 and return seven starters this year.
Holding serve may be the best they can do, and that's enough with the offense they return, so good they already have a lame, St. Louis Rams-ish nickname like "The Greatest Show on Turf" or something like that. We offer instead the name "The Inside Trout Option," named after former Bama DC's assessment of their best offensive play in last year's 34-31 Independence Bowl win for the Cowboys:
The Cowboys are an offensive team, and a daunting one, running a spread attack mixed with option elements, screens, and qb Bobby Reid running the whole thing like a madman. They average 200 on the ground and 200 in the air, and look every bit like the offense Urban Meyer desperately craves but hasn't been able to run for two years at Florida. And they're trending up and under the radar, with a no-name coach in Mike Gundy who took them from 4-7 to 7-6 last year. They're not winning the Big 12--we're not that mad, you know. But they're bringing torches and kerosene to the party, and we'll take that all day as a viewer, especially with Dontrell Savage blowing up linebackers on the inside and Adarius Bowman becoming damn near unmanageable on the outside at receiver.
19. Wake Forest. Why the hell not? Ignore the brand name--this is a product with returning starters, a solid warranty plan now that they're not winning games with their third stringers, and quirky schemes tailored perfectly for a school perpetually set a notch or two below their competition in terms of talent.
Riley Skinner is the second best returning qb in the ACC next to BC's Matt Ryan, and unlike Ryan he's not switching offenses this year. The defense loses some people, including Joe Abbate at linebacker, but consider this pick less an endorsement of Wake and more an indictment against the ACC, a conference whose reshuffling has weakened Miami and Florida State, turned Wake Forest into a conference competitor, and made the Big East into a viable BCS conference. Tell us anyone predicted that when the BE lost VT and Miami to the ACC, and we will mail you the word "bullshit" written in beautiful calligraphy on an autographed picture of ACC commissioner John Swofford.
20. Tennessee. Again, once you get down here you start suffering from picks that are less endorsements rather than hedges based on past dominance. Tennessee's got all of the signs of a program in decline from excellence to lowly goodness. Their offensive coordinator is a retread whose latest project, the occasionally brilliant and occasionally maddening Eric Ainge, may very well force him to plunge headfirst from the box. They average an unmuscular 100ish yards on the ground per game, they nearly lost to Air Force last year, and their coach is moaning in public about his lack of quality defensive tackles on the line.
Tennessee in their prime never--NEVER--lacked beef at tackle, a run game, or nearly lost to Air Force. Even with such relative weaknesses, they went 9-4 last year, nearly beating Florida and LSU in squeakers and detonating Georgia to the tune of fifty points in one of last year's truly anomalous games, 51-33 in Athens. Something's discombobulated in Knoxville. Perhaps it's a dropoff in recruiting; perhaps it's a lull before a righteous 10-2 season and championship game appearance this year.
The easy storyline is that this is Fulmer's last hurrah before leaving with a knife in his back, niftily paralleling Johnny Majors' departure from the job taken by none other than Fulmer himself. The hard one would be that this will drag on for another year or two before Fulmer is finally forced out. 9-4 in many places is a watershed year. At Tennessee, people examine it like pathologists frowning over blurry spots in otherwise healthy x-rays.
And the rest, done to get this up by noon and satisfy your need for further lunacy and bad clairvoyance in no more than ten words each...
21. Cal. Tedford, more time with Longshore? Yay. Desean Jackson fast.
22. Hawaii. Colt Brennan WOO!. Undefeated? Sure. WAC=no BCS bid. Sad.
23. Missouri. Sucker's bet is a Gary Pinkel team with hype.
24. Arkansas. HAI BABE LUV U STILL GOT D-MAC. NO QB HA BAI! (From Houston Nutt's Hawgberry, of course.)
25. Georgia Tech. Tashard Choice, Philip Wheeler = tasty curry. Chan Gailey still bland pudding.