Who's Number One? Previewing The 2006 College Football Season
The College Football season starts tonight, with the bulk of the first week scheduled for Saturday (as always), and the now traditional Labor Day evening game between Florida State and The U to finish things off.
I see this is a wide-open season. Unlike in recent years, where there has been a strong favorite to start the year (normally USC or Oklahoma), even the top-ranked teams have question marks. The Ohio State University is breaking in 9 defensive starters; defending champion Texas is replacing their franchise quarterback and a Thorpe Award winner (best defensive back); Notre Dame is facing a killer schedule, and nobody knows if their defense has discovered how to defend since last season ended. So, without further ado, let’s work through this, conference by conference, and figure out who will still be standing when New Year’s Eve rolls around, and the big money Bowl Championship Series (BCS) contests begin.
Notre Dame seems like a good place to start, since they represent the Independents, those loners who, in Notre Dame’s case don’t need a conference because of their national appeal, history, and money-making prowess (they have their own network TV deal!), and in everyone else’s case, haven’t performed well enough to warrant an invitation to join a conference.
The Irish are a fashionable pick this year (and are The Sporting News’ pick for national champ), with a good coach, several returning starters, and the Heisman favorite in senior quarterback Brady Quinn. This should, as any true Irish fan, pretty much guarantee a disappointing season. In recent years, the Irish’s performance on the field has had an inverse relationship with the pre-season expectations of fans and the pundits? Ranked 20th in the pre-season poll? Look forward to an upset win over Michigan in week 2! Ranked 2nd? Look forward to several excruciating and heartbreaking losses.
With an unproven defense, and a lot of tough matchups, don’t count on this year being any different. I’m projecting a 9-3 record. My guess is that Notre Dame goes 2-2 in their September stretch against the Big Ten (Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue), then loses the season finale at USC. I just hope they beat MSU, and not just because it would snap a 6 season losing streak in this series. After the Spartans planted a flag on Notre Dame’s home turf following last season’s upset, I demand blood. A win in East Lansing, and a broken collarbone for Drew Stanton would be a good start.
As for the other favorites, The Ohio State University begins the season ranked number one, and their fans are certainly living it up. They’re talking trash, and dismissing the Vince Young-less Longhorns, who they visit on September 9th. Poor Buckeye fans, they’re going to be in for a shock when, for the second straight year, Jim Tressel finds a way to cost his team the game. Last year, he foolishly sent out Justin Zwick on the final drive, even though the other half of his quarterback platoon, Troy Smith, was the hot hand. If memory serves, Zwick got sacked on four straight plays, and the Longhorns held on. This year, he won’t get return man/receiver Ted Ginn Jr. enough touches, allowing the ‘Horns to key in on Smith. Sure Texas is breaking in a freshman quarterback in Colt McCoy, but they’re loaded everywhere else. If you want to know how this game will unfold, watch a tape of the 2004 Oklahoma-Texas game. This time, Texas will play the OU role, and grind out a win with suffocating defense, and a monster performance from their running back (Jamaal Charles).
As for the rest of The Big Ten, I like Penn State as a darkhorse for the national championship. They lost QB Michael Robinson, and some key defensive leaders, but they still return a wealth of talent. Unfortunately, they have to visit both Notre Dame and Ohio State, so I don’t see them running the table. Michigan and Iowa could finish the season anywhere between 8-4 and 10-2. My guess is that the Buckeyes lose one in the conference, but hold off the Lions, who will lose 2. Both teams should find their way into the BCS.
Over in The Big 12, The Texas Longhorns open the season ranked second, and if they get by the Buckeyes, which they will, should be on track for a return trip to the national title game. They seem like a natural pick, but I don’t feel comfortable picking a team with a freshman quarterback to run the table. They’re going to trip up somewhere, and I’m guessing it happens at Nebraska on October 21st. The resurgent Huskers will win the Big 12 North, despite losing once (to either Iowa State or Mizzou), but will lose the return match against the Longhorns in the Big 12 Title game.
So now that we’ve taken care of the favorites, let’s see who’s going to be left standing. It’s probably going to be someone with a favorable schedule, key returning players, and a lot of good fortune.
If you’re looking for easy schedules, the Big East is as good a place to start as any. West Virginia finished the 2005 season with one loss, and a victory over SEC champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. They have returning stars at quarterback and tailback, and one of the best offensive lines in the country. The defensive is serviceable at worst, and their schedule is as soft as you’ll find among the contenders. So with all of this going for them, you know they’re not going to run the table. For one, they have to deal with Louisville, who might boast the best quarterback-running back combo in the country (Brian Brohm and Michael Bush), and themselves should be considered a national title contender. The Cardinals, unlike the Mountaineers, have a difficult non-conference game to deal with, that being the Miami Hurricanes, who visit them on September 16th. The Cardinals would have beaten them two years ago in the Orange Bowl were it not for a spectacular Devin Hester punt return for a score. Now, Miami’s in a down year (which will probably be Larry Coker’s last), so the Cardinals will seal the deal in 2006. As for the Big East results, Louisville will run the table, while West Virginia will finish with a loss to Louisville. Unfortunately, due to their soft schedule, an undefeated Cardinals campaign won’t be enough to put them ahead of the one loss Longhorns in the BCS schedule. So they’re sitting second at best, and we still have a few other conferences to go through.
The Atlantic Coast Conference began 2004 with an expanded league (12 teams), a brand new conference title game, and dreams of challenging the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12 for national dominance. That hasn’t really worked out, as their two marquee Florida teams have struggled. Florida State won the conference title game last year, despite 4 losses on their record, and returns in 2006 as the favorite. Their division is weak (unless Clemson proves to be feisty), and the only non-division opponent in the conference who will give them a run is Miami. With a returning quarterback, and a solid defense, FSU should beat the Hurricanes, and go into their regular season finale against Florida with an undefeated record. They will then get dismantled by the Gators, and then lose the ACC title game to 2 loss Virginia Tech (they will be tied with Georgia Tech, but have the tiebreaker), who will emerge from the wreckage of the ACC Coastal Division to steal the BCS bid, just like FSU did to them last year. Miami will go 8-4, and fire Larry Coker, while the ACC replaces the Big East as the weakest of the BCS conferences.
Let’s examine the two other major conferences. If a Group of Death exists in college football, it is the Southeastern Conference . They have plenty of talented teams in both divisions, which likely means that they will beat up on each other, and 5 or 6 teams will finish in the 1-3 loss range.
In the East, Florida, Tennessee, or Georgia could win the crown, and South Carolina is a spoiler. The scheduling gods didn’t do any favors for the Gators this year; from the West, they get LSU, Auburn, and Alabama, the consensus top three teams in the division. Though their defense is strong, I can’t see them going undefeated in the conference, especially with road trips to Tennessee and Auburn, and the neutral-site game against Georgia to get through. My guess is that they take 1 of those games, and get upended once at the swamp (by either LSU, ‘Bama, or South Carolina), leaving them with a 9-3 record. Tennessee visits Georgia and South Carolina, but the rest of their tough games are at home. The Vols will be better than last year, where they finished 5-6, but they’re not all the way back. 3 conference losses seems about right. That leaves Georgia. Their only difficult game against the West is a road trip to Auburn, which they will probably lose. I don’t see them losing more than one other game, though, so pencil them in for the SEC title game.
Out West, Auburn is my pick. LSU has a quarterback controversy (never good), and their top two running backs are coming off of ACL injuries. Confident? Me neither. Meanwhile, Alabama will be good, but they’re not in the same league as the two Tigers. Auburn goes 7-1 in the league, and beats Georgia in the title game.
That brings us to the Pac-10, and my pick to be #1 when the regular season ends. The USC Trojans lost a lot of talent, but they reload quicker than anyone else in the nation. John David Booty has apprenticed under Matt Leinart for two years, and is ready to lead the team. Dwayne Jarrett is the best wide receiver in college football. They will find someone to lead the running game, and the offensive line and the defense boast a handful of All-American candidates. They have two difficult non-conference games (Nebraska and Notre Dame), but both of them come to the Coliseum. As for the conference schedule, I’m not ready to give the rest of the Pac-10 the respect that a lot of people think it deserves until its borderline BCS teams (such as Cal and Oregon) stop blowing bowl games they should win against underachieving Big 12 teams. More importantly, the three teams who could trip the Trojans up (Oregon, Arizona State, Cal) all visit LA. I like the look of this team, and come December, they will be 12-0, and in sole possession of the #1 spot.
As for the mid-majors, Texas Christian and Utah will do well, but come up just short of the BCS.
What will the final regular season poll look like? It will give us a good-old fashioned controversy.
USC will obviously be #1, and they will play 12-1 Auburn in the title game. 12-1 Texas will be 3rd, and undefeated Louisville 4th. The BCS will be rounded out by conference champions Ohio State, Virginia Tech, and at-large qualifiers West Virginia, Penn State, Georgia, and Notre Dame.
Things will get messy when Auburn upends USC in the title game, and Texas beats OSU once again in a rematch, earning them the AP national title, and creating a split national title and more talk about a college football playoff that will hopefully never happen. In other news, Louisville will win their bowl game (over Virginia Tech) and cry foul.
The news won’t be entirely bad for Louisville fans, however. Quarterback Brian Brohm will edge out Auburn RB Kenny Irons and Ohio State QB Troy Smith in a close three-way race to take the Heisman. Brady Quinn will finish 5th, but will be comforted by the knowledge that $25 million in guaranteed money awaits him when he enters the NFL draft next spring.
Enjoy the season everyone!