January 22, 2010

Mailbag: Predicting the 2010 contenders

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Alabama finished this past season ranked No. 1 and likely will start next season atop the polls.

With Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram, dangerous receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Greg McElroy returning, the Crimson Tide will be a strong contender to win the SEC championship. And as the past four years have shown, the SEC champion equals national champion.

But no team has won back-to-back BCS national titles. Alabama could be the first if it fills some significant voids, as we see in this week's mailbag.

Looking ahead

Based on how teams finished the season and what we know about who is returning and who is leaving early, which teams do you anticipate being the front-runners for the national crown next year?
Paul
Colbert, Ga.

We all know there is no sure-fire formula to determine legitimate national championship contenders. But when considering teams that project to have a strong chance, I look for those coming off a successful season, with a returning starter at quarterback and at least six full-time starters back from a defense that ranked among the nation's top 40 in points allowed.

Yet, that doesn't assure anything. For example, this past season, Alabama was coming off a 12-win showing in '08 and had nine starters returning from a stingy defense. But the Crimson Tide had a first-time starter in quarterback Greg McElroy. Of course, Alabama won the national championship because of its great defense, excellent special teams and a powerful running game.

The Tide figures to be the consensus preseason No. 1 team in 2010, but don't be surprised if the Tide ebbs. Alabama will have significant losses on defense, with only three starters returning from that unit. Can Alabama really expect to be as good defensively without, among others, Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson? That's doubtful.

Furthermore, guard Mike Johnson - the best offensive lineman - is gone, too. And don't minimize the loss of reliable kicker Leigh Tiffin.

Still, it would be foolish to discount Alabama as a serious national championship contender, if for no other reason than the SEC has produced each of the past four national champions.

By the way, only one SEC team coming off a winning season in '09 returns its starting quarterback and has at least six starters back from a defense that ranked in the top 40 in points allowed. It isn't Florida, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee or Auburn.

It's South Carolina, and I'm not willing to project the Gamecocks as national championship contenders.

Teams outside the SEC that will be the strongest contenders are Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska. Oregon could be a strong contender if its defense improves, and with nine starters back it could.

Never dismiss USC, Texas, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech. If you're looking for sleeper candidates, consider Miami and Wisconsin.

Boise State, Utah and TCU rightly will be hailed as challengers, too. But no team outside a Big Six conference has won - or even been allowed to play for - a BCS national title. Until that happens, I'll doubt the system will allow them a chance.


You win on the field

So should we just pencil in Lane Kiffin as coach of the year next season? USC has all of its big games at home and the hardest road test is at Minnesota. Add to that the army of talent Pete Carroll left behind and that Kiffin has coming in.
Greg
Orlando, Fla.

Let me borrow Orlandoan Lee Corso's catchphrase: Not so fast, my friend.

First, you're assuming Kiffin will be Carroll's equal as a game-day coach. While I thought Kiffin proved himself capable in his one season at Tennessee, I wouldn't take it for granted that he will be as good as Carroll.

Secondly, don't assume the Trojans will win the Pac-10. Oregon, which blew out the Trojans 47-20 in '09, is going to be the preseason favorite. USC also must travel to Stanford, which blew out the Trojans 55-21, and to Oregon State. The Trojans have lost in each of their past two trips to Corvallis.

The Trojans' defense will be better. But will it be dominant? Remember, that defensive unit allowed at least 27 points in four of its last seven regular-season games. And two of the teams the Trojans "shut down" in that span were Arizona State and UCLA, which were offensively challenged.

Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley was good in '09 and should be better in 2010. But the Trojans have lost their top two offensive linemen (Charles Brown and Jeff Byers), their top receiver (Damian Williams), leading rusher (Joe McKnight) and tight end (Anthony McCoy).

Carroll recruited well and there are players in this year's class who can make an immediate impact. There is no doubt USC has top-caliber talent on the roster.

But Kiffin isn't necessarily walking into a gold mine the way Larry Coker did in 2001, when Miami won the national championship in his first year as coach.

Ten-win seasons are demanded at USC. In fact, sometimes 10-win seasons aren't embraced. Anything less than a Pac-10 championship and a chance at the national championship are disappointing at USC.

That may be too much to expect in 2010. And unless Kiffin delivers that, he won't be anyone's coach of the year.


Winning excuse

Do you think it is a coincidence that the Big Ten had its best bowl season of the past four years during a bowl season with unusually bad weather in states such as Florida?
Scott
Beijing, China

That's what Big Ten proponents like to argue, but I'm not buying it.

Penn State beat LSU in the Capital One Bowl not because of inclement weather, but because the Nittany Lions were the better team on that day. To say Penn State won because the weather was bad should be interpreted as an insult to the Lions.

The same goes for Iowa's win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl and Wisconsin's win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. They were just better teams.

The temperature at kickoff for the Rose Bowl was 71 degrees under sunny skies. Yet Ohio State defeated Oregon, 26-17. That proves the weather argument isn't legitimate.

Hey, Nebraska's winters are just as harsh as any venue in the Big Ten. And the Huskers crushed warm-weather Arizona 33-0 in San Diego's Holiday Bowl. Nebraska dominated because of its powerful defense. It didn't need any help from the elements.

Blaming the weather for success or failure is a lame excuse.


Fairness doctrine

I have to disagree with your disappointment in Oklahoma and Nebraska not playing every season. How would that be fair to the Sooners? They then would play Texas and Nebraska every season. Who would Texas have as a yearly rival? The Big 12 is the fairest system. Everybody plays everybody twice in a four-year cycle.
Anthony
Orlando, Fla.

You're certainly entitled to your opinion, but mine doesn't change. I'll always maintain the Big 12 erred by refusing to adopt a scheduling format that would ensure the great Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry would be played annually.

In some years there might be disadvantages, but that's cyclical. For example, let's say - for argument's sake - that Texas was matched against Missouri every season. In 2007 and '08, Missouri clearly was superior to Nebraska, and Texas would have had a stronger opponent in those seasons.

Alabama and LSU are arguably the top teams in the SEC West. Each year Alabama plays Tennessee, which has had some modest seasons of late. Meanwhile, LSU has had to play Florida.

But LSU doesn't whine about playing Florida. Rather, the Tigers see it as a rivalry they look forward to playing.

The Big 12 should borrow the SEC's formula and give each team an annual interdivision rival: Baylor-Iowa State, Texas Tech-Colorado, Texas A&M-Kansas State, Oklahoma State-Kansas, Texas-Missouri and Oklahoma-Nebraska.

Texas could be at a disadvantage some years; Oklahoma could be at a disadvantage in others. But in most seasons, the South Division championship still would be settled when the Sooners and Longhorns play in Dallas.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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