March 19, 2010

Mailbag: Titles won with baby steps

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Winning a championship in a Big Six conference typically requires taking small steps rather than giant leaps.

Over the past four years, 25 teams have won or shared Big Six league championships and represented their conference in a BCS bowl. Twenty-one of those teams (84 percent) finished at least tied for second in their conference or division race the previous season.

Small steps
Here is a chart showing Big Six conference champions that appeared in a BCS bowl in each of the past four seasons and how they finished in their conference race the previous season. (Note: * denotes tie for the conference championship
2009
ConferenceTeamBowl'08 finish
ACCGeorgia TechOrange2nd (division)
Big EastCincinnatiSugar1st
Big TenOhio StateRose1st (tied)
Big 12TexasBCS1st (tied in division)
Pac-10OregonRose2nd (tied)
SECAlabamaBCS1ST (division)
2008
ACCVirginia TechOrange1st
Big EastCincinnatiOrange3rd (tied)
*Big TenPenn StateRose5th (tied)
*Big TenOhio StateFiesta1st
Big 12OklahomaBCS1st
Pac-10USCRose1st (tied)
SECFloridaBCS3rd (division)
2007
ACCVirginia TechOrange2nd (division)
Big EastWest VirginiaFiesta2nd (tied)
Big TenOhio StateBCS1st
Big 12OklahomaFiesta1st
Pac-10USCRose1st
SECLSUBCS2nd (tied, division)
2006
ACCWake ForestOrange4th (tied, division)
Big EastLouisvilleOrange2nd
Big TenOhio StateBCS1st (tied)
Big 12OklahomaFiesta2nd (division)
Pac-10USCRose1st
SECFloridaBCS2nd (tied, division)
Three of those "giant leaps" occurred in 2008. Cincinnati won the Big East after finishing third in '07, Penn State shared the Big Ten title with Ohio State after finishing fourth the previous year and Florida captured the SEC championship after placing third behind Tennessee and Georgia in the '07 SEC East Division race.

The other team in that span to make a quantum leap to a conference championship was Wake Forest. The Deacons rebounded from a 4-7 record and fourth-place tie in the '05 ACC Atlantic race to win the ACC title outright in '06.

The trend means next season's champions either will have won or at least strongly contended for last season's crowns. Still, some teams could be like Wake Forest and buck the trend. The possible identities of those teams are one topic that is addressed in this week's mailbag.


Picking winners

Of all the middle-of-the-pack teams in the Big Six conferences last season, which ones do you think will have a league title run this season?
Kevin
Chillicothe, Ohio

First, let's establish a definition for "middle of the road." In this case, I'll define it as a team that finished third or lower in its conference or division last season.

Now, I may have a strong opinion on what teams will win each conference race next season. For example, defending champion Ohio State remains my pick in the Big Ten. But I still may list other teams that I think have a shot. In some conferences, I can see multiple teams with a chance to rise from also-ran status to champions.

But in the interest of brevity I'll predict no more than one per conference. Besides, I don't want list four or five in each league just to cover myself.

We'll take it conference by conference. So, here goes:

ACC: North Carolina. The Tar Heels finished 4-4 in conference play last season but managed to beat Virginia Tech, which projects as the favorite in '10. Quarterback T.J. Yates needs to improve, but the defense will be among the best in the country.

Big Ten: Wisconsin was 5-3 in the Big Ten a year ago. The Badgers could be better this season. Quarterback Scott Tolzien and running back John Clay, a Heisman candidate, are among 10 offensive starters returning. Six defensive regulars are back. Plus, the Badgers get Ohio State in Madison.

Big 12: Injuries dropped Oklahoma to third in the Big 12 South last season. There remains some concern about the offensive line and the defense, but the Sooners have many top-level players (among them, linebacker Travis Lewis, defensive end Jeremy Beal and wide receiver Ryan Broyles). Besides, OU should never be counted out.

Big East: Connecticut was 3-4 in the Big East and 8-5 overall. The five losses were by a combined 15 points and all against bowl teams. The Huskies have 17 returning starters.

Pac-10: The easy answer is USC, which was an uncharacteristic fifth in the conference last season. But I'm going with Stanford, which beat Oregon and USC last year and returns 14 starters. The loss of running back Toby Gerhart hurts, but the Cardinal were 5-7 in '08 with Gerhart. The difference could be quarterback Andrew Luck, who will be a sophomore this fall.

SEC: Sorry, I still see Alabama and Florida as dominant teams in their divisions. Arkansas in the West and South Carolina in the East could make some noise, but I do not believe either will unseat the Tide or Gators.


Stopping power

Every year, Texas seems to lose big-time defensive stars, but there are always up-and-coming players that will fill their shoes. Now that Texas has lost Sergio Kindle and Earl Thomas, who do you see as the new impact players on defense?
Michael
Arcadia, Calif
.

The Longhorns have been on a roll with defensive players. In the past decade, Texas has had 19 defensive players taken in the NFL draft, including seven first-round selections.

To say Mack Brown recruits well is obviously an understatement. That recruiting success allows the Longhorns to have success year after year.

In Texas' case, look at the chain of star defensive backs. Quentin Jammer was followed by Nathan Vasher, then Michael Huff, then Michael Griffin, then Thomas. The Longhorns likely will boast back-to-back first-round selections at defensive end with Kindle following in Brian Orakpo's footsteps.

So, who's next to surface as dominant defensive players at Texas?

End Sam Acho posted 10 sacks last season. He'll step up as the Longhorns' premier pass rusher. But also be aware of sophomore end Alex Okafor, a former five-star recruit. Last season, he was credited with six quarterback hurries. This season, expect those to turn into sacks. And don't be surprised if Kheestan Randall emerges as one of the best in the Big 12 at tackle.

As far as the secondary goes, Christian Scott should be a more-than-adequate replacement for Thomas at safety.


Iowa hopes?

With Jewel Hampton coming back from injury, plus second-year running backs Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson, who combined for almost 1,500 yards last season, do you see the Iowa Hawkeyes as a legitimate contender to lead the Big Ten in rushing? Am I dreaming?
Jake
Phoenix

Big production was expected from Hampton, who unfortunately was sidelined for the season because of a preseason injury. The Hawkeyes definitely will benefit from his presence if he's fully recovered.

How much they'll benefit is up for debate. As mentioned, Wegher and Robinson were productive as freshmen, but Hampton should cut into the production of one (or both) of them. Of course, the Hawkeyes will have marvelous depth at running back, and that's always good.

But great depth won't be enough for Iowa to jump from 10th in the Big Ten in rushing to first in just one season.

Iowa must replace three starters on the offensive line, including All-Big Ten center Rafael Eubanks and All-Big Ten tackle Bryan Bulaga - a possible first-round draft choice.

By comparison, Wisconsin - which led the Big Ten in rushing last season - returns Clay and its entire offensive line. Ohio State, which ranked 18th in the nation in rushing, has four offensive linemen returning. OSU also features QB Terrelle Pryor and running backs Brandon Saine and Boom Herron, who all rushed for at least 600 yards. Penn State has four returning offensive line starters blocking for Evan Royster, who gained 1,169 yards last season.

All those factors make it unlikely that Iowa would lead the Big Ten in rushing this season. Iowa probably shouldn't even aspire for that goal. The Hawkeyes have one of the nation's most explosive receiving duos in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. It would be wise to get the football to them as much as possible.


Scarlet year?

Does Rutgers have a chance to win the Big East this season? What are the Scarlet Knights' needs in order to achieve that goal?
Howie
Flagler Beach, Fla
.

A chance? Sure, there's a chance. But Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Cincinnati and maybe even USF probably will be picked ahead of the Scarlet Knights.

Rutgers is coming off a nine-win season, and that would seem to demand some respect. But most of those victories were over less-than-challenging competition, such as Howard, Florida International and Texas Southern.

With the exception of a couple of games in '09, the defense was sound. It should be again in '10, especially considering Greg Schiano is a defense-minded coach.

The offense is questionable, though. Quarterback Tom Savage was inconsistent last season, which wasn't unexpected because he was a freshman. The running game is mediocre at best, another receiver has to emerge to complement sophomore Mohamed Sanu and the offensive line is now without tackle Anthony Davis - an early entry into the NFL draft.

Furthermore, the Knights play Pittsburgh, USF, Cincinnati and West Virginia on the road.

Rutgers has posted at least eight wins in each of the past four seasons. It would not be a surprise if the streak was extended to five, which would equal the most successful stretch in school history (1975-79). But unless the offense makes dramatic improvement, Rutgers can't be taken seriously as a championship contender. Frankly, there doesn't appear any reason to expect dramatic improvement.


The whole pie

Can you solve an argument that has heated up on the sports blogs? Would Notre Dame make more money keeping its current contract with NBC and its unique position of not having to share bowl money with other schools, or would it actually receive greater revenue from TV and bowl sharing by joining the Big Ten?
David
Salem, Ore
.

I'm not an accountant, and I'm not privy to all the deals that may (or may not) be offered Notre Dame as incentive to join a conference.

But I do know this: A whole pie is bigger and better than one that's sliced 12 ways.

Some may argue the pie that Big Ten membership would provide is more than 12 times larger than that Notre Dame would have on its own, and therefore it would be more lucrative for the Irish to join.

If that's the case, it would seem Notre Dame would jump at a membership invitation. Who turns down more money?

Yet the Irish desire to remain independent. That would seem to answer the question.

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