June 7, 2006

Health is often key to winning national title

It's June, which means college football preseason magazines will soon show up like icicles in winter.

Almost everywhere you look there will be another magazine or newsletter or website (Rivals.com got an earlier start) with analysts gazing into their crystal ball to say who will be hoisting that, well, crystal ball after the Fiesta Bowl.

The arguments will be based on what starters are back and where key games will be played. However, the greatest factor in determining a national champion is which backs are hurt and how many key games are missed.

In an era of limited scholarships and top players leaving early for the NFL Draft, that's really no surprise, just a reminder that what may make sense in June may not even be an option in January.

If Texas' Vince Young had pulled a hamstring in that victory over Ohio State or that come-from-behind win over Oklahoma State would the Longhorns have even reached the Rose Bowl to defeat USC?

Uh no.

The Longhorns were relatively injury-free a year ago. Freshman running back Jamaal Charles suffered an ankle sprain that hobbled him for three games, running back Selvyn Young had to miss two games, and defensive end Brian Robison missed most of the game against Oklahoma State and all of the game against Baylor with a leg injury, but other than those the Longhorns were pretty much unscathed.

In 2004, USC tight end Dominque Byrd missed the first four games and wide receiver Steve Smith sat out five in midseason, but other than that the Trojans had no starters or projected starters miss more than two games with an injury.

Five to thrive
Here's a look at five players returning from injury who could give their teams significant boosts if they stay healthy this season.
Michael Hart, RB, Michigan: As a freshman he rushed for 1,455 yards and helped the Wolverines to the Big Ten championship. With injuries limiting him against Notre Dame and keeping him out of four other games, his production fell to 662 yards last season. Michigan also fell to 7-5. Coincidence?
Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma: Although ankle injuries forced him out of more than half of four games, he still managed to lead the Big 12 with 1,108 yards. However, that's a drastic drop from his 2004 total of 1,925 yards. A healthy Peterson gives OU a dominant running game and makes QB Rhett Bomar a better passer. It might even make the Sooners national champs.
Tyrone Moss, RB, Miami: He rushed for 701 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games before suffering a knee injury early in an upset of Virginia Tech. If he's able to return to his old form, Miami could get back to its old form and improve on last season's nine victories.
Andre Caldwell, WR, Florida: Caldwell caught 43 passes for 689 yards in 2004, but broke his right leg on a kickoff return against Tennessee in the third game of last season. At the time he had 10 catches for 148 yards. His return is especially important with Chad Jackson gone to the NFL.
Rhema McKnight, WR, Notre Dame: The Irish's leading receiver with 42 catches for 610 yards in 2004, McKnight played just two games last season because of a knee injury. His return not only gives Notre Dame a set of sure, experienced hands, but also provides a dangerous receiver to help ease coverage on All-American Jeff Samardzija.
However, the 2003 Trojans, who split the national championship with LSU, had 10 starters or projected starters miss at least a game, including tight end Alex Holmes and linebacker Oscar Lua, who sat out the entire season.

LSU, which shared the 2003 crown with USC but does not acknowledge it, had injury issues at running back but nowhere else significant. As luck would have it, the Tigers were extremely deep at running back, and Justin Vincent set an LSU freshman record with 1,001 rushing yards.

Oklahoma also had no injuries that forced starters out of significant playing time in 2000.

So, go ahead and pore through statistics. Count up returning starters. Cross reference every schedule to see which team has the most advantageous route to the championship game.

But in the end the best team probably will be the healthiest, too.

Sanchez back in fold
USC quarterback Mark Sanchez was reinstated to the Trojans football team on Monday after a sexual assault case against him was dropped for insufficient evidence.

"I'm just so happy it's over and now I'm just working to get past it," Sanchez told the Los Angeles Times.

The 19-year-old Sanchez probably will face disciplinary action from coach Pete Carroll for using a fake ID to buy alcohol.

Gophers lose Owens for season
A shoulder injury suffered last October will prevent Minnesota strong safety Brandon Owens from playing next season.

Owens, who endured nerve damage in his right shoulder in a game against Penn State, still has his arm in a sling after undergoing surgery last January.

"It's not a typical football injury," Minnesota coach Glen Mason told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's been a long time since that injury happened. I knew it was going to be a long rehabilitation process."

Mason also said he did not know the status of academically ineligible running back Gary Russell, who enrolled in a community college to regain his eligibility in time for summer school, which for Minnesota starts next week.

Russell rushed for 1,130 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.

Olin's Quick Hits
The Big 12 Conference has selected the Alamodome in San Antonio as the site of the 2007 conference championship football game, but has not made commitments beyond that. The 2006 championship game will be played in Kansas City. Colorado remains 6,000 short of its goal to sell 21,000 season tickets. Three years ago Colorado sold 26,000 season tickets, but sales fell to about 20,000 last year. USC and Colorado State have canceled their game scheduled for Sept. 6, 2008 in Denver. USC will add a seventh home game in its place.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com, and he files his national notebook every Wednesday. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, email him at olin@rivals.com.



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